Archive for May, 2006
The Supreme Court has just ruled that federal employees that report inefficiency or misconduct by their supervisors cannot claim free speech protection to avoid employer discipline.
Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said:
There is protection for whistle-blowers in federal and state laws and rules of conduct for government attorneys.
When public employees made statement pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.
[To say it did would be] replacing managerial discretion with judicial supervision.
I’m surprised at this ruling. I would think that your right to free speech exists no matter what you’re saying or to whom you’re saying it. That said, I the fact that you have the right to say something, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed protection from employer discipline.
I know the ruling only applies to federal employees, but it is interesting to extrapolate it to the recent discussions about prosecuting reporters who print classified information (and/or these reporters’ sources). If a federal worker can be punished for accusing his employer of lying, can a phone company employee, for instance, be punished for telling USAToday about an NSA program to collect phone records?
One other thing. The end of the article is another “sign of the times,” I fear:
[Kennedy] was joined by the court’s conservatives – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The court’s liberals, Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, dissented.
I don’t follow the Supreme Court all that closely, but that’s the first time I saw a ruling described that way…
Since everyone else seems to be doing one of these…
In the comments from this post, Jeff Porten asks:
It’s my perception that you’ve polarized harder right since 2004. Agree or disagree?
My political leanings have been relatively consistent for the last few years. I’m generally conservative when it comes to financial matters. I’d rather have as much of my money in my pocket as possible, but I’m willing to pay taxes as long as I feel I’m getting some service in return. I’m generally liberal when it comes to social matters (pro-choice, pro-gay rights, etc.). And I’m anti-political correctness for political correctness’ sake, which may be more of a conservative thing, but I’m not sure how that categorizes…
The two things about my politics that might be confusing (and might make me appear to have polarized right lately) are these:
1) I tend to focus on what is happening as opposed to what could be happening.
So when stuff like the NSA scandals come up and people (mainly liberals, I find) begin screaming about how our civil rights are gone and the constitution has become birdcage liner, I tend to see their un-mitigated, un-punished, un-discouraged screaming as proof positive that they’re wrong. I also remain confident that as long as there are people out there screaming like this, the bright light of public opinion will keep any given administration from eroding our civil rights in any serious way. With all the hullabaloo lately, my civil rights have not changed one iota and, individual anecdotes aside, I believe 99% of the country is in the same boat.
2) I try to read multiple accounts of the same story, remove the spin and the editorializing, and focus on the facts.
The Bush administration has become as scandal-ridden as the Clinton administration was in its second term. Now, as then, a public mood has developed in which it’s very fashionable to disapprove of everything the President says or does, and use each new “incident” as further proof that he is <choose your favorite: evil, stupid, incompetent, power-hungry, war-mongering, a religious nut, other: ___________.>.
Stories about one thing end up being about something else. Criticisms about a particular event become evidence toward a theory of greater wrongdoing. Motivations are assumed and presented as fact. Tempers flare and logic subsides. Describing the event/action itself without embellishment becomes unsatisfying and insufficient.
In this environment, someone who points out inaccuracies in a story, or tries to separate opinion from fact, is often accused of defending the administration, even when his/her statements are inherently negative towards it.
Here’s a real life example to illustrate my point, taken from a conversation I had with a family member last summer:
Family member: That goddamn Bush. I can’t believe how badly he screwed up that Katrina mess.
Me: The mayor and governor screwed up the evacuation, and left FEMA to be first responders as opposed to the last line of defense. Where FEMA screwed up was in not adjusting to the situation on the ground; using the same old techniques, even though this problem was much worse than other problems.
FM: How can you defend FEMA when the whole world agrees they screwed up?
Me: I agree they screwed up. I’m just saying they weren’t the only ones who screwed up.
FM: I can’t believe you think Bush did a good job on this. <So-and-so> from <such-and-such> paper said no President has ever screwed up so badly.
Me: Ugh. I didn’t say Bush did a good job on this. The buck stops with him, so he gets the blame for the federal response. But if you’re lining up people to blame, you can’t ignore Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, or FEMA Director Brown.
FM: Brown is a @#%*@ing Arabian horse trainer. And the guy he replaced left because he was corrupt. It’s just another example of Bush’s cronyism, like the time he fired that General in Iraq for saying he needed more troops.
Me: Brown performed legal services and did logistics planning for the Arabian horse firm. And after that, he was assistant-director at FEMA, so it’s not so crazy that he got the job. Also, the guy before him presided over the FEMA response to four hurricanes that hit South Florida in one season in 2004, where FEMA was touted as being more effective than it’s ever been. Some even credited its response with helping to secure Florida for Bush in the November elections. Personally, I think it had more to do with the fact that Gov. Jeb Bush and the local Florida officials know what to do when a hurricane was coming, so FEMA’s standard response worked well. And by the way, what does Iraq have to do with any of this?
FM: Listen to you, defending Bush and FEMA at a time like this. When did you become such a radical republican?
Me: AARRRRGGGHHH!!! The first thing out of my mouth was “FEMA screwed up.” I just think the press is short-cutting past how they screwed up because it’s more fun/popular to blame everything on Bush. Sells more papers & all that. I think it’s important to understand how they screwed up, so we can fix it for next time. Don’t you?
<End of Act I>
You’ll note that nothing I said in the above conversation is complimentary to Bush, FEMA, or the events after Hurricane Katrina. All I’m trying to do is get the facts right. But it’s not enough to say FEMA was one of three agencies that screwed up. It has to be the only one. And the screw-up has to be the worst screw-up in the history of screw-ups. And it has to prove Bush’s incompetence in several other areas (including hiring practices and running the Iraq war).
The bottom line: The quantity and degree of unsubstantiated criticism against this president is more than we’ve ever seen before. When I see it, I just can’t help trying to set the record straight, or direct people’s attention to the actual issue at hand. Since this kind of behavior is viewed as defending the President (as opposed to levying more accurate criticisms), I can see how some may perceive me as becoming increasingly conservative.
I guess I’ll have to wait until someone unfairly accuses a Democrat of something in order to show my true, “fair and balanced” self.
For those too busy to do a Google search on “leahy wiretapping”, allow me to brief you on the results:
I Should Be Sleeping: Senator Leahy on Privacy in the Post 9/11 World by Brian Greenberg
TidBITS: CFP 2006: Life, Liberty and Digital Rights by Jeff Porten
TidBITS#828/08-May-06, including the above article by Jeff Porten.
Not in the top 400 (but accessible when searching “leahy wiretapping site:jeffporten.com”):
The Vast Jeff Wing Conspiracy – CFP2006
So now just so we’re sure we got this straight:
– Jeff goes to conference
– Jeff gets a paying gig writing about the conference in a well respected e-zine
– E-zine posts Jeff’s article
– Jeff blogs about his article being posted
– I read his blog post, read the article, and comment on it in my blog.
– Google classifies my blog post first, Jeff’s article second, and Jeff’s blog post third.
We’re living in a very strange world, folks…
The National Hurricane Center issued its predictions for the 2006 Hurricane season today. Here’s what the Associated Press said (bold text is the headline):
Hurricane Center Predicts Calmer Season
A hectic, above-normal tropical storm season could produce between four and six major hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico this year, but conditions don’t appear ripe for a repeat of 2005′s record activity, the National Hurricane Center predicted Monday.
There will be up to 16 named storms, the center predicted, which would be significantly less than last year’s record 27. Still, people in coastal regions should prepare for the possibility of major storms, said Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Center director.
OK, not too bad. But here’s what Reuters said:
US predicts active hurricane season
The 2006 Atlantic hurricane season will be very active, with up to 10 hurricanes, although not as busy as record-breaking 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and several monster storms slammed into the United States, the U.S. government’s top climate agency said on Monday.
The 2005 hurricane season spawned an unprecedented 28 tropical storms, of which 15 became hurricanes.
I assume both reporters went to the same briefing, so it’s amazing that these two stories came out so differently. First, there’s the headlines, which give the reader totally opposite impressions. Then, there’s the details: AP says 16 named storms, 4-6 majors. Reuters says they called for up to 10 hurricanes, although the article later explains that only 4-6 of the 10 are predicted to be Category 3 or higher and hence, “major.” You’ve got to read these pretty carefully, I guess. And finally, there’s the history – AP says there were 27 named storms last year, Reuters says there were 28. If memory serves, I think Reuters is correct, because I think I remember them having to use “Alpha” and “Beta” after the 26 names ran out. I could be wrong on that, though. Of coruse, I’m not a staff reporter at a major wire service. Sheesh!
On top of all that, there’s this little nuggest (from Reuters):
NOAA had predicted 12 to 15 tropical storms [in 2005], of which it said seven to nine would be hurricanes [actual number was 15]. Seven of last year’s hurricanes were considered “major,” while NOAA had predicted only three to five would reach that level.
So whatever it was they said today, odds are it’s probably wrong anyway.
At least the sloppy reporting wasn’t about anything important…
Allow me to quickly summarize the editorial in bullet point form:
- The last American survivor of the Titanic sinking died in early May.
- The story of Titanic has lasted almost 100 years, because it’s an almost mythical tale of hubris – the unsinkable ship that went down on her maiden voyage.
- World War I was the Titanic for Europe – the obstacle that sank the “unsinkable ship” of Europe.
- World War II was like the Titanic for America, but our losses were overshadowed by the unparalleled success we enjoyed after it ended.
- The Cold War was like the Titanic for America, except that by “sheer dumb luck,” we navigated our way through it without destroying ourselves.
- Nuclear proliferation is currently like the Titanic for America, but like the captain of the ship itself, we don’t see the danger.
- 9/11 was like the Titanic for America, but our losses weren’t enough to open our eyes to the danger.
- The radical Islamic world, a demoralized Russia, a growing China, and an angry Iran are currently like Titanic for America, but we are not heeding the lessons of history and paying attention.
So basically, what we’re saying is this: just as Europe “sank” financially, militarily and socially after World War I, America has come up against various obstacles since that could very well have destroyed her (except that we consistently fail to actually be destroyed). Given this history, it’s amazing that we aren’t predicting our own downfall given our current set of obstacles.
The morale of this story (IMHO): When your theory has no actual supporting evidence, explain why your evidence should support you, even though it doesn’t. Then, triumphantly reach the conclusion you set out for in the first place.
This story was the third story on the evening news last night, and it didn’t even make the front page of the New York Times:
WASHINGTON, May 18 (AP) – A vaccine that blocks viruses that cause most cervical cancer is safe and effective and should be approved, a federal panel recommended on Thursday. The maker said the vaccine could cut global deaths from the cancer by more than two-thirds.
Wow. I mean, isn’t this a really big deal? Where’s the banner headline? The special address to the nation by the President praising the researchers for all their hard work, etc.? Is this how the world found out about the Polio vaccine too?
Kind of “ho hum” if you ask me (not that you did or anything…)
I don’t know, maybe I’m just tired and need to take a break, but it seems to me that the nature of political debate (at least in the blogosphere) has degraded into a lot of meaningless shouting lately. I used to find these discussions informative (and sometimes even entertaining), but now I often feel like I’m screaming into the wind.
Here’s the downward spiral as I see it:
- An event occurs in the world.
- Several people have a knee-jerk reaction to it, based almost entirely on emotion or political affiliation.
- Other people, perhaps inspired by the knee-jerk reaction, escalate the emotions with comments about a tangentially (or not at all) related topic.
- People who have more information, either through research or experience, disagree and provide supporting evidence.
- The first group counters with one of several canned responses: a) “You’ve missed my point”, b) “You’re a partisan hack that won’t listen to the other side of the argument”, c) “Your ‘facts’ are just a pack of lies created by <insert name of opposition here>”, or d) “You’re crazy – my brother-in-law’s friend’s wife knew this guy who <insert anecdotal, and probably apocryphal, story here>.”
- Other people, seeking to do actual research on the topic, read this crap use it to defend related positions on some other blog
- Repeat ad nauseum.
As you can imagine, this process turns in on itself in multiple places. People citing source material may be providing factual sanity to the discussion, or they may simply be recycling garbage from another blogger’s emotional rants. People without facts respond to the appearance of these facts with “You’ve missed my point” and then promptly change their point to something they feel more confident defending.
Eventually, the conversation goes nowhere.
THE EVENT OCCURS
It seems Google donated more than $1 million to MoveOn.org, to help them lobby for Internet regulation legislation in Congress.
INITIAL, EMOTIONAL REACTION
That’s it. I’m changing my homepage to Ask.com.
This is fine, of course – changing her homepage is her perogative. I don’t much like MoveOn.org either, nor do I have any idea where they stand on Net Neutrality or other Internet regulation. But I’m also a Google user and a Google shareholder, and their political donations don’t affect the way their search engine performs, so I’m staying put. But like I said, Amy can set her homepage to whatever she wants for whatever reason.
Jabba the Tut chimes in with:
I’ve had it with Google. After helping China censor the internet, use Hizbollah as a legitimate news source, while dissing conservative/libertarian websites, supporting the MoveOn smear merchants was the last straw. I’ve posted instructions on how to remove Google from your FireFox toolbar at <link>.
Jabba’s teetering on the edge of truth here: Google complied with Chinese laws, many of which would be considered censorship in this country, and took some heat for it in the US. Their GoogleNews service uses an algorithm to establish the relevance of a news article, so while the algorithm might require tweaking (the product was in Beta for a very long time), it’s probably a stretch to claim that Google is intentionally promoting one website over another for political purposes. And, of course, he implicitly converts Google’s donations to aid in congressional lobbying into carte blance support for all of MoveOn’s positions. This might very well be true, but he has no proof (or at least he doesn’t offer any).
Next up is Chris J. Breisch:
I’ve been saying for some time that Google is the Evil Empire. This just proves it. Remember, Google records every search you EVER make and tags it with your IP and every link you follow from a search. This is presumably so that they can tailor your results better to you in the future, but this is the ultimate in “big brother-ism”. I will never use Google again.
First of all, every search engine records every search you make, and every web server has an IP address for every pageview. Suddenly, though, Google is “big brother.”
FACTS APPEAR, BUT ONLY BRIEFLY
Bryan C. to the rescue:
Wait a sec. This isn’t about necessarily about Google supporting MoveOn’s ridiculous political antics. It’s about funneling money to sponsor the Net Neutrality bill. I hate MoveOn, but I must admit that I have some mixed feelings about opposing that bill. This time at least it sounds like Google’s acting out of responsible self interest, and I expect that from a corporation. Though I’d prefer they’d have sponsored a more neutral opponent of the bill and stayed far, far away from MoveOn’s slimy den.
[Also], every single web server you visit does the exact same thing, including every other search engine in existence. Traffic logging and analysis are vital to any smoothy functioning web site. . . . If you don’t like or trust Google then by all means use someone else, they really need the competition, but whoever you use will be gathering the same data.
This should be the point where Chris (and maybe even Jabba) come back and say, “Thanks, Bryan – that was useful information. I hadn’t realized this was standard technical architecture as opposed to evil, corporate greed.” But alas, no…
ESCALATION & EMOTION RETURN
Did you type this on a Microsoft comptuer b/c it is standard quo to put cookies (tracking software) on your computer to make it easy for everyone to see where ya been? Now all of the sudden you are outraged b/c of Google? Ha!
…and then Karen chimes in with this gem:
Get the word out: by using Google paying links, you support MoveOn.
Between the whole child porn thing they got going, their anti-semitism, and then the censorship in China, Google is a joke. Why isn’t anyone going after them like they did Microsoft? Where is a tobacco lawyer when you need one? Maybe we should say there is a lacrosse player working at Google, then all the libs will go after them.
OK, so now cookies are secret, tracking software, invented by Microsoft to see where you go online, Google is involved in child porn, anti-semitism, and censorship in China, and both companies are just as bad as tobacco companies and the (currently convicted of nothing) Duke lacrosse team.
First of all, cookies aren’t software, they’re data files. Secondly, all servers create cookies (Windows and otherwise), and they write those cookies to all kinds of desktop machines (Windows and otherwise). Claiming cookies as a Microsoft product is like claiming that Toyota makes gasoline. Furthermore, cookies don’t track where you go on the web. They record that you’ve been to the specific site that created the cookie, so when you return it can personalize your experience.
As for Google, the “child porn” thing was actually Google refusing to give search data to the federal government who wanted it to support its case against child porn. We’ve already discussed the censorship thing in China, and for the life of me, I have no idea where anti-semitism came from. So much for a reasonable discussion of corporate political donations and/or net neutrality. How I feel for Bryan C….
MORE FACTS COME AND GO…
The comment thread goes on to contain a fact-based post about net neutrality (from Dan), a post from Brian Carnell calling Dan a liar, and a post from Dan saying “Brian – we’re saying the same thing.”
Then David Johnson gets into the act. He tells Brian: “I have read A LOT of discussion about this issue and that is the first I’ve read of what you just said,” and then he tells Dan, “Yup, I think [you] sum it up about right.” Which, of course, is interesting, since Dan just told Brian he was saying the same thing. I guess we are to assume that David agrees with Dan’s take on net neutrality, but not with his take on Brian’s post about that topic. Sheesh!
Next, Jon Kay provides a link with more information about net neutrality (helpful), and then an anonymous reader ignores that information entirely and accuses Google of mounting “a campaign to outlaw financial transactions between consenting adults” (I have no idea what that even means).
I GIVE UP…
And so it goes. If you’re just a reader looking to learn something from all of this, you need to mentally separate the signal from the noise. In the above example, it’s all pretty clear, but sometimes the noisemakers don’t reveal themselves until late in the game, when you’ve already been distracted from the main point.
If you dare to participate in one of these discussions, you had better be prepared to ignore half the participants or do battle with a bunch of uninformed crazy people. In several cases (which admittedly, is all my own fault), I’ve found myself the last man standing – all the rational people have abandoned the thread, and I’m left explaining to some crazy person that Google isn’t monitoring his personal search history, or that Microsoft isn’t reading his e-mail, or that George W. Bush isn’t personally listening in on his phone conversations. But what do I know – I’m just a partisan hack that won’t listen to the other side of the argument.
Back in early April, I predicted the success of The Da Vinci Code movie:
Mark my words: this movie is going to be the next Titanic. It’s going to make a billion dollars. And the irony is, a lot of its business is going to be driven by these paranoid religious folks who seem so desparate to prove to us what we already know – that it’s just a story.
Since it’s debut at the Cannes Film Festival, there’s been a slight hitch in the plan, though: everyone seems to have hated it. As of this writing, 23 of the 29 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are negative, and the average rating is a mere 4.8 out of 10.
This came as a bit of a shock to me for two reasons: 1) I really enjoyed the book, and 2) I just can’t imagine that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, two of the most talented movie guys working today, could come together for such a clunker.
Today, though, Roger Ebert’s review came out. I like Ebert’s reviews because he tends to like the same kinds of movies I like, and also because he usually does a good job of explaining why he likes or doesn’t like a movie. In this case, I think he sheds some light on why the bulk of reviewers panned this film:
The movie works; it’s involving, intriguing and constantly seems on the edge of startling revelations. After it’s over and we’re back on the street, we wonder why this crucial secret needed to be protected by the equivalent of a brain-twister puzzle crossed with a scavenger hunt. The trail that Robert and Sophie follow is so difficult and convoluted that it seems impossible that anyone, including them, could ever follow it. The secret needs to be protected up to a point; beyond that it is absolutely lost, and the whole point of protecting it is beside the point.
In other words, it’s hard to follow. I guess your average movie reviewer sees this as a bad thing; though I rather expected it from this movie. In fact, having read the book, I can’t imagine how anyone would walk into the film and not expect it to require a lot of thinking. Maybe because it’s in the “Summer Blockbuster” category?
At any rate, I’m still looking forward to seeing it, if for no other reason than to see which of the critics I agree with. And I still stand by my claims that the movie will set box office records (OK, $1 billion might have been pushing it, especially if it doesn’t receive critical acclaim), but heck – Titanic only scored 86% on Rotten Tomatoes (7.7/10) and it hit the mark…
Jodie Foster spoke at The University of Pennsylvania’s 250th Graduation ceremony yesterday. Highlights included taking a picture of the graduates with a disposable camera, criticisms of the Bush administration for squandering goodwill of other nations after the 9/11 attacks and the “disastrous and shameful” handling of Hurricane Katrina, and rapping to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” from his film 8 Mile.
Graduating Penn students, in what has become an unfortunate annual tradition, complained about the choice beforehand, but gave her a standing ovation afterwards. When I graduated in 1991, Ted Koppel was the speaker. After the President of the University finished reading Koppel’s ridiculously long list of accomplishments and accolades, Koppel began his address by quoting (by name) those who criticized his selection by calling him “unqualified” to speak. He then spent some time talking about responsibility in journalism. To this day, I regret not having a copy of the text of that speech. It was priceless.
Meanwhile, at least Jodie Foster had a good time with it (see picture above). Steve Wynn, an actual Penn grad, did not seem to be as enthused about receiving his honorary degree.