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May 6, 2004

You Know What Pictures I'm Talking About

When I first saw the pictures, I immediately thought "That's it? That's not torture. That looks like a fraternity rush!" Not that I have any great love for frats - the people who come up with hazing stunts like that are jerks at best. But judging from the press coverage, my dismissiveness is a minority opinion. Heck, judging from the press coverage, you'd think Bush and Rumsfeld were personally ordering the reactivation of the prison's paper shredders...

Oh sure, some of my co-workers agree with me, and so does Rush Limbaugh, and someone named Iowahawk wrote a pretty awesome parody of the situation, but much of the blogosphere is outraged, Rush is getting lots of crap, and nobody cares what my co-workers think.

No, most people I read in the news and hear on the radio seem to be falling all over themselves in the rush to declare more loudly than anyone else that this is the worst assault on innocents since Hiroshima. And yet... I'm strangely unmoved. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, but the intense news coverage seems to have less to do with the welfare of the prisoners than with the hope that it will bring down an administration official or two. (I mean, if we really want to talk scandal, we can talk about this country's real prison rape problem, but you know, there's no good anti-Bush angle there...)

No, not every critic is criticizing out of animus towards the president. It's just easy to think so after listening to NPR on my way to work and reading the NY Times at lunch, and then over dinner watching a certain cable network that up until recently was all too willing to hide stories of real abuse. Really, some people sound positively gleeful over how this might negatively affect the administration.

And of course, the "Arab Street" is angry. (As someone named Ace says, "What the hell doesn't make Arabs and Muslims angry?"). And I'd give a rat's patoot what they think if they would show even a tenth as much outrage over atrocities like this. Oh, I know, we're Americans, we're supposed to be better than that. And we should. But it is really too much to ask for once that they be better than that, too?

May 7, 2004

So what explains "Fear Factor"?

Donald Luskin has been covering a spat lately in which liberals accuse conservatives of distorting the truth regarding the date when the most recent economic recession began. The underlying issue, of course, is whether to blame Bill Clinton or George Bush; as such, it's a debate mostly of interest to flag wavers on the campaign trail.

So what to make of gratuitous comments like this, from the New York Times' Arts section, on the occasion of "Friends" ending its ten year run:

But timing was also an important factor in the show's success. The best sitcoms echo the larger mood of the nation. "M*A*S*H," whose finale in 1983 drew the largest audience for a single episode of a television series, provided gallows humor in the gallows era of Vietnam and Watergate. "Friends" came along after the Reagan-Bush recession of the late 1980's and early 90's, a period that had fostered shows like "Married . . . With Children," "Roseanne" and "The Simpsons," caustic comedy centered around dysfunctional, financially strapped, families.
Emphasis added.

The Reagan-Bush recession? Huh? Reagan, of course, had been out of office for several years when the recession of the early 1990s happened. What makes this so egregious is that not only is the statement wrong, but it's so totally unnecessary; the sentence would have been just as clear if "Reagan-Bush" had been omitted. The Times just can't help itself from having its partisanship leak from the editorial pages into news sections, can it?

(I thought for a moment that perhaps this was common terminology that I had just missed, but a quick Google turned up just 43 hits on the phrase -- all, as far as I can tell, from partisan sources. Which, at least in theory, the Television column in the Arts section should not be.)

Incidentally, "Married... with Children" started in 1987, "Rosanne" started in 1988, and "The Simpsons" started in 1989. The "Reagan [sic]-Bush recession" started after all of those did, in July 1990, so I'm not sure what that leaves of the theory that the recession is what led to these shows. I suppose technically the reporter could say that article isn't wrong because it said that the recession "fostered" these shows -- that is, she could argue that the shows started before the recession but were only successful because of it. The problem is that this too is wrong; Roseanne was the number two-rated show for two seasons before the recession began.

Hmmm... maybe the TV columnist should stick to TV, and stop playing pop sociologist.

May 11, 2004

Are any of them gay?

It used to be that people complained that certain minority faces in a given situation were mere "tokens." That used to be considered something to be ashamed about -- for the person employing the token and the person being used as a token. But apparently that's no longer the case. From the corrections page of the New York Times on Tuesday:

An article on April 30 about dissatisfaction among some black and Hispanic Democrats over the degree of diversity on Senator John Kerry's campaign staff misstated the makeup of the nine aides who travel regularly with him. In addition to an African-American man responsible for keeping Mr. Kerry on schedule, there is a Mexican-American woman who compiles his daily briefing books; the seven other aides are white. (Go to Article)
"There's a black guy who watches the clock, and a Mexican chick who writes reports." I would be embarrassed to read something like this, if I were one of the participants. But I guess our new obsession with "diversity" has overriden our contempt for tokenism -- either that, or we simply have no shame in our society anymore.

May 12, 2004

Throw me in that briar patch

Mark Kleiman wonders why "right-wing bloggers" (his term) are upset that the murder of Nicholas Berg was not shown by the American media.

What am I missing here?

* Al Qaeda thugs murder an American on camera as a publicity stunt.

* The mass media mostly refuse to give them the free publicity they want, not showing the snuff clip the terrorists released.

* Right-wing bloggers object, thinking the media ought to do what the terrorists wanted them to do.

Well, Mark doesn't quote or link to any of these "right-wing bloggers," so it's difficult to respond to his question with specifics, but perhaps what "right-wing bloggers" are upset about is the double-standard. Graphic photos of American abuses at Abu Ghraib prison are given prominent play, but Al Qaeda's terror is sanitized. It is proper to report on the prison abuse by U.S. forces, yes. It's also important to remember why U.S. forces are there in the first place.

[UPDATE: I just want to add, in case it isn't obvious, that I'm not saying that the latter justifies the former. The two are unrelated. I'm talking only about the editorial decisions by the media, not about the incidents themselves.]

And perhaps what Mark is also missing is that his premise is likely wrong; showing it would not be "what the terrorists wanted them to do." Either the video was primarily intended by the terrorists for an Arab audience or for an American one. To the extent that the video was intended for an Arab audience, the American media showing it wouldn't be relevant to Al Qaeda's wishes. To the extent that it was intended for an American audience, it would be, I think, an attempt to demoralize or intimidate us. But I don't believe that showing it to us would have that effect; I would suspect that it would have the opposite effect. While widespread violence in Iraq might convince the U.S. to pull out, targeted violence such as that will only make us more determined to stay there and eliminate those responsible.

May 17, 2004

Uh oh

I generally assume that the media is overstating the bad news about Iraq and ignoring the good news. But even if that's true, this can't be good news:

A suicide car bomb has killed at least nine people outside the main coalition headquarters in Baghdad, including the head of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, officials say.

Abdul Zahra Othman Mohammad, a Shi'ite council member also known as Izzedin Salim, had been waiting at a checkpoint to enter the sprawling "Green Zone" compound in Baghdad when the bomb went off, Deputy Foreign Minister Hamed al-Bayati told Reuters.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. is often criticized for making President Hamid Karzai the "mayor of Kabul" -- that is, creating a situation where he (and by extension, the U.S.) controls the capital city and not much beyond that.

But in Iraq, the U.S. can't even protect, or stabilize, downtown Baghdad. And if we can't do that, if we can't manage to keep the Governing Council safe, then what chance does our little Iraqi adventure have? How can we build a peaceful, democratic Iraq if terrorists can set off car bombs in the heart of the capital?

How do you think we feel?

They just can't help themselves, over at the New York Times. They write that the Vatican cautioned Catholics against interfaith marriage, and (apparently) singled out marriages with Muslims for special concern. (I say "apparently" because I don't trust the Times to report the story accurately.) But then the Times throws this in:

The document, written by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, sets these issues in a context of globalism and easy travel that encourages the mixing of religions. Although it makes no mention of the conflicts in the Middle East, its release comes during a time of heightened anger in the Muslim world.
Really? I thought there was pretty much just as much anger in the Muslim world as there always is. On the other hand, it seems to me as if there's more anger in the non-Muslim, Judeo-Christian world nowadays.

Either way, does the comment really belong in the story?

Dissension in the ranks

Of course, before the Iraq war, the Pentagon and State Department held different views about the appropriate policy. But it's a rather bad sign that even now, the two groups can't get their stories straight. Is the US going to pull troops out of Iraq after June 30th?

ecretary of State Colin L. Powell was joined by the foreign ministers of Britain, Italy and Japan on Friday in declaring that they would honor any request by Iraq's new government to withdraw foreign troops after June 30, when it is to receive limited sovereignty.
A "top aide to Mr. Powell, Marc Grossman" said the same thing when he was asked by a House committee last week.
Mr. Grossman, under secretary of state for political affairs, was then contradicted by Lt. Gen. L. Walter Sharp, director of strategic plans for the military's joint staff, who said an Iraqi pullout request would not be valid unless it were made by an elected government due to take office next year.
So which is it? Apparently everyone is banking on Iraq not making such a request, which would enable us to avoid having to make such a decision. But hoping that a problem goes away doesn't always work, unfortunately.

Cutting off your nose to spite your face

I have been skeptical of the claims of those such as Andrew Sullivan who want the Catholic Church to stay out of politics. While Sullivan is right to be concerned that the Church appears to be taking partisan sides, the source of that problem lies not in the Church, but in the partisan split on key issues, notably abortion.

I don't agree with the Church's stand on abortion, but it is a clear moral stand; to suggest that they should stay out of the debate merely because it's divisive is to misunderstand the role of a religious institution. Should 19th century churches have refused to condemn slavery-supporting politicians merely because such a condemnation would put the churches on the side of Republicans? I suspect Sullivan would be far less inclined to make such an argument; I suspect his problem here is that the Catholic hard-liners who want the Church to make a strong stand against abortion are the same ones who want to make a strong stand against homosexuality.

But you pays your money and you takes your chances; as I pointed out earlier with regard to New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, you can't simultaneously demand to be an accepted member of a religious community and demand to be allowed to espouse whatever religious views you choose without consequence. That is, unless you're a Unitarian.

That having been said, I think this bishop is going a little far.

The Roman Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs has issued a pastoral letter saying that American Catholics should not receive communion if they vote for politicians who defy church teaching by supporting abortion rights, same-sex marriage, euthanasia or stem-cell research.
To me, there seems to me to be a significant difference between ostracizing a candidate who advocates a particular policy as one of his main platform planks, and ostracizing someone who votes for a candidate who holds that view.

The Church can do whatever it wants, of course. But unless the Pope runs for office -- and I'm pretty sure he's not eligible for too many of them around these parts -- you're not going to find candidates who follow every Church teaching. What is the voter who lives in a district where both candidates are pro-choice to do? Or what if the voter decides that the pro-choice candidate is better on other Catholic teachings, and that this candidate won't have an opportunity to implement his abortion views anyway? (I'm always amused when candidates for mayor or the like emphasize their views on legal abortion, as if mayors had any authority over the matter.) The Church should take strong moral stands, certainly -- but if it drives away all its members, it won't be very effective at promoting those stances.

[Disclaimer: I'm not Catholic, so keep in mind that I'm making this up as I go along.]

May 18, 2004


A judge came up with a creative sentence for an individual convicted of the horrible crime of violating neo-Prohibition:

A Fishers mother must serve at least two days in jail and write a 20-page research paper as part of a sentence imposed today in connection with an underage drinking party at her home last year.


"It's a fair sentence," said Deputy Prosecutor Matthew Gernand. "Underage drinking is a large problem. It becomes a larger problem when you have parents starting to condone that activity, and then providing alcohol for the minors.

"I think the sentence serves as a good message to the community that parents should not be hosting parties and allowing their kids to drink."

Sturtevant also ordered the woman to write a 20-page research paper on the impact of underage drinking, serve 60 days of home detention with electronic monitoring and 180 days of probation, pay $184, and perform 50 hours of community service work.

"Part of the paper is she is going to have to provide statistics on underage drinking, and how it's a harm," said Gernand. "It's not to be an opinion paper. It's to be a factual paper, with statistics."

So she can have any opinion she wants, as long as it's the correct one, because then it's a fact. So what happens if she "provides statistics on underage drinking" and shows how it isn't a harm? Does the judge unsuspend her suspended sentence and send her to prison? After all, it appears that her real crime was not serving the alcohol, but "condoning" underage drinking. Wouldn't want people to get the wrong ideas, after all.

Incidentally, the party was in honor of her son, who is entering the military. Maybe he'll be sent to go fight in the Middle East -- where they also punish people for the "crime" of serving alcohol.

Testing 1, 2, 3

When I was growing up, I thought my parents put too much pressure on me about getting into college; it seemed absurd to me that they were obsessed with me building the perfect "resume" starting as early as middle school. None of my friends' parents were that obsessed.

Whether I just lived a sheltered life or whether things have changed -- for the worse -- I can't say, but now I read with a mixture of amusement and horror the stories of parents who spend thousands of dollars on private college admissions planners, essay coaches, SAT prep tutors, trips around the world so those kids will have something about which to write their essays, etc. (And then there are the parents who game the system and then file lawsuits when that doesn't work perfectly.) Of course, stories of Manhattanites trying to get their children into the "right" preschools are still absurd. (Right?)

With that in mind, read this New York Times article on whining, obsessed parents who seem to have lost perspective, although with an interesting twist. The trend nowadays is to complain about too much standardized testing in schools; these parents are complaining about too little.

The short version: there's a private school in New York called the United Nations International School, which primarily (though not exclusively) serves children of diplomats. As such, the curriculum is oriented towards the International Baccalaureate program. Most families intend to send their children to the school all the way through high school, and hence do not care about the workings of the public school system. However, a small segment of the student body will be attending public high schools, and for that reason their parents want the UNIS to prepare students for that path, a significant part of which involves standardized tests:

Many say their children need the standardized scores to apply for summer enrichment programs on college campuses or to qualify for transfer to selective New York City public high schools.
The UNIS has done away with the tests, and these parents are upset. All that makes sense, until you see what the complaint of the parents is. In fact, the UNIS has done away with the tests only before the fifth grade, and has made them voluntary after that. And that's what worries the parents:
While the assessment test will still be available in middle school, these parents say their children will be introduced late to the tricks of the trade: pacing themselves on timed tests, knowing when to guess on a multiple choice question, carefully marking the bubble next to the right answer.

"My fear is the school is not preparing my children properly and they'll be at a disadvantage relative to other kids," said Jeffrey Sovern, a law professor at St. John's University and a leader of the protest.

That's right; these obsessed parents are worried that their kids will be at a disadvantage because they won't be taught in third grade how to color in a circle with a pencil. They're worried that their kids won't get into selective high schools because their kids aren't taught in elementary school how to guess on a multiple choice question. Hello, people! If your kids can't pick these complex skills (Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Moe) up within four years starting in the fifth grade, they don't deserve to be going to selective high schools!


Thanks, Mom

Missing the point once again, the New York Times editorial board has retroactively endorsed New York Mayor Bloomberg's anti-smoking campaign:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a lot of ridicule for his crusade against smoking, but now it looks as if he will have the last and best laugh. After a decade of only limited progress, New York City has just recorded an 11 percent decline in the number of adults who smoke, in little more than a year.
Even if you believe those numbers (and see below for a comment on that) that's not the point. Bloomberg wasn't being ridiculed for making ineffective anti-smoking proposals; Bloomberg was being ridiculed for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. Nobody elected Michael Bloomberg to be the city population's mother. What's really sad is not that the Times editors disagree with this, but that they don't even realize that this is the issue.

As to the actual decline, while the press release is prominent on the city's website, damned if I can find the actual report. Which I'd like to find, so I can see the fine print about the methodology, because I find this number awfully suspicious; a sudden sharp spike --


-- sounds more like a survey design or measurement error than a true change. (On the other hand, the cigarette tax was hiked significantly in that time, so it's possible.)

By the way, note that the "11% decline" in smoking is from 22% to 19%; while that's approximately mathematically accurate, I suspect many readers would assume that an 11% decline describes a drop from 22% to 11%. If the Times editors wanted to avoid ambiguity, they should have provided the actual numbers.

May 24, 2004

You say to-may-to

Bush's speech tonight, otherwise known as "How many different ways can George Bush pronounce Abu Ghraib?", was good, but probably too little, too late. Listening to the post-speech callers on CSPAN, it seems clear that even the people who watched the speech didn't listen to it; everyone's mind is already made up. Bush needed to give this speech weeks ago.

At this point, I think it's clear that words are irrelevant, and the only issue that matters is June 30. If there's a smooth, peaceful, transfer of power, and if the terrorist attacks can be kept to a minimum, then Bush wins on the Iraq issue. If it degenerates into a fight over power, or if a car bomb wipes out half the new government, Bush is in serious trouble.

May 26, 2004

Point, click and shoot

If we stop taking pictures, the terrorists will have won: New York City's Transit authority, which operates the city's mass transit, has made a proposal: "a ban on unauthorized photography, filming, and videotaping  city subways, buses and Staten Island Railway trains. The press and businesses or individuals with permits would be exempt."

What possible reason could there be for such a ban? According to the story, the reason is the new all-purpose excuse for every idiotic government proposal:

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the bombing that killed hundreds on a commuter train in Madrid earlier this year, tighter security has been a high priority, Mr. Seaton said. The other proposed rule changes are also needed, he said.
Ah, yes. Tighter security. Of course. Let me count the ways that this is stupid.
  1. How on earth does this enhance security? One might be able to argue that we don't want people taking pictures in the subway because it could allow terrorists to study the area, see where the guards are, see where bombs could be planted, etc. But how could that possibly apply to buses? And since people can stand around the subway station and observe the security measures firsthand, what good is it going to do to keep them from having photographs? And if the media, "advertisers, artists and others, 'would all be allowed' to take pictures as long as they obtained written permission in advance," then who exactly does that leave out? People who write "To blow it up, praise Allah!" on their permit applications under "Reason"?
  2. Even if it did enhance security, how could this possibly be enforced? Digital cameras are getting smaller and smaller -- this is the era of the camera phone, after all. Is everyone who enters the subway system and/or gets on a bus going to be frisked?
  3. Even if it did enhance security and could be enforced, they're not planning to enforce it. From the article:
    While transit officers would make common-sense judgments about issuing summonses to tourists who take pictures without knowing the rules, even visitors would be subject to fines, Mr. Seaton said, although there is no provision for confiscation of cameras. He said taking a picture or filming without authorization would be subject to a relatively low $25 fine.
Oh, I see: a $25 fine. That changes everything. Maybe the plan is to bankrupt Al Qaeda... . very slowly.

The only thing I can't figure out from this story is whether this proposal comes from some petty bureaucrat who came up with a stupid idea because he likes to throw his weight around (as petty bureaucrats so often do), or whether this is simply a (poorly) disguised fund-raising measure.

May 27, 2004

Someone who belongs in Abu Ghraib

A least a small measure of justice:

A man who sent 850 million junk e-mails through accounts he opened with stolen identities was sentenced to prison Thursday after telling the judge the case against him was overblown and had no victims.

"I obviously regret this whole involvement," Howard Carmack began before being sentenced to 3-1/2 to 7 years in prison on charges including forgery, identity theft and falsifying business records.

Good deal. A drop in the bucket, of course; given that I get about 850 million junk e-mails every day, there's obviously a lot more where he came from. But for once the government did something right.

The strange, depressing thing:

Prosecutors estimated Carmack was making $60,000 to $70,000 annually before his arrest last May.
Assuming that these estimates refer to his spam-related income, I have to wonder what kind of morons there are in this country. I'm not sure who buys "get-rich-quick schemes and sexual enhancers," but more importantly, who on earth buys them based on spam? Are there really people who get one of those Vi@gra emails and think, "Gosh, I was going to go to a doctor, but ooh! Look at this colorful email! I'll just click on this unknown link and send my money to some anonymous person on the internet"?

I've posed this question before on this blog, and I know the answer: obviously there are. If there weren't such people, then spammers would have to get real jobs. But what makes it really puzzling is that, in order to bypass all the filters out there, the spam is becoming more and more abstract; it's harder and harder to figure out what the spammer is selling based on his emails. So who is clicking on the links? Are they all the same retarded elderly people who buy magazine subscriptions because they're sure it will help them win the Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes? Can't be; those people don't use computers. So I give up.

[Anybody who wishes to comment on this entry: please note that if you use the name of any of the "sexual enhancers" that are commonly sold via spam, your comment may be blocked by my spam-catcher.]

About May 2004

This page contains all entries posted to Jumping To Conclusions in May 2004. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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