Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why I am voting for Obama

[Obviously, this is my own views, not vetted or approaved by any other person or organization or company]

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

- Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons, 11 November 1947

I've had the opportunity over the past few weeks to have a number of conversations with individuals about the U.S. Presidential election. And the fact that I was in Afghanistan does come up. With the proportionately small portion of the population associated with the military it is a different background. One of the most rewarding conversations was with one woman in the North Hills whose son has enlisted, and is going to start after high school graduation.

I first started paying attention to Obama after his "More Perfect Union" speech, given when he was being attacked because of the views held by his former Pastor. It was striking because instead of attacking back, or complaining about the unfairness of being attacked for the beliefs and views of another (beliefs that he disagrees with), he instead talked about what America was and could be. That America could be more like the 'City on a Hill' for the world to see and aspire too. And it is the 'last best hope for the world.' It was so different then the reflexive flag waiving or the criticize America that one usually hears that it is striking in its difference. And certainly to be dispised by the extremes on both right and left.

The areas I write about are National Security and ability to handle crisis.

1. National Security. The framework is the four elements of National Power: diplomatic, information, military, economic, referred to as DIME (

Diplomatic: A nations ability to rally allies, engage opponents, and persuade neutral governments. Obama has repeated stated that a forefront of his national security policy is to work with U.S. partners to further our shared interests and that he will engage potential opponents. McCain states as a virtue that he will ignore certain allies (will not commit to meeting with Spain??!!) and views engaging potential opponents as venal. McCain will instead form new groupings such as a 'League of Democracies' to deal with international issues as opposed to existing institutions such as NATO. The obvious question, what makes McCain think that NATO allies and the usual other allies (Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea) are not an appropriate start (because NATO includes countries like Spain and France???)

Information: The ability to gather information, and communicate with foreign audiences. Obama would engage foreign populations directly to pursuade them and to undercut anti-U.S. propaganda. To amplify this point, look at a Obama-Biden rally vs. a McCain-Palin rally, and look at it from a point of someone in Asia or Africa or South America or the Middle East. Especially when Palin talks about representing 'Real Americans'. (Many in New York City think when hearing this 'We were American enough for Al-Queda, why are we not American enough for Republicans?') Obama's ability to do this is exemplified by Rashid Khalidi, a Palistinian advocate.
Khalidi added that he strongly disagrees with Obama's current views on Israel, and often disagreed with him during their talks over the years. But he added that Obama, because of his unusual background, with family ties to Kenya and Indonesia, would be more understanding of the Palestinian experience than typical American politicians.

It is that ability to communicate a disagreement with someone outside of the U.S., and still being respected as someone of principle and someone who can be worked with, is vital for a President of a country that is cast as "the last, best hope of the Earth, we just have to show the world why that is so."

Military: Ability to apply military power. This goes beyond any shooting, as the U.S. military response to the tsunamis in Southeast Asia, the Philippines and disasters in Pakistan show. Both candidates will strengthen the military. Obama speaks also to bringing in the rest of the government (i.e. diplomacy and foreign aid) engaged on the ground in major areas instead of just the military. McCain does not speak to non-military elements.

Economic: Understanding how economic issues bear on foreign policy. Neither candidate speaks to this directly, as discussion of economic issues in the campaign focuses on domestic issues, but Obama speaks to applying the entire tools of the U.S. government to national security/foreign relations. McCain does not.

2. Crisis Management. The second area is the ability to handle crisis. When the U.S. has a new President and strong opponents, the new President will be tested. To say otherwise is naivete. The only question is how this crisis will be handled. This campaign had the added highlight of a major economic crisis, the potential fall of the U.S. financial system during the campaign.

From reports, we know of the following actions by Sen. Obama
i. Discussed the strategy with House Democratic leaders for finance and economics.
ii. As Democratic leaders determined their goals (that the rescue plan provide the opportunity for taxpayers to recoup their investments), Sen. Obama began speaking in public on the need for a rescue and the Democratic desire that the rescue be made as investments so the investment can be recovered.
iii. Liberal democrats in congress who initially stated their willingness to let the U.S. financial system collapse report receiving calls from Sen Obama persuading them that the modified rescue plan was worth voting for.
iv. The use of government purchase of equity was used by European governments as the cornerstone of their rescue, based on past experience by some European countries. As provision had been made in the U.S. rescue plan for potential purchase of equity in financial institutions, the U.S. Treasury took part in the plan.

From reports, we know the following actions by Sen. McCain
i. Suspended campaign and went to Washington DC to work on the House negotiations, which collapsed that day. There are no reports of significant inputs to the debate, nor Sen. McCain's understanding or support.

Obama had made the comment that a "President will have to deal with more than one crisis at a time. His steadiness, taking the time to understand the issues, and ability to communicate the issues to other lawmakers and to the public are the mark of a leader. There is no evidence for results for McCain.

Colin Powell stated in his endorsement of Obama
And he displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor. I think that he has a, a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well.

And these are the traits that I would look for in handling crisis.

There are other reasons for choosing Sen. Obama over Sen. McCain. Colin Powell discusses a number of them in his endorsement ((Transcript)). Christopher Buckley, onetime columnist with the conservative National Review does the same.One could go to the two candidate websites for information on what they believe.

Colin Powell Endorsement (Transcript) (12:28)

Obama Closing Arguments, Norfolk, VA October 28, 2008 (35:47)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

McCain Guarantees Victory

A tale of two campaigns

McCain Guarantees Victory
Sunday October 26, 2008

“I guarantee you that two weeks from now, you will see this has been a very close race, and I believe that I'm going to win it,” McCain told interim "Meet" moderator Tom Brokaw. “We're going to do well in this campaign, my friend. We're going to win it, and it's going to be tight, and we're going to be up late.”

From the Obama Campaign

Don't Let Up

A European Concert

[Originally at Pittsburgh Symphony Blogs]

This weekend my wife and I went to the Sunday concert and decided to have lunch before the concert on the Strip. And the most obvious thing about a Sunday afternoon on the Strip, is there is a Steelers home game! All around there was Black and Gold. On the sidewalks, in the stores, in the coffeehouse and in the restaurants, waiting for the late afternoon game against the Giants. It was a lot of fun to see the Strip alive on a weekend.

We wanted to try something new so we went to the Chicken Latino (ok, our first four choices were packed with hungry Steeler fans.) And something completely different, we had their Peruvian rotisserie style chicken while getting Clover-brewed coffee from 21st Street Coffee across the street. We knew we were in for a treat when we were looking at the selection of tabasco sauces on the counter and the guy there asked "do you like things spicy" as he reached back for "This is our hot sauce. You'll like it." And we did! A different variety of seasonings in the chicken, and the sauce was wonderful to our jaded taste buds (I'm Thai. We have standards before admiting something is spicy.) And I've long learned to appreciate Clover brewed coffee at 21st Street, even the new ones as they have switched their selection of beans (I liked the Ethiopean coffee I had.)

The soloist for the concert was Arabella Steinbacher. Unlike many of the soloists, she was not from an American school, but from Europe, and I was curious if it made a difference.

The piece was Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch. During the concert pre-talk, we learned that Bruch never actually went to Scotland, the piece was composed after researching Scottish folk songs in the library. Being a researcher by trade who values on the ground fact checking, I had to groan at that.

The piece lended itself to very different interaction between soloist and orchestra then the soloists we have had before. While we have gotten used to virtuosi impressing us with their talent and emotion in cadenza, Ms. Steinbacher's strength was the balance with the orchestra. Sometimes the soloist was a secondary theme, weaving with the piece, sometimes the solo rose above the rest of the orchestra holding the audience at attention with the melodies. While I appreciate the raw talent that the soloists who play with the PSO have, I love listening to artists work together. As conductor, Janowski did a wonderful job working with that.

A different soloist, and a day for discovery in the Strip and at the Symphony.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

How to Solve It by G Polya

How to Solve It How to Solve It by George PĆ³lya

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a book I wish I had read at the beginning of grad school. How to Solve It is not as much about methods of solving mathematical problems as it is about various approaches to solving problems in general. The method he uses to teach problem solving is to apply the approaches to problems of geometry. This is actually in line with the ancient greek (Aristotle) opinion that the young should learn geometry first, then when they have learned logic and how to prove things with physical reality, then they can go on to things such as philosophy or politics.

The first part of How to Solve It are essays on how to teach and how to approach problems in general. His view on teaching is leading a student to think. Giving the student problems where the answer is not the goal, but the experience in seeing a new type of problem. This is contrasted with viewing teaching as a series of cookbook or algorithms to be taught. It also means the role of the teacher is to provide the problem, then give only what is necessary to nudge the student in the direction needed for the student to discover the method of solution. And presumably, to be able to develop methods for other problems the student has not seen before. Very much like what graduate school is supposed to be.

The bulk of How to Solve It describes a wide range of approaches to problem solving. Some are familiar to a variety of disciplines such as business, crisis management, or general analysis. Some are more familiar to those in sciences or mathematics. But the illustrations are understandable to anyone past a first or second year of high school mathematics, making them much more understandable then, say, a graduate course in real analysis.

If I was in the position of working with first year graduate students in anything, I would recommend this book as something to read before they arrive on campus. It provides a good first exposure to many problem-solving approaches and an exhortation on how to think logically and analytically, that will suit them well when they are faced with the complicated subject matter that is ahead of them.

View all my reviews.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Operation Enduring Freedom grave

Colin Powell in his endorsement of Senator Barack Obama for President

"Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim. He's a Christian, has always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?' The answer's 'No, that's not America.'"

From the New Yorker

Chamber music at Chatham

[Original is at the Pittsburgh Symphony Blogs]
Yeeha Chiu, Piano
*Dennis O'Boyle, Violin
*Michael Lipman, Cello
Daphne Alderson, Contralto
*Paul Silver, Viola
*Laura Motchalov, Violin
Pauline Rovkah, Piano

* PSO Musician

When I lived in Shadyside, one of the benefits of living there was the close proximity of Chatham College for chamber concerts and talks. Smaller then Pitt and CMU, it made for a more intimate setting. In particular, I like chamber music there. I like the interplay between the players that you don't get as much in a symphony, and everytime I go to Chatham, I engage in conversation with others in the audience during intermission and afterwards.

Last Sunday, several members of the PSO along with notable local pianists and a contralto, had a chamber concert as part of Chatham's Chamber Music series. Among the seven artists, there were five distinct groupings with music by Haydn, Brahms and Schumann.

Why do I enjoy chamber music? It is the interaction between the players. There is the stimulation of trying to follow the motif passed among the parts And in the larger groupings, hearing the various parts weave amongst each other. In Haydn Trio in C Major for Violin, Cello and Piano (Hob XV No. 21) it is between the piano and the strings. For Schumann Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44, at times four distinct lines are weaving in and out of each other simultaneously, in addition to each of the five parts taking their turns with the motif in different styles.

And in the end, as we broke for the reception, Pauline (Director, Piano program Chatham) made a special announcement. It was her father-in-law's birthday! And 200+ music lovers sang Happy Birthday along with Piano and Violin. A picture of a community enjoying each other.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Good Night and Good Luck

IMDB (2005)

No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices. (1954)

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. (1954 on See it Now)

Good Night and Good Luck was about Ed Murrow, a broadcast journalist with CBS in the 1940s and 1950s. His fame was based on his broadcasts from England during the London Blitz, which is where his catch phrases "This . . . is London" and "Good night, and Good luck" originated. This movie describes his conflict with Senator Eugene McCarthy during the Red Scare.

What we see is a newsroom as you would hope for it, in the early days of broadcast television. Producers getting stories, and trying to determine what is known and not known, and to pitch a story, as hard as the facts may warrant it, but no more.

And you see the pressure that was put on the journalists for doing this. Senator McCarthy used intimidation, secret evidence, guilt by association, and near blackmail to further his cause. And in it all, there was almost no proof.

Ed Murrow also pushes the point, that Senator McCarthy's primary tactic was to paint people as guilty by association. The mere association with people who were communists was enough to be a target of McCarthy. But unless you live a sheltered life, outside the streams of human suffering and existence, and outside the stream of history, you cannot avoid associating with people with unsavory pasts. Murrow responds to McCarthy's accusation that a socialist author dedicated a book to Murrow by stating that author belonged to a time and tradition that allowed people to be friends with people they disagreed with. And the book dedication that McCarthy gave as evidence of communist leanings acknowledged that Murrow disagreed with the author on principles. McCarthy's argument was pure innuendo, with no substance beneath the surface.

The movie does have a 'just the facts' aura to it. Events and decisions are made bluntly, purely business. There is rejoicing after the job is done, but the actual work is deliberate. The many subplots makes the whole thing almost inhuman. Except for the McCarthy emphasis on character assassination. As the CBS crew reports it, and is a target of it, you see the cost of character assassination in careers ruined, lives ruined, people driven to suicide. All of which steels the CBS crew in their determination to resist the pressure and present the news in an manner beyond reproach.

A very good movie. The antagonist use of character assassination by association is something that has been used many times throughout history, and Good Night and Good Luck does a good job of showing the cost, foreshadowing what kind of world would result if it left unchecked, and showing what resistance to that kind of world looks like.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

PSO: Something new, something old

Saturday night's concert had a treat. Two modern pieces, including a world premier written by Theofanidis with the performer the piece was written for as the soloist. And the Rachmaninoff symphony to provide more traditional meat in the second half of the program.

One of the things I like about going to the Pittsburgh Symphony is the composer in residence program. As much as I enjoy concert music, I am not versed enough to be looking for new music myself. And frankly, the sheer volume of new material is daunting to wade through and separate the wheat from the chaff. Classics are called "classics" for a reason, they have been filtered through the ages and on several different generations of review, they have a certain level of quality. The newer concert works do not have that, and for someone like me who sometimes enjoys the modern works, it is nice to have a filter. In the literary arts this is an editor. But for concert music, I take advantage of having the Pittsburgh Symphony bringing in composers and giving them space to work.

I've never seen (or heard) Nixon in China. But listening to John Adams The Chairman Dances I could almost see a plot. The first part with the buzz of activity growing as various parts are preparing for the historic occasion. The switch to a more melodic middle during the event itself (and maybe a flashback scene along the way?). And the event ends with slowly diminishing activity, until all goes quiet. Now, granted, I just made all that up, but the story in the music was so strong, the composer and orchestra almost seemed to deserve listener imagination of a story.

Hearing Theofanidis give a pre-performance talk before his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was performed. (I was trying to arrive in time for the pre-concert talk, but traffic was a bear.) I remember a talk of his when he was the PSO composer-in-residence and it was a treat to hear it again. There are not that many opportunities to have an artist talk about the creative process, especially when those that would perform the piece (orchestra and soloist) were providing feedback while the piece was being composed. The whole process is that much more alive then the idea of a composer writing the work, then passing on to an orchestra, conductor and soloist to do what they will. Last year, we had the pleasure of John Corigliano and Joshua Bell being present for the Red Violin Concerto and having both of them talk about how they worked together and what the piece was meant for made the experience richer.

There are many reasons to go to symphonic concerts in person. Part of it is to hear the music in a richer form than would be possible off of recordings in the comfort of home, both because of the acoustics and the uniqueness of the interpretation that always happens with a different combination of performer, conductor, setting and audience. There is the beauty and elegance of the setting (ok, I'm not an expert here). And there is the witnessing of the culmination of a creative process that starts with a spark or theme in a composers head, then gets marinated, developed and refined over time and contact. And the composer-in-residence program at the PSO gives us a window into this.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Leadership in crisis

Watching the two candidates respond to the ongoing U.S. financial crisis has been instructive. While the media spin has been that these are a continuing series of "bailouts" it is hard to think who has been bailed out, instead the owners (stockowners) of the institutions in questions have taken a bath, while their customers, clients and counterparties are merely protected from loss (to the extent that their individual dealings were of good quality).

The two candidates (McCain and Obama) do show their different ideas of leadership. McCain opted for publicly jumping into the fray with his physical presence. Senator McCain openly stated he would jump into the negotiations of the U.S. House of Representatives (which he is not a member) and inject his leadership. Nevermind if the House leadership was interested in this (polite statements afterwards aside). Senator Obama spoke to his colleagues in the House so he could understand the issues, then spoke to the American people to explain what the issues were (see LaCross, WI speech below).

The McCain is the in-your-face Great Man view of how things work. He promises that his vast experience will enable him to survive and be successful in the backroom face-to-face negotiations. Can this occur? Every freshman political science student has seen pictures or descriptions of President Lynden Johnson giving "the Treatment" from when he was Majority Leader of the Senate.

But there are actually facts and realities that lie behind these issues, and it is more then just personalities and "special interests" (are "interests" "special" when you are talking something so broad as the U.S. banking and financial market? Who does not have a bank account, work for someone with a line of credit, or have investments in stocks for retirement?) And this is where Obama shines in comparison to McCain. McCain derides as elitist Obama's tendency to explain the issues in their complexity as opposed to giving out soundbytes. But the historical parallel here is Franklin D Roosevelt, in the 1930s during the Great Depression with his fireside chats. Talking directly to a population scared of the future, he acted as if normal people were capable of understanding issues, or at least listening to them. But he also convinced the people that he had taken the time to understand something that was unfathemable to them, and because of that, he could guide them through the fearful unknown.

And that is what Obama is doing. Instead of riding the popular "hang them all" opinion that was seen by the House Republicans, he works behind the scenes in Washington and takes part in the building of a plan that he can understand and then go to the American people, and let them know what the issues are, not just the soundbyte "this is a bailout of fat pigs" rhetoric. He takes risks, as the conservative Republicans threaten they will use any vote that preserves the financial system to cruxify their opponents. And he does this, not in sophisticated audiences like those found in big cities, in university towns, or in a financial audience, but LaCross, WI. In a rural corner of a state that is bordering another rural corner of another state.

As for myself, I'll take intelligent analysis that can be presented to the people over backroom deals, soundbytes, and trying to fly in front of the wind any day.

Reno, NV

"if your neighbor's house is on fire, you can say that he is irresponsible . . . but first you help put out the fire, because it can spread to your house."