3/09/2002

Just say no Chronicle technology columnist Dwight Silverman calls the proposed HP buyout of Compaq a bad deal all around.
Skilling: I'm not a liar, either! Jeff Skilling's lawyers announce that he did too tell the truth to Congress. They went on to denounce as "scurrilous" a report that the HFD had been called to battle a three-alarm blaze in his trousers. "At no point were Mr. Skilling's pants on fire," they did not add.
Chron disses DeLay It's official: the Houston Chronicle is not endorsing Tom DeLay in the Republican primary for his Congressional seat. They're not endorsing his GOP opponent Michael Fjetland, either, but they still give DeLay a pretty good spanking for his "irrational opposition to mobility options" and "win-at-all-costs lust for power". Be still my heart.
More on the tax morons Max Power notes my response to Samizdata and provides a link that I'd overlooked to the Tax Protesters FAQ. This is a thorough overview of the idiot arguments that We the People advance and why they are not just wrong but from another planet altogether. The link I gave is a collection of legal citations with a few footnotes, whereas this is a genuine FAQ with complete sentences and all that.

Thanks much for the assist, Max. I had actually seen this FAQ before - it's how I knew that "frivolous" is a very strong term for a judge to use - but couldn't remember enough about it to do a coherent search. Nonetheless, I missed it and you found it, and for that I thank you.

3/08/2002

Midwestern blogger located After my post about the geography of blogging, I got a note from Jon Jerome, who's a blogger from Chicago. Go check him out.
Tax idiocy Via War Liberal, we get this silly post from Dale Amon of Samizdata. Dale cites a "public hearing" by a group called We the People which claims to prove that the income tax laws are unconstitutional.

Here's a blurb from their web site which discusses the "startling, compelling, disturbing and irrefutable" proof of their thesis:

The record of the hearing proves conclusively for history:

  • The Internal Revenue Code does not make most Americans liable to file a tax return and pay an income tax.


  • People have a right to the fruits of their labor; the income tax is a slave tax, and is prohibited by the 13th Amendment.


  • Congress lacks the authority to legislate an income tax on the people except in the District of Columbia, the U.S. Territories and in those geographic areas within any of the 50 states where the States have specifically approved it, in writing. No legislative jurisdiction means no taxing authority.


  • There is no income tax exception to the 5th Amendment's guarantee of the Peoples' unalienable right not to be compelled to be a witness against themselves; individuals do, in fact, waive their 5th Amendment (Miranda) right not to be a witness against themselves when they sign and file a Form 1040 tax return.


  • Personal income taxes polarize and divide an otherwise united nation and promote class warfare and mistrust of our government.


  • The IRS, the courts and even the NY Times cite the 16th Amendment as government's authority to impose a tax directly on the People's labor. However, the 16th Amendment did not come close to being lawfully ratified by ¾ of the states as constitutionally required, and was fraudulently declared to have been ratified in 1913 by Philander Knox, the Secretary of State. The 16th Amendment is null and void.


  • The IRS routinely violates the 4th Amendment due process and privacy protections of Americans by seizing assets without lawful authority or a court order and by denying citizens their right to statutorily-prescribed, administrative remedies.


  • The IRS willfully and illegally manipulates taxpayers' Individual Master Files for the purpose of creating time-barred assessments, creating and providing fraudulent certificates of official records to the court to support illegal assessments, manipulating master files to short-pay taxpayers' legal interest owed by the government, collecting social security from taxpayers via levy in direct violation of the law, willful and intentional creation of fraudulent penalty and interest against taxpayers, and willful and intentional violation of taxpayers rights to due process.


  • The IRS, without legal authority, routinely and illegally prepares "dummy returns" with inflated assessments for taxpayers who legitimately do not file a tax return as a means of punishing those who stand on their legal rights in choosing not to file.



There's a word that we have in the States for people who believe this kind of stuff, Dale. We call them "fruitcakes". There's another word which applies to their arguments, one which is given to them by the courts: "frivolous". You need to understand just what this means. When judges call your argument "frivolous", they're not merely saying that you're wrong and you're wasting all of our time. They're saying that your argument is so totally misguided or has been so frequently and completely refuted that it has no place in the courtroom. In some cases, judges will hold people in contempt for using "frivolous" legal arguments.

Had Dale Amon taken a few moments to do some research, he would have discovered what kind of arguments, legal and otherwise, that We the People use against the income tax. Setting aside the parts of their attack which are merely personal opinion (i.e., the tax "polarizing" an otherwise united nation), a few more minutes of research would have led to the inevitable dicsovery that all of these arguments have been shot down in court multiple times, with many of them attaining "frivolous" status. Go take a look at the Casebook for Dealing with Extremist Legal Arguments. See how often the arguments that the income tax only applies to Washington, DC, or that the 16th Amendment was never properly ratified, have been tried and thoroughly rejected.

You want to argue that the IRS does and has done Bad Things to ordinary taxpayers, I'm there with you. It's a million miles from there to the notion that the 16th Amendment is illegal and has been for nearly 100 years, and the journey you have to take to get there goes straight through Crackpotville and Kookytown. People who advocate these arguments are either criminally obtuse or just plain criminals. People who cite these advocates favorably are dupes. Shame on you, Dale.
Barbie: Beacon of feminism From the USS Clueless we get this remarkable story about Barbie dolls and their apparently subversive effect on Iranian girls. It's hard to imagine Barbie dolls "sowing the seeds of feminist rebellion" as den Beste suggests, but when you read quotes like this from the WaPo story

Another toy seller, Masoumeh Rahimi, said Barbie was "foreign to Iran's culture" because some of the popular Western dolls wear revealing clothing. She said young girls who play with Barbie, a doll she sees as wanton, could grow into women who reject Iranian values.

"I think every Barbie doll is more harmful than an American missile," Rahimi said.

well, it's equally hard to argue.
George Will breaks out the Conservative Pundit Weapon of Mass Destruction by comparing Dubya to Clinton for his apostacy on protectionism. You know, I just want to say that I don't think conservative scribes and talking heads fully appreciate the great debt they owe Bill Clinton. He's the easiest and most convenient shorthand they've ever had for expressing their moral outrage. Whenever they want to spank one of their own, they just have to say he or she is equivalent to or worse than Slick Willie in some respect, and they can rest secure in the knowledge that everyone - especially the target of their wrath - knows exactly what an insult this is.

As an Extra Added Bonus, they get to dismiss or diminish accusations of bad behavior from the Left by saying that whatever it is their guy is supposed to have done, Clinton did it first and did it worse. Now how much would you pay for this? If they gave out awards for this sort of thing, the Houston Chronicle could finally shed its title of Paper With The Largest Circulation To Never Win A Pulitzer Prize.

So let's hear it for Bill Clinton, people. What would the Ann Coulters and Andrew Sullivans of the world do without him?

Oh, and for the record, I agree that this was a bad call by Bush. I agree with Virginia Postrel that this decisin was made primarily out of political calculations. I also agree with Charles Dodgson that Bush's record on free trade is not very good to begin with.
Early voting The turnout for early voting in the primary has been heavy so far in predominantly Hispanic counties, thanks in large part to the Democratic race for governor. I'm excited about the prospects for the general elections. I still don't know if enthusiasm for Dan Morales or Tony Sanchez will produce extra votes for the other Democratic candidates (let alone whether it will be enough to win the governorship), but for the first time in awhile I feel like there's a reason to vote other than civic duty. Amazing how nice the thought that your vote might count can be.

In other news, the Chron has still not endorsed Tom DeLay. Time's running out, guys. The primary is Tuesday. I'll remember this nonendorsement in November.

3/07/2002

The DVD for Say Anything, one of Roger Ebert's Great Movies is now finally out on DVD. I've been meaning to host an all-day John Cusack Movie Marathon, so I really need to get this. Obviously, The Sure Thing will have to be one of the movies involved.

Whatever happened to Ione Skye? She just disappeared after she made this. I don't get it.
The geography of blogging It occurred to me recently that the author of almost every blog I read is on one of the coasts or in Texas. (I'm only speaking of US-based authors, so for this purpose Damian and Mike don't count.) Here's a quick rundown:

  • 10 in Texas, of which all but Karin are in Houston.

  • 17 on the East Coast - 4 in Boston (counting Oliver Willis, who is moving to Boston on 3/16), 2 in DC (counting Will Vehrs and Tony Adragna as one blog; Josh Marshall is the other), 2 in Jersey, one each in Delaware, Connecticut, Florida and North Carolina, and five in New York City.

  • 12 on the West Coast - 8 in LA, 2 in Portland, one each in Modesto and San Diego.


I can't tell what Sgt. Stryker's location is. It's no doubt secure and probably undisclosed. Hey, Sarge, if you see Dick Cheney tell him he still owes me that ten-spot. The two known exceptions are Mac Thomason in Alambama and Gary Farber in Colorado.

Which all makes me wonder, where are the Midwestern bloggers? Are there no bloggers out there from Chicago? St. Louis? Detroit? Cleveland? What about the Mountain time zone - where are Phoenix and Albuquerque and Las Vegas and Salt Lake City?

I don't know if any of this means anything. I just thought it was interesting. If I'm missing any good blogs from these underrepresented parts of the country, feel free to let me know.
Editorial judgment Virginia Postrel, who seriously needs to start using permalinks (it's The Future, dammit!), makes a good point about what is and isn't censorship:

NOT CENSORSHIP: Andrew Sullivan and others are making much of this Telegraph report that left-wing British publications are rejecting articles that support the war on terrorism.

The Telegraph calls this "censorship." I'd call it "editorial judgment." That judgment may be stupid. It may support bad policy. But it's no different from The New Republic's party line on Bush's economic policy (bad, bad, bad) or The Weekly Standard's line on biotechnology (end of humanity). I don't remember a lot of articles opposing gay marriage when Andrew was editing TNR. Was that "suppression of dissent"? Or was it an editor doing what he was supposed to do, and making judgments he felt strongly about?

Keep this in mind when you hear someone call the NYT and WaPo's decision to remove Ted Rall's infamous comic from their pages "censorship". Ted Rall has the right to say or draw what he wants. He has no right to expect that the Times will pay for it and print it in their papers or on their servers, any more than I have a right to expect that whatever cranky letters to the Editor I write will be printed. Ted Rall has his own domain, where you can view his work in its intended form. No one is silencing him. Anyone who cries "censorship" is as bad as David Horowitz and his cross-country media tour to bitch about college newspapers not printing his anti-reparations ad.

You have the right to speak your mind. You do not have the right to force a private entity to provide the forum.
Small Favors Dept. From Glenn Kinen we see this rather mind-boggling story about a giant bronze statue of Prince Charles being unveiled in Brazil. The statue, which depicts Gnarly Charlie as a winged world-saving avatar, "shows him with bulging muscles, pinned back ears and only a loin cloth to protect his modesty." I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I am that this photo was cropped just above the loincloth line. As it is I'll have this image burned into my brain forevermore.

3/06/2002

Marshall v. Radic Having read Josh Marshall's response to Natalija Radic, all I can say is that he was a lot nicer than I would have been. That disturbs me a bit, since like Ginger, I'm not in this for the pissing contests. I must be at least somewhat of a milquetoast, as I've only ever gotten three even moderately unkind emails. That's fine by me. I think if I were getting a steady stream of invective I'd quit. Who needs that crap? Real Life is full of frustrations. I've no desrie to seek out more.

Which is why I don't bother reading certain blogs. I don't read Sullivan or Samizdata. I don't doubt that they have useful things to say, but their tone simply turns me off. The way I described it to Ginger at the blogmeet last night was that the tooth-grinding factor was too high. Life is too short for that.

I certainly don't mind disagreeing with someone. That's a good thing, for it forces me to think about why I believe what I do. But if you want me to read you and engage you, you've got to maintain some kind of civil tone. There's plenty of intelligent and reasoned blogs out there - I consider that to be true of every blog I link to. I've no qualms about looking elsewhere if I feel I'm wasting my time.

Don't get me wrong. I'm perfectly capable of being an asshole (or, as I like to put it, a member of the Asshole-American Community), and sometimes I'm more than willing to be one. Overall, though, I've mellowed with age. I'm not ready for easy-listening radio just yet, but I'll leave the blog mosh pit to the kids, thanks very much.
Houston blogmeet, take 2 As Ginger notes, the second Houston blogmeet was a very pleasant experience. She and Michael and I were the only political bloggers there, as Ted and Jack were unable to make it. (I'm not sure if Craig is involved in H-Town Blogs or not.)

Turns out we all have a fair amount in common. Hanna is a coworker of Tiffany's. Elaine and her husband are also buying a house. E.J. and Sherry are both techies whose career paths have had some overlap with Ginger and Michael, and Dave has worked for a company run by an former Rice colleague of theirs. For a large city, Houston can be a pretty small town sometimes.

I look forward to our next meeting. There's still quite a few folks I've not met yet.
Bigger than Britney! Damn. I've already lost count of how many people have found me in the past two days by Googling for "Amber Kulhanek". (Note to the person who found me by searching for "+boobs +actress": Perhaps a more specific query will yield results that are more to your liking next time.) Quite a few other bloggers have made note of Amber and her legal travails as well. The comments on this blog entry, if true (how much do you trust an anonymous comment on a weblog?), add an interesting angle on Amber's claims.
Madden, McGuire, and Dicky V Tony Adragna at QuasiPundit shows his love for John Madden's color commentary by citing this Ben Domenech post. I'm quite fond of John Madden and look forward to his pairing with Al Michaels on Monday Night Football next year, but I believe it's a grave disservice to praise him by comparing him to Dick Vitale. I'm hard pressed to think of an announcer whom I'll mute faster than Dicky V. He's a complete shill who offers zero actual insight into whatever game he's shouting about.

Madden, even as he has more than occasionally lapsed into self-parody, is still a topnotch analyst with something to say about the game. Listening to Dick Vitale just makes me remember the late Al McGuire, who was the best former-coach-turned-analyst in college basketball. McGuire, who won the NCAA championship in 1977 with Marquette, was amazing in his ability to tell you not only what was happening, but what was about to happen.

I still remember a game that McGuire called years ago. It was North Carolina against an opponent that I can't recall. The other team hit a shot with about five seconds to go to take a one-point lead. McGuire first noted that no fewer than three Tar Heels called timeout as soon as the ball hit the net, a demonstration of the discipline Dean Smith's coaching instilled in them. During the timeout, McGuire predicted that the Heels would pass the ball to midcourt and call timeout again. When that happened, he predicted that the opponent would insert a tall player to guard the inbound pass, and he predicted which Carolina player would take the final shot. He was right each time. When was the last time you saw Dick Vitale do that?

So please. If you're going to praise John Madden, compare him to Al McGuire and not Dick Vitale.

3/05/2002

Houston blogmeet tonight I'm off to meet my fellow Houston bloggers for a Happy Hour tonight. It's the second such get together but I missed the first one, so these will be mostly new faces to me. I'll have a report tomorrow.
More on Wild Lawsuit Girls I got a nice note from Fritz Schranck today with some comments about my recent post about Amber Kulhanek's default judgment against Arco Media. Kulhanek claims she was coerced into entering a wet T-shirt contest where she was filmed flashing her breasts by Arco, who then used the footage in an ad run on the E! network. She won a $5 million judgment when Arco never responded to the lawsuit.

Fritz tells me that it's not uncommon for default judgments to be removed so that a case can go forward on its merits. Usually, though the defaulter needs to have a reason for not responding in the first place. I'm guessing "I overslept" is not a good reason here.

Fritz also suggests that Arco Media is likely to have no real assets or insurance and thus be judgment proof. If all their revenues essentially went towards marketing the product and they went out of business when sales dropped, there won't be anything to collect. I think this is dead on. I mean, how high is the barrier to enter this market? All you need is a camcorder, a couple of VCRs, a Mailboxes Etc account, and a web page. And let's face it, the proprietors are unlikely to be Chamber of Commerce types.

Anyway, I suspect this is the last we'll hear of this case. The article I originally linked did mention a different lawsuit against another such video company, one which is being challenged. That will be worth watching.
It's not just music News Corp President and COO Peter Chernin claims that the public is illegally downloading a million pirated movies a day. Good grief. Do these entertainment industry bigwigs take stupid pills or something? Has anyone reading this ever illegally downloaded a full-length movie onto their PC? Geez.

UPDATE: I've gotten a couple of messages from people who say they have indeed downloaded movies from the 'Net. Some are ripped from DVDs, some are filmed by people in theaters (bet that's high-quality). So, I guess this is more common than I thought. Call me an old fart with a slow connection, but it would never occur to me to do this. I still think that Chernin is being hysterical - as the article notes, he doubles the industry's high estimate of piracy when even the low estimate is criticized for being too much - but I concede that it's an issue.
Down the up staircase I happened across a copy of Fast Company magazine today, and inside found this interesting article about a British TV show in which corporate CEOs are invited to spend time doing a low-level job within their company and are filmed while doing so.

You might not think this would be a hit, but the show Back to the Floor is in its fifth season and is a prime-time ratings success. As with all so-called "reality" television, I suspect its anything-can-happen potential contributes to its winning formula:

Not every story has a happy ending. Some suspect that Dino Adriano's departure from the top job at Sainsbury's owed something to his poor showing on Back to the Floor. Millionaire restaurateur Luke Johnson, head of the popular British chain Belgo, decided that he'd peeled one onion too many for a moody chef, ripped off his microphone, told producers to "Shove your program!" and refused to allow the camera to keep filming.

Not surprising at all is the revelation that many bosses find the time spent in the trenches to be time well spent:

Bosses, though, often return to the boardroom ready to right wrongs. Take the Radisson Edwardian managing director who nearly halved the prices of his smallest rooms or the head of Wedgwood, who sued the supplier of the robots that were dropping his cups. Even Johnson agreed to hire six more chefs.

Almost without exception, CEOs learn a lesson in communication. "We find people at the heart of every organization who know exactly what's right and what's wrong with it," says [producer Robert] Thirkell. "But between them and the bosses is a layer of people -- those whose careers depend on sanitizing that information. Bosses are always surprised at how much knowledge exists further down the ladder."

I spent several years on the help desk here at my large multinational employer. The help desk here has evolved over time to be larger in scope but more specific in its mission - in the Old Days, we also functioned as an operations group, often putting customers on hold to head off into the server room and reboot a troublemaking machine. I think one reason why we were successful early on in the transition is that our boss was fairly involved in what we did. He'd go so far as to log in and pick up a phone when we were really backed up. He almost never did anything more than take messages, as he had very little technical knowledge - we eventually taught him how to reset passwords, but he still always hoped for a question about the one thing he did know well, the expense account system. The fact that he'd pitch in meant a lot to us, and meant that he really understood what we were doing. I've been very fortunate to have all good bosses here, but this one still stands out as the best.

3/04/2002

Spamming the globe From The USS Clueless comes this article about how China is upset that American and European Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are blocking email from China, Korea, and Taiwan to combat spam. Spammers routinely relay mail through servers in these countries because their own IP addresses have been blacklisted.

"The majority of the junk mail (is) not created in China, so why (should) they block mail from China?" said Zeng Xiaozhen, a professor at Jilin University in the northeastern province of Jilin. He said spam was a global issue and China should make a law to punish creators of junk e-mail.

If this quote is representative of official Chinese opinion, there's a real problem. See, the junk email is not originating in China (for the most part - more on this later), so there's not much China can do to punish the spammers. No, the problem is that the email is being relayed through China. This is exploiting an old way of sending email, from back in the days before everyone had access to DNS servers. If my domain had to send mail to yours but didn't know how to get there, I'd send the mail to an intermediate domain who did know where you were. This intermediate domain would relay the mail for me. Sometimes mail would go through multiple relays before it reached its destination.

Nowadays this is unnecessary, but a lot of poorly-configured mail servers still allow open relaying. This allows spammers to hijack these servers, using them to send their mail and/or to make it look like the mail originated there. There's absolutely no reason for this - it's well documented how to prevent this kind of open relaying. If these countries want to respected members of the Internet community, they need to start pushing their user base to clean up their act.

I deal with a lot of spam as part of my job. I do indeed see a ton of mail relayed through the .cn, .tw, and .kr domains. I also see a bunch of spam originating from domains registered in those three countries, some of which are simple .com and .net sites. If we didn't have affiliates all over the globe, I'd be happy to push for blocking most mail from them, but I cannot. I have no sympathy for any of their complaints.
Today in history March 4 was Inauguration Day up until FDR's administration. When he was first inaugurated in 1933, he appointed the first female Cabinet member, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins.

Take a look at today's birthdays from Yahoo! Daily News and see if you see anything odd:

Folk singer Miriam Makeba is 70. Actress-singer Barbara McNair is 68. Actress Paula Prentiss is 63. Movie director Adrian Lyne is 61. Singer Bobby Womack is 58. Rock musician Chris Squire (Yes) is 54. Singer Shakin' Stevens is 54. Singer Chris Rea is 51. Actor Ronn Moss (``The Bold and the Beautiful'') is 50. Actress Kay Lenz is 49. Musician Emilio Estefan is 49. Movie director Scott Hicks is 49. Actress Catherine O'Hara is 48. Actress Patricia Heaton is 43. Actor Mykelti Williamson is 42. Actor Steven Weber is 41. Rock musician Jason Newsted (Metallica (news - web sites)) is 39. Actress Stacy Edwards is 37. Rapper Grand Puba is 36. Rock musician Patrick Hannan (The Sundays) is 36. Rock singer Evan Dando (Lemonheads) is 35. Actress Patsy Kensit is 34. Chastity Bono is 33. Actor Nick Stabile is 32. Rock musician Fergal Lawler (The Cranberries) is 31. Country singer Jason Sellers is 31.

Guess we're all supposed to know who Chastity Bono is, since she's the only one listed without an accompanying occupation. If she were a character in the book Good Omens, she'd be called a "professional descendent". Nice work if you can get it.
Wild Lawsuit Girls Ever see those ads on TV for the Girls Gone Wild videotapes? You know, the ones of coeds on Spring Break and at Mardi Gras flashing their boobs? Well, a girl who was seen in an ad for a similar tape made by another company that ran on E! has won a judgment against the makers of the video.

SAN MARCOS -- Southwest Texas State University student Amber Kulhanek went to spring break in 2000 on South Padre Island for her 21st birthday and ended up taking off her shirt at a wet T-shirt contest in Mexico.

A few months later Kulhanek saw herself in national ads for a "Wild Party Girls" video on the E! cable network, a red strip proclaiming "Too hot for TV" stamped across her naked breasts. Kulhanek, now a senior, said she was mortified when friends and relatives saw the ad and strangers began asking her to take her top off.

Claiming she had been targeted by the video's makers, who she said plied her with alcohol at a Matamoros bar, Kulhanek sued E! and the Florida-based Arco Media Group Inc. for invasion of privacy and emotional distress.

On Wednesday morning, Kulhanek won what her lawyer says is the first judgment of its kind against the video makers and earned a $5 million default judgment in the 22nd District Court. Lawyers for Arco Media never officially responded to the lawsuit and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Reading the rest of the story, I have to wonder if she would have won if the video makers had bothered to answer the suit. For example:

[Kulhanek's lawyer David] Sergi said Kulhanek was put in a barbershop type chair where liquor was poured down her throat.

"Before she knew it, she was dead drunk," he said. "The people from Arco were egging her on to enter the wet T-shirt contest. The next thing she knew she was in front of a bunch of people with her shirt off."

Okay, so you're saying she was forced into this chair without having any idea what was about to happen, then liquor was poured into her mouth which she was forced to swallow, and then after that she was persuaded to enter a wet-T-shirt contest during which she removed her shirt? At no point was she ever able to say "Hey, you know, I really don't want to do this, so please don't make me drink all that booze"?

I'll stipulate that the business of videotaping drunk coeds who flash their boobs is sleazy. I'll concede that people do stupid things while drunk which they later regret - Lord knows I did while in college. I'm certainly thankful that none of them were caught on videotape and put up for sale. The thing is, though, no one ever forced me to get drunk. That was my choice. The dumb things that followed were therefore my responsibility.

It's possible that Amber Kulhanek was coerced, and if so then the judgment is legitimate. Given that the Arco Media forfeited the issue, we'll never get to hear their cross-examination of Ms. Kulhanek, so we're left with only her version of what happened. Perhaps Arco Media will appeal, assuming you can appeal a default judgment. And given how much they were willing to spend on their legal defense, I wouldn't budget for that money just yet, Amber.

3/03/2002

Afghanistan and the lessons of Y2K After reading Gary Farber's thorough takedown of The Guardian's resident idiot, I got to thinking how a presumably intelligent person could be so utterly off-base. It's not so much that Mary Riddell and those like her are guaranteed to be wrong about their conclusions - the US-Iraq situation could very well turn into the kind of disaster that she seems to be rooting for - it's the way they get to those conclusions.

Alarmists in general seem to be extremely adept at tailoring logic to fit their conclusions. They ignore or shout down opposing views, and when the facts come in against them, they shunt them aside and hunt for any dark cloud they can point to as proof of their inevitable correctness. We saw this behavior quite a bit in the weeks leading up to the successful invasion of Afghanistan, and I daresay we'll see more screeds like Mary's in the future if and when the US decides to act against Iraq.

This line of thinking led me to another event for which doom was frequently, loudly, and incorrectly predicted. I'm speaking of the once-feared Y2K problem, in which outdated computer systems would melt down on January 1, 2000, causing worldwide chaos and destruction. I think it's instructive to look at what some of the Y2K doomsayers were saying then, and what they said afterwards when it became clear that they weren't just wrong but not even close.

The Y2K doomsayers made claims like the following:

  • The scope of the problem and its potential for catastophe are bigger than the mainstream media and its anointed experts would have you think.

  • There are zillions of lines of code which may have the Y2K bug in them. Fixing this will take jillions of person hours and cost gazillions of dollars.

  • Government and business have a vested interest in downplaying the problem. Those of us who dare to question their claims and tell the truth about what's going on will be harassed and silenced.


Sound familiar? Even after January 1, 2000 came without civilization ending, most of them refused to back off their predictions. They never said that all problems would manifest themselves right away, after all. Wait and see, there will be problems later.

Ed Yourdon was one of the big Y2K doomsayers. If you poke around his website, you can find some hindsight from him on this issue. On this index page, he admits he was wrong, in a roundabout way, anyway:

I was wrong about Y2K. Not about the magnitude and pervasive nature of the problem, and not about the likely consequences if millions of computer systems and embedded chips around the world had not been repaired or replaced. But I was wrong about the likelihood that enough of the repair/remediation would be finished in order to prevent serious disruptions. Indeed, it has gradually become apparent during the first few weeks and months of 2000 that Y2K has caused a number of moderate-to-serious problems in various parts of the world -- but it has not turned out to be the crisis that some of us had anticipated.

Italics his. This last sentence is a masterpiece of understatement, since the "crisis" Ed Yourdon and others anticipated was in fact the fall of the United States government amidst worldwide panic and economic catastrophe. In this essay Yourdon wrote responding to President Clinton's speech at the National Academy of Sciences in 1998, Yourdon gives a fairly clear idea of what he had anticipated:

If the lights are out, if the phones are dead, if the banks are closed, if the airplanes are not flying, and if the hospitals are not accepting patients, I can assure you that the average citizen will not be spending much time wondering whether he still has more computer power than MIT.
[...]
[P]lease tell the American people that several of the oil companies are terrified of the problem they face here, because many of the chips are down on the bottom of the ocean floor -- and thus incredibly difficult to find, fix, or replace. If the oil rigs shut down, our supply of oil is threatened; if we don't get enough oil, you're going to be faced with the alternative of rationing gasoline or shutting down the oil-fired electric utilities.

Yourdon goes on in the introductory essay to downplay his erroneous vision and to point to any and every glitch that did occur as vindication. It's in this essay where Yourdon shows that he truly did not and does not understand why he was wrong about Y2K. This was a postmortem look at accusations that he had been "shouting fire in a crowded theater" with his dire predictions:

In any case, we didn't know how Y2K would work out in 1998. Perhaps there are a few who can honestly say that they absolutely, positively knew that Y2K would be a non-event, but the vast majority of us had to admit, if only in private, that we wouldn't really be absolutely sure. And, in the context of this postmortem, I'm not sure if it would work out the same way -- i.e., a Y2K non-event -- if we had it all to do over again. Indeed, my mental image of the whole situation is that God flipped a coin to determine whether to decide whether to make Y2K a disaster or a non-event. This time, the coin came up heads, and God shrugged and let the world off with only a few glitches. But if we rolled the calendar back a couple years and went through the whole process again, that same coin-toss might come up tails -- in which case, God might have decided to let a few electric grids shut down, a few banks collapse, and maybe even a few airplanes fall from the sky. I know that this is an area of intense debate and controversy, and that many people are deeply convinced that there was no possible way -- no way, no-how -- for the incipient Y2K bugs to have caused a serious disaster. But there are others of us, myself included, who feel that we were incredibly lucky, and that the outcome could easily have been much, much different.

I'm now going to get to the point of this essay, in which I tell you why the Y2K bug was in fact a nonproblem, why Ed Yourdon fails miserably at understanding this, and what it all has to do with all those equally wrong doomsayers about our mission in Afghanistan.

The people who forecast doom in Y2K were actually right about a few things. They were right in that the problem was widespread, and that fixing it would be a massive and expensive undertaking whose success would be in doubt. They were wrong in assuming that the problem had to be fixed, or more to the point that it had to be fixed on the problem's terms. From my experience inside the IT department of a large multinational company, the problem was largely fixed by getting rid of the problematic pieces.

For example, rather than upgrade our mainframe systems that ran a non-Y2K-compliant version of VM, we migrated all the applications off it and onto client-server systems, then retired VM a good six months before 2000. This also obviated the need to edit those oft-cited millions of lines of COBOL code, since most if not all of that code lived on VM. Rather than upgrade BIOS chips on older PCs, we threw them out and installed new PCs. What's more, a lot of this work was done well before "Y2K" became part of the national consciousness. It was done as part of our normal cycle of upgrading old systems and installing new technologies. By the time we got around to creating a Y2K team (in 1997 or 98, I forget), most of the problem had already been solved.

Given that, it's pretty clear that while no one could truly say what Y2K would be like, the vision of God tossing a coin is ridiculous. Ed and his ilk never clued in to the fact that they were looking at a vastly different problem than the rest of us were.

Now think about the people who predicted doom when the US was preparing to invade Afghanistan and take out the Taliban. They threw around words and phrases like "quagmire", "VietNam", "failed Soviet invasion", and so forth. They talked about how the Taliban troops were master guerrila warriors who could hide in the mountains and inflict massive casualties on ground troops. They dismissed air attacks as being ineffective and vulnerable to ground-based missiles. They warned about how the locals would be against us because of the number of civilians we'd kill with our bombs. They scared us with visions of the "Arab Street" rising up to take arms around the world.

In other words, they saw the strengths of the enemy and assumed we would have to fight them on their terms. They didn't give the people whose job it is to solve these problems any credit for thinking of ways to use our strengths and to fight these battles on our terms. They drew on our failures of the past without realizing that we did in fact learn from them. That their predictions were invariably wrong should surprise no one.

Now I'm not saying that any future invasion of Iraq will be as quick or successful as the invasion of Afghanistan was. Nor am I saying that we've licked the whole problem in Afghanistan - we're still fighting, and we will be for the forseeable future. Many people, such as Steven den Beste and Sgt. Stryker have written intelligently and in depth about how things could go in Iraq. I just want to point out that the people who raise the loudest alarms are not necessarily the best sources for how to resolve the problems we face, usually because they're not talking about the problems we are actually facing.

(By the way, Ed is working on a new book called Byte Wars, in which he discusses security, risk management, and the "strategic implications of September 11". You can read the introductory chapter here. Ed also has a blog, which he supposedly updates "most every day", though the latest entry is February 10.)

There's one final thing to consider about doomsayers in general, which is that some of them are not making an honest attempt to predict the future but are instead merely rooting for the outcome they wanted. This was especially true with Y2K doomsaying, as many people interpreted the beginning of a new millennium as the beginning of the end times described in the Book of Revelations. Some people saw the possible breakdown of technology, commerce, and government as being necessary to restore God's rule on earth. Surely some people who predicted dire consequences for the United States if it invaded Afghanistan did so because they hoped to see the imperialist oppressor humbled. For these people, what was true about Afghanistan will be true about Iraq and wherever else the war on terror may lead.

So what happens to these prognosticators whose forecasts turn out to be so wrong? Well, most of them seem to just keep going. No one ever remember these things, right? And surely, they figure, one of these days God's coin toss is bound to come up favorably for them. So they go on with business as usual. As this Wired article notes about Gary North, someone Yourdon frequently cited and whose web site is very different now than it was three years ago:

What will the Internet's best-known doomsayer do if Y2K results in just minor disruptions? "A few years later he'll reappear with another apocalyptic scenario," Berlet predicts.

Surely the same is also true about the Mary Riddells of the world. We would be well advised to keep that in mind.
I was going to comment on the recent spate of sequels to classic animated Disney movies, but Oliver Willis beat me to it. What he said.
The Chronicle has endorsed Dan Morales in the Democratic primary for Governor. This is unlikely to mean anything, since the Chron is a lead-pipe cinch to back Governor Goodhair in November, and since Tony Sanchez is virtually certain to be the Democratic candidate anyway.

There are a couple of sentences from this endorsement which interest me:

...the party needs a strong gubernatorial candidate who has more than deep pockets with which to unite and energize the party.

...his record of service to the state is long, substantial and familiar.

In other words, the Chron prefers the experienced professional who has a clue about how our state government works to the rich, folksy outsider businessman who wants to buy his way into office. Seems reasonable.

Except, of course, when the rich, folksy outsider businessman is a Republican and the experienced professional with a clue is a Democrat. You know, like in 1990 when they endorsed Clayton Williams over Ann Richards and in 1994 when it was Dubya over Ann. Some things are more important than having a clue, after all.
The dog who didn't bark More interesting than the Chron's endorsement of Dan Morales is their strange silence regarding the Republican primary for US House District 22, which is Tom DeLay's home base. Their master list of endorsements from last week includes a pick in the District 22 Democratic primary, but as of today they've not given their blessing to either DeLay or challenger Michael Fjetland.

You may say that the Chron has better things to do than to waste ink on a race between a longtime officeholder who's never been seriously challenged for reelection and a no-name opponent with an axe to grind. (*) Maybe, but the Chron did bother to endorse Sheila Jackson Lee against her community-activist opponent. Why Sheila and not Tom?

The Chron has bashed DeLay several times in recent memory, mostly for his anti-rail stances. That sort of thing has never before stopped them from lining up behind a well-known incumbent, especially one who is a strong ally of a member of the Bush family. Maybe I'm reading too much into this. Maybe they haven't gotten to it yet. Whatever the reason, I find it odd.

(*) - Fjetland ran against DeLay in 2000 and got 17% of the vote in the primary. Later, he sent a letter to DeLay saying he wouldn't run against him if DeLay helped him get a job in the Bush administration. Apparently, he wanted to be US Trade Representative, or US Ambassador to the United Nations. You know, something small. DeLay, not too surprisingly, put this request in the round file. All this is in today's Voter's Guide section, whose online version is either infuriatingly slow or down.
Have office, will run One of the things I like about the primary season is the annual game of finding the perennial candidates. The Republicans have one who makes it more of a challenge to spot him because he runs under a different name each time. I speak of Sam Texas, also known as Sam Fayad, Texas Sam Fayad, and Sam Texas Fayad, now running for the Republican spot in State Senate District 15. He claims to have officially changed his name this time, but the Chron sees through his little ploy.

Sam, a word of advice. If you want to fool voters by presenting them with an appealing name, why not go all out? Call yourself "Sam Houston Texas" or "George Bush Texas" or "God Bless Texas". Think big, man.