Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Glengarry Leads

People have begun asking about Kerry Healey. She's been our lieutenant governor since 2003 and she's been actively campaigning to become governor since February — but because she's unopposed in the Republican primary while three prominent Democrats are battling each other over the nomination, she is still basically flying below the radar.

On one hand, conventional wisdom suggests that this is smart: "When your opponents are battling each other, stand clear." Let Reilly and Patrick and Gabrieli hammer each other, and whichever one is left standing after September will be that much more vulnerable. There's no reason to get your hands dirty if somebody else is doing the work.

Moreover, it's economical. You've only got so much cash to spend; and right now, the airwaves are flooded with ads from candidates who actually have something to fight about. If you're sailing clear into the September primary, it makes good sense to hold your cash while your opponents spend theirs.

But there's another reason that Kerry Healey has been keeping a low profile, and it's a reason that nobody seems to be talking about. Mitt Romney is poised for a presidential bid in 2008, and the fact that he'll be running a Republican candidacy from a blue state means he'll need plenty of homegrown money — and the problem with shearing sheep is that you have to wait for the wool to grow back.

Republican fundraisers know that, in many cases, money collected today for Healey's campaign is money that won't be around in two years for Romney. Healey's numbers aren't ironclad, and most projections predict that she'll lose to a Democrat; and when you stack those odds against the obvious priority given to Romney's presidential bid, the reality is that Republican fundraisers aren't working their hardest for Kerry Healey. They're keeping the Glengarry leads on ice, so to speak, waiting patiently for 2008.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Prohibition

Last week, police in California busted a prostitution ring that employed more than 240 women. The investigation was focused on Elite Entertainment, which officials said had posed as an escort service and advertised in the yellow pages. Ten employees have been charged with crimes including loan fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion.

My first question is, How can an escort service pose as a "front" for prostitution? That's what escort service is — prostitution. I realize that escort agencies insist that "money is exchanged for time and companionship," but surely we can acknowledge that's boilerplate that their lawyers prescribe in order to impede prosecution. Are we really going to pretend there's a legitimate industry of escort services being sullied by a prostitution scandal?

And I don't like the idea of prosecuting an escort service for tax evasion. It's disingenuous. Tax evasion implies that you expect the person to pay taxes; you can't criminalize the industry and then complain when they don't file tax returns.

The Boston Phoenix has a weekly insert advertising local escorts. When I first picked it up as a teenager, it took me a minute to comprehend what I was looking at. I knew that prostitution was illegal, yet I was holding what looked like hundreds of advertisements for prostitutes that had been published by a major city newspaper. Even writing that sentence today, it seems ridiculous.

I don't think prostitution should be illegal, but I understand the reasoning and I'm not inclined to protest. What I don't understand is demanding enforcement while trying to look the other way. We pretend that money really is exchanged for "time and companionship," and we tolerate page after page of prostitution ads on popular websites — but then we send police detectives on a three-year undercover investigation as if they're infiltrating a terrorist cell.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Logical Fallacy

CNN published an interview with "terrorism analyst" Peter Bergen, wherein Bergen answered viewers' questions about Osama bin Laden. The transcript is being circulated because Bergen disputed the idea that bin Laden ever worked for CIA, but I think there's a more interesting excerpt.
Q: I thought bin Laden was seriously ill with kidney problems. If so, how is he getting his medication and is he on dialysis in any form? — John Hatington, Stratford, Connecticut.

BERGEN: This is sort of wishful thinking. Bin Laden has got some chronic health problems, but none of them are life-threatening. He certainly doesn't have kidney disease, because he'd be dead by now if he did.

He's not going to die of natural causes anytime soon.
Do you see Bergen's logic? Bin Laden couldn't have kidney disease, because he'd be dead now — and since the United States insists he isn't dead, he must not have kidney disease.

OK. Let's pretend, for argument's sake, that I'm wrong and Osama bin Laden is alive. We know he had access to video equipment; and if he was worried about betraying his location, masking your terrain on video is as simple as standing with your back against a nondescript rock. So please explain why, after years of proudly facing into a camera lens to threaten the infidels, bin Laden has spoken only via scratchy audio recordings since 9/11.

Friday, August 11, 2006

"Civilization, Please."

I drove to my cable company yesterday and swapped my 6-year-old old box for a brand-new dual-tuner digital video recorder (DVR). I'm not a television person — but I had a good reason and this was a great deal, so I couldn't resist.

This fall, my two favorite screenwriters will both have shows on primetime television: David Mamet's The Unit, and Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Trouble is, even if I could plan my life around TV programs, I wouldn't want to; and even if I wanted to, NBC has decided to pit Studio 60 against Monday Night Football. I'm a writer and I love Sorkin's scripts — but I'm also a guy, and that means I watch football. This is problematic.

Enter the dual-tuner DVR. I can watch one channel while I'm recording another, or I can record two programs simultaneously. In other words, I can watch Monday Night Football while recording Studio 60 — or, perhaps more likely, I can spend my Monday nights ensnared in dull and tedious tasks while saving both programs for the mythical free time that I would have during the weekends in some parallel universe.

I suppose I risk crossing the line into astroturf if I add that my cable company, Comcast, employs telephone representatives who can actually answer questions — like how to override the preprogrammed remote or how to activate the auto-tune feature — without consulting a manual, or if I mentioned that subscribing to this feature cost me less per month ($9.95) than TiVo ($12.95) without signing any 12-month contract. That's OK. I like Comcast — and when I like a product or company, I don't mind lapsing into the occasional advertisement. That's what "word of mouth" is all about.

Actually, the only risk is that I'll become a TV person. I avoided installing a CD player in my car for years because I was afraid I'd be tempted to carry irreplaceable CDs on long trips and they'd get baked inside the car by summer heat. I'm not crazy about the idea of postponing TV programs for my free time; I think possibly the most poignant advice for Americans is to seek elevating recreation, and I think television probably ranks near the bottom of my options in that regard. But Sorkin and Mamet constitute two exceptions in my book, so I've allowed myself this indulgence — and I'll just have to exercise restraint to keep from recording General Hospital.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Big Guns

Following today's announcement by the British Security Service, three major security changes will be implemented immediately at Logan Airport.
  • No liquids will be allowed through check-in.
  • National Guard members will be posted as security.
  • Assault rifles will be issued to state police.
The first is obvious. According to published reports, the British plot involved using a binary explosive which could be carried as two separate, inert liquids. Since we don't have the necessary equipment to distinguish these components from harmless liquids like coffee or shampoo, the best short-term solution while suspects from this particular terror cell remain loose is simply to ban all liquids.

The second is trickier. Nobody questions that we have serious problems with airport security in the United States, but none of those problems are solved — or even addressed — by posting National Guardsmen in airports. We've seen no evidence that any terror organization has ever plotted to create a disturbance inside an airport. The only rationalization I can see is that, if something tragic did occur in the air, a National Guard presence might help to keep a crowded airport calm.

But the third is just plain gratuitous. What's the purpose of equipping state troopers with assault rifles? There shouldn't be anything a state cop can accomplish in the middle of a crowded airport with an automatic that he can't accomplish with a .45 — and if there is, then he hasn't been trained sufficiently with his service weapon. For that matter, do state troopers receive any substantial training with assault rifles? Exactly what threat do we think this measure will deter?

When we re-opened airports following 9/11, we immediately banned curbside check-in. Nevermind that it had nothing to do with what happened; nevermind that the hijackers relied on a dozen different loopholes in our national security, none of which we were plugging while we inconvenienced travelers. We're fond of quoting Ben Franklin, who warned of trading liberty for safety — but we're not affecting safety, we're just spinning our wheels. And I object to equipping police officers with military weapons for the purpose of political cosmetics.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Indifference

Last weekend, bloggers discovered a file that AOL had posted on a public research website, containing 20 million search logs from 657,427 subscribers collected between March and May. Each user was assigned a number, presumably to protect anonymity, but all searches were grouped together according to the user who made them; so by scrutinizing a person's search history, it is possible in some cases to deduce that person's identity.

For instance, if User #458372 searched for the names of John Doe's friends and coworkers along with his address and e-mail, presumably you can deduce that User #458372 is in fact John Doe — and if those search results also include phrases like "how to grow weed in my garage" or "how to pass a drug test," then suddenly you've learned some very private facts about John Doe's life.

Several bloggers have already discovered specific examples of this in the data, and a few are even claiming to have identified specific people whose search data is included. The reason I'm using a hypothetical example rather than simply citing those individuals is that I don't want to exacerbate these people's victimization — and that point is why I'm writing this column.

The same bloggers who discovered this data and objected that it constituted a gross violation of privacy are now passing the data around. AOL has removed the file from its website, but the bloggers had already downloaded it and now they've set up mirrors to share it with anyone who goes looking. These same people who are excorating AOL for hurting its users are simultaneously combing through this data like voyeurs, playing detective to guess the identities of unsuspecting people and announcing their results on the Web, and generally making a bad situation worse.

By finding AOL's mistake, the bloggers did perform a service; but the harm they've done since grossly outweighs that good. Instead of bringing their discovery directly to AOL — or to a major newspaper, which presumably would have confirmed the story with AOL and allowed the company to remove the data before revealing its existence to the world — they chose to declare their findings on community weblogs and invite everyone to download the file, because the only thing more important to these bloggers than condemning AOL was being properly credited by driving traffic to their websites. AOL screwed up and should fire the technician who published this information, but its carelessness is far outstripped by these bloggers' deliberate indifference — and that's the greater tragedy here.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Irrelevant

This is what I love about the United Nations. For the past 25 days, southern Lebanon has been flooded with Israeli troops and ordnance while Hezbollah terrorists have peppered Jewish settlements with truck-launched rockets — and this morning, CNN's front page announced the situation's latest development in 14-point bold font: US, France Agree On Truce.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Small Omission

Barely two months ago, Boston politicians were scrambling to stop the exodus of young professionals from Massachusetts. The Boston Globe ran a front-page story attributing our population hemorrhage to taxes and our city's high cost of living, and Mayor Menino issued a dozen public statements advocating solutions to help Boston retain its middle class by reducing their financial burdens.

This week, City Councilor Robert Consalvo submitted a proposal to levy an automatic charge of several hundred dollars on commuters who cause traffic accidents inside city limits. Menino promptly indicated his support for this proposal and said he is "always interested in any legislation that could bring additional revenue to the city."

Note to Menino: You seem to have misread Emerson, who warned that foolish consistency is a hobgoblin of little minds. The adjective is key — and contrary to what you have mistakenly concluded, avoiding any consistency whatsoever is not a surefire route to wise and effective governance.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bigger Problems

Last weekend, Governor Romney referred to the Big Dig as a "tar baby." The Boston Herald responded by plastering a photograph of Romney looking befuddled on its front page alongside the headline, "That's Offensive!" Apparently there wasn't much else going on in the world this week, because the fact that our governor had accurately used a metaphor warranted a front-page scandal.

Both the Herald and CNN quoted angry remarks from a Larry Jones, who was identified as "a black Republican and civil rights activist." In other words, they couldn't locate anyone with authority at any reputable organization who could spare the time to froth about Romney's comment, but the editors had already committed itself to being outraged; so they pulled some schmuck off the street and pasted his remarks above the fold.

At the same time, Los Angeles was buzzing about Mel Gibson's arrest. Apparently Gibson was arrested for drunk driving last Thursday, and when he was taken into custody he spouted a half-dozen anti-Semitic remarks. When the story broke, Gibson released the following statement:
After drinking alcohol on Thursday night, I did a number of things that were very wrong and for which I am ashamed. I drove a car when I should not have, and was stopped by the L.A. County sheriff's. The arresting officer was just doing his job and I feel fortunate that I was apprehended before I caused injury to any other person.

I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested, and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said and I apologize to anyone who I have offended.

Also, I take this opportunity to apologize to the deputies involved for my belligerent behavior. They have always been there for me in my community and indeed probably saved me from myself. I disgraced myself and my family with my behavior and for that I am truly sorry.

I have battled the disease of alcoholism for all of my adult life and profoundly regret my horrific relapse. I apologize for any behavior unbecoming of me in my inebriated state and have already taken necessary steps to ensure my return to health.
As if on cue, Abraham Foxman, national director for the Anti-Defamation League, offered this reply:
Mel Gibson's apology is unremorseful and insufficient. It's not a proper apology because it does not go to the essence of his bigotry and his anti-Semitism... We would hope that Hollywood now would realize the bigot in their midst and that they will distance themselves from this anti-Semite.
I'm confused. Gibson's statement uses the words "ashamed" and "apologize" twice each and it ends with the phrase, "I am truly sorry." By what measure can this be described as unremorseful? If that statement doesn't constitute a proper apology, what would?

Don't hold your breath waiting for an answer from Foxman. He's part of the problem. It's the same problem faced by every local highway department in this country: When you pay someone to fix the roads, you give that person a vested interest in ensuring that the roads stay broken. You can't expect people like Foxman to defeat intolerance when their jobs depend on fighting it.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Risk Management

A waitress who lost her wallet earlier this month recovered her license last week when a customer handed it to her in an attempt to buy alcohol.
The 22-year-old waitress, whose name was not released, called police last week and said she had been handed her own stolen driver's license by a woman trying to prove she was 21.

Maria Bergan, 23, of Lakewood, was charged Sunday night with identity theft and receiving stolen property. She was arrested at her home in suburban Cleveland.
The story is being reported as a statistical anomaly, but I'd say it's a textbook example of just how stupid your average criminal can be. The alleged thief is 23. Why didn't she simply use her own ID?