SOTU 2010

The speech went on, and on, and on. If you played a drinking game you died of blood alcohol poisoning by the 45-minute mark. It was… a State of the Union speech. Our Union has a State: Screwed. We are screwed.

It did have a few flashing moments of Obama Rhetorical Smackdown amidst all the droning blah. I was shocked at the occasional ad-libbed jokes and the scathing sarcasm pointed at both the Republicans and the Democrats. The best came at the very end:

“Remember this – I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.”

“Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation.”

… and the chambers of the House and Senate, both parties, were silent.

The text of the entire speech is here. It has good points. Obama is one hell of a writer and he surrounds himself with fantastic writers. I will always give him that.

I felt bad for the Virginia Govenor Guy who followed afterward who was Inoffensively Virginian. The SotU was so long no one was around when he got his 15 minute shot and his remarks so bland all I remember is “mumblemumblemumble.” Who picks who goes after Obama? Is it a shortest straw deal? “OH you picked the shortest straw YOU get to try to go after that dude. Good luck with that!”

Hat with Braids!

Katie in Hat
Katie in Hat

I made this hat out of a pattern from One Skein Wonders by Judith Durant. The book is a little hit or miss but some of the patterns are fun. It took me two tries to get this hat right and I had to adjust my approach but it came out looking like the picture but in black instead of purple. It has exciting features!

* It is hat shaped, hat sized, and fits on heads that may choose to wear hats.
* It has a 4 inch band of seed stitching along the headband for a neat look.
* Earflaps!
* Two long braids, one from each earflap.
* Special flower bling!

My Special Model looks great in the hat. She especially likes that she can smack me with the braids. Knitting a hat is slower than crochet so the hat took about 8-ish hours to make and about 2/3rds of 1 skein of Lion’s Brand Lion Wool, a yarn that is extremely OK.

This has emboldened me to try a single sock. GASP!

Meanwhile, I heard something about some dude trying to give a big speech after the Apple Tablet announcement this afternoon. When are people going to learn that one cannot attempt to follow Steve Jobs? New Apple Bling? State of the Union. Apple Bling. State of the Union. Easy call.

Anyone have a SotU drinking game?

Obama’s Communications Problem

I sympathized with President Obama. It’s difficult to get very complex, technical subjects across to a huge mass of people in a soundbyte. I had this precise problem yesterday. I have run into a roadblock of mammoth proportions and sent out an email describing the issue in some detail and got… total silence. I paged people wondering what was going on, since it’s a pretty bad showstopper, and the answer was:

“It sounds bad but I don’t understand!”

The meeting request got more traction when I simplified down from a lengthy, technically complex issue down to: “What you want will not work. Networking BAD. Here are the options. Discuss.”

President Obama needs to learn how to take the issue from A to “system is broke.” One of his many virtues I do deeply respect and like about him is his ability to hoover up unbelievable amounts of information, synthesize it all, and spit out a decision. What he cannot do is explain the hows and the whys without the technical jargon. Either he must learn this skill fast or he must hire people (like Plouffe) who are gifted in helping him put those words in his mouth. I know he’s a brilliant writer — Dreams of My Father is a fantastic read — but that doesn’t mean he can explain complex subjects on the fly to people who, for example, believe somehow that the world of Avatar is real and need antidepressants to get over the end of the movie. He has that engineer brain; the engineer brain loves details. Most people don’t live in engineer space, and the engineer-human being communications gap is vast.

The stimulus was too small but a good idea. Some to a huge tax cut. Some to keep teachers employed. Like sending your kids to public school? Stimulus. Enjoy having cops in your neighborhood? Stimulus. It kept states from completely going under and turning off the lights. Because the number is so vast and the information was communicated poorly it looks like it was “wasted.” Not true. But the communication mechanism has been terrible.

The Health Care Reform Bill sounds like a horrible Frankenstein mishmash of what is or what isn’t. No one understands what it is or why anyone would want it. People are full of apprehension on the unknown. How hard would it be to say: “You know those rising costs of your employer-based health insurance? You see how much it has risen year over year? Maybe you don’t realize it but it is costing much more. In a few years, you won’t receive your insurance benefit any more. Or if you do get it, you won’t be able to afford it. Your kids won’t be able to go to the doctor when they get sick. Better hope no one gets an ear infection!” But instead it is nothing but sausage making on display.

Going into the State of the Union I want one thing for 2010: the White House to learn how to communicate with the American public. Even smart people need clarity from time to time. Learn to communicate the hows and the whys clearly, concisely, and simply. Learn fast because time is always running out.

Dragon Age: Origins

Warning: Contains mild spoilers!

In the end, he was the King of Ferelden and I was a city elf from the Denerim slums and it couldn’t work out. Wynne spent half the war yelling at the two of us that it could never work, and even pulled me aside at one point to spell this out in painful detail. It was the great Romance of the War and it died when he became King.

I have played nearly every major console or computer RPG since Bard’s Tale so I feel like a bit of an authority on these sort of things. Dragon Age: Origins reminds me strongly of, strangely enough, Ultima VII: the Black Gate. It was the not the first game with strong moral ambiguity — that crown goes to Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. It was a game more about the strong characters and a decentralized plot than a linear plotline and pretty scenes. U7 was about murder and the evil in the people you thought good and choices and fewer rails. Other games have tried to emulate the style; DA:O nailed it.

I have to admit: I loved DA:O and not because it had a special storyline. It had wonderful worldbuiding but blah blah, giant evil, blah blah, must save the world, blah blah, a bunch of quests. Seen it, done it, it took two tries to kill the Foozle in the end. The strength and brilliance of Dragon Age: Origins is two pronged: the characters and the illusion of control.

(I contend the award for strongest story on a pure console game goes to FFX but that is a debatable point.)

JRPGs bother me because the cut scenes have gotten longer, the choices fewer, and the save points — save points! In 2010! Save points are a criminal offense! — have become scarce. It stopped being a game and turned into a carnival ride. I nearly threw Star Ocean IV across the room when the cutscenes made it to 20 minutes long. It’s called “Cut Scene Hell” for a reason. When SOIV froze I sent it back to Gamefly. I was done 10 hours in. These games feel like 50 hour long interactive movies where the character makes no more choice in the story. They are boring.

Dragon Age: Origins forces the player to make actual choices. Even if the choices are ultimately illusory and the Foozle still must be fought, most (but not all) of the major decisions are through dialogue trees and the result of player choice. The player can choose not to get Sten’s sword. The player can put this dwarf or that dwarf on the Throne. It doesn’t make much difference in the end but it sure seems that way. Returning control to the player is key: the player feels they have a stake in the outcome of the game. Emotional investment keeps players returning over and over. “But I could play evil! I can make this awful choice to see what happens! Awesome!” Returning control back to the player is the core of a great game — like Fallout 3, like Mass Effect (also BioWare). All hail the return of the player actually playing a game!

The true strength is on the characters. The party members have beautifully drawn personalities. They interact with one another. They talk. They argue. They squabble in your party — Wynne explaining where babies come from to Alistair had to be the best exchange in the entire game. The game supports interesting choices and party dynamics between the player and the characters and between the multiple characters. The choices in party composition and party dynamics almost feels real, not just a bunch of scripted events by trigger points. Of course, they are scripted events by trigger points, but the tricky part is to smooth that over and make the characters feel spontaneous and real. JRPG characters feel like caricatures in pretty clothes — Dragon Age: Origins characters felt like people. You find yourself doing the wacky sidequest not because the sidequest is interesting but because you can take Zevran and Oghren in your party and who knows what wackiness might come from the two of them together.

I readily admit: I cannot remember the names of the main characters in most of the JRPGs I have played. They just fade. They were called what again? But I will certainly remember Alistair and Morrigan for a long time.

To sum up: incredibly detailed world, awesome characters, short on the cutscenes, lots of serious meat, and raising the bar for gameplay. It was awesome. Also, in the end game, you get to do what you always wanted to do in every CRPG ever: you get to kick the Bad Guy in the junk. How great is that?

Citizens United

Who says the Right doesn’t dabble in a little Judicial Activism once in a while?

Citizens United vs. the FEC was a little, very narrow case about the right to broadcast a political documentary about Hillary Clinton on PPV right before a major set of primaries. While granted the Government’s argument against Citizens United was horrible, somehow the airing of that little documentary got turned into “If we do not allow the Corporations to be treated like people and have no independent spending limits on campaigns the government will clamp down on political bloggers and take away their Freedom of Speech!”

Having read the opinion (thank you SCOTUS Blog) I am left with a deep sense of buh. The judicial overreach is breathtaking. The logic eludes me. The Supreme Court did not overturn McCain-Feingold, but the Tillman Act of 1907 and opened the floodgates to flat out shameless purchasing of politicians by Corporations. For a SCOTUS that claims to be Constitutional Constructionists who Dislike Judicial Overreach, overturning a full century of precident gives way to the Big Lie. They are Constitutional Constructionists when it comes to poor people but highly Activist when it comes to rich people. The Roberts Court has never met a Corporation it didn’t want to vigorously hump.

Why bother with lobbyists when the Corporations can simply outright purchase a few politicians shamelessly? If Goldman Sachs, looking at its enormous profits for the year, decides they want to own the NY Attorney General, what stops them from writing a check for a couple of hundred million, using it to “inform” the voters what they want in a slick marketing campaign, taking the tax writeoff for the Capital Expediture, and then getting the NY Attorney General Brought To You By Goldman Sachs? In a way it’s cheaper than the current system of lobbyists and bribes but in the Great Recession do we want to put our Good Lobbyists out of work? Think of the unemployment numbers!

This is being spun as “good for the Middle Class” but I don’t see it unless it is the Elite Rich People Who Can Now Inform The Poor Dumb People of the United States What Is Good For Them. Perhaps the Smart Elite People can inform me who is a Dumb Engineer in the Upper Middle Class why this is Good for Me and I will say, “Thank you here is my credit card can I have another?” I don’t see how this is good for anyone except a handful of CEOs. The clock is being turned back to around 1870.

“And you know,” I say as I scratch a spot behind my ear, “this all comes at a time when the People love and adore Big Corporations like GM and AIG and General Electric and the Banks… as our Saviors and Masters…”

Obama promised a “forceful response” but he knows he has nothing — except maybe sign interesting and creative disclosure laws, which, sadly, will never happen because the Democrats in Congress are whiny, spineless, ball-less wimps who have their own Corporate Sponsors. If I was in Congress I would be writing the legistlation for Endorsement Laws. Sports stars do endorsements and disclose their sponsors. So should politicians. They should look like NASCAR:

“Mitch McConnell — brought to you by the fine people at ExxonMobil.”

Every time a politician on screen or in print they must disclose their corporate master. Corporate money paid for them. Corporations owned them. They should disclose their employer because it sure isn’t the People of the United States of America. Tell us the true owner!

But it won’t happen because the Democrats have nothing between the legs.

Anyway, in the wake of Citizens United, I have decided to form an LLC to purchase local politicians. Since I can now dump unlimited independent money into an election and say anything I want under the moniker of Free Speech I have decided to buy the Howard County Comptroller and claim the Republican in the race eats babies. Who is with me? Everyone is getting a politician this year — it is the Must Have Purchase of 2010!

The Notional Filibuster

My favorite headline from yesterday was: “Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate.”

I hate the notional filibuster.

The filibuster is not part of the Constitution. It’s a sneaky part of the parliamentary ruleset of the Senate originally argued against by, of all people, Aaron Burr*. It showed up in 1806 as a sort of nebulous theoretical threat and then sprang into being, first in 1837, and then in full force by Henry Clay** in the argument over the Second Bank of the United States*** but he was forced to sit down and shut up so all was well. It was sort of a threat to kill off debate that was rarely enacted because it made the enactor look like a petulant child. And so until Woodrow Wilson the filibuster was a rule that people thought very hard about and never used.

Then during Wilson we added cloture votes to end a filibuster because otherwise if one actually started it would drag on for weeks. And cloture was sort of stupid, but it allowed limiting the filibuster unless people wanted to filibuster — which, during the Civil Rights Movement, they rather did. But even then, old white men had to stand up before the Senate and read out of the phone book for hours on end and press for a cloture vote of 3/5ths of the Senate to move on to voting. Everything came to a halt. It was fun!

Now we have this ridiculousness where old white men don’t even have read out of the phone book. No long nights of standing there being stupid, no spectacles on TV, no anything. The opposition party can just yell “filibuster!” on literally anything and everything and it doesn’t hold up the business of the Senate. It randomly kills off whatever the business on the table was — and it makes no difference what the business was. Now we all hold hands and pretend someone is reading out of the phone book while everyone goes to lunch.

I am all for the filibuster in theory. If someone, personally, desperately wants to stop a bill and go down in history as a big Hater like Strom Thurmond vs. Civil Rights, then they should be allowed. I will stand aside and Vanna White for them. I am all for people making a big, stupid spectacle of themselves. But this nonsense has no consequence and no accountability. A Minority Party can back door their way around the Constitution and block all forward movement on legislation — and in the Great Law of Unintended Consequences, this means both parties can pull this trick, forever, unless they hold a Supermajority which is, indeed, quite rare. The minority of the country can hold the majority of the country hostage nullifying the meaning of elections and taking away the Will of the People.

This has got to stop. It is killing US Democracy. Elections have consequences and the consequence should not be “nyahh.”

It matters little if you are left or right or up or down, if you’re fascist or commie. Your will, your tribe, will now forever be thwarted by the other guy who will sit in the corner, pout, and say ‘Don’t wanna’ until they get what they want which will, of course, be nothing. There’s a reason why the US system is a Winner Take All system. Cobbling together the will of a majority if the different cliques and groups and viewpoints is hard. And once you get there, with a sustainable majority, then you are representing millions of people who live in millions of niches but enough of them have gotten together to agree on a set of things and there’s the dudes, theoretically representing that opinion. A collection of those who do not agree with the rest of the program can now hold the country hostage in perpetuity. There is no escape.

And the hard-core Fox News watching GOP who are cheering this on? It will be swapped soon enough and then the Democrats will sit in the corner and cross their arms and go ‘Don’t wanna’ and oh there shall be upon the land the Whining.

Also, meanwhile, in lieu of the new SCOTUS announcement where corporations can dump unlimited cash into campaigns, Goldman Sachs has announced its bid for the Presidency. Why bother with the middleman?

* That right there is something to recommend either for the filibuster or against it, depending on how you feel about Aaron Burr.

** And now you have to ask yourself how you feel about Henry Clay.  Henry Clay was a punk.

*** Ha ha ha. Filibusters. Over big banks killing economy, driving huge unemployment and taking huge bonuses. Ha ha ha. Mrfl. Sniff. My heart, it gladdens.  It’s like nothing changes.

And so.

I don’t have much to say about Coakley vs. Brown. She was a pathetically terrible candidate who refused to campaign and spelled “Massachusetts” wrong in a campaign ad and referred to Curt Shilling as a “Yankees fan.” He was a good looking white man with a pickup truck. The Congressional Democrats have shown an incredible lack of balls dealing with the banks and therein lies the Great Problem. People are pissed off. They are sick of multi-gazillion dollar bonuses in a time of 20% actual unemployment. Why haven’t the banks been ripped to shreds? Why do they keep getting cash? Why does AIG keep getting pumped full of money? Screw you, boring lady who will not shake hands and will give no answers.

Not much to see here. Just move on.

What concerns me is that despite still having the largest Congressional majority since 1923 the Democrats may be completely unable to govern. They have an 18 vote majority plus or minus a Lieberman. I’m not thinking about the Health Care Reform bill which may now be dead. I’m thinking of the actual Great Recession that is going on for everyone but people in high tech or medicine and stuff that really ought to be done. I’m thinking about any kind of banking reform at all, no matter how tepid and pathetic. I share the frustration with the Massachusetts voters. Coakley was an entitled weenie who didn’t seem to care and Brown pretended to be “fresh” and “new.” People want anyone, anyone at all, with some sort of answer. They want a MAN who is a FIGHTER who will STAND UP for REAL AMERICANS against the other REAL AMERICANS who are SCREWING THEM. Thus and so on and so forth.

What happens now? Despite the Democrats having this ridiculous overwhelming advantage in both Houses of Congress, the GOP will filibuster everything to kill everything off. Military spending bills, the budget, judges, Congressional appointments, you name it. They will bring the Federal Government to a screaming halt. They will do it with great glee. I say, make them do it on C-SPAN. I want to watch old white men reading out of the phone book at 3am. It will give me something to do when I cannot sleep. It’s a great piece of theater.

But the Democrats, who seem married to this vague notion of bipartisanship when the other side refuses to play any game, won’t even call them on the carpet on that and make them go through with their Parlimentary procedure. No, the Democrats will just fold up their tent and go into their corners and cry whenever the GOP whispers “filibuster.”

Someone fetch the tissues.

Maybe this will be the wakeup call to the Democrats to grow a spine but then maybe catalytic converters, fully filtered, will start growing on trees.

President Obama, meet me at camera three.

What the hell are you doing? You are an urban black dude. These are old white Southern guys. They aren’t going to give you an inch. You can win 2012 without the South so screw them. You have a ridiculous advantage.  Why are you playing nice? No one is afraid of you, man. There’s no fear except this weird vague fear from the Far Right of “the mysterious scary Other who is going to do mysterious scary things to us because we are crazy tinfoilhatters.” Until there is political fear, you are toast, man. With jam.

Do something. Because otherwise, you are not just toast. You’re burnt toast.

Girl Genius

Hang head in shame.

I finished reading the back archives of Girl Genius. All 1131 strips. I consumed them like some sort of horribly junky needing another fix and hitting that NEXT button over and over. Even worse, I love the Jagermonsters because any plan where you lose your hat is a bad plan.

I feel like I have joined some sort of evil cult. But there it is now, in my feedreader with the rest of my weekly comic strips, 3 times a week.

Wombat of Shame

Wombat of Shame fade and I have the same knitting book: “The World of Knitted Toys” by Kath Dalmeny. I have made a large number of Amigurumis and they are super cute but the crocheted creatures always have some mild coherence problems. No matter how tight I pull the magic circle closed, I can always see white dots of polyfill through the tips of legs and the top of the head. The weave isn’t tight enough and polyfill shows through. We decided to do a knit-along to try something different with a new technique and fade picked the wombat. It’s easy! It’s straight forward! It’s adorable! What could possibly go wrong?

My wombat didn’t come out. I knew something wasn’t quite right when I made his body but I pushed on through. He is full of shame. He is a wombat. Of shame. I have no idea what went wrong. The pattern was mostly making squares! And yet here he is. Not looking anything like a wombat. At all. I looked him up on Ravelry (where you can friend me as multiplexer…) and it looks like the fault is the pattern, not our inability to knit. All the wombats from that pattern are full of sadness and shame. Shame wombats. Sad.

We’ll make something else but I heard something about a request for a Jayne hat. Knitpicks Wool of the Andes yarn totally has the right colors and I found a pattern…

I have learned lessons from the Wombat of Shame!

Pros:

– The weave on a knitted toy is tighter than an ami so no polyfill shows through.
– The toy is overall softer, squishier and more toy-like.
– Makes a much larger toy with far less yarn.

Cons:

– Knitting has fewer weapons for sculpting than crotchet so getting a nice rounded ear requires more elaborate measures and careful counting.
– About 5x longer to make a knitted toy than a croteched toy.
– The increases/decreases much more difficult than the same crotched.

Overall it was a pretty positive experience. I’ll totally make another one. Hopefully it won’t also be full of SHAME.