Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.

Mom, Can I Be a Hooker This Halloween?  | e-mail post

"Sure, I'll take your candy, mister."
A friend sent me a link to BrandsOnSale's selection of "Child Pimp & Ho Costumes." To the left is the "Child Ho Costume" and to the right is the pimpadelic "Child Cheetah Pimp Suit Costume."

I am not saying kids need to be dressing as role models for Halloween, but this is really pushing it for me. Are these really the types of people kids should be playacting as? Also, do you really want to be sending your daughter out dressed as a prostitute for Halloween?

Possibly the most disturbing thing is that as of today, "Due to overwhelming demand, our child ho costume is currently sold out." (from the site). I'll be curious to see if I have any little hos coming around this Halloween.

"Hey Dad, I'm just going to take sis out on a trick. Er, I mean trick or treat."

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Sunday, August 29, 2004

Musings on Abu Ghraib  | e-mail post

There is no denying that the Abu Ghraib prison abuse in Iraq speaks rather poorly of our nation. As if victory on the battlefield was not enough, our soldiers seemed to enjoy the sport of abusing and humiliating their captive POWs.

Presumably it was not for lack of entertainment. I have certainly heard and read about the prevalance of Playstations, XBoxes, and a variety of entertainment options available to the troops. While I used to worry that excessive video game play will make real-life too boring to our youth, obviously not even Halo can compete with the idea of stripping POWs naked and posing them in all kinds of demeaning poses or group masturbation (whoa!). One can only imagine the result if Robert Mapplethorpe was a GI. The amount of nudity, posing and group masturbation involved does certainly seem to make one wonder if our Army is taking up the traditions of the British Navy as described by Churchill ("The real traditions of the British Navy are rum, buggery and the lash.").

With so much ink spilled and bandwidth consumed about this issue, I will not write at length on the subject. I do have a couple of thoughts, however:

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves
First, I have been surprised by the apparently substantial involvement of women in the situation.
Now, while Kipling may have been right that the female of the species is more deadly than the male, I tend to think they are much less sadistic (although there are exceptions, of course). Maybe this is just a subtle form of chauvinism on my part, but I would think that, all things being equal, having a number of women involved in the detention system would have resulted in more humane, rather than less humane treatment.

Passing The Buck
The other thing that I found interesting is how the official investigations are playing out. The Schlesinger report [PDF Link] found a lot of problems with everyone other than Donald Rumsfeld. Given that Rumsfeld selected the panel, this struck me as unsurprising. Of course, I don't honestly think Rumsfeld had any blame in the matter anway, I really do think he has better things to worry about that what is happening on the night shift at a military prison.

The next day, in an incredible display of buck-passing, the Army's Fay report [PDF link] blames the CIA for the atmosphere they created. Now, the CIA is a great scapegoat when you think about it. Historically responsible for some questionable tactics in the furtherance of U.S. foreign policy and still viewed with suspicion by many, there is a certain prima facie credibility to claims of CIA blame.

They must be joking. While there do seem to be legitimate claims of interogation techniques that may have crossed the line of official Army protocols, it appears they were at least carried out as part of interrogations. And there doesn't seem to be any indication of any intelligence operatives engaging in anything close to the hazing of the prisoners by the MPs serving as guards. Were the guards just "playing CIA"? I found this a pretty weak excuse.

Now, the buck-passing onto intelligence has been going on for some time. Back in a NYT interview in May, Brig Gen Karpinski was already saying that the high-security cellblock was under the control of Army intelligence, not reservists under her command. She even threw her subordinates under the bus, saying any of the reservists involved were "bad people" deserving of punishment. I always love seeing managers in the private sector blame their subordinates as well; it's one of those things Blanchard forgot in the One Minute Manager (it was the whispered-about missing chapter: "The One Minute Scapegoat").

While that tactic frequently works in the private sector, the Army still wasn't too impressed, as a report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba accused her of poor management and lax oversight. I think we should all be able to agree with that assessment.

In any event, I'll be curious to see how the other reports stack up on this issue. I am also curious to see how the CIA responds to these accusations. I doubt they're worried, given Bush's executive order this week granting more power to the CIA director, their must be riding high with the big boss.

Odd trivia I encountered: Donald Rumsfeld owns a minature dachshund, Reggie. [Rumsfeld interview transcript].

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Saturday, August 28, 2004

Rationalization Du Jour  | e-mail post

I was a little surprised to be looking at my weekly "Circuits" e-mail from the New York Times and seeing the blurb for the auto section saying: "Make carpools easier this year with a bigger car." What? What? What?! I couldn't believe what I was reading: the New York Times encouraging the purchase of larger automobiles. Maybe it's just that I'm in Minneapolis, not NYC, but I will tell you that I don't see too many carpools made up of minivans or big wagons, like the Dodge Magnum they show on the graphic. Usually it seems to be people who are driving already more fuel efficient vehicles.

I was very surprised to see the NYT running a "big car" special when oil is still north of $40/barrel. The irony is I am sure somewhere in the Times today is an article about the dangers of excessive American gas consumption.

I actually rented a Magnum when I was in Chicago a few weeks ago. It was possibly the most miserable driving experience I have ever had (although my most dangerous experience was probably driving an Audi with a torn out oil pan along the UAE/Oman border, lost, far off the road, with no water and an engine on the verge of seizing). While I am used to a tighter European sports suspension, the Magnum floated around like a 1973 Crown Vic that needs new shocks. It was actually pretty entertaining driving it through rush hour, following someone else (not in a pile of crap) taking a short cut to the airport. Hard lane changes in that thing flet like a wave rolling under your boat.

In truth, though, the Magnum would have been a lot better over in Dubai.

Yeah, I need a big car for carpooling, that's the ticket!

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Thursday, August 26, 2004

Google Update  | e-mail post

The Financial Times reports on Google's corporate governance practices raising the ire of Institutional Shareholder Services:
The company motto is: "Don't be evil".

However, ISS assigned Google a "corporate governance quotient" of 0.2 out of a possible 100, close to zero and lower than any other S&P 500 company.

"I'd say those numbers sound pretty darn evil," said Patrick McGurn, senior vice-president at ISS.
Darn evil, indeed. ISS identified 21 weaknesses in their governance practices including their dual-class share structure and general insider power, about which I recently wrote at length.

Of course, the same day as ISS releases this, the stock continues to creep up. Clearly The Register was correct in writing that the ISS review was "a little unfair, we think, as it places too little emphasis on what shareholders really want, which is apparently an abundance of pictures of pretty colored balls on the corporate web site, and a rating that evaluates the general cuteness of the founders."

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Monday, August 23, 2004

Design Meets Humour  | e-mail post

The UK-based Department of Social Scrutiny is one of the funniest sites I have seen in a long time. A fairly left-leaning bent with some good parody of the British government. In addition to some very witty copy, they have got some great design that really makes it work. For a quick sample, I suggest:

About You general demographic form
About Your Ethical Standpoint form - "eg: Feng-Shui is not a belief system, it is merely a storage solution."
About Your Habitat form - "By 'room' we mean a polyhedral space bounded by four walls, a floor and a ceiling. A cupboard counts as two rooms."
About Your Majesty, Ma'am form - An identity card application for the Queen.
Surveillance Benefit Application form - "Please tell us about your pathalogical inability to trust others on a separate sheet of paper."
Road Signs - A couple of good ones.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Friday, August 20, 2004

How Ike Would Handle Iraq  | e-mail post

No, not former President and NATO Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower, silly. I'm talking about Ike Turner. If he weren't apparently such a bastard, I'd almost feel sorry for the guy. I would really hate to have my name equated for all time with wife-beating.

Back to why I'm writing. I think you'll get a good laugh out of this item from McSweeney's: "Ike Turner's Guide to Restoring America's Honor." I've quoted more than I usually do just because it really is pretty funny.
OK, America, you done fucked up again. Things got a little out of hand, and you went and blew up another country. Now you got everybody all mad at you, and you don't know what to do. Well, don't worry, America. Ike's been down this road before, and I know exactly how to handle it. You better listen to what I'm telling you, America. Ike knows what he's talking about, and Ike's willing to help you out as long as you do exactly what Ike says and stop being so stubborn. You dig?

Step 1

OK, first things first, America. Stop smacking the bitch. I know sometimes you get caught up in the heat of the moment and you don't know when you've gone too far. Sometimes you just get so mad sometimes. I know you tried to warn Iraq. You told Iraq to stop provoking you. But Iraq wouldn't listen. Iraq was being stubborn and ignorant, and you had to teach Iraq a lesson. Now Iraq's all beaten and bruised and bleeding everywhere, fucking up the good carpet. It's time to chill the fuck out, America. You don't wanna kill Iraq. You just wanna show Iraq how much you love it. It's just sometimes you go a little crazy is all.
It just gets better, read the rest at McSweeney's. Ken McIntyre wrote this bit, and you can visit his website too see his art, animation and design.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Bad Day for Transparency at Buca  | e-mail post

Most readers outside the Minneapolis area might not know that Buca restaurants are headquartered here in the Twin Cities. It's actually kind of ironic, given that you don't really run into a lot of Italians here in this enclave of far northern European heritage. With my freckles and auburn tinged hair, I even feel ethnic in Minnesota.

In any event, I noticed in the Star Tribune yesterday an interesting article about Buca's most recent quarterly SEC filing [PDF link]: their former CEO Joseph Micatrotto actually paid Buca a severance package. That's right, he paid Buca about $582,000, agreed to facilitate the transfer of title to an Italian property, and didn't take any of the two years of salary his employment contract may have entitled him to if he had left for health reasons, as he has claimed.

According to his severance agreement, this $582,031.08 is "further consideration to the company to resolve certain matters." Huh?

This sort of thing just doesn't happen very often. Normally departing executives get the golden handshake/parachute/pink-slip; paying one's former employer is pretty uncommon. Given the relatively unusual nature of such goings-on, some people would like to know: WTF?

Well, when asked by reporters, the answers included:
"The [SEC] filing speaks for itself."
- Laura Anders, Buca Spokesperson

"You'd really have to talk to Joe about that. We're not prepared to comment."
- Sidney Feltenstein, Buca director
The original Dow Jones reporter couldn't get either Micatrotto or his predecesor on the phone before he went to press. Now, in preparing today's Strib story, the reporter actually did get in touch with Micatrotto. What did he have to say about the $582,000 he paid back? "I have nothing to say about that." Alrighty then.

Unfortunately, Buca isn't covered as well as a company like, for example, Wal-Mart, so information is hard to come by on this sort of thing. I did find that Nation's Restaurant News reported last year about the Italian property, Villa Sermenino, that was acquired by Micatrotto and Buca's vintner "on behalf of" Buca. It also mentions Micatrotto seeking Italian citizenship to ease the process of Italian landownership.

Now, looking at their SEC filings, Buca's already in pretty rough shape. As of June they were in default for multiple reasons on their credit facilities, low carb diets are hurting pasta-based dining, and, in my opinion, their food is at best adequate, although I know many who would say it is quite good. They do have a salad that I like, however. Add to this that according to an attorney quoted in the more recent Strib story, Buca may be exposing itself to additional liability by not disclosing material information about this whole Micatrotto affair.

The bottom line is that I am pretty curious about this. It might be (and probably is) nothing much, but the unanswered questions are always the ones that stick in your head. If anyone does have any genuine information about this matter, I'd love to know. If it isn't for public consumption, I can assure you it won't show up here, but drop me a line at feedback.hopefulcynic@gmail.com and let me know.

Oh, and not to make any wisecracks (having gone to a Catholic high school that was about 80% Italian), but if this is my last entry...someone should really follow-up on this story. [I am completely joking about this, so no e-mails about ethnic stereotypes...I'm Irish and anger easily, so just don't go there.]

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Wednesday, August 18, 2004

If It Was a Bootleg, at least the MPAA Would Get Him  | e-mail post

Last week, Alaska jurors acquitted Erwin Petterson, Jr of two counts of murder and manslaughter. He killed two people by crossing the center line in his truck while watching a DVD. He claims he crossed over the line when reaching for a soda (although it may have been popcorn or Raisinets). I'm sure this guy is probably not a Nobel contender, but, honestly, it should only take an extra couple of brain cells to grab the soda.

My favorite line in the whole AP report [via CNN] [via CBS] was:
Neither Petterson nor his lawyer could immediately be reached for comment after the acquittal. Lindsey Petterson said her brother was taking a long drive in his truck.

"He hasn't been able to drive in over two years," she said.
That's right, two years with no truck. He was probably really behind on his movie list. (Yes, I am speechless he still has a license.) Possibly even better though was this line from Reuters:
"I think it's interesting that the defendant wants his DVD player back so he can put it in another vehicle," June Stein, the assistant district attorney who tried the case, said.
Honestly, what I think is really interesting is that June Stein couldn't even get any sort of a conviction out of this. Or, maybe the soda defense is one we should all keep in mind. ("Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client may have been drunk, but for the love of all that is holy, you have to understand he was reaching for a soda when he killed those people.")

Of course, this is also classic just from a legal hair-splitting standpoint. Dashboard-mounted televisions are illegal in Alaska, but dash-mounted DVD players (with attached screens) are not. (Even though Petterson had overriden the safety features on the player to prevent its operation while the car was out of park.)

I need to stop now. This is just one of those stories that if I think too much about it, I want to move to a cave on a Nepalese mountaintop.

If you were curious what movie was worth two lives, it was apparently Road Trip. Now that is really disappointing. Also, while Petterson plans to reinstall his DVD player, there is no news about whether he will be allowed cupholders in his vehicles.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Oops, he did it again; and so is Apple  | e-mail post

If you (like me) think it's a little bit of a drag that Apple's AirPort Express could only be used with Apple's iTunes, you're in luck. The same Norwegian who cracked the DeCSS encryption scheme used in DVDs has done it for the AirPort Express as well. You can read about it on his weblog, appropriately named So Sue Me. (Note, the blog is down right now, it seems, but you can access the public key via Google's cache.) The tool to let other apps stream music to the AirPort Express is JustePort. Fortunately for Jon Johansen, Norway's courts have looked favorably on his work to let people get full use of technology and content they have legally purchased.

I find it hilarious that Apple continues to focus on their closed-system model with iTunes. (Including their assault on Real's "hacking" of Apple technology.) Didn't Apple learn enough from either their own ability to be the creator of the mainstream windowed-GUI operating system and then to be relegated to being a minor player in it due to their proprietary approach, the same way Sony did with the betamax format.

It unfortunate, back in my more idealistic days, I was a huge fan of Apple and the Mac. I still am, technologically. They make some great stuff. I wish Apple made entire lines of consumer electronics from alarm clocks to blenders. But their proprietary approach to things just infuriates me.

Expect a more general rant in the near future about the lack of a single open MP3 library tool that I can use with all my gizmos from different vendors.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Friday, August 13, 2004

Voltaire was Right  | e-mail post

"God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh." - Voltaire

While there is always the eternal question of why do bad things happen to good people, the one that always blows my mind is when really good things happen to really bad people.

This story from the UK is just one of those cases. The headline says it all: "Rapist Strikes It Lucky on Lottery." That's right, convicted rapist Iorworth Hoare won a 7 million pound (about 10.5 million dollars) lottery jackpot. He bought the ticket when he was out recently on a weekend release from his life sentence (life sentences in the UK don't mean quite what they mean here in the US). I'm honestly almost too shocked about the idea of a recidivist rapist getting weekend prison furloughs.

The hopeful part of me would like to think he will become a philantropist supporting various charities aimed at helping victims of rape of domestic violence, but the cynical side knows that's just a Hollywood ending, and those are never realistic.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Google's Internet Irrationality Redux Hits a Snag  | e-mail post

Pete Seeger's last line from the wonderful folk standard, "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" is a cynic's koan, "When will they ever learn?" It's easy to be cynical in a world where you see people make the same mistakes, en masse, again and again.

I thought I saw the dot-com idiocy of a few years back happening again a few weeks ago, when Google priced out their IPO in the $108-$135 per share range. An offering in this range would value Google at around $36 billion dollars. To put this in perspective, look at some companies valued in $30-$40 billion range. Now, while Yahoo is in that list, it stands rather alone compared to the likes of Walgreens, Target, McDonalds, Gillette and similar well-established and expansive organizations.

One thing worth noting about the comparison to Yahoo: despite the Google buzz (it is, admittedly, the #1 search engine out there, with a bullet, at a 49% share), Yahoo generates about 150% more revenue and about 200% more profit than Google. [John Battelle's Searchblog provides access to an Excel spreadsheet of Google's financials. Here are Yahoo's fins.] Also, Yahoo will end up owning a bit more than 5% of Google after the IPO, so you really should credit Yahoo for that asset as well.

Also, give their prospectus a read for some of their risks. They have a lot, some of which reflect a broader risk of management competence, in my opinion. This is a company that is apparently either so incompetent, megalomaniacal, or just out of control that it neglected to consistently register all of its share sales and option grants with securities regulators. Over 1,000 times. Over a three year period. For over 23 million shares and 5 million options. If a company can't even handle that kind of blocking and tackling...well, yikes!

As an aside, does anybody know who Google's CFO is? He's a guy named George Reyes, but you never really hear about him. I don't know if he's just emasculated within the company, or if there is something more to it, but my experience is that CFOs are pretty good at keeping a company under control in general, and usually the whole capitalization process kind of falls to them as well. If Reyes can't even control his own bailiwick, who is actually maintaining any sort of internal controls?

Speaking of control, that's another fun thing about Google, the control of the company never leaves the founders hands, except under some fairly extreme circumstances. Google puts it charitably in their prospectus: "The concentration of our capital stock ownership with our founders, executive officers, employees, and our directors and their affiliates will limit your ability to influence corporate matters." In fact, they are issuing Class A shares in their IPO, yet all current shareholders will convert to Class B shares. Class B shares have 10 times the voting power of Class A shares. Oh, and Class B shares pretty much instantly convert to Class A if they leave the hands of their current owners.

Each of the two founders will end up with over 38 million shares of Class B stock. That is each of the founders will have about 16 times the voting power of the entire stock offered in the IPO. In fact, when you start to do the math on things, it is pretty difficult for the founders to ever lose control of the company short of the company issuing massive amounts of stock (about 40 times the number of shares coming out of the IPO).

As long as I'm digressing, another side note: with almost 5 million Class B shares post-IPO, Yahoo alone will have about twice the voting power of all public shareholders as a class. All of this flies in the face of good corporate governance. I'm doubting that CalPERS will be investing (Google doesn't use fair value accounting for their stock options either, another governance bugaboo.) I guess the "don't be evil" mantra doesn't apply to how they plan to treat shareholders.

Of course, the folks at Google are no idiots, they don't care about CalPERS even if it is the largest institutional investor in the U.S.. The plan was to have the offering priced by way of an auction, rather than by investment bankers, as would be the traditional practice. I remember reading a few years back that one of the interesting, yet counterintuitive, things about online auctioneer eBay was that in the auction format, sellers paid more than they might have otherwise paid as a quoted price. That is, they wouldn't buy the lamp if it were priced at $80, but they might well end up winning the auction for $100. Even more amazing was that they seemed happier about it.

In the case of the Google auction, the approach is even more loaded in their favor by using a sealed-bid auction. That is, a bidder submits their bid without any idea of market demand. Bidders are given the comfort of knowing that if they bid higher than the lowest price at which all orders are filled, their order will be filled at that lower price. While auctions of this sort favor savvy investors, one of Google's claims has been that a benefit of the auction process will be bringing in more individual investors. How nice they are opening the market to the less savvy. W.R. Hambrecht & Co provides an overview of the Dutch auction process. It's funny that even in their example, the institutional investor's order doesn't get filled because the price bid was too low.

Paul Farrell over at CBS Marketwatch had some interesting commentary about the irrational investor behavior Google was banking on back in May.

For my money, Google is just too cute for their own good. Just look their prospectus. Their filings indicate they plan to raise e (2.718281828) billion dollars. They couldn't just say "approximately 2.7 billion dollars" or something similar. No, they needed to be cute. Just like they plan to "not be evil." Again, this would be really cute if this was a mock prospectus developed by a twelve year old for some special school project, but this is supposedly a real company.

Thankfully, there is apparently a growing backlash against Google's IPO. [Reuters via Yahoo] Dan Gilmour from the San Jose Mercury News wrote about why he wouldn't bid on Google's shares. Of course, this is on top of the problems with their illegally sold shares that will potentially further dilute things or end up costing Google a boatload of cash to clean up as well as Google's slowing revenue growth and the slowing growth of paid search advertising, which accounts for the lion's share of Google's revenues, and of course, just their problems with their IPO auction process. Another article this morning observes that the "everyman investor" just isn't too interested, and reports an analyst's suggestion that the market range is probably more like $90-$96/share.

Having read this, if you still want to bid on Google's shares, be my guest. Knock yourself out, I'll take my chances in the aftermarket. If you want to get yourself jazzed up about it, you might want to look at the investor presentation, rather than the prospectus, it's a little more fun, and doesn't spend so much time discussing such pedestrian topics as risk or detailed financials.

Where have all the rational investors gone? Not to Google's IPO, apparently. Maybe people are learning.

OK, Rant off. This has just been bugging me for months now.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Oh my god, Ned! They're comin' right for us!  | e-mail post

According to the Centers for Disease Control, animals are implicated in some way with automobile crashes injuring 26,000 humans annually in the United States. [AP via Minneapolis Star-Tribune] [Reuters]

The CDC, obviously taking the side of the animals, has suggested that the number of such accidents could be reduced if drivers stayed alert, didn't speed and didn't drink and drive. This would seem to me to be good advice in general. Unfortunately, the CDC did not identify a single suggestion for the animals involved, not even so much as looking both ways before crossing, or actually walking to a labelled "Deer Crossing" area. Would that really be too much to ask? I mean, honestly, it's a give-and-take situation, and it seems the animals have a lot at stake here as well.

The Reuters article actually calls out Wisconsin (in addition to other rural states) as high risk areas. Let me tell you, nobody speeds in Wisconsin (drinking and driving is probably another story). If you actually see someone going the full speed limit in Wisconsin, you can bet they aren't natives.

In any event, clearly there is some wisdom to South Park's Ned and Uncle Jimbo taking a preemptive approach to dealing with risks animals pose to all of us.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Thursday, August 05, 2004

What We Can Really Learn from the Dean Campaign  | e-mail post

I was listening to MPR while driving over the noon hour today and they were rebroadcasting a talk Joe Trippi gave at Ruminator Books in St Paul a few weeks back [audio]. Trippi was there promoting his new book: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. You can read more from Joe on his weblog. If the name is unfamiliar to you, Joe Trippi was Howard Dean's campaign manager and was responsible for orchestrating the Dean campaign's high effective use of the internet to mobilize widespread grassroots support behind a little-known candidate from Vermont.

I really enjoyed Trippi's talk. As one would presume, he is quite an idealist. I think he is very optimistic in his time projections about the effective use of the internet as a broad tool for democratic empowerment, particularly of things like corporate governance. At the same time, I appreciate that idealism, and it took me back, very directly to the days before I was a hopeful cynic. (You can read more at the end of this post about how Joe Trippi was closely related to, although in no way responsible, for my becoming cynical many years ago.)

But the thing that was really quite inspiring to me was that it reminded me that the important and interesting thing about the Dean campaign was not really its spectacular self-destruction from the top, not Dean's ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but the fact that Dean was able to go from relative underdog/outsider to the presumptive nominee in the months leading up to the start of the primary season.

To paraphrase Trippi's metaphor, people shouldn't be surprised the Bad News Bears from Burlington Vermont lost to the Boston Red Sox, but what is amazing is that they were in the lead up to the top of the ninth when the game should have been 54-0 against them in the first inning.

Of course, Joe Trippi's point, and I can't help but agree, is that the key enabler for this was the internet, and the ability to leverage the internet as a efficient organizing platform for political action in terms of cost, labor and time. Notice that I said that the internet was a key enabler, not a reason. To paraphrase the NRA: the internet doesn't contribute money, people do; the internet doesn't show up to a rally, people do. It takes people like Joe Trippi who are smart and experienced in the political milieu and also have an understanding of how a technology like the internet can be applied to really leverage the platform. Obviously other campaigns have already learned some things from the Dean campaign examples.

While Trippi is fairly unique today for his combination of political and technical acumen and experience, I imagine what he did for Dean will become the norm. As time marches forward, simple demographic changes will mean that more and more politically seasoned professionals will have grown up with these technologies and will more naturally understand how to leverage the internet for their candidates. It is the same cycle that we see take place in businesses. There are always people of every age that adopt and assimilate new technology well, but widespread adoption and deep use of technologies seem to be generational.

The implications of this fact for almost any politically-minded individual, or any engaged citizen in a democracy, are significant. If the internet were as mainstream in 1999 as it was in 2003, how would John McCain have fared in the primary season? Would McCain be running for reelection now, rather than George Bush? Would Al Gore have been the Democratic nominee, or would Bill Bradley have grabbed the brass ring? Would a candidate like Nader have been able to maneuver inside the Democratic party, rather outside of it, ultimately resulting in co-opting his supporters behind the ultimate Democratic ticket? Just like the question of how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world will never know. Beyond the two-party political system, think what this organizing tool could mean to third party candidates, not necessarily at the national level at first, but at the local and state levels.

Now, Dean's ultimate demise showed that there is obviously a chasm to be bridged: the one between popular support (as reflected in the polls, fundraising, etc) and securing the party's nomination. While the internet has been demonstrated to be a great organizing tool, when it comes to an actual vote, whether its at a caucus, primary or general election, physical, not virtual, attendance is required. Call it the ground game, voter turnout or just GOTV, the fact is that established party organs are good at it because doing it really well seems to require people today. Thus, those candidates that toe the party line, that move up within the established party organization, that climb the greasy pole, in Disraeli's words, have the advantage of an established organization rather than an ad hoc one. Not that the party organ can work on behalf of particular candidates during the primary season, but the candidates that attract the mass of the party faithful get at least a subset of team that has worked together in the past.

The established organization knows how to coordinate vans and drivers and solid door-to-door and phone canvassing to get people into their polling places. While the leaders of an ad hoc organization know how to do this as well, the challenge is that the true organizational knowledge is missing. If you ever been involved in planning the first happening of a large recurring event (a large annual fundraising event, the church swap meet or even large parties) you know that the third time went a lot more smoothly than the first time, even if all the same players are involved. As Kipling wrote in reference to polo, "they were a team of crack players instead of a crack team; and that made all the difference in the world." There is just no substitute for the reflexive coordination and institutional knowledge and experience of a well-established organization.

This is why I imagine that in the next election cycle, campaigns which attract people involved at the grassroots level with the Dean campaign in this election cycle will have an advantage. Those people will have been through it all once before, they will be that much better at mobilizing people locally, not just virtually, but in the real world.

If and when online voting becomes prevalent (and I will write later about my ambivalence on this issue), the advantage of a party organization may diminish. If a citizen can vote from their web-enabled cable box, their desk, PDA or internet terminal at the local coffee shop, you won't need to transport many people to polling places. You don't even really need to persuade somebody to make time to vote; there's no drive, no parking, no lines; just click and vote. In this world (and I think it might be a scary one), an ad hoc organization can mobilize voters with spam e-mail and a clickthrough link to the polls. Smart organizations could even hide their messages with subject lines like "naughty schoolgirls" and implying to otherwise apathetic voters that they might get free porn in exchange for voting.

The exciting thing for me is the prospect of a centrist Republican (i.e. one who doesn't pander to the evangelical movement) employing Dean-style tactics to deliver a strong campaign through the primary season in 2008, ultimately culminating in securing the nomination. Whether the general election in 2008 were won or lost by that moderate Republican, the process of reclaiming the center alone would be worthwhile.

Of course, if we could just throw in instant runoff voting, then politics could get really interesting. Maybe even interesting enough to make the broad mass of the American people really engaged in their democracy, thoughtfully contemplate and debate the issues, and become all around socially-aware citizens. Yikes! Did I write that? And I called Trippi an idealist?

Joe Trippi and the Making of a Hopeful Cynic
While many learned of Joe through his rise to national celebrity in reinventing presidential campaign politics and turning Howard Dean into a national political force (even though Dean couldn't hold up his half of the bargain), I've been aware of Joe Trippi since I was 17. I first met him back in 1987, when I was working for the ill-fated Gary Hart campaign. It was a great time, and I had the opportunity to meet, get to know, and learn from, some very bright minds in the Democratic party, such as Trippi, the late Paul Tully, and Teresa Vilmain. When the Iowa campaign was shuttered, Teresa Vilmain was running the Iowa office for Hart; today she's the head election strategist for the DNC. A quotation from her in a recent MSN article shows that at least some things haven't changed in almost 20 years:
Some politicos-in-training, shunning dress-for-success attire, showed up in shorts and sandals, earning them a warning from Vilmain that to be taken seriously, they must dress professionally.

"You are not kids, you are serious organizers," she told them.
Not only does this illustrate Vilmain's professionalism, but also the way in which she has respect for what young people can do, especially in a campaign.

One of the truly great aspects of working on a political campaign as a younger person is that you are treated like you really do matter. I found it highly ironic that I was treated with more respect by the likes of Vilmain, Tully or even Hart as a senior in high school working as a (barely) paid volunteer coordinator than I was by my supervisor as a cashier or grocery sacker, or some other high school job. Although I professionally stayed as far away from politics as may be possible, I think this was without question an invaluable experience.

In case there was any question about the catalyst (or at list a galvanizing moment) for my cynicism, imagine being a politically committed high school senior having worked several months on the Hart campaign, and planning to take a year off after high school to work full-time at helping a progressive (compared to Reagan), yet moderately hawkish, Democrat win the White House, having an incredible shot at making it happen, and then seeing it all come to a crashing halt in May because of any of the following:
Instead, Democrats sent Michael Dukakis into battle, and we all know how the first presidential battle between a Bush and a Bostonian turned out.

So, that's how you make an idealist cynical.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Attention To Detail  | e-mail post

Certainly misspellings are hardly rare. We see them all the time. I am often surprised how often I see misspellings in books, especially given my personal experience with the amount of proofreading that goes into a book produced by a major publisher (sometime I might write about my experience having my editor thoroughly explain the difference between "which" and "that," a source of innumerable edits in a manuscript from years back.) In any event, this sign has been up for a few weeks not far from where I live. I finally took a picture of it. I guess we can be happy the company paints cars, not signs, but didn't anybody catch the misspelling of estimate? I don't need a paint job for my car anyway, but I don't know how inclined I would be to go somewhere that doesn't even seem interested in correcting their mistake.

Ask about their sign painting work

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Wednesday, August 04, 2004

A Hit(man) Parade of Film  | e-mail post

I saw The Bourne Supremacy last weekend, and I really enjoyed it. Matt Damon, as Jason Bourne, flies solo through most of this, thus quickening the pace. The camerawork and editing enhance this, giving the film enormous energy.

This weekend I saw Jonathan Demme's Manchurian Candidate. [official site] [IMDB] While it impeccably draws on and delivers the key themes of the original, George Axelrod's script was reworked enough that the tension is palpable even if you know the original. Ultimately, the original probably does more with less, but this update was a very good film.

Liev Schreiber is perfectly cast as the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being any of us have ever known, Seargant Raymond Shaw, played originally by Laurence Harvey. And Meryl Streep reprising an update on Angela Lansbury's role as Shaw's mother is superb, and should certainly earn at least an Oscar nomination as Lansbury's turn did. The production values were superlative, but did not overshadow the power of the story. Personally, I am not a huge Denzel Washington fan, but I've never been a big fan of Sinatra in film, either (music: yes!). Washington plays the role well, especially as the script was rewritten. (Although this 2002 article from the Guaradian hypothesizes George Clooney for the role.)

I was surprised to see Frank Sinatra's daughter, Tina, as a producer on the film. She had the rights to the original film from her father. Old blue eyes actually acquired the rights for the film to prevent it from being screened after his friend JFK was assassinated. Apparently she was fairly actively involved in the production planning; including her insistence that the "Manchurian" name remain in the film, according to this brief interview with Jonathan Demme. You may also enjoy some other notes about the production from CinemaReview.

Reviews: [ NYT ] [ Ebert ] [ LA Weekly ] [ Rolling Stone ] [ SF Chronicle ] [ Boston Globe ]

While at the theater for I then saw the trailer for Collateral, the new Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx film coming out later this week in which Cruise plays a contact killer. Seeing both these films and the Collateral trailer over the past few days reminded me of other films with hitmen and assassins in them. Most of them are quite good, actually, and there really is a film from this genre for almost any occasion.

Political Targets for Fun and Profit
True assassins, of course, are usually focused on taking out people of significance, usually political leaders of some sort.

Edward Fox as The Jackal in "The Day of The Jackal" - In my opinion, the definitive portrayal of an expert assassin. I actually watched it again last night. If you like the Sean Connery James Bond, Fox is your assasin. No matter what, this movie is an A+. Interestingly, the Fox family is quite the acting troupe. In addition to Edward, there is his brother James, daugther Emilia, and nephew Laurence. His other sibling, Robert, is a producer.

Bruce Willis as The Jackal in "The Jackal" - Unlike Fox's Jackal, Willis is burdened by a somewhat absurd plotline and an excessive display of firepower. Richard Gere serves as his nemesis. If you forget about the original Jackal film on which this is supposedly based, it's actually good, if mindless, entertainment. B- if you like the genre, otherwise a C.

John Malcovich as Mitch Leary in "In the Line of Fire" - Possibly the only assassin who seems to be motivated purely to escape a sense of ennui about his life.

Laurence Harvey as Sgt Raymond Shaw in "The Manchurian Candidate" - As I said above, the remake is good, but the original is first rate. Essential viewing. The only film on this list the American Film Institute rates among the 100 Greatest American Movies (at 67, interestingly, it's current rating on IMDB's Top 250 as well).

It's a Job
Sometimes private contractors kill people because that's what they can do and it pays the bills. These are two starkly different films where both killers really just do it to make a living.

Jean Reno as Leon in "Leon" (aka "The Professional") - Probably a fairly accurate portrayal of the personality and day-to-day life of a contract killer, excluding his relationship with Natalie Portman's character. Speaking of which, I strongly recommend the original cut of this film (not the U.S. release version) for it's 24 minutes of additional footage, much of which expands on Natalie Portman's role and relationship with Leon. This is, in my opinion, one of Luc Besson's finest films.

William H. Macy as Alex in "Panic" - I expected a lot from this movie from the previews and the cast, and while it didn't deliver 100%, I give it a solid B+. Macy's turn as a husband/father/hitman was fairly enjoyable to watch. The part that didn't work about the film is the relative absurdity of Macy's situation. Notice that most hitmen and assassins tend to have relatively few deep relationships with other people (outside the rather twisted ones they may have with their targets).

Government-Trained; Sometimes Government-Controlled
My advice to all governments training assassins for any kind of nefarious or secret operation: make sure you have a tight leash!

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in "The Bourne Identity" - If you haven't already seen this first one, I'd suggest catching it before seeing Bourne Supremacy. It's a B+, in my book.

Anne Parillaud as Nikita in "La Femme Nikita" - Female assassins are rare in film, but Luc Besson brings us Nikita, a criminal who becomes a trained government assassin in exchange for her life. Not only is the story compelling, this is excellent filmmaking, by any standard. A

Bridget Fonda as Nina in "Point of No Return" - This is an Americanized remake of the La Femme Nikita. While it does not appeal to many sophisticated viewers as does La Femme Nikita, it is an adequate film, and I know many who prefer it, although my vote is with the original. B

Peta Wilson as Nikita in "La Femme Nikita: the series" Of course, the film spawned a televsion show as well, which some people loved, and other people, well, didn't. The series was created by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, who later went on to create the outstanding "24" (although "24" hasn't held my interest past season 2). I have never seen it, but I might have to give it a look based on the creators. [Order La Femme Nikita: Season One] [you can preorder La Femme Nikita: Season Two]

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Hit...
Let's face it, killing people is a strange occupation, and these two comedies do a pretty good job of having fun with the idea and how it impacts people.

Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna and Kathleen Turner as Irene Walker in "Prizzi's Honor" - The typical hitman meets hitwoman and falls in love story. We all know it, we've all lived it. It gets an A for being a solid movie, even though it is, strictly speaking, a romantic comedy. Anjelica Huston won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the film.

John Cusack as Martin Q. Blank in "Grosse Point Blank" - John Cusack and Dan Akroyd as hitmen, in a unique comedic treatment of a hit man experiencing some angst leading up to his high school reunion. A wonderful black comedy. A.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Monday, August 02, 2004

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