Sunday, September 30, 2007

Random Republican, The First

Along with interesting Presidential candidates, lately we've been getting a strange spurt of random Republican politicians. A couple weeks ago E and I went to see Newt Gingrich speak. When I've thought of Gingrich, which has not been often, I've always pictured this rotund, sweaty man preaching that President Clinton was reprehensible. I certainly didn't expect to find him to be quite charismatic and funny. I'm going to go ahead and assume it's mostly due to speechwriters, but I guess you don't get elected so many times without having a decent public presence. I thought I'd share some quick thoughts from his speech:
  1. He's positioning himself as a centrist; he even said he thinks Senator Clinton has an 80% chance of winning the presidency. Interestingly, J pointed out that Gingrich recently said he'd consider running for president if his people could raise enough money, although as of today he's saying he won't because he can't keep working for his non-profit.
  2. As with all politicians, I'm learning, he talked a lot about problems without giving any real solutions. Specifically, he said education is broken and we’re not likely to get any answers because the media is too into soundbites. His eventual "solution" for this was that technology would solve everything. Okay...
  3. He spent the talk being very pro-science and pro-technology, which of course was appropriate for the audience. Specifically, he said 2/3 of all new knowledge will come from outside the US because we don’t have the relative mass of scientists. He made no mention, of course, of the fact that his party keeps cutting funding for science research.
  4. On the other hand, you can tell he’s not an engineer because he told an anecdote about how he never knows how much money he takes out of foreign ATMs (he doesn’t do the math, just guesses based on where the number is). He asked for a show of hands of who else is in the same boat but didn't get very many.
  5. A couple of soundbites: "The Republican battle cry for next year is 'we’re bad, they’re worse'" and "Nobody has made money in America betting against the Clintons"
  6. He gave us a history lesson - apparently the US has had 8 cycles of fundamental change, whatever that means. Along with Jefferson's time and Lincoln's era, he said his “Contract with America” is one of those fundamental cycle. Humility may not be one of his greatest virtues.
  7. And of course, I have to critique his website, First of all, the ego in using his first name is pretty astonishing. Secondly, it's funny he doesn't own On his website you can pay to download his iNewt podcasts, and real Newt fans can buy a signed gavel for $199. Hanukkah is coming up, but please don't buy one for me.
  8. Finally, he ended by saying, “Tell all your smart friends to vote or they have no cause to gripe when the dumb people are in charge!” I'm embarrassed to admit I couldn't have put it better myself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And more swear words

Today on Weekday, Steve Scher interviewed Steven Pinker, one of my favorite linguists. I didn't listen. That's because, along with interesting political speakers who visit here at work (like presidential candidates and my soon-to-come review of Newt Gingrich), we get to see interesting authors too, and we were lucky enough to get Dr. Pinker in to speak about his new book.

It was a great lecture, and I recommend everyone read his new book because as an audience we spent the better part of an hour and a half laughing out loud at some of his examples, but my favorite was his discussion of how you can tell a lot about human thought by the obscene language they use (I've never heard so much bad language spoken in such a short period of time; and hearing it at work just made it that much more funny!) and brief divergence into how swear words in different languages don't translate. Specifically, he said that in Quebec, being a very Catholic society and the place where he grew up, the worst swear words you can utter are, "Damn Tabernacle" and "Damn Chalice". He also said that he's single-handedly trying to resurrect a phrase last commonly used in the sixteenth century because he loves its beautiful alliterative imagery: "Kiss a cow's cunt". Not quite "Three hundred hairy bears!" but still pretty good.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Know Thy Neighbor

On Tuesday I got stuck listening to The Conversation. I think Ross Reynolds is a great moderator - he lets people voice their opinions, cuts them off respectfully, and doesn't impose his viewpoints. Unfortunately, I'm not really that interested in hearing what the Hoi Polloi think - I'd rather hear from someone who's actually studied the subject under discussion and can make reasoned, thoughtful arguments. All that to say that I'm usually not a fan of the show.

However, at the end of the show on Tuesday Mr. Reynolds interviewed a member of Know Thy Neighbor Oregon. This year Oregon passed two laws supporting Gay and Lesbian equality (one for same-sex domestic partnerships, and one for anti-discrimination) and some citizens are trying to get initiatives on the ballot to overturn those laws. The Know Thy Neighbor organization is trying to educate people about those initiatives to ensure that if they sign the petitions, they are doing so with full comprehension of what it would mean for Oregon's Gay and Lesbian citizens. They're also letting people know that if the initiatives make it on the ballot, they will publish the names and addresses of every person who signs the petition.

My initial thought on hearing this threat was positive, "good, maybe that'll keep people from putting this offensive initiative on the ballot!" However, that was followed quickly by, "ouch, that's a serious violation of people's privacy and would I still feel the same way if this was an initiative I agreed with?" However, the representative of Know Thy Neighbor made what I thought was an excellent point. The whole point of the initiative process (which I have all sorts of issues with, but I'll cover that another time) is to let citizens act like legislators and sponsor laws. If a legislator sponsors a law, that goes into the public record. Similarly, if a citizen sponsors a law, it's reasonable to do the same. I actually think this should be taken a step further - let's make every name, at least, public for every initiative petition that people sign. This would serve several purposes:
  1. It would improve the accuracy of the petitions because you could check whether your name had shown up on the list and get it removed if you didn't agree with the initiative
  2. It would allow people to sign petitions online rather than relying on running into someone looking for signatures. This happened to me when the anti-smoking initiative was in its petition state - I really wanted to sign it but almost missed the opportunity until finally on the last day I tracked down a man with the petition standing around in front of Trader Joe's.
  3. It would potentially make it cheaper to add initiatives because you wouldn't need to hire folks to collect signatures. This isn't a good thing because I want more initiatives (since I don't) but I'd prefer to see a level playing field so people like Tim Eyman with a huge organization behind them would not have as much of advantage over people with no financial backing who want to do things like stop smoking.
  4. Finally, it might encourage people to actually read the literature for the petition they're signing, or at least ask a few questions before they do so.

So I'm thinking I should start collecting signatures for my new initiative to publicize all initiative signators. Any interest in joining my cause? :-)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


It's always nice to have a reminder of why I'm an NPR junkie.

Last week as I was driving to the gym, I heard Sylvia Poggioli report on the fires in Greece. She described the devastation, but also talked about the protests going on in Athens to decry the government's lack of preparation and alleged negligence in underfunding the firefighters. She covered the potential repercussions to upcoming elections (more people are undecided), and, most interestingly, mentioned that many people think the fires were set intentionally because Greek forest land is inadequately documented and the zoning officials are corrupt so by burning a patch of land, people can take over what was once a natural resource and use it to build homes. All in all, in just a few minutes she gave a multi-faceted insight into the fires.

Then I went to the gym, went into the "ladies only" area (J thinks it's offensive and that there should be a "men's only" area too, but I like it because the TVs all have the subtitles turned on and there are actual windows and natural light), got on the treadmill, and noticed CNN was doing a report on the fires in Greece too. The gist of their story? "There are fires, but don't worry they're under control, but it's hot so there might be let's talk about Princess Diana".

Good to know that CNN is where you go for a nuanced discussion of someone who died 10 years ago. I'll stick with NPR.