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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Tuesday, 23 May 2006
Participatory Democracy: Start With a False Premise
Topic: Backgrounder

Participatory Democracy: Start With a False Premise

The false premise in question, these days, seems to be that anyone other than "the decider" get a say in things. May 14, 2006, in Tautology and Royalty, there was an extensive survey of the speciousness of the idea that when it comes to decisions about what we do as a nation has much to do with laws the congress enacts, the courts that rule on the application of those laws, what we vote for and public opinion in general. The executive branch says what the president decides is what counts, telling us that we've all really misunderstood the constitution all these years. He alone has the final say.

Thus the now famous signing statements -
Dec. 30, 2005: US interrogators cannot torture prisoners or otherwise subject them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

Bush's signing statement: The president, as commander in chief, can waive the torture ban if he decides that harsh interrogation techniques will assist in preventing terrorist attacks.

Dec. 30: When requested, scientific information ''prepared by government researchers and scientists shall be transmitted [to Congress] uncensored and without delay."

Bush's signing statement: The president can tell researchers to withhold any information from Congress if he decides its disclosure could impair foreign relations, national security, or the workings of the executive branch.

Dec. 23, 2004: Forbids US troops in Colombia from participating in any combat against rebels, except in cases of self-defense. Caps the number of US troops allowed in Colombia at 800.

Bush's signing statement: Only the president, as commander in chief, can place restrictions on the use of US armed forces, so the executive branch will construe the law ''as advisory in nature."
And on it goes. The Attorney General on national television suggests locking up journalists who report what they're told (video here) - and, yes, they do report what seems to be quite illegal and troubling, but much of it is, after all, classified. You don't reveal what's classified.

The amount of classified information, much of it previously available, has probably tripled now, but then, you have to trust them that it all should now be classified, as they have our best interests in mind (our safety) and say no one should question their good intentions. What other motive for shutting down access to even the most innocuous information could they have? They're not evil, power-mad people, just making sure we're all safe. If you think differently you must be one of those tin-foil hate conspiracy nuts. Everyone knows they're just doing their best to keep us safe.

That telephone business? The president himself said in a speech in Buffalo last year that no one's phone would be tapped without a FISA warrant. Then they said the FISA law really didn't apply if you thought about things carefully, then told us they only checked in on al Qaeda calls to and from the United States without warrants. If you're not al Qaeda no one is checking. So relax. Then they said, well, they did track other purely domestic calls without warrants, but they were all "terrorism related" somehow, but they couldn't explain how they knew as that was classified. Then there was no denial that they've collected most all phone records of everyone for the last four years and they've got banks of computers scanning them all for suspicious patterns. Just about all phone calls are included. And there is no oversight of any of that, and certainly no warrants. But no one is listening in on any particular call, unless the algorithm makes the big computers beep and gurgle, so what's the problem? Well, it's one "not quite what we said" after another. You can see why the Attorney General might want to lock up journalists. They undermine the trust we should have that this is all just fine.

In that tautology and royalty item there was, in the middle of all the little details, this - the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility said that it couldn't investigate the role Justice Department lawyers played in the NSA's warrantless spying program because the Bush administration refused to give investigators the necessary security clearances. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility just up and quit the effort. What would be the point?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006, it happened again, but this time it was the FCC -
WASHINGTON, May 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will not pursue complaints about a spy agency's access to millions of telephone records because it cannot obtain classified material, the FCC's chairman said in a letter released on Tuesday.

Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, had asked communications regulators to investigate a newspaper report that AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications and BellSouth Corp. gave access to and turned over call records to help the National Security Agency fight terrorists.

"The classified nature of the NSA's activities makes us unable to investigate the alleged violations," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in the May 22 letter to Markey.
The FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin, used to be one of the Bush-Cheney campaign lawyers (think Florida recount, 2000), before he got this plum appointment. He says members of the FCC "take very seriously our charge to faithfully implement the nation's laws, including our authority to investigate potential violations of the Communications Act." But what can you do? The decider got his advice and classified it all at such a high level that even his own FCC just has to trust him. This is curious.

A logical reaction here - "So if the NSA won't allow the Justice Department to investigate, and the FCC won't even try, where does that leave us? Who polices the police?"

It seems to be a matter of trust, doesn't it? It's not just congress and the courts who must back off. The administration's own subordinate agencies have to back off.

The White House runs a tight ship. The circle of those who know and those who decide is very small indeed, just a few people. The idea seems to be that we chose this way of doing business in the last election (and maybe the one before it), so if you have a problem with any of it, in 2008 you get a chance to try something else, if more than half of the nation agrees with you and you can trick the new electronic voting machines into recording the vote you cast. Until then? Back off.

But people do persist in thinking they have some say in any of this, as is this from Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly - a challenge to those who seem to have problems with the warrantless telephone scans. It's a bit of a thought experiment -
The NSA spying program raises plenty of sensitive issues, but at least one of them hasn't received the close scrutiny it deserves: it's fundamentally a system for identifying criminals by statistical analysis. Americans need to come to grips with whether they approve of this.

Take a different, but equally incendiary example. Suppose that we could semi-reliably create a statistical portrait of child molesters: their age, geographical location, gender, and calling and buying patterns. Suppose they tend to rent certain kinds of videos, make phone calls to certain kinds of chat lines, and call up other known child molesters.

Needless to say, the FBI could track these patterns using the same methods as the NSA and then exploit the results to create lists of "possible child molesters." And it might work. But would we be OK with the FBI tapping someone's phone just because they fit a statistical profile? Or staking out their house? Or investigating their friends?

And if we can do it for suspected terrorists and child molesters, how about tax evaders and unlicensed gun owners? Can we tap their phones too because they're the "kind of person" who might be breaking the law? Should a court grant a search warrant based on a statistical pattern rather than a showing of specific fact?

And if not, why not? After all, if you're not doing anything wrong, why would you object to being investigated? And if the statistical patterns just happen to target lots of wealthy Republicans or rural white gun collectors - well, that's how the cookie crumbles. If that's what the profiling turns up, then that's what the profiling turns up.

Any problems with that?
Well, the meta-problem is in this - "Americans need to come to grips with whether they approve of this." What Americans approve or disapprove doesn't really matter much, does it? If they disapprove, what are they going to do about it? There's not a thing possible now.

But say that was not so (or say that were not so, if you're one of those hopeful people who prefer the subjunctive mode). Grant the premise is that identifying criminals by statistical analysis is possible. Then what? Take care of them? How? As in Spielberg's silly Tom Cruise film Minority Report, is there something fundamentally wrong in the state removing people, one way or another, for crimes they are likely to commit, or statistically almost certain to commit, without having committed any crime? The blurb from the film - "In the future, criminals are caught before the crimes they commit, but one of the officers in the special unit is accused of one such crime and sets out to prove his innocence."

This is a science fiction scenario - Spielberg's film is based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, and Asimov was in the very same territory in his Foundation trilogy. What do the folks at the White House read these days? They took that stuff seriously?

Well, the president himself turned to the author of Jurassic Park once, as noted here - "Fred Barnes recalls a visit to the White House last year by Michael Crichton, whose 2004 best-selling novel, 'State of Fear,' suggests that global warming is an unproven theory and an overstated threat."

The president may not be much of a reader, but he does read interesting stuff.

Grant the premise though, and ask yourself if you'd vote to change hundreds of years of legal precedent - the law only comes for you for what you do, not what you might do - because statistical analysis has become really good now. What's wrong with preventing a crime like a murder, as in the movie, or terrorist attack, as with the NSA pattern analysis of those billion or more phone records? You say there was no crime? The statistics say it's pretty much certain there would have been a crime.

Of course you see the real issue - who wrote the algorithms that drive the statistical analyses? Were they competent? Were they biased in any way, or careless, or unstable, or high on Twinkies, or jumpy from too much caffeine? Who cross-checked their work? Was the testing thorough at the code level and systems level? What about quality control and all the security stuff from version control to access control? Those of us who spent too many years in the systems industry may be more wary than the president and the president's men. But then, none of us is "the decider."

Drum follows up here saying that it may be too late to worry about all that, as he notes this from Noah Shachtman in Defense Tech -
The template, officials say, was created from a secret database of phone call records collected by the spy agency. It has been used since 9/11 to identify calling patterns that indicate possible terrorist activity. Among the patterns examined: flurries of calls to U.S. numbers placed immediately after the domestic caller received a call from Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Science fiction becomes science fact, or possible fact. No one is checking on flurries of calls to domestic numbers from Jakarta or Addis Ababa, or Munich? Who developed this template? He or she doesn't know narrowly fixing the geography masses things up, or at least opens big holes? Effective systems don't "think small." Any coder knows what you design will not account for what you don't expect, and the trick is, always, do your best not to limit yourself, on purpose, by your assumptions about what the users will do, or what data are churned out in the results. It can get tricky. Something you don't expect always bites you in the ass.

And Drum also digs up a quote from First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, here, on the real problem, or the overarching one. Abrams advises the feds -
We basically said if you want to engage in data mining, which we said was a very good way to gather information to fight terrorism, you should go to the FISA court to get permission. You should go to the court established by Congress and get an OK from the court to do so, and if - if you didn't think that was the right way to do it, you ought to go to Congress and get them to give you more authority to go to that court and get permission.
Yeah, but they said the FISA court, and any law like that, doesn't matter.

The news from Germany, the same day, was that they went the other way, with this from Germany's highest court -
In a decision made public today, the justices stated that foreign policy tensions or a collective threat level such as after the attacks of 9/11/01 do not suffice to permit the dragnet/grid/screen [i.e. data mining] searches... The justices found that officials [seeking to do data-mining] must have put forward concrete grounds to believe there will be foreseeable attacks in Germany.
No, no, no - the Germans gave us the fascist police state, perfected in the former East Germany. What's this role-reversal crap, with us sifting though everybody's everything, looking to get the goods on someone - we don't know who, but we'll get them before they do bad things? The irony is just sad.

Drum's thoughts -
The Bush administration can't keep this out of the courts forever, and if they continue to refuse to ask Congress to modify the law, there's a good chance the entire program will get tossed out eventually.

... Computer-based searches might very well be an effective way of tracking down terrorists. They might also be an effective way of tracking down lots of other criminals. But if that's the case, Congress and the courts need to set down clear guidelines and clear oversight for how it can - and can't - be used. The executive branch can't be allowed to decide unilaterally what's legal and what isn't.

The implications of this stuff are pretty far reaching. The American public and its representatives need to stop hiding from it and decide exactly how far they want it to go.
Like that matters now?

Posted by Alan at 23:18 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 24 May 2006 07:59 PDT home

Friday, 19 May 2006
Marketing: What George Bush Could Learn from the Consultant from France
Topic: Backgrounder

Marketing: What George Bush Could Learn from the Consultant from France

You know you're in trouble when you see headlines like this one from Knight-Ridder, Friday, May 19, 2006 - Americans don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either. Ouch.

This was the "get out of jail free" card, so to speak, or maybe speaking quite literally. Some days earlier, the president's key advisor and some say political genius, Karl Rove, relieved of his duties as policy advisor and now solely dedicated to political strategy, had famously said of the president's low approval ratings - "People like him. They respect him. He's somebody they feel a connection with. But they're just sour right now on the war. And that's the way it's going to be. And we will fight our way through."

Many looked at the poll numbers and didn't exactly see what "Bush's Brain" saw. And that's what this Knight-Ridden item is about. You look at the poll numbers and, to change the metaphor from Monopoly to poker, this "ace in the hole," his basic likeability that will bring people around, looks more like a three of clubs. Rove, to be clear, said he was using data from private internal Republican polling, and all the other polls didn't matter. He had the real facts (think of the WMD argument here of course). The Republican National Committee wouldn't release a copy of the poll in question (the UN inspectors finding nothing were wrong too, as we had better intelligence - the real facts we couldn't share with anyone). The spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee says it's all in how you ask the questions. Amusing.

Knight-Ridder opens with this -
It's not just the way he's doing his job. Americans apparently don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either.

A drop in his personal popularity, as measured by several public polls, has shadowed the decline in Bush's job-approval ratings and weakened his political armor when he and his party need it most.

Losing that political protection - dubbed "Teflon" when Ronald Reagan had it - is costing Bush what the late political scientist Richard Neustadt called the "leeway" to survive hard times and maintain his grip on the nation's agenda. Without it, Bush is a more tempting target for political enemies. And members of his party in Congress are less inclined to stand with him.
And the quotes from political scientists are there, like this one - "When he loses likeability, the president loses the benefit of the doubt. That makes it much harder for him to steer." And they review data from six major polls. The consensus - "The president's public perception problem is not only about his dismal job performance, but also his striking lack of personal favorability," as one expert puts it.

And about that -
Personal favorability can encompass many things in the minds of voters: character, respect, warmth, kinship, even whether a voter would want to have a beer with a politician. Or in the case of the teetotaling Bush, a soda.

Bush has lost ground on most of those measures.

Gallup, for example, found drops in the number of people who think that Bush is honest and trustworthy, that he shares their values and that he cares about people like them.
Does it matter? The idea is, of course, the "personal popularity can swing elections and affect governing." Al Gore was seen as wooden. He lost. And yes, former California Governor Gray Davis was cool and standoffish politician, and was "recalled" as Arnold Schwarzenegger was white hot (in many senses). Reagan survived the Iran-Contra mess with his bumbling doofus who means well routine - he just didn't seem the kind of guy that did bad things, at least on purpose. Or the Alzheimer's was starting to kick in, so you just couldn't be mad at him.

Bush doesn't have the Teflon that Ronald Reagan had. The persona presented in this case - the happy-go-lucky frat boy who laughs at people with degrees and ideas, who don't like to think or those who do, and who just trusts his instincts - isn't providing the same sort of protection when things go bad, or you and your folks screw up. Reagan's gentle fool bit works better than the scornful frat-boy thing.

What to do? This calls for a consultant!

But who would that be? It could be the chairman of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide.

To explain, this consultant, as noted in April 2004 in these pages here, was helping John Kerry is his attempt to dodge the jibes of Rush Limbaugh and the rest in his presidential run. Pretend you don't speak French and stop seeming intelligent and worldly.

The details were explained by Joshua Kurlantzick in the New Yorker in this -
A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French anthropologist known for identifying the subconscious associations that people from various cultures make in the "reptilian" part of their brains, had offered to become the Senator's Gallic Naomi Wolf, devising ways for him to rid his speaking style of French influences.

Suddenly, Kerry appeared to develop linguistic amnesia. "During a press conference, I asked Kerry a question, on Iraq," de Chalvron recalled. "He didn't answer. In front of the American journalists, he didn't want to take a question that was not in English." Loïck Berrou, the United States bureau chief for de Chalvron's competitor, TF1, has been having similar problems. Berrou chatted in French with Kerry on a commercial flight last year; the Senator reminisced about his family's country house in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, a village in Brittany, where Kerry's cousin is the mayor. "We've pushed hard to get an interview with him, and no answer," Berrou says.

Family members have apparently been put on a leash as well. Kerry's wife, Berrou says, "speaks with us in French with no problem, and her press attaché has to pull her by the shirt to get her away from us."
So the worldliness and language skills just disappeared.

Could G. Clotaire Rapaille help George Bush?

Of course the president, in this case, is already quite good at playing dumb, and more than clumsy with the one language he happens to know (except for a smattering of slang Tex-Mex Spanish words and phrases). The problem is almost the reverse of Kerry's.

For a review of the way Rapaille might approach this Bush problem, see this from October 2004, a discussion of how we are seen by the French, and how we hate them truly. Rapaille comes up there, in this from Elisabeth Eaves in SLATE.COM -
America is a shark. Full of religious zealots. Who are deeply divided against themselves.

These are just a few descriptions of the United States gleaned from just-released French books devoted to deciphering and explaining the other red, white, and blue. Parisian editors are dining out on a new subgenre that includes tirades, serious academic tomes, election-timed quickies by celebrity journalists, and even a novel, Frenchy, about a Parisian living in Texas when the United States invaded Iraq.
Eaves cites Clotaire Rapaille, this French-born marketing consultant based here in the States who specializes in selling across cultures, the one who advised the Danish Lego people that Americans do not read instructions and told French cheese-makers that Americans prefer their cheese "scientifically dead." Back then, Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, had a great deal to say about all this, as did the marketing professor at the famous business school in upstate New York who often adds comments (he knew and had worked with Rapaille and thought Rapaille was almost always spot-on).

Could Rapaille solve this "missing Teflon" problem and make Bush "likeable" now? It's an interesting question. "Selling across cultures" may actually be the real challenge. Can one devise a way to make the squinting and stubborn and not at all curious George likeable again, in the context of the issues at hand these days?

That would be cool, if you could pull it off. You just need the codes that unlock the NASCAR fan in every Boston liberal, and unlock the openness and generosity of spirit in the Minutemen loading their rifles and heading for the border to knock off a few Mexicans sneaking in.

And wouldn't you know, G. Clotaire Rapaille has a new book to be released in June, conveniently titled The Culture Code - "In The Culture Code, internationally revered cultural anthropologist and marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille reveals for the first time the techniques he has used to improve profitability and practices for dozens of Fortune 100 companies. His groundbreaking revelations shed light not just on business but on the way every human being acts and lives around the world."

The site, from Random House Broadway Books, had all the details, a few excerpts, and links to all the press and media on this fellow.

But is he the man for the job?

Laura Miller in the May 20 issue of SALON.COM interviews him here - "In America, seduction is dishonest" - and the opening indicated this guy is not the sort of guy Bush would like -
Clotaire Rapaille is a controversial, often outrageous figure, an anthropologist turned marketing guru and Frenchman turned American. From his flamboyant appearance (he swans around in a cravat and black velvet frock coat, drives a Rolls-Royce, plays polo and lives in a restored industrialist's mansion in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.) to his sweeping pronouncements on the "archetypes" underlying various national cultures, he tends to elicit either rapt attention or dismissive scorn. Academics write him off as both irrational and behind the times, rival market researchers accuse him of being simplistic and a shameless self-promoter - but an impressive roster of Fortune 100 companies have engaged his services and come back for more again and again.

Rapaille's method involves a three-stage focus group process, one that starts with the rational aspect of the participant's experience - the "cortex" as Rapaille calls it - then moves on to a more creative, storytelling portion targeted at the "limbic brain." The final stage, during which the participants are encouraged to lie on comfy cushions and dig down to their earliest memories of "cars" or "coffee" or even "seduction," is the only one that really counts for Rapaille. These sessions allow him to tap into what he calls the "lizard brain," a center of primal impulses, needs and memories that he calls "imprints." When it comes to decision-making, we may offer excuses from the cortex ("I want a car with great safety features"), but what really motivates us are the primitive emotions of the lizard brain ("I want a car that makes me feel free and strong").
This is no Karl Rove, who may himself have a lizard brain, but doesn't do focus groups. Rove plans attacks.

But then, they guy may have some good idea, beyond anything Rove imagines -
Q: You describe America as an adolescent culture, and that idea is not unfamiliar to many of us. What does it mean to you?

A: You have a series of elements and when you look at them all together, they tell you the same thing. For example, we never look at instructions. We never plan. The Iraq war is an example of that. We always want the short-term, quick fix. This is a stereotype, of course, but it's really true in the sense that we have the repetition of this pattern again and again. We are very uncomfortable with sex and have no sex education with our children, just some anatomical education. We have a hard time with our children because how can adolescents raise adolescents? I don't want to know what I'm going to do when I grow up even if I'm 75 because I don't want to grow up. I want to have fun, to be rich and famous now, to play. Now, I choose to be American because I'd rather be part of an adolescent culture than a senile culture.

Q: You feel that France is a senile culture?

A: Oh yes, they're almost committing suicide right now. They're destroying themselves.
The choices are death or perpetual and pointless adolescence? That can't be so.

And note this on doing things right -
Q: You say that a Frenchman says, "I think," while an American says, "I do." How do you reconcile this immediate gratification impulsiveness with the famous American industriousness?

A: For an American, if you think too much something is wrong with you. Yet there is this ability to do things, and that's because we learn by making mistakes. I did a lot of research about quality, comparing Americans with the Japanese. Americans don't want to do it right the first time the way the Japanese do. I don't mean consciously, but if I do it right the first time, then what do I do next? What do I learn? In this attitude, there is a lot of wisdom.
Of course that's all rather general, but it does get more politically specific -
Q: What about partisan politics in America? It seems particularly bitter at the moment.

A: Politics in America has a different code than in Germany, England or France. The Democrats and the Republicans say the same thing. After a while, they just say, for example, "We have to protect the border or deal with immigration and we just have different ideas about how to do that." The main goal is the same. In other parts of the world, you have different parties with completely different goals.

Q: So what do you think the divide in America is about? Because people feel it very strongly.

A: I think we have two parts of the brain fighting it out. The blue people are supposed to be thinkers. But the majority of America, the people who drive a pickup truck with a six-pack in the back and a gun, they see themselves as the ones who are doing and making this country, not just sitting there thinking. They shoot first and ask questions later. The key notion for me is that the blue people think too much, and because they think too much they can't agree on anything.

Q: President Bush seems to be working that kind of shoot-first, no-nonsense code, but the failure of his policies has made him very unpopular all the same. It seems like the ideal opportunity for the Democrats to step in and regain some ground, but hardly anyone seems to have much faith that they can pull it off. What do you think of their chances?

A: Here's one issue: Don't tell people, "Drive a smaller car." That goes against American culture. Say, "I'm going to do everything to make us energy independent." Independence is so American. We don't want to be dependent on all these crazy guys in the outside world. We want to be independent. And then we have to do whatever we have to do to become independent. A theme like that is very powerful, and Thomas Friedman wrote several articles about it but nobody is really listening to him.

We need a cultural leader, not just someone who says I can push a button and send atomic bombs to you. Someone who is proud to be an American and can present an image of America to the world. Not to impose our culture to the world, but we want you to understand it and we want to understand yours and respect each other. George W. Bush has not done that.

Q: But doesn't he embody a lot of codes of American culture?

A: In some ways, yes, he is the cowboy and so on. But my position is that Bush never won an election. I'm not going into the controversy - it's that the other guys lost. Kerry lost, Bush didn't win. Kerry should have won, that was so clear to me, but he did everything wrong. He didn't represent all the American culture and so we are left with President Bush.
And on it goes, with the idea of a can-do spirit as part of the American code, but then you have to go on and actually get things done. Talk is cheap.

And there's this on the rise of Christian fundamentalism -
Religion in America is Disney World. We're not really serious about it the way the Muslims are. We just want some rituals, we have so many different brands of religion. We like the stories about it and talking about what they say and don't say. It's little stories for children. When in Kansas they try to stop the teaching of evolution, it's like at Disney World. If you are in the Mickey Mouse costume, the rule is that you never take off your mask. You're not supposed to show in public that there is a real guy under the mask. That's religion in America; let the people keep their illusions. Don't show the reality.

Now, because we are adolescent, we like to take things to extremes: extreme sports, extreme everything. Moderation is boring - eating in moderation? No way. So we apply that to religion, too, religious extremism.
That's about it - Pat Robertson as giggling adolescent, high on the God idea, while everyone else grew up. Right. It's an interesting observation, but what do you do with it? The man fits in with the culture - he's rich and famous. And he tells the White House what's acceptable to his crowd of similar kids.

So what do you do if Karl Rove is indicted and the White House calls you in as consultant when Rove has to leave? Bush has the "if you think too much something is wrong with you" thing down cold. And telling Bush to curb the impulse to impose our culture to the world and tell everyone we want them to understand our culture and want to understand and respect theirs? Yes, Bush has not done that. And he won't - his whole foreign policy, developed in the late eighties by the neoconservatives with their Project for a New American Century, in firmly in place. There's nothing else, and he can't throw everyone out. As for being inspiring, switching from "be very afraid and be very angry" to "let's work with everyone and get some things done to make things better" is an impossible transition. The president is notorious stubborn, and the raw material for the new approach may just not be there.

It doesn't matter. They won't be hiring this French-born wild man. Things are set for the next nine hundred ninety days, with or without Karl Rove.

Go read the rest of the interview. The stuff on sex and drinking and love is cool.

For example, this is good -
I always say if you want to understand a culture, look at what the people do at 5 o'clock. In England, they drink some kind of hot water with an herb in it: tea time. In Spain, they kill a bull. The Americans have the happy hour, they get drunk. The French have cinq a sept, a very special thing, it's sexual. Men and women, who are married but not to each other, after work they go to a hotel and have sex. It's seen as experiencing pleasure with somebody else. For the French, life is about the refinement of pleasure. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but the cultures do provide very different reference systems.
And this -
American women are uncomfortable with being too sexy. You have to be sexy, but not too sexy. It is very, very difficult. I joke that if I come back one day as a woman, I don't want to be an American woman. It's too difficult.

In America, seduction is dishonest. In America, we say, "What you see is what you get," whereas in French culture it doesn't matter what you have, it's what you do with it.

... Beauty is an art. Red is red and blue is blue. It is not the color of the paint that makes the painting. Americans think a woman should be what she is and not have any intentions behind that. In French culture, the only thing that is sexy is the intentions.
You don't want this guy anywhere NEAR the White House.

Posted by Alan at 23:05 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006 23:10 PDT home

Friday, 12 May 2006
Facts and Figures: Fun with Numbers
Topic: Backgrounder

Facts and Figures: Fun with Numbers

In the political world, on Friday, May 12, 2006, was all numbers. And the first had to do with the big story that broke the previous day. This big story was, of course, the news that the National Security Agency (NSA) has compiled a database of domestic phone-call records from data provided by the three biggest telecommunications corporations - AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth. This would be a record of pretty much every telephone call made in America since sometime around a month or two after the events of September 11, 2001, involving around two hundred million people, and more than a billion calls. The National Security Agency has the number called, the number placing the call, and the duration of each call, stored in what seems to be the largest database in the world - but they don't have any idea of what was said in any given call. That's not the idea. The idea is to run all sorts of data-mining algorithms against the data and look for patterns, but how that would work, and what patterns would show what, is hazy. All this was done with no approval, other than the president authorizing the NSA to go for it - no court order or warrants - and no oversight - it was secret. Congress, save for a few who were told not to talk, knew nothing of this - and it may be massively illegal. The source item is here.

Sixty-Three

There was a ton of comment about this, or several tons, from the left and right, from those who don't think much of the president and his administration, and from those who think the man and his crew are brilliant and brave. Much of that was covered here.

Some comment was surprising. The politicians spoke - and even Newt Gingrich, right there on Fox News, said "I'm not going defend the indefensible." Really. You can watch the video here.

But expect for Arlen Specter and a few other Republicans, things lined up as they should. The Democrats said the usual about what they saw as the two core issues - first, civil liberties, specifically Fourth Amendment stuff having to do with everyone's right to left alone (no "unreasonable search and seizure") except if there's "probable cause" that they may have done or be doing something really wrong and there's a court-issued warrant allowing the intrusion, and second, the administration claim, once again, that everyone in well over two hundred years had really misunderstood the constitution and the president really does not have to follow any law or court order that messes up his plans, and the choice is his and his alone to decide which laws he should follow. The Democrats didn't like that at all. The Republicans argued this was no big deal, just collected business records and hardly wiretapping (not "unreasonable search and seizure"), and even if it somehow was, it was justified as the country is in the gravest peril ever - what we now face is far worse than the Soviet Union with ten thousand nuclear warheads aimed at our cities for decades, all those missiles on a hair trigger ready to launch, as this was a shadowy group of a few thousand people who didn't play by the rules and could grab airliners and fly them into buildings, or something like that. So in this special case the president really didn't have to follow the fancy pants rules - in fact, he shouldn't, as that would be dangerous, and he bravely recognizes that.

What did the public think? Thursday night the Washington Post conducted a flash poll (small sample and wide margin of error) and came up with this - "63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism."

So that's that - until the next poll.

There's a long discussion of the poll here from Glenn Greenwald -
The reaction is painfully predictable. Bush followers are celebrating with glee, as though the issue is resolved in their favor and they won, while some Democrats are quivering with caution, urging that this issue be kept at arm's length lest they take a position that isn't instantaneously and overwhelmingly popular.
Maybe it was nothing and the left is just being hysterical (some call them "drama queens"). We'll see how it all plays out. Is it a slippery slope thing, or the other metaphor, boiled frog, as in the story of the frog that doesn't realize, as the pleasant warm water get a little more warm, then warmer, then warmer, that he's being cooked dead? Who knows? Being safe is an immediate concern. The concept of what happens, down the road, as you incrementally give up a few basic rights and some privacy, now, for quite practical reasons, is massively abstract. Americans are a practical people. Considering that abstract stuff is for skinny French guys smoking odd cigarettes and sipping bad coffee at some café off rue Bonaparte on the Left Bank some rainy Paris evening, if they still do that.

But it will get more interesting, as we see here - that Tice fellow who blew the cover on the original story of NSA warrantless spying on America citizens (scandal one), will testify next week on the "all phone records everywhere database" story (scandal two), as congress considerers confirming General Hayden, who ran both operations, to head the CIA. Tice says those first two were minor. Hayden's NSA was doing lots more. This would be scandals three and forward.

And Matthew Yglesias has an interesting comment here -
Perhaps this is obvious, but the thing about the big NSA phone records dragnet is that this gives us the previously missing explanation as to why the administration thought it was so important to illegally wiretap people without warrants. That used to be a bit mysterious - if the idea was to spy on people with al-Qaeda connections, getting a warrant should have been easy. The problem is that the evidentiary basis for believing the people in question had al-Qaeda connections now turns out to have been illegally obtained evidence from the broader NSA program. And then the problem reiterates itself - if the listening-in stage of the program reveals anything interesting, you can't use that in a court either. You can't use it to get further warrants, you can't use it as the basis of a prosecution, basically you can't use it at all. So if you want to act, you're going to need to do one of these detention-without-trials deals or maybe a "rendition" or a military tribunal or what have you. And then, once the guy's in custody, if he tells you anything you can't use that either. So the whole process starts again and soon enough there's an entire parallel justice system operating entirely in secret without any oversight or real rules.

And that's the optimistic scenario in which all of the relevant people are maximally honest, honorable, and competent. Leaving aside the reality that nobody with a single shred of honesty or basic human dignity would be working for George W. Bush at this point, that's simply not a realistic picture of any large-scale enterprise. Things are bound to go wrong - badly wrong - when you have all these people operating outside the law without any checks or scrutiny.
An entire parallel justice system operating entirely in secret without any oversight or real rules? Would sixty-three percent of Americans find this an acceptable way to deal with terrorism? Probably.

Three

The big news Friday was this - federal agents searched the house of the resigned CIA agent Kyle "Dusty" Foggo in the morning -
Federal agents Friday morning raided the home of Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, who stepped down this week from the No. 3 post at the CIA amid accusations of improper ties to a defense contractor named as a co-conspirator in the bribery case of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

... Foggo resigned his post at the CIA on Monday, after the FBI began investigating whether he improperly steered contracts to Brent Wilkes, a Poway defense contractor and longtime friend of Foggo's. The CIA's inspector general has been investigating Foggo for at least three months.
The home, a rental, was in DC, not Poway (inland San Diego county and a nice little place where one of the nephews lives). But it was all over the news, and there was more - the FBI raided his office too, at CIA headquarters in Langley, which is really strange. He has a few more days there, but they escorted him out of the building and took away his security badge. And they didn't give a heads-up to his boss, Porter Goss, still there until General Hayden is confirmed and moves in.

The Justice Department and FBI bust the CIA, with guys from the CIA's Inspector General's office and the IRS tagging along? There's something you don't see every day.

The Cheney administration does, of course, hate the CIA. The CIA kept saying all that stuff about Saddam Hussein and his weapons programs didn't quite add up, no matter what Ahmed Chalabi said was so, and no matter what Rumsfeld's newly formed alternative mini-CIA had been saying.

They paid the price. The message? They were always all crooks.

Comparing Numbers

CNN decided to tick off the remaining twenty-nine percent of Americans who approve of the president with this, bringing up the Great Satan himself -
In a new poll comparing President Bush's job performance with that of his predecessor, a strong majority of respondents said President Clinton outperformed Bush on a host of issues.

... Respondents favored Clinton by greater than 2-to-1 margins when asked who did a better job at handling the economy (63 percent Clinton, 26 percent Bush) and solving the problems of ordinary Americans (62 percent Clinton, 25 percent Bush).

On foreign affairs, the margin was 56 percent to 32 percent in Clinton's favor; on taxes, it was 51 percent to 35 percent for Clinton; and on handling natural disasters, it was 51 percent to 30 percent, also favoring Clinton.

Moreover, 59 percent said Bush has done more to divide the country, while only 27 percent said Clinton had.
That wasn't nice. What about the pure, innocent, underage Saint Monica sweetie that Clinton defiled? And he lied about it, didn't he?

It seems that doesn't count anymore, or it seems minor compared to what now matters to most people. Times have indeed changed.

But that's just CNN. In the extended family out here, quite conservative (not only Poway but Carlsbad), no television is ever tuned to CNN. If it's the news, it's Fox. (But with the grandkids it's usually cartoons, so it doesn't really matter much.)

But this is interesting - "In the first poll of its kind, (using the first choice of TV news network as a demographic variable) OpEdNews.com, in the second OpEdNews- Zogby People's poll has learned that except for viewers of right wing news show, Fox News, poll respondents believe that the 2004 presidential election was stolen."

What? But the New York Times had been saying that only a few fringe extremists and some unhinged bloggers were jabbering on about the theft of the election.

But "of the people who watch Fox news as their primary source of TV news, one half of one percent believe it was stolen and 99% believe it was legitimate. Among people who watched ANY other news source but FOX, more felt the election was stolen than legitimate."

This is very curious, as in -
ABC - Stolen 56% Legitimate - 32%
CBS - Stolen 64% Legitimate - 31%
CNN - Stolen 70% Legitimate - 24%
FOX - Stolen 0.5% Legitimate - 99%
MSNBC - Stolen 65% Legitimate - 24%
NBC - Stolen 49% Legitimate - 43%
Other - Stolen 56% Legitimate - 28%
How odd, but then, among those responding, there was this -
... 37% watched Fox news, more than any other single network. CNN came in second with 21% with MSNBC third, with 13%. It makes sense for these three 24/7 news networks to be the top in this category, since the others air news for limited parts of the day.
Volume, or market share, matters.

Here's another way of looking at it -
These numbers are astounding, because they indicate that at least half of Americans believe that the last presidential election was stolen - unless they watch Fox News. And it isn't that the networks have been beating the Great Drum of Diebold, either. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find ANY coverage of the problems with DRE voting machines in the mainstream media at all. And yet, those who watch even the kind of Bush-coddling news that's been served up by the networks, MSNBC, and CNN for the last five years, believe the election was stolen.

Now I'd like to see a poll about what percentage of Americans believe that the Bush Administration allowed the 9/11 attacks to play out so they could have their war in Iraq.
Well, that's unlikely.

But where's it all lead?

Note this at the journal of the neoconservative crowd, the Weekly Standard -
D. Quinn Mills is worried. The respected Albert J. Weatherhead, Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School fears that America may be headed toward calamity.

Convinced that two straight elections which he characterizes as "tied and disputed" have gone to the Republicans and that good-faithed, but fatigued, Democrats have "exhausted all other legal options," Mills cautions that a third straight cliffhanger marred by Republican skullduggery could well result in a civil war. By which he means a real, honest-to-goodness Civil War, except this time around it won't be the Blue and the Gray but the Blue and the Red. To warn America about this gathering storm, Mills has written a novel titled Blue! Red! (available online here) and is conducting a sparsely attended online seminar on the subject for the Harvard community...
The rest of the item ridicules Mills - one more effete liberal crybaby, from Harvard of course, where no one know anything about the real world, and the man is clearly a fool, or so they imply.

They didn't read the Zogby poll. It could happen. Or not.

Economic Data Reframed

Thursday there was this - "The Senate gave final approval Thursday to a $70 billion election-year package of tax cuts that will extend lower rates for investors and also save billions for families with above-average incomes."

The president's tax cuts get extended for a few more years, but the seventy billion pretty much goes only to those who earn more than a half-million a year. Those who earn less would have been considered, but there were a lot of arguments and no one could decide what to do about them, so that's for later, if they get to it. Nothing's perfect.

Friday there was a lot of bragging on the Republican side on how this was going to turn things around - now voters would stop this flirtation with the idea of changing congress, and make sure those who delivered on cutting taxes would remain in power. Everyone loves it when taxes are cut.

That'll work, excepting people tend to reframe big numbers, like seventy billion dollars, so they understand the numbers on a somewhat more personal level, as in this -
Here's how the just-passed tax cut "benefits" you:

If you earn $50,000 or less per year you will save $2 - $46

If you earn $50,000 - $100,000 per year you will save $110 - $403

If you earn $100,000 - $1 million per year you will save $1388 - $5562

If you earn $1 million or more you will save $41,977 (average)

Here's what was deleted in the new package:

Deductions for state and local taxes
Deductions for college tuition fees
Deductions for school supplies for teachers who pay for them out of their pockets
Deductions for businesses hiring welfare to work (bringing people out of welfare)

It's pretty clear who wins in this one. Just the concept of tax cuts when we're at war, facing a $10 trillion deficit with notes worth hundreds of billions of dollars held by China and Japan should tell you just how much these guys love America and care about its people.
But they say they care, and expect the votes of the grateful. And this will keep the economy booming.

But people do persist in looking at the details, and not at the big picture. It's a day-to-day pay-the-bills thing. Bummer.

A Careful Examination of Demographic Data Indicates Hot and Heavy Sex is Necessary, Now

Now this is interesting -
On the May 11 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, host John Gibson advised viewers during the "My Word" segment of his program to "[d]o your duty. Make more babies." He then cited a May 10 article, which reported that nearly half of all children under the age of five in the United States are minorities. Gibson added: "By far, the greatest number [of children under five] are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic." Gibson later claimed: "To put it bluntly, we need more babies." Then, referring to Russia's projected decline in population, Gibson claimed: "So far, we are doing our part here in America but Hispanics can't carry the whole load. The rest of you, get busy. Make babies, or put another way - a slogan for our times: 'procreation not recreation'."
At the link you can find the video clip, and the base data the got Gibson started, but the implication is clear - it's a racial thing. White women get naked and open wide. It's the only hope for the white race, whatever that is.

Most curious. Fox News is mighty odd. The "master race" could lose this one? One thinks of Germany in the late thirties.

Beyond the Numbers Previews of Coming Attractions

Note this - "Within the last week, Karl Rove told President Bush and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, as well as a few other high level administration officials, that he will be indicted in the CIA leak case and will immediately resign his White House job."

That's from a real journalist, Jason Leopold, who has actual sources inside the White House. There are lots of details. The planning for a post-Rove administration is underway, as is a spin strategy to assert that the removal of Bush's Brain really makes no difference at all. Of course not. The irony is too delicious. The late-night comics will be all over that.

But it's only a rumor, and the trading in news futures shows only a thirty percent consensus in the market that Rove will be indicted, with a fifty-six percent consensus he'll resign. Go stake out a position and see how you do.

The numbers are always shifting. Check daily.

Posted by Alan at 22:53 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 12 May 2006 23:01 PDT home

Saturday, 22 April 2006
Boredom: More Useful Than You Thought
Topic: Backgrounder

Boredom: More Useful Than You Thought

So it's a dark rainy April afternoon in Rochester, New York, in the late seventies, and you're teaching your English class something or other about a key passage in Hamlet, asking questions about what they think is going on with this moody prince and his inability to get his ass in gear and do something about his unhappiness. Does he over-think things, being too smart for his own good? Is he afraid to take responsibility, or, in some smug, self-satisfied way, does he just love thinking there's nothing he can do? The roomful of sixteen-year-olds doesn't care. Whatever they bolted down for lunch has them groggy, and faint pattering of the rain outside has put them in their own moody trance. Some stare out the windows and others draw nothings in their notebooks.

Then it comes. It always does. In a dead spot among the few grudging responses - one or two of them testing if they can actually say the words they think are the words they may be supposed to say - one of the kids, in a fit of frustration and a flash of sincerity, blurts out "but Shakespeare is so boring."

The room comes alive.

You have your stock response - nothing is in itself boring. It would be more accurate to say the you are bored. That puzzles them all for a moment, when they all had thought this was "case closed" - a definitive judgment had been uttered by someone in the class who just cut through all the pretense. Now they have something to think about. And you can do a quick shift in the lesson plan, to a consideration of why some find Shakespeare, or anything else, boring, while others think it's fine stuff. They can dig into that, and discuss punk music and what they watch on television, and you can get to where you were going by the backdoor. It works.

But the sixteen-year-olds were bored. Even back then, thirty years ago, they were overloaded. Too much was going on. In addition to the social-sexual complexity of navigating their world of constant crises, and six or more classes each day in wildly different disciplines (chemistry and French and math and history and all - taught by some very odd adults who for some reason weren't in the "real world"), and after-school sports or music or clubs, their parents had them signed-up for this and that, and too there was keeping up on music and anything else that was supposed to be cool. And that's not even to mention dressing properly - disengaging from what the patents thought was appropriate and choosing what was distinctive and individual, but would be seen as cool within the parameters of the moment, what they saw on television and in the music videos and the ads everywhere. It was all exhausting. And Shakespeare was a pain, and boring.

But then, if the Brits who gave use Shakespeare are to be considered, boring may be good.

An item appeared in The Daily Mail (UK) in early April this year, summarized in Discovery Health thusly -
Psychology lecturer Dr Richard Ralley of Edge Hill College in Lancashire has embarked on a study of boredom - and says that a little thumb twiddling might be a good thing. Dr Ralley said that boredom could be useful because, at times when nothing is happening, humans conserve their energy for when they are able to re-engage. He advised that children should be left to their own devices to recover from a school term - or parents could involve them in their own activities in a challenging way, instead of "overwhelming" them with children's activities during the holidays. He began to collect case studies in 1999, and to date has received information from more than 300 young adults who have written about boredom. He hopes to present his findings this summer. He warned against parents "overcompensating" their children for having so much free time during holidays. Dr Ralley says boredom is associated with guilt about not having anything productive to do, but is a "natural" emotion and exists for a reason.
Okay then - you could have told the English class that, sure, Shakespeare really is boring, and they should be grateful for being in the class, as bored is good for you.

That may not have worked, but it's a thought. Riazat Butt in The Guardian (UK) had more detail on Thursday, April 13, 2006 with Boredom Could Be Good For Children - "It was Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote 'Against boredom the gods themselves fight in vain.' Although the musings of the German philosopher will certainly be lost on the millions of schoolchildren over the Easter holiday, their parents can find comfort in his words as they struggle to keep their kids entertained for a fortnight."

Did Nietzsche say that? Who knew?

In any event, the idea floating around is that boredom is a naturally occurring emotion that should not be suppressed. And this Ralley chap, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire, has launched his study of boredom.

Riazat Butt, not a boring name at all, gives us quotes from the psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire -
Boredom can be a good thing. In psychology we think of emotions as being functional. Fear, anger and jealousy all serve a purpose but they're painted in a bad light even though they exist for a reason. It's the same with boredom, which also has a bad name.

We get bored because we get fed up when we have nothing to do and feel the need to be productive. We feel bad when we're not productive and that's what boredom is associated with.

"Boredom is something, it's not just switching off. It can be useful. When there's nothing rewarding going on we conserve energy, so that when we want to re-engage we can. There's a balance between doing something that's rewarding and doing something that's rewarding but not being happy about doing it.
So the problem is the result of some emotional need to be productive, and sometimes there is just no need to be productive, and that upsets us.

Here's where we part with the Brits, and the rest of Europe it would seem, and especially the French. Americans worship productivity, all this making and doing. We work more hours per year than anyone else in the world, except for maybe the Japanese. We take little or no vacation. Successful mothers and fathers may seldom see their children, and when home be on the laptop or Blackberry catching up on email, reviewing data or tinkering with the next report. The kids are scheduled for this special lesson or that, or off to computer camp or whatever, so that's no problem. Meals are refueling stops - the idea of a leisurely dinner with friends and four hours of chit-chat is torture - and actually having to sleep is just an annoyance that messes everything up. We don't do bored.

Ralley says "Boredom is natural, so let's deal with it." It doesn't seem natural on this side of the pond.

And too, the fellow thought of this study, which he thinks he'll call "Boredom," six years ago, in 1999, and he's only now getting around to collecting case studies. Now he has more than three hundred from "young adults" who say things about boredom. And he "hopes" to present his findings this summer. So he may not. Or he may. Yep, he's not like us.

And the comments in the UK have been mixed, like Caitlin Moran in the Times (London) on April 21 with this -
All goes well in the halls of academia. Presumably reflecting a world where our major problems have been solved and nothing bad has happened for at least 50 years, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College, Lancashire, is embarking on a study of boredom. Dr Richard Ralley hopes to present his eventual findings over the summer - traditionally a time when teachers experience great boredom themselves, what with there being no marking, or small boys to remove from big bins.

Dr Ralley, it seems, believes that boredom has been underestimated. While humanity has acknowledged its enjoyment of other negative emotions - blind murderous fury, say, or the kind of moping self-pity that involves wearing unwashed bed-socks for a week - it seems that boredom, like communism or Supertramp, is one of the few things not to have enjoyed a modish rediscovery trumpeted by Dazed and Confused.

"Boredom is something - it's not just switching off," Dr Ralley is quoted as saying, presumably in a perversely excited tone of voice. "Boredom has a bad name ... but it can be a good thing. It can be useful." He is particularly concerned that the large, grey estuary-like stretches of boredom that characterised the childhoods of previous generations might be lost to the modern child.

... Of course, however laudable Dr Ralley's aims, the layman can observe a few flaws in his project. First, one wonders how he will actually find any bored subjects to study. As he suggests, the combination of PlayStation, Sky+, contraceptives and skunkweed have surely eliminated the pockets of ennui that previous generations will have so readily not-enjoyed. Sunday trading alone has irrevocably altered the current generation. I can recall being so bored on Sundays - empty streets, tolling bells, a million identical roasts slowly drying in their ovens - that I had competitions with my seven siblings over who could hold their breath the longest. Often we passed out and fell to the floor whilst the others looked on, purple-faced and impassive. On other occasions we tried to eat small snacks with pugilistic slowness.
And it goes on, suggesting "any number of swimming lessons, activity schools and instruction on the piano would have been more useful." Being bored, is, of course, boring.

And the British bloggers have taken up the topic, as in this, and review of others who seem to agree with the psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire.

That item concludes with this -
Lack of purpose leads to boredom; boredom leads to the discovery of new purpose. Boredom is therefore a mechanism (which, like most mechanisms, doesn't work always but does work sometimes) for turning no-purpose into purpose.
Oh. That clears it all up.

See also Zoe Williams in The Guardian on April 14 (Good Friday) with this -
Strictly speaking, you should not have a newspaper yet. You should not even be out of bed. It is a holy day. You should be lolling about on that tightrope of boredom where you are at a perfect equipoise between getting up and going back to sleep. Oh, you have children, you say. They are on holiday. You need to teach them Greek, and fast, because they've got kayaking in the afternoon, and the interactive "What Does The Inside of My Intestine Look Like?" exhibition at the Science Museum closes at a quarter to midnight.

Parents worry a lot about keeping their children entertained. In the holiday season especially, the thought process goes: we are a lot older than their fun little friends, plus we both have a hangover. Must entertain little bleeders. Must entertain and improve.

In fact, you could not be more wrong.

... The interesting thing about boredom, Ralley says, is that: "Boredom is unpleasant. You would expect an unpleasant emotion to have a really straightforward motivational effect, so being bored would make you get up and do something. But that doesn't seem to be the case - where people have written about being bored, they describe just sitting about more. You withdraw from things, so maybe there's an energy-conservation function going on. But at the same time, it is still unpleasant, and the unpleasantness could be a protection against your withdrawing completely." What a delightful emotional knife-edge.

Naturally, you don't need an academic to tell you there's a causal link between being bored and sitting about not doing anything. My office friend used to describe this as the Three Bs: Busy, Bored and Behind. Interestingly, neither of us has a job anymore.

... And ha! I haven't even got to school, which I genuinely, at 13, thought was designed, not for learning, but as some kind of preparation, some breakage of the spirit, for the appalling boringness that would later constitute the world of work.

I was totally wrong, of course, since school is way more boring than work will ever be.
That is a taste of what they used to call a "rollicking good read." But the real point is this -
What I would say, though, is that boredom is like olives, or antiques, or green vegetables, or black-and-white films. Children might get force-fed with boredom just in the run of things, and it might actively be good for children, but only adults will really appreciate it. Only adults realise what a valuable place it is, this emotional state of not actually being asleep that is to all intents and purposes, being asleep. Only adults realise that the 70s chant "Why don't you just switch off the television set and go out and do something less boring instead?" was actually meant ironically (like, why on earth would you?). Expecting a child to understand is like expecting it to have a mature and thorough grasp of Freud, or agricultural policy. Though possibly, the more bored you make your children, the quicker they will pick this stuff up.
Good point. Bore them. They'll acquire a taste for it. And it'll do them good.

And make them discuss Hamlet.

Posted by Alan at 15:41 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 22 April 2006 15:42 PDT home

Tuesday, 3 January 2006

Topic: Backgrounder

Washington 90210: Alumni Note, Beverly Hills High School - Class of 1977

Tuesday, January 3rd, the dam broke in Washington, and Jack agreed to spill the beans. As in this account from CNN -
Former high-powered lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges, agreeing to cooperate in a federal corruption probe in Washington.

Abramoff, 46, faces up to 11 years in federal prison and must pay $26.7 million in restitution, said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher.

She said Abramoff admitted to corrupting government officials and defrauding his own clients out of $25 million.

Abramoff admitted that he did not disclose receiving kickbacks on payments from Native American tribes to a partner's public relations firm.
And on it goes, so there's little need to add more here. This is bad news for one congressman from Ohio, and for Tom Delay, the former house leader already under felony indictment in Texas - years ago he called Abramoff one of his "closest and dearest friends." The current speaker of the house, Dennis Hastert, the same day decided to return sixty-seven thousand of Jack's dollars - actually, he will choose some charity to get the bucks. Some say six Republican congressmen will be implicated in accepting bribes, some say twelve, and some say twenty. All that will take time to play out, and there will be much speculation ahead of whatever happens.

The only odd thing is that, in the even longer MSNBC account of all this, we learn this whole investigation is being overseen by one Noel Hillman, "a hard-charging career prosecutor who heads the Public Integrity Section and who has a long track record of nailing politicians of all stripes." But we're also told "politics almost certainly will creep into the equation."

It seems that Hillman's new boss will be Alice Fisher, "who is widely respected but also a loyal Republican socially close to DeLay's defense team." Cute.

Yeah, try this detail, something overlooked last September while New Orleans was submerged and congress was in recess - Alice Fisher was appointed to this post in a "recess appointment." Note too that Carl Levin, a senator from Michigan, and a Democrat of course, had been blocking the nomination. Some agent had named Alice Fisher in an email saying we really were torturing folks down in Guantánamo, and he wanted to look into that. Did she have something to do with saying that was fine and dandy? Levin didn't get to ask the question. Like John Bolton at the UN, Alice Fisher was appointed through the procedural back door, and no one can do anything about either one of these two until 2007. That is most curious.

So what will come out? This fellow is also under investigation by a grand jury in Guam over a separate matter (see this, but that's not in play here, nor are his links to a scandal involving a multibillion-dollar Homeland Security contract (see this on that Unisys contract). This doesn't have to do with his paying folks at the Cato Institute to write opinion pieces at his direction (see this - they resigned and the Copley papers and others will no longer carry their columns). This is something else, bribing congressmen.

But this fellow - Beverly Hill High School, Class of 1977 - has been busy.

It seems he stiffed Tyco for almost two million for work he never did (see this) and then there's this -
On August 11, 2005, Abramoff and his partner, Adam Kidan, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on fraud charges arising from a 2000 deal to buy SunCruz Casinos, a firm that ran "cruises to nowhere", where gambling was permissible. Kidan and a third associate, Ben Waldman, as yet unindicted, are accused of using a fake wire transfer to defraud Foothill Capital Corp. and Citadel Equity Fund Ltd that had agreed to lend $60 million to purchase the casinos on condition that Abramoff and his partners made a cash contribution of $23 million. The indictment alleges that the transfer was counterfeit. Kidan has since pleaded guilty in a deal which may require him to testify against Abramoff.

A warrant for Abramoff's arrest was issued by federal authorities on August 11, 2005; the next day he was released on bail of $2.25 million and ordered to return to Florida to face a preliminary hearing there on August 16, 2005. As part of his bail arrangements, Abramoff also was forced by a Los Angeles federal judge to surrender his passport, restrict his travel, and continue treatment for stress. FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael S. Clemens said Abramoff's high-level political contacts would not deter the FBI, stating that the Florida grand jury's decision to indict Abramoff "demonstrates that regardless of position, status, wealth, or associations, fraudulent activity will not be tolerated."
There's much more at the link. Last September there were those murder charges against three men for the murder of Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, the seller of the Sun Cruz Casino. Those three? That would be Anthony Moscatiello, a former bookkeeper for the Gambino crime family, and two guys named Anthony Ferrari and James Fiorillo. This Tony Moscatiello seems to have received 145,000 from Abramoff's patner Kidan, through SunCruz, for something or other. Jimmy Ferrari got 95,000 "as payment for security services" - and lots of free casino chips.

Well, the casinos were auctioned off to new management in a bankruptcy action brought by Foothill Capital. And Foothill settled with Abramoff - for an undisclosed sum - and press accounts have suggested that Abramoff used his political connections to gain support for the deal in Washington (see this). As for Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, the murdered fellow who sold the Sun Cruz Casino to Jack and his partners, Tom DeLay, then the house minority whip, gave Boulis a flag that had flown over the capitol building. And Abramoff brought his lead financier in the deal to a fundraiser for DeLay in Abramoff's box at FedEx Field. And so on. Of course, our Republican congressman from out here in Orange County, Dana Rohrabacher, was listed as a financial reference for the Abramoff purchase of the Sun Cruz Casino. As he says - "I don't remember it, but I would certainly have been happy to give him a good recommendation. He's a very honest man."

Aren't they all? CNN reports here Abramoff's lawyer, Neal Sonnett, telling them that Abramoff will plead guilty in the original Florida case - falsifying a twenty-three million dollar wire transfer in order to obtain a sixty million loan to purchase the casino, and its fleet of offshore gambling boats. What the heck - his partner, Kidan, already did that.

And, just for giggles, here we see that just before those planes were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, and several of the others, seem to have made multiple visits to the SunCruz casino cruise ship off the Gulf coast in Florida. That led to this - was Mohamed Atta using the casino to launder money for al Qaeda and maybe Atta was involved in a scheme with Abramoff and the mob to smuggle heroin. No, just a coincidence.

But this is not a nice man. See this - in 1995 Abramoff worked for the Global Council of Islamic Banks, whose chairman, Saleh Abdullah Kamel, was under investigation for alleged funding of terrorism, including Osama Bin Laden. Abramoff is also founder and former chairman of the International Freedom Foundation (IFF) a group that was bankrolled way back when by the apartheid South African army. (See this and this.)

It all seems so odd. Abramoff was born in Atlantic City, the one in New Jersey, where his father worked as an executive for Diners Club. In 1968 the family moved to Beverly Hills. That's the problem. This place makes one crazy. And then his father got to be buddies with Ronald Reagan.

Yeah, Abramoff went on from here - he graduated from Brandeis in 1981 and earned his JD at the Georgetown in 1986 - but he's still a Hollywood, Beverly Hills guy.

Those college years? Abramoff was elected chairman of the College Republican National Committee - a campaign managed by Grover Norquist with help from Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition guy now running for Lieutenant Governor in Georgia. That committee, mad for Reagan, had Jack saying things like this - "It is not our job to seek peaceful coexistence with the Left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently." And Grover Norquist wants to drown government in the bathtub to rid us of all the "do good" stuff. Ah well. Does anyone recall the Republican National Committee tossing these college guys out as too over-the-top at the time?

After college? Well, in the second half of the nineties, Abramoff was employed by Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP, the lobbying arm of Preston Gates & Ellis LLP - based in Seattle, the lobbying firm run by the father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Cool. Then he joined the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, where they said his job was to be "directly involved in the Republican party and conservative movement leadership structures" as "one of the leading fund raisers for the party and its congressional candidates."

That's how we got here.

But what about the middle period, the eighties?

Ah, those were the Hollywood years!

As James Verini explained in mid-August, in The tale of Red Scorpion - The strange Hollywood interlude of the most scandal-ridden man in Washington -
It was 1987, he was in his late 20s, and the presidency of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, was winding to a tarnished close. The Iran-Contra hearings covered the front pages, and Oliver North, whom Abramoff knew and admired, was about to be indicted. The Republicans were disillusioned, and after years of service to the party - as chairman of the College Republicans from 1981 to '85, he'd mentored Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, had worked for one right-wing think tank, and founded another - Abramoff apparently was no longer sure he wanted to go into politics full time.

So he took a detour, doing what any other kid from Beverly Hills might when finding himself at a loss: He decided to try his hand at show business. Why not? Hollywood was no more than Washington for good-looking people, as the saying goes, and Abramoff, a student government officer and a football player at Beverly Hills High School, class of '77 (he graduated from Brandeis University in '81), was smart and charismatic and, if not actor handsome, at least physically imposing enough to be a producer. Through his father, a high-up executive at the Diners Club, he'd rubbed shoulders with some of L.A.'s elite.
So Abramoff moved here from Washington after finishing law school, and with his brother, Robert, formed a production company, Regency Entertainment. And they produced a movie - Red Scorpion, starring Dolph Lundgren, finally released in April 1989. The two brothers raised the sixteen million to get this made.

The basics from the Internet Movie Database here - "A Russian KGB agent is sent to Africa to kill an anti-Communist black revolutionary. However, he has a change of heart when he sees how the Russians and their Cuban allies are killing and repressing the locals, so he switches sides and helps the rebels."

Verini - "With its blatant propaganda, its collaboration with the apartheid South African government, and financial misdealing, it's notable, even for Hollywood, for being one of the seamiest productions in recent memory."

And Verini tells that tale -
The film was to be a manifesto for Abramoff; a Rambo-like morality tale and a grand indictment of communism - his Reagan Doctrine parable in action-packed Technicolor. And in the process of conceiving of and making it, Abramoff helped groom an African despot, rose to high levels in the K Street food chain, and got to play international spy.

"There was some indication even in those days that he was not the sort of person who would feel overly constrained by the rules," said Jeff Pandin, who worked closely with Abramoff in the 1980s.

The roots of "Red Scorpion" took hold in the early 1980s, when interventionist-minded folk in Washington had an array of global conflagrations to obsess over. The mujahedin were battling the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Contras were fighting the Sandanistas in Nicaragua. Some circles felt the United States was not doing enough to help them. The gripe heard in the office of CIA chief William Casey and among Oliver North's cabal in the National Security Council was that Reagan was not fully Reagan when it came to foreign policy. A cottage industry of think-tank intellectuals and private crusaders sprouted up to build support for one or another set of freedom fighters. Abramoff was among the most active.

In Angola, the rebel group du jour, the National Union of Total Independence for Angola, or UNITA, had been taking on the Soviet- and Cuban-backed government since the 1970s. UNITA's leader, a savvy warlord named Jonas Savimbi, had become a darling of the right. Savimbi received millions in aid and had even retained Washington lobbyists to press his case. Abramoff was interested in Angola, too. So was Lewis E. Lehrman, the millionaire behind the Rite Aid drugstore chain and the founder of the right-wing group Citizens for America, who made an unsuccessful run for governor of New York in 1982. Through Republican circles, Abramoff met Lehrman at some point in the early '80s, and in 1985 Lehrman hired him. Abramoff came to Lehrman with an idea: What about a convention of disparate anti-communist rebel leaders, put together and paid for by Americans? It screamed of Abramoff's cartoonishly outsized ambitions and worldview, and Lehrman liked it.
So the roots of the film are here. There really was a convention of anti-communist rebel leaders - in June 1985, in Jamba, Angola, at the UNITA headquarters - the mujahedin, Contras and Laotian folks, with the Angolans fighting the Cubans and Russians - set up by Jack Abramoff. Lehrman, the Rite-Aid guy, was there and read a letter of support from Reagan - and handed out framed copies of the Declaration of Independence. The called it the "Democratic International." The State Department was pissed.

Well, all that passed and the sponsors drifted apart. But Abramoff and his brother couldn't let it go -
He came up with the premise for "Red Scorpion" and hired Arne Olsen, a young screenwriter with no credits to his name, to write it. The Abramoffs told Olson they wanted to base the fictional African country in the film, Mombaka, directly on Angola, and the rebel leader on Savimbi. Olsen said he churned out a baldly propagandistic script.
And so he did. Don Steinberg, ambassador to Angola during the first Clinton administration, said this of Jonas Savimbi - "He was the most articulate, charismatic homicidal maniac I've ever met."

Ah but he was fighting the communists!

Anyway, it seems the movie was set to shoot in Swaziland, but at the last minute was moved to Namibia, then occupied by South Africa's apartheid government. Congress had passed (over Reagan's veto) the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 - you do recall Cheney voted against it - making pretty much illegal to do business with South Africa or its proxies. No matter, the Abramoff brothers used South African Defense Force vehicles and equipment on the set and soldiers as extras. He has connections. And South Africa at the time was Savimbi's main backer.

There's at lot more detail you can read at the link. Warner Brothers notes the law and refused to distribute the film. Schapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment did that. Who? And lots of folks who worked on the film - actors, technicians, investors - didn't get paid. It turned out to be a mess -
When, inevitably, "Red Scorpion" was released, it was no study in nuance. Directed by Joseph Zito, whose previous credits had included the Chuck Norris movies "Missing in Action" and "Invasion U.S.A," the dramatis personae consist of scheming, cackling communists on the one hand - the Russians not only tear apart the rebel village with attack helicopters, but also randomly gas a band of peaceful Bushmen and their animals - and noble guerrillas on the other, and the barely intelligible Lundgren in between. The action sequences have all the panache of a subpar "A-Team" episode.

There are some inspired moments, such as the climax, when Argenziano's character, Col. Zayas, is left groping for his own dismembered arm, which clutches a live grenade (he doesn't reach in time). There is also a rousing speech delivered by the token freewheeling American, a foul-mouthed, boozing journalist played by M. Emmet Walsh: "As a matter of fact, in America, an American can swear whenever, wherever and however much he or she fucking well pleases!" he yells at Lundgren. "A little something called freedom of speech, which I'm sure you Russians aren't real familiar with!" In another nice touch, the closing credits roll over Little Richard's "All Around the World," remixed to include machine-gun and exploding-bomb sound effects.
You can catch it on cable now and then. Don't bother.

Note there was a Red Scorpion 2, in 1994, without that Lundgren lunk, and that went straight to video - Abramoff listed as an executive producer, but he didn't have much to do with it. His brother Robert stayed in Los Angeles and continued to produce films. He is now a full-time lawyer. Verini say he reached him at the offices of Burgee & Abramoff out in Woodland Hills, but the guy refused to speak about his brother or the first film - "It's a family matter and I prefer not to comment on anything."

So he's not talking, and his brother, the football player from Beverly Hills High School, Class of 1977, has finally come undone, and will bring down the congress and make a mess for the Republicans.

This guy's first forty-seven years has been a long, strange road.

And it started at Beverly Hills High School, as we see in this, from the Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, January 04, 2006 -
At Beverly Hills High School, Jack Abramoff's weightlifting prowess was the stuff of legend.

As a senior, he became the first member of the school's 2700 Club, lifting a combined total of 2,700 pounds in the power squat, dead lift, bench press, and clean and jerk.

His former football coach, Bill Stansbury, recalled a game against Inglewood when Abramoff legally blocked an opposing player and knocked him out cold.

Abramoff also helped organize charitable events, Stansbury said, among them a Quarter-Pounder-eating contest at a McDonald's, with some proceeds going to the American Cancer Society, and a celebrity basketball game to benefit a youth foundation.

... At Beverly Hills High, he earned a reputation for ambition, hard work and commitment. He held the school record for the power squat, which he completed while holding 510 pounds on his back.

"Jack showed good leadership and was very dedicated, probably the strongest kid on the team," recalled Stansbury, who was the football team's offensive line coach when Abramoff played as the starting center. "For his size, he was extremely strong and very aggressive."

Abramoff was president of the high school Lettermen's Club, said Stansbury, who is now a teacher and coach at Paso Robles High School. "Jack always had a clear mission of where he wanted to be and how he was going to get there. I had a lot of respect for Jack's work ethic."

... He ran for student council president at the Hawthorne School, a Beverly Hills elementary and middle school, in 1972. Heading into a runoff election, Abramoff was disqualified for exceeding the spending limit. The principal, Herbert recalled, penalized Abramoff for holding a party, stating it amounted to a campaign expenditure that pushed him over the limit.
Beverly Hills High School today...



































































The disguised working oil well on campus -



Posted by Alan at 21:12 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 4 January 2006 15:35 PST home

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