Saturday, January 28, 2012

Twitter Bowing to Foreign Censors Criticized by Reporters Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders, the very important and influential international organization at the forefront of global free-speech protection movements, sent the following letter to Twitter:

Mr. James Dorsey
Executive chairman
Twitter, Inc.
795 Folsom St., Suite 600
San Francisco, CA 94107

Paris, 27 January 2012

Dear Mr. Dorsey,

Reporters Without Borders, an organization that defends freedom of information worldwide, would like to share with you its deep concern about yesterday’s announcement on the official Twitter blog of a new policy under which tweets may be censored in some countries, according to each country’s different criteria.

We urge you to reverse this decision, which restricts freedom of expression and runs counter to the movements opposed to censorship that have been linked to the Arab Spring, in which Twitter served as a sounding board. By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization.

We are very disturbed by this decision, which is nothing other than local level censorship carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which often violates international free speech standards. Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is inacceptable. This fundamental principle is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We call on you to be transparent about the way you propose to carry out this censorship. Posting the removal requests you receive from governments on the Chilling Effects website will not suffice to offset the harm done by denying access to content. Twitter has said that, if it receives “a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity,” it may respond by withholding access to certain content in a particular country, while notifying the content’s author.

The way this is defined is too vague and leaves the door open to all kinds of abuse. Are you going to act in response to a court decision? Or, as is the case in China, will just a phone call from a government official or a local police station suffice to justify denying access to content? Are you going to limit yourselves to censoring tweets after they have been posted or, if faced with a flood of official requests, will you establish a system of prior censorship based on subjects or keyword defined by censors?

You also announced that access to the accounts of some Twitter users could be blocked altogether in certain countries. Are you going to block the accounts of Syrian cyberdissidents if the Syrian authorities tell you to do so? Does this mean that Twitter could render the Reporters Without Borders Twitter account (@RSF_RWB) inaccessible in countries where we often denounce repressive practices and freedom of information violations, and where the authorities are ready to do anything to silence us?

Does your new policy mean that references on Twitter to Arab revolutions and demonstrations in Manama will no longer be accessible in Bahrain? Will Vietnamese using your social network from their country no longer be able to tweet about bauxite mining’s harmful impact on the environment? Are you going to block tweets about the demands of Turkey’s Kurdish minority? Will Russian Internet users see their criticisms of the government censored?

The list of debates and issues that could disappear from your network at the local level is long. The fact that these messages would continue to be available to the rest of the world, and to Internet users in the affected countries who know how to use censorship circumvention tools, does not offset the harm done by censoring and blocking information.

Was your decision motivated by the desire to penetrate the Chinese market at all costs? You recently visited China and voiced the hope that Twitter would one day be permitted. You cannot be unaware of the success of Chinese micro-blogging platforms such as Sina Weibo, which are forced to cooperate with the authorities and impose permanent censorship.

While it is obviously regrettable that the Chinese authorities block access to Twitter and Facebook, what would Twitter’s added value be if it also had to purge itself of forbidden content in order to establish itself in China? Is it possible that one day there will be a sanitized Chinese version of Twitter that has been rid of any reference to the Chinese Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo?

This decision runs counter to the tendency to reject censorship demands from governments such as China’s, a trend started by Google and GoDaddy. At the same time, Internet companies are increasingly being held to account about the export of equipment that could be used to reinforce the surveillance and harassment of dissidents.

We praised your Speak2Tweet initiative in February 2011 in Egypt, which enabled dissidents to continue tweeting after the Internet was disconnected, but we are very disappointed by this U-turn now. We urge you to think again about this new policy’s implications both for freedom of expression and your company’s development strategy. The commercial advantages in the Chinese market are not the only criteria to be considered. Twitter’s image in the eyes of its users is also at stake.

We thank you for the attention you give to this request and we look forward to a favourable response.


Olivier Basille Reporters Without Borders director


Friday, January 27, 2012

Cruise Ship Line Seeks to Settle With Survivors

One thing I do know for a fact is that accidents, whether aviation or maritime, draw international squads of lawyers.

It never occurred to me, as a survivor of a horrific aviation accident, to sue for pain and suffering. Hey, along with six others, I walked away physically unhurt from that horrifying mid-air collision over the Amazon that killed 154. (But hey, now that I think of it in personal legal terms, that disaster and the ugly aftermath did kind of sidetrack my life for five years, while certain parties in Brazil salaciously vilified me, utterly unmindful of the fact that they had nearly succeeded in killing me before they kept me in custody without so much as a "You OK?")

That said, I'm interested in this about the Costa Concordia shipwreck, via this link to the Daily Beast. In part:

"All those who were on board the ship are entitled to be compensated not only for material damage (cost vacation, personal property lost or damaged, and any physical damage), but also to moral ones, such as fear and terror suffered, and the risks related to physical integrity."

An interesting proposition, sure to be closely followed by trial lawyers.


Twitter Folds Like a Cardboard Suitcase, Admits It Is Afraid of Foreign Censors

From the tremulous management of Twitter:

"Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why."

The statement from Twitter management says, essentially, that Twitter is afraid of foreign governments and others who try to shut down free speech around the world. That includes spurious claims of libel and defamation because someone said something on Twitter that someone in another country did not like.

Or, to put it in the Twitter management language, it will remove tweets in unspecified countries that have "different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression." In honest English, that means, countries that don't respect free speech.

Those of us who have fought the good fight regarding Internet censorship of free speech are appalled to see Twitter become a handmaiden of censors, as are many Twitter followers. See this link from the Guardian newspaper.

Incidentally, there are those who argue that Twitter's move is basically a good one for free-speech interests, but I don't buy that argument myself. Giving in morally to censors who want to shut down certain areas of speech is always, always a step down a slippery slope, in my opinion.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Rand Paul Run-In With TSA: Here Comes a New Campaign Issue

[Photos: Your tax dollars at work]

My hunch is we're only in Stage One of crazy so far in this presidential campaign, and God help us as Stages Two and Three (and maybe Four) roll up as the election approaches.

So today while Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney hurled rude insults at each other down in Florida, here comes an incident at the Nashville airport involving the TSA and Kentucky Sen. Rand (Name Has Nothing to Do With 'Ayn' Dammit!) Paul, son of the presidential candidate and current holder of the amusing-old-coot chair, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

It seems that Rand (Name Has Nothing to Do With 'Ayn' Dammit!) Paul triggered one of those infernal body scanners at the TSA checkpoint and was required to undergo a full-body patdown, which he declined to do.

The issue of those ridiculous, worthless, invasive and probably dangerous body-scanners aside, Sen. Paul's refusal created a stir at the airport, and a bigger one online. Quick as you can say "police state," the presidential candidate Ron Paul issued a statement denouncing the TSA for "detaining" his son.

Except the son wasn't technically detained, the TSA says. Dad's statement has now been revised to denounce the TSA for "inconveniencing" his son. It reads in part:

"The police state in this country is growing out of control. One of the ultimate embodiments of this is the TSA that gropes and grabs our children, our seniors, and our loved ones and neighbors with disabilities. The TSA does all of this while doing nothing to keep us safe."

The ever-excitable Republican handmaiden Drudge, of course, is in a red-font tizzy over all of this, and among his hysterical links is one to the right-wing Daily Caller quoting Rand Paul saying he was "barked at" and ordered to remain in the TSA cubicle -- which I would readily agree arguably constitutes being "detained."

Quick as you can say message-of-the-day, the TSA has now become a controversy bubbling inside the presidential campaign.

The White House would be wise to stay far away from this one, in my opinion. And the TSA, which only last week was quietly admitted to be at fault in the manner in which two elderly women were strip-searched at separate airports late last year, again has some 'splaining to do. Not over the requirement for the patdown, which at least is a clear protocol, but in the evidently thuggish way Rep. Paul was treated after refusing that patdown.

No excuse for that, and again the TSA has to confront the issue of inapproproate behavior by its screeners.

Meanwhile, Paul is already promoting a conspiracy theory about his being inconvenience and/or detained. Stand by for Stage Two.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Italian Shipwreck, the Plot Thickens II: Cruise Ship Owners OK'd 'Sail-By Salutes' Close to Shore As Publicity Stunts, Captain Says


An update today on the Italian shipwreck disaster in the New York Times says in part:

"Also on Sunday, Italian news media published excerpts of a leaked transcript of the interrogation of the ship’s captain [Francisco Schettino], whom the cruise line has blamed for causing the crash by departing from the approved course and coming too close to shore. In the transcript, the captain said that company officials had asked the ship to swing close to shore as a publicity stunt, a move he described as a 'recurring practice.'”

Also this, in Britain's highly excitable but occasionally accurate Daily Mail today, which says in part:

"Schettino said: 'The salute to Giglio was arranged and wanted by Costa before we left Civitavecchia [the port of departure]. It was for publicity reasons. We have carried out those sail-by salutes all over the world -- Sorrento, Capri. I have sailed past Giglio other times, when I was captain of Costa Europa.'

"'The sail-past Giglio had been advertised in the daily ship news letter - we should have done it the week before but we couldn't because the weather had been bad. They insisted. They said, "We can be seen and we can get some publicity", so I said OK.'"


The other day (see previous post), I ran a link to video showing the Costa Concordia passing perilously close last August to Giglio, the island off which it is now wrecked after hitting rocks close to shore. The ship was saluting the island during the annual San Lorenzo festival.

That video indicates that sailing dangerously close to shore was not just a one-time lark by the hapless Schettino, who has been blamed for the disaster by the ship's owners, the Carnival cruise line company, and in most media accounts.

I said then, extremely mindful of how wrong it is to rush to criminalize any major accident before all of the questions have been answered, let's be aware of the perils of exclusively vilifying the captain, without knowing many, not to mention all, of the facts concerning the role of the ship's owners, a subsidiary of the giant Carnival cruise-line company.

In fact, Costa, the Carnival company, has some serious explaining to do -- assuming the Italians (and the media) can get past their personalization of the accident by focusing mostly on a simple, juvenile narrative of bad guy (the evidently nitwit captain) and good guy (the Italian coast guard captain who ordered the ship's skipper to re-board the ship that he had evidently cravenly abandoned).

Let's get to the facts. And we do that by asking tough questions of all of the people involved, not just by tossing the captain behind bars and reviling him in a narrative that may turn out to be hastily drawn.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Italian Shipwreck: The Plot Thickens

While the Italians (and the world media) are running around cackling about the hapless captain who is said to have shipwrecked the Costa Concordia, and while the ship's owners pile on and so far have escaped close scrutiny for the egregious lack of crew safety training, here comes a video (below) from last year that raises a great big question:

Was the Costa Concordia's evidently nitwitted captain following precedent when he sailed too close to the island of Giglio? The ship's owner, Costa Cruises (a subsidiary of Carnival Corp.) has said that it never previously passed any closer than 1,640 feet from the island. But that seems not to be the case.

It now transpires that last Aug. 14, the ship sailed within 754 feet of the island, where the nighttime festival of San Lorenzo was being celebrated. With its lights blazing and fog horn blaring, the huge liner was quite a sight for the party crowds on the island. On that occasion, the ship was even closer to Giglio than it was when it hit the rocks and capsized.

Along with questions about how often that ship sailed between maintenance rests (it appears to be very often), the question of whether the ship and the captain had been authorized to sail into close-up waters to entertain the islanders and tourists now needs to be answered. Not just by the captain, but by the ship's owners.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The California Bullet Train: Wishful Thinking Continues

Gov. Jerry Brown "unequivocally" supports the $98.5 billion (and counting) California bullet train boondoggle, it says here.

I have four words to say about that:

Ain't. Gonna. Happen. Never.


Monday, January 16, 2012

(Updated Jan. 18) The Best Coverage of the Cruise Ship Disaster Off Italy

[Costa Concordia: After and before] indisputably on See this link to reports on the wrecking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship in the waters just off Italy. The videos are amazing.

Cruisecritic is one of the outlets of TripAdvisor, and even though I've never taken a cruise, I consult this one just for up-to-date, in-depth, crowd-sourced news of that interesting industry.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on the ship.

My guess is that while the cruise line (a subsidiary of Carnival Corp., which operates Carnival Cruise) rushes to blame the captain, who was certainly at fault in some significant measure, there's an uglier story to come out about how this ship was operated, and how often it sailed to maximize profits and cut costs.

UPDATE Jan. 18 -- A reader alludes to a good point in a comment to this post, which is that rushing to criminalize an accident like this is manifestly never a good idea.

Clearly, the captain of the wrecked ship is responsible -- that's the law of the sea. And quite evidently, his actions are deeply suspect, including his leaving of the ship evidently before everyone was accounted for. There are also reports that the captain may have navigated recklessly into dangerous water to get close to the island, where relatives of a retiring ship's officer had been told to gather to see the liner pass by close, tooting its fog horn in salute.

On the other hand, lots of questions remain unanswered, and the cruise line so far hasn't addressed them, especially as the media attention is so diverted to the cackling over the hapless captain. Among those questions:

--Why was the crew clearly so inept in emergency procedures?

--Who at the Italian cruise company and at the parent company, the Carnival cruise giant, is responsible for maintenance and training, and what do they have to say about the clear lack of emergency training of the Costa Concordia crew?

--Were there enough lifeboats on that ship? Certainly, the Titanic precedent applies, even if it's from 1912.

--Does the exhausting quick turnaround in this ship's normal schedule -- it's out for a week, reloads with new passengers, and hustles back out immediately -- impact maintenance and safety standards?

--What about that passenger video that shows a scene on board when the power went out? If you look at that, the ship is steady and passengers in the passageways seem calm as the power-outage announcement is made and the lights go off -- suggesting to me that this might have preceded the ship's hitting the rocks. The timeline should be crystal clear on exactly when the power went out, because a power outage -- perhaps as the result of faulty maintenance -- could certainly cause a breakdown in a ship's steering.

There I go speculating on that last point, and I learned my own lessons five years ago about how speculation, emotionalism and a rush to judgment by the authorities and the media in Brazil seriously damaged the investigation into the tragic mid-air collision over the Amazon.

I'll say this, partly from the horrible experience in Brazil: Sometimes the initial media narrative is skewed, and even dead wrong. In Brazil, as I recall, the doddering Defense Minister, Wolderful Waldir Pires, actually told the Brazilian media that the Legacy 600 business jet was performing reckless aerial maneuvers over the central Amazon when it collided with that 737, killing all 154 aboard the commercial plane.

Then some aviation ambulance-chasing lawyer told the Brazilian media that I myself had confirmed these aerial maneuvers. That bald-faced lie was even repeated by the Dow Jones News Service in the U.S. before I had them issue a correction.

Turned out the "aerial maneuvers" speculation stemmed from systemic malfunctions at Brazilian air traffic control, where radar screens were out of whack and (by the time the Brazilians finally noticed them, well after the crash) had been falsely indicating altitude fluctuations by the Legacy, which was flying inside one of the communications dead-zones over the Amazon that the Brazilian military (and media) kept insisting did not exist.

So let's just say this: This is a very confusing situation off the coast of Tuscany. The Italians are running the show, and while that's not as dire a situation as the even-more-emotional Brazilians running it, it is a good reason to be wary.

A whole lot of questions need to be answered. Accidents like this one often occur after multiple mishaps and missteps, some linked and maybe some not even directly linked, only coincidentally.

Tossing people in jail before even the basic facts are known is probably not a good idea, because in a rush to criminalize the accident, people involved often stop answering questions when they're looking at a prison cell.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yo, 'In-N-Out Burger:' I'll Have a Cheesburger. Hold the Bible Lectures, Please

[The messages on an In-N-Out Burger cup and fries bag: Let's have lunch? Or let us pray?]

The sparkly clean, friendly, family-owned In-N-Out Burger chain is something of a cult favorite in California, where it was founded in the late 1940s, and in Nevada and Arizona, where it has expanded.

Nice place, with a simple menu and very good food.

I stopped by one on the east side of Tucson while running errands this afternoon, ordered a cheesburger, fries and Coke, and sat at an outside table in the sun. I could have had lunch at a favorite place, the Sonic fast-food joint a mile away, where pretty girls on roller skates bring your food out to your car window -- very 1960s "American Graffiti" -- but I was in a rush and In-N-Out was there.

Eating my lunch, I noticed for the first time that I was being subtly hustled by evangelists.

Look, I don't care who prays to whomever or whatever, but when I am a paying customer, I don't want to have the person I pay lecturing me on religion, even if the lecture is in small print on the bottom of a bag or the lip of a cup.

I looked up this "John 3:16" on the bottom lip of the soda cup. It evidently seeks to inform me that faith in Jesus means I shall not perish but have eternal life. The corollary, for our Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, atheist and other infidel friends, is that a lack of faith means you shall perish and not have an eternal life. Your choice, I guess. But do you have to choose off the bottom of a soda cup?

"Revelation 3:20," on the French fry bag, was a bit more hospitable to us heathens. Here is what the Biblical reference says: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me."

Yo, In-N-Out Burger, I say to you: No, I shall not make haste to knocketh at thy door, because thou are but a hamburger stand and thy doors are not closed to anyone under the sun or the moon or the stars into heaven. And if any man heareth mine voice, yea and verily that voice would but ordereth a hamburger with cheese and also fries of the persons French, and a cold drink that is called by the name of Coke.

But behold! The printing of thy holy verses on thine cups and bags is an abomination unto the Lord, and henceforth I shall sup not at thy doors but at the doors of the place of thine enemy, which is called Sonic where pretty girls on skates with wheels giveth me sup, and annoyeth me not with praises unto the Lord.


PS, Since we're talking Bible citations here, how about this one, Matthew 6:5, in which Jesus warns against outward displays of religiosity:

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. ..."


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Tucson, One Year After the Massacre: Civility, the Wild West and the Crisis of the Severely Mentally Ill

[A sunset in Tucson]


TUCSON -- Sandra Day O'Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, said the following in the media glare a few weeks after the Tucson mass murders on January 8, 2011:

"Before speaking out, ask yourself whether your words are true, whether they are respectful and whether they are needed in our civil discussions."

To me, that slab of prime baloney epitomizes the hypocrisy and pious sanctimony that followed the Tucson shootings and which can still be sniffed today among the anniversary commemorations here. "Watch what you say," the kindly former Supreme Court justice warns, evidently unaware of how chilling those words can sound to those who might have something to say.

Tucson is one of the most civil cities in America, which remains a fairly civil nation, all things considered. By and large, people in Tucson are genuinely nice, in a town that at its best combines the most salubrious cultural aspects of both the Old West and Old Mexico, which is a mere 60 miles away.

Civility isn't really the issue, unless we're just talking about the absence of it in the Tea Party and other right-wing vitriol that was so prevalent in 2010. The issue is that one year ago, on a sunny Saturday morning, a raging psychotic had easy access to a gun, and a plan to kill a U.S. congresswoman and anyone else around her.

Now, I understand that it's anathema in the media to note that this deranged killer was shooting at a U.S. congresswoman who had herself been subject to many months of ugly vilification by elements of the "Tea Party" and others. Those others include the execrable Sarah Palin, who certainly must have got the killer's attention when she countenanced a nasty TV ad that showed bulls'-eye targets over the congressional districts of certain representatives, the Tucson Democrat Gabrielle Giffords prominent among them.

Case in point: After the shootings, the Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, stated the obvious: That the nasty political climate generated by Tea Party viciousness toward Democratic politicians had something to do with the massacre in Tucson, in which, after all, a Democratic congresswoman who had already been singled out for right-wing hatred was the target.

In the media and elsewhere, sanctimonious denunciation of the sheriff ensued. The reaction, based on the idea that the gunman had no direct affiliation with political groups, became the conventional wisdom, in a twist of logic that still baffles me. With premeditated malice, the gunman set off to kill a specific Democratic congresswoman who was being widely vilified by right-wing nuts -- yet, somehow, in some manifestation of magical thinking, the vilification of her that was already in play had nothing to do with the shooting -- evidently because the shooter was certifiably insane, and consequentially incapable of acting with both maniacal and political intent?

The same trope is trotted out in today's commemorative section in the Tucson paper, the Daily Star, which notes with apparent approval the "backlash" that greeted Sheriff Dupnik's quite accurate comments and says, again with apparent approval, "a year later, the sheriff is less angry."

As if "anger" was somehow an inappropriate response to the massacre and to what brought it about. This is not the language of journalism, it is the language of therapy.

Now, it is not in dispute that Giffords herself had worried about that bulls-eye placed on her district -- worried enough to express concerns that someone might shoot her. But for some reason, the national media narrative discounted that. Jared Loughner, the killer, was not a Tea Party member, they explained. He was not especially ... uh, political. He was just ... disturbed. (Of course, you can't say "crazy" in the media these days, unless it's in an ad for a good deal at a car lot.)

Giffords, who happens to be my congresswoman, was one of 19 shot by this severely mentally ill young man, this lost and twisted wretch Jared Loughner. Six of those people, including a little girl, were killed in the massacre outside a Tucson supermarket that Saturday morning. The killer's desperate parents had tried again and again to get him adequate help, aware that he was descending into the terrors of paranoid schizophrenia. And then came January 8, 2011, when Jared Loughner arrived outside that supermarket with his rage and his gun.

Gabby Giffords, with the constant support of her stalwart ex-astronaut husband Mark Kelly, has made a truly remarkable and brave recovery from a gunshot to the brain. She is able to speak a bit now. Some day, she might one day be able to resume some of her duties, and maybe some other day, she might recover more or less fully, but this is not guaranteed. She received magnificent medical care, starting at the University of Arizona medical center in Tucson. She has battled with consummate courage to become whole again. No more can be said of this right now because it is still too sad.

A crazed young man, a psychotic with a gun and a rage to use it on this congresswoman and whoever else was around her that day, did this to us one year ago -- and yet none of the anniversary coverage seems to be focused on that salient fact.

A desperately crazed young man. A psychotic with a gun who decided to go on a rampage.

How in the world do exhortations about "civility" and "respect" address this horror? In her comments, the former Supreme Court justice called for "rational dialogue." How does one have rational dialogue with a paranoid schizophrenic with a gun and a high-capacity ammunition magazine?

O'Connor is a board member of a well-meaning group formed in the aftermath of the Tucson massacre, the National Institute of Civil Discourse. Most of the board members are respected politicians and academics, but one of them, I might note, is Greta Van Susteren, the Fox News personality -- and a well-known Scientologist.

Yes, a prominent representative of the most uncivil news organization in America, Fox News, is on the board of the National Institute of Civil Discourse, formed to address "civility" in our national discourse. Yes, a member of the aggressive, secretive Scientology cult, which is well-known for using legal, political and social muscle to repress criticism (or "disrespect," as it might be called), has been invited to lecture the rest of us on respect.

"Civility" and "respect," incidentally, are code words often used by those who wish to stifle free speech, in that critical reporting is often deemed disrespectful by those it criticizes. This is important to remember.

I'm amazed, but not surprised, that this all goes without comment in the national media, where today many overwrought and lachrymose anniversary stories rehash the same old narrative (and really, how many times do we need to be nudged and told that the shootings occurred outside a supermarket ironically named "Safeway?")

Oddly, none of the commemorative stories I read today noted the irony, if not the outright lack of civility, of a company called "Crossroads of the West Gunshows," which is sponsoring a major gun show in Tucson this weekend at the Pima County Fairgrounds.

Gun shows occur regularly throughout the year in the Southwest, and I myself have no quarrel with that. In general, people you see at gun shows are everyday citizens who strongly believe that the right to bear arms is coupled with the responsibility to do so in a safe and legal manner. They also believe, along with those who are against the spread of guns, that the criminally insane should not have access to firearms. But really: Didn't a lack of civility and respect enter into the decision to hold a gun show here this very weekend, rather than, say, next weekend?

The local media in Tucson, alas, are weak and timid to the point of being almost inert -- but certainly someone should be noticing a lack of attention to the realities, rather than the optics, of what occurred here one year ago today.

Consider the disgraceful trolling for business underway at commemorative events by the rapacious mental health industry, which has scant interest in truly mentally ill persons like Loughner (there's not much money to be raked in with the real crazies, who tend to be poor, uninsured and extremely difficult to deal with in a rational manner) and instead uses the occasion to peddle services to what used to be called the "worried well."

They're all over the place, "grief counselors," glorified ambulance-chasers looking for new patients, so long as said patients have insurance. At one of the memorial events yesterday, a booth of them sat under a sign that asked "Distraught?" Their position is that the local population is full of people -- not those directly victimized by the shootings, mind you, but others who may be distressed by hearing about the shootings -- who might be candidates for mental health intervention. Provided, of course, that they have insurance to pay for "treatment," once they sit down for that initial "free consultation."

To anyone interested in this subject, incidentally, I would refer you to a long-forgotten book I wrote in the early 1990s about disgraceful profiteering in the mental-health industry that was centered on the looting of mental health and addiction insurance coverage of patients shanghaied to for-profit psychiatric hospitals, which were then high-fliers on Wall Street. The book, published by St. Martin's Press, was called "Bedlam: Greed, Profiteering and Fraud in a Mental Health System Gone Crazy." Terrible title, awful publishing experience, but a pretty good look (well-reviewed, too) at how the mental-health dollar got hijacked by predators sanctioned by for-profit psychiatry and clinical psychology, and abetted by a credulous media who bought their line that we all are crazy, and overlooked the obvious fact that the actually crazy, and especially the severely insane, are not profitable, and therefore negligible, to the point that we simply turn them out onto the streets to fend for themselves till they commit a violent crime, when the prisons accommodate them.

(I'm not trying to sell books here. "Bedlam" is long out of print, and available as a used book mainly on Amazon, where I just checked and you can buy it for humbling prices starting at literally one cent, plus shipping.)

Meanwhile, I read today some guy, a cab driver in Tucson whose claim to fame is that Loughner was his fare en route to the supermarket that day, saying that Tucson is "the Wild West." Now, even discounting the lack of perspective of a cab driver in a town like Tucson, where I guarantee you horses outnumber taxicabs, what in the world does "Wild West" mean in this context -- in a city that, as I said, has a remarkably civil culture? There is nothing wild about Tucson except the desert and mountain terrain surrounding the city.

Looking for cheap irony, one might note that the most famous of the Wild West gunfights, in 1881 at the O.K. Corral about 65 miles southeast of here, was triggered by the insistence by the sheriff, one Virgil Earp, that the the strict gun-control laws of Tombstone be respected. The gunfight promptly ensued.

The first-year anniversary stories of the Tucson massacre should include a sober examination of our collective failure as a society to respond in some adequate way to the crisis of the severely mentally ill. And to the obvious reality that a violent paranoid schizophrenic was legally able to buy a gun.

UPDATE JAN. 9 -- During a brief, emotional speech at the vigil ceremony last night, Gabrielle Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, specifically noted that, if there had been an adequate mental health system in place, "we probably would not be here today." Kelly's citing of the real issue went unreported in the continuing sloppy coverage of the anniversary today.

Instead, I read in one national report that in Tucson, "people have struggled to comprehend how such brutal violence could unfold in such a serene place." Baloney. People in Tucson, where common sense is as much a civic virtue as civility, are well aware that the "brutal violence" was perpetrated by a severely mentally ill killer, a wretched lone wolf in a rage who decided to shoot Gabrielle Giffords and anyone else he could take out that awful morning and who, inexplicably, was able to legally get a gun to do just that.


Wednesday, January 04, 2012

But They Didn't Know the Territory!

We've just seen (thankfully) the end of another spectacle of pointless media wretched excess in Iowa -- where estimates were that up to 2,000 out-of-area media roamed the state for that exercise in irrelevance called the Iowa caucuses.

But, to paraphrase the opening number in "The Music Man," Meredith Willson's wonderful musical set in early 1900s Iowa, they didn't know the territory.

Now that the "voting" is over we get a little insight, like this story in Slate today saying, essentially, that the fix had long been in, that Romney operatives had long ago identified a core of known supporters in numbers sufficient enough to prevail, and assiduously worked that specific group to ensure enough votes to prevail, no matter what else happened.

The result was a predictable triumph for religious sanctimony. A former Mormon bishop and Wall Street pirate, Williard Mitt ("Landslide") Romney, won an 8-vote victory over the inexplicable Rick Santorum, candidate of the hard-core Christian religious fanatics, while various other strange characters, from Angry Macy's Parade Balloon Newt Gingrich, to Michelle (Deinstututionalization of the Asylums Was Always a Mistake) Bachmann, trailed behind.

Oh, and that funny-eyes fellow Perry also ran, proving once again that the late, great Molly Ivins was prescient when she said, contemplating the candidacy of George Bush many years ago, "How much more proof do we need that people from Texas should never be elected president?"

Not to mention Ron Paul, the squeaky-voiced old coot who thinks it would be a good idea to allow us all to carry guns on airplanes.

Anyway, my point here is that there were 1,500 or 2,000 reporters roaming the landscape, regurgitating the same tired nonsense day after day (and night after night on TV, where I finally gave up in horror when I saw that the execrable Al Sharpton was being taken seriously as a political commentator on MSBNC).

How much did all that folly cost? Yes, I know that newspapers and TV stations in Iowa cleaned up big time, what with the bombardments of political ads, but really: How much of the total news budget of any given media organization was consumed by this ridiculousness?

Our national media landscape is crowded with newspapers and TV outlets that wouldn't spend the money to send a reporter to the next county to cover the Second Coming. Even the big national media have been cutting back on covering the news.

Yet here they all were for weeks at a time in ... Iowa. When they could have been covering actual news of real importance to the commonweal.

By the way, I've always thought that Meredith Willson got Iowa just about right in "The Music Man," which for my money is one of the two great really American musicals, the other being "Oklahoma."

It isn't generally appreciated by those who think "The Music Man" was a corny paean to pastoral virtue, but that show actually has a pretty sharp edge with its evocation of small-town pettiness and ignorance.

"Pick-a-little, talk-a-little"... "Trouble, trouble,
trouble, trouble, trouble" are among the lyrical phrases that still resonate. "You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself," is another.

My only quibble with the show is that it never conceded dramatically that Marian the Librarian, scorned by the town biddies for having Balzac on the shelves and for other unspecified reasons, is obviously actually the mother, rather than the big sister, of little Winthrop.

The father, is was utterly obvious to me, was "Old Miser Madison," the dead local tycoon who founded the River City library, left the library to the town but bequeathed all the books, including the Balzacs and all those "highfalutin' Greeks," to the beauteous, prim but secretly lusty Marian ("The Librarian") Paroo. Ahem.

To understand that about Iowa, ya had to know the territory.


Tuesday, January 03, 2012

End of the Line for High Speed Rail in U.S.

You heard it here first: High speed rail in the United States is deader than Kim Jung Il.

Actually, these projects have been riding on rails of wishful, even magical, thinking for years. In California, the much-touted high-speed rail project between San Francisco and San Diego (with links to Inland cities) is sputtering to a close, years after voters approved $9 billion in bonds for it. (The current estimated cost is $98.5 billion, and the completion date is now estimated at 2030, assuming it gets much further in the planning stage. Which it won't)

Look for a state review panel to drive a final spike into the project later today.

The reality: In a country with no strong central government to drive such projects through regional politics, high speed rail cannot happen. If it were going to happen, it would have 20 years ago.

It is now too late.

Not that the diehards are admitting what is now obvious. See this from the California High Speed Rail Blog:

"Under the terms of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – otherwise known as “the stimulus” – contracts for the $8 billion in high speed rail funding included in that package have to be signed by September 30, 2012. Back in the spring of 2009 when the stimulus bill was passed, that seemed like a fair distance in the future. But it’s now 2012, and the deadline is less than ten months away.

"California has already won about $4 billion of that stimulus money, and combined with the voter-approved Prop 1A money will be enough to get construction started on the Initial Construction Segment in the Central Valley, connecting Fresno and Bakersfield.

"That is, if the state legislature agrees to release the Prop 1A funds. That will be, by far, the top battle California high speed rail supporters will have to fight in 2012. A coalition of people who share an opposition to creating jobs and to doing anything that might move California away from its 20th century transportation model are working hard to ensure that the legislature overturns the will of the people and blocks this funding. Even some Democrats like State Senator Alan Lowenthal would have California follow the lead of right-wing extremists like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Florida Governor Rick Scott and reject billions in federal stimulus and the tens of thousands of jobs that go with it."

Sounds great, high-speed rail folks in California.

Ain't gonna happen, though.