Archive for Society & Culture

Brit Boffins Ponder Bioethics of Brain Manipulation

by David Solomonoff

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics today launched a consultation on the ethics of new types of technologies that ‘intervene’ in the brain, such as brain-computer interfaces, deep brain stimulation, and neural stem cell therapy.

Often developed for treatment of conditions including Parkinson’s disease, depression and stroke, they could also be used in military applications to develop weapons or vehicles that are controlled remotely by brain signals. Commercial possibilities in the gaming industry include computer games controlled by people’s thoughts.

“These challenge us to think carefully about fundamental questions to do with the brain: what makes us human, what makes us an individual, and how and why do we think and behave in the way we do,” Thomas Baldwin, Chair of the Council’s study and Professor of Philosophy at the University of York.

“For example if brain-computer interfaces are used to control military aircraft or weapons from far away, who takes ultimate responsibility for the actions? Could this be blurring the line between man and machine?” he said.

 

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Parker’s Chill, Cuomo’s Crony Capitalism Fever

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

While down with the flu in January, I read a lot of Richard Stark. Aka Donald Westlake. A pile of volumes from Stark/Westlake’s Parker series towered on my nightstand. The adventures and misadventures of Parker, an ultra cold hearted professional thief, were the perfect antidote to fever.

The late Donald Westlake grew up in Albany, New York. When interviewed in 1995, Westlake sounded sardonic and oblique about his youth in the capital city. And while a number of books in the Parker series take place in upstate New York, Albany is never a central location*. Characters pass through it or around it. Usually in a stolen car.

In Backflash (Mysterious Press, 1998) Albany as the seat of state government is central to the plot, yet few scenes are set in the city. A complex heist and series of murders are put in motion by Hilliard Cathman, a retired fiscal planner for the state. Cathman whiles away his retiree time as a public policy consultant with a low rent office near the “huge dark stone pile of the statehouse”. He is, as Parker puts it, one of the “camp followers of state government”.

Due to his opposition to legalized gambling, Cathman is an unsuccessful camp follower. His potential clients in legislative places are eager to tap into a major new source of revenue; Cathman won’t give them his consultant stamp of approval. His objections to gambling are arguable but reasonable. But as Parker suspects, Cathman’s ego investment in being proven right has become unbalanced.

To prove his premise that gambling draws crime, Cathman recruits Parker to rob a riverboat casino that’s being allowed to ply the Hudson between Albany and Poughkeepsie as a limited-time experiment. The casino’s political backers hope the experiment proves so successful as to open the door to gambling statewide. As a fiscal planner for the state, Cathman was privy to inside info about the casino’s security arrangements, etc. He feeds the info to Parker and his crew. They successfully pull the heist.

As usual in a Parker book, there are numerous slips twixt cup and lip. Most caused by the greed and stupidity of pilot fish swarming the haul. But the wildest card in the set-up is Cathman. In a final confrontation in Cathman’s home in Delmar (an Albany suburb popular with state employees) Parker discovers just how far round the bend Cathman has gone– and that he has a self-aggrandizing plan which if allowed to play out will doom Parker.

How many times do regular citizens make the same discovery about policy planners? Parker is Everyman!

Speaking of planners with killer bees in their bonnets…

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo is big on forging more public-private partnerships as engines of state economic development. He said so in his Executive Budget speech on January 17th. (While sick I read non-fiction fiction as well as the real stuff.)

Yes indeed. More crony capitalism will cure New York’s economic ills. And Anna Nicole Smith needed bigger breast implants.

New York is crony capitalism central. The quadruple D example? The public-private partnership of Wall Street and Washington that pumped the housing bubble and sank the economy beneath a mountain of dodgy mortgage-backed investment paper. As assistant secretary and then secretary of HUD from 1993 to 2001, Andrew Cuomo helped steer housing policy when the bubble started swelling and the paper flying. Cuomo’s HUD policies included pushing “a reform that allowed Fannie (Mae) and Freddie (Mac) to receive affordable-housing credit for buying private subprime mortgage-backed securities”**.

HUD was also the parent organization of OFHEO (Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight), the agency then charged with oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. OFHEO, under Cuomo and other HUD heads, resisted efforts to change Fannie and Freddie’s murky and ultimately disastrous public-private status.

By the time the bubble popped, Andrew Cuomo was New York State Attorney General. In 2007, Attorney General Cuomo announced that in light of the pop, he was launching an investigation into “industry-wide mortgage fraud”. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were prime targets. In a letter to Freddie Mac Cuomo implied that Fan and Fred had colluded with lenders to profit from mortgages based on inflated appraisals. In a matter of months, Cuomo’s investigation dissolved into a payout of $24 million from Fannie and Freddie. No admittance of wrongdoing required. The fraud problem was found to lay mainly with– and could be corrected at– the appraisal level.

Fannie and Freddie’s payout went to establishing the Independent Valuations Protection Institute. The institute, with board members approved by Andrew Cuomo, would monitor lenders for compliance with a new Home Valuation Code of Conduct (HVCC) authored by Cuomo. Though merely a state attorney general, Cuomo’s national clout re appraisal policy was enhanced by support for the code from OFHEO, the agency overseeing Fannie and Freddie.

In the bubble years many appraisers complained about being pressured by lenders to inflate values. Yet equally large numbers hate the reform Cuomo engineered. Some claim he had a conflict of interest when establishing HVCC.

Starting in 2004 and until becoming NY attorney general, Cuomo was chairman of the board of advisors at Appraisal Management Company (AMCO) a Cleveland-based private “independent valuations solutions company” doing business with national lenders. AMCO, a subsidiary of Worldwide Outsource Solutions Ltd., had a board full of HUD; including former HUD secretary Jack Kemp (under Bush 1) and assistant secretary William Apgar (under Clinton). Edward J. Davidson (Ed Davidson), CEO and board chairman of AMCO and Worldwide Outsource, has been a consultant for Fannie Mae.

In October, 2004, Cuomo, Kemp and Apgar told reporters at the Mortgage Bankers Association annual convention that “the integrity of the appraisal process has broken down”. American Banker described the presentation as “part admonishment of lenders, part sales pitch for a vendor”.***

In March, 2005, Cuomo, Davidson, Kemp and Apgar, in a letter on AMCO stationary, pressed OFHEO’s drirector, Armando Falcon, to have a “totally independent source” review the loans within Fannie and Freddie’s “securities field”.

In February 2006, AMCO issued a press release applauding board member Andrew Cuomo’s support for the newly formed non-profit Appraisal Advocacy Coalition. According to Inman News (a real estate publication), the coalition’s missions included protecting appraisers from “unfair competition“.

Maybe HVCC was a much needed reform. Note “was”. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is slated to end HVCC. (Then again, it may just be whittled down. Appraisers fear that the reports of HVCC’s death are greatly exaggerated.)

Discerning the true motives of public-private players can be tough. When on the public side, they so often launch investigations and reforms that obfuscate obfuscate obfuscate. I say keep the public public and the private private. It makes the game easier to call.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo touts public-private partnerships as the path to NY economic development, a sizable majority of New Yorkers get starry eyed. Not I.  It took more than the housing bubble and its bad paper and players to make me an unbeliever. Viewing New York’s public-private deal maker, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC or ESD), in action has also been instructive…

See corruption and wishful thinking meet and marry! See billions in public money tossed at elephantine projects that come to naught! See ginormous tax breaks produce handfuls of jobs in depressed regions! And oh yeah– see small property owners get dispossessed at the behest of powerful developers. Rampent eminent domain abuse being one of the rottenest of New York’s public-private fruits.

Next up in the fruit bowl: Governor Cuomo’s plan for a massive Las Vegas style casino in New York City. Most likely at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. The casino would be built by the Genting Group of Malaysia. (They already run slots at Aqueduct.) To enhance the project, the state would erect “the largest convention center in the nation”  nearby. And get this; the casino could put all of New York State on “an inside track to expanded gambling”.

I just hope nobody tries to chill the project with a Parker.

As for Cuomo, his crony capitalism fever keeps rising. In late January, corporate campaign donors with their eyes on infrastructure prizes paid $50,000 each to sit next to Cuomo on a panel at a national Democratic Governors Association conference. The confab, which was held in Manhattan, was hosted by Governor Cuomo. No press or public allowed.

Sometimes it pays to go private.

 

* “I’ll leave Albany to Bill Kennedy. He’s found a lot more there to write about than I did.”  Mystery Man award-winning novelist Donald Westlake remembers his Albany haunts, Paul Grondahl, Albany Times Union, 10/21/95

** Cuomo’s HUD career under scrutiny, Buffalo News, 08/21/10

***Fears about Appraisals, and Other MBA Buzz, Jody Shenn, American Banker, 10/27/04

 

 

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Envisioning Occupy Wall Street as software, service

by David Solomonoff

The impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement goes far beyond a traditional protest around specific issues. The ability to rapidly respond to changing situations, a horizontal rather than vertical structure and an open source approach to developing news tools and strategies will be as significant in the long term – perhaps more so. The medium is definitely the message here.

 

In Forbes, E. D. Kain writes about how Occupy Wall Street protesters are engaging in a roll-reversal where the surveilled are surveilling the surveillers:

If the pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis had happened before smart phones and video phones, it would have been the word of the protesters against the word of the police. If this had all happened before the internet and blogs and social media, it would have taken ages before the old media apparatus would have found the wherewithal to track down the truth and then disseminate that information.
Now the incident goes viral … Strangely, though, the police act as though these new realities don’t exist or don’t matter.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/11/19/maybe-its-time-to-occupy-the-police-state/

 

In The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal suggests one their biggest accomplishments has been to facilitate other protests in the same way a software interface allows programmers to access and re-purpose data on the Internet:

Metastatic, the protests have an organizational coherence that’s surprising for a movement with few actual leaders and almost no official institutions. Much of that can be traced to how Occupy Wall Street has functioned in catalyzing other protests. Local organizers can choose from the menu of options modeled in Zuccotti, and adapt them for local use. Occupy Wall Street was designed to be mined and recombined, not simply copied.
This idea crystallized for me yesterday when Jonathan Glick, a long-time digital journalist, tweeted, “I think #OWS was working better as an API than a destination site anyway.”
API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface.

What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Twitter.com. Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers don’t have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications (i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers).

The metaphor turns out to reveal a useful way of thinking about the components that have gone into the protest.

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/print/2011/11/a-guide-to-the-occupy-wall-street-api-or-why-the-nerdiest-way-to-think-about-ows-is-so-useful/248562/

John Robb examines their progress from the perspective of military strategist John Boyd:

The dynamic of Boyd’s strategy is to isolate your enemy across three essential vectors (physical, mental, and moral), while at the same time improving your connectivity across those same vectors. It’s very network centric for a pre-Internet theoretician.

Physical. No isolation was achieved. The physical connections of police forces remained intact. However, these incidents provided confirmation to protesters that physical filming/imaging of the protests is valuable. Given how compelling this media is, it will radically increase the professional media’s coverage of events AND increase the number of protesters recording incidents.

Mental. These incidents will cause confusion within police forces. If leaders (Mayors and college administrators) back down or vacillate over these tactics due to media pressure, it will confuse policemen in the field. In short, it will create uncertainty and doubt over what the rules of engagement actually are. IN contrast, these media events have clarified how to turn police violence into useful tools for Occupy protesters.

Moral. This is the area of connection that was damaged the most. Most people watching these videos feel that this violence is both a) illegitimate and b) excessive.

http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2011/11/occupy-note-112011-boyd-pepper-spray-and-tools-of-compliance-ows.html

Following on Robb’s point, the videos also increase the moral liability of journalists and politicians who attack and denounce the movement.

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Update: Gingrich bumps Corzine as Batman’s Two-Face!

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

It takes a lot to shock Hollywood. But the news that Newt Gingrich has bumped Jon Corzine as supervillain Two-Face in the next Batman is making jaws drop in Dream City. Corzine was reportedly in like Flynn; his duplicitous doings at MF Global made him Two-Face to the max. Sure, Jon had heavy competition from the powers-that-be at Penn State, but sports figures often flop on the big screen. (See OJ in assorted  turkeys.) Sources close to Batman’s producers say Jon was already sitting for his Two-Face make-up when a story broke at Bloomberg about Newt Gingrich being paid $1.6 million over eight years for acting as advisor to housing bubble enabler Freddie Mac.

So what sez you, what’s Two-Face about that? Well kiddies, ever since the bubble-derived economic meltdown of 2008, Gingrich has been a humongous critic of Freddie Mac and its partner in crime (the kind that never gets prosecuted) Fannie Mae. Even saying that Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank ought to go to jail for his tight past relationship with Freddie Mac’s lobbyists.

Does this epitomize Two-Face or what? Batman’s producers did a Molly Bloom and said “yes”. Jon out, Newt in.

Prior to 2008, Newt (gotta love that name ) allegedly buzzed into the ears of Freddie Mac lobbyists, telling them how to sell the “company’s public-private structure” in a way “that would resonate with conservatives seeking to dismantle it”. Meanwhile, at the White House, top Freddie Mac lobbyist Mitchell Delk channeled Newt when pitching expanded home ownership programs to President Bush. The channeling took place during the period when Freddie and Fannie were hot to roll out ever more extreme experiments in mortgage-derived madness. (Lest we forget, Freddie and Fannie aren’t lenders; they buy and securitize mortgages, turning them into taxpayer-backed investment fodder.) According to Delk, Dubya was hip to what the political bennies “could be for Republicans and…. their relationship with Hispanics.”

Not that Dubya was all opportunism and no ideals. Remember The Ownership Society? It opened well among neocons, then nosedived into bailout land. So far, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (or is it “Mack”?) have raked in roughly $169 billion of rescue. Both say they need more. Much more. Freddie alone is seeking $1.8 billion.

Question: Should Newt Gingrich kick his Batman bux back to taxpayers? I say “yes!” His turn as Freddie Mac’s Janus landed him the way cooler role of Two-Face. He owes us big time…

 

 

 

 

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Corzine to play Two-Face in new Batman!

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Corzine as Two-Face

This just in from Hollywood– Jon Corzine, who until about a week ago was Top Dog in the tanking Wall Street unreality series My Own Private MF Global has been cast as supervillain Two-Face in the next Batman opus. Buzz sez Bat producer Michael Uslan saw the Reuters piece The Two Faces of Jon Corzine and after reading it, got Jon on the honker. According to sources, what really wowed Uslan were these lines:

…Corzine sounded like a real Wall Street reformer during [a] speech at Princeton in September 2010, titled After the Crash: Regulating the New American Economy.…Corzine said he generally supported much of the financial regulatory law known as Dodd-Frank and believed it would lead to less risk taking on Wall Street…Corzine went on to say it was unacceptable that some of Wall Street’s biggest players were leveraging shareholders’ equity at a ratio above 30 to 1 going into the financial crisis…Yet just before [Corzine’s company] MF Global filed for bankruptcy, the firm was operating with a leverage ratio of 33 to 1…

Like, how Two-Face is that? If anyone needs more proof Corzine is perfect for the part, check this from the Newark Star Ledger:

[Corzine] has also has emerged as a key lobbyist against proposed rules that would have restricted firms such as his from, among other things, borrowing customer money to make investments.

Those rules Boys & Girls, are part of the same Dodd-Frank reform law Corzine “supported”!

Weird coincidence: Senator Chris Dodd and Congressman Barney Frank, whose names top the regulatory bill Corzine sought to undermine, were also offered the role of Two-Face (one half Dodd, the other Frank) due to their star turns in Housing Bubble: The Monster that Ate Wall Street. Both turned it down. Citing their busy schedules as financial reformers.

Though not first choice as Two-Face, Corzine jumped at producer Uslan’s offer. Snapping back “Mister, I was made for it.” Demonstrating his film savvy by channeling Tyrone Power as the master con turned chicken-chomping geek in the classic noir, Nightmare Alley.

Talking pop culture history, the original Two-Face, as created by DC Comics in the 1940s, was a good guy gone supervillain wrong. Two-Face was once Harvey Dent, the reformer district attorney of Gotham City. But Dent goes bonkers after a criminal tosses acid on him, hideously deforming one side of his face. Dent embraces his “Two-Face” and becomes a crime boss.

Fans who’ve followed Corzine’s political career know he too once appeared a reformer. In 2000, he shelled out $62 million for the role of senator from New Jersey in Mr. Corzine Goes to Washington. It was a short run; in 2005, Jersey’s political bosses on the D side cast Corzine as governor. Many in the voting audience believed the wealth Corzine garnered as former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs (1994-99) would make him immune to sleaze. The myth of the gazillionaire political savior rides again. Hope springs eternal, even in Jersey. Reviewers gave Corzine a Golden Turkey .

Inquiring minds want to know– who tossed acid on Jon Corzine and when did it happen? When he was a Jersey pol or Goldman CEO?* Or way earlier, when Corzine was climbing the Wall Street ladder in the American Psycho ’80s?**

Past is past. Big things are happening here & now for Jon. Thanks to the sudden collapse of MF Global, the mysterious disappearance of roughly $600 million of its customer funds, and the possible co-mingling of customer and company money (a regulatory no no), Corzine will now be starring in a series of federal and state investigations, plus civil litigations produced by some of the hottest firms in the biz.

Corzine has hired Andrew Levander, a former assistant U.S. attorney to help him handle the load. Levander’s celebrity clients have included John Thain, Merrill Lynch’s former boss, and Ezra Merkin, a former associate of Bernie Madoff.

Even with such high-powered assistance, Corzine won’t have much time for his usual social whirl…

Right before MF folded like a cheap Goldman, Jon Corzine was spotted on Wall Street bundling mega campaign donations for President Obama– in hopes of replacing crony capitalist superstar Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. (Imagine the boffo box office if MF Global had tanked after Corzine was appointed!) While bundling, Corzine sported full frontal Two-Face. Knowing his fellow players would dig the ironic Lon Chaney.

Though the Treasury appointment is now gone with the wind, don’t cry for Corzine. Being in a Batman beats hanging with the too-big-to-fail. And if the Bat doesn’t fly, there’s always the circus. Buzz sez the geek routine is making a big comeback. New twist; biting the heads off free range chickens. (First you gotta catch ’em.) And my buddy Buzz is always right about trends.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

*Trivia: Corzine’s illustrious co-stars at Goldman included his protégé, mortgage banker and bond trader Kevin Ingram. After racking up mega losses at Deutsche Bank in 1998, Ingram went on to star as a money launderer for a B movie bunch of Jersey-based terror plotters.

**More trivia: the film version of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho starred pre-Batman Christian Bales in the title role. Think Bruce Wayne, through a glass darkly.

 

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Cambodia’s Curse, Mexico’s Manana, Reckless Endangerment Stateside

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

My summer reading this year kicked off with Cambodia’s Curse: the Modern History of a Troubled Land by former New York Times reporter Joel Brinkley. Brinkley won a Pulitzer in 1980 for his coverage (at the Louisville Courier Journal) of the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

The title Cambodia’s Curse bugs me. Though cultures resistant to change create illusions of inevitability, and a genocidal past casts long shadows, no nation or people are truly cursed. Nor do I buy Brinkley’s attempt to place partial blame for Cambodian acceptance of the Khmer Rouge on passivity engendered by the influence of Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism. First, it’s a simplistic take on the two religions, both of which are practiced in numerous countries that never exterminated a quarter of their own people in an effort to create a communist utopia. Second, countries with far different religious heritages have also had totalitarian holocausts. Germany and the Soviet Union most notably, respectively representing the right and the left.

As for Cambodian passivity, it must come and go– judging by the perpetual political turmoil of Cambodia in the 20th Century, and by the recent grass roots resistance to the land grabbing, population displacing, development policies of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Caveats aside, Curse author Joel Brinkley does a swell job nailing the crony-rich corruption of Cambodia’s current government as headed by Hun Sen. Whose honorary title of “Samdech” (akin to “your excellency”) was awarded him in 1993 by Cambodia’s amazingly tenacious King Norodom Sihanouk. Easy to imagine the retired (sort of) Sihanouk doing Karaoke of I Will Survive. Dubbed the world’s most versatile pol by the Guinness Book of Records, Sihanouk has surfed wave after wave of political change since 1941. Sometimes wearing his crown, sometimes not. Using his royal influence to legitimize the Khmer Rouge in one decade and deep-six them in another. Dancing with ideologies of all stripes, telling foreigners bearing aid and investment whatever they want to hear.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is also a marvel of tenacity. In 1975, as a Khmer Rouge battalion commander, Hun Sen took part in the campaign in the eastern zone of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia’s name under the Khmer Rouge) that included the invasion of the capital city of Phnom Penh and the forced evacuation— aka death march– of its entire population to a rural paradise of forced labor. By the late 70’s, Pol Pot and his pals in the upper echelons of the Khmer Rouge were imploding with paranoia. Hun Sen sensed the reaper was turning his way. When Vietnam, after a series of border disputes, invaded Cambodia in 1979 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen rode in with them and was given a top spot in the government installed by the Vietnamese.

Years of civil war followed. The Cold War shaped the conflict. The Soviet Union backed the repressive Vietnamese government; the USA and China supported the rebel remains of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Arms flowed from all sides. In the early 1990’s, as the Soviet Union waned, the Vietnamese departed. The Khmer Rouge dwindled. Little dictator (compared to Pol Pot) Hun Sen remained in place as prime minister. To placate international good government types bearing financial aid, he was eventually forced to accept a toothless coalition government representing parties other than his own. Dissidents are still persecuted. An independent judiciary? Freedom of speech? Who needs the lies and distortions?

Meanwhile, the handful of elderly Khmer Rouge leaders charged with crimes against humanity will probably keel over before their trials are allowed to conclude and the bureaucrats, speculators, and family members favored by Hun Sen continue to help themselves to Cambodia.

As for Cambodia’s established reformers, the go-to guys when foreign policy players from other countries require an anti-Hun Sen, they seem almost as seasoned, agenda-wise, as Sihanouk and his Samdech.

An aside about my being a mental tourist in flailing states. Yeah, there’s the appeal of the morbidly exotic. But there’s also the illuminating shock of recognition. What past or present resident of a flailing post-industrial city in say, New Jersey or New York, hasn’t seen similar political stasis? With old boys and hoary reformers as the fixed poles of political expression? Old boys rule; reformers wax profitably pious. Both sides (if the two ends of a continuum can be called “sides”) claim revitalization is just around the next public-funded corner. They may squabble over who gets paid but always agree on the need for more more more.

OK. Hun Sen and his cronies in Cambodia make our crowd seem like pikers. But to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, we’re just haggling over degree. For folks interested in U.S. urban policy (or in improving their looting skills) Cambodia’s Curse is an instructive read.

Now Reading: Mexico

I recently started reading Manana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans by Jorge Castaneda, Mexico’s former foreign minister. Only a few chapters in, so I can’t say much about it. But I have been brushing up on Mexico via other sources. My hitherto casual interest was amped last year by the flap over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comparison of Mexico to Columbia during that country’s narco insurgency days. Hillary’s take was testily denounced by President Obama– and by the Mexican government. As an example of difference in the two situations, Mexico’s national security advisor pointed out that Mexico has never “elected a drug lord such as Pablo Escobar to congress”.

Wags might reply why buy the cow when milk is so cheap.

InSight, a think tank site focused on research, analysis and investigation of organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, recently ran an article (Mayor Goes Free, Mexico Fails Again to Prosecute ‘Corrupt’ Politicians) about the growing number of Mexican pols whose arrests on cartel-related charges have dissolved into non-prosecution. Including Gregorio Sanchez, the former mayor of Cancun,  Jorge Hank Rhon, the former mayor of Tijuana, and dozens of state and local officials in the state of Michoacan.

Mexico has 31 states (14 of which are on the U.S. State Department’s travel warning list) and a federal district. In late July, roughly 21 state prosecutors (a job akin to being a United States Attorney) resigned. Leaving the states and Mexico’s federal district temporarily without top cops. No reason given.

Zones of Silence

In June, Mexican reporter Ricardo Chavez Aldana (a native of Ciudad Juarez) spoke at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ annual meeting in Florida. Chavez was among several reporters who told of being threatened and of having relatives and/or colleagues murdered by drug cartels. June was a “particularly grim month” for journalists all over Mexico. On June 20th well-known crime reporter Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco and his wife and son were murdered in Veracruz. Another Veracruz journalist had been found in a shallow grave three weeks earlier. On June 7th, armed men abducted an editor of an Acapulco newspaper from a bar and on June 13th, a reporter for two dailies in the state of Sonora (bordering Arizona) was shot to death in an abduction attempt.

Also in June: a report titled Corruption, Impunity, Silence: The War on Mexico’s Journalists, by PEN Canada and the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto blasted “the Mexican government’s repeated failure to protect the human rights of journalists, its complicity in a number of rights violations against them, and the web of Mexican laws that limit freedom of expression and effectively gag journalists who seek to expose government corruption”.

During the same month the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) upped Mexico to #8 (among the top 10 countries) on its Impunity Index; the index calculates unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country’s population. According to CPI “deadly anti-press violence continued to climb in Mexico, where authorities appear powerless in bringing killers to justice.”

In 2010, Mexico’s own National Human Rights Commission reported that at least 66 journalists had been killed since 2005 and 12 others had disappeared. Mexican officials claim not all murdered or kidnapped reporters are targeted because of journalism activities. Most recently in the case of police reporter Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz. On July 26th, her decapitated corpse was found on a street in Veracruz. Colleagues say she was investigating the murder of fellow reporter Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco and his family and had received anonymous death threats. The top prosecutor for the state of Veracruz denies her murder was linked to her work.

Boosters for tourism in Mexico often imply only people involved in drugs or those who don’t mind their own business are in danger. But in a country where drug cartel terrorism has created news blackouts in journalistic zones of silence, government corruption is supported by laws that limit speech, and where 70% of all federal arrests dissolve into dropped charges and the overall rate of impunity for criminal activity is eye popping, the true number and nature of victims, be they reporters, average citizens, or foreign tourists and workers, may be difficult to ascertain.

In the meantime, the Mexico Tourism Board, under the leadership of newly appointed Chief Marketing Officer Gerardo Llanes is seeking to tidy up Mexico’s image. Llanes, who in his prior position helped launch Diet Coke in Mexico, is reaching out to U.S. media outlets like Bloomberg, Newsweek, and CNN in order to help them “get the facts straight”. Llanes and the Tourism Board will cite “swimming with whale sharks and camping” as a few of Mexico’s attractions in an upbeat publicity campaign tagged “The Place You Thought You Knew”.

Twinge of recognition: in flailing post-industrial cities stateside, political boosters always claim that the crime afflicting their bailiwick is merely a matter of perception. They also revile and/or try to work the messengers who deliver the perception. And true crime stats are always elusive.

A word about Jorge Castaneda’s Manana Forever. In it Castaneda references (negatively) the Mexican proverb: “El que no transa no avanza”. Whoever doesn’t trick or cheat gets nowhere.

The Last Book of Summer

I’m on a waiting list at my local library (I don’t do tablets– too much like Etch A Sketch) for Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. A nice cozy read about all the folks in the Washington Wall Street nexus who pumped the real estate bubble that distorted our economy and then picked the public pocket when the Ponzi collapsed. I don’t expect Reckless to be a shocker, more like the kind of mystery where you know who-done-it right from the beginning but enjoy seeing how the perp is brought to justice. Oh. Wait. None of the major housing bubble perps were brought to justice. In fact, most are doing better than ever.

El que no transa no avanza!

 

 

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Dominique Strauss-Kahn is still a Creep

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

The most defense-friendly version of what may have occurred between Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) and a maid at the Sofitel Hotel in NYC still casts DSK as a creep. Particularly from a socialist (as DSK is identified politically) point of view. An old (but not dead) white European male from a country with an ugly history of colonialism, caps a political power trip to NYC by paying an African immigrant maid to service him sexually. He expects her to suck it up. But oops, the maid has an exploitive agenda of her own. How wack it that? Doesn’t she know her Brown Sugar place?

 

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Internet Pioneers Berners-Lee, Cerf, Strickling ask: “What Kind of Net Do You Want?”

by David Solomonoff

When the first message on the ARPANET (the predecessor of today’s Internet) was sent by UCLA programmer Charley Kline, on October 29, 1969, the message text was the word “login”; the letters “l” and the “o” were transmitted, then the system crashed.

Forty two years later, the Internet is everywhere and rapidly becoming embedded in every device. Kevin Kelly sees the Net as evolving into a single “planetary computer” with “all the many gadgets we possess” as “windows into its core.” The Internet Society’s slogan is “The Internet is for everyone,” but Vint Cerf (who co-developed the TCP/IP network protocol that connects everything on the Net today) now prefers “The Internet is for everything”.

The world-wide adoption of a decentralized network that connects everything creates continuous technical, social and policy challenges that no one could have foreseen in 1969. Even as we take the Net for granted, the way we do the air that we breathe, decisions are being made by policy-makers, technologists and end-users that shape its future.

The success of the Internet has had a great deal to do with the development of open standards – often by volunteers – in groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Decisions in Working Groups (WG) of the IETF are reached by consensus on the group mailing list so that anyone active on that list can be part of the process.

The need to add capacity is a constant challenge. What balance of public and private funding, regulation or deregulation are appropriate, and which types of infrastructure (centralized vs. decentralized; fiber, cable, wireless) warrant investment are subject to ongoing debate.

The Net has provided a platform for incredible innovation and economic growth. How to reward innovation and creativity while encouraging the widest dissemination of new content and technologies? How to encourage disruptive technologies while mitigating their potentially negative impacts?

Does there have to be a conflict between freedom and privacy on one hand and security on the other? How can users safely share personal information using social media which rely on the sale of their personal data as a business model? What legal and technical protections are necessary for businesses to securely move into the cloud?

Internet users have continuously influenced key technology innovations and policy decisions. But keeping them in the decision-making loop as they increasingly take the Net for granted presents an ongoing challenge.

On June 14, Internet pioneers Vint Cerf, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, and Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), will address these questions as keynote speakers for the INET Conference in New York City, sponsored by the Internet Society and the Internet Society of New York. [Disclaimer: As President of the Internet Society of New York I will deliver opening remarks.]

There will also be panels featuring industry leaders, members of civil society organizations, open source software advocates and government officials. The conference is open to the public although advance registration is required. It will also be streamed live.

Just as a democracy is never the rule of the people, but rather the people who participate in the process, the Internet has evolved through the efforts of technologists and activists – many who have volunteered their time to develop open standards, open source software and to advocate for an open Internet. It’s your call: What kind of Internet do you want?

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Albany’s Historic Student Ghetto: Kegs N Eggs Mark the Spot

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Albany, New York isn’t just the seat of a clown car state government– it’s also a college town. And college students, when boozed to the gills, can out-bozo politicians. (Well, almost.) On March 12th crowds of drunken students rioted in the Albany neighborhood known as the student ghetto. The lads and lassies, most of whom seemed to be from UAlbany (a major campus of the State University of New York aka SUNY), had prepped for the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade with hours of bar crawls and Kegs and Eggs house parties. Eventually the breakfast bunch spewed out onto the frosty streets.

The Albany Student Press claims that the Albany police, in an effort to tamp down the annual festival of collegiate binge drinking, had rousted the house parties. Pushing participants outdoors where “frat boys and sorority chicks”* joined them in solidarity. The non-student press hasn’t mentioned any rousts. Whatever. Hundreds of students milled in the streets, wearing neon green tees and bellowing like cattle on jimsonweed. Smaller groups commenced to trash. Cars were pushed into the street and smashed. Appliances were hurled from balconies. Cans and bottles flew. Several cops were tackled. Most (though not all) in the crowd laughed to see such sport. Their cellphones captured the riot. YouTube took it viral. Suddenly, all eyes were on Albany’s student ghetto.

Albany pols and college officials freaked. Were they riled by the riot– or the nationwide publicity?

Callow binge drinkers have been stampeding in the student ghetto for years. And not just during the daze of St. Pat’s. A brief search of YouTube turns up numerous vids of students from UAlbany and the College of St. Rose (a private university adjacent to the student ghetto) making merry on many occasions. Heck– I lived on the edge of the student ghetto in 2000/2001 and can personally attest that every weekend, except for ones during breaks and vacations, was a holiday in the hood. Or should I say– a party in its mouth? The sidewalks were a mosaic of greasy pizza boxes, crushed beer cups, broken bottles, and vom. In winter the mosaic froze over, spring brought the big patty melt.

Walking through the student ghetto was an eyeball assault. Its once-beautiful two and three family homes were sinking into the sludge. Absentee landlords and young lugs living la vida transient don’t do upkeep. A virtual tour of the homes’ interiors can now be had on YouTube. Footage of semiconscious or completely zonked students being owned by their roomies is a staple on Student Ghetto, The Reality Show. If you look past the limp bodies in funny degrading poses, you can see the subdivided warrens, rats’ nest wiring, and broken windows covered with trash bags.

Code enforcement? What code enforcement?

I used to wonder if parents actually visited their kids’ digs. And what they thought if they did. After all, parents frequently pay for those digs. Some even send rent directly to the landlords. I also wondered if parents understood the intensity– and heavy underage aspect– of the student ghetto bar scene. It gave me quite a turn to see really young girls staggering out of bars blitzed blind and dumb. Particularly since the neighborhood is also a crime scene.

Muggings, assaults, and burglary shadow the student ghetto. Students are perceived as easy pickings; predators from other ghettos come to partake. In the autumn of 2008, a UAlbany senior was shot to death a few blocks from where I once lived. Drug trade? It’s like, historic. One street has an evil rep going back decades. From my window I watched deals going down on the corner of said street. The longevity of its rep made me cynical (wrongly, I’m sure) about notifying the Albany police. Instead I called the county cops and hoped for the best.

But back to Kegs and Eggs. Some 40 students were arrested. A few days after the riot YouTube footage was being used to identify more participants. Pictures taken from videos were released to the press. (Many of the alleged perps seemed in dire need of Clearasil.) Detective James Miller, official spokesman for the Albany Police Department, promised swift and certain justice.

On March 16th, a New York Daily News editorial blasted SUNY Albany for being known for “hard partying” rather than quality education. The editorial also denounced the “moms and dads” of the rioters, for contributing to a “culture you let sprout into criminal proceedings”. The next day, the first of the UAlbany students seen in the video pictures turned himself in. OMG! His father turned out to be Bob Sapio, senior executive editor of the New York Daily News. Was Dad’s face red!

Also red faced: Detective James Miller, official spokesman for the Albany Police Department. On March 18th Detective Miller (now on suspension) was arrested for allegedly driving drunk. In an official vehicle, while off duty. Miller apparently refused to take a breathalyser test. DWI cases can be more difficult to prosecute sans results from breath tests. In some cities, police officers aren’t allowed to refuse breathalysers. But Albany has its own way of doing things.

For instance, despite much local coverage of the Kegs and Eggs riot, plus related articles about housing conditions in the student ghetto, the neighborhood’s worst landlords have yet to be outed by the news media. And given the lack of code enforcement (a problem in more nabes than just the student ghetto) you’d expect some investigative reporting on who hearts who– politically speaking.

Another Albany oddity: the in-office longevity of Mayor Jerry Jennings. When Jennings ran for his first term in 1993 yes 1993 he waxed reformer about the student ghetto and vowed change. He renews those vows regularly. Particularly when public funding can be accessed via the vowing.

In April 2005, Mayor Jennings took an after dark walking tour of the student ghetto, accompanied by the late Kermit L. Hall, then president of SUNY at Albany. The town and gown twosome dialogued with students hanging in front of bars and tut-tutted over slum conditions. President Hall vowed to help rid the neighborhood of drugs, violence, and blight. Some $400,000 in government grants was set to flow through the New York State Division Of Criminal Justice into a “historic partnership”** between SUNY Albany and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC– as part of the crime fighting initiative Operation Impact. The Albany police were eventually outfitted with cool tech tools via Operation Impact. Department officials say crime in Albany is being fought more successfully thanks to those tools. Folks in and around the student ghetto aren’t convinced.

Operation Impact is one of many initiatives that over the years, have been accessed by Mayor Jerry Jennings and a string of area college officials in efforts to re-imagine the student ghetto. Yet somehow, the neighborhood remains a place where impressionable young oafs and oafettes pick up the perception that civilization is far far away.

But change may finally be in the wind. City officials are now making a concentrated effort to refer to the student ghetto as the Education District…

*Assigning blame for Kegs N Eggs melee, Albany Student Press, 03/26/11

**Governor Pataki Announces Historic Partnership with UAlbany and John Jay College to Develop Enhanced Crime Fighting Initiatives Impact, Office of the Governor Press Release, 04/04/05

 

 

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Gaming the Game: Baba, Elvis, and the NBA Betting Scandal

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Sean Patrick Griffin’s new book Gaming the Game won’t make disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy happy. In 2007, Donaghy was busted by the feds for conspiring with pro gambler Jimmy “Baba” Battista and their mutual boyhood pal, low-level drug dealer and all round dogsbody Tommy Martino. Donaghy had been supplying Battista with picks on games he refereed. (He was also betting those games through Battista.) Donaghy claims the devil, aka Battista, made him do it. Sean Griffin locates the devil that made Donaghy do it, in Donaghy’s own greedy soul.

Tim Donaghy, Tommy Martino, and Jimmy Battista had attended the same Catholic High School near Philadelphia. Tommy Martino was tight with both Donaghy and Battista. Donaghy and Battista were never close. But in late 2006, they became partners in crime.

Tim Donaghy’s version of events goes like this: after Jimmy Battista discovered through other gambling professionals that Donaghy was a gambling addict and was betting on NBA games, he extorted Donaghy into supplying NBA picks. According to Donaghy, Battista also threatened his family; implying that if Donaghy didn’t cooperate his wife and children might be “visited” by people from New York. As in, mob thugs. With 15 months in a minimum security federal prison behind him and an exculpatory book to peddle, Donaghy continues to paint Jimmy Battista in mobbed-up colors.

The Real Deal

Prior to conspiring with Battista and middleman Tommy Martino, Tim Donaghy was secretly betting on NBA games he officiated. He was also betting on games he didn’t referee, as well as other sports. By late 2006 he was dissatisfied with the paybacks he was receiving from his prime enabler (remember, we’re talking addiction) and switched to Jimmy Battista. Tommy Martino, a runner for Battista who also supplied him with drugs (as he did for Tim Donaghy), set up the meeting that got the NBA deal going. Jimmy Battista was stoked. “As a gambler, having an NBA referee tell you what games he likes was like taking a kid into a candy store and saying what flavor do you want.”*

As candy store guy, Tim Donaghy got a real deal; he didn’t have to cover his losses. Yes– he did make bad bets. According to Jimmy Battista, when Donaghy wasn’t referee his picks were much less reliable.

Jimmy Battista never asked Tim Donaghy directly if he was making calls to benefit his bets (don’t ask don’t tell being the rule) but he figured Donaghy “was going to do whatever it took to win”. Tim Donaghy maintains that all he did was handicap games from an ultra inside position. His winnings flowed from superior knowledge. The feds who prosecuted Donaghy never charged him with influencing outcomes. Though the plea deal Donaghy accepted did include a line about the possibility of his on-court performance being “subconsciously affected”. As for any lingering suspicions, Gaming the Game lays out new statistical research into the games Donaghy bet. Theoretically speaking, it does seem as if “Elvis” (Battista and Marino’s nickname for Donaghy, the King of NBA picks) might have shown his own interests a hunka hunka burning love.

Rest easy readers. Gaming the Game isn’t a compendium of statistical charts. Though important to the question of Tim Donaghy’s alleged doings, the stats are confined to an appendix. Plus, Gaming is far less about Donaghy than it is about the life and times of pro-gambler Jimmy Battista. As such, it’s a compelling character study and more historically interesting than a rundown of the corrupt actions of one greedy Gus with an edge. Sean Patrick Griffin, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Pennsylvania State, Abington, and a former Philadelphia police officer, combines an eye for human detail with the ability to convey broad social themes. He’s a fluid, crisp writer and an A-1 historian of crime. Griffin’s earlier book, Black Brothers Inc.,The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Black Mafia, revealed a hitherto unacknowledged chapter in the history of crime in Philadelphia. Brothers was made into an episode of the Black Entertainment Television (BET) series American Gangster and has been optioned as a motion picture. Griffin’s knowledge of the crime scene in and around Philadelphia illuminates Gaming the Game.

Born in 1965, James “Jimmy” Battista grew up in a working class town near Philadelphia. He was a black sheep (hence the nicknames “Baba” and “Sheep”) in a close knit, morally centered family. His parents personified the work ethic. Despite his non-absorption of their other beliefs, Jimmy did soak up their attitude about work. From his early entry-level hustler jobs (as a cocaine distributing shoe salesman, he substituted coke for the silica salt packets in shoe boxes) through his learning curve as a paper-juggling bookie, to his glory days as a computerized pro gambler near the top of that industry’s legal and illegal ladder, Baba busted his hump. As an ultra successful pro gambler, he lived on the down low. No Damon Runyan excess, just a nice McMansion life with a wife and kids in a suburb forty minutes out of Philly.

Though Jimmy often worked at home, his family life was almost nil. He spent most of his time in the basement– in his home office slash betting center. Confabbing with other bettors and movers via Skype (harder to bug) and glued to a towering stack of TVs and monitors feeding him nonstop sports action and betting info from sources such as casinos and offshore sportsbooks. When a betting line made a mega move in say, Taiwan, a computerized voice alert (installed by Jimmy) would intone “Major Line Movement”.

When not busy in the basement Jimmy was on the go with his laptop and bag of cell phones. Doing business from other cities (including Vegas), other homes, and on park benches and in cars. He was a fan of T-Mobile, because buying a phone through them didn’t require ID. Sheep, as he was best known in the gambling world, used different phones for each major client. The phones were replaced frequently. His “disposable” phones were a major business expense; disposing of them was a job. The SIM (subscriber identity module) cards were tossed into rivers. The phones themselves went into an acid dip bath intended for cleaning restaurant grills. After the dip, Jimmy pounded the remains into smithereens with a hammer.

Then there was the hassle of transporting money and collecting debts. Re the latter, Sheep wasn’t a thug. He smashed phones, not faces. If someone welshed he just stopped dealing with them. Unrecoverable loss is part of illegal business. As for moving money, doing it in the U.S. was an exercise in paranoia. Think cross-state car trips with a million or so in cash stashed under the seats. Pit stops were fear stops. Sheep carried his food and water with him, along with a hospital “piss cup”.

Back in the Philly area, Sheep and his suburban, white-collar gambling colleagues were always worried that “the boys downtown” (Philadelphia organized crime of the Italian-American variety) would get ultra heavy with independent players. During one downtown mob war, Sheep and his then business partners temporarily relocated to Vegas, to dodge an expected rise in extortion demands.

By early 2007, Jimmy Battista was a slave to the rhythm. Years spent monitoring monitors and working phones while eating takeout had ballooned his weight. He took assorted drugs to ease the pressure of his work and had become addicted to Oxycontin. For the first time in his career he was betting while under the influence and losing like the suckers pro gamblers deride. He was heavily in debt, which was angering some of his most important business colleagues. His family was falling apart. And his always high paranoia level had been jolted to new heights by growing rumors of an FBI investigation.

Jimmy Battista did business with the crème de la crème of bookies and bettors. Some were mob connected. Apparently, an FBI team assigned to the upper echelons of the Gambino family in New York City picked up wiretap chatter about Tim Donaghy and his connection with Sheep. (The gambling world had been rife with gossip about Donaghy’s NBA betting for several years.) Another story says a mob-connected bookie with a business beef turned Sheep in. Whatever. What followed is history. All of which is covered extensively in Gaming the Game.

The research behind Gaming the Game is impressive. Sean Patrick Griffin, an academic and ex-cop, combines extensive reference to court documents, betting records, law enforcement files, and media coverage with on-the-ground interviews and multi-party corroboration. Gaming is also many leveled. Via its coverage of Jimmy Battista’s evolving career, Gaming is a history of the transition from paper-based betting to information age gambling. As a character study, it leads one to ponder the mysteries of human nature– and also, by implication, the mysteries of U.S. policies re gambling. Jimmy Battista was an immensely talented individual. Why chose a life so fraught with the dangers of (partial) illegality? Given his particular skills, Sheep could have been a contender on Wall Street. Where financial speculation, manipulating the odds, and a willingness to profit from another person’s fraud almost never brings down the feds.

Another character question: why did Tim Donaghy and Tommy Martino take plea deals and turn on Jimmy Battista while Battista kept his lip zipped? Sean Patrick Griffin has many interesting things to say about that. As he does about the overall legal and public relations strategies of “Team Donaghy”. Which he refers to as their “assault on justice”. As said, this book won’t make Tim Donaghy happy.

The NBA may not be thrilled either. Though Gaming the Game sinks some of the conspiracy theories that followed the scandal (including ones spread by Tim Donaghy) it poses plenty of hard questions about the NBA’s response to the Donaghy affair– and their ongoing stewardship. NBA officials (if they don’t feel too piqued) might find the section titled Some Suggested Research for the NBA quite helpful.

As example, since the 2003-2004 season the NBA has been collecting data on the calls and non-calls made by all referees. Though the collected data was originally intended for other purposes, current and future data will now also be analyzed with an eye toward spotting referees who might be fixing games. Sean Griffin suggests the NBA also make a retrospective analysis of the call data. Tim Donaghy claims that the winnings from his NBA bets (the ones which according to his plea deal concession, might have “subconsciously affected” his on-court performance) were fairly limited. Some folks, including a number of pro gamblers, think otherwise. Analyzing the data might clear up the issue once and for all. Plus, the suspicion lingers that other refs may have been gaming the game. A retrospective check for patterns of subconscious activity could help lay that suspicion to rest.

Back to Timmy, Tommy, and Jimmy. Before being busted Jimmy Battista entered drug rehab. After a lot of legal wrangling, all three men eventually served about a year in federal prison. As always, Tim Donaghy thought he deserved a better deal.

*All quotes in this article are from Sean Patrick Griffin’s Gaming the Game, Barricade Books, Inc.

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