Saturday, January 29, 2005

INCIDENTALLY Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) appears to be running for president.

Friday, January 28, 2005

DEPT. OF EXEGESIS President Bush is opposed to torture. But that doesn't mean he's ready to say anything bad about "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment:
Q Mr. President, I'd like to ask you about the Gonzales nomination, and specifically, about an issue that came up during it, your views on torture. You've said repeatedly that you do not sanction it, you would never approve it. But there are some written responses that Judge Gonzales gave to his Senate testimony that have troubled some people, and specifically, his allusion to the fact that cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of some prisoners is not specifically forbidden so long as it's conducted by the CIA and conducted overseas. Is that a loophole that you approve?

THE PRESIDENT: Listen, Al Gonzales reflects our policy, and that is we don't sanction torture. He will be a great Attorney General, and I call upon the Senate to confirm him.
So does President Bush believe it's permissible to waterboard overseas prisoners or doesn't he?

It's a simple question. Who has the courage to stand up and demand an answer?

UPDATE: An answer may not be needed after all.

This article from tomorrow's New York Times gives us just about all the information we need about the President's attitude toward waterboarding.

Unfortunately, the message he's sending isn't the one I was hoping to hear:

Michael Chertoff, who has been picked by President Bush to be the homeland security secretary, advised the Central Intelligence Agency on the legality of coercive interrogation methods on terror suspects under the federal anti-torture statute, current and former administration officials said this week.


One technique that C.I.A. officers could use under certain circumstances without fear of prosecution was strapping a subject down and making him experience a feeling of drowning.

Monday, January 24, 2005

THE CLEARPLAY CONUNDRUM With a slew of new ClearPlay offerings on the horizon, it seems like an appropriate time to take another, broader look at the content filtering issue, and to think about where a resolution might be found.

First, let's review what's at stake: Content filter providers like ClearPlay invade and recalibrate the traditional relationship between creators and their works by bringing the judgment of an uninvited third party into the equation, essentially nullifying the protection from tampering that copyrighted works used to enjoy.

That, in a nutshell, is the threat.

But as I've argued previously, even if ClearPlay's business model is ultimately struck down by the courts, the filtering of content some viewers find objectionable is something that's probably here to stay.

So what is to be done?

For my money, the best solution for filmmakers and other creators--the solution that's most strategically savvy--would be for Hollywood to go ahead and beat ClearPlay at its own game: Studios should add edited versions of films to their DVDs--in much the same way they include director's cuts and foreign language audio tracks.

This might seem, at first glance, like surrender. But the fact is, studios regularly prepare PG-13 versions of films for network and basic cable TV: What kind of artistic compromise would be involved, then, in tacking these versions onto their home video releases?

Of course there are a (diminishing) number of movies of genuine artistic merit made in Hollywood each year, and studios (with the prodding of insistent filmmakers) ought to hold firm, refusing to create alternative versions of these films.

But by providing edited versions of the rest of its output, the industry would find itself in a much stronger position to defend a hard line when it comes to works of true merit.

At the same time, the inclusion of alternate PG-13 versions on DVDs would severely undermine the business models of ClearPlay and its imitators: Hollywood would once again find itself with just about total control of how its movies are seen.

It's not a perfect solution--intellectual property purists, in particular, may find it unsatisfying.

But if the retention of creative control for creators is what ultimately matters most, it seems like the most attractive solution available.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

1. How does President Bush feel about waterboarding?

2. What steps are being taken by the Bush administration to advance the cause of freedom in (dictatorship and terror war ally) Uzbekistan?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

BLACK THURSDAY Joshua Marshall hit the nail on the head back in November, on a sad Wednesday morning:
Setting aside my general political leanings, my personal views and feelings of partisanship, I think the result portends very bad things for America's role in the world and the well-being on all levels of this country.

Changes in domestic politics, in theory at least, can be shifted back at a following election. The world, though, is different. There we are just a ship--though the largest one--on waters we can never truly control. And I fear that this result will set in motion dangerous dynamics that even the relatively young among us will be wrestling with and contending with for the rest of our lives...

Before today, the course that America had charted in the world over the last three years could be seen as the result of a traumatic event (9/11) and the choice of a president who was actually put in office by a minority of the electorate. This was a referendum on what's happened in the last three years. And it's been validated.
Welcome to the next phase.

UPDATE: On the bright side, at least the clock has started ticking.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

MOVIES OF THE MONTH New York-based readers take note: A double-bill of two wonderful, rarely-seen Scorcese documentaries lands at Film Forum for a short run starting this weekend.

ITALIANAMERICAN takes the form of an extended interview with Scorcese's parents, but the piece adds up to much more than an exercise in navel-gazing nostalgia. (Scorcese once called it, "the best film I ever made.")

AMERICAN BOY, an innovative and bizarre film, takes as its subject actor and roadie Steven Prince: Over the course of an hour, the draft-dodger and ex-junkie works his way through a serious of lunatic anecdotes and recollections as Scorcese peppers him with questions. In the end, it's almost impossible to figure out how much of Prince's story ought to be believed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

DEAFENING SILENCE Later in the Rice confirmation hearings:
SEN. DODD: Is it your view, as a human matter, that water-boarding and the use, as we saw, in prisons in Iraq of nudity--is that torture in your personal view, as a nominee here for the--

MS. RICE: Senator, I'm not going to speak to any specific interrogation techniques...The determination of whether interrogation techniques are consistent with our international obligations and American law are made by the Justice Department. I don't want to comment on any specific interrogation techniques. I don't think that would be appropriate, and I think it would not be very good for American security.
That answer didn't exactly endear her to Dodd:
SEN. DODD: Well, let's leave it, if that's your answer, there. It's a disappointing answer, I must say. The face of U.S. foreign policy is in the person of the secretary of State, and it's important at moments like this to be able to express yourself aside from the legalities of things, how you as a human being react to these kinds of activities. And with the world watching, when a simple question is raised about techniques that I think most people would conclude in this country are torture, it's important at a moment like that that you can speak clearly and directly without getting involved in the legalisms questions. I understand these involve some legal determinations, but as a human being how you feel about this, about to assume the position and be responsible for pursuing the human rights issues that this nation has been deeply committed to for decades, is a very important moment.
After a few more evasions there was this:
SEN. DODD: Do me a favor. At the end of all of these hearings, I'd like you to spend about 15 minutes with John McCain and talk to him about this stuff. I think you'll get some good advice when it comes to the subject matter, someone who has been through this, about what the dangers are when we have sort of waffling answers about these questions and then Americans can be apprehended and what happens to them.

THIS WEEK IN IDIOCY From the transcript:
BIDEN: So bottom line, getting a chance to look back [on the Iraq invasion] you think there were an adequate number of forces beginning, middle and now? I mean, you have no -- you wouldn't, if you got to go back, change the force structure?

RICE: I don't think I would, Senator.

Monday, January 17, 2005

YOU DON'T SAY Ready for a shocker?

Cheney Exercising Muscle on Domestic Policies: That's one of the headlines at the top of the New York Times website as of late Monday night.

Who knows what secrets those crazy kids will sniff out next!

UPDATE: On the other side of the ledger, The Times serves up two excellent stories in Tuesday editions:

1. This editorial about North Carolina's still-unresolved race for agriculture commissioner is a cautionary tale about the dangers of e-voting if ever there was one.

2. The paper also carries a short notice about the decision of the Florida delegation to the Democratic National Committee to endorse Howard Dean for party chair.

"The only knock against Howard Dean is that he's seen as too liberal," [State Party Chair Scott] Maddox said. "I'm a gun-owning pickup-truck driver and I have a bulldog named Lockjaw. I am a Southern chairman of a Southern state, and I am perfectly comfortable with Howard Dean as D.N.C. chair."
Finally, the Arts section carries a poorly reported but fascinating piece about a group of Iraqi bloggers who may or may not have been backed by the CIA.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

PIVOT POINT Remember, once upon a time, how crucial and transcendent a moment Iraq's national election was going to be? That was then:
But we're going to be there to help them move forward on holding elections so that there will be a representative, democratic government in place...because that's critical to the region, and critical to making the world a better and safer place.

--White House spokesperson Scott McClellan on June 27, 2004
This is now:
"Clearly, we don't see the election itself as a pivotal point," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told NPR on Friday. "It's the beginning of a process."

--Reuters on January 16, 2005

BARTLETT LEAVES THE DOOR OPEN Have journalists other than Armstrong Williams been paid to tout the Bush agenda?

This morning on Meet The Press, counselor to the president Dan Bartlett had several things to say on the subject. None of them sounded like a denial:

MR. RUSSERT: [Armstrong] Williams said that other journalists have also received money to promote administration policies. Will there be an investigation by you or will you be willing to present to the American people any other journalists who have received money?

MR. BARTLETT: I'm sure there is a review going on within the administration to determine just that.

MR. RUSSERT: There is?

MR. BARTLETT: I believe there to be. I know the Congress has already expressed interest in knowing this issue, and we will work with Congress to see--because the president has made very clear that there ought to be a bright line between journalism and advocacy.
Earlier in the show, there was this lovely (unrelated) exchange:
MR. RUSSERT: "Bring them on." Was that too macho by the president?

MR. BARTLETT: I think the president later has realized that his words mean something.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

BUSH ON BUSH Care to step inside the mind of our fearless leader? Here's a partial transcript of a session he did with reporters from regional newspaper, as recorded by Tom Webb of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:
Sometimes, words have consequences you don't intend them to mean. "Bring 'em on" is the classic example, when I was really trying to rally the troops and make it clear to them that I fully understood, you know, what a great job they were doing. And those words had an unintended consequence...

It kind of, some interpreted it to be defiance in the face of danger. That certainly wasn't the case. Or, you know, "dead or alive" in referring to Osama bin Laden at the Pentagon.

I can remember getting back to the White House, and Laura said, "What did you do that for?" I said, "Well, it was just an expression that came out. I didn't rehearse it."


I don't know if you'd call it a regret, but it certainly is a lesson that a president must be mindful of, that the words that you sometimes say -- I speak plainly sometimes, but you've got to be mindful of the consequences of the words.

So put that down. I don't know if you'd call that a confession, a regret, something.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

WHAT WOULD BUBBE SAY? Joshua Marshall catches the Republican Jewish Coalition misleading the public about Social Security.

EBAY GETS GREEDY? The company has announced a batch of fee hikes that include a 52% commission increase (from 5.25% to 8%) on items sold for under $25 on the eBay Store platform.
"We're constantly evaluating," said Hani Durzy, an eBay spokesman. "Our goal is to ensure the vibrancy of the marketplace."
With eBay's sales growth slowing and its business maturing, this probably isn't the company's last attempt to safeguard marketplace "vibrancy."

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

RESHUFFLING Should Iowa and New Hampshire retain their privileged positions at the front of the Democratic primary calendar?

In a word, no.

Kos dissects the arguments often put forward by citizens of those states--and by the consultants and establishment-types who have a stake in perpetuating the status quo.

Monday, January 10, 2005

FACING THE MUSIC I deliberately dialed down CONTRAPOSITIVE's political thermostat in the weeks after the election: It made sense to take a breather, and to spend some time digesting the outcome.

But time marches on, and America moves ever-deeper into a period of staggeringly bad leadership. Numbing ourselves to what's happening certainly isn't the solution.

After all:

1. The invasion of Iraq has been a catastrophe in geopolitical, military, human and moral terms.

2. Victory in the war on terror remains uncertain. If the Bush administration believes that defusing the most serious threat of our time requires defeating jihadist terrorists in countries not named Iraq, there's little tangible evidence for it.

And if the President's team is working day and night to complete the difficult, boring work of securing nuclear material, protecting chemical plants and beefing up port security, they aren't doing a very good job of getting the word out.

3. Our federal government is on a path to fiscal ruin. And the people in charge are intent on accelerating its progress in that direction.
So enough wound-licking. It's time to back into the discussion.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT The front-pager from Sunday's New York Times about a possible case of international kidnapping and torture is required reading for all Americans concerned about what the U.S. government may or may not be doing in their names.

And file this story about the recently-deceased Rose Kennedy under, "I Had Absolutely No Idea."

Thursday, January 06, 2005

ADVENTURES IN SPAM Having resolved, finally, to tackle my junk e-mail problem, it took me only minutes to make an important discovery: Much of the spam filling my inbox was the work of just one company.

The realization, while unexpected, was welcome: With a single outlet behind the stream of messages, my thinking went, working to staunch the flow might still be an exercise in futility--but at least it would be narrowly focused project.

And yet things soon grew more complicated.

Because while I'd gleaned, quickly, that the bulk of my spam was coming from a common source--messages had been arriving in a consistent format, each containing similar fine print--it was difficult to know exactly what to do with that information.

Consider this e-mail, arriving under the subject line "Shop All You Can" from DailyINF@www.premimve.com:

The appropriate response seems simple enough: Unsubscribe and be done with it, right?

Well...Not so fast.

For starters, notice that there are two sets of unsubscribe instructions in the e-mail.

Significantly, the top set ("visit: http://optout...") varied over the series of message I'd been receiving: A spam-to-spam comparison seemed to confirm that the opt-out instructions actually applied to the particular marketing proposition rather than the mailing list as a whole.

In other words, while following those directions might ward off future shopping spree come-ons, I'd probably continue to hear about "free" laptops; "free" t-shirts; online degree programs and much, much more.

It was the second set of unsubscribe instructions--consistent across about half of the e-mails--that seemed more promising. But a careful reading of those instructions left me puzzled:

If you would like to request from receiving further great offers from DailyFyi...
I found myself reading the clause over and over again.

Was a word missing? A phrase garbled? Had the notice been consciously designed to confuse?

The literal meaning of the instructions was, quite clearly, unclear.

And so I was left to wonder whether they represented a genuine ticket to a spam-free future, or were instead part of a clever, cynical spammer's fishing expedition for bonafide e-mail addresses.

With more questions than answers, I decided to do some digging.

THE HUNT: Working with what little information could be culled from the "Shop All You Can" e-mail, I began to make some inquiries:

1. An e-mail to cs@DailyFyi.com went unreturned.

2. Keying "http://www.dailyfyi.com" into my web browser retrieved a blank webpage.

3. A whois search for that web domain produced a phone number that led to an answering machine. A message left on that machine was not returned.

4. An e-mail to DailyINF@www.premimve.com (the email's return address) also went unreturned. Pointing my browser to "http://www.premimve.com" yielded another blank web page.

5. A whois search for Premimve.com listed the domain as registered to "hsmnetwork." Plugging the listed address into a Google search box placed hsmnetwork in the same location and suite number as a company called Hi-Speed Media.

I seemed, finally, to be getting somewhere.

6. But then e-mail inquiries to Hi-Speed Media went unreturned.

7. And a phone call to the number listed on Hi-Speed Media's web page got me nowhere: A computerized answering interface asked for the extension or last name of the party being requested. When none was provided, the interface announced that the operator was unavailable and the general delivery voice mail box was full.

8. A subsequent call to Hi-Speed Media's Corporate Vice President of Legal & Strategic Affairs Bennet Kelley reached Kelley's voice mail.

I was soon able to learn, though, that Hi-Speed Media was acquired in 2003 for $9 million plus stock options and milestone payments by ValueClick, Inc. (Nasdaq: VCLK), a company with a market capitalization of about $1 billion and 2003 revenue of $92.5 million.

According to this article, at the time it was acquired by ValueClick, Hi-Speed Media's primary business was "e-mail list rental." ValueClick's 2003 annual report explained further:

Through our acquisition of Hi-Speed Media, we now possess a database of more than 40 million opt-in email profiles that comply with recently enacted U.S. federal e-mail legislation. Through this business, we provide marketers with the ability to advertise their products and services to members of this email database.
An e-mail to ValueClick, naturally, was not returned.

(Inquiries to MetaReward Inc.--the company ostensibly renting Hi-Speed Media's e-mail list for the "Shop All You Can" offer--also went unanswered, as did inquiries with the press office and consumer education manager of MetaReward's parent company Experian, and the corporate responsibility and press offices of Experian's parent company GUS plc, a publicly-owned, UK-based conglomerate whose holdings include the Burberry brand.)

EXHAUSTION: As I sat back contemplating the futility of my quest, an amazing thing happened: The phone rang.

It was Hi-Speed Media's Bennet Kelley, sounding genuinely disappointed to hear that I'd encountered something I considered suspect. After assuring me that the unsubscribe instructions would be rephrased for clarity "right away," he asked that I forward him the e-mail in question to help expedite the process.

And sure enough, in only a few days, the messages I received from Hi-Speed Media's domain names all carried unsubscribe instructions that were unambiguous and to the point. About half carried this footnote:

While the other half explained:

TRIUMPH? Reveling in my apparent victory, I was more than willing to forgive Kelley and Hi-Speed Media for the stray "d" at the end of the word "received."

They were also off the hook, in my book, for sending the barrage of e-mails in the first place. After all, with a simple, transparent unsubscribe process in place, was there really any cause for complaint?

It was an interesting question, but one that soon seemed moot: Just a few hours later, a message from someone named "postmaster" arrived in my inbox. The title?

"Delivery Status Notification."

My attempt to unsubscribe had bounced back.

And the messages continued to flow.

Clearly, I'd been insufficiently cynical all along.

I e-mailed Kelley to tell him what had happened, and asked whether companies engaging in e-mail marketing might have a special obligation to insure that their unsubscribe procedures operate smoothly.

After a week without a response, I called him.

Kelley, though cordial, was in a rush to get off the line, telling me only that he'd forwarded my concern through the proper channels, and that he'd soon be back in touch with some results.

That night I got an e-mail from Kelley. While it failed to engage my question about the obligations of e-mail marketers, the message it did carry was promising:

You've been placed on our permanent unsubscribe list. Thanks for your patience.
The next morning I received two fresh pieces of spam from Hi-Speed Media.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

SULLIVAN BLOWS A GASKET White House counsel Alberto Gonzales squares off against the Judiciary committee this morning, and Andrew Sullivan isn't looking forward to it:
When Alberto Gonzales says he now backs a recently instituted anti-torture policy, it necessarily implies that he once supported a pro-torture policy. (If he didn't, why the reversal?)

Orwell urged us against the kind of terms favored by torture-justifiers as "coercive interrogation." That's why I've cited just a few of the methods. These methods are evil, counter-productive to the war effort and deeply wounding to the integrity and reputation of the United States and the entire free world.

After Abu Ghraib, you might expect some kind of reckoning. But what's stunning about this president is his complete indifference to these facts. His nomination of Gonzales to attorney general is a de facto statement that he believes that someone who enabled these things needs rewarding, not censuring.

This from a president elected in part on something called "moral values." If "moral values" means indifference to torture, they are literally meaningless.

Where, one wonders, are the Christians in this administration and among its supporters? Where are the theo-conservatives and the pro-life conservatives and Catholic conservatives in protesting the government's sanctioning of murder by torture?

And yes: we have tortured at least five people to death, and possibly two score more. Where are the neoconservatives dedicated to the proposition that there is a central moral difference between us and the enemy? They are busy finding ways to stay silent or support the insupportable.

Monday, January 03, 2005

DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION Here's everything you need to know about the Social Security "crisis":
1. The federal government, outside of Social Security, is currently $7 trillion in debt. If laws are left unchanged, that figure will grow.

2. If Social Security continues in its current form, its trust fund is projected to remain solvent till sometime between 2042 and 2052.

3. By 2080, the trust fund is projected to have a shortfall of...$3.7 trillion.
So: If you were in charge, which debt would you tackle first? The $7 trillion every American man, woman and child owns a share of today? Or a debt projected to reach half that amount seventy-five years down the road?

The Bushies have their answer: They've decided to focus the conversation on the second number. And in case you're wondering, they expect to be applauded for their foresight and their seriousness of purpose.

They're like that college roommate who, with a term paper due in the morning, spends half the night getting an early start on his Christmas cards.

What a show of preparedness! What sober, long-term thinking!

And maybe, just maybe, that term paper will write itself...

Saturday, January 01, 2005

MASTERS OF THEIR DOMAINS ClearPlay (first discussed here) will begin offering filters for television series DVDs early in the year, the company announced last week. Censored versions of SEINFELD, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and FRIENDS are already in the works.

To which the proper response is: SEINFELD?

What is ClearPlay going to do? Scrub all references to the tractor story? Excise "The Contest" in its entirety? Bleep out all instances of the word "shrinkage"?

SEINFELD, after all, is a product of a culture of censorship: Episodes of the show that deal with mature themes attack their delicate subject matter through metaphor and innuendo--and with dialogue expertly constructed to avoid the ire of network censors.

So how will ClearPlay go about purging risqué content when what's risqué occurs between-the-lines, and without violence, nudity or strong language?

In censoring SEINFELD, the company will face a slew of interesting choices. I'm genuinely curious about where they'll draw the line.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.