Watching Snowden

The Charles Theatre’s Revival Series matinee yesterday was The Conversation, a Francis Ford Coppola film about surveillance and eavesdropping. In 1974, having seen Gene Hackman in Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection, and Cindy Williams in Laverne and Shirley and American Graffiti, I drove two of my siblings and their friends to some theatre on Wisconsin Avenue to watch it. John Cazale, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford and Teri Garr played supporting roles. I already knew Duvall, but not the others. Even after Watergate, I found the idea that we could always be watched very dark and paranoid. Roger Ebert reviewed the film as one of his Great Movies, in 2001:

Coppola, who wrote and directed, considers this film his most personal project. He was working two years after the Watergate break-in, amid the ruins of the Vietnam effort, telling the story of a man who places too much reliance on high technology and has nightmares about his personal responsibility. Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work.

I had to work midday Saturday, but watching that film again would have been a fine lead-in to Oliver Stone’s new film, Snowden, which was showing at only a few local theatres. I had read several positive reviews – some recommended seeing Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary CitizenFour first – and one discouraging review. One friend at work had heard (on NPR) a former NSA deputy director’s claim that it was all lies, that Snowden had actually stolen important state secrets, and that agents had died.

I stopped off to see Snowden on the way home Saturday afternoon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a convincing Edward Snowden. I had watched him telling Steven Colbert that he met Snowden in Moscow, which helped his characterization. Rhys Ifans was convincing as a composite of a CIA bigwig that took Snowden under his wing. Nicholas Cage was restrained as a composite of a disaffected techie genius, reduced to teaching young agents. Zachary Quinto, playing Glenn Greenwald, had a chance to yell a bit (at his cautious Guardian editor); Melissa Leo had more to do playing Laura Poitras, but I wonder if she is actually that warm and motherly on the job.

In the same way that Hannah Giles attracted right-wing fanboys to the Acorn entrapment story, Snowden’s outgoing girlfriend Lindsay Mills let it all hang out on the internet, and was a bonus ‘manic pixie dream girl’ for his libertarian supporters. Shailene Woodley gave a fine performance, but she doesn’t look that much like (how I remember) Mills, and reportedly never could meet up to learn her mannerisms. One of the dumbest criticisms I read beforehand was a complaint that the film spent too much time on their romance. Mills was, and is, a big part of the Snowden story.

Snowden was very dramatic, well-filmed, well-paced, etc, but I wanted to see more of his time hiding with poor refugees in Hong Kong, and more of his escape and refuge in Moscow. Towards the end when Toronto students cheer Snowden speaking via a video feed, I felt like standing up and cheering, too, but still I felt that a more balanced, less laudatory film – one that addressed and answered criticisms – would better serve Snowden’s desire for repatriation.

The film was careful to make clear that Snowden published all documents through the established news outlets, but just today, the Washington Post editorial board repudiated calls that Snowden be pardoned and may have become the first newspaper to call for prosecution of its own source.

The complication is that Mr. Snowden … also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy. … he also leaked details of basically defensible international intelligence operations: cooperation with Scandinavian services against Russia; spying on the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate; and certain offensive cyber operations in China. No specific harm, actual or attempted, to any individual American was ever shown to have resulted from the NSA telephone metadata program Mr. Snowden brought to light. In contrast, his revelations about the agency’s international operations disrupted lawful intelligence-gathering, causing possibly “tremendous damage” to national security, according to a unanimous, bipartisan report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. What higher cause did that serve?

In response, the real Glenn Greenwald yelled, in The Intercept:

In arguing that no public interest was served by exposing PRISM, what did the Post editors forget to mention? That the newspaper which (simultaneous with The Guardian) made the choice to expose the PRISM program by spreading its operational details and top secret manual all over its front page is called . . . . The Washington Post. Then, once they made the choice to do so, they explicitly heralded their exposure of the PRISM program (along with other revelations) when they asked to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Our crusading mainstream media.

Bring Out Yer Dead

Bloomberg claims, Here’s One Sign That ‘Peak Oil’ Is Dead

Peak Oil: gone and forgotten? Google Inc. searches for the idea that once helped propel oil prices to nearly $150 per barrel have dwindled to almost nothing, according to a Sanford C. Bernstein analysis.

Bloomberg’s Tracy Alloway asserts that a dearth of google searches proves that no one – except maybe Bloomberg – cares about Peak Oil anymore. But another way of looking at it is that Peak Oil already happened, and we’ve all moved on. The peak in production of conventional oil reached a plateau in 2005. Prices increased rapidly, but instead of the Mad Max scenarios predicted by energy depletion gurus, civilization instead endured a Great Recession, reduced its demand for oil, and stumbled on, albeit with great pain and suffering for many. Meanwhile, energy companies continued their shift to alternate methods of extraction.

In places like Athabasca, Canada, companies mine bitumen from sandstone deposits, called tar sands, and use natural gas to heat and process it into a high quality synthetic petroleum. The environmental cost, though, is comparable to removing mountaintops to mine coal. The risks of transporting Dilbit led to the Keystone Pipeline controversy, and other dirty byproducts, such as Pet Coke, are sold as fuel to countries with less stringent environmental regulations.

In America and other countries, companies use hydraulic fracturing to extract so-called “Tight Oil”, or “Shale Oil” from shale or sandstone deposits. Fracturing, though, pollutes enormous quantities of water, seems to cause earthquakes, and has been banned in some areas.

America also extracts kerogen from what is called “Oil Shale” – a mix of sedimentary rock and organic matter – and converts it to synthetic crude and various dirty, lower-grade fuels.

These extraction methods were and are, however, expensive, and only made economic sense when oil was also expensive. Energy companies accumulated a great deal of debt using these techniques, only to find that the bottom had dropped out of the market. Moody’s Investor Services described US Oil bankrupties as “catastrophic”:

Oil Bankruptcies Leave Lenders With ‘Catastrophic’ Recovery Rate

Creditors are recovering an average 21 percent of what they lent, compared with about 59 percent in past decades, the credit-rating agency said Monday in a report that looks into lending to 15 exploration and production companies that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015. … High-yield bonds recovered a mere 6 percent, compared to 30 percent in previous years going back to 1987.

Defaults in the oil and natural gas industry have been rising through a market slump that has exceeded two years as companies lacked the cash to make interest payments on their debt. Bankruptcies among U.S. producers so far this year are about twice the number among companies rated by Moody’s in all of 2015, the report said. The oil and gas figures have helped propel U.S. corporate defaults to the highest since 2009.

Less than half of the companies that negotiated distressed-debt exchanges in 2015 to try to stave off bankruptcy succeeded …

If Peak Oil is dead, why is the Oil Industry now coughing up blood?

Update 20160922: Robert Rapier has a post claiming that conventional oil did begin a decade long production plateau in 2005, but that there was a slight increase from that plateau in December of 2014.

Demise of the News

During the so-called economic recovery, Gawker was one of the few media outlets that covered stories of people that weren’t finding jobs. They could be scurrilous, and reveled in snark, but I forgave them a lot because of, Hello From the Underclass.

Gawker’s final story was of its own demise, at the hidden hand of a wealthy man who didn’t like being in the news:

As our experience has shown, that freedom was illusory. The system is still there. It pushed back. The power structure remains. There are just some new people at the apex, prime among them the techlords flush with monopoly profits. They are as sensitive to criticism as any other ruling class, but with the confidence that they can transform and disrupt anything, from government to the press.

One of Gawker’s most cherished tags was “How Things Work,” a rubric that applied to posts revealing the sausage-making, the secret ways that power manifests itself. The phrase has a children’s book feel to it, bringing to mind colorful illustrations of animals in human work clothes building houses or delivering mail. Of course it also carries the morbid sense of innocence lost, and the distance between the stories we tell ourselves about the world and the way it actually works. Collapsing that distance is, in many ways, what Gawker has always been about.

And so Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work.

But though Gawker is technically out of business, I just read a stat claiming that someone at Harvard estimates that only one of ten persons between the ages of 20 to 34 believes what they read, hear or see on the news. That should not be a surprise.

Earlier this year, the media gorged itself on jocular stories of Donald Trump’s run for President of the United States. Very few people gave him much chance of securing the nomination, but at the same time they were ignoring Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, virtually all the media gave him millions of dollars worth of free advertising in the form of guest appearances on talk shows and news broadcasts, and little or no serious criticism.

Since Trump actually secured the nomination, though, the media has become a juggernaut of anti-Trump scare stories. I believe Trump is a weak candidate, but – as they did with Sanders – the media are A: taking any story and twisting it for maximum anti-Trump effect while at the same time B: declaring the election to be already over.

For example, Trump visited flooded parts of Louisiana, bringing a truck with diapers, baby formula, cleaning supplies, blankets, socks, school supplies and toys for the victims. The first media story I saw made sport of him for giving them Play-Doh, as if that was all he had brought.

So instead of evaluating Trump’s (and Clinton’s) real weaknesses, media are proving just how beholden to the establishment they have become. Any criticism of Clinton is deflected, and any discussion against Trump is magnified.

Alaskan Rappers Escorted from State Fair

I like to browse LiveLeak, but I have found that the comments section immediately descends to the worst sexism, racism and/or jingoism no matter what the topic. As an example, there was a video – from somewhere in Asia – of a young man on a scooter wiping out trying to avoid a woman who hadn’t pulled her scooter far enough off the road. Commenters immediately called for her to be raped. That’s just the way it is on Liveleak.

With that caveat about reading the comments, this morning I ran across a LiveLeak video, Alaska rappers stopped while performing at Fairbanks fair claim to be victims of racism by fair management.

While sending video to Facebook, Michael Cofey, whose stage name is Starbuks, very politely asked the fair’s general manager, Joyce Whitehorn, why she had cut their act short, but got no clear answer other than that it was her decision to make. Cofey claimed he and Julian Lillie (Bishop Slice) had sanitized their lyrics to be family-friendly, but some woman claimed they were rapping about, “slashing faces.” Cofey initially denied that, but Whitehorn got tired of being put on the spot and ordered that the performers be escorted out of the fairgrounds. Cofey remained calm and collected, though obviously dissatisfied at how he was being treated.

KTVA 11 News ran the video in, Fairbanks rappers kicked out of Tanana Valley State Fair during scheduled performance.

After Cofey’s video was posted to Facebook, the community of Fairbanks rallied around the performers, Lillie says.

“We’ve been getting nothing but support,” he said. “It’s crazy. It’s people I don’t even know. It’s kinda cool that, you know, Fairbanks would come together and defend us and stand up for what’s right.”

Cofey says he sees Thursday’s incident as insight into a bigger problem.

“It’s really not about rap music,” said Cofey. “It’s about how she treated us. And it’s about how … we gotta wake up. We gotta wake up as a community, we gotta wake up as a country. This is happening every day, everywhere. Period.”

Alaska Dispatch noted the reaction, Online outrage pours in, other acts cancel after Fairbanks rappers ejected from Tanana Valley fair:

As the controversy over the ejection spread, other musical acts have canceled their scheduled performances at the fair, said entertainment manager Isaac Paris.

“There were 17 performances scheduled today and four of them canceled,” he said in an interview Sunday. “I had five cancel yesterday.”

Paris said he was “embarrassed and frustrated” by what had happened and didn’t understand why the performers were ejected.

I’m not an expert about rap, but I used to watch Yo MTV Raps – to the annoyance of an old girlfriend – and appreciated that rap was another mode of expression. I found a few of Bishop Slice’s videos on youtube, and like them. I’ve heard a lot edgier and angrier stuff but you can make up your own mind:

Bishop Slice x Starbuks “I’m From Fairbanks” (Directed By Ife)

Bishop Slice x Starbuks “The North” (Directed By Ife)

Bishop Slice & Ca$his – “Sick Of The Penn.” Featuring Apostle Gabriel Cross

Update 20160822: According to the NY Daily News, the rappers got some appy polly loggies:

Alaskan rap duo Bishop Slice and Starbuks were given an apology after a viral video showed them confronting the general manager of a festival who kicked them off stage during a show.
The board of directors of the fair issued an apology on Tuesday, stating that it “understands the issues involved and the sensitivities expressed by all parties” and promised to pay the group for their full show.

Not Thriving

Back in the 1990s, my employer, a now-bankrupt architectural firm, put on an in-house seminar featuring a very animated fellow from the Tom Peters Group. Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr co-authored In Search of Excellence (1982), a hugely popular business book. I had heard more about Tom Peters solo 1987 book, Thriving on Chaos, which I started to read, and still have in my basement.

The message was fairly simple: Know who your clients are, and make them happy … deliriously happy. Provide legendary service. He noted that your clients may be within your own company. Our irascible handyman and blueprint guy asked, “What if you have too many clients?” and everyone laughed. “What a problem to have!” was the reply.

At one point in the seminar he pointed out that our project managers, as our closest connection to our clients, should have been the second most influential group in the firm, right below the partners. Instead, the department heads of Design, Production, Field Supervision, and Office Services were much more influential than the PMs.

What I have taken away from what the guy from Peters told us was that we had to get good customers and satisfy them because there was no way to keep the sort of customer that only cares about low price. You can, he said, save a fortune on marketing and advertising by keeping those customers that value good service. But if you fail them, they will leave and will probably never tell you why.

I dimly remember a tv commercial where some guy on a podium tells a convention crowd, “the buzzword this year … is quality.” And everyone started dutifully chanting, “quality, quality, quality …” We instituted “round table” discussions to improve communication between departments, but ultimately very little changed. The firm I’m with now doesn’t have departments.

Anyway, Cenk Uygur interviewed Nick Hanauer on The Young Turks on Tuesday, and it is now on youtube:

Besides being a successful entrepreneur and businessman, Hanauer is known for his article, The Pitchforks are Coming … for Us Plutocrats, in Politico in 2014.

Seeing where things are headed is the essence of entrepreneurship. And what do I see in our future now?

I see pitchforks.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

Hanuaer told Uygur that many in his peer group were initially angry and defensive about his article, but claims that most of the rich folk he knows now acknowledge the problems of income equality, but don’t know what to do about it. Human nature is to try and spend or pay as little as possible, and the tenets of trickle-down economics have provided a comforting refuge for employers to do just that.

So it seems that employers have gone in big for low prices, and have gotten something like the situation that Tom Peters predicted. While they pay low wages (and even no wages to interns) corporations and businesses still advertise like crazy – fighting over the shrinking share of customers with disposable incomes. Customers with little or no money can’t afford loyalty to any brand, and our economy enters the death spiral that Hanauer discusses.

This is a part of the false reality that Andrew Bacevich mentioned (see my previous post). America has been a booming growth economy for so long, that entrepreneurs still believe that the sucker born every minute will have enough money for their snake oil.

Voting Third Party

I couldn’t watch the Sunday morning talk shows. Abetted by major media, both campaigns are doing their best to make sure we all vote based on emotion rather than reason. The leading stories are mostly about how crazy is Trump today? … and the underlying message is how lucky we are that Clinton has this election sewn up …. as long as no one is foolish enough to vote for Trump, stay home or Horrors!  vote third party.

Though Gary Johnson’s Libertarian ticket is polling about 8%, the media is concentrating on attacks against Jill Stein’s Green Party which is only polling about 4%. Why? Probably because Johnson will likely attract antiTrump Republicans while Stein is actively seeking to latch on to disappointed Sanders supporters.

So many folk cite Ralph Nader as the reason that Al Gore lost to George Bush, conveniently forgetting that the media roasted Gore relentlessly, that Gore ran a lackluster campaign, that Gore lost his home state, and that the Florida Supreme Court gave Florida to Bush. Some polls claim that Nader took more votes away from Bush than Gore, but just as the media wanted everyone to believe that Al Gore claimed to invent the internet, they want us to believe that he only lost because some people voted for Nader.

On TomDispatch and Informed Comment, former Army Colonel and conservative historian Andrew Bacevich takes time away from criticizing American geopolitical blunders to long for serious candidates to make those blunders. In, The Decay of American Politics – An Ode to Ike and Adlai, Bacevich observes:

So while a Trump presidency holds the prospect of the United States driving off a cliff, a Clinton presidency promises to be the equivalent of banging one’s head against a brick wall without evident effect, wondering all the while why it hurts so much.

Bacevich identifies money, identity politics, and belief in a pseudo-reality as the reasons behind our current pseudo-election. But despite a litany of complaints against Clinton, he defers to the establishment playbook wherein Trump is a fate too horrible to be imagined.

And Bacevich doesn’t mention Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Though Clinton and Kaine half-heartedly oppose aspects of the sweeping trade agreement, Obama still hopes to push through and sign the TPP after the election, and needs only 51 votes in the Senate. Many pundits think a Trump victory would probably kill the TPP, (as would a Stein or Johnson victory). A Clinton victory is no guarantee of anything.

Akim’s Nightmare, Hillary’s Bad Day

At 3 Quarks Daily, Akim Reinhardt takes on the system that gave us two evils.

The Two Party System is Officially a Nightmare

Much has been made of the fact that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the two most loathed presidential candidates since the birth of polling. Each of them has managed to alienate roughly half the country. About a quarter of Americans despise both of them. They make Barry Goldwater, Michael Dukakis, and Mitt Romney look beloved.

There has been a lot of focus on why these two candidates are so widely reviled. Simple partisanship doesn’t seem to adequately explain it; fewer than a third of American view either of them favorably.

Like every website, 3 Quarks Daily is asking for money. Unlike most, they seem to be worth it.

The Atlantic covers the no-good, very-bad start to the Democratic convention that Hillary and Debbie envisioned as a victory lap:

All Hell Breaks Loose at the Democratic Convention

A 30-step review of the mayhem in Philadelphia, and what Clinton’s convention says about the future of the American political system.

1. Hillary Clinton, her advisers, and their allies at the Democratic National Committee watched Donald Trump’s nominating convention in Cleveland with smug satisfaction.
2. Team Trump had insulted Ohio’s governor, approved a Melania Trump speech that plagiarized Michelle Obama, lied about the plagiarism, and allowed Ted Cruz to expose party divisions in a prime-time speech.
3. “Hey @Reince,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz tweeted GOP chairman Reince Priebus. “I’m in Cleveland if you need another chair to keep your convention in order.”
4. Schultz reflected the Democratic establishment’s false sense of security. Headed to their convention in Philadelphia, Democrats felt more united than Republicans, better organized, and less vulnerable to the long-term disruption of a populist insurgency.
5. All hell broke loose.