Friday, December 15, 2006

back in the USA

Wow - the sun is in the sky, and it has actualy elevation.

I think my moods tend to be affected somewhat by a mild case of seasonal affective disorder. Or to put it differently, I find living in London in December a living hell (and found the same to be true in Heidelberg). I think there's some maximum latitude I can live at during the winter months, and it's somewhat south of the 8-hours-of-sun-per-day level.

Finland is right out.

Got to enjoy a nice game of American football on the super-sized HDTV last night. The Seahawks failed to put away the 49ers while they were dominating and, as happens so many times, a team that's been allowed to stick around for three quarters finally figures out how to move the ball in the fourth and sneaks away with a victory.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Altman passes

I was thinking of posting my thoughts on the Kate Winslet film "Little Children". It's been really growing on me since I saw it a few weeks ago. Sometimes a film grows as it settles in my unconcsious, and sometimes it just sits there (like "The Departed").

Anyway, Robert Altman just passed away, and that seems a bit more important. Altman has directed a number of my favorite films, including most memorably M*A*S*H, The Player, and Gosford Park. (I'm going to skip quotation marks from here out of laziness.) M*A*S*H is his most famous, and it was quite a good film, but it was one of the few films in history that was completely outpaced by the TV show spun out of it. (In fact, I think it was the only film to suffer this fate that I can think of.)

The Player was a delicious dark comedy starring Tim Robbins as a film producer who finds new verve in his life after he kills somebody and realizes he can get away with it. And Gosford Park is IMHO the best ensemble film in the new century. I remember when I rented the DVD I watched it about five times. (Part of the justification for the multiple viewings was the assorted commentaries by actors, producers, and Altman himself.)

Altman directed a lot of films, and some were not as well received. Sometimes it seemed like he was over-dependent on the gimmick of having people talk over each other. Still, he should have won the Oscar for Best Director (over Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind? Puh-leaze. Gosford Park was MUCH better.)

Altman's IMDB page here

Monday, November 20, 2006

sportswriter grammar

Don Banks:
"Ben Roethlisberger helps put the Steelers in a 13-3 fourth-quarter hole at Cleveland -- throwing three interceptions, including one for a Browns touchdown -- before he mustered a pair of scoring passes to spark a 21-point final quarter in Pittsburgh's 24-20 comeback win."

I'd never before seen the present tense and the past tense used together in the same sentence in quite this way.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bow down!

You are The Hierophant

Divine Wisdom. Manifestation. Explanation. Teaching.

All things relating to education, patience, help from superiors.The Hierophant is often considered to be a Guardian Angel.

The Hierophant's purpose is to bring the spiritual down to Earth. Where the High Priestess between her two pillars deals with realms beyond this Earth, the Hierophant (or High Priest) deals with worldly problems. He is well suited to do this because he strives to create harmony and peace in the midst of a crisis. The Hierophant's only problem is that he can be stubborn and hidebound. At his best, he is wise and soothing, at his worst, he is an unbending traditionalist.

What Tarot Card are You?
Take the Test to Find Out.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Which superhero am I?

Your results:

You are Hulk

The Flash
Green Lantern
Iron Man
Wonder Woman
You are a wanderer with
amazing strength.

Click here to take the "Which Superhero are you?" quiz...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

TMQ continues to spread bad science

Today's gem:

For instance, the Michael J. Fox ad attacking Republican Maryland senatorial candidate Michael Steele makes it seem Steele opposes all stem cell research. Steele opposes research on embryonic stem cells, not on other types of stem cells; there's a big difference, and surely Fox knows that well.

Surely Fox also knows that embryonic stem cells offer far more promise to researchers than any other type of stem cell. Most people with more than a casual understanding of this subject understand this point.

Gregg Easterbrook: mauling science understanding in the popular culture through inappropriate comments in a football column.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Here come the girls

We're wild girls walkin' down the street.

Wild girls and boys going out for a big time.

Anyway we can

We're gonna find something

We'll dance in the garden

In torn sheets in the rain

We're the Deadbeat Club!

election eve

Go team, go!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Departed

a) you are a Scorsese fan
b) from Boston
c) interested in Leonardo DiCaprio
d) generally enjoy crime family films

then The Departed is a must-see.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Death of a President - a running diary

This film is running this evening on Channel 4 in the UK. A few thoughts while I'm watching it.

Starts at 10:00

10:20 - I'm a bit slow to start. Thus far the film has been entirely focused on how scary protesters are and how wonderful President Bush is. They have protesters running around in leather and face masks and bandanas on their faces. Policemen and security are interviewed and they all exude an air of fear of protesters. The film glorifies Bush to a great extent.

Oh, and the protesters "hate Bush". That's all that's going on.

"There's a new breed of anarchist...the only way to deal with this kind of individual is brute force," says a police captain interviewed.

The film plays up the Kim Jong Il threat.

10:24 more interviews with a Bush speechwriter Bush's "we seek peace" speech is being contrasted with drum-beating, flag-burning protesters.

10:25 now the Police are attacking protesters who had refused to move away to give Bush his free city block (or whatever the distance was) so he could leave his speech location.

10:27 Bush is leaving the hotel. Security guy has a "bad feeling" about the walk to the car. More verbal fellating by a speechwriter. "When the President shakes your hand there is noone else in the world."

"Danny Williams", an environmental protester is whisked away.
Shooting happens right after - very quickly.

10:31 limo is racing to hospital

Oh, it seems that the suspect "Frank Mollini" had been the subject of NSA wiretapping! This movie is really hitting all the bases, isn't it!

(I'm really glad I'm not paying money for this.)

More involving sympathetic Secret Service people, policemen, etc.

Protesters are celebrating the fact that Bush had been shot. Movie is starting to bore me. It's making Path to 9/11 look brilliant. I miss Harvey Keitel.

Ooh - on the back of one protester's hoodie is the word "Yglesias".

10:48 getting very bored. Starting to see what people at IMDB have said.

Ooh - more people talking about "hatred of the President". seems like it's picking up. They are letting the Mollini character complain about the police. Uh oh, now he's talking about penetrating security. Oh, but Mollini wasn't the shooter, he just had an amateurish poster.

10:51 Samir Kasri - an American of Yemeni descent, is the next subject. "Bush and Ashcroft deported my mother and father."

10:52 "We weren't just rounding up people, we had probable cause every time." I think this man needs some clarification about the meaning of the phrase "probably cause" because he follows this up by saying that they were looking for a "non-white" person. I guess being non-white is probable cause.

10:55 Oh crap - Bush is dead and Cheney is the new President.
This is the scariest movie I've ever seen!

Now an Arab has been arrested. This is annoying because they are interviewing the suspect's mother and she speaks Arabic (I'm guessing) so I have to pay attention to subtitles. Which makes posting harder.

11:03 some hack cop says Syrian suspect is "a man without a conscience"

11:09 now they have a Syrian expat calling the suspect guilty and saying this was a "Syrian state-sponsored assassination". Points to the film for highlighting the lack of credibility of expatriates who want the US to overthrow their home government.

11:11 They are playing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at Bush's funeral. Uh, Battle Hymn was a Union fighting song during the Civil War. Odds it will be played at the funeral of a President from Texas? Seems low.

Yikes! President Cheney!

11:41 I've been totally bored for the past half hour. The movie is mired in what is apparently the conviction of one man for the shooting when apparently somebody else is guilty.

11:47 movie ending - wrong guy has been convicted, true killer had committed suicide after shooting Bush.

On the whole the film was really quite dull. A number of the things it's trying to do it doesn't do very well. It also falls into the trap of "evenhandedness", where all of the characters are shown to be equally reasonable people.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Blog refurbished

I grabbed one of the templates, which is a lot nicer than the basic blah. It comes with something that looks like a lighthouse!

That reminds me that I just read PD James' The Lighthouse. It's a very good book. I'm a huge PD James fan. I'm glad her books are easing away from the grimness that marked many of her earlier work. Incidentally, her sci-fi novel The Children of Men made for a very interesting film with the inimitable Clive Owen, the lovely Julianne Moore and the eternally charming Michael Caine.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

howler monkeys at the Natural History museum

Met PZ Myers, a leading science blogger, and many others interested in Pharyngula-type discussions yesterday at the Natural History museum in London. See Pharyngula for details.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

the North Korea problem, exacerbated

Why say Clinton's policy was a flop? The purpose was to get some handle on the plutonium that was being used to develop a weapon program. To that end, the Clinton policy worked. It's true that North Korea found a loophole and started to collect uranium instead of plutonium. Is it really fair to say that this is Clinton's fault? In any case, the question then is: what do you do about this discovery? The Bush administration's response was to throw away the progress Clinton had made and leave a status quo where North Korea was developing either a uranium program or a plutonium program with no oversight whatsoever.

And the Clinton plan was a flop?

In response to Shakespeare's Sister:

Unless you are prepared to go to war with North Korea, you have to negotiate with them, and you have to accept the reality that any progress made may be somewhat less than you want. Bush hasn't had a plan at all of how to deal with North Korea. His negotiating tactics are straight out of a juvenile's playbook. The current administration views "talking to a country" as a reward, and thinks that diplomacy of any sort at all is seen as a sign of weakness.
And yet they have no other plan.

It's been alleged that Bush's actual goal in all of his policies is simply to exacerbate the situation. Certainly the tabloids fall right in line with this. I saw one two days ago with a picture of Kim Jong Il and the massive headline "Be Very Afraid". The fearmongering is no longer very subtle or hidden. There is an old saying: you either part of the solution or part of the problem. Bush has seemed to find a third way: not only to ignore a problem, but to actively make it worse, since fear is his only electoral strategy.

p.s. See William Perry's take on this matter.

Monday, September 11, 2006

the Yoo coup

John Yoo hates America.

"We are used to a peacetime system in which Congress enacts the laws, the president enforces them, and the courts interpret them. In wartime, the gravity shifts to the executive branch.''

Perhaps no greater lie has ever been told about the structure of the United States.
This argument is utterly shameless and self-serving. It is the intellectual equivalent of saying "fuck you" to the people of the United States.

Hey, dipshit! The Constitution was designed to be in place when war is happening or not. What you're talking about represents radical change. We don't want it.

Go fuck yourself.

Hat tip to Glenn Greenwald.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

breathing on the ashes

OK, so the blog's not really dead.

I'm writing to celebrate getting two post cards and a letter on the same day. Woo-hoo! Sort of puts a damper on the self-pity thing.

Anyway, I finally got a DVD from UKNetflix ScreenSelect yesterday that had been mailed in May! Sadly, there are still four DVDs outstanding somewhere in the Royal Mail ether, lost somewhere between the DVD warehouse and my flat. It is somewhat of a mystery how this can happen. Back in the US (putting on strutworthy American tone of voice) we never had postal problems like this. Seriously, I cannot think of one thing that was "lost in the mail" in 35 years of living in the US. And Royal Mail has lost 6-7 DVDs in the course of eight months??

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

alarmism at the Guardian

or, what the UCL Dept. of Biology was laughing about at coffee today.

The Guardian

Apparently some clever person working as a "journalist" ordered a string of 78 bases of DNA from a biotechnology firm, who did not take serious controls about the oligonucleotide that they were shipping. This development has apparently alarmed the Guardian.

The package, which contained a 78-letter sequence of DNA, which is part of one of the smallpox virus's coat protein genes, was delivered by the Royal Mail to a flat in north London. The A5-sized Jiffy bag contained a small plastic phial with a tiny blob of white gel at the bottom - the DNA. The order cost £33.08, plus an additional £7 for postage.

Dear me. Well, to put this into perspective...

the smallpox genome is 185,000 letters long,

So, let's do some math here. To get the entire genome in 78 base pair oligonucleotides would require 2372 shipments, which would cost £78,465, plus an additional £16,604 in shipping in handling.

And that would just cover the cost of the DNA. It wouldn't cover the cost of actually putting the DNA together into a smallpox virus, or the replication costs, whatever. But let's not worry about the cost here. It could be covered, I'm sure, by a determined terrorist organization.

The key sticking point would be - there would be over 2300 orders made!

Still, that sounds scary, doesn't it. The resulting genome could be used to produce smallpox, right? Well, not exactly. It seems that there were stop codons added to the code.

In order to avoid our sequence coming under the act the DNA sequence we ordered had three changes built into it to create so-called "stop codons".

These are effectively full stops in the genetic code which mean that if the sequence were ever put together with others to make a smallpox gene the protein production machinery would stop at that point. So the sequence could never form part of a functional gene.

And so the issue is...the Guardian could order a miniscule part of the smallpox genome that had already been crippled. And we should be alarmed?

Mind you, I do take the possibility of biological attacks fairly seriously. I'm still concerned about the anthrax letters mailed in 2001. But the avenue suggested by the Guardian would be fairly low on my worry list. I'm far more concerned about the security at a bioweapons lab, where a non-crippled test sample could be stolen, than I am about the possibility of some home-stiched smallpox virus.

Friday, June 09, 2006

And what is so rare as a day in June?

I remember first facing this question, posed poetically by James Lowell many years ago. My first thought was "Why, a day in April, September, or November!" Which is why my time Bloomsbury is spent crunching numbers as opposed to pursuing literary goals.

Anyway, June in London is lovely, again, as it was a year ago. The World Cup is starting shortly, I've gotten myself a headset so I can use Skype for international phone calls, and my brother is visiting in a few weeks as part of a visit to Oxford.

What else is new? Ann Coulter has seen the pale and zoomed straight beyond it, an overrated "terrorist" leader named al-Zarqawi has learned that declaring an affiliation with Al Qaeda can be a bad idea, and the NBA and NHL finals look fairly uninteresting. And I've changed the name of the blog to something a bit less obscure.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bravo's 100 funniest movies

The list, with my comments. If I haven't seen a movie, I don't comment on it.

100. Anchorman
Seriously unfunny movie with about three funny moments in it.
99. The Birdcage
Very funny movie.
98. School of Rock
97. Happy Gilmore
One of Sandler's weaker offerings.
96. Four Weddings and a Funeral
Very funny, esp. strong supporting cast.
95. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
94. Waiting for Guffman
I think this is one of the weaker Christopher Guest films.
93. The Aristocrats
I'm guessing this is the Glenn Close version, which I haven't seen.
92. Father of the Bride
91. Revenge of the Nerds
Better than I might have thought, though they really beat the sequels to death.
90. Clueless
Whatever happened to Alicia Silverstone?
89. Slapshot
Haven't seen this, but I've heard it's great. On my must-see list.
88. Team America
I don't quite get how this is rated so low when the South Park movie is rated so high.
87. The Kentucky Fried Movie
Uh, I liked this movie, but let's get real.
86. Zoolander
85. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Very good Steve Martin movie, back when he was funny. Michael Caine is terrific as the straight man.
84. Silver Streak
The first of the Wilder/Pryor collaborations. Pretty good, though I prefer Stir Crazy.
83. Sister Act
82. Tootsie
Should be much higher. Though I personally tend to think cross-dressing as a humor gag is very overrated.
81. Half Baked
Uh, this is above Tootsie? With all due respect to Dave Chapelle, that's nutty.
80. Lost in America
79. Three Amigos
*sigh* and this is above Tootsie. I think this is the turning point where Chevy Chase's unfunny virus infected Steve Martin.
78. Bananas
Very good Woody Allen film.
77. Flirting with Disaster
Moderately funny.
76. Ghostbusters
Should be way higher. I don't know if people can really remember what 1984 was like, but this movie ruled.
75. Dumb and Dumber
Wanted to hate this movie but ended up liking it a bit.
74. Trading Places
A breakthrough movie for Eddie Murphy, back when he was funny.
73. City Slickers
Tolerably funny. Mostly because of Jack Palance.
72. Moonstruck
Uh, this is a love story. It's not a comedy. It's not a "funny movie".
71. Roxanne
Back when Steve Martin was funny...this is very good.
70. The Nutty Professor (Eddie Murphy)
69. The Blues Brothers
Should be WAY higher. I would put this in the top 10.
68. Broadcast News
Decent in a light comedy way.
67. Kingpin
Moderately funny at best.
66. Dazed and Confused
I like this a lot. Matthew McCounaghey's best film.
65. Office Space
Very funny - should be much higher.
64. This is Spinal Tap
The definitive Christopher Guest film. Should be higher.
63. Manhattan
Not as good as Annie Hall. The beginning of Woody Allen's "I want to make serious film" phase.
62. The Pink Panther
Presuming this is the Peter Sellers version, it should be much higher.
61. Election
Tolerable, shouldn't be on any list.
60. When Harry Met Sally
Again, this is more of a love story than a "funny movie".
59. Police Academy Series
58. Private Benjamin
Somehow this movie died after they all left boot camp.
57. Swingers
Good film. Not "funny" in a made-me-laugh way, but I enjoyed it.
56. Young Frankenstein
One of the two best Mel Brooks movies. (He went downhill after losing Gene Wilder.)
55. Bull Durham
More of a baseball/love story movie than a "funny" movie.
54. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Enjoyable movie. I don't know if I'd call it "funny".
53. Dr. Strangelove
Peter Sellers rules.
52. Meet the Parents
It sucks to be the first movie placed higher than a classic. Meet the Parents is tolerably funny,
but come on!
51. National Lampoon's Vacation
A rare funny Chevy Chase movie. Since I don't count Caddyshack as a "Chevy Chase film", that leaves Vacation and Fletch as the only funny ones.
50. The Princess Bride
Great film.
49. American Pie
What sane person could put this ahead of The Princess Bride?
48. American Graffiti
Uh, this wasn't a funny movie. Enjoyable, yes.
47. 9 to 5
Decent, but probably too high.
46. The Incredibles
WAY too high.
45. Raising Arizona
Very funny movie. Cage and Hunter were great.
44. Sixteen Candles
43. What About Bob?
This movie really annoys me a lot for some reason. Probably because Bob is so annoying.
42. Harold and Maude
Dark comedies aren't "funny" per se. A great film, though.
41. Austin Powers
The first or all thre? Decent, but too high.
40. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
39. Mrs. Doubtfire
Should not be above Tootsie.
38. Best In Show
Yes, this was much funnier than Waiting for Guffman. Not, it was not funnier than This is Spinal Tap.
37. Dodgeball
Haven't seen it but you've GOT to be kidding.
36. Good Morning Vietnam
Decent choice.
35. Beetlejuice
Michael Keaton's best film.
34. Rushmore
Never thought this was funny.
33. Clerks
Good choice.
32. Groundhog Day
Great film.
31. The Big Lebowski
I liked this a lot, but would think Raising Arizona was funnier.
30. The 40 Year Old Virgin
Enjoyed this, surprisingly.
29. Legally Blonde
Shut up!
28. Annie Hall
Woody Allen's best film.
27. A Fish Called Wanda
Great film.
26. Wayne's World
Possibly too high.
25. Meet the Fockers
Should not be on the list. Was not even as funny as its predecessor.
24. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
Enjoyed. It's underrated. But not by this list.
23. Big
Not that funny.
22. Beverly Hills Cop
OK, can buy that.
21. Shampoo
Too high.
20. The Jerk
Good film.
19. Wedding Crashers
WAY too high.
18. Stripes
Some say it's Murray's best, but I'd disagree. I prefer Groundhog Day.
17. M*A*S*H
Yes, this is great.
16. Old School
Whoever put this ahead of M*A*S*H should be shot.
15. Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Enjoyed it. This is WAY too high.
14. Napoleon Dynamite
13. Naked Gun Series
Too high.
12. The Producers
Presuming this was the original, it's about right.
11. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
I'm not a huge Pee-Wee fan.
10. Arthur
Actually very funny at the time, but it hasn't aged well. "Drunken fool" was funnier in the early 80s, trust me. And Gielgud stole the movie, of course.
9. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
*rolls eyes*
8. Blazing Saddles
Deserves to be on the top 10 list? Possibly. Unlike its neighbors.
7. The Wedding Singer
Shut up! And I liked this movie.
6. Airplane
Yes, this movie was outrageously funny. A legitimate pick.
5. South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut
Not as funny as a lot of the episodes, and not really their best work.
4. There's Something About Mary
OK, die already. This is WAY too high.
3. Shrek
Who's smoking crack? Again, I enjoyed the film, but this is WAY too high.
2. Caddyshack
Should definitely be in the top 5.
1. Animal House
Should be in the top 5.

Restricted to the list provided, my top would look like:
Animal House
The Producers
Monty Python & the Holy Grail (+Life of Brian, not listed)
Dr. Strangelove
Groundhog Day
Raising Arizona
The Blues Brothers
Office Space
Young Frankenstein/Blazing Saddles
A Fish Called Wanda
The Pink Panther (+Shot in the Dark, not listed)
Beverly Hills Cop
The Princess Bride

Apparently all of the following people were less funny than Anchorman:
Abbott & Costello, Buster Keaton, Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Hepburn & Tracy, Jerry Lewis,
Laurel & Hardy, Alec Guiness, etc.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

quickie review

Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room
Saw this at the Odeon Swiss Cottage last night. Pretty decent documentary. I'd forgotten that it came out much earlier in the US, and that I'd seen a bit of it before leaving for London last June. In particular, the bits about Lou Pei I think I'd seen on cable TV last Spring. But it was good to see the whole thing.

What are the take-home lessons here?
  • Wide-scale lying and deceit really doesn't get overseen by the "marketplace" very efficiently.
  • A LOT of people who must have known what was going on with Enron were quite happy to play along for the short run, collecting profits while the stock prices were high. I would wager that some of the people involved in the banks would even argue that their "fiduciary duty" required them to take advantage of an evident scam, as long as it was having a positive impact on their on firm's short-term profits.
  • A lot of the Enron people involved seemed quite a bit insecure about their role in the debacle. There's a lot of "go-along-to-get-along" in corporate America.
  • It's appalling to see the evil at the roots of the energy "crisis" in California. It's the kind of thing that made me think that, one of these days, one of these hot-shot energy traders is liable to get himself shot. Quite seriously, the idea of creating rolling blackouts to increase one own's profits is horribly selfish, and a blatant violation of the public trust under which all corporations are governed.
  • To put this more bluntly: if corporations want to be treated as "persons", which they evidently do in some manners, they need to develop a bit more in terms of social responsibility. As an entity, Enron was behaving like a sociopath. When that happens, the people who are driving the train to hell need to face some kind of personal backlash commensurate with the crimes they are committing.
  • I'm truly amazed that Enron was not only getting away with their bogus financing for so many years, but that the entire business culture was willing to not only not hold Enron up to scrutiny before the Fortune article by Bethany McLean, but were willing to declare Enron a model corporation.
  • This latter fact has to make one very dubious about the merits of widespread deregulation as an approach to corporate law. History is clear that people without oversight or regulation who have the power to rip off the public will do so. In the case of the energy industry in particular, that is essentially a monopolistic utility. The possibility for market manipulation is just too evident if there is no regulation.

Rain, rain, go away

Crappy weather this weekend.

Must..have..backup..plan...when it rains.....

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Royal Mail Sucks!

Dude! Stop bogarting my DVDs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Can the law protect lawbreaking?

I'm wondering this with regard to the argument that the publication, by Risen and Lichtblau, that the NSA had been conducting illegal wiretaps since 2002 somehow constituted a violation of national security laws.

Um, the program's illegal, right? How can an illegal program be protected by declaring it to be classified? (I ask this as a question for legal experts, not as a practical question. I mean, duh, the government has to classify anything that it's doing beyond its legal mandate, if it wants to pursue an action contrary to the law.)

Seriously, which is closer to treason, breaking the law or talking about somebody else who broke the law?

Well, if you believe in the restitution of Divine Right, which I thought had gone out of fashion hundreds of years ago, it all comes down to which person is the Republican.

Those wacky American supremacists!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Censure Bush!

At the very least.

Word is that the Democratic leadership is mulling over their options about censuring Bush. I'm really trying to see the political downside. Because the moral necessity appears to be quite apparent.

Bush has been the worst President in living memory. The White House has not had such an undistinguished occupant since the dreary days of the late 19th century. A short list of the reasons why Bush should be impeached, or at least censured:
  • His administration has willfully violated the FISA law, and violated the Constitutional rights of American citizens.
  • His administration lied to the American public to get its backing for a war in Iraq that would have otherwise been unpopular. (WMDs? Ties to Al Qaeda?)
  • His administration regularly practices kidnapping and torture, in Iraq, Afganistan, Cuba, and parts around the world.
That should be enough.

The Democratic leadership, aside from Feingold (and sometimes Dean), appears to believe that their role in the process is to constantly gauge what the public wants and to go with that. Or perhaps they are afraid of opposing Bush on any matter related to security at all.

Why they should have no fear:

  • Bush is a freaking incompetent. While the treason-mongers will hate you for saying this, the fact remains that Bush has managed the military and intelligence communities about as poorly as humanly possible.
  • Bush has a 33% approval rating.
  • Standing up for the rule of law is going to inevitably be popular. Politicians have to understand that instinctively.
  • Regardless of whether there's ability for the White House to retaliate, there is an imperative to at least try to do something to stop the Republican consolidation of power.
Democratic leaders who don't understand the fourth point above are taking a lot of their base's support for granted.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

the Howell nonsense, and Shafer's lame response

Howell's original comment:

"Schmidt quickly found that Abramoff was getting 10 to 20 times as much from Indian tribes as they had paid other lobbyists. And he had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties."

The second sentence is a lie planted in the discourse by Republicans. We expect better from an ombudsman.

Howell's followup. She admits that this statement about Abramoff is untrue (and it's easily shown to be untrue, which makes us wonder how it got into her column in the first place), but insists on setting up a line of defense on another lie that makes it seem like the point was essentially true.

"But there is no doubt about the campaign contributions that were directed to lawmakers of both parties."

There certainly is plenty of doubt.

This has been blogged aplenty in the past week, by Kos, Firedoglake, Media Matters, and the rest of the usual suspects. Jack Shafer's response at Slate is disappointing.

Even though the bloggers were correct and Howell was in the wrong, Shafer still finds room to throw a dart at the bloggers, portraying them as whiners. The phrase he uses is 'perpetually aggrived'. Is it realy appropiate to say that about somebody who brings up a valid complaint?

My response to Shafer. Shafer said:

"I'm no Howell fan, but blogger accusations that she is carrying
water for the right or peddling some bias are completely
It's not merely that she made a factual error claiming that Abramoff
had given money to Democrats.

This is what she said on January 15:

"Schmidt quickly found that Abramoff was getting 10 to 20 times as
much from Indian tribes as they had paid other lobbyists. And he had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties."
Jack Abramoff has never made any contributions to Democrats. So
where does this 'factoid' come into the public discourse? It's
fairly clear that this is a lie put out by the Republicans trying to
water down the impact of the Abramoff scandal. Many have complained
about Sue Schmidt's willingness to pass on Republican stories into
her reporting without a real effort at challenging or verifying them.
In this case, the story is a lie, an easily debunked lie.

What outrages Howell's critics, and ought to outrage you if you care
about journalism, is that Howell is purportedly an _ombudsman_. She
is supposed to represent the views of the readers (and not the GOP
establishment). So what is her response when readers challenge
Schmidt's reporting? There is no effort to contact people who know
the facts in this column. Instead, she simply repeats what Schmidt
wrote. I.e, she repeats a lie.

There are different levels of outrage when a lie is spread. At the
first level, there is the primary liar. One understands that lying
is a part of politics. Yes it is annoying, but it happens. Some
outrage is held in reserve for the primary liar.

The second level is the reporter who uncritically passes on the lies.
Apparently this is the Post policy these days, and it is widespread
in 'journalism' as it is commonly practiced. My personal opinion is
that a person who facilitates the spread of lies into the wider
community is doing that community a disservice. The reporter
invovled here is either a dupe, in which case she merits our contempt
for her reporting skills, or an active participant in the lie, in
which case she merits our contempt for her morals.

But the ombudsman who responds to reader complaints by throwing the
lie back in our faces, again uncritically? It's hard to see that
she's not a huge part of the problem. Again, she's either
incompetent or malicious. It has been said that one should not
presume malice when incompetence is an equally likely possibility,
but in this case, the incompetence required is staggering. How does
one rise to the position of Post ombudsman, one of the most visible
journalistic positions in the country, with such a feeble grasp of
the basics of fact-checking? And it is one thing to miss a fact
check as the primary reporter, who is dealing with a large number of
facts and possibly mendacious sources. But we expect a higher level
of performance when a disputed claim is singled out to the ombudsman.
In the current instance, the higher level of performance only
occurred when she was criticized heavily.

And even the higher level of performance was not terribly high. Ms.
Howell moved from the obviously debunked lie of 'Abramoff gave
substantial campaign dontations to both parties' to the less easily
debunked, but still mendacious, claim that he had 'directed his
clients' to make donations to both parties.

It is true that Abramoff's Indian clients gave donations to the
Democrats. Other things that ought to have been mentioned include:
- the Indians had been giving donations to Democrats long before they
had any association with Abramoff
- the tribes with the closest relationships to Abramoff significantly
reduced the amount of money they gave to Democrats when they came
under his influence
- Abramoff has been quoted mocking the decisions of his clients to
give money to Democrats
- nobody involved in the Abramoff criminal investigation is alleging
that there is any criminal connection to Indian tribes' dontations to

In the larger picture, we have an effort on the part of the GOP to
drag down the Democratic party in the scandal that centers around a
prominent Republican activist. A news media that was doing its job
properly would point out the falsity of this spin. Ms. Howell,
instead, passed on the canard dutifully, and seems instead to feel
that her critics, who correctly point out that she's passing on lies,
are somehow to blame.

Back to your point that I cite at the top: to all appearances,
Howell has been willing to carry water for the Republicans, at least
until she is held up to a firestorm of criticism.
"Attacking somebody as if they are your enemy when they clearly
aren't makes no sense."
I would dispute your usage of the word 'clearly' here. Clearly Ms.
Howell has at best a lazy attitude towards the responsibilities of an
ombudsman. Her behavior is much more like a water carrier than like
a serious journalist.

And finally,
"Unless, of course, you're among the perpetually aggrieved and you've tired of flogging the usual villains."
Either you agree with Howell's original statement, that Abramoff
donated substantial sums of money to the Democrats, or you have no
business whining about the people who correctly took her to task for
her role in perpetuating the flow of misinformation.

Shafer responded to my letter.

"I intended no defense of Howell. I think what the bloggers did to the post site is a little sick. Would you defend the smashing of Post windows?"

Well, I'm glad that no defense of Howell is intended. But I'm not seeing the analog to window smashing.