Friday, March 28, 2008

Barack Obama should just act like he's the nominee

I'm tired of the primaries now. Barack Obama is far enough ahead in delegates that he is pretty much the guaranteed nominee. Unfortunately, he's not far enough ahead that he can be declared the actual winner any time soon. Today he's ahead by 122 delegates: a very substantial lead, but small enough that the result could IN THEORY be reversed.

As I understand it, this could happen only if either most of the remaining primary states buck the current trend and vote for Clinton, or most of the undeclared super-delegates decided to go for Clinton over Obama. The gulf between them is so large that neither is a particularly realistic scenario, yet the Clinton campaign is publicly acting like it is, and therefore they claim that Hillary is not under any pressure to drop out. So what it looks like, at this point, is that the nominee will not truly be determined until the Democratic Convention at the end of August, when the superdelegates officially declare their votes.

This is a problem for the Democratic party. Howard Dean, the president of the DNC, has said repeatedly in interviews I've heard, that August is much too late. John McCain is already the candidate for the Republicans (so sorry, Ron Paul fans) and while I think he's kind of a pathetic candidate, McCain is truly running unopposed right now. Obama's got just over seven months to make the case that John McCain would make a terrible president. In late August, it will be just over two months. And as Dean says, that's just not enough time for a proper campaign.

In the meantime, both Clinton and Obama are spending time and money on tearing each other down, rather than tearing down McCain, as they should be. Probably the best advice I've seen so far comes from a letter to the campaigns by Oregon Representative Pete DeFazio. DeFazio wrote:

"You both claim to be better suited than the other to take on the so-called Straight-Talk Express, so prove it. Run the next six weeks of your campaign against McCain, not against the other Democrat. Go after McCain for his policy positions, not the other Democrat for theirs. Allow the Democratic voters to believe in a campaign that can provide a new direction for this country and stop McCain from continuing the failed policies of the Bush Administration. In the end, it is the candidate who can take the fight to McCain and win that deserves my support and, most importantly, the support of the Democratic Party."

DeFazio wrote this to both Obama and Clinton. At that point it may not have been clear that Obama was going to win, but I think it's pretty clear now. That's why I think Obama should just forget that Clinton is still in the race and act as if he were running solely against McCain. No more talk about how much better he is than her. No more nitpicking about her revealing her tax returns. The opponent is McCain.

In doing this, he'll be mirroring a strategy adopted by Bush in 2000 and 2004. In both years, the election results were still open to interpretation and recounting; yet Bush immediately started talking to the press as if he were already the (re)elected president. By doing this, he made his opponent look like the unreasonable one for not conceding. This worked particularly well in '04, when Kerry pretty much folded without a fight where Ohio was concerned.

By confidently acting as the presumed nominee, Obama would accomplish several things:

  1. He would probably confuse the media, who aren't all that sharp anyway, and might pick up on the narrative that Hillary is out.
  2. He would free up his efforts to fight McCain, which he needs to do ASAP anyway.
  3. He would be playing focused offense, instead of defending himself over dumb stuff brought up by two different opponents.
  4. Hitting McCain right now would probably improve his standing in the eyes of the voters far more than squabbling with Clinton right now anyway. Hence, this would probably seal his victory over her in reality as well as in rhetoric.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Get down with the sickness

Worst illness I've had for a long time, all day today. Symptoms are severe sore throat, upset stomach, fever, occasional chills, a lot of weakness, and voice almost completely gone to the point where it hurts to talk. I've spent the great majority of today on a cocktail of medications that Ginny recommended, including Theraflu, Excedrin, cough drops, and Mucinex. Not that I know much about most of those drugs, so I expect a stern letter from Possum Momma asking me how I could think to mix THOSE particular drugs.

Ginny has been great to me, of course... with one teeny, tiny little exception. She and Caitlin come home sometime in the afternoon and I'm groggy from a recent nap. She says "Look, we got movies! Read this one." Then she proceeds to show me the cover for No Country For Old Men. I'm kind of a fan of Coen Brothers movies and didn't actually know this one existed, so I was somewhat interested. However, I was still tired so I went back to bed.

Ginny and Caitlin join me and start a movie, as I'm half drifting back to sleep. I hear "Ewww, yuck!" and half open my eyes, thinking "Hmmm, that's an unusual reaction to the Coen brothers, must be another Fargo." I can't sleep anymore, so I fumble around for my glasses. I am treated to the delightful image of a bloody brain being pulled out of a head in an autopsy. Followed by the body's skin being peeled off. It takes me a minute to register "Hey... this doesn't LOOK like their work..." before I am informed that they are, in fact, watching Saw IV.

Now I'm usually pretty resilient about horror movies, but the way my body is acting today... a few minutes later I'm huddled over the toilet not sure whether I'm going to throw up. Meanwhile, the movie is still playing in the next room, and I hear terrified screams the whole time.

Heh heh... I'm not faulting Ginny and Caitlin, who turned it down as soon as they realized what was going on. But there's a charming image to wake up to. :) I did not throw up, but it was an open question for several minutes.

Here's hoping I'll be all better for work on Monday. I don't mind taking sick days, but it would be an awkward way to start my second week.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ken Follett's "World Without End" has arrived

Look! Over on the right! It's a new book! Unfortunately, with school no longer providing an obstacle, all I seem to be doing right now is accumulating new books to read, but not actually finishing any.

But this is Ken Follett, which means the new book takes priority over everything else. For those not familiar, Follett writes historical fiction and spy thrillers. He works with all kinds of different eras; his favorite seems to be World War II, but he's tackled modern America, 80's Afghanistan, 19th century England, and the US Revolution, among other settings.

By far my favorite, though, is Pillars of the Earth, a simply tremendous epic that spans most of the 12th century. The story surrounds the building of a cathedral. I like it because it is basically an ode to the power of human determination, and even while many of the positive characters are monks, it still regularly jabs at the power structure of the middle ages church. And villains. Follett writes great villains: they're smart and devious and humanized, and you're constantly given the impression that they might actually win.

World Without End is a quasi-sequel to Pillars. It takes place in the same town, in the same cathedral, but 200 years later. Many of the main characters are descendants of the original. I'm only a few chapters in, but so far it's very good.

Anyway, if you haven't read the original book then definitely go read that first. If you have, consider this a heads up that it's time to buy the next one.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Theomatics again

In case you didn't see it at the Atheist Experience blog already, here's a new post about this extremely silly topic.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

My new job

Okay, I admit it: I deliberately avoided posting that I lost my job. It's not that I wanted to hide anything, and I'm sure I would have gotten a lot of supportive comments. But I know there are also a small contingent of people (hello, Amway distributors?) who would have enjoyed the opportunity to make snide remarks. And since I was a little down about losing the job in the first place, I just didn't want to deal with it.

So I didn't post that I lost my job, but I'm definitely posting that I got a new one. This past Monday evening I found out that I've been hired to start next Monday. I won't identify the company -- not because I'm paranoid but because I don't know the company culture well and can't be sure if they'll approve of being blogged about. I'll just say that it's a medium sized company, much smaller and hopefully less bureaucratic than IBM. The company manages data about cars. Enormous database which keeps track of cars and parts being purchased from lots of dealerships, all of which has to get passed around quickly in real time. There's a lot of emphasis on efficient data management algorithms, and I believe my data mining education served me well in the interview process.

This job is a raise for me -- not as much of a raise as I was hoping for, but still pretty substantial. Unfortunately I'm not a salaried employee yet, but since it is contract-to-hire, if all goes well then I'll have a salary and benefits right around my birthday this September.

I will immodestly state that I did an outstanding job in the interviews overall, which consisted of a half-hour phone call followed by a four hour on-site interview. I met four people and they all liked me. The interview involved solving a lot of logical puzzles, such as "Tell me what kind of code you would write to match a certain number of buyers and sellers in a reasonable amount of time." I'm really good at those. However, in the end they expressed some reservations about how I lacked recent professional (non-school) experience with SQL databases.

It came down a choice between me and another person who had a stronger background. The feedback I got from my recruiter was "They really like you, they think you've got the best educational background of any candidate, and if they had two positions they'd hire you on the spot." I really wanted the job, so I pestered my recruiter to see if there was anything I could do to sway them further. She suggested something vague about studying more and telling them what I was learning.

I went one better. I said "Tell them I'll write a Java program that solves one of the interview questions and shows off my ability to use SQL." And I did, in two evenings, and also wrote a rudimentary design document for the thing. (Thank you, Suzanne Barber, for your Software Requirements class!)

Anyway, it worked. They still hired the other guy, but apparently they created a second contract position just so they could, in fact, bring us both in. If I hadn't decided to write that program, I might not have gotten it.

So as I said, I'm starting Monday. I'm excited and nervous, because I still have a lot to prove. But I'm glad that I only spent a week unemployed.

I've already emailed a bunch of people, but in case I missed any: Heartfelt thanks to everyone I wrote or called asking for job leads. A lot of the help I got was not just with new jobs, but also with meetings I attended that helped me get my confidence, morale, and presentation straight. Everything was a big help.

Besides which, last Friday I was treated to lunch at the County Line BBQ and got a really nice send-off. My team and I left on good terms. It was understood when I was getting my Master's that I was planning to look for more fruitful work after school, and I only lost my job at this point due to budget cuts within IBM.

And finally, having the week off is pretty nice. I'm doing the very Serious and Important Work of getting a second World o' Warcraft character to level 70.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Somehow, this week, I managed to convince two people in separate incidents to watch the movie Memento for the first time. Looking back, I'm surprised to see that I've never written a blog post about Memento, which is easily in my top five favorite movies of the last decade. Because it can be confusing for first time viewers, I'm going for field a few questions about it and write some more thoughts as a review.

For people who have not seen the movie yet, I strongly advise you to stop reading this post and go watch it. This will contain spoilers. You should avoid reading too much about the movie, although it will help to know that it is played backwards. Scene for scene, each clip takes place immediately before the last one that was played. Some scenes are in black and white. Those are separate, but I'll have to talk about them after the spoilers.


First, some general comments about the message of the movie and why I think it is so great. I already posted some of my remarks in an earlier comment thread to Dan, but I think they're worth repeating here.

If you insist on reading the spoilers, here's a quick synopsis. Lenny is a former insurance investigator who has a rare memory conditions that has left him unable to form new memories. Every so often -- somewhere between ten minutes and a few hours -- he forgets what happened recently. Thus, he is unable to remember names or faces, and the only way he can keep track of what's happened lately is to write things down and take pictures.

Lenny's last clear memory is that of his wife being killed, and his life's mission is to investigate and avenge her death. He writes important clues permanently as tattoos on his body. One other vivid memory that he keeps is the story of Sammy Jankis, a man who had the same condition as his own. Lenny investigated Sammy's case and thus knows all about his own situation based on prior knowledge.

In a nutshell, "Knowledge" is really the central theme of the movie. We think we know things because we remember them, but memory is unreliable. We think we can piece together an overall story from past events and familiar objects, but many of them are still subjective and can lie to us. Lenny gives an important monologue early makes an important speech early in the movie:

Early in Memento, Lenny's character gives an important speech about memory:

"Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police, eyewitness testimony is unreliable. The cops don't catch a killer by sitting around remembering stuff. They collect facts, make notes, draw conclusions. Facts, not memories: that's how you investigate. I know, it's what I used to do. Memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It's an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted and they're irrelevant if you have the facts."

Despite his own condition, and despite his cynicism about memory as a guide to the past, Lenny unshakably believes that there are three things he can trust:

  1. His memories of the night his wife died
  2. His memories of Sammy Jankis
  3. His own notes and tattoos

The end of the movie simply yanks the rug out from under these beliefs, not once, but for all three beliefs. They lead you down this trail, thinking that when you dig far enough back into the past, you'll find the answers to everything else. Instead, you get to the "end" of the movie (really the beginning, in a way) and they hit you with new revelations, wham wham wham, so fast you're left without anything to hold onto in your previous understanding of what really happened.

First you find out that his wife's attacker was already caught, so his entire quest to avenge her since then has been pointless.

Then you find out that he got the story of Sammy all wrong, that many of the events were about him, and that he may have actually killed his own wife.

THEN you find out that he lied to himself in his own notes. On purpose.

One message you could take from the movie is, "No amount of evidence is sufficient to accept a claim." That's not what I got from it, though. Rather, that people's interpretations of events are rarely reliable, and therefore relying on direct experience is a trap. The character of Lenny is not stupid and he's not entirely malicious; he's just going with events as they happen to him and trying to make sense of an array of personal experiences which are even more jumbled than most people's.

Now some specific questions from Tracie. She asked:

Sometimes it seemed like he was claiming that whenever he awoke he had no recollection of his wife's murder--that he thought she was still alive and well; but most of the time he expressed that he retained the memory of her murder. Did they ever explain his alteranating recollection of that memory? It seemed like _sometimes_ he forgot she died--but it seemed to be a pretty consistent "sometimes." Like I said I have to watch it again, but I thought he said he always woke up without the recollection of the murder--but he also said her death was the "last thing" he remembered (which I interpreted to mean it was part of his permanent recollection and not something he needed to remind himself about...?

The only guess I had, but I felt it was pretty flimsy, was that maybe since he had a warped concept of time, it was as if the event had only just occurred, and therefore, when he awoke, it was so "new" that it hadn't sunk in yet that she was gone? While I have had similar experiences, I have to say that in my experiences they're _much_ more fleeting than the film implied (and I can't stress that enough)--if this is what they were driving at. I might wake up _not_ recollecting bad news for like a few moments--but then it hits before I can even sit up in bed. I certainly can't imagine I'd get up and expend too much energy walking around looking for my husband, and expecting him to be in the bathroom, if I'd just seen him murdered "the night before." I think I would wake up initially oblivious and possibly happy thinking he was still alive, but it would hit me (and I don't think I'm unique in this regard) pretty quickly after I became conscious that he had been murdered.

Actually, according to one interpretation, his wife wasn't really dead when he found her. Teddy says as much at the end. As you point out in the next comment, Teddy isn't a reliable source himself, but in this case I think his claims might be plausible. Lenny's memory of Sammy is a false projection of events that really happened to Lenny. Teddy's version is that Lenny's wife survived the attack, but the trauma of seeing the rape still caused the memory condition. It was Lenny's wife who had diabetes, and it was Lenny who killed his own wife through an insulin overdose.

Although Lenny can't form new memories, there are hints that he can drill "facts" into his head through repetition. This might explain how he somehow managed to remember the real death of his wife and project it onto Sammy Jankis.

Then again, temporarily forgetting that his wife is dead may just be a product of the shock and not related to his condition at all.

2. So, who was Teddy? Was he a cop, a snitch? Was his motive actually to go around looking for people with JG initials to let Lenny randomly kill so Lenny could feel better again and again? That's a bit odd. I wasn't sure what to believe about Teddy or whether he was reliable--or was that the point?
Was Teddy supposed to confuse the issue? He lied enough and expressed such odd, unbelievable motives, that he was not a trustworthy character (I thought?). However, Lenny's reasons for not trusting him were, of course, contrived. But still, as the audience, I saw Teddy contradict himself (although we were shown that he did sometimes tell the truth), and I don't know who he really is, except that he seems to have more mental issues than Lenny.

I agree with you that Teddy is just about the least reliable character in the movie (although he has some tough competition!) but in the end I'm inclined to believe his version of events. It may be just because Teddy got the last word and tied up a lot of the other threads. He lies all the time, but it seems like in this case he may have been telling the painful truth just to get back at Lenny.

No, I don't think he was letting Lenny kill random people just to feel good. I think he really was a crooked cop, and he enjoyed the power of being able to go after small time crooks without hassling with court proceedings. The fact that killing crooks made Lenny happy was merely an added bonus, on top of the fact that Teddy got to keep his hands clean.

Also, in this case it's obvious that Lenny wanted to steal Jimmy's drug money. Throughout the movie, Lenny is really driving Jimmy's car and wearing his clothes, and Teddy keeps trying to get the car because there's money in the trunk.

3. Was Lenny's wife diabetic or were we supposed to be left wondering? If we can't be sure, this calls into question Lenny's entire story except what the police report validated. His notes were certainly unreliable. In addition to his conscious motviation to make Gambel the killer--even though he wasn't--he trusted Natalie, who was totally unreliable. So, the assessment he recorded, that she would help him, was very wrong and based on bad data--since he was unaware he'd killed her boyfriend.

I do think we are supposed to be left wondering, but I also seem to recall an interview with Chris Nolan (the director) saying "there is definitely a correct answer."

Again, my best guess is that Teddy was telling the truth about Lenny's wife, and about Sammy being a con man.

I want to wrap up with a few words about the black and white scenes, since those are a little hard to decipher. Unlike the color scenes, the black and white scenes play in forward order. Chronologically, they come before the rest of the movie. So if you want to piece the whole movie together in the correct order, start with the first black and white scene, and when you come to a color scene, skip it. Keep going forward until you get to the last BW scene in the movie.

When Lenny kills Jimmy Grantz, he takes a polaroid and then shakes it until it develops. As it does, the whole movie slowly fades into color. Watch the rest of the scene in color, then go backward to the next color scene before that, and so on.

Finally, the best explanation I ever saw for how everything worked was in this article at Salon. Hope it is helpful.