Friday, June 18, 2004

Hiatus explained

My hiatus was occasioned by a heart attack -- sedentary, overweight, out of shape 49-year-old man with borderline high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol overexterts himself, no big story there -- the only exemplary or interesting part of which is the tuly remarkable work that can be done when heart attacks are caught quickly. I happened to have mine basically across the street fron a major hospital, and was having an angioplasty not more than 30 - 40 minutes from the onset of the attack. As a result, I've been able to return home a little more than 48 hours later, albeit under strict order to change my dietary lifestyle and get smarter about how I take care of myself. (Along with a passle of pill prescriptions, too.)

Blogging may be light this weekend, as I begin my home recuperation, but I do hope to post a few things.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/18/2004 07:00:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Short Hiatus

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Hi. This is Ed's wife, Daryl. Ed wanted me to let you know that he's taken an unexpected, temporary hiatus and can't get to his computer, but hopes you'll hang in there and check back in a few days.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/17/2004 12:05:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Perchance to sleep

From Boing Boing:

Next June, Japan's Matsushita will start selling a "sleep room" for insomniacs. USA Today's description of it reminds me of the euthanasia room from Soylent Green. You get into the bed, which is "upright like a recliner." A giant TV screen shows a video clip of a river in a forest, while soft music and nature sounds play in the background. A little while later, the lights dim, the TV shuts off, and the bed reclines. The river soundtrack continues to play. Then the massage machinery inside the mattress kicks in and kneads away the tension from your body. Finally, the lights go out and some air is released from the mattress, and you fall asleep -- hopefully. [Link added.]

I could really use this -- although probably the cheaper path to more sleep would be to stop surfing the web, tracking down state presidential polls, predicting the results of the electoral college, reading blogs and writing blog entries. I'd get to bed earlier, and have time to read the books, magazines and newspapers which have started to pile up ominously around me.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/16/2004 03:26:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Take me, take me

From an op-ed in Tuesday's Boston Globe by Joan Vennochi:

A June 8-9 national poll taken by Opinion Dynamcs Corp. for Fox News provides food for thought regarding a Kerry-Dean ticket. Overall, a Kerry-Dean ticket garnered support from 45 percent compared with 44 percent for Bush-Cheney. In the so-called battleground states, Kerry-Dean beat Bush-Cheney 48-42. The poll defines battleground states as: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The old conventional wisdom about a vice presidential candidate concludes that the best pick is the one who can deliver the electoral votes of his or her home state on Election Day. That is what keeps names like retiring Missouri congressman Richard Gephardt and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack in the mix. Neither excites, and one is virtually unknown beyond the corn belt. Dean's constituency is bigger than a single state. It's a movement synonymous with change and excitement.

But excitement from the left scares the middle. The middle is where Kerry thinks he wants to be in an election that has come to be defined as Bush versus not Bush. It's too bad a party has to lose its heart and soul to put a body in the White House.

To start off, Vennochi's conclusion is either pure naivete or complete bullshit, I'm not sure which. Has she really never noticed that given the structure of the non-parliamentary American political system, politicians of both parties must run for President from the middle of the spectrum in order to attract voters enough voters to win? It's not sufficient to excite one's base or satisfy the desires of the "heart and soul" of one's party, because there just aren't enough of them to go around, so one has to appeal to more moderate voters in order to get elected. Does she think it is merely a coincidence that it happens every four years, or some kind of cross-party conspiracy by the establishment figures within each to marginalize outsider groups?

Now, you can appeal to moderate voters in a good way -- recasting one's real, basic policies and beliefs in terms which are more palatable to the middle -- or you can do it in a bad way -- pretending to be a "compassionate conservative" and advocate of a "humble" foreign policy when one really has no intention of doing anything of the sort, but everyone's got to do it, and those who don't do it, or do it badly, will go down in ignominious defeat.

So this Kerry/Dean thing will never happen, and that's a good thing.

Despite the polls (where the differences between Kerry/Edwards and Kerry/Dean fall into the margin of error), I really don't believe that Dean would help the ticket much at all -- in fact, I think he would hurt it. The people he excites are liberals who may begrudge showing support for Kerry right now but will, I believe, ultimately make the right choice and vote for him in November. While Kerry/Dean might take some of the wind out of the sails of the Nader campaign and reduce the potential "Nader effect", I really don't think that non-Nader liberals are a constituency Kerry has to worry much about. "ABBA" has been too widely accepted among progressives as a necessary strategy to get rid of Bush for them to double back and do anything that hurts Kerry's chances of winning, however much people like Vennochi want to sigh about the party's "heart and soul" being lost.

On the other hand, moderates of all stripe are absolutely crucial for Kerry to win, and these are the people that (incorrectly, in my view) are scared of Dean and what he appears (to them) to represent. These are people who are currently polling as "undecided", and conventional wisdom is that undecideds break for the challenger (especially when the incumbent has such lousy approval numbers) -- but a Kerry/Dean ticket would most likely suppress the magntiude of that break and hurt Kerry's chances in the end.

I like Dean, he was my candidate of choice for quite a while, but I don't think this suggestion passes the real-life politics test.

Incidentally, all this sounds a lot like I'm saying that Kerry can take the liberal vote for granted (with the exception of the Nader factor), and, yes, that's precisely what I'm saying. Kerry can, and should, take the liberal vote for granted. I want him to take the liberal vote for granted so that he can spend his time, money and energy on getting the votes of other groups, and not on keeping me satisfied. Allowing Kerry to take the liberal vote for granted is far and away the best thing we can do to defeat Bush, and that's the goal.

Eyes on the prize, folks.

There's plenty of time to "keep Kerry's feet to the fire" once he's been elected. He's not stupid, he's going to know that it was our acquiescence that allowed him the freedom to tune his pitch to others who were vitally necessary for him to get elected, and he's not going to forget that. Unlike Clinton, who gave out the vibe to liberals that he would be more liberalish than he could afford to appear, but turned out not really to be, Kerry is that liberalish, as his record shows, and we should sit back and rely on that and not make him prove his liberal creds to us over and over again, at the expense of potential votes from other quarters.

So, take me for granted, please.

Don't talk to me about the heart and soul of the Democratic party, let's talk instead about the future of this country under four more years of George W. Bush, the devastation he can bring about, and the long-term damage to our relationships with our allies and the rest of the world. THAT'S what this election is about, dammit, not whether liberals (or any other constituent group in the party, for that matter) feel good about themselves.

[Link via MyDD, and my remarks adapted from comments posted there.]

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/16/2004 12:30:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Will Clinton hurt Kerry?

Digby has the answer, here, here, and here.

Yes, it would be terrible to remind people of a time when the country was so peaceful and properous that we could afford to let a bunch of flaccid, hypocritical phonies gin up a bogus impeachment for fun and profit. And, needless to say, it's always a mistake to have interesting, charismatic popular people supporting you publicly and making the case for your candidacy all over the country. Silly Kerry.
Clinton is about to do the same thing to George W. Bush that Reagan did to him by dying: he also is going to remind everybody of everything he was and the current guy is not. The contrast is between presidents, not candidates.

This helps Kerry, the man who Clinton will be promoting right along with his book.
It's official. Clinton will definitely help Kerry win the election, probably in a huge way. How do I know this?

[Dick]Morris believes that "by sucking up the oxygen in the room during July, Clinton cripples Kerry and forces him to compete for attention with a charismatic former president". He predicts that the Massachusetts senator "will look a decided second-best to Bill Clinton".
Morris is the Bizarro Oracle of Delphi. If he predicts something, the exact opposite will come true. He has a very impressive record.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/15/2004 11:27:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Attempting an electoral step forward

Via Daily Kos, the Denver Post has a story about a group which is seeking to have Colorado award its Electoral College votes proportionately, instead of winner-take-all, and thus take us a significant step closer to having an actual democratic election for our nation's highest office, and the Republican response is instructive:

Republicans decry the measure as a Democratic scheme to dilute GOP votes.

"I don't know if it verges on dirty tricks, but it certainly has a bad odor," said state Republican chairman Ted Halaby.

Well, to be fair, there is an element of tactical jujitsu to the proposal (that's the aspect that Kos focuses on in his commentary) but, really, one has to applaud this as potentially a great step forward. If every state would do the same thing (and the Constitution gives the states the power to determine how their electoral votes are apportioned), there would be much less need to abolish the Electoral College through a constitutional amendment, and we'd be much less likely to see presidents elected who did not have popular support. Small states would still have an advantage over large ones (because of the additional 2 votes each state gets over the number determined by population), but the advantage would be minimized, and the Electoral College results would more closely track those of the popular vote.

Certainly, that this is happening in Colorade is a strategic choice, but, frankly, I'd applaud it even if it were happening in California or New York, two Democratic strongholds. Of course, I'd prefer it not happen in this election, but that's a matter of immediate need. In the long run, it's better that it happen, whenever and wherever it occurs.

Update: Thinking about this a little more, I'd like to moderate my position a little. I do think that changes like this are a very good thing, helping to make the system more democratic and representative of the wishes of the people, and I would hope that if Colorado passed such a measure other states would follow suit (perhaps through some kind of cooperative arrangements where GOP & Democratic states instituted proportionate electoral vote allocation in tandem), but I also understand how people could get upset that the rules are being changed in the middle of the games.

The fairest thing, I suppose, would be to pass the measure, but to make it effective for the next presidential election in 2008. Sure, I know that if it was the GOP making such a move, they wouldn't give a second thought to the fairness of pulling the rug out of their opponents, and I recognize that it's quite a good tactical move even trying to pass such a measure in this cycle, but I would hate to see Electoral College reform become completely embroiled in partisan concerns and not have other states institute similar changes because of that.

(In any event, just think of the GOP lawsuits if the measure passes, and Bush wins a plurality of the vote in Colorado, but has to give up some e.v.'s to Kerry -- it would probably get up to the Supreme Court tout de suite, and we'd see some more contortions from the SCOTUS 5 to justify overturning the measure. Hoepfully the entire election wouldn't be hanging in the balance, but with things so tight, it's not impossible that it would be.)

There's an interesting discussion of the ramifications for Democrats of Electoral College reform here and here. Daniel Geffen has an analysis of the potential effect of the Colorado changes here, and Jane Galt (and commenters) here.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/15/2004 04:02:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


The fatal flaw

Publius, analyzing the various scandals, controversies, miscues and instances of malfeasance involving Dick Cheney, identifies what he thinks is the "basic problem" of Cheney and the entire Bush administration:

[T]he unwavering belief in the utter superiority of their own views.

That is the common thread that runs throughout every single scandal listed above. Each scandal reflects, not evil, but arrogance. Cheney honestly believes that he knows better than everyone else around him. He gets an idea into his head and then pursues that idea by either ignoring or removing any evidence that might challenge his preconceived notions. For example, Cheney just knew what would be the best energy policy for America. He also just knew that energy executives would provide the best advice. Thus, there was no need to share the names with the idiot public, who would only demand that hippy environmentalists get a place at the table. (Cheney's view is all fine and dandy if and only if you assume that energy executives are clearly better at formulating energy policy than environmentalists - I'll leave that one to you.)

This same theme of blind arrogance appears again and again. I mean, Cheney just knew that Iraq had weapons, and he just knew that State and the CIA would screw it up. So, he set up his own shop to provide intelligence that supported his own preconceived notions (which, of course, were obviously true). Cheney also just knew that more tax cuts would help the economy, despite the protests of the Treasury Secretary. He also just knew that it would be fine to go duck hunting with Scalia - the hell with what the public might think. In Cheney's mind, it was fine. As for the lies, there are a couple of possibilities, neither of which is very reassuring: (1) he honestly lives in a fantasy world and believes that Iraq was linked to al Qaeda; or (2) he just knew that Iraq was a threat, so he said whatever was necessary to make people come around to his view (in true Straussian fashion). Noble lies hold a very esteemed position in Cheney-land.

I think this is correct. I've always been somewhat uncomfortable with the view that Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith and so on are "evil", despite the fact that so many people I know believe it. That's not to say that these men haven't been responsible for causing a great many evil things to happen -- that seems to me to clearly be the case. Nor do I accept the notion that "evil" is some outdated and shopworn medieval concept that has no relevance in the contemporary world -- I think it would be pretty darn hard to be aware of the bloody history of the 20th century and believe that.

No, it's just that, like Publius, I can conceive of Bush, Cheney & company doing the things they do for reasons that they (incorrectly, and terribly so) believe are best for the country, that their motivations may possibly be patriotic as well as corrupt and self-serving, that it's not necessarily their intention to do evil things for the sake of doing evil things, and that many of their gravest and most costly errors have arisen from ignorance, blind acceptance of ideological dogma, incompetence, pig-headedness, arrohgance and cupidity, but not from having innately evil natures.

Which is just to say that, for me, the jury is still out. It's still possible that future evidence will show me to be wrong, that George W. Bush and Richard Cheney have souls as black as night (if I believed in the soul, of course -- I indulge in a metaphor) and that they are truly evil men. Right now, for me, it's bad enough that they do evil things, and cause other evil things to be done. That, in itself, is reason enough to get rid of them before they do irreperable harm to this country and the world.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/15/2004 04:14:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


The Nader Effect, redux

A few days ago I posted about the "Nader Effect" on Kerry's poll results, and as a result of a discussion with mathematician Scott Pauls in the comments on MyDD, I want to make it clear that because the differences I calculated fall within the margins of errors of the polls involved, it's impossible to say with statistical certainty that Nader is drawing a precise average of 1.53 points from Kerry in national polls which give both head-to-head and 3-way results, or exactly 1.92 points in in-state polls, or 1.62 points overall.

Nevertheless, I think it's clear (from my graph, if nothing else) that there is an observable effect, even if we cannot be sure of its precise magnitude. (I'm not certain that Scott would agree with that characterization, but that's the way I see it.)

In any case, it looks like someone had already beaten me to the punch, at least to some extent. I've just now found on the website Don't Vote Ralph a study, made about a month ago, which examined the 37 national polls available to that time, and showed that:

Of the 37 polls reviewed, 32 show Nader hurting Kerry, 4 show no effect, and 1 shows Nader hurting Bush (and that by a scant 1%).


While the percentage swings to Bush are all single-digit, the consensus is overwhelming, directly discrediting Nader’s claims.

In addition to national polls, we found state and special-interest polls that similarly compared Bush and Kerry head-to-head and with Nader added to the mix. Here the results were even more striking. Among other things, these polls (the first six in the above table) show Nader flipping New Jersey and Pennsylvania from Kerry to Bush, and causing an 8% surge for Bush among the large Arab-American vote in four critical swing states. These results alone would almost certainly swing the election to Bush.

The implications of these findings could be enormous. The nation is very closely divided, and it is extremely likely that in some battleground states, these numbers would determine the outcome. When a few percent of voters in a few states will determine the next president, Nader’s independent candidacy could well tip the balance.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/15/2004 03:47:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Monday, June 14, 2004

The group

About the only good thing to come out of the OJ trial for me was a discussion group I was a member of, which formed from people arguing the "noJay" position (that Simpson was guilty; people who thought he was innocent were "proJays") on online discussion groups. When the conversation started show signs of wanting to drift off-topic, into criminal justice in general and then into race, politics, foreign policy, food, family, pets, hobbies, etc., we got together to continue to talk to each other via e-mail.

We were all convinced of Simpson's guilt, but otherwise we were a disparate lot: women, men, old, young, liberal, moderate and conservative. For a while our shared position on OJ was enough to keep us going without a great deal of friction, while we explored subjects both important and not. (Particularly memorable was the deep divide within the group about whether cilantro was a useful spice or tasted like ashes --that was when I asked the group for the best recipe for salsa.)

It couldn't last, of course, and it didn't. With the advent of the Republican witchhunt to get Clinton, the partisan political bickering became more and more unbearable, and finally we split into competing groups, basically along liberal/conservative lines (with a few moderates in-between who tried without success to hold things together). As far as I know the conservative group no longer exists (an indication, I think, that the right really needs an enemy to attack to stick together), but the progressive one is still going, having mutated several times and survived various internal crises, dissension and split-ups. (In fact, I received the link to the article about OJ in the previous entry through the group.)

I've tried to quit several times, and even tried shutting it down when I was moderating and the fractiousness got to be too much for me, but the group re-formed without me and clearly had a life of its own -- it would not die. I rejoined after a short period away, and can't really fathom now what life would be like without my daily dose (sometime overdose) of group mail.

The group is a private one, and I don't want to compromise that privacy by mentioning either individual names or the name of the group itself -- but here's to you folks (you know who you are) -- whether you're being informative, entertaining, endearing or infuriating, you're the one good thing to come out of that miscarriage of justice.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/14/2004 07:44:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


OJ, ten years later

On, Bill Simmons has what I think is a pretty good retrospective on the OJ trial, a decade on:

If the trial happened in 2004 instead of 1995, Simpson and his gravity-defying noggin probably would be rotting away in prison right now. He couldn't have survived the overwhelming DNA evidence. The science is the same, but thanks to the startling popularity of "CSI" and "CSI: Miami," forensics doesn't seem nearly as complicated today as it did in the mid-'90s, when scientists wasted entire days of the trial simply explaining the basics of DNA evidence to the jurors. Of course, those efforts were completely wasted, as evidenced by the words of one juror after the trial:

"I didn't understand the DNA stuff at all. To me, it was just a waste of time. It was way out there and carried no weight with me."

Keep in mind: Blood was found at the crime scene, dripping on the left side of the footprints leaving the area (and yes, O.J. had an unexplained cut on his left hand). There was a 1-in-57 billion chance that the blood did not belong to O.J. There was blood in the Bronco, blood on the rear gate, blood on O.J.'s socks (found in his bedroom at home), blood on the gloves (one left at the crime scene, the other dropped behind Kato's guest house at the Rockingham estate). In each case, the odds were in the millions and billions that the aforementioned blood didn't belong to Simpson, his ex-wife or Ron Goldman. This would have been the most boring episode of "CSI" ever; Gil Grissom might have sent O.J. packing in 10 minutes.

But this was 10 years ago. Only educated people understood the ramifications of the DNA evidence ... and educated people have a way of being bounced off juries. Faced with overwhelming evidence against their client, Simpson's defense team embarked on a two-pronged strategy, setting out to prove that the incompetent LAPD mishandled much of the blood evidence -- which it had, to some extent -- because they were so consumed with trying to frame Simpson with the murders, because they hated African-Americans.

Think about that for a second.

On the one hand, the defense argued the LAPD was completely incompetent, so you couldn't possibly trust the DNA evidence. On the other hand, they played the race card, arguing the LAPD was calculating enough to arrive at a crime scene and, within about 10 minutes of digesting what had happened, hatch a convoluted plan to frame Simpson because he was African-American ... even though they didn't have any idea if he had an alibi or was even in the country at the time.

Does that make any sense? Of course not. But it worked. Because Mark Furhman lied on the stand about using racial slurs, apparently that meant he planted the second glove at O.J.'s house. Poor Dennis Fung, the hapless doctor who handled the blood evidence after the murders, was demolished for nine consecutive days by maniacal defense attorney Barry Scheck, then suffered the further ignominy of having the defense team hug him and shake his hand after his testimony ended. Sorry we called you a liar and insinuated that you framed our client ... we're just doing our jobs, no hard feelings.

That's how ridiculous this trial was. The defense had no case -- if anything, they just sat back like Bernard Hopkins, waited for the prosecution to screw up and pounced on every mistake. They presented no alibis, no other suspects, no semblance of a defense that related to O.J. as a person. And when all else failed, they brought out the race card and smashed it over everyone's heads. Consequences be damned.

Fortunately for the defense, the LAPD started mangling this case from the moment they arrived in Brentwood.


When Simpson was found responsible for the murders in the civil trial -- ordered to pay $33.5 million to the Brown and Goldman families -- some believed this made up for the criminal trial. I don't see it. He's still walking the streets. Still playing golf. Still giving interviews. Still living a lie. And even though he has to turn all income over to the families, he still lives a decent lifestyle off his NFL pension. Most of his friends deserted him, and he's somewhat of a social pariah, but anything's better than prison.

More importantly, nothing could erase the damage of his criminal trial, the wounds that opened across the nation. Again, you had to be there. Had to be standing in a group of people, hearing the verdict delivered, seeing O.J.'s face light up, feeling the life sink from your body. You had to glance around the room, seeing your friends or co-workers staring blankly at the television in disbelief. This was Generation X's defining "I remember exactly where I was when it happened" moment, our version of JFK's assassination. You couldn't think of something to say that could match the moment, so you didn't even try. There were no words.

Minutes after the verdict was announced, we learned something disheartening: The chasm between whites and blacks in this country was more pronounced than anyone imagined. As TV stations started showing various reactions to the verdict around the country, those images confirmed everything we refused to believe for 15 months. The defense was right. This trial wasn't about a double-murder, it was about a distressing racial divide, a legacy of mistrust between blacks and whites.

The O.J. trial taught us one thing, we are still a racially divided nation.
At the time, many African-Americans had trouble trusting police, lawyers, the legal process as a whole ... too many of their own people had been railroaded or mistreated over the years, personified by the revolting images from the Rodney King beating and the subsequent acquittal of the policemen involved. These scars affected every facet of Simpson's defense: the jury selection, the defense, even the verdict. When the system acquitted a clearly culpable man, some of these same African-Americans rejoiced upon hearing the news. One of their own had finally beaten the system. Didn't matter how.

And yes, some blacks believed O.J. was guilty, just like some whites believed he was innocent. But those weren't the images that television chose to show us. And that remains the legacy of the trial, that astonishing moment when the verdict was announced -- My God, he's going to walk -- followed by many blacks celebrating like they won the Super Bowl, many whites recoiling in horror, O.J. and his team rejoicing, and saddest of all, Kim Goldman and her father sobbing uncontrollably. Ten years later, that image of the Goldmans endures over everything else, a sobering reminder of two brutal murders, of the mounds of evidence pointing to one man, of a trial that evolved into something else.

Ten years later, we're still picking up the pieces.

[Thanks to Ves for the link]

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/14/2004 05:29:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Both sides now

In a post that looks at the question of whether Reagan won the Cold War (his answer: yes, more or less, but not in the way that his acolytes claim), Kevin Drum says:

If liberals sometimes have a blind spot that prevents them from seeing that credible threats of force are ever effective — despite plenty of evidence and common sense that says they are — conservatives have a blind spot that prevents them from seeing that aggressive use of force isn't always the answer.

(Indeed, clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.)

We're going to have a hard time in the war on terror until both sides see through their respective blind spots and understand that credible force and credible peace are flip sides of the same coin. I wonder what, if anything, it will take to make that happen?

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/14/2004 02:42:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


More on Torturegate memo

Michael Froomkin critiques a memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to White House Legal Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales which condones the use of torture:

In the views of the author(s), there’s basically nothing Congress can do to constrain the President’s exercise of the war power. The Geneva Conventions are, by inevitable implications, not binding on the President, nor is any other international agreement if it impedes the war effort. I’m sure our allies will be just thrilled to hear that. And, although the memo nowhere treats this issue, presumably, also, the same applies in reverse, and our adversaries should feel unconstrained by any treaties against poison gas, torture, land mines, or anything else? Or is ignoring treaties a unique prerogative of the USA?

This is really the ultimate argument for our following the Geneva Protocols, that by doing so we encourage other countries to do so as well, with the effect that our troops have a better chance of not being mistreated when captured. The general tenor of the Bush administration is that, due to out great military power, no international legal strictures should be held to apply to us, but they still apply to everyone else. Unfortunately, it's really impossible to get everyone else to agree to that, since it's clearly obvious that we can't fight everyone (and, right now, thanks to extreme overextension of our military, we really can't fight anyone, including North Korea, and don't think they don't know it).

Froomkin also quotes one of the best capsule arguments against these views that I've seen (emphasis added by me):

Ultimately, the best legal commentary on this memo may belong to Professor Jay Leno:
According to the “New York Times”, last year White House lawyers concluded that President Bush could legally order interrogators to torture and even kill people in the interest of national security - so if that’s legal, what the hell are we charging Saddam Hussein with?

[via Political Animal]

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/14/2004 02:16:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Explaining it all away

Digby parses the apparent paradox that Bush insists that he told everyone not to do anything illegal (like torturing prisoners), and yet abundant evidence exists that torure took place. It's all quite simple, really:

In the president's beautiful mind, he didn't order torture because he told the lawyers to make a legal finding that torture was ok and so they found that what we call torture is legal now but it isn't called torture anymore because torture is still illegal. So the president followed the law.

See! Wasn't that easy?

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/14/2004 03:13:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Then and now

The Carpetbagger Report has another instance of GOP hypocrisy:

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) now:
McConnell, the assistant majority leader, has said he wants to take the lead on the necessary legislation to displace the image of Alexander Hamilton, first secretary of the Treasury [from the $10 bill].
McConnell before:
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) lashed out at efforts to memorialize President John F. Kennedy in the wake of his assassination, attacking Kennedy's supporters for supposedly wanting "everything renamed for him."

Funny how these discrepencies keep popping up.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/14/2004 03:03:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Sunday, June 13, 2004

The crack cocaine of the casino

There was a fascinating article on slot machines in the New York Times Magazine last month (available here). A great deal of thought and effort (and money) goes into designing them to be as addictive as possible, until they become "the crack cocaine of gambling."

The makers of slot machines may rely on the lure of life-changing jackpots to attract customers, but the machines' ability to hook so deeply into a player's cerebral cortex derives from one of the more powerful human feedback mechanisms, a phenomenon behavioral scientists call infrequent random reinforcement, or "intermittent reward." Children whose parents consistently shower them with love and attention tend to take that devotion for granted. Those who know they'll never be rewarded by their parents stop trying after a while. But those who are rewarded only intermittently -- in the fashion of a slot machine -- will often pursue positive outcomes with a persistent tenacity. "That hard-wiring that nature gave us didn't anticipate electronic gaming devices," says Howard Shaffer, director of the division on addictions at Harvard Medical School and perhaps the country's foremost authority on gambling disorders.

"The slot machine is brilliantly designed from a behavioral psychology perspective," says Nancy Petry, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. "The people who are making these machines are using all the behavioral techniques to increase the probability that the behavior of gambling will reoccur." She refers to intermittent reward and "second-order conditioning" -- the lights and sounds that go off when a player wins, for example, or the two cherries in a row that convinces people they're getting closer.

"No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines," concludes Petry, who has studied gambling treatments since 1998. "I think that's why that's the most popular form of gambling with which people get into trouble."

Anti-gambling activists refer to slots as "the crack cocaine of gambling." Though gambling's loudest critics tend to be alarmists, the crack analogy may be apt. Just as crack addicts have frequently seemed to self-destruct much faster than those abusing powdered cocaine, there is abundant, albeit still largely anecdotal, evidence suggesting that the same is true of today's computer-driven slot machines -- video-based slots especially. Where social workers once found that the woes of a typical problem gambler tended to mount gradually -- with a period of 20 or more years commonly passing between a first wager and a bottoming-out event like bankruptcy, divorce or even suicide -- addiction cycles of a few years are, if not typical, commonplace among slots players.

"Treatment folks are definitely identifying people who are experiencing what we call 'telescoping' -- a shortening of the period of time that it takes for someone to get into trouble," says Rachel Volberg, president of the National Council on Problem Gambling and the author of "When the Chips Are Down: Problem Gambling in America." Volberg, who runs Gemini Research, an organization that specializes in gambling-related investigations, says it remains to be seen whether the problem lies in "something special about these machines or in the people who prefer playing them." Female slots players in particular, Petry says, "tend to experience this telescoping phenomenon -- and we know from research that women are quicker to seek treatment."

Gambling counselors regularly encounter people like Ricky Brumfield, a working-class Phoenix woman who won $3,700 the first time she ever touched a slot machine -- a day that turned out to be the unluckiest of her life. That was in 1997, when Brumfield, then 43, traveled to Las Vegas to help a friend celebrate the Fourth of July. Within nine months, she had hocked her jewelry and gone through $100,000 in cash and credit-card debt. She only stopped, she confesses, because the Sheriff's Department arrested her on child-abuse charges for leaving her two young kids locked in a car in a casino parking lot while she played the slots inside. "I knew it was really wrong to do that, but the urge to go into the casino was stronger than my instincts as a mother," Brumfield says. She had only recently had back surgery, but she found that when she played, she never felt pain. "I think the dopamine and serotonin levels, when they kicked in -- that blocked off the pain," says Brumfield, who now works for the Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling. "You feel hypnotized by the machine. You don't think of anything else." Near the end, the hold the machines had over her, she says, was akin to that of an unfaithful lover. She would fall into a jealous rage when a favorite machine paid a jackpot to another, less devoted player.

"Slot machines have a different impact on the brain than other forms of gambling," Howard Shaffer says. Unlike table games, which are played in groups, slots are played in isolation, and therefore they lack the same safeguards social situations provide. "And because the video form is faster than the mechanical form, they hold the potential to behave in the fashion of psychostimulants, like cocaine or amphetamines. They energize and de-energize the brain in more rapid cycles. The faster on, faster off, the greater the risk." Colleagues of Shaffer have compared the brain scans of people high on cocaine with those of people while gambling: similar neurocircuitry is lighted up in both sets of images.

Shaffer predicts that in time electronic games will "protect players." Just as the car industry implemented basic technologies like seat belts to save lives, he expects the gambling industry (which finances many of his studies) to eventually employ strategies to interrupt people when they play too fast. As Bill Eadington, the University of Nevada, Reno, professor and a consultant to Indian tribes, governments and casinos around the world, puts it, "I worry that we're burning out players too fast."

The typical slots player initiates a new game every six seconds. That works out to 10 games per minute, 600 per hour. If the average player bets $2 a spin, that player is wagering roughly $1,200 every hour. Slot designers have experimented with machines that play even faster, but the industry standard remains a six-second cycle. "It wouldn't be much fun if we took your money any faster than that," [Joe] Kaminkow [slot machine design hotshot] told me with a slight shrug of his shoulder, suggesting that just how fast people play is entirely up to him.

I asked Kaminkow if he ever worried that the potent mix of TV, technology and the prodigious talents of his creative people will produce machines that are too powerful. "What kind of question is that?" he replied. In his natural state, Kaminkow is a breezy and sarcastic jokester who revels in politically incorrect jokes. But he suddenly sounded as if he were addressing a Rotary Club. "I take responsible gaming very seriously," he said. "We're not an alcohol, we're not a drug." He is in the entertainment business, he added, a "maker of small little movies" that bring a touch of joy and laughter to the lives of the elderly and others.

"I'm not looking for people who say, 'I spent my milk money,"' he said. "I think people need to be very responsible in their gaming habits. I know I am."

It's interesting to compare the attitude and behavior of the slot machine industry to the strategies for success of viruses. A virus which quickly kills its host is a complete failure, because the purpose of the virus is not to do bad things to the host (that's just what it feels like from the hosts's viewpoint), but to use the host to make many, many copies of itself to send out and infect other hosts. The goal is reproduction, and the most successful virus is one which keeps the hosts sick enough that the host's immune system can't fight off the virus, but not so sick that the host dies, thus cutting off the possibility of more viral reproduction. The same is true of other parasites, which aim to keep the host alive and available for exploitation without making it so feeble that the parasite loses its source of food and energy.

Compare this to the statement above: ""I worry that we're burning out players too fast." They're not worried that players are burning out, that they're becoming addicted and squandering money in the slots (why would they worry about that, since it's the very purpose of the machine in the first place), they're worried that their burning out "too fast" -- that is, so fast that they cannot be good long-term hosts for the gambling parasite.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/13/2004 10:40:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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