Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fighting the war on terror by flying blind

The Air Force blocked its personnel from accessing websites belonging to news media that published (some of) the Wikileaks cables.
WASHINGTON — The Air Force is barring its personnel from using work computers to view the Web sites of The New York Times and more than 25 other news organizations and blogs that have posted secret cables obtained by WikiLeaks, Air Force officials said Tuesday.

When Air Force personnel on the service’s computer network try to view the Web sites of The Times, the British newspaper The Guardian, the German magazine Der Spiegel, the Spanish newspaper El PaĆ­s and the French newspaper Le Monde, as well as other sites that posted full confidential cables, the screen says “Access Denied: Internet usage is logged and monitored,” according to an Air Force official whose access was blocked and who shared the screen warning with The Times. Violators are warned that they face punishment if they try to view classified material from unauthorized Web sites.
The reason is supposedly that Air Force personnel are not allowed to view classified materials for which they don't have clearance. Which is a joke. According to news reports, some 3 million people had clearance -- that's how Bradley Manning got the documents in the first place. There's still no evidence of anyone actually being harmed as a result of the leaks. What the cables did do was throw some sunshine on a lot of dark corners that the public should know about. Mainly, they embarrassed a lot of people in governments around the globe. Apparently avoiding embarrassment has now become a matter of national security.

Nothing prevents Air Force personnel from accessing the websites on their personal computers, so the whole thing is primarily an exercise in institutional hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. But it does send a strange symbolic message: It's like declaring your intention to fight the war on terror while voluntarily blindfolded. We used to call that cutting off your nose to spite your face.

It's not quite up there with Joe Lieberman's suggesting the New York Times be investigated and possibly prosecuted for espionage, but it's getting there.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Scott Walker didn't just turn down high speed rail. He also turned his back on Wisconsin taxpayers.

When Scott Walker's turned down nearly a billion dollars in federal money for high speed rail and allowed it to go to California, he clearly was so blinded by ideology and political commitments to the Tea Party right that he lost sight of both common sense and simple equity. In particular, he missed an opportunity to redress a longstanding imbalance between federal spending and taxes in Wisconsin. If he really cared about the taxpayer, he would have jumped at this chance to give something back to Wisconsin taxpayers for all their federal tax dollars.

Between 1981 and 2005, Wisconsin paid out billions more in federal taxes than it received in federal expenditures -- like a lot of Blue States, as it happens. In that entire time period, the best Wisconsin did was two years, 1989 and 2000, when it actually received back 90 cents on every tax dollar it sent to the feds. More often, it was in the low 80-cent range. You can check the figures yourself with this database, which starts with Alabama -- a state that, in contrast, in 2005 received back $1.66 in federal spending for every tax dollar it gave the feds. And there are states that do even better. For example, New Mexico got $2.00 back for every dollar it sent the feds in 2004. (Type Wisconsin into the search box and hit enter to get our year-by-year figures.)

Scott Walker would apparently rather keep sending our federal tax dollars off to other states while getting relatively little in return. Nice for other states, bad for Wisconsin. The LA Times probably put it best: Thanks a billion, cheeseheads.

Why I like photography

Why I Like Photography
Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity. -- Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

I love to write, but writing has always been hard for me., and I made this drawing years ago to vent my frustration. I used to think my difficulty arose because I learned English as a second language as a child, and that some deep inner key to the language remained forever hidden. But that was a copout. Writing is difficult for everyone. What was it that Red Smith once said? "Writing is easy -- all you have to do is just open your veins and bleed."

Flaubert's famous quote focuses less on the agony of the individual writer than on the total inadequacy of something as insubstantial as words to express human experience. What's really remarkable is that, despite all the limitations of written and spoken words, we try to communicate with them at all.

Fortunately, spoken and written language is not the only way to communicate. We have eyes to see, and fingers to point, and humans were saying "Hey! Look at this!" long before the words existed. That's part of what the prehistoric cave paintings were all about, and the impulse has never gone away. The only difference is that today we point with cameras.

That's why I like photography. Sometimes pointing is the only way to say what I want to say.