Archive for April, 2010
24 Apr 2010

Is Obama a Socialist?

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Jonah Goldberg addresses in a serious essay the commonly heard debate on whether terms like Marxist and Socialist may be accurately applied to Barack Obama.

[I]s it correct, as an objective matter, to call Obama’s agenda “socialist”? That depends on what one means by socialism. The term has so many associations and has been used to describe so many divergent political and economic approaches that the only meaning sure to garner consensus is an assertive statism applied in the larger cause of “equality,” usually through redistributive economic policies that involve a bias toward taking an intrusive and domineering role in the workings of the private sector. One might also apply another yardstick: an ambivalence, even antipathy, for democracy when democracy proves inconvenient.1 With this understanding as a vague guideline, the answer is certainly, Yes, Obama’s agenda is socialist in a broad sense. The Obama administration may not have planned on seizing the means of automobile production or asserting managerial control over Wall Street. But when faced with the choice, it did both. Obama did explicitly plan on imposing a massive restructuring of one-sixth of the U.S. economy through the use of state fiat—and he is beginning to do precisely that.

Obama has, on numerous occasions, placed himself within the progressive intellectual and political tradition going back to Theodore Roosevelt and running through Franklin Roosevelt. With a few exceptions, the progressive political agenda has always been to argue for piecemeal reforms, not instant transformative change—but reforms that always expand the size, scope, and authority of the state. This approach has numerous benefits. For starters, it’s more realistic tactically. By concentrating on the notion of reform rather than revolution, progressives can work to attract both ideologues of the Left and moderates at the same time. This allows moderates to be seduced by their own rhetoric about the virtues of a specific reform as an end in itself. Meanwhile, more sophisticated ideologues understand that they are supporting a camel’s-nose strategy. In an unguarded moment during the health-care debate in 2009, Representative Barney Frank confessed that he saw the “public option,” the supposedly limited program that would have given the federal government a direct role as an insurer in competition with private insurers, as merely a way station to a single-payer system in which the government is the sole provider of health care. In his September 2009 joint-session address to Congress on health care, President Obama insisted that “I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.” Six months later, when he got the health-care bill he wanted, he insisted that it was only a critical “first step” to overhauling the system. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was one of the relatively few self-described moderates who both understood the tactic and supported it. “There seems no inherent obstacle,” Schlesinger wrote in 1947, “to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.”

Goldberg places Obama decidedly outside the Revolutionary Marxist “hot socialism” tradition and firmly in the Fabian tradition of incremental, gradual, “first step” subversion of liberty. Obama adroitly dismisses accuses of his being a socialist as evidence of his opponents’ ideological blindness. He is merely a pragmatist, committed to “solving problems.”

But whether one identifies Obama as a social-ist instead of a socialist, a neosocialist, or merely a progressive, there can be no doubt that Barack Obama’s political agenda is as thoroughly committed to expanding the regulatory authority and share of the economy controlled by government as the Romanovs were to the gathering of the Russian lands.

Denying that you are an ideologue is not the same thing as proving the point. And certainly Obama’s insistence that ideology is something only his critics suffer from is no defense when stacked against the evidence of his actions. The “pragmatic” Obama is only interested in “what works” as long as “what works” involves a significantly expanded role for government. In this sense, Obama is a practitioner of the Third Way, the governing approach most successfully trumpeted by Blair, who claimed to have found a “third way” that rejected the false premises of both Left and Right and thereby located a “smarter” approach to expanding government. The powerful appeal of this idea lies in the fact that it sounds as if its adherents have rejected ideological dogmatism and gone beyond those “false choices.” Thus, a leader can both provide health care to 32 million people and save money, or, as Obama likes to say, “bend the cost curve down.” But in not choosing, Obama is choosing. He is choosing the path of government control, which is what the Third Way inevitably does and is intended to do.

Still, the question remains, What do we call Obama’s “social-ism”? John Judis’s formulation—“liberal socialism”—is perfectly serviceable, and so is “social democracy” or, for that matter, simply “progressivism.” My own, perhaps too playful, suggestion would be neosocialism. …

In many respects, Barack Obama’s neo-socialism is neoconservatism’s mirror image. Openly committed to ending the Reagan era, Obama is a firm believer in the power of government to extend its scope and grasp far deeper into society. In much the same way that neoconservatives accepted a realistic and limited role for the government, Obama tolerates a limited and realistic role for the market: its wealth is necessary for the continuation and expansion of the welfare state and social justice. While neoconservatism erred on the side of trusting the nongovernmental sphere—mediating institutions like markets, civil society, and the family—neosocialism gives the benefit of the doubt to government. Whereas neoconservatism was inherently skeptical of the ability of social planners to repeal the law of unintended consequences, Obama’s ideal is to leave social policy in their hands and to bemoan the interference of the merely political.

“I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant, academically approved approach to health care, and didn’t have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed,” he told CBS’s Katie Couric. “But that’s not how it works in our democracy. Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people.”

Whereas Ronald Reagan saw the answers to our problems in the private sphere (“in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”), Obama seeks to expand confidence in, and reliance on, government wherever and whenever he can, albeit within the confines of a generally Center-Right nation and the “unfortunate” demands of democracy.

As with Webb’s Fabian socialism, one will never be able to say of Obama’s developing doctrine, “now socialism has arrived.” On the night the House of Representatives passed the health-care bill, Obama said, “This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system. But it moves us decisively in the right direction.” Then, speaking specifically of another vote to be taken in the Senate but also cleverly to those not yet satisfied with what had been achieved, he added, “Now, as momentous as this day is, it’s not the end of this journey.”

Under Obama’s neosocialism, that journey will be endless, and no matter how far down the road toward socialism we go, he will always be there to tell the increasingly beleaguered marchers that we have only taken a “critical first step.”

Read the whole thing.

23 Apr 2010

St. George’s Day

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Hans von Aachen, St. George Slaying the Dragon, c. 1600, Private Collection, London

From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:

Butler, the historian of the Romish calendar, repudiates George of Cappadocia, and will have it that the famous saint was born of noble Christian parents, that he entered the army, and rose to a high grade in its ranks, until the persecution of his co-religionists by Diocletian compelled him to throw up his commission, and upbraid the emperor for his cruelty, by which bold conduct he lost his head and won his saintship. Whatever the real character of St. George might have been, he was held in great honour in England from a very early period. While in the calendars of the Greek and Latin churches he shared the twenty-third of April with other saints, a Saxon Martyrology declares the day dedicated to him alone; and after the Conquest his festival was celebrated after the approved fashion of Englishmen.

In 1344, this feast was made memorable by the creation of the noble Order of St. George, or the Blue Garter, the institution being inaugurated by a grand joust, in which forty of England’s best and bravest knights held the lists against the foreign chivalry attracted by the proclamation of the challenge through France, Burgundy, Hainault, Brabant, Flanders, and Germany. In the first year of the reign of Henry V, a council held at London decreed, at the instance of the king himself, that henceforth the feast of St. George should be observed by a double service; and for many years the festival was kept with great splendour at Windsor and other towns. Shakspeare, in Henry VI, makes the Regent Bedford say, on receiving the news of disasters in France:

    Bonfires in France I am forthwith to make
    To keep our great St. George’s feast withal!’

Edward VI promulgated certain statutes severing the connection between the ‘noble order’ and the saint; but on his death, Mary at once abrogated them as ‘impertinent, and tending to novelty.’ The festival continued to be observed until 1567, when, the ceremonies being thought incompatible with the reformed religion, Elizabeth ordered its discontinuance. James I, however, kept the 23rd of April to some extent, and the revival of the feast in all its glories was only prevented by the Civil War. So late as 1614, it was the custom for fashionable gentlemen to wear blue coats on St. George’s day, probably in imitation of the blue mantle worn by the Knights of the Garter.

In olden times, the standard of St. George was borne before our English kings in battle, and his name was the rallying cry of English warriors. According to Shakspeare, Henry V led the attack on Harfleur to the battle-cry of ‘God for Harry! England! and St. George!’ and ‘God and St. George’ was Talbot’s slogan on the fatal field of Patay. Edward of Wales exhorts his peace-loving parents to

    ‘Cheer these noble lords,
    And hearten those that fight in your defence;
    Unsheath your sword, good father, cry St. George!’

The fiery Richard invokes the same saint, and his rival can think of no better name to excite the ardour of his adherents:

    ‘Advance our standards, set upon our foes,
    Our ancient word of courage, fair St. George,
    Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons.’

England was not the only nation that fought under the banner of St. George, nor was the Order of the Garter the only chivalric institution in his honour. Sicily, Arragon, Valencia, Genoa, Malta, Barcelona, looked up to him as their guardian saint; and as to knightly orders bearing his name, a Venetian Order of St. George was created in 1200, a Spanish in 1317, an Austrian in 1470, a Genoese in 1472, and a Roman in 1492, to say nothing of the more modern ones of Bavaria (1729), Russia (1767), and Hanover (1839).


St. George, being a soldier saint, was also a favorite of the Lithuanians, and the Lithuanian parish in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania where I grew up was named for him. Our church’s cornerstone was laid in 1891, and construction was completed in 1894. In 1901, the frame church was clad in brick and twin towers erected. In 1907, a poor immigrant coal mining community spent nearly $100,000 covering the church in granite and decorating its interior in the Gothic manner of Pugin.

The diocese of Allentown in its wisdom demolished St. George Church during the winter of 2009-2010.

Quomodo sedet sola civitas…

Main Altar, St. George Church, Christmas 1979

23 Apr 2010

Moose Fun

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Baby moose (and family) discover the joys of a lawn sprinkler, Anchorage, Alaska, June 2008. In Europe, they call these elk.

3:52 video

23 Apr 2010

The Simple Life

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Charles Edouard Delort, Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon Versailles Playing at Being a Shepherdess

Charlotte Allen explains how modern Puritan triumphalism manages to make simplicity the new luxury and distinction.

Hunting is usually taboo in the simplicity movement because it involves guns (hated by the professionally simple) and exploitation of animals (ditto). However, if you’re hunting boar in the upscale hills ringing the San Francisco Bay so as to furnish yourself a “locally grown” boar paté, as does Berkeley professor and simplicity movement guru Michael (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) Pollan, or perhaps to experience an “epiphany,” as another well-fixed Bay Area boar hunter recently told the New York Times, you’re doing a fine job of returning to the simple life. Indeed, the Times article was replete with quotations from portfolio managers, systems analysts, and graphic designers who have taken up shooting boar, deer, and bison in their spare time because it affords them a “primal connection” with the food on their plates and is also “carbon-neutral” (zero “food miles” if the deer you slay happened to have been munching the tulips in your backyard). But if you’re a laid-off lumber mill worker bagging possums in Eutaw Springs, S.C., because your main primal connection with food is that you don’t have much money to spend on it, you’re an unsophisticated redneck.

Simplicity movement people always seem to shell out more money than the not-so-simple, usually because the simple things they love always seem to cost more than the mass-produced versions. On a website called Passionate Homemaking that’s dedicated to making, among other things, your own cheese, your own beeswax candles, and your own underarm deodorant, you are also advised to cook with nothing but raw cultured butter from a mail-order outfit called Organic Pastures. The butter probably tastes great. It also costs $10.75 a pound – plus UPS shipping. At farmer’s markets, where those striving for simplicity like to browse with their cloth shopping bags, the organic, the locally grown, and the humanely raised come at a price: tomatoes at $4 a pound, bread at $8 a loaf, and $6 for a cup of “artisanal” gelato.

Wealthy and well-born people admiring – and sparing themselves no expense in convincing themselves that they’re cultivating – the virtues of humble folk is nothing new. Two millennia ago, Virgil, in his Georgics, heaped praise upon the tree pruners and beekeepers whom he likely could see toiling in the distance while he sipped wine on the veranda of his wealthy patron, Maecenas. Marie Antoinette liked to dress up as a shepherdess and hold court in her “rustic” cottage at the Petit Trianon. Other harbingers of today’s simplicity movement were the arts-and-crafts devotees of the early 1900s who filled their homes with handcrafted medieval-looking benches and the 1960s hippies whose minibuses and geodesic domes that enabled their gypsy lifestyles usually came courtesy of checks from their parents.

But it has been only in the last decade or so that the simplicity movement has come into its own, aligning itself not only with aesthetic style but also with power. Thanks to the government-backed war against obesity (fat people, conveniently, tend to belong to the polyester-clad, Big Mac-guzzling lower orders) and the “green” movement in its various save-the-planet manifestations, simplicity people can look down their noses at the not-so-simple with their low-rent tastes while also putting them on the moral defensive. Thus you have Michael Pollan, whose zero-impact ethic of food simplicity won’t let him eat anything not grown within one hundred miles of his Bay Area home, and preferably grown (or killed, milked, churned, or picked) himself. He bristles with outrage not only at McDonald’s burgers, Doritos, and grapes imported from Chile (foreign fruit destroys people’s “sense of place,” he writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) but even at Walmart’s announcement in 2006 that it would start stocking organic products at affordable prices. Walmart, like factory farms, SUVs, wide-screen TVs, and outlet malls, is usually anathema to the simplicity set, but here you would think the giga-chain would be doing poor people a favor by widening their access to healthy, less-fattening produce. Not as far as Pollan is concerned. Instead, as Reason magazine’s Katherine Mangu-Ward reported, Pollan worried on his blog that “Walmart’s version of cheap, industrialized organic food” might drive the boutique farms that served him and his locavore neighbors out of business. …

The problem with the simplicity movement isn’t simply that you’ve got to be rich to live simply. In their 2007 book Plenty, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, who had vowed to spend a year sticking to the 100-mile locavore eating radius (and, as freelance writers, had plenty of time to put together meals that lived up to this promise), discovered that they were spending $11 per jar on honey to substitute for $2.59 sugar and that one of their locally foraged dinners cost them $130 and more than a day to prepare. …

The problem with the simplicity movement is that its proponents mistake simplicity, which is an aesthetic lifestyle choice, for humility, which is a genuine virtue.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

22 Apr 2010

Elite Laughter at the Idea of Bartering for Medical Care

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Sue Lowden, Republican candidate for the Senate from Nevada

Snotty progressives are laughing themselves silly over Nevada Senate candidate Sue Lowden’s reference to the old fashioned practice of impecunious patients compensating their doctor with gifts of goods or services.

In reality, back when I was a boy and even earlier, when you went to the doctor or the hospital, they just treated you. The modern custom of demanding that you fill out a form promising to pay and supply your insurance card before they look at you did not exist.

A small percentage of patients, of course, couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay. In the old days, doctors just looked on treating such patients as their personal charitable contribution to the community and an inevitable part of the cost of practicing their profession.

The poor, of course, consisted of two kinds of people. There were the unfortunate but decent people, and there were the bums and deadbeats. Doctors could console themselves that they would only have to treat deadbeats once in a very long time, since shame would cause the deadbeat patient to go down the road to another physician the next time he was ill, and he’d naturally work his way through every available other doctor in the neighborhood before returning to the first.

Respectable people without money would find a way to compensate their doctor. One doctor I used to know as a boy received fresh baked bread every week from a widow on Social Security he’d taken care of. Men would turn up at the doctor’s house on Saturday, look over the premises, and find painting or repairs that needed to be done and start working without permission. Farmers without money would deliver fresh produce or meat. Yes, a doctor might well be given a number of chickens.

The left finds the idea that it is possible to try to discharge a debt informally and without cash changing hands funny. Personally, I’d say that all the sneering and crude guffawing over Ms. Lowden’s observation simply demonstrates all over again just how provincial, unsophisticated, and unfamiliar with normal life modern leftwing fashionistas really are.

One of my Yale classmates was snickering away this morning, sarcastically asking the doctors in the class how they’d like being paid by barter. I responded:

How about you? You’re a lawyer. Suppose some poor little old widow lady getting $600 a month on Social Security came to you and begged you to represent her. You know she can’t afford to pay you, and you know she needs the help. So when you solved her little problem, she sends you cookies at Xmas time every year. Does that work for you, or are you going to insist on a program forcing everybody in America to pay thousands of dollars a year for legal services insurance or go to jail, and a big federal bureaucracy rationing legal services and setting your fee schedule?

21 Apr 2010

Cartoon of the Week

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Michael Ramirez cartoon

Hat tip to John Hinderaker via the News Junkie.

21 Apr 2010

“The Dark, Dark Hours”

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Ronald Reagan takes on James Dean in 6:03 video highlights from 1954 GE Home Theater drama “The Dark, Dark Hours.”

Appropriately enough, Ronald Reagan is a physician defending decency, home, and family. James Dean (who would get killed in an accident with his Porsche 550 Spyder a little over nine months later) plays a youthful criminal. 1950s criminality is represented as childishly impulsive, weak, neurotically insecure, and determined to express a transgressive subcultural identity by the use of hipster slang and a loud musical background of progressive jazz. The same dramatization would not be much different today in most respects. The criminal youth, of course, wouldn’t be white and blond. The music wouldn’t be jazz and the modernist patois would be different, but the same kind of childishness and the same sort of futile attempt to obtain respect through violence would work exactly the same way in an updated version just fine.

21 Apr 2010

SEC Suing Goldman

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In a party line 3-2 vote SEC commissioners voted to sue Goldman Sachs. The SEC charges that Goldman fraudulently represented to investors that the mortgages underlying one of its residential mortgage-backed securities were being selected by an independent third-party. The mortgages, however, were selected by Paulson & Co., a hedge fund that also took a $15 million credit default swap position betting against the same residential mortgage-backed security.

The Epicurean Dealmaker puts the whole fuss wittily into perspective.

I have been reliably informed that something scandalous has recently been unearthed which involves a recurring target of Your Formerly Diligent Blogosopher’s ruminations. I even believe the word “fraud” has been bandied about liberally.

Given that a) I have been occupied elsewhere, and b) I really couldn’t give a flying fuck in a rolling donut whether the Great Vampire Squid of West Street (new digs, natch) vanishes into the singularity or not, I frankly have not paid much attention to the scandal beyond a cursory perusal of the headlines and a couple of blog posts. Honestly, life is just too short.

However, in the spirit of duty which compels Your Humble Servant to satisfy every bloggy whim my Peremptory Audience demands of me (and also because Natasha has temporarily left the hotel room to get more caviar and ice cubes), I will make the following brief observations:

The parties which Goldman supposedly defrauded were large and supposedly sophisticated financial institutions. The managers of these institutions were or should have been paid quite large sums of money to, among other things, protect their stakeholders from fraud, unethical sales practices, and general office supply stealing. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the knuckleheads at ACA or IKB. And, frankly, neither should you.

Whether the alleged fraud rises to the level of an actionable civil claim or simply represents unethical behavior is a question for a court of law. I am not qualified to judge, but the criteria which ultimately determine the nature of Goldman’s alleged offense will be legalistic ones, akin to judging exactly how many mortgage CDO investors’ brains can be fitted onto the head of a pin. While the answer may be definitive, it will not be particularly revealing to the vast majority of us who live outside the cloistered halls of Americus Litigalis.

I must agree with Felix Salmon and others, who claim that the real damage to Goldman Sachs has already been done, with its formerly venerated name being dragged publicly through the mud with an accusation of fraud. While this may have little effect on the majority of Goldman’s business on the sales and trading side of the house—where counterparties are generally too smart to raise a stink about the 800 pound gorilla of the global financial markets (and often too unprincipled themselves to care) — it should and will have an effect on Goldman’s extensive investment banking business with governments, corporations, and other entities.

The Squid has been living for years off the simple fact that, like the fabled IBM of yore, no-one ever got fired (or sued) for picking Goldman Sachs. That calculus has been changed, and I and every one of my red-blooded peers in the industry who is not currently drawing a paycheck signed by David Viniar are making damn sure that CEOs, CFOs, government officials, and Boards of Directors know it. For those of you who were wondering, this is the real reason why Goldman’s market capitalization has taken the vapors to the tune of more than ten billion dollars in response to an action likely to cost it no more than a tiny fraction of that amount: its reputation premium is quietly and rapidly evaporating. There is no shortage of competent investment banks and adequate investment bankers available to conduct the financing and M&A business of the global corporate and government economy. No longer can Goldman rest assured that it will win mandates simply because it is Goldman Sachs.

Hat tip to Walter Olson.

21 Apr 2010

Putting Obama’s Budget Cuts in Perspective


1:38 video

Hat tip to Rich Duff.

21 Apr 2010

Worshipping Leviathan

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My liberal classmates rant and rave regularly about the nefarious behavior of Wall Street banks and big corporations, but in their eyes government can do no wrong (as long as Republicans are not in charge).

Coyote reflects on the strangeness of the statist perspective.

I have total sympathy with those who distrust corporations. Distrust and skepticism are fine things, and are critical foundations to individual responsibility. History proves that market mechanisms tend to weed out bad behaviors, but sometimes these corrections can take time, and in the mean time its good to watch out for oneself.

However, I can’t understand how these same people who distrust the power of large corporations tend to throw all their trust and faith into government. The government tends to have more power (it has police and jails after all, not to mention sovereign immunity), is way larger, and the control mechanisms and incentives that supposedly might check bad behavior in governments seldom work.

Hat tip to the Barrister.

20 Apr 2010

Geek, Dork, Dweeb, Nerd

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GreatWhiteSnark elucidates the conceptual distinction with a Venn’s Diagram.

Hat tip to Ben Slotznick.

20 Apr 2010

No More “Der Untergang” Parodies

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Constantin Films, owner of “Der Untergang” (2004), is asserting its copyright and closing down all the amusing Hitler-chewing-the-carpet parodies.

What a pity! The “Downfall” parodies were becoming a well known Internet Meme, and really worked marvelously as a commentary on any current debacle or untoward development. They will be missed.

TechCrunch responded with a new one featuring Hitler ranting over his removal from YouTube, but they’ve already shut it down.

Pretty stupid and unattractive corporate behavior, if you ask me.

What do these parodies cost the film’s owners? Nothing. What is their impact? Millions of dollars of free publicity turning a relatively little known film into a famous cultural icon and making Constantin’s property ever so much more valuable. Shutting down the Untergang parodies is really just about as clever as invading Russia.

20 Apr 2010

Thunder and Lightning and Volcano

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“Thunders and lightnings strike in the dark moody ash cloud over erupting Eyjafjallajökull,” writes photographer Skarphéðinn Þráinsson. (click on image for larger view)

20 Apr 2010

Finders Leakers; Steve Jobs Weepers

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The bar in Redwood City

Poor Gray Powell, a 27 year old software engineer working at Apple, inadvertently left his prototype of the next iPhone on a bar stool at Gourmet Haus Staudt, a German beer garden in Redwood City.

Steve Jobs is probably going to roast Gray over a slow fire, because that next generation iPhone was picked up by a guy sitting nearby, who tinkered with it and found a new iPhone camouflaged in an old iPhone package. After a few weeks, he sold it to Gizmodo (who paid $4000, some say $10K).

Gizmodo got its money’s worth, having a great deal of fun analyzing what’s different technically and in the design of the new prototype (and scoring off Apple’s notorious secrecy policy concerning new products).

They awarded the prototype excellent reviews. The new design was sturdier and more attractive, and the new model has a bigger battery and spectacularly sharper resolution.

Now, we get to sit back and see what Apple does to Gizmodo.

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