Friday, August 03, 2001

Please read the 12:36 am post first.

The New Colonist is a webzine. Not a lot of people have heard of it, but it does an ace job of reporting on urban culture and issues. Also, isn't it nice to see a webzine not go down like some junky cosmonaut, to quote a song? Eric Miller has a nice article on the abuse of eminent domain laws.
AH, I know, I know -- those are sleepin' words, pardner - eminent domain. But while the legalese puts the good people to sleep, city honchos often operate as front men for corporations and developers by using the power to seize property in order to suppress "blight." Here's a quote from the piece:

"But just what is blight? Can a business district will almost full retail occupancy be considered blighted? Can a discount store be labeled as blighted so that an upscale chain can move in? Can a golf course constitute blight? Can a working factory be labeled as blighted so that another factory can raze the plant to build a new facility? Increasingly, the answer to these questions is yes.

In Las Vegas, some legislators and community activists recently opposed a new �development,� not on the grounds of saving historic buildings, but on the grounds that the local government may have larger goals than removing blight. The group demanded that potential beneficiaries in �blight removal� schemes be named.

Nevada Assembly woman Chris Giunchigliani introduced legislation that would redirect five percent of redevelopment money away from commercial projects to be used for sidewalk repairs, street lights and other improvements, but according to the Las Vegas Sun, officials �came out in force� to object to redevelopment money being used for neighborhood blight. "

To fight blight is one thing, but to find out who benefits from that fight is a dastardly usurpation of a timehonored government function - graft and the redistribution of wealth upwards.

Okay, I'm rather splenetic today. Mal d'actualites, don't you know. It is one of those days, Congress rolls over for Bush, the planet's whacked, and Dick Cheney, in all his goutridden and disgusting length, is infused with a feeling of youth. Doesn't it make you sick? Write me at the Editor

Calling Ralph Nadar -
Last year, much heavy weather was made of Nadar's "betrayal" of the progressive cause by running against the oleaginous Al Gore, Among the organizations that berated Nadar's lese majeste was the Sierra Club. Well, Sierra Club, what do you think of your big dumb dead Dems now? According to a nice piece in the Times today, Bush's energy bill, routinely denounced by Dem bigshots when it was wheeled out, was quietly voted for by Dem bigshots when it was on the floor. Roll of Shame in a minute. First, two quotes from the NYT article:

"One decisive factor appeared to be support for drilling and opposition to substantially higher fuel efficiency standards among Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Representatives Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Edolphus Towns of New York, Earl F. Hilliard of Alabama and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina were among Mr. Bush's supporters on both measures. Each refused to comment."

Why would they refuse to comment? Perhaps because they were selling their constituents down the river? Unfortunately, they could do this because they know their constituents don't know it. The ranks of the enviro and consumer movements are lilly white, and this is beginning to tell in the kind of pull these groups can exert. It doesn't have to be this way. God knows, the most egregious environmental crimes wrought against human beings in this country by the oil companies and the highway lobby are aimed against black and hispanic neighborhoods - for example Cancer Gulch, the extraordinary concentration of refiners and petro-chemical factories south of Baton Rouge in Louisiana - which I presume Bennie Thompson knows about.

"Environmentalists were also stung by the opposition of several senior Democrats. In addition to Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Bonior, Representatives James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure; Paul E. Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, the minority whip at large; and Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, all voted in accordance with the president on at least one of the two major energy amendments."

That's right, kiddies - the Dem minority leader in the House and the Whip voted for Royal George's Flush as in, flush the environment down the toilet. There will be a progressive movement in this country - I'm sure of it - AS SOON AS WE DRIVE A STAKE THROUGH THE HEART OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY!

And while we are at it about the progressive coalition - guess who did the watercarrying for the Auto companies about blocking raising the CAFE standards - that is, blocking raising that requirement for fuel efficiency in cars, which - attention to those of you enamored of Bill and Al's excellent adventure in the White House - hasn't been raised since the Gipper's funfilled decade? The UAW, that's who. On this issue, Unions in this country are still adhering to the Peronista standard - the only thing that counts is money, the corporations have the money, let's play with the corporations. Well, they've been beaten by the corporations every time they take this stance. It doesn't seem to matter, however - the George Meany learning curve seems set in concrete up there in Detroit. Plus, the threat to cut jobs - always the standard tropism of the Big Three whenever they are poked about, oh, getting rid of lead in gas, or making cars that don't explode like balloons filled with gasoline - seems to galvanize unions like the volts zipping through Frankenstein's monster. But this is an instance which might cost them - after all, they need the environmentalists to block trade deals (giveaways like NAFTA).
I'd like to give you a hall of shame - the names of the 36 Dems who voted for the bill - but you have to parse out the individual Dems at the Roll Call supplied by Yahoo.

Thursday, August 02, 2001

This site is definitely a find:
I've always wanted to like rock critics - to find that magic skipping style supposedly developed in the early seventies by Rolling Stone's best - but usually they disappoint me. Nick Tosches is an exception, at least in his history/extended muse on Country music, and his bio of Jerry Lee Lewis (the biography of Dean Martin, on the other hand, gets stuck in its own jam). But face it, rock critics have much more glamour than us poor book reviewers.

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

You never know what you're gonna find on the Net - still. For instance, the Paris Review has been putting up its interviews. The latest one is of Rick Moody. I have to get to the interview I am supposedly writing up today, although I've been so lazy lately I wonder if I should resist this undertow, this doggy inertia.
Write me at the Editor
Annals of Business Life

I've been following the news stories in the Times Business section about AremisSoft ever since the company claimed it had discovered the key to wealth in Bulgaria. According to its initial press release, the company was all set to sell the Bulgarian government something like a hundred million dollars worth of software - and then the Bulgarian government said, hey, wait a minute, we don't have that kind of money. It was all a scam, but as soon as this scam broke the surface in the news, the company execs and some brokers who'd been shilling AremisSoft stock counter-attacked, claiming this was a company of exemplary prospects being viciously attacked by shortsellers. Well, today's news is that the company "misplaced" its profits. Darn it, they'd stuffed that money in some old jar in the kitchen and just couldn't remember where. More Trouble for Maker of Software

Here's my favorite quote from the article:

"In addition, the company said that Michael Tymvios, its chief financial officer, had resigned for health reasons and that its auditors could not find $5.4 million that AremisSoft booked as revenue last year. AremisSoft said it had asked PKF, its auditor, to review its books, but that the inquiry had been delayed because AremisSoft had been unable to contact its own executives to get information that PKF needed to complete the review."

Apparently everybody connected with AremisSoft has simultaneously been afflicted with telephone aphonia - the article goes on to list the unreturned calls to the president, the brokers who were shilling the stock, etc.

AremisSoft is just the most extreme version of a quiet re-evaluation of the profits that were made by companies in the bubble years. There was a WSJ article about that last week, which I can't link to, since I am not a WSJ subscriber. But do you hear any contrition from the bubble boosters, the James Glassmans (of the infamous Dow36,000 book)?
No. Contrition, my dear, is for losers.
Everybody is talking about the rude obit of Katherine Graham crafted by some anonymous minion of Scaife's Pittsburg rag. The best part of the National Post article, by Mark Steyn, is this (first a quote from the Pittsburg article, then Steyn's comments):

"She married Felix Frankfurter's brilliant law clerk, Philip Graham, who took over running The Post, which her father purchased at a bankruptcy sale. Graham built the paper but became estranged from Kay. She had him committed to a mental hospital, and he was clearly intending divorce when she signed him out and took him for a weekend outing during which he was found shot. His death was ruled a suicide. Within 48 hours, she declared herself the publisher."

That's the stuff! As the Tribune-Review's chap has it, Mrs. G got her philandering spouse banged up in the nuthouse and then arranged a weekend pass with a one-way ticket. "His death was ruled a suicide." Lovely touch that. Is it really possible Katharine Graham offed her hubby? Who cares? To those who think the worst problem with the American press is its awful stultifying homogeneity, the Tribune-Review's deranged perverseness is to be cherished. Give that man a Pulitzer!"

Unfortunately, he ruins the mood by getting to his point, which is that Katie Graham was soft on Clinton - a rather ridiculous charge, as anybody who read the Post during the dismal impeachment days knows. Or at least, it is ridiculous as Steyn couches it. If Steyn's problem with the Post that they did not harp continually on Clinton's willingness to bomb Sudan for petty political gain, certainly an impeachable offense in my book, then I would have been all with him - but no, Steyn thinks that Monica =Watergate. The delusions of the right have no end.

On the other hand, give The Spectator, definitely a rightwing magazine, a prize for a really scathing obituary by a Andrew Gimson. He starts off with a killer lede: "Helmut Kohl has buried many bodies in his time, and now he has buried his wife Hannelore." He manages to stuff into the first graf an jibe at Kohl's arranging the funeral in a Roman Catholic church for a supposed protestant suicide, and then ends on this wonderfully abrasive note:
"The German media had already, almost without exception, swallowed Mr Kohl�s explanation for her death, which was that she was suffering from such an agonising allergy to light that for the last 15 months she had only been able to leave the house under cover of darkness."

Subsequently, Grimson shows that Hannelore Kohl's curious condition might have had less to do with the heliophobia, and more to do with his husband's "companion/secretary," Juliane Weber.

Basic subtext is the fat guy strangling his wife, then unctuously conducting her obsequies in a cathedral stuffed vest to wurst with Deutschland's best and brightest, in a tableau right out of Georg Grosz. Probably took his chippie out for funeral meats, afterwards. Much more topical than Philip Graham's suicide, right? I wasn't expecting such a bracing little tale from the Spectator, of all places.

Back in June, when Roland Dumas was sentenced to a pittance punishment, I got up a head of steam and wrote my friend MB an e-mail which read:

I don't know if you have been following L'affaire ELF, but the sentences came out today, and Dumas got basically six months. That is so outrageous I can barely believe it. The french elites definitely protect each other - to an alarming and disgusting extent. Even in the USA, not a standard by any means, the secretary of Defense being on the take would have brought a sentence of at least 5 years or more. I don't remember how much John Mitchell got, but I think it was something like that.
It did get me thinking, however, about Dumas' old patron, Mitterand, and whether he was, possibly, the worst Western leader since 1945. I think Nixon has to have that honor, but Mitterand is a close second. His system of traditional corruption - you know, it was through ELF that M.'s government basically fronted money to Kohl - his gutting of socialism, so that it is impossible to know, nowadays, if you are a voter, whether a vote for the socialist or the conservative will result in more conservative politcies - his dirty-ness in Africa, especially Rwanda - his intellectual filthiness, starting with his collaborationist past - hmm, yeah, right after Nixon. Even Thatcher and Reagan weren't as bad as old M. Really, if Europe takes a lunge towards fascism again - as is possible with Berlusconi - it will be because of the seeds left by the eighties - the sort of triangle of corruption, Andreotti/Craxi -- Mitterand -- Kohl.
Ah, as Rimbaud used to say,
Mon triste coeur bave � la poupe.

And then, still not finished with the subject, I wrote:

I am still steaming over the Dumas trial. Finally I've been able to read most of the net newspapers about it - and one of the things which does make me, well, sad, is how it was reported in Liberation. Which used to be a lefty, investigative paper. It seems to me that their reporting, here, was pretty establishment. Something has gone out of Libe - they are too interested in being cool, nowadays. They'd rather report on some goddamn trend in French pop music than on who is giving who money under the table.
I guess the thing that amazes me most is that Dumas' ex-mistress got a tougher sentence than he did. That makes no sense to me - her job, as procuress for ELF, would not exist except for the fact that she was indeed able to procur for ELF, via Dumas. She was just an instrument.
But anyway, what really amazes me is that a thug like Dumas still has his influence in the PS - and more, that Jospin is doing his best to stifle the few legislators who are willing to go after the elite crooks, including Chirac. The NYT quoted the mayor of Paris as saying that if they made arrests for all the corruption, they'd "empty" the political field.
My god, what a system.
Well, I might have been too harsh on Libe.
Anyway, the point of the post today, people, is that the tie between the financing of the CDP in Germany, Mitterand, and ELF, still has not become totally clear. Maybe poor Frau Kohl knew too much. Reach me for comments at the Editor
NATIONAL POST ONLINE | Printer Friendly | News Article

Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Yesterday I promised the story of the Mirror spies. This comes from The Mirror, a history by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet. She found it in a nineteenth century historian, Elphege Fremy.
The seventeenth century Venitian Republic was, as is well known, wealthy due, in part, to its monopoly on fine glasswork, and in particular its fine mirrors. The craftsmen who produced those mirrors were recipients of the hundred techniques handed down through two centuries that made Venice's mirrors the clearest, largest, and most expensive in Europe. The French, under Louis XIV, were jealous - especially Louis' financial minister, Colbert. Colbert decided to have the French ambassador to Venice entice a certain number of mirror masters to Paris, where the government could sponsor a factory. Being an early mercantilist, Colbert was firmly persuaded that the flow of wealth out of France for these mirrors was depleting the national economy.
But there was a problem. The Venitians kept a close watch on their mirror makers. They had laws forbidding them from emigrating, and when these laws were violated the Venitians had a very efficient spy-system to enforce the wrath of the Republic on its erring workmen. Well, somehow the French ambassador was able to round up and dispatch to Colbert in Paris a number of mirrormakers, and so a factory was set up - the Royal Company of Glass and Mirrors, the ancestor of the famous St. Gobain works. But then the Venitians struck. Two mirrormasters died mysteriously, in 1667; the whole set of the mirrormakers were continuously provoked in the streets, and kept getting into brawls; and worst of all, they were lonely. Colbert promised to get their wives out of Venice, but the Venitian spy service actually substituted letters, purportedly from the wives, in response to Colbert's request, the upshot of which was the wives wanted their husbands back home. Meanwhile, the mirror works kept losing money, and mirror smugglers started operating on the South coast of France, bringing in the more expensive Venitian mirrors to undercut the native product.

Somehow, this history naturally lends itself to metaphor. Angleton, the crazy head of CounterIntelligence I wrote about yesterday, once called Counterintelligence a "wilderness of mirrors." Someday I think I will write a story about these mirrormakers and their dark shadows, the spies. It would make a nice little historical mystery, don't you think?
Whatever you think, send me an e-mail. The Editor
Today's motto, which is startlingly pertinent to the weblog form, is from Jules Renard. Here's the quote:

Le plus artiste ne sera pas de s'atteler � quelque gros oeuvre, comme la fabrication d'un roman, par exemple o� l'esprit tout entier devra se plier aux exigences d'un sujet absorbant qu'il s'est impos� ; mais le plus artiste sera d'�crire, par petits bonds, sur cent sujets qui surgiront � l'improviste, d'�mietter pour ainsi dire sa pens�e. De la sorte, rien n'est forc�. Tout a le charme du non voulu, du naturel. On ne provoque pas : on attend.

Let's see, the translation goes roughly: What becomes the artist most isn't going to come out of harnessing oneself to some huge work, like the fabrication of a novel, where the spirit bows to the exigencies of a wholly absorbing subject it has imposed on itself; instead, it will come from writing, by little jumps, on a hundred subjects which spontaneously emerge - to crumble into palpable bits, so to speak, one's bright ideas. Nothing is forced, this way, and everything has the improvisational charm of the natural, of what isn't willed. One doesn't provoke - one awaits."

As you can see, even when the French is simple, the translation is tortured. "Improvisational charm", for instance, is obviously not there, and yet the preceding sentence, with its "a l'improviste", has an on tiptoes lightness which I was determined to pull into the translation, in spite of the leaden footing of my "spontaneously emerge." The point is that Renard saw his journal as the ultimate expression of his peculiar genius, and he was right. Supposedly Becket was inspired to his most pared down passages by reading the Journal.

I'm not that kind of writer - my pared down passages, under revision, have a magical tendency to branch out, to luxuriate - but I like the hundred hops, the bouncing ball brain.

Monday, July 30, 2001

Hey, read the first post today first. Then this.

Secrets to Spies.

As I said in an earlier post, lately I have been working on a review of Body of Secrets for the Austin Chronicle. Now, my usual way of reviewing a book like this is to spend a lot of time researching matters extraneous to it � looking for an angle. I spend a lot of time in the library. In the real world, meanwhile, the Hanssen case has been in the news, a little memento mori from the Cold War era, for which our president is so nostalgic that he has decided to give us the 1980s redivivus if he can.

Although I am fascinated with spying, I�m not unduly impressed by it. Intelligence had a tremendous impact on the behavior of the Allies in World War II � to name just two instances, the Sorge ring in Tokyo was crucial to the timing of Stalin�s resistance to Hitler in 1942, and the by now well known story of the breaking of the Enigma code obviously gave the Britain and the US a tremendous advantage in the Battle of the Atlantic � for the fictional record of which, I recommend Cryptonomicon. But it isn�t clear that a fighting war with the peculiar attributes inherent in the German political structure is a very good guide to the cold war fought between the US and Russia. Two great features of the intelligence war in our time seem plain: one, American intelligence, both human and sigint, have been repeatedly and massively penetrated and exposed. Not only by the line going back from Hanssen to Philby, but by such disasters as the abandonment of tremendous caches of military and cryptological information by the NSA, at the end of the Vietnam war.

And the second fact is � it hasn�t mattered.

When the damage caused by such as Hanssen is assessed in the press, we are almost always told about agents betrayed, or codes handed over. In other words, the Intelligence community bears the brunt of losses caused by betrayals in their midst. But there is a closed circle here � because if the intelligence agency exists primarily to protect American interests, in practice they seem merely to protect their own interest. Their interest is disguised as merely analysis � it is something the CIA and the NSA like to say a lot, that they merely analyze. But of course that isn�t true � it is in the nature of intelligence organizations to distort the nature of the enemy by concentrating on the enemy�s intelligence. It is a subfight, in other words, within a larger fight; and that larger struggle soon starts to reflect the smaller one in the minds of intelligence officers. This famously happened with James Jesus Angleton, the mad head of CI in the fifties and sixties . His mind wholly ossified around his own perception of a worldwide communist conspiracy, to the extent that he thought that the Sino-Russian spit was faked. In other words, he thought the Russians were staging history to fool the CIA � or, finally, to fool one alcoholic bureaucrat, J.J. Angleton. Intelligence solipsism can�t go any further. .

While the CIA was fighting their battle as if it was the war, the real grassroots war was fought and finished. One day, the spies looked up and lo! The West, the good old Free Peoples of the West, to use the boilerplate of Cold War presidents, won! It came as a shocking surprise.

In the end, it didn�t matter that Aldrich sold the KGB the names of CIA sources in the Kremlin. It didn�t even matter that the Russians could read our encryption. The keepers of the secrets were keeping secrets, in the end, not from the enemy, but from the people they are supposed to be responsible to, however dimly the line of responsibility is traced. They were keeping secret what they had done in Chile, Argentina, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, and a host of other countries where they have been in cahoots with killers, thieves, rapists, and other forms of freedom fighter.

Over the last fifty years, however, the importance of the intelligence community in our history really doesn�t have to do with the Russians � it has to do with the ideological function of these organizations. If you read a bunch of spy books, you�ll soon become familiar with what that ideology is about � loyalty. That loyalty is identified with a certain brand of anti-communism that gradually became less ecumenical about accepting, say, anti-communist leftists. It gradually settled into the recognizable mold of American conservativism. Why does that ideology have a right wing taint? Probably there are a number of sociological reasons � the same reasons that would enable you to predict a leftish tilt in academia. Insular groups maintain themselves by filtering non-conformists out � they develop rituals for doing that, and sometimes the filtering process becomes the very center of the group, the thing it is about. The cosa nostra � the our thing. It is a contingent fact why, exactly, the filtering process is attached to a particular ideology � an accident depending not on the structure of the institution, but on the history of the personnel within it. Although these places always have that same stale reek, you know?

Tomorrow I�m going to switch to mirrors and spies, an Italian story.

In one of his essays, Louis Marin speaks of a certain book of traps, written by a 16th century Venetian. What an evocative title that is! Traps, spies and secrets have always fascinated me. The secret itself has not, for some reason, been a large topic in philosophy, even though it is certainly a conceptually involuted trope.

Secrets come in two types � first order secrets in which the content of the secret is secret, while the form (that is, that there is a secret there) is not; and second order secrets in which both the content and the form are secret.

This rough division doesn�t really give us the essence of secrets, but it is a start. Obviously, not all instances of ignorance are instances of secrecy: that I went to highschool in Clarkston, Georgia, might not be known to my reader, but I am not �keeping� it a secret, nor would the reader presume that my high schooling was a secret, unless there was some contextual reason for thinking that this information was being deliberately suppressed. If, however, I was the killer of President Kennedy, that would be a secret. In the later case, my game plan would be to keep not only the act I�d committed a secret � I would keep it a secret that I had a secret.

You might think this is a trivial distinction, but actually, it is the distinction that informs the relationship between secrecy and political power. We know, for instance, that the CIA holds back information from American citizens � we know that they have secrets. The peculiar status of the CIA depends on our knowing that they know what we don�t know � in much the same way that the Minister D., in the Purloined Letter, holds sway over the Queen because she knows that he possesses a letter that she doesn�t want the king to know about. The queen�s secret, then, is a second order secret, while D.�s is a first order secret. Second order secrets are often such as to make their possessor vulnerable, while first order secrets are often of the type to make their possessor powerful. This generalization obviously has some very important exceptions, but when it comes, at least, to Intelligence agencies in the U.S., it holds true.

In fact I once wrote a little spy novel � scattered, alas, with the rest of my ms., in some box or other in somebody�s closet � in which the premise was that the real US Intelligence agency was the asphalt testing division of the US Department of Highways and Transportation, while the CIA and the NSA were shells. That was a sort of joke. It is funny because, of course, we think of the CIA, etc., as powerful, and even romantic, because we know they operate in secret, whereas asphalt testing has no James Bond-ian resonance. But if we didn�t know that we don�t know about them, we wouldn�t think of them as powerful � and that would definitely be felt as a diminishment of power within the agency.

Sunday, July 29, 2001

A little info link - the association for the study of dreams has an interesting page devoted to dreams in film. See what you think.
Dream Videophile by Deirdre Barrett - Association for the Study of Dreams

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...