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K Marx The Spot

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27 May 2005

An Army of One

Pat Tillman's parents are angry at the Army and the Bush administration, and with good reason. Tillman walked away from a professional football career to join the Army Rangers because he thought that he would be useful to his country.

More than a year after their son was shot several times by his fellow Army Rangers on a craggy hillside near the Pakistani border, Tillman's mother and father said in interviews that they believe the military and the government created a heroic tale about how their son died to foster a patriotic response across the country. They say the Army's "lies" about what happened have made them suspicious, and that they are certain they will never get the full story....

Tillman, a popular player for the Arizona Cardinals, gave up stardom in the National Football League after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to join the Army Rangers with his brother. After a tour in Iraq, their unit was sent to Afghanistan in spring 2004, where they were to hunt for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Shortly after arriving in the mountains to fight, Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire from his own men, mistaken for the enemy as he got into position to defend them.

Immediately, the Army kept the soldiers on the ground quiet and told Tillman's family and the public that he was killed by enemy fire while storming a hill, barking orders to his fellow Rangers. After a public memorial service, at which Tillman received the Silver Star, the Army told Tillman's family what had really happened, that he had been killed by his own men....

The latest investigation, written about by The Washington Post earlier this month, showed that soldiers in Afghanistan knew almost immediately that they had killed Tillman by mistake in what they believed was a firefight with enemies on a tight canyon road. The investigation also revealed that soldiers later burned Tillman's uniform and body armor.

Pat Tillman got played for a fool. He thought that volunteering for a dangerous Army post after the fall of the Twin Towers, he was fighting terrorism and helping his country. Instead, by the time that he was actually hunting for Osama bin laden and his minions, the focus of the military campaign had switched to Iraq, which had nothing to do with the horrors of 11 September. It should come as no surprise that the Army lied to the Tillmans; the politicians behind the campaign have been lying, prevaricating, misinforming, and misdirecting Americans for almost four years now.

Indeed, Tillman's country did use Tillman, but not in the positive sense of the word. His mother sums up her newfoudn appreciation for the mendacity of the Bush adminsitration:

We should not have been subjected to all of this. This lie was to cover their image. I think there's a lot more yet that we don't even know, or they wouldn't still be covering their tails.

If this is what happens when someone high profile dies, I can only imagine what happens with everyone else.

Posted by Tim W at 5/27/2005 10:35:00 PM

Middle of the Damned Road

Today, Thomas Friedman used his bully pulpit (cleverly disguised as a New York Times column to break the shocking news that the Guantánamo Bay prison camp needs to be shut down.

Shut it down. Just shut it down.

I am talking about the war-on-terrorism P.O.W. camp at Guantánamo Bay. Just shut it down and then plow it under. It has become worse than an embarrassment. I am convinced that more Americans are dying and will die if we keep the Gitmo prison open than if we shut it down. So, please, Mr. President, just shut it down.

If you want to appreciate how corrosive Guantánamo has become for America's standing abroad, don't read the Arab press. Don't read the Pakistani press. Don't read the Afghan press. Hop over here to London or go online and just read the British press! See what our closest allies are saying about Gitmo. And when you get done with that, read the Australian press and the Canadian press and the German press....

And it is now obvious from reports in my own paper and others that the abuse at Guantánamo and within the whole U.S. military prison system dealing with terrorism is out of control. Tell me, how is it that over 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody so far? Heart attacks? This is not just deeply immoral, it is strategically dangerous.

What a great column that would have been had it been written three, or two, or even one year ago! And what a truly perspicacious column that would have been had Friedman discusssed, even one little bit, about the veritable archipelago of unfree countries to which the United States sends some of these prisoners so that they may be tortured. And what an insightful column it would have been had Friedman discussed at more length the parallels of American mistreatment of its prisoners and American claims of high and mighty ideals.

For too long, Thomas Friedman and his "liberal hawk" chums decided that quaint ideas like decency, morality, and honor were less important than appearing "strong" against "terrorism." Thanks for nothing, guys.

Posted by Tim W at 5/27/2005 10:20:00 PM

Excel is Harmful to Your Health

It is true: when geneticists and other biomedical workers use Excel to help organize genetic data, the chthonic program can permanently and consistently foul the names of certain genes. That is something that even PowerPoint cannot do.

Use of one of the research community's most valuable and extensively applied tools for manipulation of genomic data can introduce erroneous names. A default date conversion feature in Excel (Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA) was altering gene names that it considered to look like dates. For example, the tumor suppressor DEC1 [Deleted in Esophageal Cancer 1] was being converted to '1-DEC.' Figure 1 lists 30 gene names that suffer an analogous fate.

There is another default conversion problem for RIKEN clone identifiers of the form nnnnnnnEnn, where n denotes a digit. These identifiers are comprised of the serial number of the plate that contains the library, information on plate status, and the address of the clone [5]. A search (using the "DNA sequence length search" functionality at http://fantom2.gsc.riken.go.jp/db/search/) identified more than 2,000 such identifiers out of a total set of 60,770. For example, the RIKEN identifier "2310009E13" was converted irreversibly to the floating-point number "2.31E+13." A non-expert user might well fail to notice that approximately 3% of the identifiers on a microarray with tens of thousands of genes had been converted to an incorrect form, yet the potential for 2,000 identifiers to be transmogrified without notice is a considerable concern. Most important, these conversions to an internal date representation or floating-point number format are irreversible; the original gene name cannot be recovered. If one were dealing manually with small numbers of genes, these problems could be detected and then corrected by the tedious, convoluted process described in the legend of Figure 1. But with microarray or other high-throughput data, human proofreading and manual curation are impractical.

(In the work that I do, Excel's propensity to automatically reformat data is annoying, but only because the quantity of data that I manipulate is not vast.)

Posted by Tim W at 5/27/2005 10:09:00 PM

24 May 2005

Get Your Free Book Here

Yes, you can get a free book without any obligation—and the Scientologists are not even involved. Doug Henwood, the estimable force behind the excellent Left Business Observer newsletter now controls the publication rights to his excellent book on Wall Street finance called, of all things, Wall Street.

he has decided to make the book freely available—meaning one can download it and distribute it without altering it—off the Internet at http://www.wallstreetthebook.com. Henwood takes Wall Street seriously, but he has more than a little Marxism in his soul, and he pulls very few punches. If you do not have a copy, it's well worth not only the time to download it, but also a few bucks through the Paypal link at the site to the author.

Posted by Tim W at 5/24/2005 11:02:00 PM

Newsweek and Weak News

Newsweek has now officially retracted its story of the desecration of some copies of the Qu'ran at the Guantanamo Bay gulag. The source of the original Newsweek report could no longer verify that the desecration was contained in the upcoming governmental report cited by the magazine. And the Pentagon source that Newsweek used to vet its story apparently did not comment on the Qu'ran desecration out of lack of knowledge.

But do not expect, gentle readers, that American troops or, especially, American civilian interrogators have never desecrated the Qu'ran. We already know that Americans have humiliated, buggered, beaten, and murdered their prisoners. Profaning a holy book would hardly be a huge leap backwards for our noble representatives.

History provides an amazing prologue to this story, too. Over 30 years ago, the Washington Post (which owns Newsweek) was aggressively pursuing the story of gross malfeasance in the White House. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward reported on 25 October 1972 that Hugh Sloan, the treasurer of the Commitee to Re-Elect the President, had told the grand jury that H. R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff, was one of five persons who controlled a secret fund of cash for political chicanery. Woodward and Bernstein had three sources for the information, or so they thought, plus a fourth who confirmed it. It turned out that their story was wrong—as far as the grand jury was concerned—but the basic facts were correct. Here is how Woodward and Bernstein described it in All the President's Men:

All three went into Rosenfeld's office and turned on the television. What they were to see on the screen was something they would never forget. Sloan and his attorney, Stoner, were waling into a law office where Sloan was to give a deposition. Daniel Schorr, the veteran CBS correspondent, was waiting there with a camera crew. Schorr approached Sloan and asked him about the Post's report of Sloan's testimony before the grand jury. Sloan said his attorney would have a comment. Schorr moved the microphone to Stoner.

"Our answer to that is an unequivocal no," he said. "We did not—Mr. Sloan did not implicate Mr. Haldeman in that testimony at all."

Sussman, Woodward and Bernstein looked at one another. What had gone wrong? They had been so sure....

[Later,] Ron Ziegler was beginning his regular daily press briefing in the Executive Mansion. It began at 11:48 A.M. After 10 minutes or so of discussion and announcements about the President's campaign and speech schedule, a reporter asked, "Ron, has the FBI talked to Bob Haldeman about his part in allegedly managing a secret slush fund for political sabotage?"

That began about 30 minutes of denunciation of the Post....

Woodward called Sloan's attorney again. This time he reached him and asked him to explain the meaning of the denial.

"Your story is wrong," Stoner said icily. "Wrong on the grand jury."

Woodward was at a disadvantage: he couldn't betray Sloan's confidence and tell Stoner that his own client had been one of the sources.

Was Stoner certain that Sloan hadn't named Haldeman before the grand jury? Woodward tried to say it suggestively.

"Yes," said Stoner. "Absolutely certain."...

He tried another approach. Leaving aside the question of whom Sloan might have divulged it to, was the story's essential fact correct? Did Haldeman indeed have control of the fund?

"No comment."

Wasn't that the important question?

"No comment. I'm just not going to talk about information my client may or may not have."...

Did the Post owe Stoner's client an apology for misrepresenting what he had told the grand jury?

Stoner said that no apology was necessary.

Woodward paused. Maybe he should ask if Haldeman deserved an apology. But suppose Stoner said yes. A printed apology would probably have to appear. The thought was horrible.

Painful as the answer could turn out to be, Woodward asked if an apology to Haldeman was in order. He couldn't think of anything else to ask.

"No comment."

If an apology was called for, it would be given.

No comment.

Woodward raised his voice to impress on Stoner how serious it was when a newspaper made a mistake.

Finally, Stoner said he wouldn't recommend making an apology to Bob Haldeman....

Later, Deep Throat chewed Woodward out for their misstep regarding Haldeman:

"A conspiracy like this...a conspiracy investigation...the rope has to tighten slowly around everyone's neck. You build convincingly from the outer edges in, you get ten times the evidence you need against the Hunts and Liddys. They feel hopelessly finished—they may not talk right away, but the grip is on them. Then you move up and do the same thing at the next level. If you shoot too high and miss, then everybody feels more secure. lawyers work this way. I'm sure smart reporters must, too."

The conspiracy that started in 2001 to keep the American gulags—in Guantanamo Bay, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in gruesome prisons around the world run by our pet dictators—is waiting to be fully exposed. Before long, the Hunts and Liddys of our decade will start to feel the pressure of truth. Perhaps some mid-level functionary is willing to play the role of fundamentally honest Hugh Sloan. But someone has to learn from Woodward and Bernstein that to break the conspiracy apart means not simply publishing quickly, but publishing unbreakable truths.

Posted by Tim W at 5/24/2005 12:21:00 AM

Political Soap Opera

What if there were a political battle in Congress so evenly matched that every vote counted, so passionate that members left their sick beds to cast votes, and so convoluted that a soap opera could not beat it for plot twists? You would expect that even the American media would bump coverage of Michael Jackson and The Runaway Bride to cover it. But when it happens in Canada, you have to go to Canada to read all about it.

So, go to the Canadian press and read: how the New Democrats (some of the actual social democrats in non-tropical North America) wheedled almost $5 billion Canadian in concessions from the reigning Liberals; how a conservative independent saved the Liberal government by leaving his chemotherapy treatment to vote for the government's budget; how the vote might have broken up at least one parliamentary romance; and generally how the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois have more power than ever and are using it shrewdly.

Posted by Tim W at 5/24/2005 12:01:00 AM

23 May 2005

All the News That Fits We Might Print

Starting in September, the New York Times will start following the path of great newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, The Independent and the Boston Herald and start charging for some content, notably columns on the op-ed page.

Personally, this will affect me not an iota, since I already subscribe to the paper. But it's a superficially bad idea for the newspaper as a whole, because it cedes to other papers the ability to link to worthy articles.

A number of magazines release some but not all content online for free each month, but magazines that hide just about all of their content behind a virtual vending machine are missing out on being opinion leaders. (A prime example, I might point out, is the difference between The Nation (growing circulation and influence) and The New Republic (shrinking circulation and influence). Guess which one releases a good chunk of its content as it goes to press.

And it's also a deeply bad idea for the public. As Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler pointed out two weeks ago, the New York Times is a great place for facts—as long as you stick to the op-ed pages. (This makes it the mirror image of the Wall Street Journal, of course.) Somerby writes this with his usual good humor, but he writes this with nary a bit of sarcasm: if you pay no attention to the political beat writers of the Times (and discount some obvious prevaricators who write on the op-ed page), the editorial page and its immediate neighbor offer some of the best mainstream reporting that the American press has to offer. And now the truly fact-filled portion of the paper will be off-limits to casual observers.

Posted by Tim W at 5/23/2005 11:45:00 PM

Comic Opera

Now it seems that Bob Lobel, longtime sports presenter for Channel 4 in Boston, has filed a libel suit against Darby Conley, the creator of the "Get Fuzzy" comic strip, as well as Conley's syndicate and the New Bedford Standard-Times.

United Features Syndicate has since replaced the strip in question with an innocuous knock-knock joke from years past, but we offer a full-service weblog here, so take a gander at what caused all that ruckus.

Actual Get Fuzzy comic strip from 13 May 2005

The suit does not include the Boston Globe, which edited the cartoon in question by replacing Lobel's name with "him"—the edit hardly made it difficult to figure out the subject of the strip (my wife, who avoids sports, never mind sports reports on television, still figured it out).

Lobel is notorious for his scattered approach to presenting the sports, and sometimes it fits events. When the Red Sox get hammered because Chico Walker or Shea Hillebrand come to life against them, it is indeed funny to hear (in jest), "how come we never get players like that?" But all too often Lobel resembles a calmer and older version of Al Kaprelian, the meteorologist on WNDS—one hopes that all is fine under the veneer of sanity, but one can only hope.

Lobel's lawyer explained Lobel's style as "breezy," just the sort of ammunition that Lobel needs going into his contract talks.

"He talks in a breezy way," Manion said. "People can say, 'Is he on something?' The answer is, 'No.' You can sort of bandy it around a water cooler. That's one thing, but to publish it in 450 newspapers? Here, Lobel said, 'That's enough.'"

Attempts to reach Lobel were unsuccessful. His agent, Kenneth Fishkin, said Lobel was not speaking about the lawsuit.

I love this lawyer, as long as he's not representing me! Go ahead, he says, it's fair game to ask if my client is "on something," just not fair game for a dumb but well-meaning comic-strip character to ask the same thing. I am not a lawyer, and do not play one on television, but it seems to me that the best way to pursue a libel case involving claims of drunkenness is never to appear drunk even when you are not. That works great for most people, even when they are not television stars.

And it does seem interesting that Lobel is taking a crack at a comic-strip artist when the Boston Herald wrote several months ago about "a very public affair with a woman some 20 years younger" with nary a word from Lobel or his glib lawyer about libel or malice.

Posted by Tim W at 5/23/2005 11:13:00 PM

Some Of My Best Friends Are Gay

My colleague Paul Corrigan wrote yesterday about Jeff Jacoby's thoroughly disingenuous op-ed piece in the Boston Globe. Jacoby, ostensibly wishing well to hundreds of newly married gay and lesbian couples, nonetheless exposed the homophobia behind much opposition to civil marriage for gays and lesbians.

Jacoby wrote in yesterday's column,

But I am an opponent of same-sex marriage. That being the case, my message to the couples is: Congratulations on your anniversary, and may you enjoy continued happiness.

I mention my sincere good wishes only because so many supporters of same-sex marriage think that anyone who disagrees with them must be an ignorant bigot. Time and again, I have been told that my views on marriage are morally equivalent to the views of a segregationist on race, or a Nazi on Jews. It is remarkable: Express the conviction that marriage should mean the union of male and female, and you are told that you are peddling hate.

Of all the motifs that get played and replayed in the marriage debate, this one is the worst. For two reasons: First, because it is untrue. Marriage was not created to hurt homosexuals or enshrine bigotry in law. It did not became a universal human institution as an expression of animus. The core of marriage has always and everywhere been the pairing of a man and a woman because no other arrangement can do what marriage does: produce the next generation, bind men to the women who bear their children, and give boys and girls the mothers and fathers they need.

The second reason that the "only-a-hater-could-oppose-gay-marriage" theme is so objectionable is its destructiveness. It breeds resentment between parties who should be seeking common ground. It causes pain to gays and lesbians by encouraging them to believe that they are hated by most of their fellow citizens. And it promotes the idea that those who defend the traditional definition of marriage are moral cripples.

Let me get one canard out of the way. There are many right-minded people who are against gay marriage—and many of them are gay and lesbian—because they are against the marriage part of the term, not the gay part of the term. Indeed, despite the calls twelve months ago from Jacoby and other soi-disant conservatives that the legality of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts would lead to all sorts of undesirable consequences, nothing earth-shattering has happened. Indeed, just over 6,000 same-sex couples got married in the last year in Massachusetts; 6,000 is a small fraction of the number of cohabitating gay and lesbian couples in the Commonwealth, and 12,000 is an even smaller fraction of the number of gay and lesbian citizens in the Commonwealth. Not everyone now eligible for marriage wants to get married.

Jacoby writes that "the core of marriage has always and everywhere been" the procreation and raising of children. Indeed, that is partially true, and that is one reason that many newly married gay an lesbian couples wanted to get married—to have the legal and social protections that civil marriage allows their children. (Jacoby is loathe to admit that there are thousands of children thriving today in two-parent gay and lesbian households.)

But children are not the alpha and omega of marriage—no state bars infertile couples from marrying. I doubt that Jacoby's fervor for the procreative aspects of marriage extends to wanting to prevent widowed elderly couples from remarrying.

The deepest error in Jacoby's column is the conflation of the religious institution of marriage with the civil protections that marriage provides. (And it is bizarrely ironic that Jacoby, an Orthodox Jew, is conflating the secular and sacred in a state that has spent the last 100 years tearing itself from a host of literally Puritanical laws.) No sane voice in the same-sex marriage debate will insist that Roman Catholic priests or Orthodox rabbis perform same-ex marriages simply because the Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Commonwealth to recognize them. Yes, there have been and will be calls for churches to extend their own definition of marriage to fit the new civil norm, but there cannot and should not be a political requirement to do so. The most liberal denominations have welcomed same-sex couples with open arms, but those same churches and synagogues were performing commitment ceremonies—which they held to be as sacred as marriages anyway—before last May. The main difference now is that gay and lesbian couples can receive the same civil benefits of marriage that Jeff Jacoby and I, and all other straight married folk, have long enjoyed. In other words, it's the health insurance and the legal protections, stupid. If Jacoby really wished gay and lesbian citizens the best, he would figure out why he is so strongly opposed to keeping them from the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

Posted by Tim W at 5/23/2005 01:24:00 AM

22 May 2005

Jacoby Can't Hide His Bigotry In Civility

The Boston Globe published a wonderful op-ed by Chad Gifford and his wife last week. The Giffords opened their hearts, and I hope many of the hearts of Globe readers, with their personal account of what it means to be parent to a gay son. How anyone could read that piece and not support marriage being opened to gays and lesbians is beyond my comprehension. Alas, today I read the non-apologetic bigotry of Jeff Jacoby (My Best Wishes) and must admit that that the hearts and minds of some people will never be opened to our fellow citizens who are gay and lesbian.

Stung by criticisms that he is an "ignorant bigot," Jacoby patronizes the gay community and those of us who support gay marriage with his call for civility and by congratulating those celebrating their first anniversary of "same-sex" marriage. He then insulates himself from criticism for his position against same-sex marriage by referring to such criticisms as "playing the hate card" and "a tactic." No, Mr. Jacoby, calling you a bigot is not a tactic. We call you a bigot because you are one. Civility does not erase bigotry it just masks the evil.

Please go back and read the quote Jacoby references from Judi Burgess, who married her female partner: '' . . . But it validates your relationship in a way I didn't think was important before. You're a complete person, just like everyone else who falls in love and gets married." Now read what Jacoby writes in response: "Homosexuality will never be 'just like' heterosexuality." So committed to protecting the exalted status of heterosexuality, and the religious institutions that promote that status, Jacoby resorts to weak paraphrasing that distorts what Burgess actually said. She does not equate heterosexuality and homosexuality. Jacoby is the one caught up in that moral equivalency argument. Why does the op-ed editor at the Globe let Jacoby get away with that "tactic"?

A year has passed since Jacoby and his ilk warned us of the impending doom that would befall our state and country if gays and lesbians were allowed to marry. To date, the only negative fallout has been that the Republican Party used same-sex marriage to exploit bigotry and ignorance to elect George Bush to a second term. I would hope even Republicans would admit that Bush and the people who voted for him, not those of us who voted for marriage rights to be extended to gays and lesbians, are responsible for his failed stewardship.

Posted by PAUL at 5/22/2005 09:41:00 AM

What's a Conservative to Do?

A few thoughts for my conservative friends to ponder . . .

Last week, President Bush condemned recent advances in stem cell research. He also threatened to veto any Congressional action, where there is growing bipartisan support, to appropriate federal money for embryo stem cell research. At a time when federal spending has increased to the highest levels in our Nation's history, it would be the first and only veto of a presidency in its fifth year.

Earlier this month, Tim Francis-Wright commented on the increase in wiretaps authorized by federal and state courts. "The most frightening" fact Francis-Wright noted was that every surveillance request made last year by authorities was granted. Most of those involved drug arrests, not terror investigations.

The Senate "nuclear option", favored by Bill Frist, is not only an attack on Senate rules of procedure, it weakens minority rights and institutional checks and balances. It's aim is not to appoint conservative jurists, but jurists that will tear down the constitutional barriers separating church and state.

The current administration not only supports Islam Karimov, the despot behind the massacre of Andizhan, in eastern Uzbekistan, it sends people to him to torture. This disclosure comes on the heals of the abuse and torture uncovered at Abu Graib and Guantánamo Bay.

Unwilling to admit that their policies are ever ill-conceived or poorly executed, an unapologetic Bush administration responds to events around the Globe unravelling out of control by finding a scapegoat. The latest scapegoat is Newsweek. No honest person could lay the responsibility of mass murder on a newsweekly because it inadequately sourced a report that a copy of the Quran was flushed down a toilet. The Bush administration has switched from hiding behind Osama bin Laden to now hiding behind a lazy press that has given him a relatively free pass. Islamic extremists that kill people over reported desecrations of the Quran are responsible for their actions and the Bush administration is reponsible for its own torture policy.

Finally, the one year anniversary of legal gay marriage in Massachusetts has come and gone. The impact is that some citizens now have a legal right to pursue a hapiness together that they did not have one year ago. The Republicans won a presidential election by oppossing this pursuit of hapiness. I contend that gay marriage is a conservative movement and efforts to prevent it are an abuse of governmental power and majority rule. Why would any true conservative oppose individuals being given the legal right to choose for themselves a partner to love and share their life?

Bush and the Republican's have brought us unchecked spending, huge deficits, increased surveillance, religion in place of science, widespread use of torture, the scapegoating and intimidation of a free press, and the active denial of rights to minoritites whose only offense is to break outdated social taboos.

My conservative friends, is it not time that you spoke up and helped throw the bums out of office?

Posted by PAUL at 5/22/2005 02:07:00 AM

14 May 2005

Another Stupid Tax Game

One of the favorite sports of major American corporations is to entice two or more states or localities into providing higher and higher tax incentives to locate a desirable property, whether a headquarters building or a manufacturing plant. While taxpayers get ripped off—an average company, let alone an average worker, can hardly demand a tax break—at least states know what they are getting. When companies build a plant or locate an office, the local economy certainly benefits.

But the same approach to tax breaks is hardly as useful when the industry is as ephemeral as the motion picture industry. Last month, in Slate.com, Edward Jay Epstein described the appalling largesse thrown at the motion picture industry. It almost makes a typical cross-border leasing scam—I'm sorry, transaction—seem legitimate. Almost.

As paradoxical and absurd as it sounds, it's cheaper for a Hollywood studio to make a big-budget action movie than to make a shoestring art film like Sideways. Consider Paramount's 2001 action flick Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. On paper, Tomb Raider's budget was $94 million. In fact, the entire movie cost Paramount less than $7 million. How did the studio collect over $87 million before cameras started rolling?

First, they used the German tax-shelter gambit. Loopholes in Germany's tax code are responsible for a good portion of Paramount's profits—an estimated $70 million to $90 million in 2003 alone. Best of all, there's no risk or cost for the studio (other than legal fees).

Here's how it works: Germany allows investors in German-owned film ventures to take an immediate tax deduction on their film investments, even if the film they're investing in has not yet gone into production. If a German wants to defer a tax bill to a more convenient time, a good way to do it is by investing in a future movie. The beauty of the German laws as far as Hollywood is concerned is that, unlike the tax laws in other countries, they don't require that films be shot locally or employ local personnel. German law simply requires that the film be produced by a German company that owns its copyright and shares in its future profits. This requisite presents no obstacle for studio lawyers.

The Hollywood studio starts by arranging on paper to sell the film's copyright to a German company. Then, they immediately lease the movie back—with an option to repurchase it later. At this point, a German company appears to own the movie. The Germans then sign a "production service agreement" and a "distribution service agreement" with the studio that limits their responsibility to token—and temporary—ownership.

For the privilege of fake ownership, the Germans pay the studio about 10 percent more than they'll eventually get back in lease and option payments. For the studio, that extra 10 percent is instant profit. It is truly, as one Paramount executive told me, "money for nothing." In the case of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Paramount sold the copyright to a group of German investors for $94 million through Tele-München Gruppe, a company headed by German mogul Herbert Kloiber. Paramount then repurchased the film for $83.8 million in lease and option payments. The studio's $10.2 million windfall paid the salaries of star Angelina Jolie ($7.5 million) and the rest of the principal cast.

Read the whole thing to see how British tax credits were worth even more to Paramount.

This sort of bizarre scheme is another example of how in the world of high finance a tax opinion from a big law firm is worth its weight in platinum. It insulates a supposed taxpayer like Paramount from penalties from grossly understating income or misrepresenting the ownership of an asset. And the price for these opinions for this sort of transaction is very high, high enough to make the dodgy tax arguments worth the risk for the lawyers.

Posted by Tim W at 5/14/2005 06:23:00 PM

Your Infallible Panopticon State

News comes that wiretaps authorized by federal and state courts increased 19% in 2004 over 2003. Excluding the record 1754 wiretaps for "terror related investigations," judges approved 1710 wiretaps last year. Fully 1308 of the 1790 wiretaps related to prosecution of drug laws.

But the most frightening part of this news lies buried in the lede.

Every surveillance request made by authorities was granted.

Where are those activist judges? It seems to be that passivism is endemic instead in the courtrooms.

Posted by Tim W at 5/14/2005 06:16:00 PM

It's What's Inside That Counts

Britons are less than enthused about Blair and New Labour, and even the BBC understands why. Its Election Monitor weblog examined Labour's giveaway pens.

[A]nother question mark was raised about New Labour today as a result of their campaign pens.

They're red at the top, red in the middle, and red at the bottom. But what colour do they write? Blue.

Are you inking what I'm inking...?

For those ignorant of British politics, blue and red are the respective traditional colors of the Tories and of Labour. And "are you thinking what I'm thinking" was the Tory tagline this election. Luckily for Blair, his competition easily matched him in incompetence and insincerity.

Posted by Tim W at 5/14/2005 06:06:00 PM

13 May 2005

Not So Stand-Up Comics

You can learn a lot about a newspaper from its comics page. Take my hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe. For years, it has featured "Doonesbury" and its generally liberal politics, and it also features "The Boondocks" and its generally leftist politics. But it also has a soft spot for "Mallard Fillmore" and its generally reactionary politics. (For the initiated, take the politics of "L'il Abner", subtract both the humor and the lush details, and ad frequent footnotes to conservative publications.)

Today, the strip "Get Fuzzy" took a potshot at a Boston media figure, but if you read the Globe you might not know it. In the online version of today's strip, Rob Wilco (the protagonist), his dog Satchel, and his cat Bucky, are watching the news. Satchel asks, "Is this sportscaster... drunk?" Rob answers, "Lobel? Who knows? he's like some TV outreach program or something." And Bucky chimes in, "And yet he looks pretty smart compared to you." Click on the link to see the rest of the strip (I don't want to give away the punchline).

In the paper version of the Globe, the word "Lobel" is replaced with "Him"— and the new line "Him? Who knows?" is off-center, so it is apparent that someone changed that one offending word in the Globe version. I would hope that Darby Conley, the artist, made the change, and not some minion at the Globe.

But even if I assume that Conley made the change at the behest of the Globe, there are two troubling issues here. First, the Globe had the option to reject the day's strip entirely and run an old strip, or request a wholly new strip from the author. Instead, its editors settled for petty censorship, petty in every sense of the word. Rob Wilco is wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball hat: in the strip, he's a giant baseball fan. Finding the comic strip on the internet site displayed between the second and third panels took all of 10 seconds. When the strip, through Ron Wilco's voice balloons, said very uncharitable things about former Red Sox skipper Grady Little in October 2003, the Globe did nothing. Today, however, when a dog in a comic strip asks whether a notoriously slipshod public figure is slipshod for a reason, the Globe decided to hide the name of that figure.

Second, the Globe saw fit to do next to nothing, either before or after the fact, when one of its op-ed columnists libelled Eric Alterman in a column earlier this year. Yet the comics page of all places, is suddenly demanding literal word-for-word editing.

Posted by Tim W at 5/13/2005 02:17:00 PM

11 May 2005

Electoral News from All Over, Part Two

At the voluminous and always interesting Lenin's Tomb, Lenin finds hope in the recent British election results. And indeed there should be hope.

The Liberal Democrats' success, disguised by strong votes in very safe Labour seats, but exemplified by some astonishing captures from the labour heartland, should be encouraging in one way. But in no sense can they be relied upon to be in practise any more left-wing than New Labour. This is one further reason why Respect needs to grow as an organisation and stand more candidates. It must consolidate itself in the councils, in the unions and on the streets. The groups within Respect are quite happy to become smaller fish in a much larger pond, and that is what will happen. Building in this way, Respect can bring rank and file socialist politics back to the mainstream, after having been relegated for so long to a benchmark from which sensible politicians should compete to distance themselves.

The fine showings for Craig Murray and Reg Keys are very encouraging, as was the remarkable, savage sock to New Labour's jaw from the independent socialist candidate in Blaneau Gwent. Even the Greens did quite well, taking some relatively strong votes—although their sectarian attitude to working with others also saw them humiliated in some constituencies, and their decision to stand against Galloway and Rose Gentle did nothing for them. And the Tory revival was much less pronounced than anyone expected. So far from a swing to the Tories, the Conservative vote rose by a miserly 0.5%—the bulk of the gains came in marginal constituencies where Howard ruthlessly targetted the resources of his party machine. Even then, they did not always succeed—the decent left-winger Bob Marshall-Andrews did in the end keep his seat in Meadway. As the psephologist Tony King pointed out, this was not a swing to the right—rather, the Labour vote crumbled and escaped in various directions.

Finally, some of the best moments have been those inviting schadenfreude—the impotent, stunned groping for explanations by the pro-war liberals; the fact that every one of Oliver Kamm's predictions for the election has been a total failure (the confidence with which he delivers ignorant bullshit is breathtaking, the sure sign of a con artist); the merciless slapping that Paxman received from Galloway on national television; the fact that Blair has had to grovel so deliciously; the agonised expression on Oona King's face; the fact that Howard has had to resign so suddenly, and so sullenly; the fact that Kilroy has been so thoroughly humbled, and that UKIP has spent a fortune without winning a single seat; the realisation that the war really does matter to workers and not just the middle class (and what a nasty shock for Peter Hain MP to discover that).

Indeed, what has saved Blair and New Labour is a bizarre mix of incompetencies. His own blunders in foreign policy—backing Bush and his useless, senseless, and merciless war—and domestic policy—for example, privatizing the railway infrastructure and seeing it go astoundingly wrong—served as insulation for him: the Tories could only call for more of the same. The Liberal Democrats, who were the only major party to oppose the war, were hardly prepared to move to the left on almost anything else. And the Tories themselves have spent over a decade trying to find a leader, any leader, to move out of Margaret Thatcher's shadow.

At least in Britain, leftists can choose to bury new Labour once and for all either from within the party or without. In the United States, simply thinking that having a national health system like every other industrialized country makes one a marginalized radical, never mind thinking other supposedly radical thoughts like gay and lesbian people should be treated as first-class citizens by their government.

Posted by Tim W at 5/11/2005 12:32:00 AM

Electoral News from All Over, Part One

Canada's Liberal government is repeating the stupid mistakes of Liberal governments fast, but the news for the Left is hardly bad. As the Liberals weaken, the New Democrats become a more likely coalition member in any new government. The most excellent folks at rabble.ca have the analysis.

The media have noticed Jack Layton and the NDP. Ever since Layton suggested he would vote for the budget if the Liberals agreed to drop $4.7 billion in tax breaks for corporations and instead, spend the money on health, the cities and the environment, the NDP is newsworthy.

The prime minister decided to meet with the leader of the fourth party in the House of Commons and it got big coverage. While Layton agreed to see Paul Martin about the budget, he withheld judgment about how his party would vote on any motion of non-confidence focusing on the Gomery inquiry moved by the Conservatives.

With Layton announcing an offer from Martin on budgetary spending he could accept, the news is no longer just that the NDP is making news. The news is that the NDP has shifted the political dynamic.

Because the NDP has agreed to co-operate with the Liberals, that could affect whether or not we have a June election. The main Ottawa question is: have the Liberals lost the confidence of the House of Commons? By inserting his party into the story line, Layton has given himself an opportunity to stand for the kind of Canada the NDP wants to see.

The NDP leadership understands that for a social democratic party to be worthy of the first half of its name, it must learn not to compromise on the most important issues facing the working class. In the United States, by contrast, the democratic wing of the Democratic Party is constantly worried about whether it is "strong enough" on issues of war (despite the utterly disastrous foreign policy of the War Party, not just in the past quadrennium but over the past generation) or "flexible enough" on the issue of gutting the old age insurance system.

Posted by Tim W at 5/11/2005 12:20:00 AM

10 May 2005

Blowing in the Wind

Imagine two island communities, an ocean apart, sharing a common language and a long history of fishing and self-reliance. Both are renowned for winds that seem to blow forever. One, however, near enough an offshore oil field that it has its own oil refinery.

Guess which community is welcoming large-scale wind power and which one is not?

If you guessed that the unwelcoming one is in the United States, you win! That is Nantucket, rapidly becoming the playground for the Tim Russerts of the world, where old Democratic money and new Republican money agree that rejecting a wind farm in the windiest section of New England is necessary, because one might actually see the windmills from on shore.

In the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland, windpower is getting a far warmer reception.

A new partnership, involving Orkney and Norway, is investigating the possibility of a major renewable energy project in Orkney.

The new company, Fairwind Statkraft (Orkney) Ltd, is developing a renewables project involving up to 35 to 40 wind generators, producing over 100 megawatts of electricity.

The partnership, bringing together Fairwind (Orkney) Ltd with a company that forms part of the Statkraft Group, has identified Orkney as a key area for renewable energy generation.

In Massachusetts, not every community views windpower as anathema to good living. The town of Hull is justly happy about its windmill, which not only generates electricity for the municipal electric company, but also does so within view of much of downtown Boston. (For the past year, I cannot recall any of my fellow workers complain about the blot on the skyline caused by that windmill.) In Hull, the utility likes its windmill so much that another might go up later this year.

Posted by Tim W at 5/10/2005 11:40:00 PM

07 May 2005

The Zen of Margaret Cho

I had the pleasure tonight of attending Margaret Cho's "Assassin Tour" at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston. It was a delight. Cho is the rare performer who can appear genuinely confident, in control, and self-deprecating all at the same time. I laughed out loud throughout the performance. As much as for the laughter, I appreciate Cho for her unabashed personality and her ability to tear down stereotypes. I can't imagine walking out of a Cho performance without feeling more comfortable with yourself and others—hopefully my 14-year-old daughter left the Orpheum this evening more confident in, and accepting of, herself. I can't imagine a more important lesson for a young woman or a middle-aged man.

Posted by PAUL at 5/07/2005 11:12:00 PM

Another Reason Why The Financial Times Is A Great Newspaper

I had dinner with two friends Thursday night that I had not seen in some time. One, a Jew who knows that I was raised Roman Catholic, diplomatically broached the excess of media coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Cardinal Ratzinger—Pope Benedict XVI—as his successor. True friendship gives one the comfort to say what one believes. Alas, we have all too few true friends in the national media.

One exception is the Financial Times. Its coverage of both the death of one pope and the election of another was the finest I saw. It followed up today (Saturday) with a wonderful critical analysis of the Church, a multi-billion dollar organization that must leave its feudal structures and modernize. The article states that the new Pope faces a "steady decline in the Church’s stature, influence and relevance to its faithful that has been evident for at least 30 years." The premise is that the Church has significant human resources problems and they run with an analysis. Leave it to a capitalist tool to strip the Catholic Church of its pageantry and moral superiority and get right to the bottom line.

Posted by PAUL at 5/07/2005 01:02:00 PM

Why Does Dan Kennedy Write For The Boston Phoenix and David Brooks For The NYT?

Dan Kennedy, writing in Medialog, does a fine job catching David Brooks in a cheap shot directed at Robert Kuttner. Kennedy points out Brooks paraphrasing Kuttner as aguing "that the culture war is a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism" and then attacking the paraphrase as "smug ignorance."

A neat trick by Brooks but as a reader of the New York Times I would hope the op-ed page editors would edit columnists that combine weak paraphrasing with personal attacks. Is that too much to ask from the Times?

It seems that Brooks has no rebuttal to Kutter calling out "religious extremists" who "use the state, with all its power, as religious proselytizer" and "oppose science when it happens to conflict with their version of revealed truth." I have read Kuttner for years. He is neither smug nor ignorant.

Another question. Why does Dan Kennedy write for the Boston Phoenix and David Brooks for the New York Times?

Posted by PAUL at 5/07/2005 12:31:00 PM

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