The Good and Bad of Leaks

 Posted by  Disasters and Tragedies, Terrorism, The Media  Comments Off on The Good and Bad of Leaks
Oct 092013

Anonymous sources keep the government honest.

One of my favorite West Wing quotes is when CJ Craig, the fictional White House Press Secretary, discusses how leaks are a necessary part of governing:   “There is no group of people this large in the world that can keep a secret. I find it comforting. It’s how I know for sure the government isn’t covering up aliens in New Mexico.”  Leaks keep the government honest.  Without Deep Throat, we wouldn’t have known that Richard Nixon attempted election fraud.  (Which was the point of the Watergate break-in; to steal campaign documents from the DNC.)  Without the Pentagon Papers, it might have taken years to uncover the incompetence within the Pentagon, and dishonesty from the White House, that undercut our efforts in Vietnam.  Anonymous sources give the public necessary information about corruption and incompetence, and are the ultimate defense against the creation of secret conspiracies that would be against the public’s best interest.

But anonymous sources also ruin lives.

A classic-but-modern example of this is Richard Jewell.  Mr. Jewell was working as a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  He spotted a suspicious bag, called it in, and started moving people away from it.  It turned out, that bag contained a bomb.  Mr. Jewell saved lives that day.

But then the FBI began to suspect that maybe he was involved in planting the bag in the first place, so that he could play the part of hero.  They never had any hard evidence of this–only a general profile gathered from Mr. Jewell’s work history that was similar to people who had done this in the past.  He was the FBI’s primary suspect for almost three months before he was officially cleared.  (The bomber turned out to be a right-wing anti-abortion activist; he was caught about a decade later.)

All of that would have been fine–except for that someone in the FBI leaked the fact that Mr. Jewell was a suspect to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  That anonymous source triggered every major news paper in the country–and many internationally–to dig into his past.  He received death threats, he became unemployable, he had the media stalk him and his family.  The FBI had absolutely no evidence linking Mr. Jewell to the bomb, and yet it destroyed his life in a very real way.  (Eventually he received an apology from the FBI, he settled a liable suit against several major news outlets, got a job as a Sheriff’s Deputy in Georgia, and died of diabetes a few years ago.)

So I like leaks.  I want people who work in government to tell dirty secrets to reporters.  But I also want those reporters to exercise restraint in what they publish.  The people do not have a “right” to know every last detail.  Reporters who fail to understand that have no place in the business.

Voter Control

 Posted by  Book Related, The Media, U.S. Politics  Comments Off on Voter Control
Apr 112013

In a blog post today, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen says that the problem with former Congressman Anthony Weiner is that he’s not more like Margaret Thatcher.  Actually, I would say he has that backwards; the problem with modern politics is that too many people want Margaret Thatcher, when they should want Anthony Weiner.

Weiner is the subject of a fascinating New York Times Magazine piece, along with his wife, Huma Abedin, who was Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman during her time as Secretary of State.  The piece describes Weiner’s fall from grace two years ago, which largely happened because he sent out pictures of his penis (mostly, but not entirely, clothed) to some women he “met” on Twitter.  In the piece, Weiner is clearly looking for some kind of public forgiveness and political redemption.

And, according to Cohen, this is a mistake.  Cohen clearly believes that politicians should be more like Margaret Thatcher, who was famous for not really caring what people thought about her.

Now, that picture of Thatcher is a caricature–of course she cared what people thought about her.  First, because she’s human and humans are social animals, whether we like to admit it or not.  And second, because you don’t win elections without trying to convince people that you are doing the right thing.  If you truly didn’t care about the public’s opinion, you wouldn’t bother campaigning–and Thatcher most certainly campaigned.

Still, the image of the politician who does what they think is best, public-opinion-be-damned, is a powerful one in American politics.  Many reporters and pundits hold it up as the ideal.

And I want nothing to do with it.  The heart of democracy is elections.  We are democratic because we hold regular, meaningful elections for the highest offices in the land.  Our leaders must stand for election–which means that they must strive to be liked by the public.

Ultimately, that’s the public’s only leash on our leadership.  If our leaders stop care about being liked–if they truly stop care about whether the public will support them or not–then there is nothing to stop our leaders from enacting whatever outrageous policies they want to.  There is nothing to stop them from openly taking bribes or ordering their subordinates to have sex with them at every opportunity.

Democracy works in large part because our leaders want to be liked.  It’s that desire to be liked–to want to run in future elections, and win those elections–that keeps our politicians in line.  When politicians lose that fear–that’s when they get dangerous.

So if I have a choice between an Anothony Weiner-type, who cares what the people think, or a Margaret Thatcher-type, who doesn’t–well, give me the Anthony Weiner every time.  Because as a voter, I can control the Weiner-type politician.  The Thatcher-type politician may have “political courage”, but I have no control over them once they are in office.   And as a country, we’re all better off if the voters remain in control.


It’s been a busy week for Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs): Lance Armstrong is confessing to Oprah and Barry Bonds (among others) didn’t get into the Hall of Fame. Personally, I find all the public moralizing and preaching about PED usage to be a whole lot of hypocrisy on the part of a whole lot of people. Or to put it another way: Armstrong and Bonds used PEDs. Who cares?

Let’s start with the medicine. There are basically four banned kinds of PEDs:

  • Uppers: The oldest form of PED. There is a wide-swatch of banned stimulants, most notably amphetamines (which were commonly taken by athletes in the pre-steroid era) and ephedrine.  Most stimulants tend to start on the “un-banned” list (e.g. caffeine) and move to the banned list once there is a problem; I only wish everything else worked that way.
  • Anabolic Steroids: Essentially a class of drugs that are all derived from testosterone, the hormone that causes men to, you know, be men, on some fundamental level.  These can spur muscle development.  They also affect your body hair, cause your testicles to shrink (if you’re a man), cause your voice to drop and your jaw to grow (if you’re a woman), can affect the size and shape of your breasts (in both sexes), and over the long-term are linked to an increase in heart disease.  We don’t know much about long-term usage, however, because they are regulated so heavily that studying them is difficult.  Also, while anabolic steroids can cause insomnia and increased irritability in some people, there is no scientific evidence of “roid rage.”
  • Blood Doping: An insidious-sounding name for increasing the Red Blood Cell count in your blood stream, thereby improving oxygen flow to the body, with drugs or through blood transfusions.  It’s not especially dangerous, although it can cause your blood not to clot as well, and can exacerbate any existing heart problems you might have.
  • Human Growth Hormone (HGH): The newest fad among top-flight PED users, especially to speed recovery from injury, it’s a naturally occurring hormone that tells the body to make new tissue (muscle, bone, ligament, etc). It’s very expensive and very difficult to detect.  Medically, it’s been given to people for a long time who have a growth hormone deficiency (which causes people to be abnormally small, among other things), and we also know that there is a naturally occurring condition of having too much HGH (Acromegaly, which causes people to be larger than normal, have very distinctive skeletal features, and also be more prone to diabetes and hypertension). People who have low-HGH levels have very few side-effects from taking the hormone externally.  We don’t know what the effects of taking HGH are, either over a short or long duration, for an otherwise healthy adult.
So that’s what’s banned.  Want to know what’s not banned?  Glad you asked: Continue reading »

12 Angry Men, 100 Million Angry Voters

 Posted by  2012 Election, Book Related, Movies, U.S. Politics  Comments Off on 12 Angry Men, 100 Million Angry Voters
Nov 122012

Last week I saw the 1957 film 12 Angry Men for the first time, and I was blown away.  It’s probably the best example of irrational group decision-making that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The movie takes place almost entirely in a jury room.  The movie starts just as the trial ends–the only thing that the viewer knows about the case at the beginning is that it involves a homicide, and that the defendant will be put to death if he is found guilty.  The details of the case, at least as they were made known in court, come out over the course of the movie–although there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the case even at the end of the movie.  That’s because the movie isn’t about the case at all; this isn’t a Perry Mason or Law and Order where we learn the truth of a crime through the court proceedings.  Instead, the film is about the men in the room.

At the beginning, 11 of the jurors vote for guilt, with only one (Henry Fonda) voting not guilty.  When pressed, he makes it clear that he has no idea whether the defendant is guilty or not, and acknowledges that some of the evidence does seem to point in that direction.  But he says that he’s not fully convinced, and would just like to talk the case through for awhile before they send a man to his death.  The rest of the movie (I’m not really giving anything away here) deals with the process by which he convinces the rest of the jurors that their is, in fact, reasonable doubt.

It’s a brilliant film because the jurors are never rational.  At the beginning of the movie they are a biased bunch, each voting guilty for reasons that have as much to do with their inherent prejudices as with the case.  By the end of the movie, they have all changed their votes–and yet, the process by which they changed their votes wasn’t really based on the hard evidence of the case either.  For instance: Continue reading »

Of Avatar and Progress

 Posted by  Book Related, Movies, The Media  Comments Off on Of Avatar and Progress
Oct 222012

Just watched Avatar this weekend; the highest grossing movie of all time, and I’m finally getting around to seeing it on Blu-Ray.  It’s a visually stunning film (large sections of the movie could be watched with the dialogue track turned off and it would still be engaging), and as a sci-fi fan I appreciate that the setting is pretty original.  The plot is recycled and predictable: spy infiltrates native community but decides he likes the natives better than his own people;  betrayals, revelations, and the making of amends all ensue in due course.  Thematically it was sort of a mixed bag: a strong pro-environmentalist message (which is good) and an inadvertent but strong “noble savage” stereotype (which is bad, even if the stereotyped savages are 12 feet tall aliens and not Native Americans).

What really struck me, however, was that the movie  inadvertently blunders into an important truth about the nature of technological progress. Continue reading »

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