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Early Column: Seattle

Vicki and I are headed up to Seattle for the weekend, so I am filing my column on Friday afternoon. Craig Reynolds, meanwhile, is off at Siggraph and won't be filing for a week or two. Thanks for reading, and see you back here next week with all the news that's fit to print from King County Washington.

Grobstein on Ricks on the War, Defending the Indefensible

BOOKS | July 25, 2006
Books of The Times: >From Planning to Warfare to Occupation, How Iraq Went Wrong


Dan Grobstein sent in this important report after hearing the author:

Thomas E. Ricks, a reporter for The Washington Post, serves up a devastating portrait of the war as a misguided exercise in hubris, incompetence and folly.

I went to see Thomas E. Ricks at the Barnes & Noble on upper Broadway in New York last night. He did an interesting short talk, took questions from the audience, and signed his book, "Fiasco, The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

He's reported from Kosovo, Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia and he's never seen a situation as bad as Baghdad right now. He feels that the US will be in Iraq for the next 10 or 15 years. He was asked if this was a war for oil. He pointed out that gasoline prices have doubled since the war started. If the Iraq war and/or the Israel-Lebanon war spills over into a wider war in the Middle East, we can expect $10 per gallon gas. Everything outside of the green zone in Baghdad is known as the red zone. All the journalists live in the red zone. The Washington Post has a house (he won't give the exact location). He was there one day working on his notes and the bureau chief came in. He told her that he'd heard 2 explosions and some machine gun fire (dangerous because it goes through walls). She immediately said "quiet day." He feels that Bush and the other officials actually believed their WMD stories.

He's amazed that after we've been at war almost as long as World War II that no generals have been sacked. (George C. Marshall fired 200 generals early in World War II). And there have been no Congressional hearings on the conduct of the war (unlike World War II). Abu Ghraib was not the fault of the lower ranking servicemembers. It is a failure from higher up. Officers are not supposed to speak out on political subjects, but because their commissions are granted by Congress, if Congress asks them a question, they are supposed to answer to the best of their ability.

The people who said that there were no WMDs in Iraq had their facts exactly right. He said he has been briefed by Hans Blix and the briefing could put you to sleep and he was ready to tell him to just mail him the report. He says that Colin Powell was used in the run up to the war. Powell thought that he'd won the argument before 9/11 to continue sanctions against Iraq and that the sanctions would be improved. The speech he was given to give at the UN was all lies.

Some officers had the right idea about dealing with the Iraqi public. He feels that if you deal with them with respect and ask what you should do we would have a better chance of peaceful interaction. Some units did that and had a relatively peaceful area. But then they were rotated out and new units moved in without the same attitude and the area became much more violent. He told the story of one officer who wanted to get the local government people paid. The money was in the local bank. He went to the banker and the banker told him that he couldn't release the money without the permission of the Ministry of Finance. The officer told him that the Ministry of Finance no longer existed. Some people would have gone in and blown up the safe to get the money. This officer asked the banker how he could get the money. The banker said that the officer had the authority so the officer wrote out a document telling the banker that he had permission to release the money. The banker asked where the officer's official seal was so the next day he had a rubber stamp made and stamped all his documents from then on and everyone was happy.

One officer had all detainees interviewed when they were released about how they were treated and how they felt about Americans and what could we do better. He also made sure that all his men were trained and understood that they were to treat the Iraqis they came in contact with with respect. One officer met with insurgent leaders and told them that he understood why they were fighting us and that it was an honorable thing because after all they were defending their homes. When the US came in we were like a blind man and didn't understand the situation. But we did now and would be behaving differently. It was a good way to tell them that if they didn't cooperate they would be fought and it gave them an honorable way to calm things down. It worked, but then the unit was rotated out and a new unit moved in that didn't think that way.

The Iraq situation will be a major problem for the next president.

Also of interest: Back To Iraq: Dispatches from the GWOT GSAVE "Long War"

I don't know about you, but this whole Israeli invasion of Lebanon seems to me to be the complete opposite of what works. I guess they didn't learn anything from Dubya's invasion of Iraq. on the other hand, dubya didn't learn anything from Israel's earlier invasion of Lebanon.

It looks like they're trying to destroy the government of Lebanon. Who else is going to control the country? You have to learn from what the British finally did with the IRA and the Spanish with the Basques.

This whole situation, with the grownups running the US government and not even trying to stop it has me scared to death. Especially after hearing Rick's talk about US government decision-making last night (the government policy: if you disagree, you're not invited to any more meetings).

I usually stay away from commenting on Middle Eastern stuff because it is and has been a such a mess for so long, but this is ridiculous. It used to seem hopeless to me. Now it's worse.

[Editor's Note: The Middle East makes me feel confused and helpless. Always has. When Rae was younger, she told me she never read the paper or listened to news on the radio because it was the same thing every day--Israel does this, the PLO does that. Why read the news if it never changes, she asked.

When I accepted an appointment to the Orinda Planning Commission, my plan was to always do what was obviously right for the community, with maybe a little sympathy for the property owner. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that virtually every issue that came before us had two or more sides, each equally valid, and that all decisions end up being unfair to someone. This business of governing is much trickier than it appears.]


Don't miss a moment of this administration straddle/squirm, which offers the added benefit of making White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten look incompetent (what a surprise--a senior Bush administration official who's incompetent), and makes Rove out to be a blowhard ignoramus. More proof, if more were needed, that this is not a "reality" based administration. The transcript and the analysis are both worth reading.  Bolten can't defend the indefensibleJosh Bolten Squirms During Stem Cell QuestionsBolten Defends Rove’s False Claims on Stem Cells: Karl ‘Knows A Lot of Stuff’… Meet the Press Transcript for July 23 Josh Bolten, Tom Ricks.


My Super Ex-Girlfriend

3.5 stars

First of all, is exactly why no sane moviemaker or songwriter uses a real phone number in a movie or pop tune. Have you noticed how everyone in the movies lives in the part of town with the 555 prefix? This goes back a long way--in pictures from the 40s, you see "Klondike 5" numbers. Same deal. Anyway, Eddie Izzard as Professor Bedlam/Barry mentions his email ID in the movie, and sure enough, the web site is there.

Director Ivan Reitman has made a pretty good movie out of a script by Don Payne, whose previous work was in TV (much of it on The Simpsons), although apparently he gets to write the Fantastic Four sequel.

According to IMDB, the Tagline is "He broke her heart. She broke his everything." The Plot: " When a regular guy (Luke Wilson) dumps a superhero (Uma Thurman) because of her neediness, she uses her powers to make his life a living hell." Well, as is so often the case, that sums it up.

In some ways, this feels like an extended television episode, although I have to say a running time of 95 minutes is nearly perfect for a comedy (90 is the Golden Mean). Lessons are learned. In fact, hugs are exchanged. Where's Larry David when we need him.

Seriously, I wondered where this film was going to go after it established its premise. Unlike so many recent comedies, it didn't just spin its wheels or die out, it went somewhere, and was mildly entertaining as it did so.

Can't go without mentioning Rainn Wilson as Vaughn Haige. You'll recognize Wilson as one of the many weirdos on Six Feet Under, and he seems to be zooming in on a career as an oddball. Well, heck, it's a career.

Not as dumb as you might expect, with cool special effects and occasional outbreaks of acting. I laughed, but then as my daughters note, I'll laugh at anything.

Who Killed The Electric Car

4 stars

Chris Paine wrote and directed (his first major film) and Martin Sheen narrated this gripping documentary. My blood was already boiling about the way the manufacturers muscled the California Air Resources Board, then instantly pulled the plug on their electric models. This supplies the details. It's as if someone had done a documentary in 1955 about how National City Lines (General Motors, Philips Petroleum, Mack Truck, Standard Oil of California, Goodyear) were buying up and closing down the nation's streetcar systems. Then, as now, the documentary would come too late to save the streetcars/electric cars, but at least it would strip the mask and let us know who the villains are. In this case, not consumers (who were allowed to lease but were never allowed to buy the badly advertised cars), but auto companies, oil companies and politicians.

First rate, must-see. Not entertaining, but important and enlightening. Know the facts!

Through A Scanner Darkly

3 stars

Philip K. Dick couldn't catch a break when he was alive, and since his death the corpus of his work has been repeatedly raided by Hollywood, which took an idea or two and cranked out a commercial movie. Well, Richard Linklater has conclusively demonstrated why people use Dick's titles and themes but not his actual work. Scanner Darkly is a faithful adaptation of Dick's work, and it's depressing as heck and hardly anyone will ever see it, despite its beautiful special effects. First of all, the entire film is live-action film rendered as animation (a very old process once known as Rotoscoping). The scramble suit Keanu Reeves wears to disguise himself is totally amazing. Robert Downey an amazing and impressive drug lord, Woody Harrelson is an amazing and impressive drugee, and Winona Ryder is just amazing and impressive.

Still, it is full of sound and fury signifying nothing. See the movie for the special effects, but don't expect to be deeply engaged by the plot. I wasn't.

Lasusa Links, Digital Movies, Net Neutrality, Dan Grobstein File

The odd corners of the Internet, lit up by Tom Lasusa and his posse… The Easter Bunny Hates YouThe Cursor Kite (A Kite made to look like a computer cursor's arrow)… E=Mc GiggaloVintage Comic Book CoversBack to the Future Ride Closing in Universal Studios FloridaThe Life and Death of a Pumpkin… Blinky Productions: These folks have produced some really good fan films based on DC Superheroes. Check out Power Girl in "The Classifieds", Catwoman's "Principles", Blue Beetle (Not Spiderman) and Booster Gold's Anti-Cigarette CampaignThe Media Taking 'End Times' Seriously?Monopoly replaces play-money with fake credit-cards…Hypocricy of the week: PBS fires kiddie show host forspoof videos she made in 1999: Fires hostess of "Goodnight Show" for her particpation in hysterical "Technical Virgin" videos. Apparently, foul mouthed comedian George Carlin was acceptable as the 'conductor' at "Shining Time Station"… The Yuckiest Site on the Internet (Thanks Kim)… Bobb Ross videos on YouTube (Bless him and his happy little clouds)… Happy SysAdmins Day (July 28th)Accident produces Water-proof paper.

Regulars will remember my interest in digital film production and projection. No word yet on when theaters will tip, but Panavision says it has no plans to design or build any more film cameras beyond this in stock: Studios Shift to Digital Movies, but Not Without Resistance.

I want to underline a metaphor used by Craig Reynolds last week in Technobriefs; it really resonated for me. Eliminating Net Neutrality is equivalent to this, according to Craig Newmark: "Imagine you call Joe's Pizza and the first thing you hear is a recording saying your call will be connected in a minute or two, or you can be connected to Pizza Hut right away. That's what proponents of net neutrality say telephone and cable companies want to do to the Internet."

Dan Grobstein File

No sooner does Dan watch the Maltese Falcon during a visit to San Francisco, where much of it was shot, than he discovers Netflix has a series this summer of Rolling Road Shows, movies being shown in the place they were shot.

Here's Dan's account of his tour:

We went over to the spot where Brigid O'Shaughnessy shot Miles Archer. We went to Geary and Leavenworth near where Floyd Thursby lived. We went past 1201 California where Brigid O'Shaughnessy had an apartment. We saw Sam Spade's office building and the Geary theatre where Spade saw Joel Cairo. We also ate at John's Grill where Sam Spade ate before taking a cab to Burlingame on a wild goose chase. I had the same meal (chops, baked potato and tomatoes). It's the only place where the characters ate that is still in existence. (I bought a used guide by Don Herron through Amazon).

My Apologies, Week in Review

This summer is definitely slipping away from me. All of my travel last week kept me away from the column, and for that I apologize. Some briefs from this week:

  • I almost didn't make it this week. The excuse was that I was working on my mother-in-law's memoirs. In her 80s, she wrote out the story of the first 50 years of her life. I am sorry she never got around to the final three decades, because the first five were lulus! Of course, being me, one thing led to another. I felt I had to Google the famous people she met along the way (including Salvador Dali), run a family tree, and then scan in some pictures, then edit them and size them and correct some errors in the family tree (I just cannot spell Berkeley right). Is it just me or do things like this happen to other people as well?
  • Vicki, Marlow and I will be hiking between the seven lodges in Tuolomne Meadows at Yosemite National Park on August 14. My hiking shoes (last worn in 1991) literally fell apart when I tried to break them in, so they needed replacing. We also don't own sleep sacks, or unbreakable water bottles, or zip up fleece… you get the idea. Financially, a good day for REI, not as good a day for us. It's a pretty good hike: no tents, sleeping bags or food needs to be taken along. Now I just have to wear hiking shoes everywhere for a month.
  • Tuesday was Vicki's birthday. We've developed a habit of taking a two-hour bike ride before a dinner out; we'd planned to do that in Walnut Creek. It was still 90 at 6pm, so we drove into the city and biked The Great Highway and Golden Gate Park for 90 minutes, then ate at one of the outdoor tables at Pinocchio's (not to be mistaken for Finnochio's) in North Beach.
  • You might think the triple-digit heat of the past week would distract me, but it didn't, except on Wednesday, when I insisted on making a long-planned trip into the city to spend a few hours reading at the beach. I got a late start, and it was 80 at Ocean Beach in San Francisco by the time I got there (80! Can you beat that?)
  • My notice of non-column writing, sent out last week, asked for information on biodiesel. Bob Nilsson pointed me at a discussion of the subject on the website of the TV show Mythbusters. I found out there is a difference between biodiesel and just plain vegetable oil, and it appears biodiesel is, well, legal, while plain vegetable oil is, well, not. Apparently, a vegetable oil car is complicated to run, according to the story in Sunday's New York Times Grease Is the Word: Fill It Up With Fry Oil. You can also look at a biodiesel FAQ (aimed at fleet managers, but still interesting and intelligible and a used car dealer in Petaluma, CA that specializes in diesel passenger cars.

Catching Up With The Week of July 10

Here's what you would have read about, probably in more detail, had I been able to get it together and do a column last week:

  • I went to LA for four days to catch up with friends. Sunday it was JF, a buddy of mine from the computer journalism days, now ensconced and retired in the suburbs of San Diego. He allowed me to shoot his .22 at a target; the first time I have ever fired a weapon of any kind. Then, when he found out I had never ridden at ATV or been to a Wal-Mart, he made sure I did both with him. JS, a professor friend of mine from USC, was kind enough to invite me to his home in Palos Verdes. We walked 90 minutes together and ate dinner in town, and promised to ship each other a bunch of stuff later. JP, another friend from my journalism days, welcomed me to his home in Studio City on Tuesday, where we spoke of old times. That walk was too short, as was the visit, because I had an unrealistic expectation of finding a Prius for my daughter Marlow. The car didn't show up, and I left JP too soon. Politically, we don't agree on much, but he is the finest conversationalist I have ever met, and his manners are impeccable. Finally, Neal Vitale (I can use his name; he's a regular in this column) met me at his house in Pacific Palisades before taking me out to a delightful dinner at a trendy place in Santa Monica whose name I have forgotten. Always a joy to spend time with Neal; our friendship goes back to MIT days. This is the second year I've made a four-day sojourn to LA in the summer; maybe I should try a three-day weekend in the fall. And I didn't even get around to seeing BG or NU and AU (the night I was free they were at the Hollywood Bowl).
  • We celebrated Vicki's birthday with a trip to the Osmosis Spa in Freestone and a stay at the finest B&B we've ever been in. If only it were five miles closer to the coast… Wish the dinner on Occidental had been as good, but at least it was nice out…
  • Magical Strings, which consists of Vicki's childhood friend Pam Boulding and her lovely and handsome husband Philip, performed at Sonoma State. They were nice enough to snare me a seat and a dinner for the concert, which was fantastic, as are all their concerts (and, for that matter, their CDs). It was 90 minutes up and 90 minutes back, but worth every minute of it.
  • Marlow moved into her first-ever apartment, in San Francisco. What, you say? What about New York, and Harbin, China and Taipei, Taiwan, and Leiden, The Netherlands. There were apartments, yes, but they were furnished and functioned more or less as dorm rooms. This is Marlow's apartment, and she loved shopping for the furniture at Sleep Train, Scandinavian Design and, yes, of course, Ikea. I bought her electronics with her at Circuit City. Vicki and I joined her for an eight-hour spree of electronics set up and furniture assembly, after which she had a flat-screen TV (with DVD, cable and home theater sound), a working landline portable telephone and a working DSL wireless setup. Furniture: a butcher block on wheels in the kitchen, a bookshelf, a dining room table and chairs, and a chest of drawers in the bedroom closet. That's a lot of Ikea. But, in the end, very satisfying.

Iraqi Civilian Deaths, Lost Faith

Please note: I am just too baffled by the whole Middle East thing to make an intelligent comment on either Iraq or Israel-Lebanon

Richard Dalton notes:

This pretty shocking--the result of our $300 billion investment in Iraqi democracy.

Over 3,000 Iraqi Civilians Killed in June, U.N. Reports

By KIRK SEMPLE BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 18 — An average of more than 100 civilians per day were killed in Iraq last month, the highest monthly tally of violent deaths since the fall of Baghdad, the United Nations reported today…

In the first six months of this year, the civilian death toll jumped more than 77 percent, from 1,778 in January to 3,149 in June, the organization said…

In its report, the United Nations said that 14,338 civilians had died violently in Iraq in the first six months of the year….

According to the United Nations’ tallies, 1,778 civilians were killed in January, 2,165 in February, 2,378 in March, 2,284 in April, 2,669 in May and 3,149 in June….

The totals represent an enormous increase over figures published by media organizations and by non-governmental organizations that track these trends.

The Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent Web site that uses news reports to do its tallies, reported that at least 840 Iraqi civilians died in June, compared with an all-time high of 1,100 the previous month.


Bush's base (the right wing) continues to bail out. [Thank you Dan Grobstein] Andrew Sullivan:

In the last few years, I have gone from lionizing this president's courage and fortitude to being dismayed at his incompetence and now to being resigned to mistrusting every word he speaks. I have never hated him. But now I can see, at least, that he is a liar on some of the gravest issues before the country. He doesn't trust us with the truth. Some lies, to be sure, are inevitable - even necessary - in wartime. But when you're lying not to keep the enemy off-balance, but to maximize your own political fortunes at home, you forfeit the respect of people who would otherwise support you - and the important battle you have been tasked to wage.

Pat Buchanan: Israeli-Lebanon conflict "Not Our War." Generally speaking, if Pat Buchanan told me he loved his mother, I'd check it out. But he was certainly spot-on here, especially when he says, "But these neoconservatives care no more about the Constitution than they cared about the truth when they lied into war in Iraq."


  • More atomic bomb balm from the New York Times (nuclear power redux).
  • New York Times: The Real Agenda. It is only now, nearly five years after Sept. 11, that the full picture of the Bush administration’s response to the terror attacks is becoming clear. Much of it, we can see now, had far less to do with fighting Osama bin Laden than with expanding presidential power.