Sunday, December 26, 2010

WikiLeaks Revisited

by Richard Crews
Several months ago an organization named WikiLeaks began to make public secret documents about the U.S. conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. diplomatic communications from around the world. WikiLeaks provided hundreds of thousands of stolen documents to leading newspapers (The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel among others); WikiLeaks also published the documents on the Web.

The WikiLeaks documents were vast, and generally tedious and trivial. Tens of thousands of hours have now been spent by journalists, historians, and security annalists combing through the documents looking for nuggets of useful information. There is evidence that the U.S. Government has been secretive and deceptive in communicating to the American public and the world about its military efforts. In addition U.S. diplomats have been embarrassed by having caustic and critical remarks made public, remarks that they thought they were making in confidence.

The U.S. Government has arrested Bradley Manning who purportedly stole the documents, and arranged for the international arrest (on sexual assault charges in Sweden) of Julian Assange who founded and manages WikiLeaks. The Government also had international bank accounts closed and arranged for such major financial services as VISA, MasterCard, and PayPal to refuse to handle WikiLeaks donations.

In addition there has been a war in cyberspace between the U.S. Government trying to dismantle and destroy the WikiLeaks Website and "hackers" around the world who have tried to support and defend it.

Have there been any more dire consequences?

No one has been killed as a result of WikiLeaks. In fact the Pentagon reports that no one has had a changed assignment or been given extra protection because of the WikiLeaks revelations. The documents were carefully redacted before release to remove any personal identification that might bring about reprisals.

Furthermore, no one has been injured--except for Pfc. Bradley Manning who was arrested for stealing the documents and who, although he has had no trial and conviction nor even any charges filed against him, has been held in grueling solitary confinement for more than eight months and is showing signs of the mental and physical deterioration that is well known to result from such treatment.

Civil rights groups and some journalists and private activists have risen to challenge the governments' suppression of free speech. Also at issue is a democratic government's responsibility to be truthful with its citizens.

The Internet is proving to be an important evolving force for dissemination of information and for public involvement in governmental affairs. WikiLeaks is at least symbolic of this force, and perhaps, for now, the leading edge.

Friday, December 24, 2010


by Richard Crews
Perhaps you've heard of the DREAM Act. It's the one major Obama initiative that the Republicans continued to block during the recent not-so-lame duck session of Congress. The DREAM Act is pretty hard to argue with. It would have provided for citizenship to kids who have grown up in this country (although their parents are illegal immigrants) if they are law-abiding and go to college or join the military for a couple of years. Immigration reform has a lot of sticky issues--border guards, visa checks, hiring of illegal immigrants at sub-standard wages, immigration quotas, and paths to citizenship for university students and foreigners with special skills. Unfortunately the DREAM Act got kicked down the road with the rest of the thornier immigration issues.

But overall the recent lame-duck session of Congress was very productive. An economy-stimulating tax package made it through, as did the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and the START Treaty limiting nuclear weapons with Russia. On the other hand, although a short continuing resolution to fund the government was passed, significant battles loom ahead on passing a full budget and raising the debt ceiling--it will be interesting to see what the new Republicans in the House and Senate actually do about these when they have their boots on the ground in Washington and have to govern rather than campaign. (The Republicans since the elections have already indulged enthusiastically in earmarks--that is, directing special funding toward home-town projects--despite campaigning against this practice.)

Some activities of government proceed apace. The Environmental Protection Agency has announced their determination to move forward with stronger regulations limiting pollution under the existing legislation since they did not succeed in getting a new, stronger legislative mandate. And the new Wall Street regulations continue to evolve in implementation, as does the new universal health-care program.

Hopefully the new Congress will deal with tax reform (that is, simplification of the absurdly complicated income tax, and installation of a "VAT," a value-added tax), and reinstitution of campaign finance reform (which the Supreme Court's ridiculous decision last year in "Citizens United" left in shambles). There may even be some attempt to revise the Senate's filibuster rules.

But immigration reform is a difficult issue. For one thing there are some 13 million illegal immigrants living and working in this country; they do not pay their fair share of taxes, but they also do not get fair protection of the law. Perhaps the new Congress will deal with some of the many and difficult immigration issues, or at least will DREAM on.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The American Dream

by Richard Crews
***Thanksgiving and mom's apple pie?

***The Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge?
......Yosemite and the Grand Canyon?

***Living in suburbia with an SUV in the garage and sending
......your 2.4 kids to college?

***Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

***Building a better mouse trap?
......Making more money than your father did?

***Norman Rockwell, Horatio Alger, Mark Twain,
......and Frederic Remington?

***The "Ugly American" and Cowboy Diplomacy?

Maybe all of these--and more--go into making up the image of the U.S.--the so called "American Dream."

The term itself, "the American dream," was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in his book, Epic of America. Since then it has come to capture much more than he originally intended. In retrospect, for the 19th century and before, it brings to mind adventurers, religious outcasts, and downtrodden people--first from Europe, then from around the world--emigrating to a country with boundless land and a classless society unfettered by tradition; a place where an individual could succeed through ability and ambition. During the 19th century its image was the wilderness frontier--the Wild West of Daniel Boone, the Gold Rush, and the Pony Express. As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the Robber Barons of big industry--steel, railroads; later, cars, tract housing, sky scrapers--came to dominate the image. And then the atom bomb, the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the space race, the Cold War. And most recently, world supremacy in money, trade, and political power, with world leadership in higher education, scientific and technical innovation, and democratic humanitarian morality; these have perhaps become the main characteristics of the American Dream.

There have always been problems with the American Dream--harsh realities not far behind the rosy, surface scenarios: slavery of blacks imported from Africa and the slaughter and forced migration of Native American populations; the extravagant spoiling of wild places and destruction of indigenous species; favoritism, corruption, and inefficiency in government. Recently, a culture of incarceration (the U.S. has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its prisoners) including the horrors of prolonged solitary confinement for tens of thousands; "wars" that are unwinnable by definition--that have no front lines, no uniformed armies, no Geneva-Convention ethics of engagement (such as the "wars" on drugs, terrorism, AIDS, and poverty); big-money politics with legislative gridlock; state and federal government financing that teeters on the edge of bankruptcy; abuse of human rights; and imbalanced wealth distribution (5% of the population own 95% of the nation's assets).

The "American Dream" represents a complex and changing image. The term has come to symbolize the best of the U.S. Usually we enjoy it proudly. But the reality has--and always has had--a darker, shameful side.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Value of Videogames

by Richard Crews
The brain has a built-in "delight of mastery" (DOM) response; in other words, there is pleasure from learning sensory-motor skills. This is obviously both a success advantage for an individual and an evolutionary advantage for a species.

Games are fun because of this DOM response. If we participate in a game, we advance certain skills; every game is designed to reward this. If we observe a game rather than play it ourselves (as with spectator sports), we identify with the performers and indulge in the satisfying fantasy, "I could do that."

[By the way, humor is also based on the DOM response; perhaps that will be the basis for another essay.]

The skills we learn (or enhance) playing games are either mental (as with the games of chess and go) or physical (as with such sports as football, baseball, tennis, or golf).

Over the past few decades a new variety of games, videogames, based on evolving computer technology has captured imaginations and markets throughout the industrialized world. Many parents restrict--or at least lament--the "wasted" hours their children spend shooting down alien spacecraft, destroying monsters, or finding ridiculous, hidden, magic items. It has only recently come to the fore that these games provide useful learning experiences.

First was the discovery that a few hours playing a videogame involving three-dimensional manipulation of visual objects leveled the playing field between boys and girls in spatial acuity. This had been the last bastion of statistical differences in IQ between the sexes. On all other dimensions of IQ testing--vocabulary, problem solving, numeracy, etc.--boys and girls seemed on a par. But perhaps because of the cultural inclination to have girls play with dolls and boys play with action toys, the statistical difference in spacial acuity appeared by age ten and persisted well into adolescence. However, with only a few hours of suitable videogame experience, this difference disappeared.

As to what else a child learns from playing videogames, there are several other major skills that stand out. The most obvious of these is visual-motor coordination. Videogames provide practice coordinating finger and hand responses (on a keyboard or with a joystick) to stimuli on a video screen. Another skill set, equally obvious in retrospect, is comfortable facility with electronic devises. This has led to the familiar perspective that if you have trouble working your home computer system, you should find a teenager to help you with it.

In addition an important cognitive ability that a child can enhance by playing certain videogames involves problem solving, particularly trying a variety of approaches and thinking "outside of the box." One popular genre of videogames rewards turning over imaginary rocks, looking behind invisible screens, and all manner of imaginative attempts to work toward a solution. The player is challenged again and again to think of new, varied, different, and unusual approaches.

The next mental-emotional skill that is enhanced by playing certain videogames is subtle but very important, namely, learning to respond calmly and logically in an emergency situation. Prior to the advent of videogames, no one had had the experience--much less hundreds or thousands of practice episodes--of being fractions of a second away from death and destruction. The post-videogame generation has the capacity to respond to an evolving automobile crash or house fire with cool, calm, calculating efficiency. (I postulate, by the way, that playing world-destruction-type videogames is protective against developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]; an epidemiological study will soon emerge demonstrating that soldiers who played this type of videogame in adolescence are less prone to developing PTSD.)

Also of importance for us oldsters is the role that videogames can play in delaying and counteracting the mental declines of old age. The phenomenon of "use it or lose it" is well known in the elderly. In many studies (and anecdotes), the senior citizen who continues to use particular verbal, numeracy, or other mental skills preserves those skills far beyond their age-mates. Properly prescribed videogames can be a fun way to preserve mental abilities in old age.

Supreme Court and Health Care

by Richard Crews
There are (or soon will be) four epic Supreme Court errors.

First: In 1857 in the infamous Dred Scott case the Supreme Court ruled that no one of African descent could be a citizen of the U.S.--once a slave, always a slave. Dred Scott entered the Court a free man and left a slave. This has echoed through history as the worst decision the U.S. Supreme Court ever made.

Second: In 2000 the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George Bush although Al Gore had won the popular vote by a million votes and probably would have won the electoral vote as well if the Florida recount had been allowed to proceed--the Supreme Court stopped it. The disastrous results of Bush's presidency are incontestable.

Third: In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in "Citizens United" that a corporation can spend unlimited, secret funds to influence an election. This disastrous reversal of campaign-finance laws moves us ever closer to having "the best government money can buy."

Fourth: In a few months the Supreme Court will probably rule that aspects of the health-care program enacted in 2010 are unconstitutional--specifically, the requirement that a citizen make a purchase (health insurance) from a private company violates the Constitution's allowable limits on trade governance.

This restriction would destroy the financial viability of the health-care program. Insurance companies can only afford to sell insurance to sick people if they have a large field of well people (that is, not-yet-sick people) to average out the costs. That is the essence of the insurance business. (As things stand now, about 1/3 of the premiums paid for health insurance go to pay for care for the uninsured; this cost would be cut in half if these people had insurance that let them go to scheduled clinics rather than use emergency services--and they would get better care.)

Happily this problem can be overcome by reawakening the "public option" and offering people a non-private source to buy insurance from. People can still opt to purchase from a private company, but a non-private source would be available.

Whether our politically driven and gridlocked federal government will have the wisdom and capacity to solve this problem is uncertain.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Obama-Republican Tax Compromise

by Richard Crews
It seems that President Obama has let the Republicans bully him into a second round of economic stimulus. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out in the next couple of years.

Two years ago when the U.S. and World economies headed into a severe recession, the U.S. Congress passed an enormous economic stimulus package. This involved borrowing several hundred billion dollars to create jobs by funding infrastructure, green energy development, education, etc. But it was not enough. The economy staggered to its feet but lagged and sagged; unemployment stalled at just under 10%.

Another round of government spending was needed, but had become politically unpopular and Obama did not have the political capital to push it through the legislature. However, tax cuts are the other way of putting money in the hands of consumers, and consumer spending is the backbone of economic growth. Granted, two onerous parts of the present package favor the very wealthy--a special tax break and a cap on the estate tax. These represent "trickle-down economics," a Reagan-era invention which has been discredited as inefficient. But after all, what do wealthy people do when they get money? They buy stocks and bonds. This provides business financing. And more significantly, the "compromise" involves substantial tax breaks for the middle class, a reduction in payroll taxes, and an extension of long-term unemployment benefits, all of which directly feed into consumer spending.

The timing and politics are also fascinating. One can expect the economy to stagger to its feet again and start up the hill over the next two years, just in time to fortify Democratic prospects for the 2012 presidential election. And the Republicans clearly are to blame for forcing this renewed explosion of the national debt.

One can almost hear Br're Rabbit's refrain: "Oh no, boss! Please don't throw me in dat briar patch!"

Monday, December 6, 2010

World Financial Woes

by Richard Crews
It is impossible to describe in simple terms the disastrous state of the world's finances, but I will try.

A couple of years ago several huge banks teetered on the brink of failure because they had loaned trillions of dollars to U.S. home-owners whose property values had declined, and who had therefore decided not to pay back to the banks the money they had borrowed to buy their homes. The U.S. government rescued these huge banks to the tune of several hundred billion dollars because they were so big and far-flung in their investments that their collapse would have destroyed worldwide economic systems.

Strong new financial regulations were enacted to prevent such a near-catastrophe from happening again. We do not know how effective these regulations will prove to be as they are put in place over the next few years. We do know, however, that the banking industry is lobbying hard (and expensively) behind the scenes to weaken them.

There are still hundreds of thousands of bad private mortgages overhanging the market. In addition there are several trillion dollars of bad commercial property loans (think--vacant office buildings) that the huge banks must somehow deal with over the next couple of years. So the banking crisis is far from over.

This past year another ominous player entered the field. The bonds that countries sell to investors in order to borrow money to run their governments turned out to be, in several cases, very weak. The countries simply did not have the money to pay back what they had borrowed. Greece--with Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Italy close behind--threatened national bankruptcy. The EU (Economic Union), largely on the strength of the German economy, came to the rescue with loans and guarantees, but also requiring austere programs of increased taxes and reduced government spending to assure future financial solvency. Several other huge countries--such as the U.S., U.K., and France--are not far behind on this bond-crisis path.

And another factor is soon to come into stark view: most U.S. states are severely in debt. California and New York, for example, have recently had very public, huge debt crises, exceeding in amount, in fact, any of the European bad-debt countries mentioned above. Imagine, for a moment, the rise in taxes that will be necessary throughout the U.S., and the closing of schools, fire stations, police stations, and other public buildings and services that will be necessary to avert state financial disasters.

The world's finances are very complicated--too complicated, in fact, and too cloaked in economic jargon to be fully understood. But the problems are ominous--they are severe and near at hand.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Significance of WikiLeaks

by Richard Crews
Over the past few weeks an organization named WikiLeaks has made public hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. government documents. It has done this by providing them to leading newspapers--The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and others--and by posting them to a public website (

The documents range from field memos of combat units to notes and emails regarding military and diplomatic meetings. They reveal many instances in which "news" put out by the U.S. government was untrue--for example, civilian deaths were under-reported, and misconduct by U.S. troops and friction with allies was unreported or even denied. The documents also contain brutally candid assessments by U.S. diplomats of foreign dignitaries.

The WikiLeaks documents have been an embarrassment to the U.S. government, especially to the State Department (responsible for international diplomacy) and the Department of Defense (responsible for running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). In addition to this embarrassment, numerous government officials have condemned the WikiLeaks process as detrimental to U.S. interests and dangerous for our friends and allies.

What is the true significance of the WikiLeaks from a diplomatic, military, technological, and historical perspective?

From the standpoint of our present international diplomatic relations, the effects are minimal. As one foreign diplomat said to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made dozens of international phone calls to warn about and apologize for the insults that were on the way, "Don't worry about it. You should see what we say about you." The world of international diplomacy is one of mock esteem and thinly disguised self-interest; all participants know the game.

As far as revealing military tactics and policies is concerned, there too the effects are minimal. A military unit's tactics and policies are known as soon as they are enacted. Revealing them in retrospect is not significant. As far as the claim that the leaks endanger the lives of troops or informants, the documents were thoroughly redacted (stripped of personal identifying information) before they were published. In fact, the Pentagon has stated that they do not know of a single instance in which someone was put in danger by the WikiLeaks.

From a technological standpoint, WikiLeaks presents a very interesting challenge to modern electronic communications security. The Web was originally designed to be open--freely and fully accessible to anyone. But as it has expanded and diversified, security in many areas has become a serious issue, for example, the security of personal information, bank account access, or shopping data. The WikiLeaks phenomenon adds to this challenging problem. There are many questions of privacy, range of use, encryption, and decorum yet to be answered.

Most of all--and though last, far from least--the historical significance of the WikiLeaks is, in fact, immense. Not only does it provide historians with a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes information about politics, diplomacy, and war in the 21st century, but it also potentially raises the bar regarding ethics and honesty in communications from the government. A free, democratic people are supposed to be fully and accurately informed of their government's activities. Another round of acute embarrassment like that caused by the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate Scandal--another round of evidence that the government does not, at times, communicate openly and honestly--can only be culturally healthy in the long run.

The WikiLeaks' publication of secret government documents was an important historical event. Julian Assange, the founder and principle administrator of WikiLeaks, is a journalist who has won several international awards for courageous integrity in journalism. He published the documents so that the U.S. government would be called to account for a pattern of widespread deception in its communications to the public. He hoped to further the cause of free speech and civil liberties. He knew that he might be arrested for his actions, and might well spend years--perhaps even the rest of his life--in prison. But he also felt that advancing the impetus toward responsible government was worth the risk and sacrifice.

That is the significance of WikiLeaks.
Update--Dec. 3, 2010

From this morning's RSN (Reader Supported News):

Daniel Ellsberg's Goodbye Letter to Amazon
Daniel Ellsberg, AntiWar.Blog
Daniel Ellsberg says goodbye to Amazon with conviction. Here's just the first paragraph: "I'm disgusted by Amazon's cowardice and servility in abruptly terminating today its hosting of the Wikileaks website, in the face of threats from Senator Joe Lieberman and other Congressional right-wingers. I want no further association with any company that encourages legislative and executive officials to aspire to China's control of information and deterrence of whistle-blowing."

WikiLeaks Fights to Stay Online
Charles Arthur and Josh Halliday, Guardian UK
"On Friday morning, WikiLeaks and the cache of secret diplomatic documents that have proved to be a scourge for governments around the world were only accessible through a string of digits known as a DNS address. The site later re-emerged with a Swiss domain,"

Later note: Within a few hours of the government's attempts to suppress the WikiLeaks publication online, the site had been picked up and was being mirrored by several hundred Websites around the world.