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»  December 31, 2005


My Shockwave Decade: Ten years ago today, 31 December 1995, I was working in my office on a Sunday night, printing up invoices and closing out accounts for the end of the first year I'd gone out into the world as a full-time freelancer. I'd been working sporadically with Macromedia Director over the previous couple of years -- although my freelance work consisted more of digital image editing and basic Web development. I'd tried to get some business as a digital portfolio programmer with an ad in Step-by-Step Graphics magazine (it was a largely pre-CD-ROM era, and shoehorning material onto diskettes still took some doing) without much success. I'd tried for a couple of jobs in the Portland interactive industry and worked with the International Interactive Communications Society's Portland chapter as a newsletter editor and officer. At the end of the summer, just as I went out on my own, I lucked into a part-time job teaching Director for Portland State University's School of Extended Studies.

In March 1995, I'd set up my own web server in my office on a Mac Quadra 630 with a 200MB external hard drive, over a dedicated phone line and a 14.4k modem. At the time, it was the least expensive way I could find to have my own domain name and control over the server, which gave me the latitude to run hideously expensive database add-ons to the shareware MacHTTP software. Still I had my own domain and the ability to create simple web applications at a time when a lot of the businesses I was dealing with didn't.

I'd been following the development of Shockwave ever since I'd heard about it at the 1995 UCON. I'd almost skipped the show, since I was technically unemployed, but I scraped the money together and made it down to San Francisco where I joined a standing-room-only crowd at one of the public demonstrations. Rather than set up a listserv, Macromedia created a form page which was essentially like a blog comment form, where each new message is posted to the end of the page, followed by the form itself. By the end of the year, it had grown to a couple of hundred kbytes -- not an inconsiderable amount given that most everyone was surfing at 28.8k or worse. I'd been checking it for news and info regularly.

Then, on New Year's Eve, while everyone else was presumably doing something entertaining with their time, I saw a post from a literary agent, looking for a writer to take on a book on Shockwave. I'd never written anything nearly as long as a book -- I've joked for years that my undergraduate thesis was the shortest on record in my alma mater's English department, but it's probably true; I'd never worked on a major project in Director; at the time, the Mac version of the Shockwave Player hadn't been released yet, and I had to go 20 miles just to see any Shockwave pieces I created with the beta version of the Afterburner, because most of the people I knew from the print business used Macs and they were the only people with Internet connections, to boot. Still, I answered the ad.

In just over two weeks I had a contract with the long-defunct Ventana press. I finished the book (Shockwave: Breathe New Life into Your Web Pages) in ten weeks, missing out on a bonus that equalled a third of the money I got because I didn't make it in eight. A little over 300 pages of my own material (the folks at Ventana rounded up some samples for another 20 pages), plus sample files, tutorials, and screenshots. And, of course, I had to learn Shockwave while I was doing it. Nevertheless, it was my entree into Director notoriety.

It was the only book I wrote that I ever made a profit on (and no, I had nothing to do with the cover designs).

Shockwave book

Shockwave book, Korean


»  December 26, 2005


Koppel Flunks Middle East History: Not to be contrary, but here's the part of Ted Koppel's appearance on the Christmas Day "Meet the Press" that I found mind-boggling in its paradoxic logic:

MR. KOPPEL: And the one thing that we are not talking about, because it somehow seems indelicate or unpolitic or even inappropriate, is the simple fact of the matter that, while we did not go to war because of Iraq's oil, we did, in fact, go to war because it is absolutely essential to the national interest, not only of this country but also of the Europeans and of the Japanese, that the Persian Gulf remains stable. We have--when I say "we" I mean U.S. administrations going back to the Eisenhower administration--have been intervening in the Persian Gulf in one form or another--we overthrew the Iranian prime minister, Mossadeq--that is, the CIA did--precisely because we felt he was too close to the Communist Party at that time and we were afraid what that would mean if Iran became a Communist state.

As long as we had the shah of Iran there, he was our surrogate. In fact, you may remember the Nixon policy was that the shah would be our surrogate in the Persian Gulf. When the shah was overthrown, we shifted our chips onto the Saudi board, and then it became the House of Saud that became our representative. The Saudis are, indeed, troubled. The royal family of Saudi Arabia is in deep trouble. Therefore, we need to have a stable Iraq in order to guarantee a stable Persian Gulf, and the name of that game is oil. Nobody talks about that.


MR. KOPPEL: But the point--the one issue I would add, Tim, is the mousetrap that is waiting for the Democrats is if they do not publicly acknowledge that U.S. national interest is just fundamentally involved in a stable Iraq and a stable Persian Gulf, if they simply come after the Republicans, and take the cheap shots on the war, and say, "You gotta bring the troops home at all costs," they might even win the election, but if they win the election, they're going to find themselves confronting the same issues of national interest that the Republicans are facing right now. The simple fact of the matter is it is in America's national interest that there be stability in the Persian Gulf, and if we precipitously pull the troops out of that area now, there'll be hell to pay.

Koppel -- whose claim to fame is a show whose origin is the direct result of Persian Gulf instability -- doesn't seem to realize that half a century of American meddling in the Gulf hasn't made the region stable. The event he mentions -- a CIA-sponsored overthrow of the democratically-elected Iranian prime minister in 1953 -- led directly to the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a quarter-century later. The man the US installed -- Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi -- maintained power through generous US support and a secret police force known as SAVAK, which spied on, tortured, and assassinated dissenters on both the left and the right. Essentially the same controls exercised by Saddam Hussein -- or by the current regime in Tehran.

The US meddled in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet occupation, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. The motive wasn't "stability," it was done -- in the words of President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski -- with the intent of "drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap.... We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire."

And, of course, there's Iraq, where the US supported Saddam Hussein for a decade after the fall of the Shah while Iraq was at war with the Iran (while secretly selling arms to Iran in an effort to get hostages held by Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere in the Middle East released). Iraq, where the US government ignored chemical weapons use at the time it occurred because Hussein was our ally against the Iranians.

So I find it more than a little perplexing to hear Koppel claiming that the Republicans are the ones facing "issues of national interest" and Democrats aren't acknowledging that "a stable Iraq" isn't in the public interest. Just how ignorant of history is he? Of course a stable Iraq is important. But five decades of the same old styles of covert and military operations haven't managed to bring stability to Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan. President George W. Bush's coked-up "shock and awe" diplomacy didn't make Iraq more stable than it was before the war began. Every effort the US (and British) have engaged in in these three countries since the 1950s has gone awry within just a few years. It's like he has no conception of what's been tried before.

Brokaw's taken some heat for saying "If 9/11 had happened on Bill Clinton's watch, he would have gone into Iraq." I'm not sure that's true, but I do think that if Al Gore had been properly seated as President in 2000, there's a good chance that a war with Iraq might taken place.

President Gore's VP would have been Joseph Lieberman, a co-sponsor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. It's entirely conceivable to me that Gore might have been pushed by Republicans, Democratic hawks in Congress (we've seen a few of them over the past years), his national security apparatus, and his vice-president to invade Iraq. The people ginning up fake intel would have had to have done a better job of it, but those people -- including Achmed Chalabi -- were already in place. With the right mood in the country after 9/11 and people who were looking for an excuse to invade Iraq on the flimsiest of excuses (like Lieberman) whether there were WMD or not, Gore could have found himself cornered into invading or suffering the type of ridicule Jimmy Carter faced after the hostages were taken in Iran.


»  December 24, 2005


Outsourcing: In the 19 December issue of The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson writes that when US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad leaves the Green Zone "he travels with his own mobile war machine: a convoy of vehicles with an array of armaments, driven by his security men, American employees of Blackwater, a firm based in North Carolina."

Isn't protecting American diplomats abroad something that the US military is supposed to do?



Middle Earth Journal Mentioned on 'Wait, Wait...': The headline and title of Portland-based Middle Earth Journal's "21st century, 1....16th Century, 0" post on the results of the Dover, Pennsylvania evolution court case got a mention on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" this week (24 December). The streaming version's not up yet but it's in the next-to-last segment, just before "Lightning Fill-In-the-Blank."

UPDATE: As MEJ notes, the audio is now online, check out the first question in Round 3 misleadingly labelled "Listener Limerick Challenge".


»  December 21, 2005


Did Some Of Those Military Propaganda Dollars Go To NPR?: In a 21 December "All Things Considered" story on how US contributions to the Pakistani earthquake relief effort have changed public perceptions about Americans in that country, NPR correspondent John Hendren -- travelling with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- noted that a recent poll indicated a 100% increase in positive views -- to 46% -- in the past year. He visited a hospital run by the US military in northern Pakistan where he interviewed several people about our improving image in that little slice of the world. Apart from Hendren and Rumsfeld, the voices we heard from in the story were a female translator at the hospital (speaking her own words, not those of any patients or locals), the senior State Department official in the region, and the rear admiral in charge of the medical facility.



Wyden Joins Call for Hearings: It's the holiday/Christmas season, other stuff is going on in Washington (the Defense appropriations bill, PATRIOT filibuster, etc.), and there was an intervening weekend, but a lot of people managed to get their opinions on the NSA spying allegations out there pretty fast. Thankfully, Sen. Ron Wyden -- Oregon's only member of Congress on an intelligence oversight committee so far as I can tell -- has finally gotten into the fray (from The New York Times, 21 December):

A bipartisan group of senators - Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine, both Republicans, and Dianne Feinstein of California, Carl Levin of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon, all Democrats - called this week for the Senate judiciary and intelligence panels to open a joint investigation of the matter.
The letter (available from Feinstein's site but not yet on Wyden's) expresses "profound concern" and asks for "immediate inquiry and action," but does nothing more than that. It'll be interesting to see whether Wyden, like Feinstein, is more critical of what seems to have been going on.

Oddly enough, when I called Wyden's Washington office late in the day the letter was dated, they told me there was no press release on the matter.



Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy: What Happened to Hillary?: In January 1998, nearly eight years ago, Hillary Clinton made her famous remark about a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to Katie Couric on NBC's "Today" show, denying allegations of an affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"That is not going to be proven true," Clinton said. She said she was fighting the charges "not only because I love and believe my husband" but for the sake of the nation.

"Bill and I have been accused of everything, including murder, by some of the very same people who are behind these allegations," she said. "So from my perspective, this is part of a continuing political campaign against my husband."

Of course, she was wrong about Bill even if she had the conspiracy pegged.

But why does he get the benefit of being the target of a conspiracy when -- now that the people who tried to drive him out of office are in charge of the country -- the American people are their targets? There have been some pretty outrageous things going on the past five years. Why won't Sen. Clinton stand up for us like she stood up for Bill? Does she think the conspiracy just went away, that it was only targeted at her and Bill? Did the Monica thing change her mind about the conspiracy? Does she now think that the conspiracy she needs to worry about consists of flag-burners and game developers?

Comment at Daily Kos



Thom Hartmann's Bad Math: Just before 8:30 this morning, radio host Thom Hartmann was talking to the HR director of Goodwill Industries of Oregon on KPOJ. He made the comment that in past decades universities and other organizations limited the pay of their top executives to 20 or 30 times the pay of the lowest-paid employee and then stated that the compensation of the Goodwill CEO was "400 times" that of the lowest-paid worker.

Minimum wage in Oregon is $7.25. Full-time at minimum comes to $15,080 per year. Goodwill CEO Michael Miller's pay (according to the Oregonian story yesterday) was $831,508. That's a factor of just over 1:55, which may still be excessive, but it's far off of the 1:400 Mr. Hartmann claimed. He should issue a correction. And maybe get a calculator.


»  December 20, 2005


What the NSA Was Probably Doing: I'm going to make an informed guess on what the National Security Agency (NSA) was authorized to do by President George W. Bush. Something which would have been difficult to get through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court and which would have possibly generated the comments about "high-tech" stuff made by Bush, Secretaray of State Condoleeza Rice, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) who wrote in a note to Vice President Dick Cheney after an Intelligence Committee briefing on the issue that "As you know, I am neither a technician nor an attorney."

The NSA is known to have enormous banks of computers that analyze voice and data communications throughout the world. Their computers can tap phones and satellite uplinks, cell phone communications, pretty much any transmitted electronic data, unscramble it, translate it, and process it for key words or phrases. There's no real secret there.

But if you control the NSA (which the executive branch does) and you get a vague idea (which the executive branch does) that there's some terrorist threat in San Francisco, you're probably going to order the agency to scoop up every bit of communications data it can in a portion of SF, run it through the computers, and see if anything pops out.

The problem, of course, is that along with any actual intelligence (and let's face it, the cases under the Ashcroft and Gonzales Justice Departments haven't exactly been stunners) you're going to be picking up material on the lives of a swath of people in the area you're surveilling. I think that's something the FISA courts wouldn't have put up with. And I doubt it's something that the American people would stand for.


»  December 19, 2005


Wyden On NSA: No Response Yet: As I mentioned Saturday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and would conceivably have something to say about the President ordering the NSA to spy on communications -- potentially by US citizens -- that skirt the oversight of the legislative or judicial branches of government.

It's been all over the news for the weekend, with Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), Harry Reid (D-NV), and even Lindsey Graham (R-SC) expressing concern about it. We haven't heard a peep from Wyden yet about an issue that affects one of the five committees he's assigned to in the Senate, on an issue that Graham has speculated seems to have "no legal basis."

I just called Wyden's Washington office (at about 4:30 EST there) and his guy answering the phone says the senator still has no statement. Drop him a line yourself: 202-224-5244


»  December 17, 2005


Contact Wyden About NSA Spying: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence which is (according to his website) "charged with overseeing and making continuing studies of the intelligence activities and programs of the United States Government. ... The committee also oversees all United States intelligence activities to be certain that they conform with the laws and Constitution of the United States."

Drop the senator a note and ask that he push the committee to investigate President Bush's authorization of the NSA to spy on the United States without first obtaining warrants. While you're at it, ask him if he was one of "leaders in Congress" Bush claims have been briefed "more than a dozen times" on this matter.


»  December 14, 2005


Knee-Jerk Anti-war Activists On "Face the Nation":

Quicktime, 4.2MB

This week on CBS's Face the Nation (11 December 2005), host Bob Schieffer twice used the same phrase to introduce Congressman John Murtha (D-PA). In the show's opener, he said this:

John Murtha is no knee-jerk antiwar activist. He's an ex-Marine and twice wounded in Vietnam, so when he said it is time to pull back our forces, people listened.
Then, as the interview was wrapping up, he asked this question:
Congressman, was this hard for you? Because you were a hawk on this whole operation, you're an ex-Marine, you were twice wounded in Vietnam, you're not the knee-jerk anti-war activist. Uh, was it hard for you to finally make the decision to say what you said?
What Schieffer is saying is that Murtha's military service gives him more credibility on the war than others who opposed the war. More importantly, Schieffer's characterization of anti-war activists as "knee-jerk" ignores the fact that many of those who opposed the war from the beginning (including Murtha and most of the rest of the world) were unconvinced by the administration's claims that Iraq was an imminent danger, a viewpoint that Face the Nation (among others) has never acknowledged. It wasn't simply s reflexive ("knee-jerk") reaction to US military policy for many — if not most — Americans who were against the war.

I wrote to Face the Nation, pointing out that fact. Surprisingly, I received a (short) response from Schieffer:

Oh Please, I meant no disrespect to those who oppose the war. Nor do I believe many would take it that way. Bob Schieffer
But is there any respectful way to use the term "knee-jerk"? Certainly, there are people who are opposed to war in any form on moral grounds — Quakers, for instance — but I've never seen "knee-jerk" used in any other than a derogatory way. Would you take it as a sign of respect? Or would you be one of the people Bob Schieffer doesn't believe in who would find it disrespectful? If you'd like to let him know yourself, write to the Face the Nation comment address. Please, be respectful, but tell him whether you think the characterization is appropriate.

The clip (Quicktime, 4.2MB) contains both usages of "knee-jerk" and — just for giggles— a bit from the same show where Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-MS) was on as the "balance" to Murtha. In his last response, to a question about Sen. Joe Lieberman, Sessions made this startling admission:

I think what Joe Lieberman brought to this discussion was he voted to -- as did almost all the Democratic leadership: Daschle and Reid, Hilary Clinton, uh, vice-presidential candidate Edwards, presidential candidate Kerry -- all voted for the military action. But Joe Lieberman has consistently tried to make it a success. He's tried to support the President -- who was elected this time -- to make sure that we could be successful and I think that's been the differences in his commentary and some of the political comments we've been hearing.
Comment on Daily Kos.


»  December 13, 2005


1,000 Days in Iraq:

1,000 Days in Iraq

Today marks the 1,000th day since the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.


»  December 12, 2005

What the...?  

Still Here:

Dancing On My Grave

On 12 December 2002, two months to the day after a fall from a stepladder broke my leg and ankle, and about a week after my 41st birthday, I was making my way down the stairs at my office to where my wife was waiting for me with the car. At the bottom of the stairs (thankfully) I passed out. Barbara managed to get me to the emergency room, where several doctors and nurses spent 45 minutes trying to find veins for IVs (never easy on me under the best of circumstances), where I got a CAT scan, a sonocardiogram, and spent the night in the ICU after they'd confirmed that I had suffered a pulmonary embolism. More specifically, multiple embolisms, because I had a number of blood clots in both lungs. A week in the pulmonary ward, a year of blood thinner treatment, and I'd be good as new.

This photo's from the Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery in Southeast Portland, where Barbara and I bought a cremation plot last month. That brown patch under my feet is our spot (the marker is not ours), which is just few steps from the plot of Oregon Gov. W.W. Thayer (1878-82).


»  December 11, 2005


Biodiesel in SE Portland: I've used Jay's Garage, on the corner of SE 7th Ave. and Morrison St. for gas and service on our car for several years. It's locally-owned, they still wash your windows, and they're pretty friendly. So I have no compunctions to pass along the word that — if you've got a diesel engine and you drive through central Portland — Jay told me the other day that he's carrying biodiesel now. If you're coming out of downtown, just pop across the Morrison Bridge, make a left at 7th, and you're there in 1 block.


What the...?  

Send in the SuperMonks!:


Peter Sylwester passes on a fun (if bloody) piece of 3D animation from France: SuperMonks!


»  December 10, 2005


On Disaster Preparation and Republicans: Just a little tidbit from "Fat Man" by Louis Menand, a June New Yorker review of a biography of Herman Kahn, one of the architects of the theory of mutual assured deterrence. Maybe it explains why the 9/11 Commission didn't give out very good grades last week (emphasis added):

RAND was leery of civil defense for client-relations reasons: money spent on fallout shelters and dosimeters was less money for the Air Force. Eisenhower, too, opposed civil-defense programs, in part because he didn’t think that nuclear war was survivable, and in part because he was a cheapskate. Facilities for the evacuation of millions cost too much to construct. In the nineteen-fifties, the people who were enthusiastic about fallout shelters and evacuation drills, the now derided emblems of Cold War domestic culture, were liberals. All of the hundred million black-and-yellow fallout-shelter signs that appeared in the United States during the Cold War were put up by the Kennedy Administration—which also made Kahn happy by distributing two million dosimeters.



Robert Sheckley 1928-2005: Although I met many of the Oregon-based science-fiction and fantasy writers community over the course of a couple of two decades from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, I never had much contact with the late Robert Sheckley. For a number of years he lived within walking distance of my house; his wife, Gail Dana, wrote a couple of pieces for my book review magazine. In earlier years, I probably would have tried harder to meet with him, but I've tried to be more observant of authorial privacy as the years go by.

I always admired Sheckley's wit. His stories, in particular, always seemed to have a sardonic edge to them that appealed to me. Sheckley belongs to the tail end of a generation of science-fiction writers that is fast disappearing, a generation that developed in the dark of an era where you really had to go looking for material from the genre, before it broke into the light of mainstream culture and movies. I'm already starting to regret not pressing harder to get to know him personally.

Robert Sheckley's website



The Unbearable Blackness of Kettles: As a SE Portland resident of nearly two decades, a once-upon-a-time toiler in the bowels of this city's bookselling business, and former book review publisher, I'm not unfamiliar with the name of David Morrison, who had a shop on SE 37th & Hawthorne Blvd. for some years and was the subject of this week's Oregonian A&E "Film Freak" feature by Ted Mahar. But I've never had any real contact with him.

Morrison admits having "mixed feelings" about Fahrenheit 9/11, because while "there has been no major debunking of his [Moore's] case," he thinks Moore's "antics in front of the camera are often embarassing."

That's a fairly reasonable argument, if — in the previous paragraph — Morrison hadn't described himself in this way (bold emphasis added):

Who: Rare book and manuscript dealer. Also: "I run a fundraising operation for juvenile diabetes, which my 8-year-old daughter has. I'm heavily involved with a research group trying to get the word out that 9/11 was an inside job, and that a real investigation should be conducted into the roles of Bush, Cheney and their crowd. I doubt that they will ever be held accountable, but enormous amounts of material were omitted from the investigation, and it should be made more widely public. Seven of the supposed hijackers have been seen alive since 9/11."


»  December 9, 2005


All That Glitters:

"Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.... Stuff happens."
      — Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on looting in Iraq, 11 April 2003
I was thinking of singular breach of rationality this morning as I listened to an interview on "All Things Considered." The subject was Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who's a student of classics and — back in the States — a New York City prosecutor who's written a book called Thieves of Baghdad about how he took his unit to the Iraq Museum to stop the looting when he heard about it, and his attempts to recover significant items taken from the museum.

As Bogdanos points out at the end of the interview, not only are the missing pieces historically and culturally significant, but they're worth a lot of virtually untraceable money. Nobody who buys them for the millions — or tens of millions in some cases — that they're worth is ever going to be able to display them publicly. He says: "We have found that the trafficing in illegal antiquities has gone to funding the insurgency."

I haven't seen Bogdanos's book, so I don't know how well-documented his claim is, but stolen art has a good value/weight ratio, and it wouldn't take a genius to figure out that if the Americans spent several months building up a military force on the border and you wanted to get some items that you could fit in the back of a pickup truck that might be worth tens of millions of dollars, the museum might be a place to look.

Then again, if you were expecting to be greeted by flowers and candy (well, not you specifically, but the troops you are nominally in charge of) why would you bother to lock down a bunch of old, dusty crap?


»  December 8, 2005


New Orleanians Want to Go Home: New Orleans Director developer Ray Broussard of Maritime Media has posted over 900 digital photos documenting the damage around his city.


»  December 6, 2005


Happy 10th Birthday, Shockwave: I was sick yesterday, but nobody else seems to have blogged this. 5 December 1995 was the release date for the public beta of the Shockwave Player for Director on Windows. At the time, Shockwave was a sort of generic term for a variety of Macromedia online initiatives, including Authorware, Freehand, and xRes (which involved a player and a server-side application that intelligently delivered portions of high-resolution images stored in xRes's pyramidal file scheme). Director files were run through a separate tool called Afterburner. Playback on Macs was still a few months off. Flash (as a MM product) was more than a year in the future. We owned online multimedia then.


»  December 5, 2005



Thoughts on Sen. Wyden's Fair Flat Tax Act of 2005: A couple of weeks back, I was invited to sit in on a conference call about Senator Ron Wyden's (D-OR) Fair Flat Tax Act. The Fair Flat Tax Act of 2005 is based on several principles: relief for middle-class and lower-income taxpayers, tax simplification, tax break and loophole elimination, exemption of state and local taxes, and encouragement of savings and investment. It proposes reductions in the number of tax brackets, increases to the standard deductions for single and married filers, modifications of corporate aircraft deductions, and a number of other changes.

I've held off writing anything about this until now for a couple of reasons. I'm not a tax expert or a fiscal policy wonk, so evaluating the plan meant doing some research on numbers that I didn't have at my fingertips. Also, because the only literature available on the plan is through Sen. Wyden's web site, and none of it includes any of the figures the plan is using for revenue or expenditure projections or comparisons to current revenue estimates, it was difficult to get a grasp on exactly how the plan would affect overall revenues or changes in the balances between income levels and business income.

Apart from the name — "flat tax" always makes me think of that creepy Steve Forbes stare — the plan has some laudatory goals: treat work and wealth equally; end the discriminatory treatment of renters; increase revenue to pay down the debt; etc. The Wyden aides on the call said they expected President Bush to begin pushing his own idea of tax reform (presumably they're expecting it to be labelled a "flat tax" as well) and that Sen. Wyden's proposal is an attempt to get out ahead of the GOP for the next year.

That's a good thing. But after some time to look at the numbers and some emails with one of the Senator's staff, there's something lackluster about FFTA2005 that makes my heart thump a little more slowly with dread.

During the conference call, my question to the Senator's staff was how the ratio of corporate income taxes to personal income taxes in general revenues* was going to be affected. The point had already been made that the plan would reduce the deficit by $100 billion. In answer to my question, we were told that the increase in corporate income tax revenue under the plan would account for the bulk of the reduction, although we were then told that the $100 billion was actually spread over five years (the plan has a sunset of 2010). This is one of the points I made sure to check, because my understanding is that the deficit is calculated on a year-to-year basis, and reducing the deficit by $20 billion in each of five years doesn't really mean you're reducing it by $100 billion.

As we've seen though, in Iraq and on the Gulf Coast, $20 billion doesn't go as far as it used to. That's why I turned to the people who have the figures on these things, the Bureau of the Public Debt. According to them, the public debt as of 1 December was $8,107,952,560,719.68 (that's $8.1 trillion). Their helpful little guide to the debt explains the difference between the debt and the deficit. Back in January, the administration forecasta record $427 billion deficit for the fiscal 2005 budget, up from $412 billion in fiscal 2004. That number was reduced in August to $331 billion. That was before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Over the past four fiscal years (2002-2005), the total debt has increased by an average of $531.5 billion. The annual reduction in the deficit proposed in Senator Wyden's plan is less than 4% of that number. The Bush administration's budgets have increased the size of the deficit each year, but even if it stayed at its current level, the debt would exceed $10.75 trillion in five years. With FFTA2005's reduction of the debt by $20 billion for each of those five years, it would still be $10.65 trillion. That's trading an increase in the debt of 32.7% for an increase of 31.5%.

The Oregonian ran an editorial on Saturday (3 December) about a City Club of Portland lecture by David Walker, Comptroller General of the US Government Accountability Office (MP3 file). Walker is particularly concerned by out-of-control spending, but sees a problem that cannot be solved by program cuts alone. The editorial makes this note about one of his points: "'Very few tax cuts stimulate the economy,' and almost none pay for themselves, he said."

The Concord Coalition, which is one of the groups promoting Walker's current Fiscal Wake-up Tour, estimates that accumulated deficits over the next 10 years will create another $5.7 trillion in debt — that's $3.6 billion more than the estimates of the Congressional Budget Office (both figures are in addition to the current debt). Where the CBO's estimate is based on several years of stable deficits which miraculously shrink sometime after 2010, the Concord Coalition makes several assumptions they consider more realistic (like the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts being made permanent and continuing but decreasing expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan) which predict that the deficit will reach more than $500 billion by 2010 and increase to nearly $900 billion by 2015. Against these types of numbers, even $100 billion of deficit reduction every year wouldn't do much. The FFTA2005 plan is one-fifth of that.

My concern with FFTA2005 is that it's a little bandage for a bleeding artery of a problem, and not one of those new-fangled bandages made out of shrimp shells, either. While I applaud Sen. Wyden's initiative at addressing the issue and seemingly sincere interest at closing some loopholes (although I don't see anything about, say, offshore headquartering in the Bahamas or Caymans), the actual effects seem far too small to effect real change. It comes off as like wonky fiddling with the edges; an attempt to make it look like something is being done without actually addressing the problem. Any fiscal benefit it might make could easily be swallowed up in the next hurricane season, terrorist attack, or half-year of combat operations overseas.

During one of my exchanges with Sen. Wyden's office about the FFTA2005, the phrase "the perfect being the enemy of the good" was brought up in response to my criticisms. There's no doubt that FFTA2005 would be better than the steadily-mounting deficits of the Bush administration, but kicking the fiscal ball five years down the road isn't exactly what I'd consider to be a good plan. If I was a strategist for a fiscally-conservative Republican with aspirations for the 2008 presidential election (not that that's likely to happen), and FFTA2005 became the Democratic alternative to the administration's own tax plan next year, I think I could make a good case that the plan doesn't address the problem of the national debt and the deficit seriously enough, that it lacks — in the words of the Oregonian editorial paraphrasing David Walker — "the courage and will to stabilize the deteriorating economy with major spending cuts, tax increases, or both."

* According to a 2003 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the share of corporate income tax receipts has dropped from more than 20% of total federal tax revenues in the mid-1960s to just over 7% in 2003. In the same period, corporate taxes have gone from 4% to 1% of Gross Domestic Product.



Sen. Chaffee (R-RI) On Iraq: Today's Morning Edition featured a profile of Lincoln Chaffee (R-RI) which featured this tidbit (at 2:15 into the story):

BRYAN NAYLOR, NPR: In 2002, Chaffee was the only Republican senator to vote against authorizing the war with Iraq. He tells Chamber [of Commerce] members he never bought the Bush administration's argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, even after Chaffee visited CIA headquarters.

CHAFFEE: And they showed me satellite pictures and I just — nothing convincing at all. They talked about aluminum tubes they were going to make uranium or something in. Uh, Mancini's hardware [garbled]

[Chuckles from crowd] CHAFFEE: But I, uh, I was unconvinced.

So, Sen. Chaffee could see through the rhetoric of the mushroom cloud. Why couldn't Democratic senators like Clinton, Kerry, and Biden? Or did they buy into the strategic concept of a war in Iraq? Or were they just worried about looking soft?



McCain: It's OK To Pay Journalists If It's True (That's My Story And I'm Sticking To It): Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on was on Meet the Press on 4 December, and gave some insight into his views of the use of paid propaganda in a free press:

MR. RUSSERT: The Pentagon, in fact, was paying Iraqi journalists to publish articles favorable to the United States' position. The Los Angeles Times first reported it. The Pentagon has now admitted it. Should they stop it?

SEN. McCAIN: If these are accurate stories and written by legitimate people, then I don't think there's anything wrong with it. If they are not accurate and they are made up by different people, then, of course, it should be stopped.

MR. RUSSERT: But here we are trying to teach democracy...

SEN. McCAIN: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: ...and freedom of the press...

SEN. McCAIN: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: ...and lack of state-sponsored censorship if you will and we're paying Iraqis to print articles?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, I don't know if that's a standard practice or not in Iraq. If these are accurate stories, we should make every effort to get them out if they're accurate. We're in a propaganda war where this is a war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people as well. I think we need more details as to exactly what went on, but if it's legitimate...

MR. RUSSERT: But in principle you have not problem paying the Iraqis...

SEN. McCAIN: But if that's the standard procedure in Iraq, if that's what you need to do to get a story in one of these newspapers, but it has to be accurate and it has to be done by a legitimate person. I understand these are men and women who serve in our military that are responsible for these stories. If that's the only way you get stories in, then I'm not terribly offend by it, Tim.

The person with the bucks, of course, gets to determine what's "accurate" and who's a "legitimate person." Armstrong Williams sends a big hello.

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»  December 1, 2005


HTTP Class 1.0: Valentin Schmidt of Das Deck has been very, very good this year and will not be receiving a lump of coal in his stocking. He made this announcement on the Lingo-L list today:

inspired by this thread about getNetText and Proxies a couple of days ago, I've now written a little parent script ("HTTP Class") for using MultiUser xtra for all kind of HTTP requests. It's far from beeing perfect, but maybe a good starting-point for further customizing.

It has the following features/advantages over standard net lingo:

- supports all HTTP/1.1 methods: GET, POST, HEAD, TRACE, OPTIONS, PUT (e.g. HEAD can be useful to check if a server is running, or to find out the size of some file without actually downloading it; TRACE can be used to find out which Proxy-Server(s) exactly is/are used; ...)
- accessing password protected resources (Basic Authentication, like common Apache .htaccess/.htpasswd protection)
- using Proxy-Servers (without or with Basic Authentication)
- sending arbitrary HTTP-Headers
- supports file uploads with POST (data is automatically base64-encoded, script on the server has to decode it again) and PUT method
- Cookie-Support (send and receive session-cookies; support of persistent cookies could easily be added)
- Session-Support (by automatic resending of session-cookie)
- resuming of interrupted downloads (simply by adding "Range: bytes=-" and "If-Range: " HTTP headers
- Browser-Spoofing

Included in the zip/sit is also a little tool called "HTTP Sniffer" that's based on HTTP class. I allows to quickly send arbitrary HTTP requests to any URL, and analyze the response (a bit like the "Live HTTP headers" Firefox extension, but more powerfull). Maybe it can be useful to examine http-network problems or debug server scripts...

It's at http://dasdeck.de/staff/valentin/lingo/http_class/

Feedbacks and ideas for improvements welcome.