and the life of a county clerk
The voucher decision. Nathan Newman is one lefty blogger (but opposed to judicial activism) who believes that the Supreme Court rightly decided the Ohio school vouchers case. He at least makes a good argument for not being too alarmed about the decision. Not that he's necessarily in favor of putting vouchers into effect, but as he points out, just because something is a bad idea doesn't necessarily mean it offends the Constitution.
I always thought it ironic that a hypothetical liberal in (say) Niagara Falls, New York, and his hypothetical counterpart across the river in Niagara Falls, Ontario, believe precisely opposite things about government funding of parochial schools. Such funding is taken for granted north of the border. Whether this is a good (pro-diversity) or a bad (fomenting separatism) aspect of Canadian policy is open to debate.
I'm a product of public schools, myself, but I'm the first to admit that the public schools in some places (like Detroit) are awful. Big school districts (like big organizations of many kinds that deal primarily in human relations) appear to suffer from steep diseconomies of scale that make them more costly per unit of output as they get larger. However, breaking up the Detroit school district into "regions" was a failure, mostly because of the apathy of those most directly concerned; corruption filled the power vacuum.
On the other hand, letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred (voucher-funded) schools of thought contend has a certain appeal, but experience with tax-funded "charter schools" here in Michigan shows what a golden opportunity it can be for fraud and abuse.
Michael Pine of Off The Pine is another non-rightwing blogger who supports the voucher decision, saying the policy questions are best left to the political process.
Saturday, June 29, 2002, 11:30 am
Now to continue the story about Michigan congressional districting, and its political aftermath.
For a look at the geography, here's the 1992-2002 districts, and the 2002-2012 districts. The new plan was designed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and adopted by the Republican-controlled legislature. It was challenged unsuccessfully in federal court by Democrats; I was one of the named plaintiffs.
The new districting plan has as its main effect the combining of three pairs of Democratic incumbents into seats together. The former Bay City/Saginaw district of conservative Democrat Jim Barcia (5th District on the old map) was broken up into four other districts; Barcia chose to run for State Senate instead of re-election to Congress. The most Democratic parts of two Detroit suburban districts held by Sander Levin (old 12th) and David Bonior (old 10th) were combined into a new 12th District, but even before the plan was revealed, Bonior was running for Governor. And the Detroit Downriver suburbs and Monroe County were linked to Ann Arbor, putting veteran congressman John Dingell in the same seat with Lynn Rivers. More about that race later today.
Michigan loses one seat in reapportionment, so the destruction of three Democratic districts made possible the creation of two Republican ones: the new Detroit suburban 11th District, created for State Sen. Thaddeus McCotter (who's he? everyone here asks), and the northern Macomb/Thumb 10th District for Secretary of State Candice Miller. That seat was created specifically to keep Candice out of the race for governor, where she would have been a potent threat to Gov. John Engler's conservative heir apparent, Lt. Gov Richard Posthumus. More about the gubernatorial race later.
The Legislature decreed that district numbers start with number 1 in the northern reaches of the state, and continue in logical order from there. This made it impossible to return to the numbering scheme which prevailed in Michigan for some twelve decades, and to which we had all become very accustomed: the 1st District was in Detroit, the 2nd District included Ann Arbor, the 3rd Kalamazoo, the 4th Berrien County, the 5th Grand Rapids, the 6th Lansing, the 7th in the Thumb or Flint, the 8th in Saginaw, the 9th Muskegon, the 10th taking in the north central part of the state, the 11th the Upper Peninsula, and so on. That pattern, stable or very slowly evolving since the Civil War, was smashed in 1992 when a federal court unexpectedly came up with a radically different numbering scheme.
Mention a random post-1992 Michigan congressional district by number, and I usually have to look at the map to figure out which one you mean.
Sunday, June 23, 2002, 12:40 am
William Langewiesche of the Atlantic Monthly was the one reporter privileged with total access to the World Trade Center site, starting only a few days after September 11. He attended the meetings, read the files, joined with engineers in perilous expeditions into the depths of the ruins, followed the internal politics of the site, and so on.
Now the first of three parts of Langewiesche's story of the cleanup, "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," is out in the July/August issue. Read short excerpts from it here.
The piece is full of new (to me) information about the attack and its aftermath. The second plane, which hit the South Tower, was going about 100 mph faster than the first plane that hit the North Tower (possibly a factor in the South Tower's quicker collapse). In each crash, the jet fuel burned up within minutes, and did not by itself lead to the collapses: it was the secondary fire of office furniture, paper, etc. which ended up stressing the steel structure beyond its ability.
More: the worst design flaw in the WTC (as measured in lives in the disaster) was the clustering of stairwells. In the North Tower, the crash cut off all the stairwells, and no one from above the impact zone lived. In the South Tower, one stairwell was not cut, and some people from above the impact zone did escape.
Deep underground, at the bottom of the site, was the air conditioning system, one of the world's largest installations. One big fear at the site was that huge quantities of freon gas remained in tanks underneath the mountains of debris. If heavy equipment punctured such a tank or pipe, the heavy gas would have driven out all the oxygen in the hole and killed probably hundreds of workers. (It turned out that the tanks had been smashed in the collapse, and the freon gas vented with the fire and smoke.)
The headquarters of the whole billion-dollar operation was an unmodified kindergarten classroom; the engineers and contractors and bureaucrats sat on kiddie-sized chairs and desks as they discussed what to do.
Langewiesche's main point, however, is that the cleanup was a uniquely and in many ways wonderfully American project, with none of the hopelessness of a "real" war zone. By its nature, the work was not amenable to tight central control; individual workers and engineers and crew leaders had a lot of autonomy, and by and large rose to the occasion. It was a grim task, but to many of the workers, it was exciting and even liberating.
I look forward to the second and third installments.
Sunday, June 23, 2002, 12:15 am
I'm dismayed that Mike Gunderloy is abandoning his fascinating weblog ("Dedicated to the proposition that the web is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine."). Only days ago, I wrote that "A visit to Mike's page is a quick, reliable cure for any feeling that the web is getting stale or boring." He startled me by putting my quote on his masthead. But now:
After a bit more than three years and 2,558 entries, I'm suspending further activity on this weblog. It's not fun any more, mostly because I simply don't have the time to do it right. Other pressures in my life prevent my devoting the sort of time to this project that I did three years ago. Based on other projects that I've abandoned in similar circumstances over the years, I'd say that it's fairly unlikely that I'll revive this weblog. But it could happen. Check back in a few weeks if you're interested.
A cynic might suggest that this demonstrates that the Web is indeed getting stale and boring. At least, we won't have Mike helpfully proving otherwise day after day.
Friday, June 21, 2002, 11:29 pm
Avedon Carol, and then Brad DeLong, comment on advertising and human memory. Avedon (responding to a study about recall of television commercials) says she can't remember a single advertisement she saw all week, but recounts some anecdotes in which advertising affected her buying decisions. Brad comments that, in most broadcasting, "the only commodity being paid for is the provisions of eyeballs to advertisers."
There is a widespread myth that advertisers have tremendous power over everything we do. This myth reaches its absurd extreme in now-discredited theories that seemingly random parts of advertising images -- the ice cubes in a liquor ad, say -- are designed to evoke powerful unconscious responses which control consumer attitudes and behavior.
The real dirty secret of advertising is that it really doesn't make that much difference. Broadcast commercials, ads in print media, whatever, are easily shrugged off or ignored, and quickly forgotten. Tremendous money is spent on it, and the return is actually pretty paltry and uneven. Firms do it because they don't have other alternatives -- you can't exactly buy word of mouth in the needed quantity. When advertising fails to produce the desired results, the only solution is to buy still more advertising.
Advertising on the Web became such an economic failure, as I remember some predicting early on, because viewer/consumer activity could easily be logged and counted -- making the lack of actual impact painfully obvious. (More about web advertising in a future posting.)
As the human environment has become "noisier" -- with ads multiplying in all media, and appearing even in and above urinals, among other unexpected places -- advertisers feel that they have to shout louder and longer and more expensively to hammer home their message. There is a growing edge of desperation to this, which shows in the astonishing claim that viewers who skip or mute television commercials are "stealing."
Friday, June 21, 2002, 2:11 am
Vicki Rosenzweig writes about the controversy over which Nixon White House insider passed vital information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward: "If Pat Buchanan is Deep Throat, it's the best thing he's ever done."
Ironically, if it was him, he's sufficiently embarrassed about it to keep it secret three decades later.
Friday, June 21, 2002, 1:47 am
Time for another roundup of feedback about the weblog.
I liked this blog by Wastenaw County (MI) Commissioner Lawrence Kestenbaum. . . . Currently, a particular focus of the site is the congressional redistricting underway in Michigan. Other essays discuss Google, the decline of newspaper quality, and copyright law.
At points, the writing on this site approaches the poetic. . . . Another interesting feature is that the site uses custom-written html, rather than using one of the available blogging applications such as Movable Type or Blogger.
Many of the essays have a Michigan focus, and perhaps they will be of less interest to people in other regions. Still, as one of the few blogs written by a working politician, this site is a good source of insights into the operation of local government.
Polygon, the Dancing Bear was also reviewed by The Weblog Review, and came off less well. The reviewer says my surgery account "doesn't sound interesting," but "reads as if it's a chapter in a novel." The site design is "nothing glamorous," she wrotes, but: "All the links work, and the site looked just the same in any browser I checked it out in."
In summary, she said it was a "very well written weblog," and rated it as a 4 on a zero to five scale. However, the average of two users who rated the site was only 2.
PTDB also debuted as an "Insignificant Microbe" in the Blogging Ecosystem, a census of blogs and links created by The Truth Laid Bear.
Meanwhile, on June 7, Paul Musgrave wrote that PTDB is "one of my favorite blogs on the Web."
Back on May 22, William Slawski at Delaware Law Office welcomed me to blogging, saying, "It's great to see another blog addressing legal issues."
Thanks to all for the comments.
Monday, June 17, 2002, 3:20 pm
I just received yet another new version of the Nigerian email scam. This one, for the first time in my experience, appears to recognize and attempt to counter the attention the scam has gotten. Even before introducing himself, the fraudster explicitly denies that the proposal is a scam, and tries a series of reassuring gambits. Media reports about the scam are derided as "sponsored" (by some malevolent entity?), and people who "swallow" them are ridiculed as "pathetic." He practically even begs: "Please I advise you to be courageous in this transaction and lets go ahead with this transaction." Read the whole thing here.
These scammers have reportedly raked in many millions of dollars over the last few years, but a letter phrased like this one suggests that the market is reaching saturation. This particular plague may not be with us too much longer.
Monday, June 17, 2002, 1:12 am
Google bridges the divide between human-generated indexes and machine-generated analysis.
Y'see, the Web is full of people like you and me, making links between documents; human beings, making decisions about documents, voting with their links. When I link to some arbitrary document, it's an indication that I think that it's in some way authoritative. When you link to a document I wrote, you're indicating that I'm in some way authoritative. The Internet is already structured in a meaningful way, but that structure is obscured. Google teases out the relationship between the URLs, examining the webs of authority: this person is linked to by 50,000 others, and he links to this other person over here, which indicates that person one is a pretty sharp individual, one who's inspired 50,000 human beings to take time out of their busy schedules to link to him; and person one thinks that person two is on the ball, which suggests that person two knows what she's on about.
It's a best-of-both-worlds solution. The computers at Google are asked to tirelessly count and re-count the number and destination of links on every page that Scooter, the Googlebot, can lay its user-agent on. Those links are made by human beings, doing what they do best, link by link, drip by drip, layering a film of order over the Internet.
The approach works well. Eerily well. Enter a couple of search terms, and biff-bam, the most authoritative documents containing those keywords are served up in an instant. Nearly every document on the Web has a human decision associated with it for Google to glom onto; that's because nearly every document on the Web has a human author. Human authors don't just put documents onto the Web; they put them into the Web, into the meshed hairball of incoming and outgoing links, indicating not only what keywords the document contains, but also who the document's author believes is authoritative, and vice versa.
It's quite elegant.
Sunday, June 16, 2002, 11:38 pm
Craig Cheslog, in Political Parrhesia, endorses the concept of "competitive criteria" for redistricting plans, something very compatible with my own insistence that some kind of enforceable standards are needed to uphold the public interest in the process. However, he also goes on to say:
When the two major parties conspire together to limit the number of competitive legislative districts, people in a district's minority party are effectively written out of the political process. Now we must find a solution to this travesty before the next redistricting round to follow the 2010 census.
Maybe somewhere in this great and troubled land, Democrats and Republicans conspire together to jointly enact bipartisan districting plans to protect everybody's incumbents. But it certainly never happens here in Michigan -- the hatred between the two parties is way too deep. Does that make Michigan purer than other states?
Of course, that's just a quibble. What I'd really like to see, and soon, would be the development of a national set of nonpartisan standards for fair districting, and a huge movement by reformers of all stripes to get them enacted in every state.
Sunday, June 16, 2002, 11:03 pm
Mike Gunderloy's weblog ("Dedicated to the proposition that the web is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine") recently featured an annotated version of Gulliver's Travels. Mike points to this reference:
One of the mysteries of the Travels is its description of the Laputan discovery of the two moons of Mars, which would not be observed in reality for another 150 years after Swift's book was published. Swift was probably neither psychic nor original in this prediction, likely having copied speculation by Kepler and others popular at the time. The idea was that the further out in the Solar System the more moons a planet would have. Earth has one, Jupiter was thought to have four, then Mars should have two. Simple.
However, Gulliver continued his report, "whereof the innermost is distant from the Center of the primary Planet exactly three of his Diameters, and the outermost five; the former revolves in the space of ten Hours, and the latter in Twenty-one and an Half;" which turned out to be remarkably accurate. Not so simple.
A visit to Mike's page is a quick, reliable cure for any feeling that the Web is getting stale or boring.
Sunday, June 16, 2002, 2:32 am
Obligatory disclaimer: I went to a French diplomatic school for eight years, and, like every French schoolchild, was forced to memorize gigabytes of tedious facts about every African country. I learned how to spell "Ouagadougou" long before my voice changed, and (bonus!) even had friends from there. So call me what you want, but don't call me wilfully ignorant.
Wow, that is quite a credential. But I remembered that I, too, in a Michigan public school, had to learn how to spell "Ougadougou" before (though not "long" before) my voice changed. That was back when the country it was capital of was known as Upper Volta. These days, it's Burkina Faso.
I mention this, because only moments later, I found a brand new email fraud letter in my inbox which actually purports to be from Ougadougou, Burkina Faso!
This is the first time Burkina Faso has showed up in my Email Fraud Gallery. I have also recently seen new entries from Gabon and Zimbabwe. My guess is that the fraudsters are broadening their geographic scope because the U.S. has been working on Nigeria:
Secret Service agents have been assigned on a temporary basis to the American Embassy in Lagos to address the problem in that arena. Agents have established liaison with Nigerian officials, briefed other embassies on the widespread problem, and have assisted in the extrication of U.S. citizens in distress.
(I don't understand why that link sometimes forwards to the Secret Service main page, and sometimes doesn't. Oh, well.)
Sunday, June 16, 2002, 12:54 am
Well, yes and no. I don't particularly care if I potentially endanger myself by pissing off wackos. (And if I am not pissing off any wackos, I'm not accomplishing my goals for the site). However, I do have family, and they have the same name as I do. And so I'm uncomfortable with the possibility that, remote as it may be, some wacko might decide to show up on my doorstep and harass my fiancee or any other person I hold dear. And so, an alias.
This is an interesting problem.
Me, I have been at least a local-level public figure for some 25 years, including as an elected county commissioner in two different counties.
As such, I am not impressed by those among my politician colleagues who choose to hide from their constituents, for example, by delisting themselves from the telephone book. Indeed, as part of my campaigns for re-election, I'm accustomed to showering the district with posters and brochures which prominently feature my home telephone number. People like seeing this, but it's admittedly a cheap ploy, since my constituents rarely find any reason to call me.
I came to online conferencing in 1983, and the Internet in 1988, and carried over the same policy: I considered myself a public figure with no need for or right to anonymity. Speaking out under my own name, background, and reputation also means I'm taken more seriously.
And as I mentioned yesterday, I have achieved modest online fame through a political history web site.
My wife is a clinical psychologist in private practice, with her own surname and her own separate reputation. If she were a Kestenbaum like me, it might arouse inconvenient issues with her patients every time my name appeared in the newspaper. However, that we are married is not a secret, and our names do appear together in certain contexts, such as fundraiser invitations and campaign finance reports.
Now we have a daughter, and she IS a Kestenbaum like me. Young as she is, she is already developing her own independent reputation in the community. I don't expect her to be harmed or inconvenienced by anything I do in public fora, but I admit I could be wrong about that.
I do have a long history of getting postal mail through a P.O. Box, originally because my college-student-like life circumstances involved annual changes of address. The P.O. Box offered much greater stability (though the Postal Service annoyed me by changing its number!).
On my web sites and Internet correspondence, I still post only my P.O. Box address, partly because it makes me a little uneasy to put my street address there, even though my street address could easily be derived from multiple online sources.
And a couple years ago, I deleted my telephone numbers from my web sites, because I didn't enjoy getting calls from random wackos. The calls were friendly and harmless, but time and attention consuming. Even though my phone numbers are still available online -- reporters seem to have no trouble finding them -- the frequent calls from wackos have stopped.
I appeared on Jeopardy! on May 25 and 26, 1996, so if you really really want to know who I am, there you go.
Even online, some kinds of information are more accessible than others. The real wackos (defined by thought disorder rather than any specific politics or belief system) have no patience for research.
The Rate Your Risk website (successor, I think, to many similar ones) purports to estimate your chances of personally being murdered. Its questionnaire includes several about "public exposure":
* How much public exposure do you get?
Positive answers to any of these raise your score, i.e., make your murder more likely. The site's results page advises that you "cut down your public exposure." Online exposure isn't mentioned, but probably will be next time they update the thing.
I guess anything that brings you to the attention of the great unfiltered, unwashed public raises the chance that some enraged or deluded individual will decide to blow you away. But it seems to happen a lot more often to convenience store clerks than to politicians or webloggers. And it's a risk that I can't help taking, if I'm going to participate in the public arena.
I did consider writing a blog under a pseudonym, but eventually decided that creating a persona (and carefully masking identity-revealing political details) would be too much work. Worse, it would prevent me from writing about many interesting topics. So I blog under my own unvarnished identity, with whatever risks that may entail.
Still, I do envy N.Z.Bear's freedom to blithely piss off wackos. I usually hesitate, and often end up expressing myself in measured, diplomatic, politician-like terms.
To borrow a line from Alanis Morissette: how appropriate.
Saturday, June 15, 2002, 11:29 pm
I spent most of today on a construction site, the Habitat for Humanity house in Ypsilanti sponsored by the Washtenaw County Bar Association. Despite a drizzle and threats of thunderstorms, we hauled the 22 roof trusses up into place and fastened a lot of roof sheathing down.
The volunteer crew leader for the day was Tom Wieder, Ann Arbor attorney who is either notorious or heroic depending on who you ask. Many of today's volunteers were Tom's friends, associates, or clients.
Tom's biggest claim to fame was his successful class action lawsuit against the Ann Arbor public schools, which won $31 million for 300 substitite teachers. He also sponsored the petition drive to move Ann Arbor city elections from April to November, which both saved money (no more separate April election) and effectively ended any chance for Republican control of city government.
Also among the work crew (and a very hard worker at that!) was Washtenaw County Chief Judge Archie Brown, who has been in the news lately. Washtenaw County was the only county in Michigan which allowed adoptions by unmarried, usually gay, couples (often one partner adopting the other's biological children). Judge Brown ordered that this practice be stopped, including all pending cases. When another judge questioned his authority to issue such an order, he transferred all the pending unmarried-couple adoption cases to himself. Some news coverage of this: from the Ann Arbor News, June 7, June 12, June 15; from the Detroit News; Detroit Free Press, and an editorial in the Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan student paper. (These links are probably all temporary, so if you're interested, check them soon.)
Naturally, I'm dismayed and appalled at Judge Brown's action, which is only going to hurt a lot of people, including some who were well along in the adoption process. Incumbent judges in Michigan are protected by a ballot designation which makes them almost unbeatable for re-election, so challengers usually don't bother, but I will certainly never vote for him again.
But admittedly his position is an awkward one. He's the chief judge in the state's most liberal county, but he was appointed to that position by the very partisan conservatives up in Lansing. Chief judges used to be elected by their colleagues, but not any more, and administrative powers held by the state Supreme Court are, more and more often, being abused to make local courts toe the conservative line.
Saturday, June 15, 2002, 1:03 am
Probably most people reading this are aware that I am also the creator and maintainer of a web site called The Political Graveyard (TPG), which is considerably better known and more heavily-trafficked than this weblog.
I opened TPG to the public on July 1, 1996, so it is coming up on its sixth birthday. That makes it pretty venerable in Web terms, which I guess are similar to dog years.
TPG was originally subtitled "The web site that tells where the dead politicians are buried." Other slogans I have used include "A database of history, politics, and cemeteries," and most recently, "The Internet's most comprehensive source of U.S. political biography."
I started it partly because I thought it was so deliciously weird that the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress listed the cemetery of burial for practically each and every deceased Member, right down to the most obscure and forgotten. I also thought it would make a fascinating database, and I was curious as to what a ranking of cemeteries according to the number of dead politicians would look like.
As I explained in the site's FAQ:
[I created the site] partly because I'm a database guy, and my first instinct when faced with any problem is to create a database. I also hoped to promote appreciation and preservation of historic cemeteries. The project is also a serendipitous overlap of many of my interests: in architecture, in politics, in history, in geographic variation, in place names, in personal names, and of course in cemeteries.
Cemeteries have always fascinated me, and I don't think of this as being at all morbid. A cemetery is an open-air reference library, a statuary park, a gallery of architectural styles, a carefully constructed model landscape, a repository of community memory, a complex cultural artifact. Cemeteries may change or even be uprooted, but usually they are much more stable than their surroundings, and hence can serve as a window on the past.
I originally envisioned an audience for the site that would number in the dozens: someone putting together a tour of a historic cemetery, say, who might not otherwise know that an obscure U.S. Senator was buried there. Or a similar someone writing up a National Register of Historic Places nomination for a cemetery. Admittedly the National Register is not into burial places, but surely examples of politicians buried in a specific cemetery would buttress a claim of its prominence and historic significance.
What didn't occur to me was that I would be the first, by a wide margin, to publish online a complete list of everyone who ever served in Congress. Anyone searching for U.S. political history below the presidential level, back then, would find my site and not a lot else. It also didn't occur to me that practically every one of those 11,000-some individuals would have living relatives, some of whom were genealogists; and my site appeared just as genealogists were discovering the possibilities of the Internet.
The site received links from many sites, awards, and news coverage. Traffic rose steadily. I gradually expanded and improved the site, which eventually came to include over 80,000 political figures, living and dead, from the 1700s to the present.
And then Google came along.
Google's creators sought to address an emergent Web problem: as the list of results for any given search grew inexorably longer, the ranking of those hits became critical to finding anything useful. The obvious considerations -- location and context of the search term within each document -- had been pretty well explored already. Google's innovation was to assign a value to each of those sites and pages, through a measure readily available to a search engine: link popularity.
In simplest form, Google assumes that pages with more links pointing to them are more likely to contain what you're searching for than pages with fewer or no links pointing to them -- and it ranks the search results accordingly. This formula was an instant success, and helped propel Google to its current pre-eminence among search engines.
This is just wonderful for TPG, because it has been in existence -- and accumulating link popularity -- for a long time. Thousands of sites have links pointing to it. As a result, anyone who searches Google for any random thing is quite likely to trip over my site.
Unsurprisingly, Google lists my site #1 among 76,100 on a search for POLITICAL GRAVEYARD. A little less expected is that it's also #1 among 278,000 hits on the single word GRAVEYARD. TPG pages are also listed #1 on such semi-relevant searches as: DEAD POLITICIANS (out of 351,000), BURIAL LOCATION UNKNOWN (out of 68,100), MYSTERIOUSLY DISAPPEARED (out of 57,400), REPUBLICAN LAWYER DIED (out of 59,800), CHOLERA EPIDEMIC COUSIN (out of 2,080), and so on.
The most flattering one yet: POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY: 1st among 632,000.
Naturally, I think my site is great, and it will be even better when I get the expanded and improved new version online (soon!). But in real world terms, it is a niche site, obscure and offbeat. If it were a book, only a handful of people would buy it. The current level of web traffic (over nine million hits in January through May) owes a whole lot to timing -- and to Google's algorithm.
Monday, June 10, 2002, 2:10 am
Last Thursday, Atrios wrote: "It took a long time, but I finally got the Nigerian email scam."
Those of us who have been more careless over the years, leaving our email addresses in Usenet postings and web pages, have become familiar with the MULTITUDE of Nigerian (and other African) email scams. These are essentially an attempt to do the old "pigeon drop" by electronic means. I get at least a two or three of these a week -- and the frequency is rising.
It's irritating, of course, and the people who write and send these things are nasty crooks, but I'm also fascinated at how many endless variations there are on the same theme -- with different countries, different circumstances, different amounts of money, etc. And new ones are showing up all the time.
SHORTLY BEFORE THE PRESENT GOVERNMENT ARRESTED MY BROTHER, HE ENTRUSTED TO ME THE SUM OF US$30.5M FOR SAFEKEEPING. THIS AMOUNT WAS TO BE SENT TO HIS MISTRESS IN LEBANON TO LAUNDER FOR HIM.
The NEW CIVILIAN Government set up a Contract Review Panel (C.R.P) and we have identified a lot of inflated contract funds which are presently floating in the Central Bank of Nigeria (C.B.N). However, due to our position as civil servants and members of this panel, we cannot acquire this money in our names.
Introducing myself , I am CHARLLOTTE D.FOLOGO 18 years of age the only daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Donna Fologo, My father was a gold and cocoa merchant based in Accra, Ghana and Abidjan ( Ivory Coast ) , he was poisoned to death by his business associates on one of their business trips.
I am Mr.Eduado De Mello, one of the Principal Commanders of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola,UNITA.Well needless telling a very long story here for our story is indeed interwoven with the history of the world and the liberation struggle in the Southern African region of the African continent.
I and some of my colleagues were instructed by Late President Kabila to go abroad to purchase arms and ammunition worth of Twenty Million, Five Hundred Thousand United States Dollars only (US$20,500,000.00) to fight the rebel group. We were then given this money privately by the then President, LAURENT KABILA, without the knowledge of other Cabinet Members. But when President Kabila was killed in a bloody shoot-out by one of his aide a day before we were schedule to travel out of Congo, We immediately decided to put the funds into a private security company here in Congo for safe keeping.
Alhaji DANGOTE took me into confidence by informing me about huge amount of money he spends on the purchase of a particular and very important medicine for his cattle. He informed me that he buys this product at the rate of $5,000.00USD per carton, and that he mostly buy to the excess of 300 cartons. He informed me that he was only asking me to find out if my organisation could source for him a cheaper supplier considering the recent trend of falls in the general price of beef in the world marketwhichis affecting his business.
I am PRINCE KAMARA the only son of late former Director of finance,Chief Vincent R. Kamara Sierra-Leone diamond and mining corporation. I must confess my agitation is real, and my words is my bond, in this proposal. My late father diverted this money meant for purchase of ammunition, for my country, during the peak of disastrous civil war in my country, now he has deposited the money with ECOBANK Abidjan, where I am residing under political asylum with my younger sister.
I went through the dozens of these I had saved, tossed out many duplicates, and ended up with more than fifty different stories (or scams). I hung them on a web page, and named it Nigerian Fraud Email Gallery ("A rich harvest of criminal creativity from my email").
Visit it and marvel, or seethe, or weep.
Friday, June 7, 2002, 1:40 pm
Michigan lost one congressional seat as a result of the 2000 census. The plan adopted by the Republican legislature (and signed by the governor on September 11, 2001, when everyone else's attention was elsewhere) is expected to change Michigan's congressional delegation from its current 9 Democrats and 6 Republicans to 9 or 10 Republicans and 5 or 6 Democrats. The process and result exemplify some of the points about gerrymandering I made earlier.
But first, some necessary recent history.
Here in Michigan, redistricting since the 1960s is always a bitterly partisan matter, and almost always ends up in court. The 1963 Constitution set up a reapportionment commission with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, but it always deadlocked and never adopted any plans. Without a decision by the commission, the job would fall to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Our state supreme court is elected in a peculiar and (most agree) pernicious way: the candidates are nominated in state party conventions, but run as "nonpartisan" on the ballot. The parties campaign openly for their chosen candidates, pointing always to redistricting as the one critical issue. Democratic justices are expected to vote for Democratic districting plans, and Republican justices for Republican plans, regardless of any legal niceties or the merits. Long before Bush v. Gore, Michigan was already resigned to the rule of naked partisanship on its highest court.
(Of course, the lack of party labels on the ballot means that candidates nominated by small parties are indistiguishable except by name from the majors. A law school friend of mine, Jerry Kaufman, who happens to have a surname made familiar to voters by generations of Kaufman judges in metro Detroit, has had great opportunistic fun working with small parties who then nominate him for Supreme Court. He gets a lot of votes, but hasn't come close to winning yet.)
In the 1970s, a couple of justices managed to beat the partisan system. One, Charles Levin (yes, related to U.S. Senator Carl Levin and U.S. Representative Sander Levin) went to the trouble of creating his own party in 1972, so that he could run without any obligations to the Democrats and Republicans; he received enthusiastic support from the media and the legal profession and was elected. Another justice, Thomas G. Kavanagh, was originally nominated by Democrats, but defied them, ran for re-election as an independent, and beat all the partisan candidates. Levin and Kavanagh, both highly regarded, made a great team, and as one lawyer said at the time, "If Levin and Kavanagh both dissent on a case, that means the Court is wrong."
In 1982, faced with the inevitable partisan redistricting case, Levin and Kavanagh led the court in an entirely new direction. First, the unworkable apportionment commission was thrown out -- it's still not clear to me how they did that -- and the job of redistricting handed back to the Legislature. When the Democratic House and Republican Senate failed to come up with a plan, the court handled the job in a completely new way.
Rather than choosing among plans submitted by parties, the court came up with a neutral set of redistricting rules, widely referred to as the "Apol Standards" (named for Bernie Apol, former state elections director). There is a lot to criticize about the Apol Standards, especially as to population inequality between districts. There is also an argument that the Apol Standards are favorable to Republicans for demographic reasons: Democrats are much more concentrated in cities, and obviously would prefer to see city districts supplemented by nearby suburban populations rather than combined due to declines in population. The lack of any compactness standard (for districts outside cities) is also thought to be a problem by some. But at least the Apol Standards are a precise set of rules that limit how districts may be drawn. The most important Apol rule is one I strongly agree with: breaking of counties by district boundaries should be kept to a minimum.
The court used the Apol standards to redraw legislative district lines in 1982 and 1992, successfully avoiding much partisan entanglement.
In the 1990s, a time when the legislature was closely divided, the Republicans managed to push through a bill writing the Apol standards into statute -- for Congressional as well as legislative districts -- along with a provision prohibiting the use of census data derived from "sampling".
By the time of the 2000 census redistricting, Republicans had firm control of both houses of the legislature, the governorship, and the state supreme court. Prediction of three Republican gerrymanders (for state house, state senate, and congress) turned out to be premature: the Apol standards limited what they could do. Indeed, due partly to many open seats generated by Michigan's draconian term limits, there is some thought that Democrats have a chance to win control of the state senate.
Application of the Apol standards to congressional districting turned out to be a different matter, however, partly because federal case law requires strict population equality. Still, pollster Ed Sarpolis proposed a number of very pro-Republican congressional district plans based on the Apol standards, splitting only six counties.
Apparently the Republicans decided that these plans, though combining two pairs of Democratic incumbents into districts together, weren't sufficiently partisan. In several cases, districts composed of whole counties were probably seen as too marginal for Republican incumbents: the solution was to break more counties -- and the Apol rules. The plan adpted by the legislature breaks ten counties.
Of course, the Apol rules could have been abolished, but the political cost would be high. Michigan's constitution provides for delayed effective date of legislation adopted by less than a two-thirds vote, and they didn't have two-thirds for immediate effect. So they inserted a clause saying that their gerrymandered plan DID follow the Apol rules. Say what? They did this by redefining what it means to split a county. Apparently that make it okay to split more of them.
This matter went to the Michigan Supreme Court, where five of the seven justices are now Republicans, three of them elected in a bitterly partisan campaign (on both sides) in 2000. Of course they found that the violation of the Apol standards was no problem if done by Republicans. No one in Michigan politics or media doubts that the opposite would be the case had it been done by Democrats. Nor does anyone doubt that it would be vice-versa if the Democrats held the court majority. Levin and Kavanagh are long gone, and the credibility of our state's highest court is in the toilet.
Would it have helped if the Apol standards had been written into the state constitution? Probably. But unless the Supreme Court nominations are taken away from the political parties, I have no confidence in the court's ability to manage any fairness or legitimacy on redistricting.
Wednesday, June 5, 2002, 5:30 pm
Paul Musgrave reports on the experience of doing research in 1930s Indiana newspapers on microfilm:
The most fascinating thing to me ... [has] been the discovery that newspapers really have gotten worse. The quality of writing, of narrative, of reporting -- all of these have declined. The Indianapolis Star (the lone survivor of what used to be a highly competitive market) doesn't publish a full page worth of information on the General Assembly when the legislature's in session, but the Indianapolis Times of 1931 and 1933 did. Today, Japan's cabinet reshuffles hardly make the front pages, or even the interior pages, of the Star; in the good old days, Baron Shidehara and the Imperial Diet were almost constant presences. (Even more remarkable, I've learned that Midwestern newspapers weren't as racist as they taught me in high school.)
I, too, have spent considerable time doing research in decades-old newspapers, and I have noticed approximately the same thing. Certainly if you are looking for political history in old newspapers, you find much better and more plentiful information before the 1960s than since then. And the decline continues right to the present.
Probably the main reason for this is that political reporting is labor-intensive, hence expensive. If a newspaper is looking to cut costs, the corps of political reporters and writers are a tempting target.
Another reason is the demise of the concept that journalism has a "mission" to the community, to inform and educate about public affairs. Nowadays, newspapers do focus groups and market research, and put their efforts into the least expensive ideas they hear.
Still another reason is that most newspapers are now part of vast national chains. An owner or CEO who is based locally and reads the paper is likely to be interested in local and state politics and want to see it in the paper. Maybe even take pride in it. A far-away CEO doesn't care, and allocation of news gathering and writing resources is more likely to be driven by pure marketing and cost considerations.
Moreover, even if a newspaper decides to make a commitment to local or state political reporting, who's going to do it? As in many fields, there is a severe shortage of competent people; the traditionally low salaries in journalism only make things worse. If your newspaper is in a smaller metro area with less than a million people, you're unlikely to find anyone you can afford who has the requisite interest in and understanding of politics and government, not to mention reporting and writing skills.
I've been deeply involved in local politics for more than thirty years now. I have served as an appointed or elected local official for (cumulatively with no double-counting) nearly twenty years. I have been close to all kinds of newsworthy events and issues. I have dealt with dozens of reporters, and liked most of them. And in all that time, I have never seen a local newspaper story of more than a couple paragraphs, about anything I had personal knowledge of, that was completely right.
Tuesday, June 4, 2002, 5:15 pm
A preservation architect on an email list I belong to recently inquired about training for access to high and confined spaces. Architects who work on old buildings are often called on to evaluate the condition of parts of a structure which are not easily accessible in conventional ways. He mentioned having once been paralyzed with fear on a roof edge, and wondered if it would happen again. "I seem to have developed a fear of heights ... but I still want to be up there to see for myself."
As a psychologist's spouse, literate in psychobabble, and as a fellow fearer of heights, I couldn't help but comment on this.
Fear of heights is a psychological condition, and it can increase or decrease over time for reasons seemingly unrelated. My own fear of heights is still with me, but it has lessened tremendously over time.
My wife the psychologist says that this fear comes from lack of trust in your own impulse control. At some level, you're afraid of yielding to the temptation to jump or fall off.
The most dramatic illustration of this in my experience is the bridge over the Fall Creek gorge on the Cornell University campus, just northeast of Sibley Hall (near Rand Hall, if they haven't torn it down yet). At the time I was at Cornell, this bridge presented a challenge to heights fearers in several ways. First of all, the bridge itself (a modern, 1960s type structure) was in terrible condition, with holes in the bridge deck, and the railings along the edges were low. Second, the bridge was not flat, because the approach on one side of the gorge was at a different level than on the other side; there was also a sharp turn coming into the south end of the bridge. Third, the bridge carried a tremendous amount of vehicle traffic, and it shook as buses and trucks passed over it.
But the big problem was that the bridge was on the edge of an amazing abyss of space, at least two hundred feet high, roughly circular, enclosed almost all around with rock cliffs. Some of my fellow Cornell preservation students commented that this three-dimensional space seemed to draw you toward itself, a scary feeling considering you were standing on a sloping (and occasionally vibrating) precipice. Others -- perhaps those who were less uneasy about heights -- had no sense of this.
Paralyzed by fear at a roof edge? I've been there. There was something truly horrific in being that close to a familiar big cornice for the first time, not because of the cornice, but because I was only used to seeing it from the ground. A sight like that disrupts one's methodical, don't-look-down everything-is-fine concentration.
I have walked over two of the very big and very high international bridges between Michigan and Ontario (not as a goal, but I was hitchhiking, and nobody wants to take a hitchhiker through customs). The Blue Water Bridge crosses the St. Clair River from Port Huron to Sarnia, right at the outlet of Lake Huron, more than 150 feet high to allow for huge freighters to pass underneath.
It's pretty windy up there, but I did fine. The only slightly bad moment was when I got over to the Canadian side, and coming down the long, long descent, where you can look down into backyards and alleys and the roofs of buildings. What got to me, in my stomach a little, was seeing, way, way down there, the dust (or piles of dried sap) on the flat tops of wooden telephone poles.
It had never occurred to me to wonder what the top of a telephone pole looked like.
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