Monday, December 29, 2008

Whirlwind Tour

My internet access over the last couple of weeks has left a lot to be desired. I have been traveling almost constantly since December 15. It took me 19 hours door to door from my apartment in Copenhagen to my friends' place just outside Amsterdam. I slept a bit on the train, and thankfully nothing was stolen.

Our flight from the Netherlands to Barcelona was at some ungodly hour I can´t even recall. We didn't sleep the night before, and took a train to Eindhoven at four in the morning. Discount airlines suck for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is their association with airports in the middle of nowhere.

For the first couple of nights in Barcelona we stayed with a friend of mine from high school. He was wrapping up his stay in Europe as well, and showed us as much as he could in 48 hours. I have to say, I had never really thought about going to Spain when I thought about traveling around Europe, but I loved it. I almost felt like I could live in Barcelona. It reminded me a good deal of Los Angeles because of the weather, the terrain, and the atmosphere. It was better in some ways, thanks to good public transit and Gaudi artwork sprinkled all over the city. No Mexican food though. Very tragic. I really fell in love with the place after only four days. I will be back.

Marrakech was next. I have never been somewhere like it. Hell, I haven't even read about somewhere like it. It was the most hectic place I have seen, heard, or smelled. All three senses work overtime in a place like Marrakech. At all hours, the streets are filled with people, motorized scooters, beggars, urchins, trash, animals, smoke, and loud noises. One only manages to take their eyes off the insanity in the middle of the street because of what is on the sides of almost every street. Hundreds of shops line the twisted and unmarked rues, from old women on dirty sheets to large well-lit stores. Many places sell the same sorts of things: leather goods, handmade wooden tchotchkes, scarves, spices, teapots, bootleg movies, exotic pets and everything in between. In the main square people rush to hand you monkeys or put cobras around your neck so they can demand payment thirty seconds later.

Good shopkeepers spot Westerners from a mile away, and start calling out to you in many languages. Monsieur! Est-ce que tu veux?, Hola Amigo!, Good price! Morocco was a French colony, so knowing some Francais goes a long way, but I got to practice my Spanish too.

Then comes the bartering. At first, Marrakech is so cheap that it almost doesn't cross your mind. They use the dirham, which is about 1/11th of a Euro. A tall glass of the best tasting orange juice I have ever had was 90 euro cents. We got ripped off because we paid 13 euro for a 20 minute cab for three plus luggage when we first arrived. You quickly learn that nearly every price in the city is not only negotiable, but that the first price you hear may be 500% of what you could ultimately pay with some skillful banter. There is a certain etiquette you have to figure out, but once you have it down buying things becomes quite fun. If you ask for the price of something in a shop or stall, it is generally assumed that you are genuinely interested in it. If you end up not buying the item, even after a large drop in the item's price, it is seen as rude. Then again, this could just be another negotiating tactic.

Needless to say, I did all my Christmas shopping in Marrakech. I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the city as well. Excellent cheap food abounds, but it is a third world city. My friend got sick while we were there, and I think it was probably the water or something. We rode camels, checked out the sites, and wandered. I loved my few days, but it's unlikely that I will return anytime soon. When I do, I certainly won't stay in a hostel.

Madrid was next. We saw almost none of that city. We stayed with my friend's family and celebrated Christmas with them and their two beautiful kids. It was very nice to have some semblance of holiday tradition for my first Christmas spent out of the country. I am by no means religious, but I do enjoy this time of the year for spending time with family. We ate well, relaxed, and played with the children. I am sad to have not seen Madrid, especially the Prado. I'll be back though.

I am now in Lisbon, and have been for a couple of days. I love this city. I can't help but compare it to San Fransisco. Seven hills, on the bay with a Golden Gate-esque bridge, trolley cars, and pretty decent weather. Every sidewalk and street is paved with these little cobblestones, often in cool designs (slippery though). There are statues and arches and fountains everywhere. It reeks of the Enlightenment. Also, it's pretty cheap compared to the rest of Europe. There are museums everywhere it seems, and good views to be had from castles and skyscrapers alike. It doesn't hurt that we are staying the best hostel I have ever been in. It's called the Living Lounge, and feels like a hotel. Great design, very clean, big bathrooms, free DVDs to watch and internet to use. I'm almost tempted to leave a review of this place on the site we booked with.

Tomorrow we head to our last stop, jolie Paris. We will be there through New Years, and probably spend too much money. Our good friend who is about to begin a semester abroad in London is going to meet us there. There isn't a city I would rather be in to end this journey and this year. I will probably spend 6 hours or so in the Orsay alone. We'll be on the Champs-Elysées or the Sacré Coeur for the actual countdown, hopefully with a bottle of champagne in hand. I can't wait.

That's enough. I might throw up some pictures in a couple weeks when I get back to my real computer.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Internet Is Evil

Recently, I spent some time chatting with a friend of mine back in Berkeley while she wrote a 20 page final paper. Like me, this girl is a big fan of procrastination. So she decided to start writing this paper a little more than 24 hours before it was due. She chronicled this marathon writing spree on her blog. I have to say, she held up remarkably well under the intense pressure. What could have been like a time-lapse car crash turned out to be a pretty interesting look at the modern college experience. I have to wonder though: did my chatting with her help by occasionally taking her mind off the assignment and allowing her to relax? Or was I a distraction? Either way, if she ends up doing poorly on this, I think we all know who is really to blame. That's right, The Internet.

Admittedly, now that I rely on it, I couldn't live without it. My love of instant gratification has been fed too often by this evil entity. Sports scores, news, pictures of friends, restaurant reviews, lolcats, etc etc etc. Once they are at your fingertips 24 hours a day, you get addicted. Psychologists are even considering adding Internet Addiction Disorder to the next edition of the holy bible of psychological disorders, the DSM. When I was a young kid, the Internet was just hitting the scene. I still remember the horrible noise of dialing up over a 56k connection. Downloading a handful of songs over Napster or Audiogalaxy was something you did overnight. But now kids are growing up with an Unlimited Distraction Complex the likes of which the world has never seen. And it's only going to get worse. With Blackberries, iPhones, and other assorted gadgets, people are increasingly connected wherever they go.

If it hadn't been for the Internet, my friend could have written her paper in peace, attention completely zeroed on her topic. Then again, how would she have done research? She was writing about the Dark Knight, and there certainly haven't been any books published on that film yet. See, like the HAL 9000, we depend on the Internet so much that, even when it hurts us, we can't turn it off. If we try, it will jettison our bodies into space or something. In a rare attempt to learn from past experiences, I started the 20 page paper I am currently writing a week before it was due. I was proud of myself at first. But the Internet combined with my body's unfamiliarity with a stress-free writing environment has foiled my plans at early completion of this godawful paper.

Because I started so early, I didn't feel the Fear: the stress that comes with knowing you have to write a page an hour or you will fail whatever class you are taking. It is that Fear that has kept my procrastination system workable over the years. In fact, I get the feeling that my subconscious is undermining my attempt to write this paper without the Fear. Every time I get into a good flow of writing, something draws me to read the Times or Politico or bash. With around 36 hours left, the Fear is only just starting to creep up my spine. Luckily, it is doing its job and my attention is improving by the hour. But, as you can see, I was drawn to write about this on my blog instead of writing about the Germanic influence on ancient Roman internal policy. See, the Fear works best with single-digit hours remaining.

I'm happy we have the Internet. It has entertained me and informed me better than anything else ever could. Because of the Internet, I can write term papers about ancient Roman history without ever touching a book. But it is still Evil, and it will probably bring about the downfall of the human race or something.

At least we'll be able to watch it happen on YouTube.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Onward and Upward

In less than a week, I will leave the country I have called home for the last few months. Early next week, I will travel to the Netherlands to meet up with a couple of friends from California who have been studying there through the same program I am enrolled in here in Denmark. Together we have planned an extraordinary adventure to cap off what has been nothing less than a fantastic semester abroad. Our journey will take us to Barcelona, Marrakech, Madrid for Christmas, Lisbon, and Paris for New Years. Once this trip is over, I will have been to every major European country and Africa for the first time in my life. While I am somewhat sad about leaving Denmark, the upcoming trip has me so excited that I can't really feel bad about anything.

Luckily, the job I have been working at here has prevented me from burning through my life savings in this outrageously-expensive country. In fact, all told I have probably made some money. Gotta love these social welfare states, eh? I fit right in the sweet spot of the system, avoiding the insane taxes (38% is the base rate) by not making quite enough money to be noticed. Unfortunately, due to a clerical error, the Danish government took 60% of my first couple of paychecks and have yet to return that money. I suppose if it's not in my possession then it's like savings.

Speaking of savings, I just read a Times article about the latest sale of short term securities by the Treasury. Investors scrambled to get the opportunity to... get 0% return in four weeks. I'm not economist, but from the tone of the article and common sense, it sounds like things are getting even worse. Maybe someone could explain to me how buying Treasury notes at 0% return is a better deal than just holding cash. Are the securities adjusted for inflation (which should be nothing at the moment anyway)? I have never taken economics very seriously. Why they give fake Nobel prizes to people in the field while ignoring mathematics bothers me. It dilutes the meaning of the award and gives people the impression that economics is scientific. Imagine if green florescent protein or anti-biotics just stopped working one day. I realize the analogy is far from watertight, but I'd really like to see a reproducible experiment in economics that goes beyond "when prices go up, people buy less."

I've got mixed up confusion about how I feel about the future. I have read somewhere that people my age are remarkably optimistic about it even though times are so bad right now. Maybe that's because we believe in America, and are young enough to know that we will see it shine brightly again. Pessimists will tell you our time is over and China will take the reigns. I find that laughable, but what do I know? I think of myself as a realist, and know that the best man for the job is about to take power in America. It's true, he has a bigger mess to clean up than we have seen in many decades, and more expectations resting on his shoulders than anyone deserves. But we have no other choice but to believe in him. For the next eight years (knock knock) Americans of all stripes are going to have to give things up to help us all. Based on his rhetoric, it sounds like Obama will stress personal responsibility and the power of the individual. He will find ways to put Americans at work for America. If we answer his call, we will rise from these ashes.

Now excuse me while I discuss long term savings plans with my Danish bank.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Danish Life, I

My living situation here in Copenhagen is completely alien to what I am used to. I live in a very new apartment building that looks like a Lego creation (coincidence?). It is part of a cluster of new apartments that seem like they were dropped out of the sky into this huge empty field south of the city. When you look for my building on Google Maps satellite imagery, you can only see the foundation and some cranes. There is literally almost nothing but apartments in my immediate area, and then miles of what I can only describe as some kind of wetlands/nature preserve. But with cows. Denmark is a strange place.

Anyway, the only remotely interesting thing about my little neighborhood is that across the street is the largest mall in Scandinavia. The fastest way to walk home from the local metro stop involves cutting straight through this mall, weaving around way-too-stylish-for-their-age Danish teenyboppers. In most ways it is like any mall I have been to in America, but it's the little differences that grab you. For instance, there is a massive store called Bilka on the ground floor of the mall. The only thing I can compare it to is a Wal-Mart, but that should be taken with a grain of salt because I have never stepped foot in a Wal-Mart. They aren't allowed in Los Angeles. At Bilka you can buy anything. Groceries, plasma TVs, bicycles, candy, video games, movies, clothing, etc etc etc. If some kind of natural disaster goes down while I'm here, you know where to find me. The presence of this superstore means one thing: shopping carts. Picture a mall filled with shopping carts. It may not seem crazy to you, but trust me, it is.

The people of Denmark are pretty interesting, albeit a bit strange. One thing that struck me pretty early on was their street etiquette. I don't think I have ever seen a Dane jaywalk. I would love to follow a group of them around Manhattan sometime and see how they behave. When I first moved into my apartment, the behavior of my three Danish roommates really got to me. In an small apartment shared by 4 university students, everyone has their own drawer for utensils. Plates, cups, and cookware are not shared. In fact, when my roommates cook they generally take the food back into their rooms, close the door, and sometimes lock it (click!). Mind you, our apartment has a nice big couch, loveseat, two tables, and 4 chairs. Rarely has anyone taken advantage of any of this furniture except for me.

I was told (warned?) by my study abroad department that Danes are known to be "reserved." I guess that was a euphemism for shy. Don't get me wrong, the few Danish people I have gotten to know have been great friends to me, but getting to know them in the first place was a total chore. I can't say that I make any kind of special effort to meet international students when I am home, but then again none of my neighbors have ever been international students. Meeting the other internationals here in Copenhagen has been a breeze, which is probably to be expected considering how new everything is for everyone. However, I have been pretty disappointed because I was looking forward to making a bunch of Danish friends. It simply wasn't meant to be. That being said, I have made great German, Irish, Dutch, English, French, Australian, and even Canadian (!) friends since I've been here. Couchsurfing, here I come!

Denmark is a great place, and I think everyone should visit it if they are going to visit Europe. For a city the size of Copenhagen, the amount of culture is really impressive. The people are very polite, it is very clean, and they speak better english than most Americans. That being said, it has begun to feel small to me. I come from a city whose regional population is several times that of the whole of Denmark. The sun has been going down really early these days (we turn the lights on around 4), and the weather is getting less agreeable by the week. Luckily for me, I have a lot of travel planned in places south of here over the next month. Tomorrow, I head to Amsterdam for a week. In mid-December, myself and two of my good friends from home are going on a grand adventure through Spain, Morocco, Portugal, and France. I'm sure there will be a lot to talk about afterward, assuming I remain a free man throughout the trip.

I'm crossing my fingers.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


As confident as I have been over the last few months, there was always a part of me that was unsure. It was a nagging feeling that if I built my hopes up too high the pain of defeat would be devastating. Well, in hindsight I am really glad I was so hopeful. The faith I had in Obama as a candidate and in my fellow citizens to vote the right way has paid off in spades. The money I donated to the campaign was the best money I have ever spent. I have been walking in the clouds since the wee hours of Wednesday morning here in Copenhagen.

I will never forget the scene from TV. CNN had just called Ohio for Obama, giving him over 220. The west coast states were going to close in less than two minutes. Out of some sense of electoral etiquette, they would only call a state once the polls had officially closed. Blitzer stood there kind of awkwardly, trying to fill the time with meaningless comments. Anybody watching who knew anything about the electoral college knew it was over, but there he was saying things like, "We might be able to make a big announcement soon..." Sometimes being politically correct and overtly non-partisan makes you look foolish and ignorant. But the counter finally hit zero, the canned CNN PROJECTION graphic went up, and the world exploded. We were going to have a black president. By all accounts, people poured into the streets worldwide. Newscasters likened it to the millennium celebrations. I cried.

This was the first presidential election I was allowed to vote in, and I have been following it for two years. I remember in late 2006 when rumors were swirling about Obama. Then in January of 2007 Bill Richardson announced his candidacy, and I thought he would be the one to win the nomination. He had incredible experience both domestically and internationally, as Secretary of Energy, Ambassador to the UN, and as a Congressman. He had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and was serving as Governor of New Mexico. Then Obama announced, and I thought to myself that he would be the perfect VP for someone like Richardson. I remember seeing Obama speak in Oakland, Calif. on St. Patrick's Day in 2007. I was impressed with his oratorical skills and by the incredible size of the crowd he drew. As time went on and it became clear Obama was more of a heavyweight than anyone originally gave him credit for, I jumped camps. Until that point I believed Obama would make a better president than Richardson, but that America wasn't ready for a black president yet. I have never been so proud to have been wrong.

The next few weeks will be especially interesting. The backbiting among the McCain campaign will spill out completely, and we will get to watch Obama assemble the team that will lead our nation out of the sordid state it is currently in. Rahm Emanuel will make an outstanding Chief of Staff, if he takes the job, because someone is needed to stand up to congressional Democrats who want to take it too far. The massive majorities Democrats enjoy will have to be wielded delicately. Bad things can happen with so much power, but good things can too. The Dems in 1993 went too far and got smacked down in 1996. Same thing to the Republicans in 2006. Even though we don't need GOP support for legislation, for the most part, we should seek it so we can maintain control for years to come.

Some juicy stuff is already out about the McCain campaign. Now that the election is over, things that were off the record are now allowed to be reported. My favorite so far is from Fox News concerning Sarah "I can see Russia from my house" Palin:

1- She didn't know which countries were in NAFTA.
2- She didn't know that Africa is a continent instead of a country.
3- She threw temper tantrums over her press coverage.

And we thought she was unqualified before. We are told that over the next few days there will be many more stories about Palin. Please let her be the next candidate for the GOP. Please.

Excuse me, I'm still not done dancing in the streets.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

New American Renaissance

The last week has been relatively mild in terms of election news. Obama's campaign, exuding measured confidence, has stayed as consistent and strong as they have for weeks now. The McCain campaign settled on taxes as their final theme as the Senator scrambled through Bush states he should have had in his back pocket, but he has had a smile on. Having worked too hard and come too far to get complacent at the end, the Obama camp has really turned up the burners on their already-superior ground game. Armed with many more volunteers, field offices, and cash, their get out the vote effort is likely to go down as the largest in the history of the world. On Wednesday we will see if it was the most successful. Some of the numbers are absolutely mind boggling. Ben Smith writes that Obama's Ohio communications director, Issac Baker, reported that the campaign knocked on one million doors in that state alone. Yesterday. One has to imagine that similar things are going on in other key states like Pennsylvania, Florida, and maybe Virginia.

In most of the recent presidential elections in this country, the polls tighten in the last couple weeks. Nate Silver's statistical models that are used on his site,, account for this phenomenon. The funny thing is, this year they haven't really tightened. Where there has been some tightening, it has been largely insignificant. In Pennsylvania, pretty much a must-win for McCain, Obama's lead has fallen out of the low double digits he had a couple weeks ago, but has remained stable in the high single digits. If polls are to be believed, and all other things being equal, this is impossible for McCain to make up for on his own. But it's the only chance he has. With few hours left, there is almost no room for an external event to influence anything. There was no "October surprise," no Osama video, and nothing to distract voters from the economic meltdown that coincided with Obama's rise in the polls. Everything looks strong for my guy, with many paths to victory plausible. I have never been so excited.

In my view, things are probably better than polls indicate. There are a few reasons why I think the polls under represent Obama's support. First of all, nobody I know my age or even up to 5 years older has a landline. I know that pollsters are calling cell phones too, but there is no way they are covering that demographic properly. Young people are abandoning landlines, and young people are more excited about Obama than they have been for a candidate for decades, maybe more. Maybe ever. Secondly, most every pollster has some proprietary method of determining who is a likely voter. This usually involves peripheral questions about past voting habits, enthusiasm about the election, etc. The problem this time around is that every indicator points to 2008 obliterating turnout records all over the country. Basing the definition of a likely voter on past voting, to any degree, will probably under represent the number of voters this year. Given that this explosion of enthusiasm can only really be traced to Obama, it is safe to say that many more first-time voters of any age will for him than McCain. Add to this the power of the minority vote, the nearly flawless organization of the campaign, and the bank account that would make many countries look silly in comparison, and it looks like a landslide is in the making.

Keith Olbermann did an excellent campaign comment on his show yesterday. He asked the audience to consider if the tables had been turned and Obama had done some of the gaffes and missteps that have plagued McCain this election. What if Obama had sung a song about bombing Iran? Spent the last three weeks talking about Joe the Plumber? Picked a totally unqualified person to be his VP? Said that the fundamentals of the economy were strong on one of the worst days in American financial history? Said "my fellow prisoners" at a rally? Etc etc etc. He would have been toast. Obama had to run a nearly flawless campaign and then some to have a fighting chance, and that's exactly what he did. There were gaffes along the way, and there were mistakes. The most notable was probably his comment about people clinging to guns and religion. But for the most part it was picture perfect. It will be studied for a long time to come. David Axelrod deserves a nice long vacation, somewhere with white sandy beaches and drinks with little umbrellas in them.

I freely admit that had it not been for the financial crisis, this would be a much closer race. If and when McCain loses tonight, many on the right wing will scream about this fact on TV. I don't personally see it as a negative though. Obama wasn't lucky that the public trusted him more on the economy. He worked for it. He was lucky in that McCain had little opportunity to set the conversation to play to his strengths, like national security, amid such a gargantuan financial meltdown. That being said, nobody forced McCain to repeatedly call the economy fundamentally strong, a move that I think was the major tipping point for the campaign. I still don't know what he was trying to accomplish with that. Perhaps he was hoping that it actually was strong and he could make look Obama look like the boy who cried wolf, hammering home the naiveté argument. Cunning, but risky.

Write it off as hyperbole, but I think Obama's election will be the start of a completely new era for America. Here in Europe, people I have met are excited by the prospect of new American leadership. Bush has badly damaged our reputation abroad, but I think most people recognize that he does not represent our country very well. News of his plummeting approval ratings is well known here. I have no explanations for people who want to know why he was voted in twice, except that fear is a very powerful force. We still lead the free world, and having someone with strong intellectual curiosity and a steady hand at the helm will do everyone a lot of good. Obama has a lot to clean up, and he has a massive weight on his shoulders, but I have supreme confidence in the man. Things are going to get uglier before they get prettier, but I am incredibly optimistic about the future. Under Obama, we will get out of this economic mess, get out of Iraq, and get serious about universal healthcare and the environment. He has the chance to set the tone for the rest of the century, something Bush totally squandered.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Strange Times

I went to an Of Montreal show here in Copenhagen last week. While there were some technical difficulties and the band was clearly tired, they put on a great show. I had never seen them before, and it was a pretty interesting experience. After the show ended, I got to meet a couple of the guys out front. They were just hanging out among the crowd as people exited the (shitty) venue, smoking cigs and talking to each other. Strangely, almost nobody from the audience approached them. I went up to them and chatted for a bit. They told me about their long European tour (that night was apparently their last) and gave me a setlist. Nice guys. I asked them if they thought Obama had a chance of carrying Georgia, where the band is from. They didn't think so.

Since then I had been studying for an exam that took place yesterday. I've been taking a class on plant genomics (fascinating, I know), and it has now ended. Exams in Denmark are remarkably less stressful than back home. This is mostly because they are open book, open notes. I couldn't believe it when they told us that, but apparently that's the norm here. No wonder everyone is so happy.

This weekend I am going to Amsterdam to visit some friends and attend a hip-hop festival called Rock the Bells. This usually only happens in California, but it has gotten so popular in the last couple of years that they added a European segment to it. Last year I saw Rage Against the Machine, Wu Tang Clan, Public Enemy, and many others at this festival in San Fransisco, and this year's lineup is just as good. The main acts that played in the states were A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Nas, Mos Def, and The Pharcyde. Tons of other acts played too, including a new favorite of mine, The Cool Kids. Unfortunately, the European tour is a lot smaller. Tribe isn't going to be there on Saturday, but De La, Mos Def, Nas, and Pharcyde will.

I've been looking forward to this for months and months, but a couple of days ago it was announced that Sterling, the cheapo Danish airline, was declaring bankruptcy. Apparently the largest investor was some Icelandic guy, and the financial crisis forced him to pull out. My ride to Amsterdam suddenly didn't exist anymore, and I thought I was SOL. I went as far as to tell my friend in the Dam to return my ticket or try to sell it. Luckily for me, some last-minute heroics by my little sister saved my weekend. She bought me a plane ticket on a much more stable airline, which will count for my birthday present (and Christmas, and my next birthday...). Thanks sis. In return she will be getting an awesome hockey-related birthday present very soon.

As for the election, I am getting quite giddy. With mere days left, things couldn't be looking better for my guy. The tightening in the polls that happens nearly every election during the last few weeks doesn't seem to be happening, and Obama is widening the battlefield every day. McCain is playing defense in places no self-respecting Republican should be playing defense. Even Arizona might be up for grabs. Talk about an embarassment. The McCain campaign is more uncoordinated than ever, and many people on both sides of the spectrum are already looking at 2012. My focus as of late has been on the Congressional races. Top dog conservatives are in serious trouble all over the place. This could be the end of the Republican era for decades to come. Good riddence. Maybe this will help the Republicans understand that having a party where almost all of the leadership consists of old white men isn't the best way to appeal to an increasing-diverse America. Maybe people like Bobby Jindal will step up and transform them. Or they will hand the keys to Sarah Palin and we can all sit back and watch the party self destruct. We can only hope.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Too Good

There's nothing like some politcal comedy from the right as they watch their party collapse to cheer me up. Ben Smith over at Politico is batting 1.000 today on the "watch everyone remotely connected to the McCain campaign disintigrate" angle.

Politico is reporting what Ben astutely calls a "vivisection" (as opposed to a post-election autospy) of the McCain campaign, with all their internal fingerpointing, jumping ship, and dispair. He also picked up on this bar of solid comedic gold: "Joe McCain Allegedly Calls 911 to Complain About Traffic." No, this isn't an SNL skit or an Onion piece, this is 100% Grade A fact. Here's the transcript from the call on October 21:
Operator: 911 state your emergency

Caller: It's not an emergency, but do you know why on one side at the damn drawbridge of 95 traffic is stopped for 15 minutes and yet traffic's coming the other way?

Operator: Sir, are you calling 911 to complain about traffic? (pause)

Caller: Fuck you. (caller hangs up)
The operator called back to admonish him for abusing the 911 system, and was greeted with a voicemail message:
"Hi this is Joe McCain. I can't take this message now because I'm involved in a very (inaudible) important political project. I hope on November 4th we have elected John."
Bravo, sir. Joe is John's brother, and this isn't the first time he has gotten some unwanted attention in the last couple of weeks. On October 4, while warming up a crowd in Virginia, he referred to the D.C. suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria as "communist country." If I thought McCain had more than a 3.7% chance of winning this election, I would say that he should put his brother in whatever bunker they hid Palin in.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

Oh, and by the way, Nate Silver reckons yesterday was McCain's worst polling day of the year.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Woe Is Me

My wonderful week of vacation was capped off with a rather crappy ending. After visiting London and Stockholm, seeing friends and family along way, I was robbed on the train home to Copenhagen. Due to some kind of accident in the Swedish rail system, my scheduled afternoon ride home was delayed for many hours. After blowing the little that was left of my Swedish cash in the train station bar, I was ready to check into a hotel for the night and try again in the morning. At the last second they announced a night train to Malmo, a city just across the water from Copenhagen. I went to the ticket office and was given a ticket for a bed on the train.

I threw my clothing bag into the luggage room, but kept my backpack with me. I tucked into bed after chatting with a couple of really anti-Semitic Pakistani guys who shared my room (did you know that the Jews manufactured this financial crisis to solidify their already-firm grip on the world economy? Me either!) with my backpack on my bed furthest from the door. I slept really well and woke up around 5:30 am, around an hour before my train was due to arrive in Malmo. It took me a second to realize it in the darkness of the room, but my backpack was gone. Panic set in really quickly - everything was in that bag: my passport, wallet, keys to my apartment, as well as my digital camera, brand-new laptop, iPod, and school stuff. I freaked out.

I tore all the sheets off the bed, frantically looking for the bag I knew had been taken. I quickly realized that I was wasting time, and perhaps whoever did this was still in the hallway. I ran out and looked everywhere in the immediate vicinity, but to no avail. It was quiet and empty. My next thought was to find some train personnel. I didn't know what else to do. I found someone rather quickly and explained what happened, and was met with an empathetic shrug and a suggestion to talk to the police. The train had made several stops already, and the theft could have happened at any point after I fell asleep. Someone overheard us and walked up to me. He told me that he had just seen a black backpack in the bathroom. I have never run so fast in my life. I burst into the bathroom, the closest one to my room, and there was my backpack by the trashcan. By the time it was in my hands I knew the laptop was gone by the weight of the thing. You know how they say there aren't any atheists in a foxhole? I have never agreed with that statement so strongly. As I went through the various pockets, I prayed I would find something.

And I did. Whoever this jerk was, they had the decency (or stupidity, take your pick) to leave my passport, keys, wallet with all my credit cards, and my iPod. Gone were my laptop, digital camera, sunglasses, and a bit of cash. I was as relieved as someone can be after having thousands of dollars in stuff vanish. If the whole bag had gone missing, I would have been totally and utterly screwed. I would have had no way to get to Copenhagen, and even if I could I would have way to get into my apartment. Nevermind the passport situation. I shuffled back to my room and surveyed the scene of the crime. The Pakistani guys in the top bunks were up at this point, and after I told them what happened they immediately offered to show me their stuff so I wouldn't suspect them. Suffocating regret set in as I took measure of what I had lost. Aside from the monetary value of the stuff, I lost schoolwork, my access to the Internet, and hundreds of pictures that I had taken on the trip thus far. I thought about what I should have done differently, and there wasn't too much I could think of. I guess I could have worn the backpack or tied it to me or something.

I was complacent because I was in Sweden. I didn't expect, for whatever reason, that theft of this kind would go down in such a supposedly advanced country. I was wrong, and won't ever forget the lesson. It's been a few days now and I have settled down a bit, but I am still pretty upset. I have reported this to the Swedish police, but I don't expect anything to come of it. There is some software on the laptop designed to trace it down in events like these, but it isn't likely to help either. In a twisted catch-22 of sorts, this software only works when someone logs into the computer and connects to the internet. By having a strong password on my account, and thereby protecting my data from people who try to use but not steal my computer, I have rendered my computer untraceable. Whoever this thief is, they can just wipe the hard disk and that's that.

Stealing sucks, don't do it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

That's All, Folks

Little update, I am about to get on a train back to Copenhagen.

Colin Powell just endorsed Obama. I know I have said previously that it is over for McCain, but now it is really over.

Video below. Buy champagne, people.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Dear Old Stockholm

Hello from Stockholm. I am in the middle of a birthday trip around Europe, and I have to say that this is by far the coolest city I have visited. There is just a feeling I get walking around the streets here that I have felt nowhere else. The ride on the train through Sweden from Denmark was absolutely breathtaking, reminding me a lot of the northeast of the US. Fall is in full swing, and the colors can't be beat. For a guy from LA where we have 1.5 seasons, it's quite something. Not to mention that I have never seen more gorgeous women in my life, both in quality and quantity. I never thought I'd say this, but going back to California is going to be difficult in some ways.

I have just read that Obama picked up endorsements from the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and rumor has it that the New York Times will endorse on Sunday. These papers don't endorse every year. In fact, the LA Times hasn't endorsed since 1972, and the Tribune hasn't ever endorsed a Democrat. As if he needed more nails in his campaign's coffin. This is not an indictment of John McCain per se; I see it as more of a testament to how sincere and thoughtful Obama has shown himself to be. People are looking for stability and a clear focus on actual issues. Schmidt, McCain's Rove/Atwater clone, has shown that he can follow the smear playbook fairly closely, but the American people have grown smarter thanks to Bush. The McCain campaign has made some serious errors this year that eliminated any (small) chance he had in the first place. Ignoring the men completely, this election was strongly favored towards a generic Democrat. Had McCain run a different campaign (i.e. hired more honorable people to run his campaign), he would have had much more of a fighting chance. I will be writing a thorough obit in the next week or so detailing all of the things McCain's campaign did over the last year to ensure his loss.

I have a strong feeling that this campaign will be historical for more reasons than are readily apparent at the moment. Yes, the election of a black President less than 50 years after Dr. King is groundbreaking on one thousand different levels. But race was at most a very minor player in this campaign. Obama's campaign will be remembered for its incredible organization, its ability to mobilize thousands of volunteers using the latest technology, and for his adept use of the internet as a means of astronomical fundraising. It will be a role model for decades to come, and hopefully permanently raise the level of discourse in our presidential races. One thing I have heard consistently from the European friends I have made when we talk about the election, a topic nearly everyone here is eager to discuss, is that American elections are typically so personal. As much as the McCain campaign has tried in recent weeks to inject personal attacks, they have fallen flat. Times are too scary, this election is too important. People have realized that this is much more than American Idol.

I have a lot more of this city to see, so it's off to bed for me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Grand Old Panic

It can't possibly get any worse for the McCain campaign. Makes you almost want to feel bad for them. Almost. I was in London visiting some friends over the weekend and fell out of touch with the news for a little while. Now that I am back, I can't believe what I am reading.

I felt pretty sure that Obama couldn't do better than the 5-6% average advantage he had in the national polls up to last week. That fraction represents a lot of people, and I thought this country was so partisan that it was something of a ceiling for any candidate, of either party. Well, the Times and CBS just released a poll showing Obama with a fourteen-point lead. That represents nearly 48 million people if applied to the country at large. What is McCain to do? William Kristol, one of the conservative columnists for the Times, opened his piece this week with, "It’s time for John McCain to fire his campaign." Christopher Buckley, son of William F. Buckley Jr., whose writings are the intellectual foundation of the modern conservative movement, has endorsed Obama. He has never voted for a Democrat in his life. EV now has Obama with 357 votes, with 361.4, and a share worth $100 if McCain wins can be bought for $21.10 at If you really think McCain will win, you could quintuple your money.

Meanwhile, the RNC might borrow $5 million to try and save some Senate seats. The idea of 60 seats for Democrats is getting less far fetched every day. This may be the last straw before they have to pull resources from McCain, rendering him even more unable to compete with Obama's astronomical fund raising. Aides hinted that September's haul was bigger than the record $66 million in August, which would make sense considering the fusion of Clinton supporters. Politico says Obama is outspending McCain 8-1 in some places. And yet for some reason Steve Schmidt thinks character assassination is the way to succeed? As the last week has shown, the rhetoric about Ayres has only frothed up the hardliners, and has driven independents away and McCain's unfavorable ratings up. Don't they get it that getting nutjobs excited at staged events and getting average voters excited in their living rooms aren't the same thing?

I can't remember the last time I was this excited, and I haven't even mentioned Sarah Palin.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Home Stretch

The election is now less than a month away, and I couldn't be happier. Barring some major development, the race is in the bag for Obama. Every possible indicator out there, from electoral college predictions to Intrade to national polls, puts Obama ahead by a significant margin. has Obama with 329 votes as of yesterday. has him at 339.7, the highest level of the campaign. Intrade's electoral prediction puts Obama at 338. The consistency among these numbers is especially encouraging. The Gallup daily tracking poll has had Obama leading with statistically-significant lead for nine days straight, currently at 50% to McCain's 43%. With mere weeks until November 4th, what is the McCain campaign to do? Limited by public financing and having to play defense in places the GOP has taken for granted for years (Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, etc.), he's between a rock and a hard place. So, of course, McCain is going to let Steve Schmidt take this campaign into the mud.

The McCain campaign has now devoted nearly all of its advertising resources to negative ads. TPM is reporting that "nearly 100 percent" of their weekly budget is devoted to a slew of ads that attack Obama by name on a variety of issues. The veracity of the ads aside, this is not an indication of a confident campaign. This past weekend, the campaign announced that it will be going more on the attack, seeking to divert the nation's attention away from the economy and towards what they perceive to be flaws in Obama's character. They let slip that attacks linking Obama to former Weathermen leader Bill Ayers, whom Obama has met professionally on several occasions, and real estate developer Tony Rezko are on the way. Unfortunately for the McCain campaign, both ties to Obama were thoroughly fleshed out by the media during the primary season. Unless they are sitting on some new stuff, these attacks will likely fall flat.

The problems with this strategy don't end there. I assume that both campaigns have prepared in advance for the possibility that everything goes totally negative. By announcing their strategy for the remainder of the election, the McCain campaign gave the Obama camp some time to dust off their ads and make media buys. In fact, Obama is pre-empting the attacks. Until now, even for the mainstream media, McCain's involvement in the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s as one of the "Keating Five" has been largely off the table. Consider that over and done with. Politico is reporting that the Obama campaign is launching a "multimedia" push today to remind voters everywhere about McCain's involvement in the last financial crisis this country experienced. Expect the McCain camp to respond with their usual "Obama said he would rise above this kind of politics, but look at him now!" Blah blah blah. The central difference between the two styles of attack is that McCain is attacking Obama's character through linking him to people who most would consider to be unsavory. Obama, on the other hand, is bringing up McCain's connection to a crisis that is eerily similar to what we are currently going through. The savings and loan collapse resulted directly from a lack of regulation, corporate greed, and influence peddling in Washington. Remind you of anything? Which line of attack do you think will resonate more strongly with blue collar workers worried about their jobs? You tell me.

The weirdest thing about this whole situation for me is McCain's personal experience with dishonorable campaigning. During the 2000 Republican primaries, McCain was the target of one of the most despicable kinds of political tactics I have ever heard of. In a Boston Globe piece from 2004, Rick Davis (McCain's current campaign manager in name only) describes how Bush supporters used something called 'push-polling' to destroy McCain's lead in South Carolina. McCain has an adopted Bangladeshi daughter named Bridget, and these people used the fact to implant vicious lies in voters' heads. It would happen something like this: you'd get a call from someone saying they were conducting a poll. After a few innocuous questions designed to determine whether you were supporting McCain or Bush, the 'pollster' would ask a hypothetical question along the lines of, "If you knew that John McCain fathered an illegitimate black child out of wedlock, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for him?" Presumably, racist voters who had seen Bridget with McCain on TV would make the intended connection themselves. Davis attributes McCain's loss of South Carolina, and thus likely the primary, to this type of attack. Having been on the receiving end of that kind of insanity, how can McCain do essentially the same thing to Obama? It must be because Steve Schmidt has been given complete control of the campaign, and has promised John a win at all costs.

I used to like McCain because I used to believe him. He stood out from and stood up to the rest of his party. He has completely tarnished that image during this election, and his loss will be well deserved come November 4th.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

KAIT and the High-Z Supernova Search

I have been and always will be a space geek. Ever since I got glow in the dark stars and comets taped to my ceiling as a kid, I have dreamed of being an astronaut (something I fully intend to apply for). I read voraciously about the space program and got through my fair share of science fiction. When I came to college, I had the opportunity to take an astronomy class for the first time, and one in particular came highly recommended from older students. So, in my rookie semester, I took Astro. C10 with Professor Filippenko (Alex, as he likes to be called). It was a class designed to be accessible to science students and non-science students alike, and that fact combined with Alex's unique enthusiasm for the subject has made it one of the most popular courses at Cal. The course covered a wide range of topics from the behavior of light to stellar evolution to the shape of the universe. As someone who has read a lot about space on my own, much of the information was familiar to me, but I learned a lot regardless. Towards the end of the semester, Alex announced that he would be taking 10-15 (of the ~800(!) people in the class) students to Lick Observatory near San Jose, CA to get a tour of the facilities and a little insight into the nuts and bolts of modern astronomy research.

I wrote the optional paper and was selected for the trip. After a long and winding drive into the mountains, we arrived at the top of Mt. Hamilton. We got a tour of the historic observatory (it was the first permanently-occupied observatory on a mountaintop) and got to look at a few interesting objects through the 120-year-old 36 inch refractor. Part of the tour included Alex's personal invention: KAIT. From his lectures it was clear that Alex worked on supernovae, but those of us on the trip got to see exactly how he did it. I asked Alex a lot of questions about the telescope, and he invited me become one of his undergraduate assistants on the project. I jumped at the chance to participate in astronomical research and I have been working for him ever since. I want to share some information about this fascinating project, but some background is needed.

What's a Supernova?
There are many different objects out there in the observable universe, and different people study different things. Professor Filippenko and his team mainly study supernovae, which most people know as exploding stars. These objects, or rather the violent explosions their so-called progenitors produce, are interesting to study for a variety of reasons, but what exactly are they? Nova means "new" in Latin, because originally these events appeared as a new star in the night sky that would fade over time. Amazingly, supernovae were seen by humans long before the telescope was invented. Extragalactic supernovae aren't bright enough to be visible with the naked eye, so these events arose from stars in the Milky Way exploding. In 185 AD, Chinese astronomers recorded that a new star appeared and stayed visible for 8 months. The only other Milky Way supernovae that have been recorded since were in 1006, 1054, 1572 and lastly in 1604. A galaxy the size of ours should theoretically have one supernovae every 50-100 years, and the objects give off such a tremendous amount of energy that they should be obvious in the night sky. However, there is a large amount of dust in our galaxy, and it's very possible that it has blocked the light of supernovae from reaching us, especially one on the far side of the galaxy.

All supernovae are massive explosions, but they are theorized to occur in a few different ways. The "classic" supernovae, known as a Type 1A, happens when something called a white dwarf (basically a very old star) gets extra mass added to it from a companion star or via a merger with another white dwarf. Once the total mass of the object gets over a certain limit, the star rapidly undergoes nuclear fusion and explodes. When I say rapidly, I mean something around the size of Earth with a mass around that of the sun converting most of its mass into pure energy in a matter of seconds. The result of this is a supernova, the most energetic event in the known universe. To put this in perspective, lets look at SN1006. This supernova occurred when a star 7200 lightyears away (over ten quadrillion miles) exploded. The result of this was an object appearing in the sky half the size of the moon with enough brightness to light the ground at night for months. In fact, if a supernova goes off close enough to Earth, it could easily destroy all life on the planet. One could have taken out the dinosaurs. These things don't mess around.

All that's left of SN1006 is a rapidly-expanding shell of gas and dust. Over the last 1000 years, it has gotten to be trillions of miles wide. Here's what it looks like today, courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope:


So why do we look for these things, aside from the fact that they are awesome?
It is fairly well known that Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding in the 1920s. By looking at special stars called Cepheid variables, Hubble found a relationship between the distance of a galaxy and how fast it was moving away from us. This observation, confirmed over and over again since, is one of the fundamental pieces of evidence in support of the Big Bang theory. Supernovae are kind of like modern Cepheid variables in that they can both be used as 'standard candles'. Basically this means that you can use clever tricks figure out exactly how much light they are giving off in total, and thus deduce their distance. For example, lets say you look out to sea on a dark night and see a single light from a boat. It could either be a faint light that is close by or a bright light that is far away. Both would look the same, and you would have no way of knowing which was the case. However, if you knew the exact brightness of the bulb (the "absolute magnitude"), you can compare that to the amount of light you actually see ("apparent magnitude") and calculate a distance. The speed of recession is a little more complicated, and has to do with something called the Doppler effect. We have all experienced this when ambulances drive past us. They sound more high-pitched as they approach and more low-pitched as they drive away. From these two effects, one can determine both distance and recession velocity, which is exactly what Hubble did. Supernovae are especially useful for this kind of work because of their incredible brightness. They easily outshine the galaxies they reside in when they explode, and we can thus get data about very distant parts of the universe.

The Big Bang theory took a while to get accepted by most members of the scientific community, but it is now basically indisputable. Questions turned from "if" to "how", and cosmology was born. People became very interested in the 'shape' of the universe, which is a concept so abstract many people who study astronomy for the first time struggle with. It became a common conception that the universe expanded very rapidly at first, but thanks to gravity this expansion was slowing over time. Then, in the late 1990s, an astounding result came out of the high-z (meaning high redshift, thus very distant) supernovae research field. Two groups, both of which Alex was associated with, reported that the most distant supernova were dimmer than they ought to be. The logical conclusion of this observation was that the expansion of the universe was in fact accelerating. This would mean that some hitherto-unseen force was not only working against gravity (antigravity, anyone?), but enough so that it actually reversed gravity's effects. Thus dark energy was born. Not since the discovery of the expansion itself had the astronomy community been turned on its head so dramatically. To this day, nobody has a clue what dark energy actually is, but they have calculated that it must account for around 3/4 of all of the mass-energy of the entire universe in order for it to be having this kind of effect.

Needless to say, supernova research is a pretty hot field in astronomy right now, and not just because of the acceleration discovery. Alex designed and built KAIT, the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope, to make finding these events easier and more efficient. It is a relatively small telescope that operates almost completely autonomously. Every night with good weather, KAIT takes a look at several hundred locations in the sky. Using software specially written for the purpose, it identifies new objects and flags them to be double-checked by a researcher. That's where I and several other students come in. Every night, these images are downloaded from the telescope in the mountains onto a computer in Berkeley, and someone goes through each and every one of them. Usually the software tags a cloud, a satellite, or something called a cosmic ray, but every once in a while you get something good. It is my job to separate the wheat from the chaff, and find the occasional supernova candidate. If these candidates appear in the exact same place again on another night, they are very likely supernovae. Several hundred supernovae are discovered worldwide every year, and KAIT is one of the most successful supernova projects ever. I have personally discovered around 10 so with KAIT since I began working with Alex in 2007. Here is one of the more recent ones from March of this year, SN2008BF:

The pair of large fuzzy dots are actually galaxies on a collision course, each containing billions of stars. The arrow is pointing to the supernova. One can see from this image how 'big' the supernova looks, which is an effect of its brightness saturating the camera on the telescope. Below is a much more beautiful image of a SN Filippenko's team discovered in 1994, again from Hubble, showing very clearly how bright the supernova (lower right corner) is compared to the host galaxy:


Working on this project has been an amazing experience, and I hope to continue it until the day I graduate. I am very grateful to Alex and to the Berkeley scientific culture in general which encourages undergraduate participation in real research. Thanks to this trust, I have been able to learn a lot more than can be gleaned in a lecture while contributing to the scientific process. Sometime in the future I will write something about my biology research, which has been equally rewarding.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Wheels Have Come Off The Straight Talk Express

I am confident that when the political obituaries are written, as they are after every election, these past two weeks will be seen as the turning point. John McCain's campaign is collapsing faster than the economy, and his erratic and confusing behavior is to blame. It began Sunday, September 14 with his insistence on continuing to describe the economy as "fundamentally sound," a move that I still struggle to understand. Perhaps he wanted to appear as the candidate that could calm America's fears, or maybe he was hoping to contrast himself with what he perceived to be Obama's fearmongering. Either way, he should have chosen his words more carefully. After being lambasted yet again by Obama, newspaper editorial boards, and TV news anchors, he descended into a doublespeak haze that he has yet to emerge from. Within hours of the "fundamentals" comment, he sought to clarify his comments by saying that by fundamentals he clearly meant American workers, gracing us with a novel definition of the word. It was a classic political juke, and if it remained an isolated foul-up McCain could have had a much better week. But he was just getting warmed up.

Unfortunately for McCain, his awkward comment came on one of the worst days in modern financial history. Lehman Brothers, one of the world's largest and oldest investment banks, collapsed. Unable to find a buyer, their stock dropped 94% in a single day as they filed for bankruptcy protection. Thanks to the interconnected nature of the financial world, and the fact that many firms had chosen to ride the credit default swap gravytrain, this collapse began to spread. Merrill Lynch, another titan from before the Great Depression, was lucky enough to find a buyer in Bank of America. Yet somehow, McCain seemed to be under the impression that this was what "strong" looks like. Someone in his campaign must have whispered in his ear that perhaps this wasn't the best way to shake Obama's claims that he was out of touch. After all, with 7 houses, 13 cars, and a plane, it is difficult for average people to think he understands their problems. McCain began a series of awkward pivots in an apparent attempt to regain some credibility, but ended up digging himself deeper into the hole. Ostensibly, in McCain's world the economy can both be "fundamentally sound" and in "crisis" at the same time. A-mazing.

The problem kept spreading. AIG, the massive insurance company, was the next company to creep up to the precipice. As late as September 16, McCain came out in opposition to bailing them out. The very next day, when the Federal government declined to follow his advice and announced an 85 billion dollar rescue package, McCain praised it as the right thing to do given how widespread the impact of letting AIG fail would be. Not content with his faux pas count for the week and trying to appear presidential, McCain called for the firing of SEC Chairman Christopher Cox. On Thursday the 18th he said, “The chairman of the SEC serves at the appointment of the president and in my view, has betrayed the public’s trust. If I were president today, I would fire him.’’ Well, someone didn't do their homework, because the President isn't allowed to fire the SEC chairman. Yes, he is appointed by the President, and like Cabinet positions the choice must be confirmed by the Senate, but the SEC is not part of the executive branch. As an independent agency, it is immune from the whim of the President. Later, perhaps after some more whispers from his campaign about how Cox was not generally viewed as to blame for this crisis, he backtracked and called him, "a good man."

With that, McCain was pretty much done for the week. However, as it became clear over the weekend that Obama was seen by a growing number of Americans as more fit to be trusted with the economy, McCain decided to do something to shake things up. With his poll numbers slipping all over the place, and with it becoming increasingly obvious that the economy was likely to dictate the conversation for much if not all of the rest of the campaign season, he got desperate. In a move that will be endlessly compared to his choice of Sarah Palin for the VP slot, this past Wednesday McCain decided to suspend his campaign. Wanting to appear presidential and somehow above politics, he declared that he would grace D.C. with his presence (he has missed more votes this year than every other Senator except for Tim Johnson, who had brain surgery, and is the only Senator to have missed a majority of votes in the 110th Congress with 64%). He also called for a delay of the first Presidential debate, saying that it was time for Democrats and Republicans to come together, put politics aside, and solve this crisis. It was classic Rove: do something completely political while saying the complete opposite. Well, to quote one of my favorite Fark memes, (again) he didn't think his cunning plan all the way through.

Wanting to be the white knight is all well and good, but you better have something to offer. Bringing the media frenzy literally into Congress as they attempted to weave together a delicate agreement probably wouldn't help, as was quickly pointed out by Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Barney Frank. Frank, who is leading the negotiations on the House side, called it, "the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of either football or Marys." Meanwhile Obama pointed out what everyone was thinking by saying that presidents have to be able to deal with multiple things at the same time, and postponing the debate at a time when the American people were looking to both candidates for some direction was a bad idea. At the bipartisan meeting (originally Obama's idea) at the White House yesterday, which apparently was one of the most dramatic in recent history, McCain offered no firm stance on anything. He twiddled his thumbs, remaining silent for long stretches of time while Bush attempted to retain order over the actual participants in the discussion. After the meeting, Henry Paulson literally knelt down in front of Nancy Pelosi, begging her to not withdraw support for the agreement. He should have been kneeling in front of John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, because apparently it is only the House Republicans that refuse to get on board.

As this crisis gets worse, I can only imagine that McCain will follow suit. His erratic behavior on a variety of fronts over the last few weeks, beginning with a week full of ridiculous ads attacking Obama, does not bode well for him. This week especially, Obama has very clearly been the calm, stable leader that Americans are desperate for in these tumultuous times. Political ideologies run a pretty wide range in America, but a trait that everyone looks for is consistency. Tonight in Oxford, Mississippi Barack Obama will show up ready to debate foreign policy and the economy. McCain's campaign has repeatedly said that he will only show up if a deal is reached, something that appears increasingly unlikely thanks to the paralyzing fear of anything smelling of socialism that grips House Republicans. If he holds to his word, McCain will appear to be hiding. Given the fact that he has nothing constructive to add in Washington, this time-out he has given himself will only hurt him. Additionally it will give Obama the chance to have 90 minutes of prime time coverage with millions of people watching, where I suspect he would hold something of a town hall or interview with Jim Lehrer. On the other hand, if McCain shows up with no deal having been reached, everyone will wonder why he made the ridiculous threat in the first place.

McCain's kneejerk reactions and surprising moves do him no long-term good. His choice of Sarah Palin initially brought him a lot of enthusiasm from The Base that he hadn't seen during his entire campaign. His poll numbers were boosted, his crowds got much bigger, and things were looking up. It quickly became clear, however, that Sarah Palin was a flash in the pan. Her novelty and "hockey mom" persona made her the most popular of the four people in the election. Her lack of depth and inexperience quickly caught up with her, and she has now become the least popular of the four. McCain's "maverick" moves (is anyone else getting tired of the word?) are subject to the same law of diminishing returns as any other repeated stunt, especially in such a serious atmosphere. This latest one was even less calculated than the Palin pick (which is really saying something), and it might be his undoing. The wheels have come off the bus, and this late in the game it will be difficult to salvage things.

As it has been this whole time, this is Obama's election to lose.

Friday, September 19, 2008

High Fidelity

Last December, Rolling Stone magazine published an article entitled "The Death of High Fidelity". It describes the various ways in which music in the digital age is tweaked to sound louder at the cost of clarity and subtlety. This is easiest to hear when comparing original tracks with so-called remastered tracks. This kind of interference isn't even as bad as it gets. Does your band have a drummer who can't quite keep time? No problem, Beat Detective will take care of it. Tone-deaf singer? Auto-Tune to the rescue. It's a travesty. Such micromanagement of sound, especially with a keyboard and mouse, kills the soul of music.

From the article:
"With the Beatles or Rolling Stones, they'd be a little sharp or flat, but no one would care — that was rock. Now if someone's out of tune or out of time, they treat it as a mistake and correct it."
— Ted Jensen, mastering engineer

I like to think that my favorite modern bands wouldn't stoop so low, that they have enough talent and pride to only cut authentic songs. I know for a fact that couple of bands I enjoy listening to have used analog-only recording techniques on all or most of their albums, giving them a distinct low-fi sound (The White Stripes and the lesser-known Rust Belt blues rock duo The Black Keys). One of my favorite albums of all time, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is purposefully distorted in a way that makes you want to check your speakers at first, but I later learned to relish. I have trouble believing that much indie music is changed in the way the article describes, and hip-hop is an entirely different department. I imagine (or maybe just hope) that this phenomenon is confined to the kind of stuff you hear repeated endlessly on MTV.

MP3s haven't helped this situation much. Sure, over your average person's computer speakers, or through the low quality headphones that most people have, bitrate and compression probably don't have much of a noticeable detrimental effect. But plug your iPod into a hifi system worth something, or a good pair of cans, and suddenly 128 kb/s doesn't cut it. I use in-ear headphones, ER-6i's from Etymotic. They are a small Illinois-based hearing aid company that made the jump to really outstanding products for music. The ER-6i's are designed with the iPod in mind, which means they boost the bass a little compared to their other offerings, which are aimed at a professional crowd. I can say without a doubt that no other electronic product that I own has brought me so much joy. They passively block out almost all noise, and then reproduce sound in a way that I have only ever heard with a really high quality hifi system. I remember how amazing it was to listen to my favorite music when I first got these - I heard things I had never heard before. The soft shake of a maraca in the background of a song, whispers between the band members, etc.

Alas, the exceptional quality of these headphones came with a major drawback. They are so good at what they do that no detail goes unnoticed. The clicks and pops inherent to mp3s that have been encoded with shoddy software are more apparent. Low-bitrate finally meant something other than diskspace. Buying these headphones turned me on to the substantial audiophile community that exists online. I learned to use software like EAC to extract music from CDs, and LAME to convert those .wav files into mp3s that I am completely unable to distinguish from the originals. I.e. there is a way to do things correctly, we can have our cake and eat it too with enough effort.

To keep music sounding good as we convert to a completely-digital music marketplace, artists, music distributors, and listeners are going to have to take part. Don't mix for the radio, use high bitrates, and invest a little in headphones. Once you have heard your favorite music 'the right way', it's impossible to go back.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Oslo In The Summertime

This song by Of Montreal off their album The Sunlandic Twins captures Copenhagen very well, despite the fact that Oslo and CPH are in different countries. (I take Pitchfork reviews with a hefty dose of salt, and you should too.)

Oslo in the summertime, nobody can fall asleep
I’m staring out the window from my bed
At 4 a.m. the sun is up
Look, the sky is peppered with seabirds and with crows all cackling
Hva Hva Hva (x)

Up in tre ten Heimdalsgate
Me and Nina making fun of footballers in Rudolph Neilson Plass
I practice my Norwegian on poor befuddled waitresses
Who shake their heads completely at a loss
Oslo in the summertime, the streets are strangely quiet ’cause
Everyone’s away on holiday
Hva Hva Hva (x)

Oslo in the summertime Pakistani children play locked inside of the courtyard all day
Pretty people everywhere sun-lamp tans and flaxen hair
Just tell the American not to stare
Hva Hva Hva(x)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Sarah Palin Enigma

For the life of me, I can't understand what John McCain was thinking when he chose an obscure, inexperienced governor/moose-hunter to be his running mate. Sure, the unexpectedness of the decision (along with her hardliner views) drove The Base into a frothy frenzy, but how is he going to translate that initial excitement among his party's fringe into a path to victory? It almost seems to me that his choice demonstrates his tacit agreement with Obama's regrettable (but not untrue) statement about some people in rural communities from a closed-door fundraiser in San Fransisco in April:
"So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
In McCain's case, he didn't get bitter, he got desperate. Thanks to the 5% of him that doesn't kowtow to Bush, The Base wasn't very excited about the man, despite his war record (oh, haven't you heard? Rumor has it he was a POW). So McCain picked an unknown, gun-totin', Bible-thumpin', "supermom" to inject some life into his faltering campaign. And since we only have the last week and a half to go on, it appears to be working. Since his announcement, he has been pulling bigger and louder crowds than ever before.

Will it last? Don't count on it. As relatable as Palin appears to be to the average Joe, as much as she passes the "beer test", she has more skeletons in her closet than most politicians accumulate over their entire careers, all while lacking any kind of depth to prop her up. And she's only 44! The McCain campaign won't let the press near her, and she has yet to say anything new since her acceptance speech, which was penned by one of Bush's speechwriters (change! change! change!). And again, she's only been under national media-sized scrutiny for a week and a half (two weeks if you count the McCain campaign vetting process). From Troopergate to earmarks, from her position on the "Bridge to Nowhere" to the family values "whaaaaa?" of her 17 year old daughter's pregnancy (her boyfriend Levi has yet to respond to my Facebook friend request), there's simply a lot about Sarah that no amount of lipstick can cover up.

As the monsoon of lies and character attacks emanating from the McCain campaign pile up, Obama needs to keep focused. With Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, asserting last week that, "This election is not about issues," it is clear that Obama stubborn insistence on talking about the things that actually affect the lives of Americans has hit a nerve. McCain knows he can't win on issues, not when the president with whom he agrees with on nearly everything has some of the lowest approval ratings since approval ratings were invented. It's true, Obama has a tougher challenge ahead of him than most Democrats (including myself) foresaw months ago. He has to simultaneously hammer home the core ideas and policy specifics that have taken him this far while delicately fending off the smear from the right. John Kerry's swiftboating was so successful partially because John Kerry didn't acknowledge the attacks fast enough, which made sense at the time given how ridiculous the claims were, but hindsight is 20-20. Obama needs to be smart and strong at the same time, letting the BS roll off his back but not ignoring it. Based on his reponse today to the "lipstick on a pig" non-story, it looks like he knows to handle these things like a pro.

To say the least, it's going to be an interesting couple of months.

Matt Damon nailed it. He's not exactly my favorite political commentator, but when you're right you're right:

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Here goes nothing

I have always been attracted to the idea of keeping a blog, but never pulled the trigger until now. I have had more free time lately than I am used to, and given all the interesting things going on in the world at the moment I thought I'd go for it. I hope to improve my writing, meet people with similar (or radically different!) views on the world, learn some things, and have a bit of fun.

Some background-
I am a third-year undergrad studying biology (specifically, genetics) at UC Berkeley. I, like many bio majors at Cal, consider myself to be pre-med. I will begin applying to medical schools in the summer of 2009. I participate in two very different research endeavors at Cal, one within my major and one completely outside of it. As a student that focuses on genetics, I work in a lab on campus that studies a very particular kind of inheritance called paramutation, using maize (corn) as a model organism. My other research is in the Astronomy Department on campus. I work with a robotic telescope called KAIT (check out the link on the right) that scans the sky every night looking for evidence of exploding stars called supernovae in other galaxies. Both of these research positions are on a volunteer basis, and I do them because the subjects interest me.

Right now I am one month into a semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. As much as it kills me to be out of the country during the meat of the general election, the internet keeps me pretty well on top of everything going on. I plan on posting all about this wonderful city sometime in the future, but for now I am loving every minute. Last night I saw The Faint at Vega, a great venue with a lot of character. A few weeks ago I saw The Flaming Lips at Tivoli, an amusement park that serves beer.

As you may have guessed, I love politics. This upcoming election will be the first general election where I am old enough to vote, and I have been keeping myself on top of the news every day for months now. Some of my favorite places to stay informed are listed on the right. This must be one of the most interesting match-ups in recent American history, and I am really glad I get to be involved. The last eight years have been really tough to get through; I have watched my country lose its footing and its standing in the world. I couldn't be more excited about Barack Obama, and when he gets elected on November 4th, I will literally dance in the streets. I am planning on being in D.C. for the inauguration, to witness the culmination of a movement I have been following since St. Patrick's Day 2007 when I saw Obama speak in Oakland.

That's enough for now, until next time.