City of Brass

City of Brass

word clouds for Biden and Palin

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I manually extracted Biden’s and Palin’s remarks at the debate from the transcript and fed them into Wordle to create these word clouds. First, Senator Joe Biden:
And then, Governor Sarah Palin:
It seems the primary topic of the evening was John McCain, and to a lesser extent Barack Obama. That makes sense and fits perfectly into each veep candidate’s objectives for the evening – Palin to build McCain up, and Biden to tear him down.


Biden and Palin

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Overall, I think that Biden and Palin did well. Biden met expdectations, and Palin exceeded them. However, neither one really did much to change the overall narrative, which has been trending in Obama’s favor.

Palin’s basic objective was to avoid damaging McCain, and attempt to attract independent voters. She succeeded in doing no harm, but I will be very surprised if the post-debate polls show that she made any inroads to the indie vote. Part of this was her demeanor – she was outright disrespectful to Biden, at one point accusing him of “raising the white flag of surrender” after he’d just made it clear that the Obama-Biden approach was motivated by a desire to win the war onterror (but disagrees with McCain-Palin on fundamental assumptions about how best to achieve victory). Her characterization was a caricature using right-wing stereotypes culled straight from the partisan blogsphere, not the rhetoric of a moderate. In another exchange, she made a clumsy attempt to invoke Reagan’s famous debate line “there you go again”, which was jarring because it felt so forced. And when Biden choked up over the story of his first wife and infant daughter’s deaths, she didn’t react in any compassionate way you’d expect, instead launching straight into her maverick talking point again ad-infinitum, as if Biden had just been wonking about policy rather than relating something intensely personal. It dehumanized her in comparison and made her look cold.


Palin did score some points, however – most notably in using Biden’s own primary-season rhetoric against him (and Obama). Biden tended to parry these by changing the subject rather than addressing them – but the issue about his vote for the Iraq war resolution was a weakness that Palin exploited well. She also shined when talking about energy independence, despite Biden’s fact-check attempt about McCain’s voting record. As far as appearing vice-presidential, she reminded me of President Bush at times, in terms of her rhetoric and vagueness (especially in closing about freedom being on the march at whatnot), so I suppose she cleared that hurdle, albeit a low one. She certainly didn’t get crushed by Biden, a man 30 years her senior and demonstrably more well-versed in all aspects of policy and issues than she. That in itself is an achievement – low expectations, sure, but valid expectations nevertheless.


Palin’s main failure in this debate however was to give independent and undecided voters something substantial to compare against. She instead attempted to spin the positions in a vague sense so that they sounded better than they were. In so doing, she permitted Biden to do all the description and make all the distinctions, which was an opportunity he took every advantage of. The best example of this was in the early exchange about health care, where Palin gamely tried to pass off their plan as a “$5,000 tax cut”. Biden’s comeback, that “with one hand giveth, the other taketh away” – was devastating, especially with the fact that typical insurance costs your employer $12,000:

with one hand you giveth, the other you take it. You know how Barack
Obama — excuse me, do you know how John McCain pays for his $5,000 tax
credit you’re going to get, a family will get?

He taxes as
income every one of you out there, every one of you listening who has a
health care plan through your employer. That’s how he raises $3.6
trillion, on your — taxing your health care benefit to give you a
$5,000 plan, which his Web site points out will go straight to the
insurance company.


And then you’re going to have to replace a
$12,000 — that’s the average cost of the plan you get through your
employer — it costs $12,000. You’re going to have to pay — replace a
$12,000 plan, because 20 million of you are going to be dropped. Twenty
million of you will be dropped.

So you’re going to have to place — replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company.

Another example was Palin’s over-reliance on the buzzword “maverick”, which she invoked repeatedly without ever really explaining what it meant. Biden seized upon the word and laid waste to the claim:

Look, the maverick — let’s talk about the maverick John McCain is.
And, again, I love him. He’s been a maverick on some issues, but he has
been no maverick on the things that matter to people’s lives.


voted four out of five times for George Bush’s budget, which put us a
half a trillion dollars in debt this year and over $3 trillion in debt
since he’s got there.

He has not been a maverick in providing
health care for people. He has voted against — he voted including
another 3.6 million children in coverage of the existing health care
plan, when he voted in the United States Senate.

He’s not been a
maverick when it comes to education. He has not supported tax cuts and
significant changes for people being able to send their kids to college.

He’s not been a maverick on the war. He’s not been a maverick on
virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really
talk about around their kitchen table.


Can we send — can we get
Mom’s MRI? Can we send Mary back to school next semester? We can’t —
we can’t make it. How are we going to heat the — heat the house this

He voted against even providing for what they call
LIHEAP, for assistance to people, with oil prices going through the
roof in the winter.

So maverick he is not on the important, critical issues that affect people at that kitchen table.

Palin didn’t use the word maverick again after that. Biden’s attack against the term would not have been even a tenth as effective had Palin not abused the word throughout the debate so often. 

Biden showed his strongest command ofthe issues with respect to national security, especially Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He forcefully states the basic lines of disagreement – whether Iraq or Afghanistan is the “central front”, whether the surge strategy was applicable, and contrasting the state of funding of the two theaters of combat. Palin, in contrast, had no specifics to offer whatsoever, let alone articulating any area of disagreement (other than accusing Biden of  surrender, as I noted above. A jarring, unprofessional moment.)


On other issues, like gay marriage and climate change, Biden drew a sharp and distinct line about what he and Obama believed, which made Palin’s roundabout answers seem evasive. And on questions like “What’s your weakness” and “what have you changed your mind on” – standard interview questions anyone who has ever gne job-hunting with resume in hand has heard before – Biden actually answered the question, whereas Palin tried to change the subject. The contrast was very clear between the two, with Biden being direct and Palin squirming every which way.

Biden’s main objective in the debate was to show off his knowledge, and to undermine McCain. On both counts he succeeded admirably. Still, i don’t count this as a victory for him, because in a sense the good outcome is the neutral one. He managed to provide solid contrast to Palin for the watching independent’ benefit, but its unlikely he converted any McCain voters over. He probably only solidified the leaners who may have had some doubts about Obama. His emphatic statement about playing an active role in every major decision of the Obama Administration was probably the most reassuring thing he said to those voters, for whom Obama’s experience remains the main concern.

If neither won, was it a draw, or did both win? No. In the end, the debate changed absolutely nothing, I wager. We will see what the polls say over the next few days.


Regarding free speech

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I’ve written a statement about my support for free speech, for reference. I will update it over time but I welcome feedback.


5th Annual Brass Crescent Awards

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

brasscrescent_vert.gifin partnership with Shahed Amanullah of, I am pleased to announce that the 5th Annual Brass Crescent Awards are now underway!

are the Brass Crescent Awards? They are named for the Story of the City
of Brass in the Thousand and One Nights. Today, the Islamsphere is
forging a new synthesis of Islam and modernity, and is the intellectual
heir to the traditions of philosophy and learning that was once the
hallmark of Islamic civilization – a heritage scarcely recognizable
today in the Islamic world after a century’s ravages of colonialism,
tyrants, and religious fundamentalism. We believe that Islam transcends
history, and we are forging history anew for tomorrow’s Islam. These
awards are a means to honor ourselves and celebrate our nascent
community, and promote its growth.


The categories this year are as follows:

BEST BLOG: This category honors the most indispensable, Muslim-authored blog there is. Period.

BEST WRITER: Who is the most stimulating, insightful, and
philosophically wise among us? This category is intended to highlight a
blogger who may not post daily, but when they do post, they really make
an impact.

BEST NON-MUSLIM BLOG: Which blog writen by a non-Muslim is most respectful of Islam and seeks genuine dialogue with Muslims?

BEST BLOG DESIGN: Which blog has the most aesthetically pleasing
site design, appealing to the eye, evoking Islamic themes, and/or
facilitating debate and discussion?

BEST POST OR SERIES: Which single post or group of posts in the Islamsphere was the most original and important, above all the others?


BEST FEMALE BLOG: The woman’s voice in Islam is equal to the
man’s, and in the Islamsphere we seek to make sure the female
perspective is highlighted and given its rightful due. Which Muslim
woman’s blog has done the most to explore the role that women play
within Islam and society?

BEST NEW BLOG: Which blog is a true diamond in the rough, one that everyone should be reading but who most just haven’t heard of (yet)?

BEST GROUP BLOG: Which multiple group blog in the Islamsphere
has the best diversity of writers and the most interesting debate on
Muslim issues?

BEST HUMOR BLOG: Which blog gets their point across by using humor in the most effective way?


The Islamsphere is truly a global phenomenon. In Iraq, despite the
chaos and uncertainty, there is a sea change of free speech and
expression, the vanguard of which are blogs. There are also bloggers in
India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Palestine, Jordan, and most
other countries that host Muslims, all of whom have their own
perspectives on faith, culture, and politics.

The nominations phase for all 13 categories is now underway, so head over and start nominating your favorite blogs now!

Note, that the Awards methodology is slightly different this year:


1. Nomination phase (Wed Oct 1 – Fri Oct 24). Anyone with a valid email address may nominate blogs to appropriate categories. Note that blogs may only be nominated once per category. We also encourage you to nominate your own blog!

2. Panel phase (Fri Oct 24th to Fri Nov 7th). The top nominees in each category will be forwarded to the judges’ panel, who will review the nominees and select the finalists.

3. Voting phase (Fri Nov 7 to Fri Dec 1).

4. Winners will be announced at around Eid ul-Adha.

I am very excited about this year’s Awards – it is amazing to think that we have already reached our fifth year! The methodology above includes some changes to addresss some criticism we received last year, so I think this will be the best BCA yet. Please start nominating, and spread the word!

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