Friday, December 29, 2006

Bogus news for an increasingly fake medium

The Independent reports (evidently you have to read the press in the UK to learn these things) that the Bush Administration has been using "legitimate" television stations (cough, cough) to run its propaganda.

" Federal authorities are actively investigating dozens of American television stations for broadcasting items produced by the Bush administration and major corporations, and passing them off as normal news. Some of the fake news segments talked up success in the war in Iraq, or promoted the companies' products.

Investigators from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are seeking information about stations across the country after a report produced by a campaign group detailed the extraordinary extent of the use of such items.

The report, by the non-profit group Centre for Media and Democracy, found that over a 10-month period at least 77 television stations were making use of the faux news broadcasts, known as Video News Releases (VNRs). Not one told viewers who had produced the items.

"We know we only had partial access to these VNRs and yet we found 77 stations using them," said Diana Farsetta, one of the group's researchers. "I would say it's pretty extraordinary. The picture we found was much worse than we expected going into the investigation in terms of just how widely these get played and how frequently these pre-packaged segments are put on the air."

* * * * * *
During a speaking visit to an America journalism school recently I talked with students and faculty about the kinds of jobs graduates of the school expected to find. The strong consensus was that most of them would find work in public relations firms, not in traditional news reporting. Perhaps this is one of the ways that the boundaries between news and propaganda are being erased. Even the professionals can't tell the difference.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Automatic Professor Machine lecture restored

L.C. Winner's "Introducing the Automatic Professor Machine" lecture has been offline for a while. It has now been restored as a streaming video, about 23 minutes long. It takes a time to load and the transition between parts 1 and 2 is still a little rough, but its compelling vision of the future of technology-centered education is worth the occasional glitches in transmission

Still happily ensconced as C.E.O. of EDU-SHAM, Inc., L.C. tells me that he's been busy on a U.S. government no-bid contract to restore quality education to Iraq by introducing APMs in a variety of bomb-proof formats: Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Insurgent, and the newly introduced Refugee model (conveniently placed on escape routes for those fleeing the country).

"With our successful efforts in Iraqi reconstruction just about complete, I look forward to launching our new innovations in Glow-Ball pedagogy," he commented from Baghdad recently.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Political tsunami: the election of 2006

I'm beginning to look at the analysis of the 2006 election results. This story in the NYT contains a basic breakdown. (You have to click on the link in the left margin "Survey of Voters: Who They Were.")

Much of the data is encouraging, the breakdown on youth, black, hispanic, voters, etc. The Times story emphasizes that evangelicals stuck with the Republicans. No surprise there. But trends for much of the electorate moved in a different direction.

Women were 52% of all voters and voted 56% Democratic. Young voters 18-29, 12% of the total, voted 61% for the Dems. A new youth revolt against the forces of war, imperialism and inequality?

A first glance at these numbers reveals some very, very hopeful signs. I recall the warmth, enthusiasm and explicitly political message of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young "Living with War" concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center last August, thinking "this is great, but too good to be true." But it was one of many glimmerings of a tsunami on the horizon. Of course, it will take a lot of work to continue and to build upon these gains.

- Langdon

Call Center: the movie

If you've got ten minutes and want a good chuckle, check out "Call Center," a film about global information networks that connect East and West. It's well produced and hilarious.

(Thanks to Aneel Salman for telling me about this! - LW)

Friday, October 20, 2006

It can't happen here? (Look again)

From the very beginning of this blog I've covered the not-so-slow movement of the U.S.A. from a democratic government toward political forms that institute fascism on several significant dimensions (see earlier posts). With the passage of the passage of The Military Commissions Act of 2006, the country has taken another bold step in this direction. Apparently oblivious of the significance of habeas corpus, bill of attainder, and, for that matter, the Bill of Rights, our benighted Congress and President Bush have repealled the most basic Constitutional protections of our rights and liberties. Below are two items, first an article from the Washington Post on recent Bush administration moves to eliminate the courts from protecting having a role in defending citizen rights, second a letter from Ed Furey to Juan Cole on the broader horizons of the legislation, published in Cole's blog, Informed Comment, archived 10/20/2006.

* * * * *
Court Told It Lacks Power in Detainee Cases

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2006; A18

Moving quickly to implement the bill signed by President Bush this week that authorizes military trials of enemy combatants, the administration has formally notified the U.S. District Court here that it no longer has jurisdiction to consider hundreds of habeas corpus petitions filed by inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

In a notice dated Wednesday, the Justice Department listed 196 pending habeas cases, some of which cover groups of detainees. The new Military Commissions Act (MCA), it said, provides that "no court, justice, or judge" can consider those petitions or other actions related to treatment or imprisonment filed by anyone designated as an enemy combatant, now or in the future.

Beyond those already imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere, the law applies to all non-U.S. citizens, including permanent U.S. residents.

The new law already has been challenged as unconstitutional by lawyers representing the petitioners. The issue of detainee rights is likely to reach the Supreme Court for a third time.

Habeas corpus, a Latin term meaning "you have the body," is one of the oldest principles of English and American law. It requires the government to show a legal basis for holding a prisoner. A series of unresolved federal court cases brought against the administration over the last several years by lawyers representing the detainees had left the question in limbo.

Two years ago, in Rasul v. Bush, which gave Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their detention before a U.S. court, and in this year's Hamdan v. Rumsfeld , the Supreme Court appeared to settle the issue in favor of the detainees. But the new legislation approved by Congress last month, which gives Bush the authority to try detainees before military commissions, included a provision removing judicial review for all habeas claims.

Immediately after Bush signed the act into law Tuesday, the Justice Department sent a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit asserting the new authorities and informing the court that it no longer had jurisdiction over a combined habeas case that had been under consideration since 2004. The U.S. District Court cases, which had been stayed pending the appeals court decision, were similarly invalid, the administration informed that court on Wednesday.

A number of legal scholars and members of Congress, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), have said that the habeas provision of the new law violates a clause of the Constitution that says the right to challenge detention "shall not be suspended" except in cases of "rebellion or invasion." Historically, the Constitution has been interpreted to apply equally to citizens and noncitizens under U.S. jurisdiction.

The administration's persistence on the issue "demonstrates how difficult it is for the courts to enforce [the clause] in the face of a resolute executive branch that is bound and determined to resist it," said Joseph Margulies, a Northwestern University law professor involved in the detainee cases. . . . .

* * * * * * * *
The Unconstitutionality of the Military Commissions Act: Furey

Ed Furey writes:

Professor Cole:

You barely scratched the surface on the unconstitutionality of the so-called terror legislation. Beyond repealing habeas corpus, another grotesque violation of the Constitution is implicated in that legislation. The Constitution specifically forbids the passage of a “bill of attainder.” In the old days, when kings and others were not certain they get a judge or jury to convict someone of a crime, they would simply declare them guilty (attainted) and imprison, torture and/or execute them. When Parliaments did this they passed a “bill of attainder” declaring the person guilty of a crime. What this recent piece of legislation has done is to declare a whole class of persons, “unlawful enemy combatants,” to be criminals, subject to punishment -- imprisonment without trial and torture -- at the discretion of the president. By the way, this does not exclude American citizens.

The Constitution also prohibits “corruption of the blood” which was another old tyrant’s trick in which the families of the attainted were also declared guilty of the crimes because they were related to the criminal. This provided a sort of pseudo-legal sanction for wiping out the families of political enemies, especially those who might succeed to titles of nobility – and seek revenge. By declaring the whole bloodline criminal, you get to kill women and small children whose murders would otherwise be distasteful. It is expressly forbidden in the Constitution. Nevertheless, punishment of relatives of the accused has also become United States policy.

The ban on corruption of the blood would seem to be violated by the common U.S. practice in Iraq of taking hostages and imprisoning people suspected of nothing other than being related to the suspect (the taking of hostages is also banned under the Geneva Conventions). U.S. forces held the two sons of the head of the Iraqi air defense hostage in Abu Ghraib until he agreed to surrender. Being imprisoned is a form of punishment for the person being held, hence the corruption of the blood. Once in US custody he was killed, in what the Army investigation called a homicide.

It is interesting that the current administration and Congress are descending into barbarities so ancient and so grotesque that most Americans have never heard of them. They reside banned in obscure corners of the Constitution because the Founding Fathers knew them well enough to forbid them. Nevertheless, they are there, and as Casey Stengel liked to say: You could look it up.

By the way, the administration is also on thin Constitutional ice in sending mercenaries to wage war in Iraq (more than 600 have been killed). Private persons waging war has a familiar name to it – piracy. And for all the sentimentality about “Pirates of the Caribbean” international law was practically invented to check piracy, and then extended to other matters. Bin Laden and gang are, among other things, pirates and subject to arrest anywhere they are identified on the planet, under international conventions.

Governments used to be able to authorize private citizens to wage war as privateers. These were usually ship owners, who fitted their vessels out with guns and went hunting for enemy shipping. To make what would otherwise be piracy legal, governments would issue letters of marque and reprisal, in effect authorizing or licensing the private person to wage war on their behalf. Privateering, however, was outlawed 150 years ago, in the Declaration of Paris, to which the United States is a party (curiously, no 150th anniversary celebrations took place back in April, when that milestone was passed – well, maybe not so curious after all). And, as it turns out, the Constitution also takes up the matter. Only Congress may issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal. It has not done so in this war. I don’t believe it has done so since the War of 1812.

This actually came up, slightly in WWII. Charles Lindbergh was working with Lockheed to extend the range of P-38s and train American pilots into efficiently flying over vast distances of water, as required by the island campaign. He went out on several combat missions and was credited with shooting down at least one Japanese plane. This was all kept pretty quiet at the time, because he was technically a civilian (FDR was still angry at his America First role and refused to reinstate him as a colonel in the Army Air Force), although I suppose if he had been captured, the U.S. might have been able to argue that he was also technically an officer.

As a matter of fact, there seems to be no legal basis whatsoever for Coalition Provisional Authority, either in American law or international law. '

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Television and the onset of autism

Research by Cornell University social scientists suggests a link between autism and televsion watching of young children. As reported by Gregg Easterbrook in Slate:

"Cornell University researchers are reporting what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3. The researchers studied autism incidence in California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. They found that as cable television became common in California and Pennsylvania beginning around 1980, childhood autism rose more in the counties that had cable than in the counties that did not. They further found that in all the Western states, the more time toddlers spent in front of the television, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of autism disorders. ....

The Cornell study is by Waldman, a professor in the school's Johnson Graduate School of Management, Sean Nicholson, an associate professor in the school's department of policy analysis, and research assistant Nodir Adilov. "Several years ago I began wondering if it was a coincidence that the rise in autism rates and the explosion of television viewing began about the same time," Waldman said. "I asked around and found that medical researchers were not working on this, so accepted that I should research it myself." The Cornell study looks at county-by-county growth in cable television access and autism rates in California and Pennsylvania from 1972 to 1989. The researchers find an overall rise in both cable-TV access and autism, but autism diagnoses rose more rapidly in counties where a high percentage of households received cable than in counties with a low percentage of cable-TV homes. Waldman and Nicholson employ statistical controls to factor out the possibility that the two patterns were simply unrelated events happening simultaneously."

[LW: Perhaps the research should be extended to include computer tube viewing as well. What a amazing set of experiments we have unleashed upon our kids.]

Saturday, August 05, 2006

News Not Reported in the U.S.A.: Worst Nuclear "Incident" Since Chernobyl

Here's the story from Spiegel:

An observer has called last week's mishap in Sweden the worst incident to befall a nuclear power plant since the accident at Chernobyl. Nobody was injured, but for 22 minutes, workers had no idea what was happening in the reactor's core. Swedish officials have taken half the country's nuclear power plants offline until it can ensure their safe operation.

Sweden's nuclear energy authority, SKI, has largely completed its reconstruction of events in an accident last week that led to the closure of a nuclear power plant in the city of Forsmark and, ultimately, the shutdown of half the country's nuclear plants as a precautionary measure. In the incident, two of the plant's four backup generators malfunctioned when the plant experienced a major power outage on July 25. According to officials, who described the event as "serious," a short-circuit triggered the accident, which caused a cut in power to the nuclear facility. Plant workers told Swedish media that it came close to a meltdown.

In fact, the only thing that appears to have stopped a catastrophe is the fact that two diesel backup generators kicked in, enabling the Forsmark facility to operate at least part of its emergency cooling system. Still, for 20 minutes, workers were unable to obtain information about the condition of the reactor and they were only able to respond after 21 minutes and 41 seconds, according to a report in Germany's Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper.

Swedish media are reporting that a previously unknown technical problem emerged during the emergency that could also be present in all other Swedish nuclear reactors.

* * * * * * *

Friday, August 04, 2006

Suburban Sprawl: California destroyed

An impressive web site with photos by Matt Jalbert shows the way that suburban sprawl is gobbling up the paradise know as California, my former home. The picture of San Ramon 2006 is especially striking: McMansions crammed together as far as the eye can see, each one a "dream house." Looking at the photos, I was reminded of a poem by Emily Dickinson:

I LIKE to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step
Around a pile of mountains ....

Dickinson was writing about the railroad locomotive, but her words apply just as well to the frantic sprawl the "Golden State."

Saturday, July 29, 2006

"Willkommen zum Wal-Mart!"

Germans Get Wise to Wal-Mart

After a decade long attempt to crack the German market, Wal-Mart is pulling out, selling its 85 stores and abandoning its plan to become the country's leading retailer. According to a story in My Way, one of the reasons for its astonishing failure is the fact that Germans strongly dislike "some of Wal-Mart's signature features, like stores outside of town centers, employees required to smile and heartily greet customers. . . " Smart people, those Germans!

[The company plans to focus its efforts on greener pastures in China, South Korea and South America where, evidently, phony smiles still have an ineffable charm. -LW]

The New York Times also has a story on this development:

“They walked into a triple-witching hour in Germany,” said James Bacos, the director of the retail and consumer goods practice at Mercer Management Consulting in Munich. “They got into Germany at a time when the whole market was shifting away from their model.”

....Some of Wal-Mart’s troubles stem from the way it broke into the German market in 1998, according to analysts. Instead of starting from scratch, it bought two second-tier retailers, Wertkauf and Interspar, and found itself with a hodgepodge of stores, geographically dispersed and often in poor locations.

The company initially installed American managers, who made some well-intentioned cultural gaffes, like offering to bag groceries for customers (Germans prefer to bag their own groceries) or instructing clerks to smile (Germans, used to brusque service, were put off).

Wal-Mart later went tried German managers, and then appointed David Wild, a former executive at Tesco of Britain, to run its German operations. He tried to win over customers by selling organic meat and produce.

“They found they had some things to learn about the German market, and they did change, but maybe too late,” Mr. Bacos said. ....

[An interesting background condition seems to be that Germans are cutting back on their desire to buy the kinds of junk Wal-Mart sells. Again, from the NYT:]

While consumer confidence has picked up recently, Mr. Bacos said the proportion of household income that Germans spend on retail purchases continues to decline. Profit margins in German retailing are the lowest in Europe.

Friday, July 28, 2006

America Polishes its New Image

(From the BBC)
UN body criticises US on rights

The US should immediately shut all secret detention facilities used in its campaign against terror groups, the UN Human Rights Committee has said.

The committee called on the US to give the International Red Cross prompt access to those held in such jails.

The UN report also covered the domestic human rights situation in the US.

It urged the government to ensure the rights of poor people and blacks are respected in relief efforts.

Both groups were "disadvantaged" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the UN committee noted.

[As a boy in coastal California, I learned that America was the "land of the free" and home, not only of the brave, but also home to worldwide hopes for the realization of human rights. How far we've come. The country seems to have become one vast Milgram experiment. - LW]

"All aboard!"

Yaks threaten China's 'miracle' train line

From the The Guardian

The safety of passengers on the world's highest - and newest - railway is threatened by cracks, yaks and shifting sands, the Chinese government has admitted.

Less than a month after the opening of the line across the Himalayas to Tibet, it has become unstable in places because the foundations are sinking into the permafrost, railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping, told the Beijing News today.

Crossing the rugged Qinghai plateau and climbing to 5,072 metres (16,640ft) above sea level, the $4.2bn (£2.3bn) railway was hailed by president Hu Jintao as an engineering miracle for the world. But it was always likely to be harder to maintain than to build. ....

Tunnels were built under elevated sections so that the endangered Tibetan antelope could pass by without danger. But planners have failed to cope with a far less timid and more numerous beast - the yak, thousands of which graze along the tracks and wander across them.

"These form dangers to passengers on the train," Mr Wang said

[In this situation, I favor the yaks, the sand and the Tibetans. The new railroad from China to Tibet is a fine example of a "political artifact," in this case a transportation system whose main purpose is to establish the dominance of the state over a region that has long tried to secure its independence. - LW]

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Empire Strikes Out

A story in the Washington Post, "Waiting to Get Blown Up," goes to the heart of the confusion, disgust and anger that, apparently, many U.S. troops in Iraq now openly express. Sent on a fool's errand by politicians who lied about the reasons for sending them, the soldiers can be counted among our war mongers' victims.

Here are some of their comments:

BAGHDAD, July 26 Army Staff Sgt. Jose Sixtos considered the simple question about morale for more than an hour...."Think of what you hate most about your job. Then think of doing what you hate most for five straight hours, every single day, sometimes twice a day, in 120-degree heat," he said. "Then ask how morale is."

Frustrated? "You have no idea," he said. ....

"It sucks. Honestly, it just feels like we're driving around waiting to get blown up. That's the most honest answer I could give you," said Spec. Tim Ivey, 28, of San Antonio, a muscular former backup fullback for Baylor University. "You lose a couple friends and it gets hard." ....

[Spec. Joshua Steffey, 24, of Asheville, N.C.] said he wished "somebody would explain to us, 'Hey, this is what we're working for.' " With a stream of expletives, he said he could not care less "if Iraq's free" or "if they're a democracy." ....

[Spec. David Fulcher, 22, a medic from Lynchburg, Va., who sat alongside Steffey]... "It's like this never-ending battle, like, we find one IED, if we do find it before it hits us, so what? You know it's just like if the cops make a big bust, next week the next higher-up puts more back out there."

"My personal opinion, I don't speak for the rest of anybody, I just speak for me personally, I think civil war is going to happen regardless," Steffey responded.

"Maybe this country needs it: One side has to win. Be it Sunni, be it Shiite, one side has to win. It's apparent, these people have made it obvious they can't live in unity."

Friday, July 21, 2006

(Mario Savio on the steps of Sproul Hall, probably 1965)

The Renewed Chill on Political Liberty

The following story from the San Francisco Chronicle tells a familiar but nonetheless sad story about political surveillance during the George W. Bush presidency.

San Francisco 19 July 2006

Terror database tracks UC protests

U.S. agent reported on '05 rallies
against military recruitment

by Demian Bulwa

A federal Department of Homeland Security agent passed along
information about student protests against military recruiters at UC
Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, landing the demonstrations on a database
tracking foreign terrorism, according to government documents
released Tuesday.

The documents were released by the American Civil Liberties Union,
which filed a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of student
groups that protested against recruiters who visited their campuses
in April 2005.

The students were angry when they turned up in the database of a
Pentagon program called Threat and Local Observation Notice, or
TALON, which the government started in 2003 as a way to collect data
that could help stop terrorist attacks. Officials have acknowledged
that the reports on protests should not have been included. …..

* * * *

What? U.C. students being watched by federal agents? The monitoring of political dissidents is an old story in our “free society”. (See Frank Donner’s Age of Surveillance for an account of several decades of political repression, the Palmer raids, McCarthy era hysteria, and the like.)

During my days as a student in Berkeley it was widely known that and meetings and marches were closely monitored. At noon rallies outside the Sproul Hall administration building, speakers would sometimes ask that we turn and wave to the FBI photographers perched on the roof of the student union. G-men assigned to follow leaders in the student movement would knock on the doors of activists’ homes and introduce themselves, a way of intimidating people. An insidious consequence of this infringement on our liberties was to undermine the ability of peace groups and other political organizations to operate without fear of agent provocateurs their midst. During the late 1960s these fears developed into full blown paranoia. The investigations of FBI and CIA abuses Senator Church and others during the mid-1970s exposed these vile practices to the light of day. Alas, the selection of Bush and Cheney picked up the rock under which these vermin had been hiding and put them back to work.

“What are those traitorous students and Quakers up to?”
“We’ll get right on it, boss.”

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Here's a statement of the long forgotten significance of this day, now more relevant than ever.

Mother's Day Proclamation 1870

Arise then…women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts!

Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: "We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,

Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,

For caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn

All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country,

Will be too tender of those of another country

To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the voice of a devastated

Earth a voice goes up with

Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!

The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."

Blood does not wipe our dishonor,

Nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil

At the summons of war,

Let women now leave all that may be left of home

For a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means

Whereby the great human family can live in peace…

Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,

But of God -

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask

That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,

May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient

And the earliest period consistent with its objects,

To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,

The amicable settlement of international questions,

The great and general interests of peace.

~ Julia Ward Howe

Monday, January 23, 2006


This has long been evident, but an international survey now documents the sad truth. From the New York Times:

United States Ranks 28th on Environment, a New Study Says

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 - A pilot nation-by-nation study of environmental performance shows that just six nations - led by New Zealand, followed by five from Northern Europe - have achieved 85 percent or better success in meeting a set of critical environmental goals ranging from clean drinking water and low ozone levels to sustainable fisheries and low greenhouse gas emissions.

The study, jointly produced by Yale and Columbia Universities, ranked the United States 28th over all, behind most of Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Chile, but ahead of Russia and South Korea. ....

The pilot study, called the 2006 Environmental Performance Index, has been reviewed by specialists both in the United States and internationally.

Using a new variant of the methodology the two universities have applied in their Environmental Sustainability Index, produced in four previous years, the study was intended to focus more attention on how various governments have played the environmental hands they have been dealt, said Daniel C. Esty, the director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and an author of the report.

The earlier sustainability measurements "tell you something about long-term trajectories," Mr. Esty said. "We think this tool has a much greater application in the policy context."

For instance, Britain ranked 65th in last year's sustainability index, but 5th in the latest study, among the 133 nations measured. Among the reasons for the earlier low ranking, Mr. Esty said, was that "they cut down almost all their trees 500 years ago and before," something that modern British governments could not control.

The 16 indicators used in the latest study, the report says, provide "a powerful tool for evaluating environmental investments and improving policy results."

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Power of Nightmares

The well researched, well produced, deeply unsettling BBC film series, "The Power of Nightmares" has now been released in a version that "streams" on the net. The premise of the series is that two fundamentalist extremist groups, the neocons and radical Islamists, now manipulate fear for political advantage. One can certainly take exception to some of the historical reconstructions and political interpretations. But the films are riveting and challenge us to think.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

I might add that I have not shown these to my teen aged boys. They have a sense that the world is becoming a dreary, desperate place and I have not wanted to amplify those feelings by showing this genuinely frightening documentary.