Friday, February 27, 2004

Just FYI

I may have some more posts up late tonight, perhaps not. But tomorrow is the move, so the computer is being packed up sometime tonight.

After that, it'll possibly be Tuesday before I'll be back.

So have a great weekend and I'll "see" you in a few days.


What is chili (con carne)?

"C" Food for $1200

In English trifle, the "soft" type of this puddinglike dessert is mixed with fruit and spongecake.

Blair government misfires

Back on January 19 I posted about the case of Katharine Gun, the British intelligence employee who spilled the beans about the US spying on UN delegations during the Security Council debate about Iraq last year. She was charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act and faced two years in jail.

This last Wednesday, she walked. From BBC News for Thursday:
A GCHQ translator sacked for revealing a secret e-mail has been cleared of a charge under the Official Secrets Act.

Katharine Gun, 29, from Cheltenham, claimed the e-mail was from US spies asking British officers to tap phones of nations voting on war against Iraq.

She walked free on Wednesday when the prosecution offered no evidence.

Ms Gun had always said she had acted in an effort to prevent the war, and outside court said: "I have no regrets and I would do it again."
There is a real question about why the case was dropped so abruptly.
Mark Ellison, for the prosecution, said [to the court]: "There is no longer sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.

"It would not be appropriate to go into the reasons for this decision." ...

All that is needed for a successful prosecution under the Official Secrets Act is for the prosecution to demonstrate the accused is covered by it, which Ms Gun was, and they have revealed information covered by it, which she also admitted.

Her solicitor James Welch described the prosecution's excuse as "rather lame".
Indeed it was. The likely reason is that, as I noted in that previous post, she'd been allowed to offer a "necessity" defense, under which what would normally be a crime is excused because of its use in preventing something worse. (As the common example has it, breaking into a house would usually be criminal, but if the house is on fire and the break-in was to save a trapped child, it was necessary.) Because of that, the planning for the war and particularly discussions within the government of its legality would be subject to being revealed in court The Blair administration probably figured it's had it share of embarrassments and has already dodged a couple of bullets, no point risking another.

So it's for a rather backhanded reason, but the fact remains that Katharine Gun is free and justice has been done for her.

Footnote to the preceding

"Mind reading" has always been regarded, for the most part, as a parlor trick. But the line between amusing trickery and intrusive technology has just gotten a little blurrier.

Supporters of a controversial technique called "brain fingerprinting" claim it can be used to reveal your deepest secrets, even against your will. I'm engaging in a certain level of hyperbole there, of course, but in a broad sense it can indeed read your mind.

We organize the world around us through pattern recognition. Something we're experienced before thus presents a pattern we've experienced before - with the result that our brains deal with it differently than with something we've not experienced before. If it's something we have experienced, a characteristic brain wave (called a p300 wave) indicates recognition. Brain fingerprinting works by detecting that wave, the involuntary and instant response to a known pattern.

In short, it's supposed to tell if you already knew something - unreleased details of a crime scene, for example - or not. By the same token, it could also be used to reveal political associations and other areas not directly related to criminal activity.

The FBI has already tested it and its developer, one Dr. Larry Farwell, calls it "highly scientific" and says it has proved 100% accurate in certain tests.

It does have limitations, which will perhaps limit its potential for abuse - or may instead produce it. A big one is that the test supposedly reveals the previous presence of certain information in the subject's mind, information such as, again, the layout of a crime scene. But studies of memory, particularly the problem of "false memories" and the surprising find of how easily they can be created, have revealed that memory and imagination are closely linked: Test subjects who imagined a certain kind of experience showed the same areas of their brains being active as those who recalled an actual one.

What that means is that an innocent suspect who has thought about the crime and who imagined it with some degree of accuracy could react to a picture of the crime scene with recognition and be labeled guilty. The technique thus should only be used to exonerate (since lack of prior knowledge should be an indication of innocence), not to accuse. But that, of course, doesn't mean it will be.

That's especially true in political cases, including "terrorism" investigations, where people have sometimes been connected to terrorist acts simply (and solely) on the basis that they were familiar with the perpetrators of them.

The day of literal "thought crimes" creeps closer.

Smile! You're on candid database!

This is an edited version of "an informal survey of some of the most widely known surveillance and snooping programs out there now," which appeared in the Daily Yomiuri (Japan) on February 17, found via a link at the February 23 Christian Science Monitor.

The Matrix: Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, which enables government and law enforcement officials to combine information about individuals culled from both government and commercial data sources. The Matrix is actually run by a private company. Queries are entered into a system called the Factual Analysis Criminal Threat Solution, or FACTS. One use of such systems is to search for patterns of information or behavior which might indicate criminal behavior. The Matrix is being used by Florida and New York, and is funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

Carnivore: An FBI program to snoop through electronic communication of all forms, including e-mail messages, Web browsing activity, and electronic fund exchanges. While the system can be configured to record only specific communications, critics cite that the system lacks the ability to audit its activity, opening the door for serious abuse.

CAPPS II: The Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System (CAPPS II), being developed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to enable TSA personnel and airport security to access personal information stored in government and commercial databases. Using this information, the system tags every passenger with a color code: Green means that you are free to travel, yellow means that you will face increased scrutiny, and red means that you are on a no-fly list. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), reports indicate that anywhere from 3% to 8% of the population may be flagged as yellow or red. There is no clear way to find out how you were assigned your color code, and no official way to change it once established.

Total Information Awareness (TIA): Developed as a research program by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same group responsible for the Internet, it was shut down by Congress in September 2003 after a public outcry. The goal was to compile a super database of sorts, containing thousands of other public and private data sources, located in this country and elsewhere. The TIA program could then trawl endless information including your driving records, tax filings, visa and passport use, calls for police assistance, and more. TIA would have access to records listing all your phone calls, all e-mails sent and received (including the content), and all Web sites you have visited. TIA as envisioned is no longer with us, but it's unclear whether the project simply moved into the category of "black" defense projects and therefore outside of public scrutiny.

Echelon: The granddaddy of all surveillance systems, it's a global system of interceptors and supercomputers that attempts to monitor all electronic communication on Earth. Run by the National Security Administration, the system has no public oversight, and is not even officially acknowledged to exist.
And there are a number of additional systems in various stages of development. Most use state-of-the-art software, including linguistic analysis and machine learning, to comb through terabytes of data looking to extract patterns of behavior and establish indirect connections between individuals.

One recent example I have read about describes a system in development that will be able to link all friends and associates to a suspected criminal, captured through public information available on the Web, to enable authorities to more carefully scrutinize the behavior of the entire network of friends.

Sounds a bit paranoid doesn't it? I would have thought so too had the scenario not been put forth by the company developing the system itself!
The EFF site, by the way, is a good place to go to start checking out issues related to data mining and privacy.

International cooperation in the war on freedom - er, terror

When I posted on the case of Maher Arar on November 19, I didn't think it was an singular aberration. I was right, as the Toronto Star for February 26 makes clear.
When Ottawa computer consultant Maher Arar told his story last fall, the country was horrified.

A Canadian citizen - apparently innocent of any crime - had been deported to Syria from the U.S. and tortured for 10 months.

Worst of all, it seemed that the information used against Arar had come from Canadian intelligence agencies. ...

Now it turns out that the Arar case was not unique at all. Yesterday, another Canadian citizen - this one of Iraqi descent - met reporters to tell his story of torture at the hands of the Syrians.

And here, too, the information used to justify the detention and torture of Muayyed Nureddin appears to have come from Canadian intelligence.
Apparently, he became a person of interest to intelligence agencies because of his involvement with the Salaheddin Islamic Centre in Scarborough, Ontario. It seems the two principals who preceded him had been arrested for apparently security-related causes, one in Canada, the other in Egypt.

Taking a trip back to Iraq this past summer to visit his family, he was questioned by Canadian officials for 45 minutes before being allowed to board his flight. On his way through Turkey to Iraq, he was detained and interrogated for three hours by Turkish officials who asked questions almost identical to those he'd been asked in Canada. On leaving Iraq and heading for Damascus for a flight home, on December 11 he was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by Syrian intelligence forces - who asked the same questions he'd been asked in Canada and Turkey. Sometimes they even knew the answers.

Over a month later, January 13, he was finally released.
To put it bluntly, there is growing suspicion that these kinds of things are happening on purpose - that CSIS and the RCMP have adopted their own version of what the U.S. calls "extraordinary rendition" and are making quiet deals with foreign dictatorships to interrogate Canadians abroad using methods that would be illegal at home.
And all justified by "the war on terror."

The beneficial effects of becoming part of the global economy

You of course know the cliche "a rising tide lifts all boats." It's true. But only for boats.
China says the wealth gap between its urban and rural citizens is now one of the largest in the world.

A new survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that in 2002 urban residents earned three times more than their rural counterparts. ...

But the man in charge of the study, Li Shi, says even the new figures do not paint a true picture of the disparity which he claims is even wider.
From BBC News for February 26.

Much of the gap arises from corruption and economically discriminatory policies affecting peasant farmers. The point here, however, is that as China has become more integrated into the world economy, the gap has grown: The benefits go to a relative few while the many fall even further behind.

It came from beyond geek

One of the coolest things about cosmology - the study of the universe as a whole - is that subject of your concern is so vast and so complex that no theory, no hypothesis, is without questions and shortcomings, so there is always more to learn and discover.

It's been known and accepted for some time that the stuff we can see is only a small fraction of what there is. Even if we extend the range of our vision via technologies that can detect infrared and ultraviolet light, x-rays, and other forms of energy we can't see directly, it's still a small part. That seems startling but is actually quite reasonable: Unless something is either a source of energy (such as a star) or reflects energy (such as a planet) and that energy is intense enough when it gets here to be detected by our instruments, we can't "see" it. The existence of so-called "dark matter" is well-established, although there is still disagreement on exactly what makes it up. Is it, for example, some kind of exotic matter with which we're unfamiliar or are there just a lot of burned-out stars and "brown dwarfs" (small stars that glow so feebly they'd be almost impossible to see) out there?

The weirder notion is the existence of what's called "dark energy," a form of energy which has a major influence on the development of the universe from the "Big Bang" to now and into the future but which we can't detect, which we can only infer by its effects on matter that we can see. This still mysterious energy is a sort of anti-gravity force, one that repels rather than attracts, and that is accelerating the expansion of spacetime.

Marina Del Rey, California (New York Times, February 19) - Some of the biggest objects in the cosmos are behaving in a way radically out of step with the prevailing theory of how the universe was born and evolved, a team led by French astrophysicists said here on Thursday. ...

Many aspects of the universe, like its expansion rate, seem to be correctly explained by a universe in which the bright stars and glowing gases of the heavens are, in effect, floating in a sea of the unseen matter and energy. But the new findings, which rely on X-rays collected by a European satellite, XMM-Newton, suggest that the huge clusters are dancing to their own tune, refusing to behave as the mainstream theory predicts they should.

According to the theory, most of the clusters should have coalesced billions of years ago and changed only slightly since then. But by analyzing X-rays emitted by the stupendously hot gases whirling about in those clusters, the team found that there were far fewer of them in the distant past, said Dr. Alain Blanchard, a scientist at the Astrophysical Laboratory of Toulouse and Tarbes in France who spoke here.

The discrepancy with what is often called the "concordance" model, or theory, is not subtle, Dr. Blanchard said. The number of clusters several billion years ago is about a factor of 10 too small, the calculations show. Instead, he said, the clusters were still coalescing and growing in the cosmically recent past, apparently violating the predictions.
Some astronomers question the findings, noting that there are large uncertainties in the measurements made and they'd have to be confirmed before they could be accepted. Let the fun begin.

And I do mean fun.


What is X-ray?

"C" Food for $400

Some refer to this spicy dish as a "bowl of red."

Thursday's question later today.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

He shoulda stuck with music

Rethuglicans tried to "distance themselves" from Rethuglican Alan Greenspan's remarks to the House Budget Committee on Wednesday, but it seems to me he gave a very good summary of the GOP economic plan.
Washington (AP, February 25) - Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, stepping into the politically charged debate over Social Security, said Wednesday the country can't afford the benefits currently promised to the baby boom generation. ...

The central bank chairman also repeated his view that Bush's tax cuts should be made permanent to bolster economic growth. He said the estimated $1 trillion cost should be paid for, preferably, with spending cuts so the deficit would not be worsened.
Greenspan proposed changing the method of calculating inflation to one that gives a lower figure and continuing to raise the retirement age.

So let's see. Cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age as a means of controlling the deficit while simultaneously increasing the deficit by $1 trillion by making tax cuts that favor the rich permanent, to be paid for by further reductions in government spending. I dunno, just add the caveat that spending on the military and "homeland security" have to go up because we are, after all, in a war don't you realize, so those cuts will have to come from domestic programs, and I don't see from what the White House feels the need to "distance" itself.

Oh, wait, it turns out this is the "distancing":
President Bush said he did not believe current retirees' benefits should be cut, but restated his support for allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private accounts.
Oh, yeah, I can see how that is really majorly-type different. Especially since Greenspan also said benefits for current retirees should not be cut. Huge difference.

Footnote: If you went into a store that was having a sale good though the weekend, would you feel justified in storming out, denouncing the place for its intention to "raise prices" come Monday? No? Then why is the end of what was specifically labeled a temporary tax cut being called a "tax increase?"

For my next number, "Imagine"

According to the Associated Press for February 25, Guy Philippe now wants to show what an all-around nice guy he is.
The leader of armed rebels who have overrun half of Haiti said Wednesday he wants to "give a chance to peace" and indicated his troops would hold off attacking the capital to see if President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will resign.
The fact that Port-au-Prince is showing hundreds of die-hard, armed Aristide supporters had nothing to do with that decision, of course. Meanwhile,
A U.N. Security Council meeting on Haiti was scheduled for Thursday. President Bush said the United States is encouraging the international community to provide a strong "security presence," and France said a peace force should be established immediately for deployment once a political agreement is reached. ...

"As far as President Aristide is concerned, he bears grave responsibility for the current situation," [French Foreign Minister Dominique] de Villepin said. "It's his decision, it's his responsibility. Every one sees that this is about opening a new page in the history of Haiti."

France also said it wants human rights observers sent to its former colony and a "long term" engagement of international aid aimed at reconstructing its economy.
I admit I'd expected the endgame chorus of "it's all Aristide's fault" to start with the US, but apparently France is ready to bat leadoff. Maybe they're still trying to make kissy-face after the, uh, "misunderstanding" over Iraq in the Security Council. What's particularly notable about de Villepin's comments is that if there had been a commitment to "long term" engagement, this situation well might never have arisen.

Look, let's be blunt about this. Jean-Bertrand Aristide has proven, as I noted previously, to be a lackluster administrator. He has, it's clear, also turned something of a blind eye to violence committed by his supporters against his opponents (although he has not completely ignored it, contrary to some accounts). In 2000, he did use his party's domination of the committee in charge of running the election to ram through victories in seven disputed Senatorial races where the victors won by pluralities rather than by majorities, as required by law. (I previously said there were 10 such elections; seven is correct.) He was, in his overwhelming popularity, too dismissive of opponents. There is no question but that there is anger against him and his support has waned.

But - using the dispute over the 2000 elections as an excuse, the Bush administration blocked the release of $512 million in Interamerican Development Bank loans which had been already approved for Haiti while pressuring the World Bank, the IMF and the European Union to reduce other planned assistance. In the meantime, in the period 1994-2002 the US "funneled some $70 million to create, fund and organize an opposition to President Aristide." An outfit called the International Republican Institute, supposedly nonpartisan, assisted and advised opposition political groups.

The result was deepening poverty and a continuing crisis. Yes, Bill Clinton did use 20,000 US troops to restore Aristide to power in 1994 after the coup in 1991, but as I said on February 9, that was only after Aristide had many so many compromises that once reinstated he could not possibly deliver on his promises to uplift the poor. Even a 1994 attempt to raise the minimum wage enough give it the same buying power it had before Aristide was elected - the new figure would be the lap-of-luxury amount of $3.00 a day - was opposed by USAID. (Even such minimum wage laws as do exist are routinely ignored. Among the most notorious sweatshop owners is Andy Apaid - one of the leaders of the supposedly nonviolent opposition to Aristide.)

Overall, this is the same pattern pursued in Chile after the election of Salvador Allende, when the US blocked all economic aid and tripled military aid. That simultaneously undermined the economy and strengthened the hand of the generals, eventually leading to the monstrosity of Augusto Pinochet. Here, again, a popular (and populist) leader is elected, and here again the US sets out to economically undermine that government while aiding its opponents.

The same pattern may well lead to the same results. I find it increasingly difficult to believe that the political opposition forces do not have some sort of connection or at minimum communication with the violent opposition forces. First, there is, of course, the wink-and-a-nudge "rejection" of violent insurrection by the politicos as a merely matter of tactics, not goals. Furthermore, all of them know about people like Philippe and Louis-Jodel Chamblain, they all know who they are, they all know what they did when they were in charge. Yet they not only don't reject them, they seem astonishingly unconcerned as the armed rebels move ever-closer to the capital, seemingly unruffled by the prospect of Philippe's forces overrunning the country, trusting, apparently, in their own security. That would explain why as the crisis has worsened, their demands have stiffened: Their side is winning. As AP reported,
[t]he opposition coalition rejected an international peace plan that diplomats had billed as a last chance for peace. Aristide on Saturday accepted the plan, under which he would remain as president but with diminished powers, sharing the government with his political rivals.

"It is absolutely necessary for the international community to accompany the country in its quest for a mechanism that will allow for a timely and orderly departure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide," said a statement from the opposition Democratic Platform coalition.
It's wise to recall that in the parliamentary elections in 2000,
the 27 opposition parties, including the 15 parties in the Convergence, received only about 12 percent of the vote. One Haitian opposition leader who did not want his name revealed, admitted at the time, "Aristide cannot be beaten in democratic elections."
Despite all that's happened in the interim, it's likely - probable - that remains true and if elections were held now, Aristide's Lavalas party would still emerge on top. That's why the elites who dominate the "opposition coalition" are demanding Aristide step down: They are taking advantage of the chaos - chaos which they have tacitly endorsed even if they had no hand in initiating - to demand they be handed on a silver platter what they know they could not achieve at the ballot box: control of the government.

Based on France's remarks, it now appears that the international community is ready to capitulate in that demand rather than actually doing anything in support of an elected government. "Doing something" need not involve armed intervention. (Although Jamaica has suggested that a small force placed astride the two roads from the north to Port-au-Prince could effectively separate Aristide's supporters from the reborn army.) What it could involve is telling the opposition that what they are demanding amounts to a coup and that if they pursue it, any government that arises from it will be considered illegitimate, that their foreign assets - not Haiti's assets, their assets (rest assured, they have them) - will be seized, and that if they set one foot out side Haiti they will be arrested. It would mean telling Philippe and the rest of his murderous goons the same while pointedly telling the Dominican Republic, which has sealed the border, that it is to stay sealed.

Whether that would do any good, at this point I just don't know. I have already said that I believe Aristide should step down as part of a settlement involving an orderly transition and guarantees of arrangements for elections, elections, I add here, which should take place under international supervision. I still believe that, even though I said it before the emergence some of the perpetrators of the cruelty of the 1991-94 military dictatorship as leaders of the "rebels," a change which requires the international community to take a vigourously active role if disaster is to be averted.

The elites have made some motions in regard to the first half of that but, I think tellingly, have been very coy about the second part. Lacking such enforceable guarantees, I fear the time for elections will not prove to be "ripe" until the outcome can be as pre-ordained as it was in Iran, with all the show and none of the substance of democracy, with the rich back in their mansions and the army in control of the poor in their hope-drained hovels.

That may indeed be Haiti's future. But it doesn't mean we have to like it. Or accept it as permanent. Or accept our own government's role in destroying whatever hope Haiti might have had.

Compassionate Conservatism Dept.: The AP says
Bush reiterated that the U.S. Coast Guard will turn back any Haitian refugees trying to reach American shores.
Translation: "We really don't give a flying f-word what happens to Haiti as long as it doesn't bother us."

Wednesday, February 25, 2004


What is the moon?

I Need My Space for $1000

The Chandra orbiting telescope takes this kind of photo; hey, maybe we can see Pluto in its underwear!

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

For my next trick.... (yawn)

Okay, we all knew he was going to do it. And now he finally has.
Today I call upon the Congress to promptly pass, and to send to the states for ratification, an amendment to our Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of man and woman as husband and wife. The amendment should fully protect marriage, while leaving the state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage.
I suggested on Sunday that I don't think that Bush is going to make a big issue out of this for a variety of reasons. I think today's announcement was actually in line with the notion.

First, the Republican leadership seems in no hurry to push the matter.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said he appreciated Bush's "moral leadership" on the issue, but expressed caution about moving too quickly toward a constitutional solution, and never directly supported one. "This is so important we're not going to take a knee-jerk reaction to this," Delay said. "We are going to look at our options and we are going to be deliberative about what solutions we may suggest."
And some House Republicans have already indicated they think an amendment is unwise. It's impossible for me to imagine Bush was unaware of this, which means he was urging an action which he knew had little chance of actually occurring.

Further, in his announcement, he endorsed "an" amendment (not "the" amendment that's been introduced) and at that one that leaves "state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage," indirectly but I think pointedly leaving the door open to some form of "civil union."

In short, my take on this is that Bush is trying to look like he's doing a lot (to satisfy his right wing) while actually doing very little (to avoid the risk of alienating any moderates, all of who he needs). If I'm right, there won't be a lot of political capital invested in this and on the campaign trail when the issue comes up it'll be "I've made my position clear on this" rather than diving into it.

Of course, as I said before, I could be wrong, I am all too often, and the Democrats should have something ready just in case. But that's how I see it.

Just wondering

The new US-sponsored Arabic news service, designed to apply "CNN production values" to a "balanced" (but of course) presentation of news to the Middle East, is called al-Hurra. That's Anglicized Arabic for "the free one."

I wonder how many hours some PR team put into coming up with a name that would be useful in Arabic and sound like "all hurrah!" in English?


What is Saturn?

I Need My Space for $600

Its perigee, the closest it can come to Earth, is 221,456 miles.

We've got him! We've - uh, wait....

February 22, (Australia):
Osama bin Laden is reportedly surrounded by United States special forces in a mountain range that straddles north-west Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Internationally respected investigative journalist and author Gordon Thomas says the al-Qaida terror group leader has been sighted for the first time since 2001 and is being monitored by satellite. ...

Thomas attributes his report to "a well-placed intelligence source" in Washington who is quoted as saying: "He (bin Laden) is boxed in." ...

Once the area was sealed, the special forces troops watched and waited for the order to go in and end the largest manhunt in history.
February 23, CNN:
Pakistan has launched a military operation against al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the country's tribal regions along the Afghan border, Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said. ...

[U.S. commander in Afghanistan Lt. Gen. David] Barno said the hunt for bin Laden remains a "very, very high priority" for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

But he seemed to back off a previous statement that the coalition would capture bin Laden and Omar this year, saying "there are no certainties in the war-fighting business out here."
February 24, BBC News:
US forces in Afghanistan have said they are stepping up the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, who is believed to be in the border area. ...

Pakistani intelligence officials say Bin Laden is not the immediate target of the current operation in the semi-autonomous South Waziristan region of North West Frontier Province.

But they hope to glean clues leading to his ultimate capture. ...

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri dismissed reports that American and British forces are closing in on Osama Bin Laden.

Mr Kasuri denied reports in a British Sunday newspaper [the Sunday Express] that the al-Qaeda leader was "boxed in" and said no such information had been passed on to Pakistan.
"Boxed in," in this case, seems to turn out to mean "somewhere in this vicinity," which US and Pakistani forces have thought for months. Even if he himself has in fact been spotted - I have my doubts, recalling how a wedding party in Afghanistan was shot up after being identified as a gathering of al-Qaeda terrorists by the same sort of intelligence a while back - turning that into a grab-and-go operation that's just waiting for the order strikes me as fanciful.

There are some who dispute that, such as the good folks at BuzzFlash, whose energetic vituperation of anything Bush (Ralph Nader ranks a close second) makes them a good source but can also tip them over into what at least approaches paranoia. They've been suggesting for some time that the White House actually knows exactly where bin Laden is and is just waiting for the most politically opportune moment to find him. In response to the "boxed in" story, they proposed that the 2004 "October Surprise" was perhaps just going to happen a bit early because of Bush's current troubles.

But exactly the same sort of thing was said about Saddam Hussein, even to the point of rumors that he'd already been caught and would be "caught" in a PR stunt at the most politically useful time. But what the hell was so politically advantageous about early December? And in fact, there were good indications, solid expressions of increasing confidence, in the weeks leading up to his capture, expressions that are lacking here.

It honestly seems to me that all the notions and rumors about Saddam Hussein have just been recycled for Osama bin Laden. (Even the notion that he's already been caught has been floated.) I can certainly accept that military intelligence is confident that bin Laden is in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and even that the purpose of the Pakistani military maneuvers, designed to seal the border, is in part an effort to keep him confined with the idea of eventually tracking him down. But the idea that the Bush team could take him at any time but would risk his slipping away while they wait for the best time politically to take him is frankly just too far over the top for me to take seriously.

Update: The US military is beginning to sound more confident of catching Osama since the start of the Pakistani border operations.
Kabul (Reuters, February 25) - Time is running out for Osama bin Laden, the U.S. military said Wednesday, as American and Pakistani forces step up operations against al Qaeda and Taliban militants along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier.
In the wake of the blowout about its involvement in the transmission of nuclear weapons technology, Pakistan has become more "cooperative" with US desires to clamp down on suspected militants in the mountains along the border with Afghanistan, becoming the "anvil" to the US's "hammer." It appears the US thinks the effort will actually - if eventually - prove productive.

Footnote to the Update: The same article says US military spoke of "renewed urgency" in hunting down bin Laden.

Hmmm.... I wonder what could be driving that?

Yes in the grand scheme of things it's almost irrelevant but dammit it's still a good thing

It took five years of work, lobbying, and overcoming of corporate stalling and obstruction, but, CNN reported on Saturday,
New Jersey now has a state law barring hospitals and nursing homes from forcing health care employees to work overtime except in emergencies. ...

With the law that went into effect Tuesday, New Jersey joins only Washington state in banning mandatory overtime at health facilities. West Virginia lawmakers passed a ban that awaits the governor's signature. At least six other states have debated such legislation, according to Mary MacDonald, director of the AFT Healthcare union.
For years, forced overtime has been a major issue for health care workers along with rotating shifts (where personnel work different shifts at different time). Studies have repeatedly shown that staff in either of those situations are more fatigued, burn out quicker, and make more mistakes, putting patient health and safety at risk. But both practices are also cost-cutters for management who have therefore resisted any change. Now, at least for some health care workers, that may change.

Both the New Jersey Hospital Association and the state Department of Health and Senior Services suggest that it may be difficult to comply with the law because of staff shortages, particularly of nurses. However, the NJHA also admits that the average vacancy rate for nurses has fallen from 14% three years ago to 9% now due to more aggressive recruiting and improved wages. With rising nursing school enrollment, the rate should fall even further.

The day is coming

I'll tell you one thing: He ain't his father.
Mayor Richard Daley said he would have "no problem" with Cook County issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in Chicago, the nation's third largest city.

Entering a national debate over gay marriage, Daley urged sympathy for same-sex couples because "they love each other just as much as anyone else."

Daley also dismissed a suggestion Wednesday that marriage between gay couples would undermine the institution.

"Marriage has been undermined by divorce, so don't tell me about marriage," he said. "Don't blame the gay and lesbian, transgender and transsexual community."
The same article quoted County Clerk David Orr as saying "I'm fed up with people being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. ... (But) whatever you do when it comes to challenging laws, you want it to be effective and not knee-jerk."

When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision that the state could not ban same-sex marriages, there was concern expressed that it would generate a backlash. Instead, it seems to have emboldened people to speak more openly of their support.

There have been some, fearful of its use as a wedge issue in the presidential campaign, who have said they support the rights of same-sex couples "but why did it have to come up now? It's not the right time." My reply, after noting my opinion as to why it won't be an effective wedge issue, is to ask "When would be the right time?"

Footnote: Some years ago, my then-wife and I talked about trying to start a group called something like "Straights for Gay Rights." It never got beyond talk - but happily there were others not so lazy and there are a number of such groups around now. PFLAG: Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is one such. Give them a look.

Good news for our side

Bush defends decision to go to war
Washington (AP, February 21) - President Bush on Saturday defended his decision to go to war in Iraq and his administration's postwar efforts to bring democracy to that country against Democratic criticism.
And why is this good news for our side? Because he's still having to defend the decision. He wants to use the war as a campaign issue but can't simply say "I fought the war." Instead he keeps having to say "I fought the war because...." And that's a significant difference.

I think someone needs a time out

Take Them at Their Words: Startling, Amusing and Baffling Quotations from the G.O.P., Their Friends and a Few Others, 1994-2004, a new book by Bruce Miller and Diana Maio, is due to be published next month. I hope they're preparing an addendum.
Washington (CNN, February 23) - Education Secretary Rod Paige called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization" Monday as he argued that the country's largest teachers union often acts at odds with the wishes of rank-and-file teachers regarding school standards and accountability.
In a written statement issued later, Paige called it "an inappropriate choice of words" while accusing the NEA of "obstructionist scare tactics."

Oh, well, that's all right, then.

Does anyone have any count of how many opponents of Shrub policies have been called "terrorists" or "terrorist-sympathizers" or of "standing with the terrorists" or whatever? The NEA is certainly not the first. "Terrorist" has become the 21st century version of "communist," the catch-all, "you're all the same" denunciation intended to squelch dissent while requiring no explanation. If Joe McCarthy was around today, he'd be saying "I have in my hand a list of terrorists...."

Oh, wait, he is.

Footnote: Wielding another catch-all phrase, this one the standard defense of anyone caught saying something truly asinine, an administration official said Paige was "clearly joking."

Well, yeah, he is a joke - but I don't think that's what the White House meant.

Frontiers of free enterprise

This is a few days old, but I just heard about it and thought it too good to let pass.

According to AP for February 17, advertising writers in Florida were planning to use Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire," which is about spiritual crisis and the redemptive power of love, to pitch a hemorrhoid-relief product.

Cash's family said no.

Good to know some things are still beyond the reach of corporate checkbooks.

This actually has been a matter of some debate among creative artists. For the Britney Spears of the world, for who music is just the way they make their big bucks, trading themselves in for some ad work and thereby putting a few more paychecks in the account is a good thing. For some of us who still to at least some extent identify either as listeners, creators, or performers with "That Old Time Rock and Roll," music was/is something more than just a way to buy a bigger house.

As an example of the latter, I remember reading a letter in "The Nation" some time ago from one of the former members of The Doors who recalled the group unanimously agreeing to turn down an offer for "an amount of money that still makes my knees wobble" from an ad agency for the use of one of their songs.

Seems that the Cadillac slogan "Break on through" was originally supposed to be "Break on through to the other side."

Monday, February 23, 2004


Who is Mars? (Acceptable: Ares)

I Need My Space for $200

Its "A" ring is a little over 9,000 miles wide.

Dark times, part two

Perhaps the two key items in all the press coverage of the trials of Haiti were tossed off in single short references in today's news. From the Toronto Star:
The rebels say they have no political agenda beyond ousting Aristide, but the man who started the rebellion, Gonaives gang leader Buteur Metayer, on Thursday declared himself the president of liberated Haiti.
And from AP:
As an opposition coalition was on the brink of rejecting a U.S.-backed peace plan on the grounds that it did not call for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to step down, Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned opposition politicians and asked them to delay responding formally to the plan for 24 hours.

Evans Paul, a leading opponent who once was allied with Aristide, said the coalition agreed the extra time "will perhaps give Mr. Powell a little more time to consider his position ... and give us the assurances we need" on Aristide's departure.
The significance, especially of the latter, arises from the situation. On Sunday, the rebels captured Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, with little resistance. As they have in other places, they burned buildings and freed prisoners from the jails (I note that I've seen no coverage as to who these prisoners are or why they were jailed, or what happens to them. I wonder, frankly, how many become recruits to the cause of "freedom."), unleashing what AP called "a rampage of reprisals and looting." In addition,
rebels hunted down militants loyal to Aristide, accusing them of terrorizing the population in the days before the fall of the northern port city of 500,000. ...

"We're going to clean the city of all 'chimeres,'" said rebel Dieusauver Magustin, 26. Chimere, which means ghost, is used to describe hardcore Aristide militants.

It was not clear what would happen to those detained. One rebel said they were saving them from lynching. But another, Claudy Philippe, said "The people show us the (chimere) houses. If they are there, we execute them."
There is obviously no intent to stop there. Rebel leader Guy Philippe told AP that he hopes to take Port-au-Prince by Sunday, adding, says the Toronto Star, that "I think that in less than 15 days we will control all of Haiti."
Remissainthe Ravix, another rebel leader, told The Associated Press there was no turning back.

"We have the weapons and the expertise to take the country," he said. "Nothing can stop us."
Meanwhile, the US has sent a contingent of 50 Marines into Port-au-Prince to protect the US Embassy and staff while
hundreds of armed Aristide supporters set up more than a dozen barricades on the road leading north, near the international airport. Their tension was evident as they banged on a car with rifle butts and waved shotguns and pistols at vehicles to force them to stop.

"We are ready to resist, with anything we have - rocks, machetes," said a teacher guarding one roadblock, who gave his name only as Rincher.
That is the violent, chaotic, and dangerous situation in which the political opposition to Aristide feels it can dither about, making flip remarks about giving the US more time to "consider its position" because of the refusal of the international community to give that opposition everything it wants. Clearly, they smell total victory within their grasp. But if they are being honest about having no connections to the rebellion other than a mutual desire for Aristide to resign, do they really imagine that people like Guy Philippe, on the verge of their own outright victory, are going to just lay down their arms and swear fealty to this "new" government? If they do, I frankly think they're fools.

Since I don't expect that they're fools, I can see only two alternatives: Either they are lying about their support of the bloodshed (perhaps the less likely, since they did condemn the violence in Cap-Haitien) or they are naively convinced they can work with the same thugs whose c.v.s include "drug runner," "FRAPH officer," "coup plotter," "convicted mass murderer," and "notorious human rights violator."

I've already said I think Aristide should step down in return for an orderly transition and new elections. I also think that the opposition should accept the international community's proposal for a new Cabinet while allowing Aristide to finish out his term, as Aristide already has. But it seems to me now that both parties - even assuming honorable intentions - may well have waited too long. The dark days are returning.

And I can almost guarantee that when they do, we'll hear over and over again it was all Aristide's fault. Not just some (surely justified), not even most (doubtful but at least debatable), but all. None of it an opposition dominated by the old guard of the rich, none of it the murderers returning to power, none of it the cutoff of aid that has plunged Haiti into even worse poverty. All Aristide.

Footnote: In the wake of the 1991 coup, economic sanctions were placed on Haiti in an attempt to force the military dictatorship to allow Aristide's return. During that time, a number of voices on the right argued against such a course, saying sanctions "only hurt the poor." The effectiveness (and effect) of sanctions can be argued back and forth - but what's often forgotten is that, as I just mentioned, in the wake of the disputed 2000 elections, millions of dollars in aid to Haiti has been cut off. Have you heard one - just one - of those same rightwing voices say that the aid should be restored to avoid hurting Haiti's poor? That should tell you all you need to know about their actual commitment to justice.

Dark times, part one

To no one's surprise, the reactionaries have retaken control of majlis, the Iranian parliament. The outcome was never in doubt after the Guardian Council succeeded in tossing out the candidacies of over 2,000 reformers. By the time of Friday's elections, fewer than 250 veteran reformers could be found among the 4,500 candidates. As a result,
[c]onservatives took at least 149 places in the 290-seat parliament, which has been controlled by pro-reform lawmakers since their landslide win four years ago. Reformers and self-described independents won about 65 seats, according to Interior Ministry figures. The final count was expected Tuesday,
AP reported.

It's hard to measure the effect of the reformists' call for a boycott of the elections. The turnout, according to the Interior Ministry, was just over 50% nationwide, the lowest in any general election since the 1979 Islamic revolution; in Tehran, only about 1/3 of voters turned out. Those figures represent a significant drop since the last round of elections, when nationwide participation was at just over 67% and that in Tehran a little under 50%. However, they're also higher than reformers hoped and conservatives feared; reformers had hoped to keep the national turnout below 40%. The boycott effort was undoubtedly hindered by differences in the ranks of reformers, some of who, like President Khatami, openly urged people to vote, and by a massive PR campaign by conservatives who said it was a "religious duty" to go to the polls. And it may also represent disillusionment with the inability of reformers to deliver on their promises because of opposition from the unelected clerical bodies that still hold the levers of power.

In any event and despite the reduced turnout, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it a "national and an Islamic epic in the true meaning." Reformers, however, called it an "historical fiasco." Indeed, reformist lawmaker Rasoul Mehrparvar went so far as to say that hardliners will face God's punishment.
"I hope you will be questioned on Judgment Day before God because you are not responsive to the people in this world," he said, addressing the head of the Guardian Council, which was responsible for the mass disqualification of liberal candidates.
In the midst of this, some are trying to put the best face on the outcome. There are, for example, predictions of splits in the conservative block. The Christian Science Monitor considers that possibility:
Among the conservatives, two factions - hard-line and moderate - are already gearing up for the new tug of war. But amid a cascade of uncertainties and mixed signals, Iran's political future is far from clear.

Many reformist Iranians predict renewed repression, and point to the closure of two reformist newspapers on the eve of the vote as a sign of things to come. But others argue that moderates will prevail and embrace key elements of the reform agenda.

"This is the point where the usefulness of hard-liners is over," says Amir Mohebian, a director of the conservative newspaper Resalat. "They will endeavor to stay in [control], but their time is over. The new mission belongs to moderate conservatives.

"Hard-liners are like dynamite: You can destroy things with them, but can't build things," adds Mr. Mohebian.
Even if the victory of moderate conservatives over extreme conservatives does come to pass, a victory that I think will not mean reform as we would understand the term but could mean more tolerance for some openness of expression both politically and personally - that is, not letting go of the reins of power but holding them somewhat more loosely - it will still be a long and hard road and one on which I think those "moderates" will find they need the help of the very reformers they cooperated in ousting.

Footnote: The Guardian Council has accused the Interior Ministry of "playing with figures" to lower the turnout rate, the BBC reported on Monday. Interior put the nationwide turnout at just over 50%, but the Council says the real figure is closer to 60%. Apparently, reformers aren't the only ones trying to put the best possible face on things.

The week ahead

I'm moving on Friday, a matter of absolutely no interest to more than maybe two or three of you, if that. But I did want to let you know that as we enter the last leg of the effort, I'll probably be doing less blogging. So entries might be on the thin side for the next several days. I'll try to keep up a little - I know how you depend on my sage insights - but don't be surprised if there isn't a lot of new content between now and maybe Monday.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Talk of the town

So Ralph is running. (Big shock - did you really think he was going to go on Meet The Press to say he wasn't running?) I think I can guarantee - I haven't checked yet - that this is going to be the big hot topic on the blogs today with almost everyone screaming about how evil he's being and how all he's going to do is throw the election to Bush "again" (with some, like Buzzflash, implying that's what he actually wants to do) and how they've "lost all respect for him," and so forth and so on, all adding up to a sounding board for the official Democratic Party meme that for Ralph Nader it's all about "his ego."

People, chill out.

First, the charge that Ralph Nader is now a closet George Bush supporter and "a creature of Karl Rove" is unmitigated crap. Calling him foolish is one thing, calling him a conscious hypocrite and liar is another. In fact, just by mentioning it I've given it more credit than it deserves. So enough of that.

As for throwing the election, I've already expressed my views on that on December 7, where I also laid out my own reasons why I thought Nader should not run in 2004. (With something of a reprise on December 13.) So I'm just going to give a quick summary here. Simply put, Ralph Nader did not cost Al Gore the election in 2000. He couldn't have, because Al Gore won the election. He won the popular vote and would have won the electoral vote if there'd been a complete recount in Florida - and that's with the scrubbing of thousands of likely Democratic voters from the voters' list and the infamous "butterfly ballot" that even the beneficiary of which, Pat Buchanan, says cost Gore a few thousand votes.

Beyond that, it wasn't Nader's fault that Al Gore and the Democrats ran an incompetent campaign in which Gore blew the debates, failed (as even his supporters admit) to define himself and what he stood for, and couldn't even carry his own home state. Nader didn't cost Gore the election, Gore did.

So clean slate. The question is, what effect will Nader have on the race in 2004?

Now the truth be told, if the Green Party wasn't on the ballot in Massachusetts and he was, I would likely vote for him. Yes, I know all about John Kerry; I suspect more than a lot of you. Hell, I even remember Dewey Canyon III. I like some things about him (he would be much better on civil liberties than Bush), dislike others (he's very establishment and corporate-friendly), and am suspicious on yet others (he talks a better game on trade than he used to but his voting record doesn't reflect it). But the bottom line here is, let's face it, friends, Massachusetts is not going to be a tossup state. Even Joe Lieberman would have carried it handily.

But what about other places? How much impact will he have? I think very little. Nader himself suggested he'll pull more votes from libertarian and conservative types who want to express dissatisfaction with Bush. Personally, I doubt that but the facts remain that he doesn't really have an organization and that so much of the left side of the spectrum is focused on Anybody But Bush that I can't see him (or any other leftist third party or independent candidate) getting much support from there from anyone except the genuinely ideologically committed who otherwise likely wouldn't vote at all. His support will be clearly less than in 2000. Overall, Nader's effect on the outcome will be negligible. I actually think he'll get more hostility than support, as he already has.

That hostility may have been counterproductive for those who wanted to convince him not to run. It came in desperate waves of anger and paranoia mixed with piles of scorn. I began to think several weeks ago that if people really didn't want him to run, they should just shut up about it. As it was, it came to appear that a decision not to run would not have been a tactical choice or a personal decision but a capitulation to a form of intellectual mob rule - and as others have pointed out, that's not the way to get Ralph Nader to do something.

And for those who say that just proves that for him it's all about his ego, I have two things to say: First, whatever candidate you're supporting, are you telling me they don't have a big ego? That anyone could do what they're doing and not have a big ego?

And second, you have attacked Nader's motivation, judgment, sincerity, honesty, even his intelligence. Frankly, folks, you're the ones that made it personal.

Update: I've now checked, and I was right on both counts. It's all over the blogs and most comments are nasty and personal. I think a good tactical argument can be made against a Nader run (in fact I made one, linked above) but what I read rarely went beyond spittle-covered venom and vituperation.

Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo was perhaps the worst of the lot; somehow, when Nader comes up, he loses all sense of proportion and flops over into irrationality. He called Nader a "latter-day political narcissist," "an enemy of progressive change," "a cat's paw of the Republican party" (which he then said was too generous because "a dupe at least doesn't know he's being used," meaning Nader not only is, but knows he is, helping the GOP), and a "pied piper of political oblivion" running on "a platform of vacuous moral posturing and self-aggrandizement." All in eight sentences.

The one thing most (not all, but most) seem to agree on is that he will garner much less support than in 2000 and will have little if any impact on the race. Why, then, all the wailing and gnashing of teeth? Is this really about Nader or about, as I suggested in that same earlier post, a stubborn refusal to face up to the Democrats' own failings and spineless refusal to stand up to the GOP slime machine? The fact that everyone seems so delighted - and astonished - that Kerry is not rolling over under Rethuglican attacks suggests to me it's the latter.

Update: Edited to correct typos and for grammar.


What is Texas?

Greek and Roman Mythology

The English names of this god's two companions are panic and fear.

Ya lose some

For the second time in five weeks, Shrub has used a Congressional recess to appoint a reactionary to a seat on a federal appeals court. The beneficiary this time was William H. Pryor Jr., the attorney general of Alabama.

Pryor, a fanatical opponent of abortion, also had argued in a brief before the Supreme Court that if a law in Texas outlawing sex between homosexuals was overturned, it would open the way for legalized "prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography and even incest and pedophilia." In addition, he had a record of soliciting contributions for the Republican National Committee from companies doing business in Alabama, who would be subject to his authority as Attorney General. His nomination had been blocked by a Democratic filibuster.

Displaying the usual sort of whining you hear from bullies who are faced with people ready to play by their rules, Bush pouted that
"A minority of Democratic senators has been using unprecedented obstructionist tactics to prevent him and other qualified nominees from receiving up-or-down votes. ... Their tactics are inconsistent with the Senate's constitutional responsibility and are hurting our judicial system."
But of course, such tactics are entirely in keeping with Senate rules, and they and a number of others were used regularly against judicial nominees offered by Bill Clinton.

The actual abuse here is by Bush. (Big surprise.) The authority to make recess appointments was intended to cover periods in which there might be an extended time before the Senate could act on a nomination. The recess in this case was one week, which certainly was not what anyone had in mind when the provision was written into the Constitution. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) called it "questionably legal and politically shabby."

But that of course didn't deter the Rethuglicans, who suggested in the wake of the appointment that there may be more to come.

The only upside is that a recess appointment is only valid until the end of the current session of Congress. So unless he's confirmed by the Senate, Pryor will have to leave the bench sometime in the fall of 2005. Judge Charles Pickering, the other recipient of Bush's largesse, will have to vacate the bench this fall.

Footnote: During the debate in the Judiciary Committee about Pryor, Democrats complained about a television campaign that smeared opponents of Pryor as anti-Catholic.
But Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and Mr. Pryor's principal supporter, called him "this solid Catholic individual" and said that his opposition to abortion, for example, in cases of rape and incest, was good Catholic doctrine. Therefore, he said, if someone is opposed for holding that position, "Are we not saying that good Catholics need not apply?"
No, what we're saying is that someone who by your own argument would base his judicial decisions on his religious beliefs is unfit for the bench. We are not - at least not yet - a theocracy.

Ya win some

In a victory - perhaps a short-lived one, but still a victory - for San Francisco and advocates of same-sex marriage, Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay declined to issue an injunction ordering the city to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He combined three suits on the matter - two against the city's practice and one by the city challenging a state law defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman - but did not announce who the presiding judge would be in the combined case and did not set a date for arguments.
San Francisco's city attorney, Dennis Herrera, said his city and county are "going on the offense" with their lawsuit. "Mayor Newsom took a bold step last week, and we fully agree with him that his position is justified."

Herrera said the city's case will assert that the state law banning same-sex marriage goes against California's constitution because it violates the equal protection and due process clauses.
President Bushleague, reveling in his new-found love of the word "troubled," said he felt that way about the terrible, terrible goings-on in the city by the bay. Interestingly, while his aides keep saying he's going to endorse a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, he hasn't done it yet. My suspicion is that they haven't calculated the political fallout - or perhaps they have and realize it's not going to be as potent a wedge issue as they hoped.

That is actually what I suspect, that is, that same-sex marriage is not going to be an effective hot-button issue for the GOPers. For one thing, while polls consistently indicate a clear majority of Americans oppose the idea, they also indicate that about 40%, give or take, approve it. That's a minority, but it's still a good chunk of people. And some of them are of a libertarian mind, people who would tend to lean Republican. Make this a big issue, you risk pushing some "small government" people away from you rather than toward you. You also risk making some people who still think of you as somehow "compassionate" uncomfortable: "Hey, I don't like the idea any more than you do. But, I dunno, this seems like going too far, y'know?"

Those risks are based on another point, an important one: There simply doesn't seem to be the passion about this that other wedge issues were generating at the time the Republicans abused them. Even after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, even with the events in San Francisco, there doesn't seem to be any wave of fury sweeping the populace. The voices heard are the ones that have been heard all along. My impression is that overall, straight people in the US may not like the idea of same-sex marriage, they might even be downright against it. But unlike previous wedge issues like crime and affirmative action, they don't see it affecting them personally in any significant way, so they are unlikely to overlook other issues to cast their vote based on it.

I expect Bush will endorse the amendment as a means of shoring up his weakening right flank, but I don't think he's going to try to make a real issue of it. There's not going to be a same-sex version of Willie Horton.

I could be wrong, of course, I am often enough, and I do think the Democrats, if they're smart (making the bold assumption that "smart Democratic campaign" is not an oxymoron), will have something prepared for it, just in case, something that doesn't wimp out on the issue, which would probably be worse politically than an open endorsement of same-sex marriages.

Of course, I'd love to see such an open endorsement, but it ain't gonna happen this year. But I'm confident I will live to see it.

Footnote: Barney Frank, an openly gay member of Congress from Massachusetts, says he's "sorry to see the San Francisco thing go forward" because of an image of "lawlessness and civil disobedience."
Frank said he had hoped Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court decision upholding the right of same-sex couples to marry would serve as a national model for orderly, legal protection of gay marriage.

"If we go forward in Massachusetts and get same-sex marriage on the books, it's going to be binding and incontestable," Frank said Tuesday.

Instead, Frank said, San Francisco's move promotes the notion that unpopular laws can be broken or ignored. ...

Newsom spokesman Peter Ragone praised Frank as a respected leader on gay rights issues but denied that the mayor's decision to issue same-sex marriage licenses promotes illegal behavior.

"We don't view this as breaking the law," Ragone said. "We view this as upholding the state's constitution, which explicitly prohibits any form of discrimination."
Aw, jeez. Has it really come down to this? Have we really become so limp, so domesticated, as a people?

Of course what San Francisco is doing is civil disobedience! It's civil disobedience in the truest sense and grandest tradition. The city officials are defying a law they believe to be wrong in pursuit of a higher law - in this case, the state constitution - and using their breaking of that unjust law as a means to mount a legal challenge to it.

C'mon, folks! John Peter Zenger! Henry David Thoreau! The underground railroad! The suffragists! Martin Luther King, Jr.! This kind of thing is, well, it's, it's, well, it's downright American! Props to Mayor Newsom and his administration!

Unintentional Humor Award Dept.: A few representatives of a wacko antigay group called "Repent America" were demonstrating outside San Francisco's City Hall. One of the participants said "We wanted to just uphold the laws that already existed, lock the door, keep them from marrying, stopping the spread of AIDS, stopping the spread of perversion."

Making the I think safe assumption that the "perversion" here is sex and noting that AIDS is an STD, just how does stopping gays and lesbians from getting married stop them from having sex?

It's a hard road ahead

The crisis in Haiti is worsening even as diplomatic efforts aimed at a settlement increase. As the Toronto Star reports
Port-au-Prince, Haiti - Scores of foreigners, including missionaries and aid workers, streamed out of Haiti yesterday to escape a two-week rebellion that has overwhelmed the impoverished country's north. Many police deserted their posts, and rebels threatened new attacks this weekend.

Later in the day, diplomats from Canada, the United States and other countries handed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide a plan that calls for an interim governing council to advise him, and for the appointment of a prime minister acceptable to the opposition.
There would appear to be a curious disconnect in these efforts in that while they treat the situation as if Aristide and his political opponents were the parties in control of events, that opposition insists it has neither a connection with nor influence over the armed thugs overrunning the northern half of the country.

However, it's likely the world community realizes that the thin denials of the opposition are hardly persuasive. Consider this quote from Saturday's New York Times:
"We are not allies," Mr. [Chavannes] Jean-Baptiste[, a leader the opposition,] said of the rebel soldiers. "We are on the same battlefield, we have the same opponent and the same objective but completely different methods."
Not exactly a ringing rejection of violent insurrection. Another clear clue, drawn from the same article, that the political opposition, even if it didn't originate the rebellion, is allying itself with it:
A burly former army captain known as Commander Ravix, who led the well-armed and apparently well-disciplined troops clad in camouflage into Hinche on Friday, said his troops were "not rebels, but representatives of the new Haitian army."
Jean-Baptiste echoed the term in defending the rebels, saying "at least the army doesn't fire on the people," thus according them a legitimacy that the term "rebel" does not.

That may also explain another aspect of the diplomatic efforts: Aristide is obviously not happy with the plan, which proposes to establish a multiparty cabinet with a prime minister agreeable to both him and the political opposition while allowing him to finish out his term as president. In fact, as the BBC reported on Friday,
at a ceremony to honour policemen who had died in the uprising, a combative President Aristide made it clear he did not intend to go quietly.

"I, too, am ready to die if that is what I must do to defend my country," said the president, who has survived three assassination attempts and a coup d'etat.

"If wars are expensive, peace can be even more expensive," he added.
Nonetheless, he has accepted it even after insisting he's defending democracy against "a band of terrorists." On the other hand, today's New York Times reports,
[d]espite hours of hard negotiating, the opposition refused to budge, insisting that Mr. Aristide must resign immediately. At one point during talks with a group of opposition leaders, one diplomat could be seen hammering the table with his fist. But the visiting diplomats evidently had few inducements to offer the opposition.

"The plan calls for us to build a government with Mr. Aristide, but that is not acceptable," said Rosemond Pradel, leader of one opposition group, who briefly left the talks in a luxury, hillside hotel.
Apparently, however, there were some second thoughts about seeming so rigid, as later Bahamas Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell told reporters
"While we did not get a yes, we did not get a no, and they (the opposition) have agreed to revert to us with an answer by the close of business on Monday,"
says the Toronto Star, quoting wire service reports. Perhaps they, too, will ultimately decide that even if they're unhappy with the deal, it's the best thing going right now.

But even if an agreement is reached, what will that mean? If, as the opposition claims, it has no influence over the armed rebels, what will that change? Those troops of thugs - composed largely, the Miami Herald reports on February 20, "of former soldiers seeking revenge against Aristide for dissolving the military in 1995" - are the 900-pound gorilla in this who are unlikely to be moved by any rapprochement between Aristide and his weekend negotiating partners. In fact, the media, having pigeonholed the rebellion as some kind of spontaneous uprising against an unpopular president, has failed to take a critical look at the leadership that has emerged.

Last Saturday, Guy Philippe and Louis-Jodel Chamblain arrived in Gonaives, announcing their support for the insurgents. In the time since, Philippe has emerged as first among equals, declaring, the Times reported, that the forces of the Central Plateau were allying as the Haitian Liberation Front, with himself in command.

The Miami Herald piece contains one of the very few critical examinations of Philippe's record. He is accused by both Haitian and US officials as being a drug trafficker both during his time as police commissioner in Cap Haitien and later during his exile in the Dominican Republic. He has also been accused of involvement in several plots to overthrow the government, the first one an attempt to overthrow then-President Rene Preval in October of 2000. Subsequently, he was linked to a July 2001 attack on the Police Academy in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville and an attack by more than two dozen gunmen on the National Palace in Port-au-Prince on December 17, 2001. Furthermore,
last year he was briefly detained in the Dominican Republic for questioning about alleged meetings with former Haitian military officers to hatch a coup plot.

Throughout the spring of 2003, there was a string of attacks by mysterious gunmen around the Central Plateau - the area now occupied by Philippe's forces - that the government blamed on Philippe.
It was after the 2001 attack that he fled into exile in the Dominican Republic. There he was supposedly "under the guard of the Dominican authorities," who claimed they were looking for a third country to take him since the Dominican Republic had no extradition treaty with Haiti. (The link is to a translation of the original page, which in in French.) Apparently, they weren't watching him that closely any more because he seems to have gotten back into Haiti rather easily.

Chamblain, who arrived in Gonaives with a 20-member commando team, is for his part labeled by Amnesty International "a notorious perpetrator of human rights violations" who was apparently involved along with Philippe in the attacks in the Central Plateau, including the July, 2003 ambush of four employees of the Ministry of the Interior. Like Philippe, he fled into exile to avoid prosecution, but in his case it was in 1995. He was convicted in absentia of murder. The Herald notes that he was a "notoriously brutal leader of FRAPH, a paramilitary group that supported Haiti's 1991-1994 military dictatorship."

AI also notes that a third leader of the armed opposition,
Jean Pierre Baptiste, alias "Jean Tatoune", is also a former paramilitary leader who was sentenced to forced labour for life for participation in the 1994 Raboteau massacre.
These people are not democrats and are not interested in political power-sharing. On Friday, the Times quoted Philippe as having
told reporters in Gonaives that he and his 300 men were planning an assault on Port-au-Prince.

"If Aristide doesn't leave, we will march on the capital," Mr. Philippe said on Radio Vision 2000.
The first part of any agreement reached in Port-au-Prince, assuming that the opposition is being even halfway truthful about its lack of support for the violence of the insurrection, would have to be a common stand denouncing it and demanding it stop. The second act would have to be a common stand by the international community that if those who are attempting to return to the days of dictatorship and bloodbath ignore that call, they will stand literally alone.

The third thing would be for that same international community, if by some miracle this gets pulled off, to stand with Haiti and commit real resources, real money, real time, to helping that shattered society rebuild not only its economy but its institutions.

Writing in the New York Times on February 19, James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND and Bill Clinton's special envoy for Haiti from 1994 to 1996, claims much for Clinton, saying he "strongly supported the ousted president, sending 20,000 troops in 1994 to restore him to power." Which is true. But, as I mentioned on February 9, that was "only after making so many promises to, and compromises with, the Clinton administration that it became impossible for him to fulfill any of the promises he'd made to the poor of Haiti to improve their lot." And afterwards, the US largely turned its back on Haiti, leaving it to fend for itself. And, as Dobbins says,
[t]he current administration ... cut off all American assistance to the Aristide government while giving advice and moral support to Mr. Aristide's opponents.
In that sort of vascillating among shows of force, indifference, and hostility, which has left Haiti a land of, if it's possible, deeper poverty and greater despair because of the fall from higher hopes, can be found by far the deepest and strongest roots of the current crisis. It must not be allowed to continue.

Other previous posts on Haiti were on February 12 and February 15.

Right hand, meet left hand; I thought you two should get to know each other

Oh, me. From the New York Times, February 21.
The most active terrorist network inside Iraq appears to be operating mostly apart from Al Qaeda, senior American officials say.

Most significantly, the officials said, American intelligence had picked up signs that Qaeda members outside Iraq had refused a request from the group, Ansar al-Islam, for help in attacking Shiite Muslims in Iraq. ...

American intelligence officials continue to describe Ansar, which has many foreign members, as the most dangerous terrorist network operating in Iraq.

By contrast, the evidence since the war began of operations inside Iraq by Al Qaeda has been limited and generally inconclusive, American officials say.
From Reuters, February 22.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, flying to Kuwait on Sunday on a previously unannounced trip to the Gulf, blamed al Qaeda guerrillas for violence in Iraq.

"They clearly are involved and active," Rumsfeld told reporters during a refueling stop in Ireland....
Is there any remaining basis for suggesting these people have a single clue about what they're doing?

Footnote: Just a reminder: The prewar presence in Iraq of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Ansar al-Islam who Colin Powell called "an associate of and collaborator with" Osama bin Laden, was the White House's primary basis for suggesting a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda - a sort of Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance deal. Now they're reduced to saying that the request for help is, in the words of an unidentified official, a sign of "emerging links" between Ansar and al-Qaeda, effectively admitting to yet another lie.

Saturday, February 21, 2004


What is Standard Oil (of New Jersey)?

Fill 'Er Up for $2000

Gulf Oil goes back to the famous oil find at Spindletop in this state in 1901.

Greek and Roman Mythology


We've been down this road before; I expect the ultimate result will be the same, but it does show how corporations learn lessons for each new battle.
Los Angeles (Reuters, February 20) - A federal court has ruled that privately held 321 Studios must stop making software that allows users to copy DVDs, handing Hollywood's major movie studios a victory in their ongoing battle against copyright piracy. ...

The case had tested the limits of 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protects copyright holders from illegal copying of movies, music, books and TV shows, among other creative content.

321 Studios had argued its software protected DVD owners because it gave them the ability to make copies in case their original DVDs were destroyed and the company claimed the DMCA allowed the copying DVDs if copies were designed for the sole use of the owners.

The studios had countered that 321's software circumvented special software encryption codes that protected the DVDs from being copied and therefore violated the DMCA.
This same fight has occurred on various fronts over the last years, most notably in the cases of computer software and videotapes. In each case, the producers' argument has been the same: pirated copies cost them money. In each case, the figures offered - $3 billion a year in the case of videotapes - have been grossly inflated because they assume that every pirated copy is a lost sale. That is, if there are, let's say, 10,000 pirated copies of Raiders of the Lost Ark floating around out there they're assuming that every one of those 10,000 people would have purchased a copy at full retail price if the pirated copy hadn't been available - which is absurd on its face.

Nonetheless, such piracy did undoubtedly cost them bucks. So they tried various routes and ruses to prevent people from making copies - and just as repeatedly failed. Particularly in the case of software, they were frustrated by the fact that people had the legal right to make backup copies - so if means to defeat copy protection were found, the companies had little basis to object because it only allowed people to do what they had a right to do.

Ultimately, the companies pretty much gave up and instead did what some pirates themselves said they had to do to undermine piracy: lowered their prices or, in some cases, kept them the same over time, in effect lowering them in comparison to the price of other items. (Which they certainly could afford to do: When CDs were first coming onto the market, a lot of people complained that they usually cost as much as twice what a cassette or a record - a what? - of the same music did, even though the production costs were actually lower.)

In the case of the DMCA, however, if I understand it correctly - and I'm sure someone here will correct me if I'm wrong - it has become illegal to evade a copy-protection scheme, overriding any remaining rights you have to make backups for your own protection. It was that provision the 321 Studios ran afoul of.

There is a bit of slimy legal trickery going on here, which many people don't know about. You can find it buried in the small print of some of the contracts you supposedly agree to by using software and sometimes find it in fine print on DVD cover sheets. Under this view of law, when you buy that software or that DVD you don't actually own it. That physical disc you hold in your hands isn't yours. It still belongs to the producing company. What you have purchased is the right to use that software or right to view that DVD and the item itself is merely the means by which the production company enables you to do that. So you have no right to make any copy of it - because it's not yours in the first place.

That was the lesson learned between the software battles and now. The issue, now as then, frankly is more than money: To something like the entertainment industry, the actual amounts lost to piracy are little more than chump change. The bigger issue is control. That's what terrified them about bootleg software, about Napster, about overriding DVD protections: losing control. Control means power and power means money - yes, it does come back to money - but power also means power. I believe the notion of having and using power for its own sake is an aspect of corporate behavior which we who resist it have failed to consider adequately.

Ultimately, however, I think the studios will fail here as they have failed before. Someone will post code to override DVD copy protections (in fact, I bet someone already has). It will spread sub rosa with the studios constantly playing catch-up, suing or threatening to sue providers and trying to track down individuals as they did with file-sharing. By such means they can limit bootlegging, but they won't stop it. In fact, they'll likely have less success here than with file-sharing because there they could attack the continuing transmission of a large number of files whereas here they'll be trying to chase down one. (Because of their sheer size, the internet distribution of full-length DVDs simply does not for at least the near future rise to the level of probability - or, for that matter, possibility - that distribution of individual songs does, so the concern is over the distribution of physical as opposed to digital copies. Once you have the protection-busting software, you no longer need a web connection to burn copies.)

Obviously, I've addressed here only one part of the issues raised by the DMCA and that in a rather jumbled way. I want to make clear that I'm not indifferent to the problems facing the creators of works who have seen their work ripped off for the use of others. I have been in that position both as a writer and a photographer (although I admit that in neither case was I financially injured, just pissed off). I do support copyright laws. But the fact is that movie studios, frankly, do not actually create movies; writers, actors, technicians, f/x people, directors, and all the rest do. Studios are the ones that bring them together to accomplish that end, but the corporation is not the creative force. In cases like the one brought against 321 Studios, it's not the artistic creator who's being harmed by bootlegging, it's the corporation distributing that work.

So let's be honest about who's actually being protected here.

Update February 24: "In fact, I bet someone already has." Yup. 321 Studios has announced that it will market a revamped version of its product without the protection-busting features, noting as it did that such software was already widely available on the internet, often for free.

Ironically for the industry, removing the copy-busting also removed a feature that labeled a copy of a DVD made with the product as a copy and prevented more than one copy from being made.

Frontiers of free enterprise

The New York Times reports that federal officials have already uncovered people marketing fraudulent versions of the drug discount cards approved under the Medicare deform law passed some weeks ago. (Previous posts about the law: One from November 24 and these three posts from December 1.)
In some parts of the country, people have gone door to door offering "Medicare approved" cards, though none have been approved and enrollment does not begin until May, federal health officials said. ...

Valeria Allen, an insurance specialist at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said, "Someone is fraudulently impersonating or misrepresenting Medicare by telephone and by door-to-door visits to beneficiaries' homes, to discuss the Medicare discount drug program and to obtain personal identifying information from beneficiaries."
Seems to me these are just entrepreneurs whose activities are entirely in keeping with the spirit that drove the legislation in the first place. By the way: Have you told AARP you're not renewing (or joining) yet?


This slipped by yesterday, so there will be two today (Saturday)

What is Texaco?

Fill 'Er Up for $1200

Esso stood for S.O., which stood for this.

Friday, February 20, 2004

An important thing to know

Thom Hartmann is the author of a book called Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights. I haven't read it so I make no recommendation about it (although I do find the title intriguing), but the basic premise is noteworthy.

Much of the dominance corporations have been able to achieve over the last several decades has drawn on the idea that they are "legal persons" and thus have the same rights of free speech, the same ability to make political contributions, and so on, that actual people do. Combine an equality of rights with an enormous imbalance in resources and you get what we've got.

The "legal persons" doctrine supposedly arose from Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, a tax case the Supreme Court decided in 1886. However, Hartmann has learned that nowhere in the actual decision did the Court rule that "corporations are persons!" The phrase actually occurs in the summary written by a court reporter of the arguments presented in the case.

What apparently happened, based on letters reproduced on Hartmann's site, is that before arguments began, the Court said it didn't want to hear about whether or not the 14th Amendment applied to "corporations such as are parties in these suits" because the Court felt that it did. Court reporter J.C. Bancroft Davis asked if that should be included in his summary of the case. In reply, Chief Justice Morrison Remick Waite said it didn't really matter one way or the other "as we avoided meeting the constitutional questions in the decision." Davis chose to include it and on that was built an entire edifice of corporate-friendly decisions.

There are two important points here: One, already made, is that the Court never actually ruled on the issue of corporate personhood, indeed, it "avoided meeting the question." And two, the Court's opinion that the 14th Amendment applies to corporations need only mean that they are entitled to due process - not that they have all the rights of human beings.

Any legal challenge based on this, of course, would be a long, long shot. Corporations are just too powerful and too much a part of our political and economic establishment for it to be otherwise at the present time. But every change started out as a long shot, and it's important for us to keep in mind the illegitimacy of "corporate personhood."
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