Archive for the ‘Joe Biden’ Tag

Monday Miscellany: data mining, monarchs, and Mercury

False color image of Mercury, courtesy of MESSENGER

False color image of Mercury, courtesy of MESSENGER

Today NASA’s space probe MESSENGER made a flyby of the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury.  The probe, whose name is both an acronym for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging and a reference to Mercury’s role as the messenger of the Roman gods, took photographs of previously unseen areas of the planet’s surface and numerous other readings that scientists are now eagerly studying.  This is the second of three flybys of Mercury, each of them serves to slow down the spacecraft to the point that it can enter orbit in 2011; it also got such gravity assists from Venus and from the Earth itself.  Somewhat counter intuitively to a layman, going to Mercury is a lot harder than going to Mars, due to the very large change in velocity needed to enter orbit (or land on the planet, which no spacecraft has ever done and which is not part of MESSENGER’s mission).  For more information on the mission, including many more photos, check out their official site.

The Economist has an excellent series of articles covering all aspects of the American presidential election. They also have a non-scientific online poll of their readers to see who would win the election if the electoral college were global and each country allocated its electors on a winner-take-all basis. Currently, Barack Obama is ahead 8375–15. McCain is ahead only in Georgia (the country, not the state), Macedonia, and Andorra. He is probably glad that this is just a poll of Economist.com visitors and not a real poll of public opinion in those countries, but, given that he’d probably still lose a worldwide popularity contest, he is probably very glad that this has no constitutional standing.

Speaking of the Economist, they have a thought-provoking article on “Data mining and the state.”  It discusses how all the information that the government collects about us and processes can be used both to increase security and safety and to decrease our privacy and liberties.  They discuss the future of such data mining and don’t pretend to offer clear answers as to when and how such technology should be used.

And speaking of the presidential race, linguists have analyzed the candidates’ remarks at the vice presidential debate (which I blogged about at some length here). They found that Palin spoke at the level of a 9.5th grader and Biden at that of a 7.8th grader. Palin, who spoke 5235 words, used the passive voice in 8% of her sentences; Biden spoke 5492 words and used the passive voice only 5% of the time. They both averaged 4.4 letters per word and were statistically tied on the length of their paragraphs; Biden’s averaged 2.7 sentences and Palin’s each had about 2.6 sentences. In his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln spoke at an 11th grade level, they report—quite interesting, when you consider how much less education people had back then—though the level on which a person speaks doesn’t necessarily make what they say any better or clearer.

Thanks to the aptly-named Virgin Galactic, no one will be having sex here anytime soon

Thanks to the aptly-named Virgin Galactic, no one will be having sex up here anytime soon

In wackier news, Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s company that will take paying customers into space, has rejected an offer of $1 million to use their spacecraft for filming two people having sex in space. “That was money we had to refuse, I’m afraid,” said company president Will Whitehorn (which, now that I’ve written it, sounds kind of like a male porn star’s name). If not for the fact that the company making the offer was unidentified, I would say that this was simply a publicity stunt. Virgin Galactic will probably begin flights in 2009 or 2010 and their spacecraft will carry six passengers in addition to two pilots. Tickets will cost $200,000. Even assuming that the $1 million was in addition to the $1.2 million that Virgin Galactic would pull in on a full flight it wouldn’t be worth the likely bad publicity that they would get. Besides, I’m sure a porn company could make much more than $1 million if they were the first to release a porn film of people having sex in zero gravity. Wait… maybe this is a publicity stunt, for Virgin Galactic. If so, it’s worked: I’m blogging about it.

These people, murdered by Communists in 90 years ago, have just been declared victims of Communism.

These people, murdered by Communists in 90 years ago, have just been declared victims of Communism.

The Russian Supreme Court has declared that Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed illegally and are entitled to rehabilitation by the state. This involves formally exonerating them and declaring them victims of communist repression; over four million Russians have been rehabilitated since the collapse of the Soviet Union; The Tsar’s descendants have been trying for years to have him exonerated and were surprised at the ruling. Hopefully this will help Russia’s process of coming to terms with its past. However, I somehow don’t think that knowing he would be declared a victim of communist repression 90 years later would have been much comfort to Nicholas as he and his family were gunned down and bayoneted.

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My thoughts on Biden-Palin debate

The Vice Presidential Seal.  Who will get to use it post January 20th, Biden or Palin?

The Vice Presidential Seal. Who will get to use it starting on January 20th, Biden or Palin?

Like many Americans, I was very eager to see Joe Biden and Sarah Palin go head-to-head in the first and only Vice Presidential debate. Though the two are the Number Twos on their respective tickets, I have found the veep debate has been very much worth watching in both of the past two election cycles (I thought Cheney scored clear victories in both 2000 and 2004).

This time, to use a boxing analogy, there clearly wasn’t a knockout, nor even a knockdown; but I think that there were several solid blows landed, all of them by Biden, who I’d say won on points. He didn’t commit any gaffes, nor did Palin say anything really dumb. Without repeating things that the pundits have already gone over to death, here are some disparate observations of mine that haven’t been talked about (much) in the media. Please forgive the meandering format.

The first thing that struck me during the debate came when the candidates came out and shook hands. Palin asked her Democratic counterpart “Can I call you Joe?”, a request to which he apparently assented, though his mike didn’t pick up his response. I guarantee you that this was carefully planned and done for the audience at home, to play up the governor’s friendliness and make her seem down to earth. Do I have evidence? Yes: the transcript. The word “Joe” crossed Palin’s lips exactly two (2) times: once a reference to the average American “Joe Six Pack” and the other at the end of “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” which was probably her best line of the night.

Palin tried to paint Obama as a big tax hiker, a claim that I think Biden countered effectively, stressing that 95% of taxpayers will get a tax cut and that no taxpayer making under $250,000 would see an increase under Obama’s plan. He stressed the importance of helping the middle class and their importance to our economy and painted McCain’s tax plan as simply tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations. He repeated the point—effectively, I think—and parried the Palin attempt to paint the Democratic ticket as big tax hikers. His line that McCain’s health plan is “the ultimate bridge to nowhere” was pretty lifeless, though I guess he had to get that in there somehow to remind voters of Palin’s flip-flop on the bridge.

I think that Biden also effectively defended his ticket from the charges that they want to cut-and-run from Iraq or, as Palin put it, hoist “the white flag of surrender.” Delaware’s sernior senator pointed out that Obama’s plan for withdrawing from Iraq is pretty much the same as that of its Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and will draw down U.S. troops over about a year and a half. Biden’s best line of the night came after Palin talked about McCain’s exit strategy, or, as Biden put it, the lack thereof: “With all due respect, I didn’t hear a plan.” Personally, I think the plan is just to keep repeating the words “victory,” “Iraq,” and “McCain” together in the same sentence a whole bunch of times until voters simply feel that McCain will win the war while Obama will surrender somehow.

Throughout the night, Biden tried to tie McCain’s positions to those of George W. Bush, on both domestic issues and foreign policy and; he wanted to show that there was no difference between them the nominee and the, very unpopular, incumbent. One effective moment for Biden was when he brought up each of the globe’s current hot spots seriatim and asked how McCain’s views differ from Bush’s, with the clear implication that they don’t. [Note: FireFox’s spell checker doesn’t recognize “seriatim” as a word.]

Additionally, I was surprised to learn that we spend as much every three weeks on combat operations in Iraq as we have in the past 7.5 years in rebuilding Afghanistan. If this is true, that’s almost a good sign: it won’t cost that much to significantly increase our efforts to get that poor country on it’s feet. C’mon, guys, cough up the dough.

Did you know that the Vice President of the United States has his (or her) own flag?  Too bad it's nothing special.

Did you know that the Vice President of the United States has his (or her) own flag? Too bad it's nothing special.

On climate change, an area where there is some disagreement between McCain and his running mate, Palin admitted that it’s real and that there’s “something to be said for man’s activity” in causing it, but she didn’t want to argue about the causes, just the solutions. Biden voiced what I was thinking at that point: without knowing the causes you can’t solve the problem! He pointed out that McCain has voted against alternative energy frequently and tried to make Obama look friendlier to renewables, though I don’t think he was as effective on the point as he could have been. “Drill we must,” he said, but it’ll take 10 years for that oil to hit the markets. Unfortunately, Obama’s plans—and any plans—for new technology will also probably have a time horizon of about a decade.

Joe Biden went toe-to-toe with Palin over how their family lives put them in touch with regular Americans, a possible strength for the truly and obviously middle class Governor of Alaska. Biden got genuinely choked up when talking about the death of his first wife and young daughter in a car accident that also critically injured his two sons. For a guy who has spent over a third of a century in the United States Senate, he doesn’t do too bad on the “seems like a normal guy” test.

Anyway, Palin beat expectations in the debate, but I don’t think by enough to make any real difference; vice presidential debates rarely do. To the surprise of no one, Biden’s answers on foreign policy were much more nuanced and contained more specifics and details. I didn’t get the impression that Palin’s on foreign policy questions had any depth to them, though she seems to have done a good job of studying her briefing books. I think she’s fortunate that the debate format didn’t allow for questions from the other candidate or for serious follow up questions from the moderator, either of which I think would have exposed her shallow grasp of the various issues.

She came off as being on message and my assesment of her political skills has accordingly gone up; she avoided a possible disaster and a bad performance from her in this debate could have been a mortal blow to McCain’s chances. But I still don’t think that Sarah Palin will make a good vice president at this point in time—she should have been groomed for higher office longer before being thrust onto the national stage. One thing they definitely should have worked on is her pronunciation of nuclear; she says noo-cu-lar, like George W. Bush does. That’s not a good sign.

The political futures markets have given a good sign to Barack Obama and his supporters, however. Following the debate, Intrade contracts on an Obama victory have risen to 67.0 and those for a McCain victory have fallen to 33.0, movement of about 4 points or so up and down, respectively. The chances that Palin will be withdrawn as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee fell in post-debate trading from 10.5% to just 4.1%. The chances that Biden will be withdrawn from his ticket only fell from 5.7% to 4.9%.

Anyway, the race goes on. The next presidential debate, which will be town hall format, will be held Tuesday night starting at 9:00 pm EST. The election itself will be held one month from today, on November 4th.

Veep debate moderator may not be impartial

With the first and only Vice Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin just over 24 hours away there is now concern about the neutrality of the moderator, PBS journalist Gwen Ifill.  The McCain campaign is saying that they think she’ll do a good job; nonetheless they’re calling into question her impartiality, largely over her upcoming book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which is scheduled to be released January 20, 2009—Inauguaration Day.

Doubleday, the publisher says the book “surveys the American political landscape, shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama’s stunning presidential campaign and introducing the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power.”  In addition to Obama, the book also deals with former Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Ifill says she has yet to even write the chapter on Obama and that her reputation as a journalist indicates that she can and will be impartial during the debate.

Some conservatives are playing this up.  In an article for National Review Online columnist Michelle Malkin says that “She’s so far in the tank for the Democratic presidential candidate, her oxygen delivery line is running out.”  Ouch.

Dick Morris, on Bill O’Reilly’s program pointed out another possible conflict of interest that I hadn’t considered.  Morris says that her book will sell much better if Obama wins the election than if he doesn’t and that she stands to make $300,000 or more in additional royalties if the ticket that Palin is on loses. 

I recall that Ifill did a very good job moderating the Cheney-Edwards vice presidential debate in 2004 and I think she is a professional journalist who shouldn’t intentionally make any decisions that would favor Biden unfairly; good reporters are used to keeping their personal views out of their work.  However, there could still be unconscious bias, which woul be just as bad.  And even if there is no bias, the perception that there could be would be bad.  Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

Given the circumstances, Ifill probably should have recused herself, and probably shouldn’t have been asked to host the debate to begin with once it was known that Obama was the nominee.  But McCain could have vetoed her selection; it wouldn’t have been a big deal and could have been done politely and in a low key manner.  So why didn’t he?  One possibility is that his campaign wants the story after the debate to be on the media and how unfair they are to Palin and stacked the deck against her.  That this issue over Ifill is coming up the day before the debate, when it is impractical to get a new moderator or reschedule, lends credence to this possibility.

Expectations are that Biden should win, given his much greater experience and knowledge.  I think that much of the talk on this issue is being orchestrated to further lower expectations for Palin, making it easier for her to exceed them.  We’ll have to see how it goes.  The debate begins at 9:00 pm EST Thursday.

Sarah Palin, the press, and proximity to Russia

The 0.22% of Americans who live in Alaska are (probably) all closer to this than you are. Are they all more qualified to be Vice President?

The 0.22% of Americans who live in Alaska are (probably) all closer to this than you are. Are they all more qualified to be Vice President?

The Obama campaign reports that Joe Biden has given approximately 89 local and national interviews since his selection as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate. Sarah Palin has given just three meaningful interviews. Apparently to quiet media criticism about this secrecy, today she met with a few of the media who travel with her—after informing them just 20 minutes in advance; she took just four (4) questions in that brief session (read transcript).

Howard Kurtz, a Washington Post and CNN media critic, said “I have never seen a presidential or vice presidential nominee, in my lifetime, be so inaccessible to the national media.” The protection from the press that she’s getting is incredible, as I blogged yesterday. But it’s easy to see why this is: she’s not doing very well in real interviews with well-prepared journalists and needs to be shielded from them. Sarah Palin is not ready for prime time, let alone the Vice Presidency of the United States of America.

I thought that Palin had given up on claiming that Alaska’s proximity to Russia gave her foreign policy experience, but when Katie Couric brought it up in an interview Palin didn’t back down (see video, read transcript). Couric asked what Palin meant when she cited the nearness of Russia as part of her foreign policy experience.

PALIN: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land-boundary that we have with Canada. It’s funny that a comment like that was kinda made to … I don’t know, you know … reporters.

COURIC: Mocked?

PALIN: Yeah, mocked, I guess that’s the word, yeah.

COURIC: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials.

PALIN: Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of.

Though she couldn’t give any specifics concerning how she’s interacted with Russia (saying something vague about trade missions was the closest she came) Palin still claims that living near a foreign country is somehow a qualification to be the second highest ranking person in our government. Yes, governors do interact with other countries; but Palin needs to build her case on the specifics of those interactions, not by pointing to a map and saying “see how close we are?”

The nominee didn’t do much better on the economic questions that Couric asked. I don’t get the sense that there is a real deep understanding of the issues under Palin’s answers; she sounds like she’s just regurgitating the talking points. Here’s a short clip:

I feel sorry for Joe Biden. How do you prepare to debate someone like this without looking patronizing or like a bully? Especially given that she’s a woman and he’s quite prone to gaffes, as I blogged previously.

On viewing those interview clips, one Slate blogger said “She cannot possibly be this uninformed. You absolutely have to see these for yourself to believe them. These are self-mocking; they could be SNL appearances. Tina Fey couldn’t possibly improve on this. This is why they’ve been keeping her under wraps.” Yep.

Joe Biden is still Mr. Gaffe

If elected Vice President, this guy will still be gaffe prone

If elected Vice President, this guy will still be gaffe prone

Delaware’s senior U.S. Senator Joe Biden has been for years well known for being prone to embarrassing gaffes and this has not changed since Barack Obama selected him to be the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee.  Now he has an even bigger stage on which to misspeak.

In the past few days he said that President Franklin Roosevelt went on television after the stock market crash of 1929. But Roosevelt was not president in 1929, and it’d be years before any presidential address was televised.  He’s also made misstatements about the political positions that Barack Obama has taken, saying that the Illinois Senator opposes clean coal technology, but he does.  He’s also criticized an ad that the Obama campaign has aired and said that Hillary Clinton would have been a better Veep choice.

Everyone misspeaks, and politicians talk on the record a lot more than most of us.  But Biden is definitely more prone to it than most; if elected, he’d probably produce more humorous quotes than any Vice President since Dan Quayle.  No doubt much of it will end up on YouTube, like this clip:

Chuck Graham, a Missouri State Senator, is paralyzed from the waste down and confined to a wheelchair; he is incapable of “standing up.”

Many of his other gaffes, going back decades, are also well-known, such as his characterization of Barack Obama as “a clean guy” during the primaries.  However, these misstatements don’t appear to be hurting the Obama-Biden ticket, or even getting that much media attention–compared to how they’d be covered if Sarah Palin had made them.  Slate.com has an interesting take: he makes so many gaffes that they aren’t notable anymore.  writes:

Biden’s blunder couldn’t matter less. Not because gaffes never matter—they can, if they play into public perceptions of the candidate’s character—but because Joe Biden is gaffe-proof. Whatever traps he sets for himself, however many minorities he offends, he always seems to wriggle out. It’s almost as if, by committing so many gaffes, he has become immune to their effects. “Joe Biden Makes Gaffe” is the new “Dog Bites Man.”

In some ways, the one Vice Presidential debate may be more interesting than either of the three Presidential debates.  Not just because we’ll all be watching to see if Biden makes another gaffe, but to see if Palin can hold her own.  Maybe we’ll get another “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Palin protected from the probing presence of the press

If this woman can't handle questions from the American press corps, do we really want her meeting with foreign leaders when it counts?

She can give a speech, but if this woman can't take questions from the American press corps, do we really want her meeting with hostile foreign leaders when it counts?

Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin visited with foreign heads of state yesterday and today, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, and Pakistan’s newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari. Palin has accumulated little to no foreign policy experience so far in her political career and didn’t travel outside of North America until last year. This is her first opportunity to meet with foreign leaders.

The meetings are designed in part as a photo op, to show her meeting world leaders and thus enhance her foreign policy credentials in the eyes of voters. It is also to continue her crash course in foreign affairs ahead of the upcoming Vice Presidential debate with Senator Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To this end she also met with former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissenger.

The meetings have all been tightly choreographed and carefully controlled. Palin has taken no questions from the media. Initially, John McCain’s campaign wanted to exclude reporters even from the photo ops, in case they might overhear something worth reporting or maybe ask a question. However, the five major TV networks threatened to boycott the meetings and not broadcast the pictures and video if no reporter could be present. The McCain campaign relented; a journalist was allowed to be there, but not to ask any questions.

Today, the foreign policy crash course continued with Palin and McCain scheduled to meet with the Presidents of Urkarine and Georgia, Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili, respectively.  They were also to speak with U2 singer Bono and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Previously, Palin had cited Alaska’s proximity to Russia as evidence of her international exposure and her foreign travel has been so scant that her campaign initially counted a touchdown in Ireland as a visit.  She has backed away from both claims.

Today, First Lady Laura Bush, while openly acknowledging Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience, characterized her as a “quick study.”  We’d better hope so.

Presidential debates

The first of three presidential debates between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama will be held this Friday, September 26th.  The Commission on Presidential Debates reports that the schedule is as follows:

  • First presidential debate: Friday, September 26
    Moderated by Jim Lehrer
  • Second presidential debate: Tuesday, October 7
    Moderated by Tom Brokaw
  • Third presidential debate: Wednesday, October 15
    Moderated by Bob Schieffer

The first debate will focus on domestic issues, the third on foreign policy, and the second will be town hall format featuring a variety of questions from citizens.  Conventional wisdom states that stakes are higher for Obama, whose campaign has been partly based on his ability to inspire people.  The two candidates have very different styles, as demonstrated at the Saddleback forum and the Public Service forum; both candidates spoke at both events, but did not share the stage.

Sarah Palin and Joe Biden will debate once, on Thursday, October 2nd.  Conventional wisdom is that Biden, a much more skilled and experienced politician, should outperform Palin, especially on foreign policy matters.  As with the first and third presidential debates, the candidates will be seated at a table with the moderator, Gwen Ifill.  All four debates will begin at 9pm EST and will last 90 minutes. 

The AP has an interesting story on notable presidential debates through history, “Hazards in a half century of presidential debates.”