Archive for November, 2008

Webcasting tragedy

Plain awful, from The Guardian:

“Police in Florida are investigating the death of an American teenager after he appeared to take an overdose and die while broadcasting on video website Justin.tv.”

The 19-year-old left a message on another website in which he described his mental anguish and was encouraged to end his life by a number of other web users.”

Apparently, more than 180 people watched this kid OD and fall unconscious on his bed.  After he had stopped moving, someone called the cops.  Some reports claim that the viewers continued to taunt him.  The victim had previously described his feelings and the possibility of suicide on both justin.tv and another website, where users egged him on:

“You want to kill yourself?” said one. “Do it, do the world a favour and stop wasting our time with your mindless self-pity.”

This case is not unprecedented, nor is this a simple indictment of the internet.  Impersonal groups pressure jumpers.  It’s the “baiting crowd” phenomenon.  Research on the topic suggests that the following variables contribute to baiting: size of the crowd (larger is worse), the cover of nighttime, and physical distance.  These are all de-individuation factors, as members of the crowd abdicate their ethical obligations.

That said, the internet is a uniquely powerful medium for this sort of behavior.  Crowds of thousands can gather in seconds on message boards, populated by nameless individuals hiding behind user-tags.  It’s best summed by the now-famous New Yorker cartoon: “On the internet, no one knows you are a dog.”  The problem is not just the anonymity; it’s also the distance.  At least in person, crowds can physically see their targets.  The internet adds a level of disconnect.  Even if the victim is on a webcam, there’s an element of unreality to the situation – you can minimize the window and they’re gone.  This is worsened by the frequency of internet hoaxes.  A man on a ledge in front of you is awfully real; “DpressedDave7,” holding a bottle of nondescript pills on a Wichita webcam, might just be putting you on.

None of the nearly 200 people who witnessed this, including those who baited the victim, are legally culpable.  (One hopes that they’ll get their ethical rewards through sleepless lifetimes.)  But what of the justin.tv people?  While there’s no reason to believe they’ll face any legal sanction, the question of whether they should is a little more complex.  On one hand, the website was simply a location where the acts took place.  Mayor Fenty wouldn’t be responsible for a nasty Washington crowd talking someone into leaping onto L Street.  However, an internet message board is a controlled environment.  People apply for user names, submitting their email addresses (and sometimes more) to aquire them.  Websites are private domains with discretionary power over messaging – it’s usually called “Terms of Use.”  After hesitating on free speech grounds, Facebook recently pulled several neo-Nazi pages.

The purveyors of the website are not criminals because there is no underlying criminal act.  Groups baiting suicides is repulsive, but won’t send anyone to jail.  What I don’t know, because I am completely out of my depth on internet law, is this:  If message board participants had plotted and then carried out murder, would the message board hosts be culpable?  And if so, for what crime?

Internet law is a fresh and evolving field, with cases from horrific to laughable arising every day.  If there’s any law students with insight on this topic, any comments on the matter would be appreciated — both legal examples and subjective opinions welcome.


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Charlie and the Baghdad MTA

Three people were killed and 19 injured in a bomb attack Friday morning in Baghdad.  More than 10,000 Shia loyal to Moktada al-Sadr hanged President Bush in effigy to protest the government’s security agreement with the United States.  And the Baghdad Metro was running on schedule.

The invasion of Iraq and resulting anarchy halted all train service in the country.   Bombings, robberies, and literally beheadings of conductors put the country’s rail system in mothballs.  Through 2007, only one line had been re-opened: a 13-hour passenger service from Baghdad to Basra.

In October 2008, service resumed on a 15 mile, two-hour round-trip around downtown Baghdad:



If you’re wondering why anyone would ride a 7 mile per hour train, consider the Baghdad traffic:

(Northern Virginia) + (pack animals)

(Northern Virginia) + (pack animals)

Considering the traffic checkpoints, military vehicles, and streets closed by bombings, a train ride is not a bad alternative.  The green, 1980s-vintage passenger cars remain mostly empty though, because, as the L.A. Times reports, “Few people seem to know it exists.”  Currently, the train makes only two trips a day: once in the morning and once in the evening.  Riders are greeted by AK-wielding armed guards, who fire into the air to chase off kids throwing stones or more serious threats.  One guard jokes, “We’re out of bullets by the end of each trip.”

Baghdad Mayor Sabir al-Issawi has bigger plans.  The city is preparing a feasibility study, backed by up to $3 billion from Parliament, for a 24-mile underground system with 40 stations crisscrossing both Sunni and Shia neighborhoods.  The city had actually planned an underground system as far back as the 1970s, but the project was shelved due to the Iran-Iraq War and had not since been revisited.  With the disco-era plans being updated to contemporary engineering standards, Transportation Ministry officials hope to begin construction as early as next year (!)

If it sounds crazy, considering the city still lacks reliable electricity and water treatment, it just might be.  But it’s also an optimistic, big-think idea in a country that desperately needs them.   “Look at it,” said one Iraqi, gesturing at choked-up roundabout: “Even if this is just talking, at least it’s giving us hope.”

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Dan Rather and media bias

Way back when Bush’s approval rating was above freezing, CBS News’ Dan Rather got himself canned in a controversy over the President’s National Guard documents.  In case you somehow missed “Rathergate,” which also involved the firing of producer Mary Mapes, the Wikipedia summary is enough background for the more recent news.  Since being tossed out unceremoniously, Rather has filed a lawsuit against the network claiming that CBS’s investigation into his work was politically biased.  He has spent upwards of $2 million of his own on the case, and is carrying out much of the research himself.

Whether or not he ultimately wins, Rather is digging up gold.  Armed with subpoena power, the old newsman is discovering that the panel was indeed a sop to the political right.  The New York Times reports:

“Some of the documents unearthed by his investigation include notes taken at the time by Linda Mason, a vice president of CBS News. According to her notes, one potential panel member, Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, was deemed a less-than-ideal candidate over fears by some that he would not “mollify the right.”

Warren Rudman, last of the “Yankee Republicans,” was unacceptable.  With the right working the refs, CBS was pandering furiously for the approval of the ideologues.  Rather’s legal team recently dug up a stunning, horrible list of people who received consideration as panalists:  Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Matt Drudge, Pat Buchanan, and Roger Ailes.  Read those names again.  And yes, a major news network actually considered the head of Fox Agitprop as a potential judge of their own journalistic ethics.

CBS’s concern was not finding an accurate explanation of the case; the real goal was to alleviate right-wing criticism.  Former network President Andrew Heyward testified that he wanted a panel acceptable to conservatives:  “CBS News, fairly or unfairly, had a reputation for liberal bias,” and “the harshest scrutiny was obviously going to come from the right.”  With this in mind, the network “balanced” mainline journalist Louis Boccardi with well-known Republican and former Reagan Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.  (Center) + (Right) still = (Right), which is exactly what CBS was going for.

Here’s a summary of recent developments, and here’s a longer New York magazine feature on Rather’s crusade.  Good on Dan for taking this on.

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From the Washington Post’s Tom Toles:

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The story:

“Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) easily won a vote to remain chairman of a key committee today and will stay in the Democratic caucus despite his high-profile criticism of President-elect Barack Obama and his support of Sen. John McCain during the presidential campaign.”

My gut:

Lieberman can eat a dick.

The story:

“Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that “Joe Lieberman is a Democrat. He’s part of this caucus.”

My gut:

Harry Reid can eat a dick.

The story:

“The deal was negotiated by Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), as well as Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). The Democratic caucus voted 42-13 to accept it.”

My gut:

Christopher Dodd (D-Eat a dick), Ken Salazar (D-Eat a dick), Tom Carper (D-Eat a dick), and Bill Nelson (D-Eat a dick).  And the caucus can eat 42 dicks.

Normally we try to keep this blog PG-13, or at least a genteel R.  So to all of our 11-year old readers who have never heard that expression, my heartfelt apologies.  This was a shameful cave-in, a shameless cave-in, a cave-in so shame-filled that both of those seeming antonyms apply.  There’s plenty of blame to go around, so let’s start at the top:

Obama deserves a flick on the ear for backing Fredo.  Hopey was referring only to Lieberman’s place in the caucus, rather than his status as a committee chair, and mostly stayed out of it. However, his willingness to pass the buck to Reid amounted to an endorsement of the status quo.  This solution fits his whole post-partisan, Hope! Change! Ponies! kinda schtick, but it’s weak sauce considering the depth and breadth of Lieberman’s nastiness.

Reid deserves a flick on the motherfuckin’ face for this.  On the night Fredo delivered the keynote at the Republican National Convention, the gutless Mormon announced he was “very disappointed.”  Sorry Harry, that’s what you say when your toddler eats a crayon.  Reid fluffed his own indignation, adding “I defy anyone to be more angry than I was” with Lieberman’s attacks on Obama; he called it “a period of time in Joe Lieberman’s political career I will never understand or approve.”  Sorry Harry, that’s what you tell your kids about your six months doing blow as a roadie for Whitesnake.  Lieberman’s attacks on Democrats aren’t a bug; they’re a feature.  Reid said it was “not a time for retribution.”  When is?

But then, the broader problem:  the vote wasn’t 28-27.  It wasn’t 31-24.  It’s not like this was a close call where one person’s leadership and initiative could’ve swung it.  Nope, this vote reflects a fundamental truth about political parties in America:  They are an incumbancy protection racket.

It’s not incongruous to hold this view and still be a partisan Democrat who gets emotional when we win.  The fact is, only one of the two choices we have (chicken or shit?) is the party of Roosevelt, McCarthy (the good one), Wellstone, Feingold, and Leahy among others.  At the same time, the main purpose of the Democratic Party does appear to be maintaining the Congressional seats of sitting Members.  Witness the party’s refusal to get behind Ned Lamont, the actual, nominated Democrat in Lieberman’s most recent race. (Reid himself reportedly asked Lamont to back off.)

People on both the left and the right have problems with a system that produces a remarkably Soviet 95% retention rate in the House, and only slightly lower numbers in the Senate.  This isn’t simply a matter of funding, franking privilages, or structural problems.  Everyone spits this “Joe Lieberman / is / my friend” crap as though that has anything to do with the price of dope in Dhaka.  We elect you cats to draft policy, not host slumber parties.  Congress remains at its core a lifetime membership country club, expulsion based primarily on being caught with with a live boy or a dead girl.  The entire caucus faced a choice between propping up one of their long-time drinking buddies or acting with the voice of the people who elected them; and they told their constituents to go eat a dick.

Let me add: This isn’t a purge.  Lieberman could stay in the caucus.  The issue was having him chairing a really freakin important committee.  Other Democrats have conservative voting records, but they don’t make their careers trashing their party.  Dear uncle Harry told Democrats that Lieberman is with us on “virtually everything except the war,” but this is beside the point.  Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor don’t vote the way Dick Durbin and I would, but they don’t headline the Republican convention.  So without further ado, a desperately incomplete list of reactionary tripe from Senator Lieberman:

-Goes on Bill “the gambler” Bennett’s radio show spitting “retreat and defeat.”

-Tells Glenn “I hate the 9/11 families” Beck that he “fears for the survival of the country” if the Democrats get to 60 Senate seats.  (P.S. hey asshole, that includes you!)

-Calls it a “good question” when a Fox News “analyst” asks if Obama is a Marxist.

-Supports Catholic hospitals denying contraceptives to rape victims on grounds that “it shouldn’t take more than a short ride to get to another hospital.

-Defends waterboarding on grounds that “it’s not like [using] burning coals.”  (He also has a bold, mavericky stance against the Spanish Inquisition.)

-Not only backs Senator McCain for President, but endorses other Senate Republicans as well.

This is the guy who’s “with us on everything except the war,” Harry Reid’s “friend” who just had a temporary blackout period of conservative vitriol, a man who apparantly deserves nothing more than losing a subcommittee position on polar bears.  For the millionth time, the Goldfinger quote:

“Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.”

And so I ask our readers:  What in the name of Christ on a cracker is a firing offense in this town?

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…they just slink down into the dungeon.  With the Democratic House and Senate landslide, dozens of old Congresscritters are taking their pages and going home.  Sadly for them and their staff, they have to vacate their old offices as the new Members measure the drapes.  For the final month or two of their various criminal endeavors, departing Congressmen are housed in literally the Rayburn Building basement.  Mother Jones reports:

“In Capitol Hill official-speak, it’s called the “transitional suite.” In reality, the harshly lit warren of numbered cubicles in the bowels of the Rayburn House Office Building is the private purgatory of members of Congress who are no longer needed. Mere weeks after losing power, defeated or retiring US representatives move to this temporary basement setup from the comfortable office suites where they previously worked. Here they pass their final days in office, each soon-to-be ex-legislator and his or her staff issued a single work space measuring approximately 5’x5′.”

It resembles nothing so much as a bullpen full of temps doing data entry:

Welcome to Scranton, bitches

Welcome to Scranton, bitches

This basement are also serves as Ellis Island for incoming members, who shuffle through beforehand amidst their various orientations and welcoming briberies.  One staffer compared it to “Grand Central Station” when the newbies show up, and “Grand Central Station on Christmas Day” when the morose departures replace them. Former Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-France?) described the mood:

“You go from being in the middle of the nation’s business to suddenly the phone doesn’t ring,” he says. “There’s no mail that goes through. There’s nobody to respond to.”

Waiting by the phone?  Congressman Beauprez, you’ve just won the Soul Asylum segue contest!

Anyway, as Snoop Dogg says, “back to the lecture at hand:”  Mother Jones is a solid magazine, especially their photo essays on completely unexpected topics.  Where else will you find an interview feature with the woman who sews the Klan robes?  They also have galleries of Mexican superheroes, phone sex operators, and an unbelievable, heartbreaking series on children born in prison.  I recommend subscribing while you still have that Congressional mailing address.

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The American Family Association is a Christianist 501(c)(3), Sobieski’s winged hussars in the War on Christmas. They’ve boycotted 7-Eleven for selling porn, Sears for advertising on Logo, and, in perhaps their greatest victory, the American Girl doll company for supporting a “pro-lesbian, pro-abortion” charity. They also sell buttons and other Jesusy tchotchkes, like this year’s light-up cross for your yard:

Merry Birmingham, neighbors!

Merry Birmingham, neighbors!

Because nothing says KKKristmas like a burning cross.

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