Thursday, March 31, 2005

In which we impersonate Roger Ebert

i.e. film reviews.
  1. Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (link)
    wild applause, with no concern for gravity
    Go. See. Feel. "A love story" pretty much sums it up. Multilayered and magical. Winner of the NCFocus Best Film of All Time award, claws down. Quirky people who find and love their life's work are very cool.
    The black and blue shins are because we are still kicking ourselves for not having tried to get a blog interview with the non-feathered protagonist, shown here onstage at the Del Oro with filmmaker Judy Irving and inspiration Gary Snyder:
    Onstage at Del Oro
    (contrary to the photographic evidence, they do all have faces.)

  2. Robots.
    Recommended for all ages, although for the cruder bits it probably would have helped to have been between 8 and 14. Good capitalism vs. bad capitalism, which sounds dull, but the dialog is often hilarious and the message is excellent: those who see their customers as a resource to exploit will lose out to those who see them as people to serve.
    (we don't know if it is a true message, but we liked it anyway.)
    There were other take-home messages too; quiz your kids to see how many they can find. A great improvement over some kids' movies we've had the misfortune to buy tickets for, e.g. where the child lies with impunity and mom's reaction is "c'est la vie", although not in so many words.
    (Related: Thoughtful discussion on liberals' and conservatives' views on raising children here, Bush vs. Gore parenting here)

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


March 20 update: Mr. Butler has given generously of his time to answer questions; interview is in progress. A big thank you to Mr. Butler for sharing his thoughts.

Almost a month ago we asked to interview The Union's new editor, Pat Butler. We're still waiting for a yes or no. Asked again two days ago, still no response.

We can't say we blame him - talk about being between a rock and a hard place - but still, we'd like an answer.
We also hope he knew what he was in for, before he took the job.

And there's still no "incomplete results"* warning posted on The Union's Search page; plus the older (pre-2002) archive search page seems to be missing altogether. Knowing that you share our avid curiosity about this state of affairs, we hereby reprint our Monday email to The Union's webmaster, Dayna Amboy, and the response:
[Subject: Re: 8+ month problems with Archive Search from website]

I visited the Search page just now and noticed two things:
  • First, it's still returning incomplete results.
  • Second, it still provides no warning to the user that the results returned are incomplete.
So I'm curious about two things:
  • Is it still your understanding that omissions from the Search results are inadvertent?
  • Could you explain why there's still no warning to the user on the Search page, that the results are incomplete?
I'd like to share your answers with my readers.
As promised, dear reader, here are Dayna Amboy's answers:
We are currently trying to make sure that our archive returns the most accurate results. It is an on-going process. Please bear with us while we improve our archive system.

If you want newsprint copies of past articles [... (*)]
We appreciate your readership.
Imminent addition to the "blog policies" page:
As a general rule, when we're complaining, our beef is with the institution and not with the person employed there. So, to protect them from Google, we try to refer to them by title, rather than by name. But we do feel free to name those who don't give us answers...

But - would this policy be fair, to an employee who can't answer completely and honestly without endangering his/her job?
Answer: no. So please keep this possibility in mind.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

What's news?

Above the fold:
(photo of March 24 newspaper, above the fold)

Nice big photo of snow on the trees.

Trying to improve traffic flow at the post office.
(Confidential to Fred: if you hadn't given those hundreds of thousands of dollars to the forces of darkness, you could buy a left turn lane and make us all happy...please, next time use your powers for good)

Below the fold:
(photo of March 24 newspaper, below the fold)A crisis: NID's likely to have to raise water rates.

And a Grand Jury report on county mismanagement and intimidation of county government staff by (unnamed) members of the Board of Supervisors.(*)

In a way this is progress; at least the news wasn't obscured by a misleading headline and bumped to the back page.

Yubanet provides text and comments on the Grand Jury report (PDF), which seems a quiet piece of prose. An excerpt of the least quiet parts:
  • Numerous sources confirm that in recent years, members of the Board of Supervisors have publicly criticized and demeaned department heads during BOS meetings.
  • Some employees have reported feeling vulnerable and fearful of losing their jobs whenever there is a change in the BOS majority because current and former CEOs have not always acted as a "buffer" between the BOS and County department heads.
  • Neglect of crucial fiscal matters in at least one department in the past was eventually discovered through a change in leadership and corrected by Administration staff.
  • A climate of fear exists when employees see managers being publicly demeaned by BOS members, high level employees leaving in significant numbers, and what they perceive as micro-management occurring

Those gentle (post-election) newspaper editorials match the report's tone nicely.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Taking a closer look at the grass roots

Sadly, Yubanet's comments are practically invisible to the casual reader. But if you go here, and scroll down to the March 24 entry, you can become one of the elite few to find some background information on Capitol Resource Institute, the organization behind the recent students/schools/parental consent controversy.

Moving on from examining the 'roots to pushing up the daisies -
(March 29 Updates:
Probably better to fill out California's Advance Health Care Directive.
And this is disturbing, if it turns out to be true (via): " is the policy of Roman Catholic hospitals to disregard living wills.")
A big thank you to the Detroit Free Press for providing online Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney forms here. (but see above)

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Meretricious mottos

When we learn a new word, we try to illustrate* it, albeit inaccurately.

Google's motto is Don't Be Evil, and we're sure they meant it at the time. But we know full well that Google is insidious, addictive, a thief of time and slumber - when there's a world of information just waiting to be summoned to your screen, how do you tear your eyes from the site?

When and if we figure this out, we'll let you know.

Another Google hazard - letting Google do your legwork can cause deep-vein thrombosis

Next up:
The "packed with peanuts (or almonds), Snickers really satisfies" motto is rescued from the realm of mendacity by the plaque of its teeth: consulting Merriam-Webster reveals two plausible meanings for packed in this context, caused or commanded to go without ceremony, and covered or surrounded with a pack. Slicing into said vending machine exudate makes it clear that filled completely would not be a reality-based interpretation.

Should the motto-makers of Mars transition to journalism, they'll face a bright future as editorial writers.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Links for health - spiritual, financial, and reproductive

"I thought it was disposable" isn't going to cut it.
In NY Times (via Fred Clark here):
"I don't think God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created."
Powerful post from Obsidian Wings, Hatred Is A Poison

Fred Clark on the bankruptcy bill, 30% annual interest, and the sin of usury

From comments on this post:
The people most likely to be adversely affected by the bankrutpcy bill are the middle class risk takers who start new businesses. The very people who are at the heart of the Republican rank and file.(*)
"In a letter to Congress two weeks ago, 104 bankruptcy law professors predicted that "the deepest hardship" would "be felt in the heartland," where the filing rates are highest - Utah, Tennessee, Georgia, Nevada, Indiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Ohio, Mississippi and Idaho" ( *)
"Credit card companies know when every politician in Washington ever visited a prostitute, strip club, or "massage" establishment."(*)
When the housing bubble bursts, or interest rates rise, or the dollar declines, or unemployment ticks up (pick one or more), there will be a cascade effect resulting in a massive number of personal bankruptcy filings. And this could affect the stability of the banking industry. This is already known to the lenders and in certain government circles, This bill is an effort to protect 'US financial institutions' and thereby the US economic system from this possible catastrophe.(*)
"As others have said, it's time to stop using consumer credit."(*)

"MBNA loaned Jim Moran (D-Va) over $400K as a personal debt-consolidation loan a week before he co-sponsored an earlier version of the bill." (*, *)

Rivka reporting her experiences as a credit card debtor -
...Eventually, we fell behind in our bill payments. At that point we were flooded by new credit card offers, far more than ever before or since, all of them bearing stratospheric interest rates and enormous penalties for late payments. Five or six offers a day. We were terrible credit risks at that point, and the credit card companies were falling all over themselves to sign us up for more debt.
And quoting from the LA Times series on increased income instability:
In the early 1970s, the inflation-adjusted incomes of most families in the middle of the economic spectrum bobbed up and down no more than about $6,500 a year...These days, those fluctuations have nearly doubled...
The recent news that medical bills make up half of bankruptcies -
Most of those seeking court protection from creditors had health insurance, with more than three-quarters reporting they had coverage at the start of the illness that triggered bankruptcy. The study said 38 percent had lost coverage at least temporarily by the time they filed for bankruptcy, with illness frequently leading to the loss of both a job and insurance.
This one is for today's phone spammer:
...for eight years running, Berkeley has had the lowest teen pregnancy rate in the state, and among the lowest rates in the country. So what is Berkeley doing right?
Statistics on rates of teen pregnancies and STDs in the U.S. vs. Germany, France and the Netherlands.

Eliminating teen health care confidentiality will not be cheap.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The silence of the editors

Apr. 8 updates - editor no longer silent, search still broken but different string needed. minor rewording.

Note: complaining is our core competency; so we will focus our energies there, and leave the serious reporting to Yubanet.

News flash: we are not popular. When we emailed the open and engaging(*) new editor of The Union requesting an interview, he asked for our URL and said he'd need the boss's permission; we promptly replied, and he has been quiet as a churchmouse ever since.

Regarding The Union's equally silently defective Archive Search:
The Union's webmaster did at last respond to our email and acknowledge that there was still a problem; a detailed explanation was provided as to where we could go to find archived paper and microfilm to page and scroll through, respectively, as a workaround until the fix was in.

We asked the following questions in reply:
While [the Archive] Search is [only] returning partial results, do you plan on putting up a warning to this effect on the Search page?

Where does the ability to fix it lie? (Publicus? Swift techs in Reno? Grass Valley?)

Given that it's been broken since last summer, and previous editor said "we are working on it" back in September [sorry-actually October] ...any idea how much longer it's likely to stay broken for?
We got these answers:
Thank you for your continued concern with the Archive feature. I have documented your problems and examples and we are looking into why this is happening.

Thank you for your patience. We appreciate your readership and your participation.
There is still no notice warning the user of incomplete results(*) on the Search page.

From email from The Union last October:
Swift Newspaper techs in Reno (where our site is hosted) says it is a problem with Publicus, our Web software. Publicus needs to reindex our archive. Problem is, Publicus tells us it has no time because of something to do with the Florida hurricanes...
We see that Roger Ebert is now using Publicus too - "New web tools keeps popular movie portal on the cutting edge of internet-delivered content" - we hope that his Archive Search will work better than The Union's does, and that he won't find himself wanting to rewind time again to make a different decision. Keep an eagle eye on those archive searches, Roger.

-40- *

Second news flash: it is abundantly clear why, when Thomas Harris wrote his novel, he did not call it "The Silence of the Frogs".

"Archive Search" test: On the Search page, type
  "grand jury" "david wright"
and see if this Nov. 3 letter (2004) is among those returned.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The good stuff, as usual, is elsewhere

On Yubanet, a special report on the proposed reopening of the Idaho-Maryland Mine. The NCFocus staff is humbled; it makes us feel like we're all talk and no action, which is entirely too close to reality.

Thank you.

In other news, spring has sprung. Local weather forecast:
Experts are predicting sunny and clear conditions - and maybe record-breaking temperatures - for at least the rest of the week...
...which harmonizes with this:
Everything in this country - daffodils, primroses, almond trees, bumblebees, nesting birds - is a month ahead of schedule. And it feels wonderful. Winter is no longer the great grey longing of my childhood....Across most of the upper northern hemisphere, climate change, so far, has been kind to us.

And this is surely one of the reasons why we find it so hard to accept what the climatologists are now telling us. In our mythologies, an early spring is a reward for virtue.
If climate change is to introduce horror into our lives, we would expect - because throughout our evolutionary history we survived by finding patterns in nature - to see that horror beginning to unfold....But the overwhelming sensation, experienced by all of us, almost every day, is that of being blessed by our pollution...
But don't let it get you down - go shopping, have your beloved buy you some jewelry. ("A single gold ring leaves 20 tons of mine waste behind...")

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Stale musings on paper dynamics and public discourse

Mar. 15: added a link.
Morning-after update: This post does look a bit dated; please read it more as an airing of general issues than as a pounding upon a specific newspaper. Also, tangential but perhaps illuminating: Points 4,7 and 8 here.

Found this dessicated Oetzi post way back in the textfile freezer, pulled it out, cranked up the microwave (and probably shouldn't be confessing its trajectory - maybe if it's drenched in ketchup you won't notice? in any case we don't think it's been served here before ) - voilá and bon appetit:


Former Editor driven round the bend by local animosity and strife:
Can we learn to talk to ourselves* instead of scream at ourselves?

If so, it must start with our community's leaders.

He's absolutely right about the starting point - any improvement in the quality of public discourse in this county does need to start with our community's leaders - particularly those leaders who are not aligned with a political party and who have - or at least appear to have - the power to improve the quality of public discourse in the community at large.

Who might these community leaders* be?

Try the editor and publisher of the local newspaper.

What power do they hold?

They have the community's loudest megaphone. They control the mix of positions and interests that get broadcast, they comment on the broadcasts, they control the rules by which broadcasters must abide.

Do they really have such power, or are they lackeys?

Sadly, editors are lackeys by definition: I have read (*?) that the union (so to speak) of editor and publisher is by no means a partnership of equals: the editor has the ability to beseech, and withhold favors, and spike the meatloaf with saltpeter, and file for divorce, but the publisher is the one who wears the pants and ends up getting title to the house.
(and so it came to pass)

Perhaps even the publisher is a lackey, a marionette whose strings are pulled by the paper's owner, to whom the bottom line is all; if this is the case, then empowering, informing and civilizing the citizenry may take a back seat to the less lofty goal of convincing said citizenry to further the owner's perceived financial interests.

Which would raise an interesting question:
Are newspapers just Tech Central Stations writ large, where innocent, well-meaning, ethical journalists write fair and balanced bait to lure the readers in, whereupon their Svengali masters use editorials or "product placement" to administer the psychoactive medication?

If so - if the editorials are tracts written in bad faith to manipulate the readers - are publisher and editor under any ethical obligation to inform said readers that informing the readers is not their goal?

Is this secretiveness ok, given that "everyone knows" that this is the purpose of editorials?

Does everyone know?

Is it true for all papers?

How does a reader evaluate whether a given paper's policy is to write editorials in an attempt to manipulate, vs. only to write - straightforwardly, without trying to mislead - what one sincerely believes to be true?

When the news and editorial pages appear to be coming from separate universes (as Joshua Marshall observes here), is this a reliable sign that the editorial writers are engaging in deliberate bad-faith efforts to sway reader opinion?

When the publisher is unwilling to respond to emails questioning the reasoning behind a questionable editorial (Emails of reason. Emails without screeches. Emails of respect and dignity*, for the most part), is this a reliable indication that the editorial was intended to manipulate? Complete unwillingness to engage in reasoned discourse can stem from knowing that you can't sincerely justify your position.

Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

* in this post we are doing the editor's bidding (as quoted above), and talking to ourselves. Passersby appear suspicious and perplexed however, so it may not be good advice.

(Writing style explanation: we had fallen under the influence of the
Mogambo Guru, who is, well, influential.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Sound bites and nibbles, mostly

An argument that judgment matters but knowledge does not is profoundly anti-intellectual...If judgment means anything, it has to be grounded in at least a minimum amount of knowledge.(*)
I'd like to explore something more like a dialogue than a paintball fight at close range. (*)
[There] may simply be no limit to blind party loyalty for too many people. Torture is the worst-case scenario. If people support torture, what won't they support? (*)
"It is hard to fight anger, for a man will buy revenge with his soul."
Heraclitus, 500 BC
It may be justifiable anger, but I won’t trade the rest of my world for it. (*)
The late Irving Selikoff, one of the last century's great epidemiologists, used to say that statistics were people with the tears wiped away.(*)
...What Gene Roberts, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer called “news that oozes” – the slow developing issues in our world – doesn’t get covered (*)
It's not that it's a big thing. It's the opposite: a small thing that speaks to an attitude. (*)
...A government that is not scrutinized by an energetic and adversarial press is a government that is not accountable for its actions. (*)
Fundamentalism in the White House is a difference in degree, not kind, from fundamentalism exercised in dark, damp caves. Democracy is always the loser. (*)
Conversations involve listening with an intent to understand. Lynch mobs are light on conversation.(*)
Since when is the "sincerity and compassion" of a person--in particular, of a public official--judged on the basis of the things they say and the facial expressions they wear in private conversations . . . as opposed to the decisions they make, the policies they pursue, and the priorities they establish? (*)

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Pattern recognition

Mon: minor edits, added a URL

From this sermon:
It is both accurate and helpful for us to understand fundamentalism as religious fascism, and fascism as political fundamentalism. They both come from very primitive parts of us that have always been the default setting of our species: amity toward our in-group, enmity toward out-groups, hierarchical deference to alpha male figures, a powerful identification with our territory, and so forth. It is that brutal default setting that all civilizations have tried to raise us above, but it is always a fragile thing, civilization, and has to be achieved over and over and over again.
(See also a relevant and highly recommended piece - the monkeysphere.)

Signs of fascism:
  • Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.
  • Disdain for the importance of human rights.
  • Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.
  • The supremacy of the military/avid militarism.
  • Rampant sexism.
  • A controlled mass media.
  • Obsession with national security.
  • Religion and ruling elite tied together.
  • Power of corporations protected.
  • Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.
  • Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts.
  • Obsession with crime and punishment.
  • Rampant cronyism and corruption.
  • Fraudulent elections.
Does any of this ring alarm bells? Of course not. After all, this is America, officially a democracy with the rule of law, a constitution, a free press, honest elections, and a well-informed public constantly being put on guard against evils... ( * )
"Illustrated" with supporting links here.
"I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, 'There's been a military coup'. And then it all makes sense," a State Department official said...( * )

From (FDR's) Vice President Henry A. Wallace in 1944:
... The dangerous American fascist is the man who wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way. The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power. ...
( * )

Thursday, March 03, 2005

'Continuing" might not be the best strategy

Updated March 6,8; updates in italics.

From The Union article introducing its new editor, Pat Butler:
"I want the newspaper and to continue to be relevant, timely, informative and interesting."
Um, yeah. Maybe he doesn't know what else the newspaper has been. Fear not, NCFocus is here to help:

(When we look, we see a pattern. Do you?)
  • Likely county health hazards (asbestos in road gravel and serpentine areas, extensive foothill water well contamination) covered in the Bee, but not The Union

  • (here and here) Sympathetic, "kid-glove" handling of the perp in Weismann (property rights activist) murder-for-hire case:
    • Keeping silent about his increasingly revealing letters to the editor (including the one that the Archive Search is failing to bring up)
    • Printing gratuitous negative information about both the whistleblower and the intended victim; then arguing that this coverage was ok, because they had both declined to talk to a reporter (the case was awaiting trial at the time)

  • In run-up to Nov 2002 election:
    • No support for quality county government (knocking Ted Gaebler) - we got a world-class county administrator, but The Union gave him no support whatsoever when the local right wing attacked him; publisher joined in.
    • (Same URL) Declined to provide space in the paper to expose important information (intent of right wing candidates to remove Gaebler) during run-up to this crucial election, which was decided by 19 votes.
    • Didn't expose sender of pseudonymous "Bob Finch" mailer (which purported to be from a campaign that didn't actually send it); did censure those who did (here)
    • Interpreted the resulting "why aren't you covering this?" chorus from readers as a "conspiracy" *
      which falls into Ralph Nader territory. From Timothy Burke, April 5 2004(?):
      I see Ralph Nader has been popping up in the media expressing bewilderment at the vehemence that his candidacy raises among its critics. Reacting in particular to the similarity in the many letters he received from friends and admirers begging him not to run, he says, "It's a virus", saying there could be no other explanation for the similarity between the appeals. No, Ralph. When everyone disagrees with you in the same terms, it's not a virus. It just means everyone sees the same thing. Generally, the only people who conclude in the face of that kind of mass concord that they themselves must be right and everyone else must be wrong are narcissists, paranoids or the Son of God. Take your pick.

      *This might not be entirely fair; for all I know, some (but not all) letters could have come from a letter writing campaign. (I don't know; if there was one, I didn't hear about it.)

  • In runup to Spring 2004 election:
    • (here) Didn't expose stealth candidate; did censure those who tried to.
    • (here) Multiple non-reality-based claims about communications with readers

  • In runup to Fall 2004 election:
    • Smeared progressive candidate. From here ("charges of smear don't change truth"): "The Union will continue to press for a full accounting of every dollar of the 508k spent on the North Star House project." - but, when the accounting report showed no wrongdoing, this finding was buried on the back page (here)
    • Letters from appalled readers were (perhaps inadvertently) obscured and used to silence support for progressive candidates.
    • No pre-election coverage of "Doolittle machine" encroaching onto Sierra College board (result)

  • Gratuitous name-calling and divisiveness (here)

  • Threatening/insulting email in response to criticisms (e.g. with Haute Trash and with Stuckey)

  • Publisher shows a curious sense of what's fair and what is worth mentioning (it seems threats of violence are not)

  • and more...

All of the above is accurate to the best of our belief. Please report any errors or omissions.

"The second time you get kicked in the head by a mule, it is not a learning experience."
The NCFocus staff is a bit slow; we know our concerns quoted in this column last summer are relevant, but we don't know whether to frame them as naivete or prescience.
Added Mar. 8:
Here's a part of the email that wasn't quoted in the column:
Years ago ...[new division head showed her true colors by actions large and small]...later a company representative asked us, "how can she act in future in order to regain your trust?" The answer was, basically, she couldn't. By then we knew who she was. No matter how she acted in the future, unless she repudiated her actions of the past explicitly and sincerely, we'd always be expecting it to happen again.
And I don't think this was an unrealistic expectation.
Maybe we should have read our own email.

-40- *