Rants & Ramblings

random commentary about culture, media, politics, technology and whatnot.


a different cost of war

The U.S. is giving a number of our allies in the Iraq conflict added incentive to help out, in the form of financial assistance. Forbes has a list of funds the Bush administration proposes to allot to various countries involved in the war effort. (“Get Out Your Checkbook” - 03/20/03)

The Bush Administration is expected to ask for supplemental foreign aid within the next two weeks. Lawmakers responsible for doling out foreign aid are likely to remember which countries showed support for the U.S., says Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who is writing a book on American foreign aid. The longer Turkey sits on the fence, for example, the greater risk to its aid.

Among the proposals on the table: $550 million to Afghanistan, $574.6 million to Columbia, $89.7 million to the Phillippines and $255.6 to Turkey.

they'll give you a nickel for it…

I made a visit to amazon.com this afternoon and was greeted with an enticement to answer Amazon-related multiple choice trivia questions. (For example, “Amazon offers subscriptions to how many magazines and newspapers?”) Answer right, earn a nickel. My current balance is 20 cents.

the real cost of war

My friend Danielle forwarded this to me over the weekend. It’s interesting — and staggering — to consider the real cost of war.

I got this info off of Patriots for Peace and Nonviolence.org. It is truly amazing to see the financial decisions that are made when an administration decides to go to war. Judge for yourselves.

Which Path to a Safer World?



11 hand grenades -or-

11 Blankets for refugees


1 rocket launcher -or-

3-day training for 160 youth in peace building


1 cluster bomb -or-

Enroll 2 children in Head Start


1 Hellfire missile -or-

2 home health aides for disabled elderly


1 Bunker-buster guided bomb -or-

Associate Degree training for 29 RNs


1,000 M-16 Rifles -or-

Rent subsidies for 1,000 families


1 minute war on Iraq -or-

Annual salary/benefits for 15 RNs

$46 million

1 hour war on Iraq -or-

Improve, repair, modernize 20 schools

$130 million

7 unmanned Predator drones -or-

WIC program nutrition for 200,000 families

$275 million

3 tests of missile defense system -or-

Eradicate polio worldwide

$350 million

6 Trident II missiles -or-

Best vaccinations for 10 million children worldwide

$413 million

Amphibious Warfare Landing Ship Program -or-

Childcare for 68,000 needy children

$494 million

1 year military aid to Colombia -or-

7,000 units of affordable housing

$1.1 billion

1 day of war on Iraq -or-

Prevent cuts to education programs (FY2003)

$1.2 billion

2 months U.S. war force in Afghanistan -or-

Minimum support to save Amtrak train service

$2.1 billion

1 Stealth bomber -or-

Annual salary/benefits for 38,000 elementary teachers

$12 billion

1 year cost of war in Afghanistan (2001/2002) -or-

Double federal funding for mass transit

$16 billion

1 year nuclear weapons program -or-

Healthcare coverage for 7 million children

$38 billion

1 month U.S. current military spending -or-

Save 11 million lives worldwide fighting infectious diseases

The costs of warmaking are staggering — especially while cities and states face huge budget deficits. The administration has hidden its real priorities by not putting the costs of the war on terrorism or war on Iraq in its budget. Stay informed about the real budget and other means to enhance security by seeking information from the groups below.

Source list: Center for Defense Information (www.cdi.org); Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org); Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (www.cbpp.org); National Priorities Project (www.natprior.org); World Policy Institute (www.worldpolicy.org/projects/arms), Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org); UNICEF (www.unicef.org); New York Times (11/12/01; 3/18/02; 10/13/02; 12/05/02); World Health Organization (www.who.int); National Center for Education Statistics (nces.ed.gov); Mennonite Central Committee (www.mcc.org/us/colombia/dollars.html).

a more “humane” war?

Talking heads, in the media and military alike, have been using words like “precision” and “surgical” when talking about military bomb and missile strikes. Our modern weapons of war are so advanced that they can hit their target without causing massive carnage in the surrounding area. With maximum efficiency and minimum “collateral damage,” this is a more “humane” war. (Los Angeles Times: “Major Shift Seen With Use of ‘Smart’ Bombs” - 03/22/03)

A commentator on NPR’s “Fresh Air” program this weekend suggested that, while our “smart bombs” can limit the carnage and duration of war, that very precision could lower the threshhold on deciding whether to go to war in a given situation, leading to more wars.

Slate’s William Saletan takes this a step further. He argues that, instead of protesting a war that’s already underway, activists should fight for greater government/military accountability. Truth can be as much a casualty of war as civilian lives. If this “smart” technology can help ensure a mostly bloodless war, the military should be held to that expectation. (“Tipping Encouraged” - 03/21/03)

If you want to minimize the killing, stop resisting the war. Instead, do what you can to make the war transparent and to hold your government accountable for unnecessary deaths. Help the media and human rights organizations monitor the battlefield. Help them get reports and pictures to the people of your country and the world. Build an incentive system that will strengthen your government’s will to spare lives. Its ability will do the rest.


no place like home

I talked to my dad last night over the phone, just before Bush’s speech about the war having started. My dad, only half jokingly, tried to convince me to come home to Tucson for the rest of the semester, or until the war was over. His argument was that Arizona’s probably much safer than Washington, DC. I don’t disagree with him — but I saw a story today on CNN.com that drives home that even Arizona isn’t totally safe: The Palo Verde nuclear plant, near Phoenix, was cited as a possible terrorist target. (“U.S. official: Arizona nuclear plant may be target” - 03/20/03)

A Bush administration official said that recent intelligence indicates that the Palo Verde nuclear power plant near Phoenix, Arizona, could be targeted by terrorists.

However, another U.S. government source said the intelligence is uncorroborated and has not been deemed credible. But officials are taking any such threat seriously, according to the source…

Jim McDonald of the Arizona Public Service Co. said that National Guard troops were dispatched to protect the Arizona plant Tuesday afternoon. The National Guard was not deployed during two previous periods of the orange alert…

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, about 50 miles west of Phoenix, has three reactors and is the largest power plant in the country, according to the Arizona Public Service Co. It has generated 30 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in each of the last three years.

It supplies power to Arizona, Southern California, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.

In related news, The Arizona Republic has a story about security measures being taken in the state. (“Arizona security officials are watching and waiting” - 03/20/03)


it begins…

The war, it has begun. Let’s hope it’s as short and bloodless as possible.

Edited 11:38 p.m. - “Operation Iraqi Freedom“??


driving hazards

If you’re driving in downtown DC today, stay away from the Mall. If you’re on foot, maybe you can go down and gawk at the spectacle.

According to Channel 4, someone drove a John Deere tractor into a lake near 18th St. and Consitution Ave, between the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Memorial. (“Incident Closes Roads In Downtown D.C.” - 03/17/03)

The John Deere tractor is in about 3 feet of water in the Lake at Constitution Gardens. The incident is off 18th Street, between the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

A man can be seen sitting inside the tractor wearing a white helmet decorated with a red cross. The tractor has a sign on the rear that reads “Salute the troops.” Military cadences can be heard coming from the area.

There is also a military-style Jeep in the water, while on the bank there’s a trailer with a small motorcycle on it.

I was wondering what all those helicopters today were about…

Edited March 18, 4:19 a.m. - According to the Washington Post, the man drove the jeep, with a trailer attached to it, into the pond, and then drove the tractor off the trailer into the pond. He claims to have explosives with him, and the standoff with police continues.

Edited March 18, 10:03 a.m. - Nearly 24 hours later, he’s still at it. (“N.C. Truck Driver Continues Standoff on Mall” - 03/18/03) The whole thing is just a couple blocks from my office. Explosives or not, I want to go gawk.

legal basis for war

BBC News has a statement from the British attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, which spells out the legal basis for a war in Iraq. (“Attorney General’s Iraq response” - 03/17/03)

I’m posting the statement here, and have added links to the relevant U.N. documents.

All of these resolutions were adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which allows the use of force for the express purpose of restoring international peace and security:

1. In resolution 678 (PDF) the Security Council authorised force against Iraq, to eject it from Kuwait and to restore peace and security in the area.

2. In resolution 687 (PDF), which set out the ceasefire conditions after Operation Desert Storm, the Security Council imposed continuing obligations on Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction in order to restore international peace and security in the area.

Resolution 687 suspended but did not terminate the authority to use force under resolution 678.

3. A material breach of resolution 687 revives the authority to use force under resolution 678.

4. In resolution 1441 (PDF) the Security Council determined that Iraq has been and remains in material breach of resolution 687, because it has not fully complied with its obligations to disarm under that resolution.

5. The Security Council in resolution 1441 gave Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations” and warned Iraq of the “serious consequences” if it did not.

6. The Security Council also decided in resolution 1441 that, if Iraq failed at any time to comply with and cooperate fully in the implementation of resolution 1441, that would constitute a further material breach.

7. It is plain that Iraq has failed so to comply and therefore Iraq was at the time of resolution 1441 and continues to be in material breach.

8. Thus, the authority to use force under resolution 678 has revived and so continues today.

9. Resolution 1441 would in terms have provided that a further decision of the Security Council to sanction force was required if that had been intended.

Thus, all that resolution 1441 requires is reporting to and discussion by the Security Council of Iraq’s failures, but not an express further decision to authorise force.

I have lodged a copy of this answer, together with resolutions 678, 687 and 1441 in the Library of both Houses.

Edited 2:30 p.m. - A week ago, BBC News ran a story about a group of academic lawyers’ statement that war against Iraq would be illegal. (“War with Iraq ‘could be illegal’” - 03/10/03) The aptly named Professor Grief of Britain’s Bournemouth University cites the Nuremberg Charter of 1945, and says that going to war “without the express authority of the Security Council would violate the U.N. charter.” (My boss Andrew points out a hole in this argument: What if a Security Council member with veto power, such as France or China, was the aggressor in a given situation? Would military action against one of those countries violate the U.N. charter?) The rest of the story talks more about issues relating to the political machinations of making war palatable (not necessarily legal), and points out that the the legal basis for any of this is pretty murky.

chilling effect

The San Francisco Chronicle reported Saturday that an anti-war protester travelling from Seattle to San Diego found a complaint about his “anti-American attitude” written on a card inserted into his luggage after a TSA search. (“Traveler with anti-war signs finds complaint inserted into bag after security search” - 03/15/03)

Goldberg says that after a March 2 flight from Seattle to San Diego, he opened his bag and found a card notifying him that TSA had opened and searched it.

A handwritten note on the card said: “Don’t appreciate your anti-American attitude!”

He said it would have been hard for anyone else to have placed the note because when he claimed the bag in San Diego the zipper pulls were sealed with nylon straps that indicated a TSA inspection.

TSA officials said that the note was inappropriate, and that they are investigating the matter.

Inappropriate indeed. I understand the seriousness of airline security. But it’s bad enough that they’re rooting through my underwear. I don’t want — or need — them to be making random value judgements about the contents of my suitcase, too. Their job is to enforce security, not be the patriotism police.

Speaking of TSA suitcase searches, I was reading a couple months ago that the practice has created a liability black hole in terms of assigning responsibility should something happen to the contents of your suitcase between when you give it to the airline and when you pick it up at baggage claim.

Now that there’s the added step of baggage searching in the security process, a suitcase goes through multiple jurisdictions — from the airline to the TSA back to the airline and then through the various airport baggage-moving processes. Should anything break or go missing during that process, it’s still fairly murky as to which agency/company is liable for the loss.

Personally, if I’m going on a long trip, I cram as much into my suitcase as will possibly fit — and God help whoever decides to go through it, because they’ll have a devil of a time trying to repack it. And I very much doubt I’m the only traveler like that. I wonder how much trouble such crammed-in baggage causes for the TSA folks, and whether us uber-packers are more likely to have stuff missing/broken by the end of a trip.

tv shows find new (profitable) life on dvd

The LA Times reported last week that television shows on DVD have become a surprising moneymaker for the entertainment industry. (“Studios Take TV on DVD and Rerun With It” - 03/13/03)

Three years ago, fewer than a hundred shows were available on disc. Now, more than 800 are on the market, with dozens more coming out each week. Today, industry experts say, TV shows make up an estimated 10% of the overall DVD market, which last year tallied more than $8.4 billion in sales.

This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, especially given the devoted fanbases of various television series, on the air or now-defunct, such as Buffy, The X-Files, or the various Star Trek incarnations, who will no doubt shell out the cash to have shiny, crisp DVD versions of their favorite shows to replace their worn-out VHS recordings. The LAT article also brings up the stunning success of HBO’s release of many of its top shows, like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, which adds to the show’s fanbase and the cable outlet’s subscriber base.

I’m curious what kind of correlation there is between DVD release timing, price, and fanbase in determining a television DVD’s success. Personally, I’m comfortable spending $50 or less per collection (I own S1-3 of Buffy, S1 of Sex and the City, and Fawlty Towers — all purchased for less than $50 each). I get rather wary when the price goes up any higher than that. So, while I consider myself a rather devoted fan of, say, The X-Files, I only own S1, S2 and S4 because, at around $100 each (at Costco the week of release; suggested retail is around $150), I can’t really justify spending so much to complete my collection. The release schedule for Star Trek: The Next Generation only compounds the problem for that particular series — Paramount released the DVDs for all seven seasons over the space of a couple months, and is charging over $100 each for them. Hardcore fans will probably do it, but how inclined are the rest of us to shell out over $700 all at once?


seen: a trip to target

I love Target. I just hate going there.

I went to the big-box superstore at Potomac Yard. The store was packed — even more than I’m used to seeing at that particular Target — with a huge crowd massed around the registers.

(By way of background: Being from Arizona, where Targets were plentiful, I was suprised by how few Targets there are in the DC area — and how crowded those stores’ lines can be (think Costco/Price Club) as a result. And since the Potomac Yard location is the closest one to Washington, DC, it gets not only the Arlington/Alexandria crowd, but the DC-ers as well.)

Gargantuan crowd aside, there were a few interesting things/people of note from my visit:

1) The 8-year old in the backpacks aisle. As I perused the wares in this aisle, a little girl, maybe 8 years old, came in by herself and proceeded to examine several bags on the shelf — and describing/critiquing them aloud. She sounded like she was reciting marketing copy, or otherwise trying to convince someone to buy the merchandise. Whether she was talking to herself, an invisible friend, or someone via a teeny microphone, I couldn’t tell. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t talking to me, because she was yammering to herself as she entered the aisle, and kept talking as I walked away.

2) Latest sign of the apocalypse? In the backpacks aisle, I saw a bright pink kiddie-sized backpack-on-wheels, with the retractable pull-handle. It’s bad enough to see those urban professionals and college students doing it. (True story: I was once blocked from hurrying into the Metro one morning by three women, walking abreast and pulling their rolly-backpacks.)

3) Business casual casualties. In the “organize your closet, organize your life” aisle, I saw one brand of plastic sleeves for clothes that suggest that buyers could use their product to store clothes that couldn’t be worn due to “business casual” dress code policies. Not sure if they were talking about the Prada suits or the ripped-ass jeans.

4) 12 pairs of snowboots?? Behind me in the check-out line was a DC woman who was in the habit of buying clothes in multiple sizes/colors for her 6-year-old daughter, and then returning the rest (or losing the receipt and/or forgetting to return said clothes on time). She told me that, a couple months ago, she had bought 12 pairs of size-11 snowboots for her daughter to ensure she had found the perfect shade of purple to coordinate with her daughter’s snowsuit. The woman had since lost the receipt, so there are now 11 pairs of discarded snowboots sitting, brand-new, in her daughter’s closet.


identity theft gets scarier

MSNBC reports on about a decidedly scary case of identity theft in Wisconsin. (“The darkest side of ID theft” - 03/09/03)

Over the past five years, Malcolm Byrd has several times been arrested on drug charges, lost his job, and had his driver’s license revoked — all because someone else has been using his name and identifying information.

There?s nothing new about criminals using aliases to evade the law ? criminals often try to give their buddy?s name, address, and date of birth to dupe police. But the explosion of identity theft, and the ready availability of stolen digital dossiers on innocent victims, makes it just as easy for a criminal to give a stranger?s personal data during an arrest. Once police book a suspect under a fake name, that mistake can plague a victim for life.

?The alias becomes a disease to the true owner of that character,? said Sgt. Bob Berardi, head of the Identity Theft task force in Los Angeles.

The problem is compounded by the increasing sophistication of law enforcement officials, who now regularly tap nationwide databases like the FBI?s National Crime Information Center to search for outstanding warrants. Getting names off those lists can be a daunting task.

?Officials of criminal records (databases) are ? for good reason ? reluctant to remove information once it?s been placed in the database,? said Beth Givens, executive director of the Identity Theft Clearing House. ?It?s very difficult to clear your record if you are a victim of criminal ID theft.?

The whole ordeal has Byrd thinking about changing his name and social security number.

continue reading »


exploiting the elizabeth smart story

Columnist E.J. Montini of The Arizona Republic pretty much says it all about how the media are covering (or, rather, exploiting?) the rescue of kidnapped teenager Elizabeth Smart:

When the girl was taken from her home, media throughout the country covered the story, for which the Smart family was grateful. We said that our primary concern was Elizabeth’s well-being and that exposure on TV and in print might help to find her. And now, by some miracle, she’s been found.

If what we claimed at the beginning was true - that the girl was our primary concern - then we’d all agree to lay off the gory details.

We know from experience that the girl herself will see them on TV or read about them in the paper or hear about them on the radio or be told about them by friends. We’d tell ourselves that she has been through enough. We’d give her and her family enough time to be by themselves and sort things out and maybe even heal a little bit.

But that’s not what we’ll do.

We can’t help ourselves. We want all of the details, particularly the grotesque ones, and we want them now. The TV networks and major publications already are trying to reach anyone even remotely connected to the case in order to get something on the air or something in print.

(“World’s media kidnapping a young girl’s privacy” - 03/13/03)

why do you blog?

One of my classmates at Georgetown is doing her thesis on blogging — who blogs? why do they do it? She has an online questionnaire, and is calling all interested bloggers to fill it out and offer their own perspectives on blogging. If you get a chance, check it out.

She even got Wil Wheaton (yes that Wil Wheaton) to plug it on his blog. (Go check out his website sometime. Forget dorky Ensign Wesley Crusher. Wil Wheaton’s pretty cool.)


Back on Super Bowl Sunday, I complained about the lack of creative new TV ads, a la Spike Jonze’s “Tainted Love” ad for Levi’s a few years back. This afternoon, a friend pointed me toward a new Spike Jonze ad for IKEA‘s “unböring” campaign. In the ad, an old desk lamp is unceremoniously set outside with the trash, and a trendier IKEA lamp takes its place on the endtable. It’s striking how Jonze is able to anthropomorphize the lamp — even make the viewer feel sorry for the lamp — via lighting, camera angles and background music. And despite the strange Swedish man at the end telling me I’m crazy for feeling sorry for the lamp … I still feel bad for it, sitting droopy and rejected in the rain.


cia recruits more spies?

Maybe that whole TIPS idea hasn’t completely died. Slate’s Today’s Papers cites recent stories in the Washington Post:

According to yesterday’s Lloyd Grove column in the Post, the CIA has been dropping friendly postcards in neighbors’ mailboxes: “Please report anything unusual or suspicious associated with your community and/or the Headquarters,” said the card, which was hand-delivered to 250 lucky neighbors. Today, Grove notes that many readers wrote in to say that the spooks’ cards were in violation of federal law. No, it’s not illegal for our intelligence service to track you down and leave you spooky cards. But it is illegal if the cards don’t have stamps. The Postal Service is on the case. Said a spokesman, “Our inspection service got in touch with the CIA and advised them that we would hate for their certainly well-intentioned lapse to happen again.” A CIA spokesman wasn’t impressed, “I’ll look into it and get back to youafter the war.”


getting back at the french

CNN reports that two Republican congressmen have successfully campaigned to change the name of “French fries” and “French toast” offered at the House of Representatives’ cafeterias to “freedom fries” and “freedom toast.” (“House cafeterias change names for ‘french fries’ and ‘french toast’” - 03/11/03) The renaming is an effort to show displeasure with France’s stance on war with Iraq.

Nevermind that neither French fries nor French toast are actually of French origin. Or that this “symbolic gesture” does nothing more than show just how stupid our lawmakers can be. (And they called a press conference for this!)

If you are in a position to affect change, use that power to do something meaningful. Don’t fritter it away on meaningless expressions of symbolic frivolity. Infantile temper tantrums don’t help improve America’s image with the rest of the world, nor do they accomplish anything constructive.

dining out — for a good cause

Going all bleeding-heart for a second…

If you’re planning a nice dinner out this week, consider going out this Thursday. If you eat at any of participating DC-area restaurants on March 13, 25 - 100 percent of your bill will be donated to Food & Friends, a DC-area organization that provides meals to people suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer and other debilitating diseases. Participating restaurants include Luna Grill and The Melting Pot. You can also order in from Domino’s. A few restaurants are applying this offer toward lunch orders as well. For more information, and a list of participating restaurants, check out Dining Out for Life.

on the job with ari

Once in a while, the Washington Post’s “KidsPost” section offers some of the most interesting content in the paper…

Today’s KidsPost features an interview with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, and an explanation of what his job is. (“The Talk of the Town” - 03/11/03)

Fleischer’s interview responses show a certain disdain for the press corps, covered up with a cursory respect for the role they play.

Reporters think they deserve to know everything. You can’t talk about everything until the president is ready. The press corps can be aggressive and that’s their job … The press won’t be happy until there’s ‘Oval Cam,’ when you can see into the Oval Office 24 hours a day.

The cynic in me especially liked his response to the question about whether he ever “lies” on the job:

Is it ever your job to lie?

You can never lie in this job. There are many different ways not to answer a question. When it comes to questions about troop movements or things that put people’s lives in jeopardy, you can just not answer that question. But if you lie, it would be your last day in this job, and deservedly so.

Other comments of interest: Fleischer comes from a family of Democrats. He enjoys the perks that come with working for the president, including jaunts to Camp David and satellite TV aboard Air Force One. And President Bush is “not someone who needs a whole lot of preparation” to answer reporters’ questions. (Bush’s performance in last week’s press conference might be evidence to the contrary.)

In a companion piece, we learn that former Bush speechwriter David Frum’s recent book on the White House (The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush) is on Fleischer’s reading list. (“Meet the Press Secretary” - 03/11/03) I wonder if he’s ever read David Gergen’s Eyewitness to Power.

'talk back' dead

This one had me dancing and cheering in front of my computer this morning.

(Well, not really. But I thought about it.)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that CNN has cancelled Talk Back Live, its afternoon talk show, and expanding the more hard news-oriented Live From to fill that timeslot. (“‘Talk Back Live’ ending” - 03/08/03)

I’ve hated Talk Back Live with a passion. It’s a complete waste of airtime, consisting of various ill-informed panelists and viewers debating back and forth about the news of the day, or whatever other random sensational topic that sparks their attention. It’s like talk radio, but without even an entertaining (or, alternately, infuriating) host/moderator. Just a bunch of people talking at, or past, each other, reinforcing their own preconceptions. And it infuriated me that CNN would put this drek on the air, when there are infinitely more news-oriented topics they could cover — with substance.

Good riddance.


seen: regime change

My boss spotted this bumper sticker over the weekend:

Regime change begins at home.