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Sunday, June 29, 2003

Chain Smoking Monkeys Write this Blog...
But they had a rough weekend so I gave them the day off. As such, I'm just going to throw a list of interesting links at you. Enjoy:
  • Prewar Intelligence Investigation by Senator Robert Byrd : A passionate plea for more information regarding the intelligence presented to Congress (and the public). Byrd actually makes many good points, points that should be made. Personally, I feel a lot of people have gone over the line with accusations Bush's "lies" (at points, its debateable whether or not Byrd crossed said line). There are a lot of good questions to be asked about the affair, but they won't get answered if those who are supposed to be asking them are frothing at the mouth (at, say, the prospect of running Bush and/or Blair out of office). Byrd inadvertantly brings up another point:
    It is in the compelling national interest to examine what we were told about the threat from Iraq.
    Indeed! But, um, Senator Byrd? Shouldn't you have examined what you were told about the threat from Iraq before you voted on it? That might have been a good idea. If the President did lie, what does that say about how well our Congress is representing us?
  • The View From Above: An Imagery Analysis Tutorial : A brief tutorial on military imagery analysis by a former CIA analyst. Fun! [via Punchstack]
  • William Gibson's blog: For those that enjoyed the other day's post about 1984, check out William Gibson's blog for more of his spiffy writing (I seem to remember him giving it up, but the most recent entries seem, well, recent)...
  • When being chased by CIA trainees, don't mention Belgium to the waffle house physicist : Our tax dollars are well spent. Heh.
  • Seinfeld: The Boyfriend : This classic Seinfeld episode with Keith Hernandez contains a brilliant parody of Oliver Stone's JFK (scroll down about halfway), in which Kramer and Newman contend that Hernandez spit on them after a game. Jerry hilariously reproduces the courtroom scene from JFK, demonstrating that there had to be a "second spitter" (interestingly, as the page notes, Wayne Knight plays the same position in both JFK and this episode).
Posted by Mark on June 29, 2003 at 09:54 PM .: link :.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

The road to 1984
The Road to Oceania by William Gibson : When George Orwell had to come up with a name for his classic piece of dystopian literature, he did so by inverting the last two digits of the year of his book's completion. Thus 1984 was born, but it was not a novel about the future, it was a novel about 1948. As such, while its still a shocking dystopian vision of what could have been, we've got other fish to fry.
Elsewhere, driven by the acceleration of computing power and connectivity and the simultaneous development of surveillance systems and tracking technologies, we are approaching a theoretical state of absolute informational transparency, one in which "Orwellian" scrutiny is no longer a strictly hierarchical, top-down activity, but to some extent a democratized one. As individuals steadily lose degrees of privacy, so, too, do corporations and states. Loss of traditional privacies may seem in the short term to be driven by issues of national security, but this may prove in time to have been intrinsic to the nature of ubiquitous information.
I find this to be an interesting perspective, though I'm not sure how close we'd ever get to a "state of absolute informational transparency".
This is not to say that Orwell failed in any way, but rather that he succeeded. "1984" remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of 1948. If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed. But don't mistake those mirrors for road maps to the future, or even to the present.

We've missed the train to Oceania, and live today with stranger problems.
Read the whole thing, as they say. Just as a note, you might want to check out the spiffy new edition of 1984 that was recently released with a new forward by some Thomas Pynchon guy. [via Instapundit]
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2003 at 07:34 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Understanding Vs. Enjoyment
Does greater understanding mean getting less joy out of things? Steven Den Beste wonders how many literature professors are blind to the simple joys of reading, and Matt Howell contends that greater understanding leads to greater appreciation.

Den Beste points to Mark Twain, who laments that he lost something when he gained a mastery of steamboat piloting (and thus a great understanding of the "language of water"):
... the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.
Howell disagrees, and points to his studies of theater. To him, a "critical analytical mindset does nothing to sap the joy from the experience of watching a play."

In part, they are both right, because the examples are very different. Twain learned a trade, and in so doing, he lost something. He saw the river in terms of piloting a steamboat. Howell, on the other hand, learned more about theater so that he could gain a greater appreciation of theater. Twain didn't learn the language of water to gain a greater appreciation of nature, but, rather, to avoid crashing his steamboat. Obviously their education in their corresponding subject affected them in different ways, and rightly so.

However, while I admit that I agree with Howell that a greater understanding of a subject can lead to a greater appreciation of that subject, I've noticed that it is very easy to over-analyze. I'm not familiar with theater, so I'll need to fall back on film. When taking in a good horror flick, for instance, a critical analysis of the mise en scène can completely ruin the film. When I look at the screen, and I see a skewed camera angle, cool colors giving way to hot colors, and I hear the music shift, I think to myself the director is manipulating the elements of the film to imply dread; something's going to happen. Its the difference between being told to feel horror and actually feeling horror. To someone who is passively viewing the film, the feeling of apprehension is palpable precisely because they don't know what the filmmaker is doing to them. If they did, they'd feel manipulated and cheated, and that's not why you go to see a horror film.

The best films, the ones that affect us the most, are the ones which transport and immerse you in another world, another time... but if you're busy nitpicking about the lighting or the editing, then you're still sitting in the theater, and you're certainly not enjoying the film.

Of course, this isn't true all of the time. Sometimes a filmmaker will actually want you to think about why a shot was from that angle or why one color or another dominates the screen at various times (and sometimes bad films will do this unintentionally, giving you that feeling of manipulation I discussed earlier). There's no way to objectively quantify how you should watch a film, but every way has its advantages or disadvantages. Analysis of a film while you're watching it can be rewarding and fun, but its possible to overdo it, as I think I've shown. Its sometimes nice to let the filmmaker's vision sweep over you and save the analysis for later.

Its similar to the notion that you have to sometimes have to suspend your disbelief while watching a movie. When a film has too many unrealistic elements, you can no longer relate, and you're no longer immersed in the film's world. But the occasional fudging of reality is acceptable, as long as it doesn't remove you from the film's grip for too long. Sure, its fun to MST3K a movie, but proclaiming He just shot 8 bullets out of a revolver without reloading and other similar complaints is an awful way to watch a movie, just as an over-analysis of a film can significantly blunt the impact of that film. Then again, I guess this is where the difference between film and theater come in. I can watch and rewatch the same exact film, taking care the second time around to figure out why I felt a certain way during a scene, thus enhancing my enjoyment of the film...

Update 6.23.03 - Porphyrogenitus has two posts discussing how the game of Quidditch ruined the first Harry Potter film for him. He refers to the film as losing his goodwill with a few annoying details (such as the way Quidditch was handled), which is a great way of putting one of the things I was trying to get at above...
Posted by Mark on June 22, 2003 at 12:53 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Dezinformatsiya (The Power of Disinformation)
The Lie That Linked CIA to the Kennedy Assassination by Max Holland : This makes for interesting reading as a follow up to Sunday's post about conspiracy theories and JFK in particular. It follows the theory from its origins in the infamous Italian newspaper, Paese Sera (a known Soviet propaganda outlet), and Jim Garrison's own investigation into JFK's assassination. Interestingly enough, the merits of both the story and the investigation were highly dubious, but they both appeared around the same time, and tended to feed upon each other lending a perceived credibility to both. Garrison's investigation was drawing massive criticism from the public, but when he leaked Paese Sera's story to a local newspaper, his troubles disappeared as fresh accusations of wrongdoing in the CIA spread throughout the world (which only served to blunt the criticism of Garrison's probe). "The impression left was that Garrison was being put under siege because he dared to tell the truth."

The CIA, though deeply concerned by these happenings, was more or less compelled to keep their mouth shut during the entire affair. Its debatable whether or not this was a wise thing to do, but, as CIA chief Ray Rocca noted, the "impact of such charges... will not depend principally upon their veracity or credibility but rather upon their timeliness and the extent of press coverage." By the time the case against Clay Shaw went to trial in January of 1969, the CIA's apprehension was palpable. In the end, the trial was a bit anti-climactic. The CIA wasn't even mentioned during the trial.
Garrison's pursuit of Shaw was now widely regarded as a legal farce and a fraud. The episode had even precipitated a bitter split among the many critics of the Warren Commission report on the assassination, nearly all of whom had flocked to Garrison's side in 1967. Now many of them considered the Orleans Parish DA to be the Joe McCarthy of their cause. Just as the Wisconsin senator disgraced anti-Communism by making reckless charges that ruined innocent peoples' lives, they believed that Garrison had irrevocably set back the case against the Warren Report by persecuting an innocent man.
Which is sort of the point I was making on Sunday (Oliver Stone was attempting to convince us that we should not trust the government, but he chose such a flimsy example that he ultimately hurt his cause). You'd think the story would end there, but it didn't. Garrison never really gave up, and even after some further unsuccessful legal wrangling, actually saw some success:
An abject failure in courts of law, Garrison's probe achieved a latent triumph in the court of public opinion. The DA's message became part and parcel of what has been called "the enduring power of the 1960s in the national imagination."
In 1988, Garrison was finally able to get his memoir published, and in it, he outlined his conspiracy theory, CIA connection and all. It found its way into the hands of Oliver Stone, and the rest is history. The film was very popular and created a public clamor for millions of pages of documents that had been "suppressed" as part of the government's alleged massive cover-up. In 1992, the President´┐ŻJohn F. Kennedy Records Collection Act was passed, releasing a surprising amount of records relating to the assassination. Stone likes to claim that his film is solely responsible for that legislation, but its worth noting that the "coincidental end of the Cold War also played a critical role in the enactment and implementation of the 1992 law." Stone also likes to claim that the records prove that there was a cover up, but, as Holland concludes, that's really not the case:
Far from validating the film's hero, the new documents have finally lifted the lid on the disinformation that was at the core of Jim Garrison's unrelenting probe. The declassified CIA records document that everything in the Paese Sera story was a lie, and, simultaneously, reveal the genuine nature and duration of Clay Shaw's innocuous link to the CIA. These same records explain why the CIA never responded appropriately to the disinformation, as it had in Helms's 1961 Senate testimony and would later do in swift response to such schemes in the 1980s. Finally, the personal files turned over by Garrison's family underline the profound impact that one newspaper clipping had on a mendacious district attorney adept at manipulating the Zeitgeist of the late 1960s.
The shame of it all is that the Warren Commission Report really isn't satisfactory, and the overzealous conspiracy theory forwarded by Garrison and Stone was far enough off course to discredit the case against the Warren Report.

Of course you should know all of this is a lie, as the article I'm referencing is coming from the CIA itself, and they are, by default, lying. Right?
Posted by Mark on June 18, 2003 at 08:51 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Convincing Bullshit
They Are Alive (JFK to Z) by metaphilm : Conspiracy theories are strange beasts. Generally devised by a paranoid person or group, almost all of them beg the question. One favorite conspiracy theory contends that the CIA (along with a group of anti-Castro Cuban exiles and the military-industrial complex) killed JFK to allow the rise of Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. involvement in Vietnam (obviously there are many variations of this particular theory). This theory was captured adroidtly by Oliver Stone's film JFK.
In many ways, JFK aptly represents the essence of most of the substantial conspiracy texts. They combine an uncritical analysis of their own findings - that, for example, the CIA would use Oswald as an agent, and a highly important one for that matter - with an absolute skepticism of the Warren Commission's evidence and conclusions.
Stone is a great filmmaker. JFK, at first glance, makes an alarmingly good case against the traditional story as forwarded by the Warren Commission, but when one is familiar with the language of cinema, its hardly convincing. Stone's use of cinematic language gives JFK the feel of a documentary, with its black and white footage and its reliance on natural lighting, among other staples of documentary filmmaking. Take away these techniques, and the theory is exposed for what it really is: a "counter-myth" to the prevailing orthodoxy (as Stone himself once commented). Norman Mailer referred to it as "more convincing bullshit than the Warren Report's bullshit." But its still bullshit, you see?

Does this mean JFK is a bad movie? As much as I disagree with Stone's convincing bullshit, I must admit, he does a masterful job presenting it. On a strictly technical level, I enjoy it. It is a suspenseful and tautly constructed thriller, but by using what is essentially a fictional story and presenting it as historical fact, Stone ultimately shoots himself in the foot. He wants to get his point across so badly that he relies on convincing bullshit instead of pure facts.
One senses that Stone deliberately pushes his fictive interpretation over the facts. Why? The fictional account is better and more convincing propaganda against a government Stone strongly mistrusts and Americans have trusted too much.
And this is where I begin to disagree with the author. Yes, the fictional account is better and more convincing, but it's still propaganda. With JFK, Stone is asking the audience to believe his story over the government's, but upon closer examination his story falls apart. If you want to show how untrustowrthy the American government is, why choose a conspiracy theory that is pretty much known to be false as the vehicle for your argument? Could it be that Stone is simply demonstrating how someone can make a convincing case based on fictional suppositions, thus deminishing the value of other explainations based on the same evidence (after all, his admission that the film is a "counter-myth" seems to imply that this may be the case)? Its a fine line Stone is straddling, and its easy to come down on eather side of the issue. Ultimately, no one knows what really happened on that fateful day, and I don't think Stone added anything significant to that, other than underscoring our lack of understanding. But damn, its fun to watch, isn't it?
Posted by Mark on June 15, 2003 at 11:09 PM .: link :.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Strange Days
"You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the U. S. of arrogance, and Germany doesn't want to go to war" - NothingLasts4ever

What a quote, what a world!
Posted by Mark on June 12, 2003 at 11:22 AM .: link :.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Oshkosh b' Gosh
The Cold War really was an amazingly strange time. I was alive during that time, but I was too young to really understand what was going on. If I was older and I was aware of some of the things that are now known about that time, I'm not sure how I would have reacted. A while back I read a book about submarine espionage called Blind Man's Bluff, and I was shocked by the daring and audacity of our submarine forces.

One story in particular caught my eye. Operation Ivy Bells was a 1970s U.S. Navy and NSA plot to bug Soviet underwater communications cables in the Sea of Okhotsk*. Submarines periodically serviced the device and recovered tapes from it, providing U.S. Intelligence with tons of valuable data. Its an utterly fascinating story, and it demonstrates yet again America's reliance on technology. (There is much more to the story than I will go into here, but I wrote a more detailed summary at E2. Read the whole thing, as they say... but if you really want to get into details, you should check out the book)

The wildly successful cable tapping operations in the Okhotsk was eventually discovered by the Soviets in the early 1980s. It was originally thought that the discovery was caused by a U.S. submarine mishap in which a sub fell on the cable (*ahem*), but when all the intelligence was analyzed, that explanation just didn't fit. In 1985, U.S. authorities arrested Ronald W. Pelton, a former NSA employee who had sold out the Okhotsk cable tapping operation to the Soviets for $35,000. Yes, the Soviets were able to uncover one of our most important secrets for a paltry $35,000. Another spy named John Walker (and a ring of friends and family members whom he had recruited) was also caught in 1985. Between the two of them, the Soviets were able to get just as good a look at our communications as we were of theirs, and they didn't need to spend years of research, millions of dollars in investments in technology, and risk their submariners' lives.

Now, the contrast between the ways the Soviets went about information gathering and the way we did is an interesting one. The Soviets used a low-tech, inexspensive methodology that was very successful (a defecting KGB agent referred to the Walker ring as "the most important espionage victory in KGB history.") The U.S. spent millions of dollars in technology and research, then daringly entered Soviet waters to place the taps. The U.S. method was just as successful, but more costly. Then again, the research and technology that enabled the cable tapping operations weren't exclusive to these missions.

Its an interesting example of how a secure system can be undone by simple human interactions, isn't it?

* Okhotsk was typically mispronounced as "Oshkosh" by those who partook on these missions (hence the title of this post and a chapter in the book)
Posted by Mark on June 08, 2003 at 11:01 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Amazon's Meta-Reviews
Amazon.com and the New Democracy of Opinion by Erik Ketzan : In this article, Eric Ketzan contends that Amazon.com book reviews "are invaluable documents in understanding what book reviews in periodicals could never show us: who is reading a book, why are they reading it, and how are they reading it."
The present study seeks to analyze the way these reader reviews function: what are their goals, who is their audience, and how do they differ from traditional book reviews?
Since a comprehensive study of all reviews available on Amazon.com would be absurd, he chooses to examine the 133 reviews available for Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow. The novel was chosen for the extremes of opinion which dominate people's reactions to the novel, and thus provides us with a good, if somewhat unique, subject for an analysis of the Amazon system.

Indeed, the reviews for Gravity's Rainbow are uncommonly descriptive and helpful, allowing insight into the type of person who enjoys (and doesn't enjoy) this sort of novel. Indeed, many even give advice on how the novel should be read, and what to expect. The lack of an editor allows the tone of the reviews to be somewhat informal and thus you find it easier to relate to them than to a stuffy book reviewer for the New York Times Book Review...

Obviously, many (maybe even most) reviews at Amazon don't quite live up to the standard that Gravity's Rainbow sets. Its an extraordinary novel, and thus the resulting reviews are ripe for analysis, providing much information about the nature of the novel. One of the challenges of the novel, and a theme that runs throughout many reviews (professional and Amazon), is that it is essentially futile to review it in any conventional manner. Because of this, much of the commentary about it has to do with the peripheral experiences; people explain how they read it, how long it took them to do so, what effects it had on their lives, and what type of people will get it or not get it - none of which actually has much to do with the book iteself. We are able to get an uncanny picture of who is reading Gravity's Rainbow, why are they reading it, and how are they reading it, but the book itself remains a mystery (which, basically, it is, even to someone who has read it). Other novels don't lend themselves so readily to this sort of meta-review, and thus Amazon's pages aren't quite so useful for the majority of books listed there. One has to wonder if Gravity's Rainbow actually was the best choice for this case study - sure, it provides a unique example of what Amazon reviews are capable of, but that doesn't necessarily apply to the rest of the catalog... then again, the informal tone, the passion and conviction of those who love the novel, the advice on how to read and what else to read - these are things that are generally absent from professional book reviews, so perhaps Ketzan is on to something here...
Posted by Mark on June 01, 2003 at 02:16 PM .: link :.

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