Monday, August 31, 2009

Shilling for Dick

Here we go again. Dick Cheney is still defending torture. Dick Cheney still thinks he's above the law. Dick Cheney still thinks he's the one in charge. But now he has a new BFF in Chris Wallace who brings new meaning to the softball interview:

Oh Chris! Did Dick Cheney let you sit on his lap after the cameras were turned off?

And again, Chris Wallace proved himself an inadequate journalist while leading the discussion following the interview. He cut off Juan Williams from making clear and forceful arguments against torture. He dismisses it all as "purely coincidental" that this country has not been attacked again since 9-11. But John Amato is as sick as I am over the "they kept us safe" line of bullshit:
You see, 9/11 doesn't count. Cheney and his ilk make it sound as if America was being attacked every week and once he started torturing they all magically stopped. Why was the US safe from 1993-2001, without using torture or the Patriot act? And the Trade Center bombers were all caught, but using Cheney's method Bin Laden is still free.
But at the heart of this whole offensive effort by Cheney and friends is the falsehood that somehow the CIA inspector general report shows that torture works. The truth is that the IG report repeatedly makes clear that it does not assess the effectiveness of particular techniques of torture. And even if torture did work, it shouldn't be legalized.

But these guys can't be bogged down with concepts like truth and justice... or journalism. Is there a prize opposite of the Pulitzer? I'll have to look into that, but meanwhile I'm making up my own. The first ever Porkpuller Prize for weakest effort in journalism goes to Chris Wallace. Congrats, Chris.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Give Me a 'Y'

I bring you this video from the alternate reality channel:

(YouTube video)

Give me a "Y"? Or is it a "why," as in "why is Glenn Beck still on TV?" We already know that calling President Obama a racist is not particularly good for business. That is why 33 advertisers have dropped their sponsorship of Beck's show. I hope that list will grow.

Because race baiting isn't the only scary thing going on here. Beck's show is turning into the worst possible reality show I could imagine -- a show where the sole contestant goes insane for our viewing pleasure. I don't need to be a psychiatrist to believe the man has some kind of disorder. Making up a word like "oligarhy" is either a serious thought disorder or hilarious illiteracy.

But even more obvious is the paranoia. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter noticed the paranoid style in American politics:
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).
It's like Roger Ailes read that essay and used it as a blueprint for his Republican spin channel. And 25% of Americans think that channel is credible for whatever reason I don't know. But for now, it's still home to Glenn Beck, and ignoring him won't make him go away.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mediocre White Hope

So Kansas Republican Lynn Jenkins says the GOP is struggling to find a "great white hope," and California Republican Congressman Wally Herger applauded a town hall shouter who declared himself to be "a proud right wing terrorist."

Hey, right now the Republicans should lower their expectations. The best they can hope for is somebody who doesn't say moronic things in public.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thank You Ted Kennedy

"He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it's hard to imagine any of them without him. " — statement from Edward Kennedy's family.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy died late Tuesday night. He was 77 years old and fighting brain cancer. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1962 until his death.

I know there will be many glowing and not-so-glowing tributes to this good yet flawed man, but here I would like to simply state my thanks for his diligent work towards progressive causes: the National Cancer Act, the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Mental Health Parity Act, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Despite being born to privilege, Senator Kennedy was clearly an ally to every minority that faced discrimination and diminished opportunities. His compassion was reflected in his legislation, and he changed America for the better.

And quite possibly he was able to effect 46 years of change because he was never president:
But his failure to get to the presidency opened the way to the true fulfillment of his gifts, which was to become one of the greatest legislators in American history. When their White House years are over, most Presidents set off on the long aftermath of themselves. They give lectures, write books, play golf and make money. Jimmy Carter even won a Nobel Prize. But every one of them would tell you that elder-statesmanship is no substitute for real power.
Sadly, Ted Kennedy has died just as the "cause of his life" -- health care reform -- needs his vote. I hope this dream doesn't die with him. I hope there is a renewed zeal to provide quality health care for all. And I hope we can honor Ted Kennedy by naming such a landmark bill after him.

Rest in peace Teddy Kennedy.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

That's What Friends Are For

"Friendship is a thing neccessary to life since without friends no one would choose to live, though possessed of all other advantages." — Aristotle
In the past few months I've struggled with this question: why have my old classmates all gone insane? Whenever one of them finds me on that silly Facebook, I discover a profile full of links to Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and pro-torture social groups. It's downright scary. But then I think about it and I realize that, outside of Facebook, it's really not normal to advertise your extreme political beliefs.

The Boston Globe explains why in an enlightening article on how our closest acquaintances are nearly strangers to us -- and that might not be so bad.

After all, our real-life social interactions are meant to establish rapport and to bond -- not data mine. In fact, when friends interact, they misread entire regions of each others' personalities. Too often we just assume our friends agree with us.

I try not to make such assumptions myself, but I've been in those socially awkward situations where a long-time friends assumes I hate Clinton, or immigrants or fuel-efficient cars. Like a zap of electricity, the differences in our convictions strikes both of us at once.

Here is another important point from The Boston Globe article:
Indeed, according to Michael Norton, a psychologist who teaches at Harvard Business School, simply believing we have lots of close friends brings the same benefits as actually having them. In other words, if someone’s ignorance of one of his “friends” extends so deeply that he’s not actually aware that the person doesn’t like him, he may be better off for it. Even befriending entirely fictional people seems to do some good - a paper published last year by researchers at the University of Buffalo and Miami University found that television characters actually function as “social surrogates” for viewers, and watching a favorite show can be an effective way to alleviate loneliness.
Hmm... I think too many people are alleviating their loneliness with Glenn Beck.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Barney and Friends

Barney Frank made my day today when he confronted this townhall shouter comparing President Obama to Hitler:

(YouTube video)

"Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table." Except, I would add, a dining room table would have the sense to keep its mouth shut.

I also would have told that young woman to march her under-educated ass down to a public library and do a little research on Adolph Hitler and the 11 million people his Nazi party systematically killed. And then tell me how the hell that is comparable to a program to provide health care to 46 million uninsured Americans. And then I'd ask her how she feels about the estimated 22,000 Americans who die each year due to lack of health care. I think her answer would reveal who exactly is thinking like a Nazi. It's certainly not Barney Frank or President Obama.

That girl didn't know who she was up against. I wish more Democrats were like Barney Frank. Or maybe I agree with Matt Taibbi who wishes more Democrats were like George W. Bush... at least in their ability to actually get things done. The Dems seems to be bargaining away real health care reform. Or maybe not. They now say they'll try to pass health care reform without Republican support. We really won't know until Congress reconvenes in September.

But I can't blame them if they give up on working with Republicans. They're embarrassing!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bad Parent Blames YouTube

Apparently there is stuff on the Internet that slow children shouldn't see:

So does this mean the Internet will be closed tomorrow? But really, while little Russell Gortzig is propped up in front of the television for the next few months -- Internet privileges taken away I presume -- his ever watchful mother and sister better keep him away from Jackass, Beavis and Butthead, and The Roadrunner. "Monkey see, monkey do," as my mother would say.

The funniest part of this story isn't even mentioned. Through an interview with Marco (the buddy who poured the gasoline) "deputies learned that Gortzig had set his pants on fire on three previous occasions without any accelerant."

Hey, I have a good idea. In addition to watching your children carefully, how about keeping gasoline, cigarette lighters and accelerant out of their reach? I'm hoping that's what Ann Curry really wanted to say to these clueless dimwits.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

God, Gog, Magog, and Bush

Here's more proof why I never again want a "true believer" as president. In 2003, while George W. Bush was assembling his "coalition of the willing," he had one hell of an alarming conversation with France's President Jacques Chirac.
Now out of office, Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their “common faith” (Christianity) and told him: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”
I have little doubt that ultimately that unnecessary trillion dollar war in Iraq was about oil. But clearly Bush's nutty, supernatural beliefs prevailed over logic, facts, and clear thinking.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

We're All Going to Die

"The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil." — Sarah Palin, 2009

"Paranoia is just another word for ignorance." — Hunter S. Thompson, 2004
Let's get the facts out. America's Affordable Health Choices Act does not create "death panels." Some conservatives have dismissed Palin's claims, including now FOX's Neil Cavuto. Crazy Cavuto isn't even on your side, Sarah.

The wild-eyed fears are over Sec. 1233 - Advance care planning consultation. An analysis of the bill produced by the three relevant House committees explains:
Sec. 1233. Advance care planning consultation. Provides coverage for consultation between enrollees and practitioners to discuss orders for life-sustaining treatment. Instructs CMS to modify ‘Medicare & You’ handbook to incorporate information on end-of-life planning resources and to incorporate measures on advance care planning into the physician’s quality reporting initiative.
There is no requirement that anybody have end-of-life planning. However, this type of counseling has been a standard recommendation for senior citizens. My grandma had it back in 1994. She was 79 and her heart was failing. She knew that physically she couldn't tolerate a heart operation and that she didn't want any more treatment. She could have just as easily told her doctors that she wanted to live on life support. But the point is that she was informed of her options and prognosis, and the key to that is the consultation where your doctors discuss these issues with you and find out what you want!

And notice I said "your doctors" and not "government." You won't be having this conversation with a government bureaucrat. That's just right-wing lunacy. In reality land, the government will pay your doctor for the time spent consulting you.

We're all going to die. It's nothing new.

However, the fear-mongers conveniently forget that our current system of free-market private insurers already forces many of these end-of-life decisions on us. The scariest systems are the ones that don't follow the patient's wishes.

Like in Texas, for example, where their Advance Directives Act allows a health care facility to discontinue life-sustaining treatment against the wishes of the patient or guardian. George W. Bush signed that one into law while he was governor, and then his successor, Rick Perry, amended the law to apply to children. Since then, the law has been used to withdraw life support from an infant against the wishes of the parents. Remind me again why we call these Republicans "pro-life"?

You know, Sarah Palin is partly right. Such a system is evil. Hopefully every one of us will have quality, affordable options when healthcare reform is passed.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Death of The Town Hall

In 1943, American artist Norman Rockwell produced a series of oil paintings depicting The Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Want and Freedom From Fear. At the time, tyranny ruled over Western Europe, and the paintings served as a reminder of our motivation for fighting in World War II.

Right now, we need a reminder of a different sort, but it can be found in that same iconic Freedom of Speech painting. The scene is a local town hall meeting where one working man speaks and his neighbors calmly listen. I get the sense that they don't necessarily agree with the nervous speaker, but apparently they don't scream or yell or wave their fists. Nobody is full of rage. They listen respectfully because they might actually learn something. And besides, everybody wants the same respect when it's their turn to speak.

That's been the tradition in this country since about 1600... until last week, of course, when the teabaggers were whipped into a frenzy by their astroturf overlords. As I've stated before, these protesters do not make up a grassroots coalition of "regular Americans." The movement was manufactured by slick, conservative, well-funded, lobbyist-run think tanks called Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works with the purpose of denouncing taxation (with representation).

However, the teabaggers didn't go away after tax day. The lobbyists now have a fanatical list of grunts at their disposal, and they intend to use them to shout down any intelligent debate about other pressing issues like health care reform and clean energy. Think Progress has a leaked teabagger memo describing harassment strategies for town hall meetings. Suggestions include "artificially inflate your numbers", "be disruptive early and often", and (the most revealing one) "Try To 'Rattle Him,' Not Have An Intelligent Debate."

That says it all. They are firmly against intelligent debate. And they are proving they are against any intelligent debate. One moment of complete absurdity happened at a Town Hall event hosted by Texas Rep. Gene Green:
During the town hall, one conservative activist turns to his fellow attendees and asks them to raise their hands if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Almost all the hands shot up. Rep Green quickly turned the question on the audience and asked, “How many of you have Medicare?” Nearly half the attendees raised their hands, failing to note the irony.
But other protests have been more disturbing. In Maryland, a protester hung a Democrat Rep. in effigy. That is a clear threat.

And the only recourse at these meetings may be to arrest for disorderly conduct. We certainly can't afford to tolerate those who endeavor to silence their opponents. It's mob rule. All Republicans need to denounce these tactics or risk closing down our system of government.

But I almost forgot that they want President Obama to fail, and they want our country to fail. I guess America never was as idyllic as a Norman Rockwell painting. I wonder how Rockwell would have painted a teabagger?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Deadly Serious

I'm not sure how much longer we can look forward without looking backward. After years of following the criminality of American CEO's and politicians, I should be drained of any outrage. But then my outrage is suddenly refueled when I read this report by Jeremy Scahill, an expert on the private military contractor Blackwater:
A former Blackwater employee and an ex-US Marine who has worked as a security operative for the company have made a series of explosive allegations in sworn statements filed on August 3 in federal court in Virginia. The two men claim that the company's owner, Erik Prince, may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. The former employee also alleges that Prince "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe," and that Prince's companies "encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life."
You should really read the entire article and the two sworn statements linked within. However, I'll summarize some of the allegations against Blackwater founder and owner, Erik Prince:
  • Operated a web of companies to obscure money laundering and evade taxes.
  • Smuggled illegal weapons into Iraq for profit.
  • Destroyed incriminating videos, emails and other documents.
  • Did nothing to stop the excessive and unjustified deadly force against civilians.
  • Views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe.
  • Ignored the assessments done by mental health professionals and deployed "unfit men" obsessed with killing "ragheads."
  • Knowingly hired two persons previously involved in the Kosovo sex-trafficking ring to serve at relatively high levels in the company.
  • Failed to stop the ongoing use of prostitutes including child prostitutes by his employees.
  • Murdered, or had murdered, one or more persons who have provided information, or who were planning to provide information, to the federal authorities about the ongoing criminal conduct.
Is it just me or does that list get weirder and weirder? The first couple of crimes are what we've sadly grown to expect from war profiteers, and then we get to the murderous Christian crusader and sex-trafficking parts...

Our government wants us to believe that they're simply outsourcing and privatizing military security, but the UN says it's a new form of mercenary activity. However, the U.S. is not under any law or treaty barring the use of mercenaries. I think that makes us look like some kind of banana republic.

We gave a 1.2 billion dollar contract to a company that operates with impunity and is run by a greedy, neo-Christian crusader in a volatile region that wants us out. At first I wanted to add Blackwater and Erik Prince to the long list of idiotic mistakes made by the Bush Administration, but Jeremy Scahill believes that Bush and company considered the crusader element a definite plus in the decision to hire Blackwater:

Probably because of all the bad press, Blackwater changed their name to Xe -- which looks like a word I'd try to get away with in Scrabble. I have no idea what the name means, but I'm guessing it's short for "xenophobia."

Monday, August 03, 2009

Robot Weapons

Detective Del Spooner: What if I'm right?

Lt. John Bergin: [sighs] Well, then I guess we're gonna miss the good old days.

Detective Del Spooner: What good old days?

Lt. John Bergin: When people were killed by other people.

—Memorable scene from I, Robot (2004)

The future is creeping up too quickly. Last week I read that a certain wine-tasting robot thinks humans taste like bacon. That was scary enough.

Then today I read something much more sobering. Military killer robots could endanger civilians. Sounds like they already are:
"The next thing that's coming, and this is what really scares me, are armed autonomous robots," said Prof Sharkey speaking to journalists in London. "The robot will do the killing itself. This will make decision making faster and allow one person to control many robots. A single soldier could initiate a large scale attack from the air and the ground.

"It could happen now; the technology's there."

A step on the way had already been taken by Israel with "Harpy", a pilotless aircraft that flies around searching for an enemy radar signal. When it thinks one has been located and identified as hostile, the drone turns into a homing missile and launches an attack - all without human intervention.

Last year the British aerospace company BAe Systems completed a flying trial with a group of drones that could communicate with each other and select their own targets, said Prof Starkey. The United States Air Force was looking at the concept of "swarm technology" which involved multiple drone aircraft operating together.

Flying drones were swiftly being joined by armed robot ground vehicles, such as the Talon Sword which bristles with machine guns, grenade launchers, and anti-tank missiles.

However it was likely to be decades before such robots possessed a human-like ability to tell friend from foe.

Even with human controllers, drones were already stacking up large numbers of civilian casualties.

As a result of 60 known drone attacks in Pakistan between January 2006 and April 2009, 14 al Qaida leaders had been killed but also 607 civilians, said Prof Sharkey.

The US was paying teenagers "thousands of dollars" to drop infrared tags at the homes of al Qaida suspects so that Predator drones could aim their weapons at them, he added. But often the tags were thrown down randomly, marking out completely innocent civilians for attack.
On a side note, those infrared tags are the missing piece of the CTTL puzzle that 60 Minutes never explained. The use of such tagging devices requires some human judgment. Though human judgment may be shitty and clouded by other motivations, I'll never trust a computer to make better decisions -- even one programmed with the three rules of robotics as outlined by Isaac Asimov:
Law I: A robot may not harm a human or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Law II: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Law III: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Though simple for a human to understand, those rules cannot be comprehended by computers without huge advances in artificial intelligence. But I'm veering off topic here. No military would even want that first law anyway.

When robots fight our wars with or without human intervention and there is not a single human casualty on our side, then what will be our incentive for peace?

Meanwhile, Cyclone Power Technologies wants to assure us that all their military robots are vegetarians. Well, that's a relief.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Higher Ground

From the BBC today: Defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi says opposition detainees put on trial have been subjected to "medieval torture".

There once was a time when the U.S. could act shocked at those revelations and condemn such an evil and barbaric government. Now, what can we do? Our country went medieval a long time ago. And yes, waterboarding is medieval.

And it's not just our government. It's not just Republicans or Democrats. Many Americans are willing to tolerate torture. In fact, a recent poll indicates that Americans are more willing to tolerate the use of torture than are Chinese.

What happened? We used to be proud of our Western system of justice. The most critical right is the right of the accused to have a trial by jury. But Congress decided that shouldn't apply to detainees. Apparently gathering evidence is hard. And why have a trial when you can torture and get all the false confessions you need?

We can rightfully proclaim that "the public humiliation of prisoners is against international law" when one of our own soldiers is captured... but can the rest of the world take us seriously? I lament the loss of our moral high ground.