Scott Rosenberg's Links & Comment

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Last updated:
6/4/2004; 12:06:29 AM

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Friday, June 04, 2004 PERMALINK

I liked Josh Marshall's summary of the opera-bouffe-like character of the slow-motion Beltway meltdown underway, in his commentary on the Tenet resignation:

  ...Beside the possibility that the White House's favored Iraqi exile was an Iranian agent, that the spy chief just got canned, that the OSD is wired to polygraphs, and that the president has had to retain outside counsel in the investigation into which members of his staff burned one of the country's own spies, I'd say the place is being run like a pretty well-oiled machine.

It does seem as though one of George Bush's chief legacies may be the complete implosion of the C.I.A. -- at a time when the nation desperately needs its services. (Bush's father served as director of the C.I.A. for many years. Is there some sort of Oedipal lunacy at work?)

So now Bush will be running on a platform of -- competence? Effectiveness in the war on terror? Isn't a war on terror first and foremost a war dependent on good intelligence? At what point can we declare this charade of Republican knowhow at an end?

If you're a pragmatist, you should be running from Bush as fast as you can, out of sheer desire to see the nation's business restored to good management. If you think in moral terms, of course, it's even worse.

My friend Charlie Varon recently e-mailed me with a pointer to a diary Wallace Shawn published in The Nation on the eve of the invasion of Iraq over a year ago -- a piece of writing I missed at the time of its publication. It's a typical slice of Shawn's brand of self-lacerating thought, which will infuriate those on the right who disagree with him, trouble those on the left who might be thought to be in his camp, and cause any reader to think hard.

Shawn has always tried, in works like "The Fever" as in this diary, to unearth the connection between the comfortable lives of Americans -- Red and Blue staters -- and the privation and suffering in other parts of the world that seems to make our comfort possible. The position is beyond bleeding-heart -- it's spurting-arteries-of-guilt liberalism. However you feel about that, it has the singular virtue of cutting through abstract cant and partisan rhetoric and talking about the particulars of real human suffering.

All of which is a roundabout way of introducing this observation by Shawn:

  Why are we being so ridiculously polite? It's as if there were some sort of gentlemen's agreement that prevents people from stating the obvious truth that Bush and his colleagues are exhilarated and thrilled by the thought of war, by the thought of the incredible power they will have over so many other people, by the thought of the immensity of what they will do, by the scale, the massiveness of the bombing they're planning, the violence, the killing, the blood, the deaths, the horror.

Now, I'm sure this sounded over the top when Shawn published it in March 2003. And it may still sound over the top to you today. What a thing to say about a president! Or about any human being!

Still, it's always seemed critically important, in trying to understand the Bush administration's march of folly, to remember that its entire top leadership (with the exception of its one half-hearted multilaterist at the State Department, who nobody listens to) consists of men (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) who never served in combat. The next level down of leadership -- the architects of the Iraq policy, men like Wolfowitz and Feith and Perle (and let's not forget Rove) -- have no record at all of any military service. For such leaders, I can't help thinking, "the violence, the killing, the blood, the deaths, the horror" must necessarily remain abstractions -- at best, matters that one can turn one's gaze away from (as the government has literally done with the taboo photos of returning military coffins), and at worst, as Shawn argued, bearers of vague quasi-sexual excitement (as we saw with the pumped-up macho display of the "Mission Accomplished" tableau, now so painfully embarrassing).

The experience of combat service doesn't inoculate a leader against making mistakes, nor does it turn more than a few people into pacifists. But surely in most cases it burns into the brain an awareness of the essential seriousness of war. And that, finally, seems to have been Bush's failure with Iraq, one that even conservative supporters of the president -- like the historian Paul Johnson in today's Wall Street Journal -- are beginning to admit.

Bush drove the nation to war and threw an army into the field without taking the enterprise seriously enough. He didn't plan, he didn't study, he didn't question, because these are things he does not do. He has told us as much. And the people he trusted to do these things for him were equally unwilling to treat the situation with the gravity it deserved, instead using it as an opportunity to settle political scores or put into motion long-hatching schemes and delusional geopolitical chess moves.

I can't help thinking that, had more people in the White House ever been on the receiving end of a bombing raid or taken barrages of enemy fire, this administration might have proceeded with somewhat less criminal a level of recklessness and incompetence.
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Thursday, June 03, 2004 PERMALINK

June is always a time that's slightly crazed for me (in a good way): it's the month when I celebrate both my birthday and my wedding anniversary; plus it's solstice time, when the days are longest and (for light-seeking souls like me) spirits highest. It's also the period, in the trough between Memorial Day and the start of high vacation season, when lots of events get planned. Here's some that are on my horizon:

This Sunday I'm heading off to the Wall Street Journal's "D" Conference, run by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg -- featuring, among others, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Last year, I understand they shared a stage (I wasn't there to confirm the executive convergence). We'll see if that tradition continues.

Next Friday, the same Long Now Foundation series that hosted Brian Eno's amazing talk last fall will present Bruce Sterling, at Fort Mason in San Francisco. If you've ever heard Sterling's seemingly free-associational -- but really, I'm convinced, carefully choreographed -- riffing, you know it's a treat. The topic? "The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole."

Last year, the Digital Storytelling Festival in Sedona was a blast. I can't make it to this year's event -- June 10-12, in Sedona once more -- but it promises to be even better, with J.D. Lasica talking about his "DarkNet" project and lots of other folks presenting their work.

Finally, Supernova returns to the Bay Area June 24-25. A year and a half ago, Kevin Werbach's first conference served as a great intro to the issues around Wi-Fi, Web services, and other grassroots-driven, geek-centered technologies whose adoption has begun to fuel a new wave of Silicon Valley buzz. It'll be interesting to see where Werbach takes these subjects now that it has begun to move from the edge to the mainstream.
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Wednesday, May 26, 2004 PERMALINK

Fascinating tale of documentary maker Errol Morris's "Interrotron" device, which makes his interviewees appear to be addressing the camera directly, while they're really talking to a teleprompter-like image of him as the interviewer (Link courtesy Kottke)

Dan Bricklin reports on an interesting onstage conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Scott Kirsner.

Transcript of brilliant Bruce Sterling rant, turning the saga of an open party he throws each year at South by Southwest into a parable for Internet development, electronic security and more.
comment [] 7:06:31 PM | permalink

The full text of the amicus brief by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Salon and other organizations -- filed as part of the ACLU's challenge to the USA Patriot Act -- is now available. (See my original posting on this for more.)

The ACLU also has a lot more information online about the proceeding. Here's the ACLU's news release.
comment [] 10:55:06 AM | permalink

Tuesday, May 25, 2004 PERMALINK

Stay up late on the West Coast and you get tomorrow's New York Times today. Tonight brings a long "From the Editors" note that reconsiders the WMD hysteria that marked some of its prewar coverage and marred its reputation:

"It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers."

"We consider the story of Iraq's weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight."

For the Times, this transparency thing is still very new. And admitting that major stories that helped launch an ill-conceived war were at best careless and at worst fraudulent is a painful thing for any journalistic enterprise. But admitting mistakes is the first step toward preventing their recurrence.

Now if we can only get our president to understand that principle. Instead, here he is solemnly announcing, in his speech last night, that "Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror." Sure it is. How did it get that way? It wasn't such a front before we invaded. Our mistakes -- Bush's mistakes -- opened another front for bin Ladenism to exploit.

Will Saletan in Slate has a smart deconstruction of the strange rhetoric in Bush's speech that omits any acknowledgment of missteps and all reference to his own agency in the unfolding Iraq disaster. Bush hasn't done anything; instead, "history is moving." It would be funny if there weren't so many lives already lost, and more on the line.
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Monday, May 24, 2004 PERMALINK

One of the more remarkable news stories to break in the past month, a time of many remarkable stories, told of the strange saga of the ACLU's challenge to the PATRIOT act. It turned out that, under a provision of the PATRIOT Act itself, the ACLU had been barred even from telling anyone about its challenge to the PATRIOT Act, and had to fight the Bush administration just to be able to announce its suit.

This bit of Kafkaesque logic may seem positively un-American. But it makes sense within the increasingly divorced-from-reality, driven-by-images, shoot-the-messenger world of the Bush administration. Here, a secretary of defense get really steamed not about the fact of torture in a U.S.-run prison (hey, shit happens!) but about losing control of the flow of images about that torture. Here, in the wake of the worst geopolitical strategic mistakes committed by a U.S. leader since Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam escalation, a president decides that his first priority must be -- a P.R. offensive!

(Sorry for the digression: it's hard to stay on track when the news provides so many sidings into bitter absurdity.)

Today the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus curiae brief in the ACLU's case, and Salon -- on behalf, in particular, of The WELL, which is a Salon subsidiary -- is proud to be among the signers. They also include the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the U.S. Internet Industry Association, and the Online Policy Group.

What's at issue here, chiefly, is a provision of the PATRIOT Act that (to quote from the EFF brief) "authorizes the FBI to compel the production of subscriber and communications records in the possession of a broad range of Internet-related communications service providers, potentially covering billions of records from tens of thousands of entities. These demands, known as National Security Letters (NSLs), are issued without judicial oversight of any kind, yet allow the FBI to obrain a vast amount of constitutionally protected information." The brief -- a "friend of the court" filing in which parties who feel they have interests at stake in a proceeding offer legal arguments that complement those of the plaintiffs -- argues that the Act is not only constitutionally overbroad but also "not cabined by any intelligible standard": in other words, there's no way to make sense of it in terms of the realities of the Internet today.

The WELL has a long history of helping define the shape of Internet users' rights and responsibilities. As the Bush administration continues to push beyond the edges of reasonable legal means in its conduct of the "war on terror," we'll keep doing what we can to fight back and protect the privacy of our users, customers and community members.

(I will post a link to the brief as soon as it's online.)
comment [] 8:55:33 PM | permalink

If you haven't been reading Salon's War Room blog, here's an example of what you've been missing. Geraldine Sealey notes Tom DeLay's complaint that Nancy Pelosi, in criticizing President Bush, was endangering American lives, and offers a catalog of recent harsh criticisms of Bush from the likes of Andrew Sullivan, Mark Helprin, Bill Kristol, George Will and a handful of Republican Senators. All "dangerous" statements, according to DeLay.
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Friday, May 21, 2004 PERMALINK

If you were reading this blog earlier this year you may recall my recently kindled enthusiasm for the music of The Mountain Goats. This enthusiasm has not waned as I have explored the back catalog of this "band" of (mostly) one. It has, if anything, waxed.

As I wrote about my delight in this discovery I uncovered the existence of kindred spirits here at Salon, including our jack-of-all-trades editorial operations director Max Garrone, who swears by "The Coroner's Gambit," and our Renaissance-man IT support manager, Jim Fisher.

Perhaps you've read some of Jim's in-depth reporting for Salon on technology and the environment, or some of his great poems that we've published. (I'm not the only one who thinks highly of his work; he has recently won a prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford.)

Anyway, I learned that last year Jim had written an in-depth critical essay on the music and lyrics of the Mountain Goats and John Darnielle. For various reasons the essay never got published in Salon. It is perhaps of more interest to those already hooked on this work than those not yet familiar with it. But the piece deserves a home on the Web, so I've published it in this blogspace, here.

Jim's piece was written months ago, at the time of the Mountain Goats' release of "Tallahassee." Earlier this year saw the release of "We Shall All Be Healed." I'm not sure Jim agrees with me on this, but I think that album fulfills the prediction at the end of his essay of an "all-studio masterpiece" from this artist, much of whose previous work was recorded direct-to-boombox.
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Thursday, May 20, 2004 PERMALINK

For those of us working primarily on the Web, Microsoft Word's various "Smart" features (smart quotes, auto correct, auto format, etc.) have always been hydras whose heads one had to repeatedly lop off. Even if you didn't work in Word yourself, colleagues would submit copy composed in it, and you'd have to deal with the problem of introducing junk characters. Some of us have become reasonably familiar with exactly which boxes and buttons you need to press to "web-safe" a Word installation.

Now Microsoft seems to have grown hip to how frequently we have to tell Word to "stop doing" the things its programmers have spent years enabling it to do. This is from today's New York Times review by David Pogue of a new version of Microsoft Office for Mac:

  Smart Buttons, descended from a similar feature in Word for Windows, are tiny pop-up menus that appear in your text whenever Word has something to offer you. For example, one appears whenever Word auto-formats something you've typed (a chronic sore spot with Microsoft customers): turning a Web address into a difficult-to-edit Web link, for example, or automatically numbering a list. You've always been able to turn off these intrusions in a dialog box or undo individual changes by pressing Command-Z. But Smart Tags put "Undo" and "Stop doing this" commands right in front of you where you can't miss them.

I broke out laughing when I read this. Consider the baroque logic: Microsoft has now reached that rarefied state of software existence in which it can offer "improvements" in the form of new features that make it easier to turn off those annoying "improvements" of yesteryear that were hitherto too difficult to discard!

But how deep within Word's menus must one hunt to turn off "Smart Buttons" if they get annoying? And is anyone at Microsoft going to flip the page of the newspaper section in which Pogue's review appears and read "A Design Epiphany: Keep It Simple"?
comment [] 5:31:27 PM | permalink

Yesterday evening I visited Technorati's first "developers' Salon," an event at which non-developer bloggers and "content producer" types like me were made to feel quite welcome. You can find blog notes about the event from JD Lasica and Christian Crumlish.

Dave Sifry and Kevin Marks presented the latest stats from the "cosmos" of blogs that Technorati tracks: 11-12,000 new blogs are added each day. (Roughly 45 percent are abandoned over time.) Over 200,000 new blog postings per day. 2.4 million blogs total tracked.

That's some serious volume -- though it pales compared to the total size of the Web that, say, Google surveys Technorati specializes in tracking, and keeping up with, the part of the Web that's constantly being updated. The blogs it follows provide a collective editorial filter on the news and the Web (see for instance the Technorati "Current Events" page).

Among the most interesting graphs were those that demonstrated the size and dynamic importance of blogging's "tail end of the curve." There's a vast number of blogs that don't have thousands of readers or links; maybe they only have ten or a hundred people reading them and linking to them. But, both individually and aggregated into small relational groupings, they provide a wealth of data about what people care about and what's on their minds. Sifry said that Technorati is trying to figure out better ways to "expose the really interesting stuff that's going on in relatively small communities."

The room was packed with three or four dozen developers and blog enthusiasts filled with pizza and beer and the unquenchable notion that their code could make a difference. Technorati is a small startup company (eight on staff now, Sifry said) with a clear and honestly communicated notion that it will at some point need to bring revenue in via advertising and subscription services. But right now it's at that happy moment when its programmers can just explore new ways of making their users' worlds more interesting.
comment [] 12:41:08 PM | permalink

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