A fine example of bad writing: repeated details

From Keith Phipps’s “Treasure Of The Black Falcon, by John Coleman Burroughs” (The Onion AV Club: 25 March 2010):

Burroughs’ circuitous prose, which reads as if he absorbed the paid-by-the-word style of his dad’s early work, doesn’t help. Opening the book at random, I found this passage:

The air was warm, humid, sultry. Everywhere the dank, wet smell of rotting vegetation in the jungle by the river was so strong that it could almost be tasted. Except they knew that wild life was all about them and they could see the countless birds overhead, there was no sound. No breeze rustled the palm leaves, the fronds, or the tops of the giant conifers.

It’s humid, get it? And there’s no wind touching every type of vegetation Burroughs can think of. Not the palm leaves. Not the fronds. The giant conifers? No, not them either.

Warnings about invalid security certs are ignored by users

Yahoo Publisher Network Security Cert
Image by rustybrick via Flickr

From Robert McMillan’s “Security certificate warnings don’t work, researchers say” (IDG News Service: 27 July 2009):

In a laboratory experiment, researchers found that between 55 percent and 100 percent of participants ignored certificate security warnings, depending on which browser they were using (different browsers use different language to warn their users).

The researchers first conducted an online survey of more than 400 Web surfers, to learn what they thought about certificate warnings. They then brought 100 people into a lab and studied how they surf the Web.

They found that people often had a mixed-up understanding of certificate warnings. For example, many thought they could ignore the messages when visiting a site they trust, but that they should be more wary at less-trustworthy sites.

In the Firefox 3 browser, Mozilla tried to use simpler language and better warnings for bad certificates. And the browser makes it harder to ignore a bad certificate warning. In the Carnegie Mellon lab, Firefox 3 users were the least likely to click through after being shown a warning.

The researchers experimented with several redesigned security warnings they’d written themselves, which appeared to be even more effective.…

Still, Sunshine believes that better warnings will help only so much. Instead of warnings, browsers should use systems that can analyze the error messages. “If those systems decide this is likely to be an attack, they should just block the user altogether,” he said.

Various confidence scams, tricks, & frauds

From “List of confidence tricks” (Wikipedia: 3 July 2009):

Get-rich-quick schemes

Get-rich-quick schemes are extremely varied. For example, fake franchises, real estate “sure things”, get-rich-quick books, wealth-building seminars, self-help gurus, sure-fire inventions, useless products, chain letters, fortune tellers, quack doctors, miracle pharmaceuticals, Nigerian money scams, charms and talismans are all used to separate the mark from his money. Variations include the pyramid scheme, Ponzi scheme and Matrix sale.

Count Victor Lustig sold the “money-printing machine” which could copy $100 bills. The client, sensing huge profits, would buy the machines for a high price (usually over $30,000). Over the next twelve hours, the machine would produce just two more $100 bills, but after that it produced only blank paper, as its supply of hidden $100 bills would have become exhausted. This type of scheme is also called the “money box” scheme.

The wire game, as depicted in the movie The Sting, trades on the promise of insider knowledge to beat a gamble, stock trade or other monetary action. In the wire game, a “mob” composed of dozens of grifters simulates a “wire store”, i.e., a place where results from horse races are received by telegram and posted on a large board, while also being read aloud by an announcer. The griftee is given secret foreknowledge of the race results minutes before the race is broadcast, and is therefore able to place a sure bet at the wire store. In reality, of course, the con artists who set up the wire store are the providers of the inside information, and the mark eventually is led to place a large bet, thinking it to be a sure win. At this point, some mistake is made, which actually makes the bet a loss. …

Salting or to salt the mine are terms for a scam in which gems or gold ore are planted in a mine or on the landscape, duping the greedy mark into purchasing shares in a worthless or non-existent mining company.[2] During the Gold Rush, scammers would load shotguns with gold dust and shoot into the sides of the mine to give the appearance of a rich ore, thus “salting the mine”. …

The Spanish Prisoner scam – and its modern variant, the advance fee fraud or Nigerian scam – take advantage of the victim’s greed. The basic premise involves enlisting the mark to aid in retrieving some stolen money from its hiding place. The victim sometimes believes he can cheat the con artists out of their money, but anyone trying this has already fallen for the essential con by believing that the money is there to steal (see also Black money scam). …

Many conmen employ extra tricks to keep the victim from going to the police. A common ploy of investment scammers is to encourage a mark to use money concealed from tax authorities. The mark cannot go to the authorities without revealing that he or she has committed tax fraud. Many swindles involve a minor element of crime or some other misdeed. The mark is made to think that he or she will gain money by helping fraudsters get huge sums out of a country (the classic Nigerian scam); hence marks cannot go to the police without revealing that they planned to commit a crime themselves.

Gold brick scams

Gold brick scams involve selling a tangible item for more than it is worth; named after selling the victim an allegedly golden ingot which turns out to be gold-coated lead.

Pig-in-a-poke originated in the late Middle Ages. The con entails a sale of a (suckling) “pig” in a “poke” (bag). The bag ostensibly contains a live healthy little pig, but actually contains a cat (not particularly prized as a source of meat, and at any rate, quite unlikely to grow to be a large hog). If one buys a “pig in a poke” without looking in the bag (a colloquial expression in the English language, meaning “to be a sucker”), the person has bought something of less value than was assumed, and has learned firsthand the lesson caveat emptor.

The Thai gem scam involves layers of con men and helpers who tell a tourist in Bangkok of an opportunity to earn money by buying duty-free jewelry and having it shipped back to the tourist’s home country. The mark is driven around the city in a tuk-tuk operated by one of the con men, who ensures that the mark meets one helper after another, until the mark is persuaded to buy the jewelry from a store also operated by the swindlers. The gems are real but significantly overpriced. This scam has been operating for 20 years in Bangkok, and is said to be protected by Thai police and politicians. A similar scam usually runs in parallel for custom-made suits.

Extortion or false-injury tricks

The badger game extortion is often perpetrated on married men. The mark is deliberately coerced into a compromising position, a supposed affair for example, then threatened with public exposure of his acts unless blackmail money is paid.

The Melon Drop is a scam in which the scammer will intentionally bump into the mark and drop a package containing (already broken) glass. He will blame the damage on the clumsiness of the mark, and demand money in compensation. This con arose when artists discovered that the Japanese paid large sums of money for watermelons. The scammer would go to a supermarket to buy a cheap watermelon, then bump into a Japanese tourist and set a high price.

Gambling tricks

Three-card Monte, ‘Find The Queen’, the “Three-card Trick”, or “Follow The Lady”, is (except for the props) essentially the same as the probably centuries-older shell game or thimblerig. The trickster shows three playing cards to the audience, one of which is a queen (the “lady”), then places the cards face-down, shuffles them around and invites the audience to bet on which one is the queen. At first the audience is skeptical, so the shill places a bet and the scammer allows him to win. In one variation of the game, the shill will (apparently surreptitiously) peek at the lady, ensuring that the mark also sees the card. This is sometimes enough to entice the audience to place bets, but the trickster uses sleight of hand to ensure that they always lose, unless the conman decides to let them win, hoping to lure them into betting much more. The mark loses whenever the dealer chooses to make him lose. This con appears in the Eric Garcia novel Matchstick Men and is featured in the movie Edmond.

A variation on this scam exists in Barcelona, Spain, but with the addition of a pickpocket. The dealer and shill behave in an overtly obvious manner, attracting a larger audience. When the pickpocket succeeds in stealing from a member of the audience, he signals the dealer. The dealer then shouts the word “aqua”, and the three split up. The audience is left believing that “aqua” is a code word indicating the police are coming, and that the performance was a failed scam.

In the Football Picks Scam the scammer sends out tip sheet stating a game will go one way to 100 potential victims and the other way to another 100. The next week, the 100 or so who received the correct answer are divided into two groups and fed another pick. This is repeated until a small population have (apparently) received a series of supernaturally perfect picks, then the final pick is offered for sale. Despite being well-known (it was even described completely on an episode of The Simpsons and used by Derren Brown in “The System”), this scam is run almost continuously in different forms by different operators. The sports picks can also be replaced with securities, or any other random process, in an alternative form. This scam has also been called the inverted pyramid scheme, because of the steadily decreasing population of victims at each stage.

Visitors to Las Vegas or other gambling towns often encounter the Barred Winner scam, a form of advance fee fraud performed in person. The artist will approach his mark outside a casino with a stack or bag of high-value casino chips and say that he just won big, but the casino accused him of cheating and threw him out without letting him redeem the chips. The artist asks the mark to go in and cash the chips for him. The artist will often offer a percentage of the winnings to the mark for his trouble. But, when the mark agrees, the artist feigns suspicion and asks the mark to put up something of value “for insurance”. The mark agrees, hands over jewelry, a credit card or their wallet, then goes in to cash the chips. When the mark arrives at the cashier, they are informed the chips are fake. The artist, by this time, is long gone with the mark’s valuables.

False reward tricks

The glim-dropper requires several accomplices, one of whom must be a one-eyed man. One grifter goes into a store and pretends he has lost his glass eye. Everyone looks around, but the eye cannot be found. He declares that he will pay a thousand-dollar reward for the return of his eye, leaving contact information. The next day, an accomplice enters the store and pretends to find the eye. The storekeeper (the intended griftee), thinking of the reward, offers to take it and return it to its owner. The finder insists he will return it himself, and demands the owner’s address. Thinking he will lose all chance of the reward, the storekeeper offers a hundred dollars for the eye. The finder bargains him up to $250, and departs.…

The fiddle game uses the pigeon drop technique. A pair of con men work together, one going into an expensive restaurant in shabby clothes, eating, and claiming to have left his wallet at home, which is nearby. As collateral, the con man leaves his only worldly possession, the violin that provides his livelihood. After he leaves, the second con man swoops in, offers an outrageously large amount (for example $50,000) for such a rare instrument, then looks at his watch and runs off to an appointment, leaving his card for the mark to call him when the fiddle-owner returns. The mark’s greed comes into play when the “poor man” comes back, having gotten the money to pay for his meal and redeem his violin. The mark, thinking he has an offer on the table, then buys the violin from the fiddle player (who “reluctantly” sells it eventually for, say, $5,000). The result is the two conmen are $5,000 richer (less the cost of the violin), and the mark is left with a cheap instrument.

Other confidence tricks and techniques

The Landlord Scam advertises an apartment for rent at an attractive price. The con artist, usually someone who is house-sitting or has a short-term sublet at the unit, takes a deposit and first/last month’s rent from every person who views the suite. When move-in day arrives, the con artist is of course gone, and the apartment belongs to none of the angry people carrying boxes.

Change raising is a common short con and involves an offer to change an amount of money with someone, while at the same time taking change or bills back and forth to confuse the person as to how much money is actually being changed. The most common form, “the Short Count”, has been featured prominently in several movies about grifting, notably Nueve Reinas, The Grifters and Paper Moon. A con artist shopping at, say a gas station, is given 80 cents in change because he lacks two dimes to complete the sale (say the sale cost is $19.20 and the con man has a 20 dollar bill). He goes out to his car and returns a short time later, with 20 cents. He returns them, saying that he found the rest of the change to make a dollar, and asking for a bill so he will not have to carry coins. The confused store clerk agrees, exchanging a dollar for the 20 cents the conman returned. In essence, the mark makes change twice.

Beijing tea scam is a famous scam in and around Beijing. The artists (usually female and working in pairs) will approach tourists and try to make friends. After chatting, they will suggest a trip to see a tea ceremony, claiming that they have never been to one before. The tourist is never shown a menu, but assumes that this is how things are done in China. After the ceremony, the bill is presented to the tourist, charging upwards of $100 per head. The artists will then hand over their bills, and the tourists are obliged to follow suit.

Mistakes to avoid in writing

From Pat Holt’s “The Ten Mistakes: Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)” (Holt Uncensored: 17 November 2008):


Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally – these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence.


The “ness” words cause the eye to stumble, come back, reread: Mindlessness, characterlessness, courageousness, statuesqueness, preciousness – you get the idea. You might as well pour marbles into your readers’ mouths. Not all “ness” words are bad – goodness, no – but they are all suspect.

The “ize” words are no better – finalize, conceptualize, fantasize, categorize. … Not all “ize” words are bad, either, but they do have the ring of the vulgate to them – “he was brutalized by his father,” “she finalized her report.” Just try to use them rarely.

Adding “ly” to “ing” words has a little history to it. Remember the old Tom Swifties? “I hate that incision,” the surgeon said cuttingly. “I got first prize!” the boy said winningly. But the point to a good Tom Swiftie is to make a punchline out of the last adverb.


Once your eye is attuned to the frequent use of the “to be” words – “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” “been” and others – you’ll be appalled at how quickly they flatten prose and slow your pace to a crawl.

Try also to reserve the use of “there was” or “there is” for special occasions. If used too often, this crutch also bogs down sentence after sentence. “He couldn’t believe there was furniture in the room. There was an open dresser drawer. There was a sock on the bed. There was a stack of laundry in the corner. There was a handkerchief on the floor….”

How right-wing talk radio works

From Dan Shelly’s “Former News Radio Staffer Spills the Beans on How Shock Jocks Inspire Hatred and Anger” (AlterNet: 17 November 2008):

To begin with, talk show hosts such as Charlie Sykes – one of the best in the business – are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.

To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.

This enemy can be a politician – either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a “RINO” (a “Republican In Name Only,” who is deemed not conservative enough). It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the “mainstream media” – local or national, print or broadcast.

This is a common talk show tactic: If you lack compelling arguments in favor of your candidate or point of view, attack the other side. These attacks often rely on two key rhetorical devices, which I call You Know What Would Happen If and The Preemptive Strike.

Using the first strategy, a host will describe something a liberal has said or done that conservatives disagree with, but for which the liberal has not been widely criticized, and then say, “You know what would happen if a conservative had said (or done) that? He (or she) would have been filleted by the ‘liberal media.’ ” This is particularly effective because it’s a two-fer, simultaneously reinforcing the notion that conservatives are victims and that “liberals” are the enemy.

The second strategy, The Preemptive Strike, is used when a host knows that news reflecting poorly on conservative dogma is about to break or become more widespread. When news of the alleged massacre at Haditha first trickled out in the summer of 2006, not even Iraq War chest-thumper Charlie Sykes would defend the U.S. Marines accused of killing innocent civilians in the Iraqi village. So he spent lots of air time criticizing how the “mainstream media” was sure to sensationalize the story in the coming weeks. Charlie would kill the messengers before any message had even been delivered.

A history of the negative associations of yellow

From Allen Abel And Madeleine Czigler’s “Submarines, bananas and taxis” (National Post: 24 June 2008):

Depicted in frescoes and canvases from the early Middle Ages onward in the robes of the betrayer of the Christ, “Judas yellow” devolved into an imprint of depravity, treason and exclusion.

By the 12th century, European Jews were compelled to wear yellow hats, prostitutes were bound by yellow sashes and yellow flags flew above the pus-stained hovels of the Black Death. From this would descend our own yellow of cowardice and insanity, and the yellow badges of the star-crossed Jüden of the Third Reich.

The various participants in phishing schemes

From Chapter 2: Botnets Overview of Craig A. Schiller’s Botnets: The Killer Web App (Syngress: 2007):

Christopher Abad provides insight into the phishing economy in an article published online by ( issue10_9/abad/). The article, “The economy of phishing: A survey of the operations of the phishing market,” reveals the final phase of the phishing life cycle, called cashing. These are usually not the botherders or the phishers. The phishers are simply providers of credential goods to the cashers. Cashers buy the credential goods from the phishers, either taking a commission on the funds extracted or earned based on the quality, completeness, which financial institution it is from, and the victim’s balance in the account. A high-balance, verified, full-credential account can be purchased for up to $100. Full creden- tials means that you have the credit card number, bank and routing numbers, the expiration date, the security verification code (cvv2) on the back of the card, the ATM pin number, and the current balance. Credit card numbers for a financial institution selected by the supplier can be bought for 50 cents per account. The casher’s commission of this transaction may run as much as 70 percent. When the deal calls for commissions to be paid in cash, the vehicle of choice is Western Union.

The continuation of phishing attacks depends largely on the ability of the casher’s to convert the information into cash. The preferred method is to use the credential information to create duplicate ATM cards and use the cards to withdraw cash from ATM terminals. Not surprisingly the demand for these cards leans heavily in favor of banks that provide inadequate protections of the ATM cards. Institutions like Bank of America are almost nonexistent in the phisher marketplace due to the strong encryption (triple DES) used to protect information on its ATM cards.

The latest on electronic voting machines

From James Turner’s interview with Dr. Barbara Simons, past President of the Association for Computing Machinery & recent appointee to the Advisory Board of the Federal Election Assistance Commission, at “A 2008 e-Voting Wrapup with Dr. Barbara Simons” (O’Reilly Media: 7 November 2008):

[Note from Scott: headers added by me]

Optical Scan: Good & Bad

And most of the voting in Minnesota was done on precinct based optical scan machines, paper ballot which is then fed into the optical scanner at the precinct. And the good thing about that is it gives the voter immediate feedback if there is any problem, such as over-voting, voting twice for a candidate.

Well there’s several problems; one is–well first of all, as you say because these things have computers in them they can be mis-programmed, there can be software bugs. You could conceivably have malicious code. You could have the machines give you a different count from the right one. There was a situation back in the 2004 race where Gephardt in one of the Primaries–Gephardt received a large number of votes after he had withdrawn from the race. And this was done–using paper ballots, using optical scan paper ballots. I don’t know if it was this particular brand or not. And when they were recounted it was discovered that in fact that was the wrong result; that he had gotten fewer votes. Now I never saw an explanation for what happened but my guess is that whoever programmed these machines had mistakenly assigned the slot that was for Kerry to Gephardt and the slot that was for Gephardt to Kerry; that’s my guess. Now I don’t know if that’s true but if that did happen I think there’s very little reason to believe it was malicious because there was really nothing to be gained by doing that. So I think it was just an honest error but of course errors can occur.

DRE Studies

Ohio conducted a major study of electronic voting machines called the Everest Study which was commissioned by the current Secretary of State Bruner, Secretary of State Bruner and this study uncovered huge problems with these–with most of these voting systems, these touch screen voting systems. They were found to be insecure, unreliable, difficult to use; basically a similar study had been studied in California not too much earlier called the Top to Bottom Review and the Ohio study confirmed every–all of the problems that had been uncovered in California and found additional problems, so based on that there was a push to get rid of a lot of these machines.

States Using DREs

Maryland and Georgia are entirely touch screen States and so is New Jersey. In Maryland they’re supposed to replace them with optical scan paper ballots by 2010 but there’s some concern that there may not be the funding to do that. In fact Maryland and Georgia both use Diebold which is now called Premier, paperless touch screen voting machines; Georgia started using them in 2002 and in that race, that’s the race in which Max Cleveland, the Democratic Senator, paraplegic from–the Vietnam War Vet was defeated and I know that there are some people who questioned the outcome of that race because the area polls had showed him winning. And because that race–those machines are paperless there was no way to check the outcome. Another thing that was of a concern in Maryland in 2002 was that–I mean in Georgia in 2002 was that there were last minute software patches being added to the machines just before the Election and the software patches hadn’t really been inspected by any kind of independent agency.

More on Optical Scans

Well I think scanned ballots–well certainly scanned ballots give you a paper trail and they give you a good paper trail. The kind of paper trail you want and it’s not really a paper trail; it’s paper ballots because they are the ballots. What you want is you want it to be easy to audit and recount an election. And I think that’s something that really people hadn’t taken into consideration early on when a lot of these machines were first designed and purchased.


One of the things that was investigated in California when they did the Top to Bottom Review was just how easy is it for people with disabilities to use these touch screen machines? Nobody had ever done that before and these test results came back very negatively. If you look at the California results they’re very negative on these touch screen machines. In many cases people in wheelchairs had a very difficult time being able to operate them correctly, people who were blind sometimes had troubles understanding what was being said or things were said too loudly or too softly or they would get confused about the instructions or some of the ways that they had for manual inputting; their votes were confusing.

There is a–there are these things called Ballot Generating Devices which are not what we generally refer to as touch screen machines although they can be touch screen. The most widely used one is called the Auto Mark. And the way the Auto Mark works is you take a paper ballots, one of these optical scan ballots and you insert it into the Auto Mark and then it operates much the same way that these other paperless–potentially paperless touch screen machines work. It has a headphone–headset so that a blind voter can use it; it has–it’s possible for somebody in a wheelchair to vote, although in fact you don’t have to use this if you’re in a wheelchair; you can vote optical scan clearly. Somebody who has severe mobility impairments can vote on these machines using a sip, puff device where if you sip it’s a zero or one and if you puff it’s the opposite or a yes or a no. And these–the Auto Mark was designed with disability people in mind from early on. And it faired much better in the California tests. What it does is at the end when the voter with disabilities is finished he or she will say okay cast my ballot. At that point the Auto Mark simply marks the optical scan ballot; it just marks it. And then you have an optical scan ballot that can be read by an optical scanner. There should be no problems with it because it’s been generated by a machine. And you have a paper ballot that can be recounted.

Problems with DREs vs Optical Scans

One of the things to keep in–there’s a couple things to keep in mind when thinking about replacing these systems. The first is that these direct recording electronic systems or touch screen systems as they’re called they have to have–the States and localities that buy these systems have to have maintenance contracts with the vendors because they’re very complicated systems to maintain and of course the software is a secret. So some of these contracts are quite costly and these are ongoing expenses with these machines. In addition, because they have software in them they have to be securely stored and they have to be securely delivered and those create enormous problems especially when you have to worry about delivering large numbers of machines to places prior to the election. Frequently these machines end up staying in people’s garages or in churches for periods of time when they’re relatively insecure.

And you need far fewer scanners; the security issues with scanners are not as great because you can do an audit and a recount, so altogether it just seems to me that moving to paper based optical scan systems with precinct scanners so that the voter gets feedback on the ballot if the voter votes twice for President; the ballot is kicked out and the voter can vote a new ballot.

And as I say there is the Auto Mark for voters with disabilities to use; there’s also another system called Populex but that’s not as widely used as Auto Mark. There could be new systems coming forward.

1/2 of DREs Broken in Pennsylvania on Election Day

Editor’s Note: Dr. Simons wrote me later to say: “Many Pennsylvania polling places opened on election day with half or more of their voting machines broken — so they used emergency paper ballots until they could fix their machines.”

China’s increasing control over American dollars

From James Fallows’ “The $1.4 Trillion Question” (The Atlantic: January/February 2008):

Through the quarter-century in which China has been opening to world trade, Chinese leaders have deliberately held down living standards for their own people and propped them up in the United States. This is the real meaning of the vast trade surplus—$1.4 trillion and counting, going up by about $1 billion per day—that the Chinese government has mostly parked in U.S. Treasury notes. In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People’s Republic of China. Like so many imbalances in economics, this one can’t go on indefinitely, and therefore won’t. But the way it ends—suddenly versus gradually, for predictable reasons versus during a panic—will make an enormous difference to the U.S. and Chinese economies over the next few years, to say nothing of bystanders in Europe and elsewhere.

When the dollar is strong, the following (good) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, manufactured goods, and just about everything else (vacations in Europe!) goes down. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes up. Interest rates go down—for mortgage loans, credit-card debt, and commercial borrowing. Tax rates can be lower, since foreign lenders hold down the cost of financing the national debt. The only problem is that American-made goods become more expensive for foreigners, so the country’s exports are hurt.

When the dollar is weak, the following (bad) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, and so on (no more vacations in Europe) goes up. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes down. Interest rates are higher. Tax rates can be higher, to cover the increased cost of financing the national debt. The only benefit is that American-made goods become cheaper for foreigners, which helps create new jobs and can raise the value of export-oriented American firms (winemakers in California, producers of medical devices in New England).

Americans sometimes debate (though not often) whether in principle it is good to rely so heavily on money controlled by a foreign government. The debate has never been more relevant, because America has never before been so deeply in debt to one country. Meanwhile, the Chinese are having a debate of their own—about whether the deal makes sense for them. Certainly China’s officials are aware that their stock purchases prop up 401(k) values, their money-market holdings keep down American interest rates, and their bond purchases do the same thing—plus allow our government to spend money without raising taxes.

Wal-Mart’s monopsony power damages its vendors

From Barry C. Lynn’s “The Case for Breaking Up Wal-Mart” (Harper’s: 24 July 2006):

Instead, the firm is also one of the world’s most intrusive, jealous, fastidious micromanagers, and its aim is nothing less than to remake entirely how its suppliers do business, not least so that it can shift many of its own costs of doing business onto them. In addition to dictating what price its suppliers must accept, Wal-Mart also dictates how they package their products, how they ship those products, and how they gather and process information on the movement of those products. Take, for instance, Levi Strauss & Co. Wal-Mart dictates that its suppliers tell it what price they charge Wal-Mart’s competitors, that they accept payment entirely on Wal-Mart’s terms, and that they share information all the way back to the purchase of raw materials. Take, for instance, Newell Rubbermaid. Wal-Mart controls with whom its suppliers speak, how and where they can sell their goods, and even encourages them to support Wal-Mart in its political fights. Take, for instance, Disney. Wal-Mart all but dictates to suppliers where to manufacture their products, as well as how to design those products and what materials and ingredients to use in those products. Take, for instance, Coca-Cola [… Wal-Mart decided that it did not approve of the artificial sweetener Coca-Cola planned to use in a new line of diet colas. In a response that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, Coca-Cola yielded to the will of an outside firm and designed a second product to meet Wal-Mart’s decree.]. …

Wal-Mart and a growing number of today’s dominant firms, by contrast, are programmed to cut cost faster than price, to slow the introduction of new technologies and techniques, to dictate downward the wages and profits of the millions of people and smaller firms who make and grow what they sell, to break down entire lines of production in the name of efficiency. The effects of this change are clear: We see them in the collapsing profit margins of the firms caught in Wal-Mart’s system. We see them in the fact that of Wal-Mart’s top ten suppliers in 1994, four have sought bankruptcy protection.

The mirror of monopoly: monopsony … which may be worse

From Barry C. Lynn’s “The Case for Breaking Up Wal-Mart” (Harper’s: 24 July 2006):

Popular notions of oligopoly and monopoly tend to focus on the danger that firms, having gained control over a marketplace, will then be able to dictate an unfairly high price, extracting a sort of tax from society as a whole. But what should concern us today even more is a mirror image of monopoly called “monopsony.” Monopsony arises when a firm captures the ability to dictate price to its suppliers, because the suppliers have no real choice other than to deal with that buyer. Not all oligopolists rely on the exercise of monopsony, but a large and growing contingent of today’s largest firms are built to do just that. The ultimate danger of monopsony is that it deprives the firms that actually manufacture products from obtaining an adequate return on their investment. In other words, the ultimate danger of monopsony is that, over time, it tends to destroy the machines and skills on which we all rely.

Examples of monopsony can be difficult to pin down, but we are in luck in that today we have one of the best illustrations of monopsony pricing power in economic history: Wal-Mart. There is little need to recount at any length the retailer’s power over America’s marketplace. For our purposes, a few facts will suffice — that one in every five retail sales in America is recorded at Wal-Mart’s cash registers; that the firm’s revenue nearly equals that of the next six retailers combined; that for many goods, Wal-Mart accounts for upward of 30 percent of U.S. sales, and plans to more than double its sales within the next five years.

… The problem is that Wal-Mart, like other monopsonists, does not participate in the market so much as use its power to micromanage the market, carefully coordinating the actions of thousands of firms from a position above the market.

Corporate consolidation reigns in American business, & that’s a problem

From Barry C. Lynn’s “The Case for Breaking Up Wal-Mart” (Harper’s: 24 July 2006):

It is now twenty-five years since the Reagan Administration eviscerated America’s century-long tradition of antitrust enforcement. For a generation, big firms have enjoyed almost complete license to use brute economic force to grow only bigger. And so today we find ourselves in a world dominated by immense global oligopolies that every day further limit the flexibility of our economy and our personal freedom within it. There are still many instances of intense competition — just ask General Motors.

But since the great opening of global markets in the early 1990s, the tendency within most of the systems we rely on for manufactured goods, processed commodities, and basic services has been toward ever more extreme consolidation. Consider raw materials: three firms control almost 75 percent of the global market in iron ore. Consider manufacturing services: Owens Illinois has rolled up roughly half the global capacity to supply glass containers. We see extreme consolidation in heavy equipment; General Electric builds 60 percent of large gas turbines as well as 60 percent of large wind turbines. In processed materials; Corning produces 60 percent of the glass for flat-screen televisions. Even in sneakers; Nike and Adidas split a 60-percent share of the global market. Consolidation reigns in banking, meatpacking, oil refining, and grains. It holds even in eyeglasses, a field in which the Italian firm Luxottica has captured control over five of the six national outlets in the U.S. market.

The stakes could not be higher. In systems where oligopolies rule unchecked by the state, competition itself is transformed from a free-for-all into a kind of private-property right, a license to the powerful to fence off entire marketplaces, there to pit supplier against supplier, community against community, and worker against worker, for their own private gain. When oligopolies rule unchecked by the state, what is perverted is the free market itself, and our freedom as individuals within the economy and ultimately within our political system as well.

Patenting is hurting scientific research & progress

From American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “The Effects of Patenting in the AAAS Scientific Community” [250 kb PDF] (2006):

Forty percent of respondents who had acquired patented technologies since January 2001 reported difficulties in obtaining those technologies. Industry bioscience respondents reported the most problems, with 76 percent reporting that their research had been affected by such difficulties. In contrast, only 35 percent of academic bioscience respondents reported difficulties that affected their research.

Of the 72 respondents who reported that their work had been affected by the technology acquisition process, 58 percent of those reported that their work was delayed. Fifty percent reported that they had to change their research, and 28 percent reported abandoning their research project as acquisition of the necessary technologies involved overly complex licensing negotiations.

America, the failed state

From Noam Chomsky’s “Why It’s Over For America” (The Independent: 30 May 2006):

… the fear, which cannot casually be put aside, that, as Gar Alperowitz puts it in America Beyond Capitalism, “the American ‘system’ as a whole is in real trouble – that it is heading in a direction that spells the end of its historic values [of] equality, liberty, and meaningful democracy.”

The “system” is coming to have some of the features of failed states, to adopt a currently fashionable notion that is conventionally applied to states regarded as potential threats to our security (like Iraq) or as needing our intervention to rescue the population from severe internal threats (like Haiti). Though the concept is recognized to be, according to the journal Foreign Affairs, “frustratingly imprecise,” some of the primary characteristics of failed states can be identified. One is their inability or unwillingness to protect their citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction. Another is their tendency to regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law, and hence free to carry out aggression and violence. And if they have democratic forms, they suffer from a serious “democratic deficit” that deprives their formal democratic institutions of real substance. …

Declarations of noble intent by systems of power are rarely complete fabrication, and the same is true in this case. Under some conditions, forms of democracy are indeed acceptable. Abroad, as the leading scholar-advocate of “democracy promotion” concludes, we find a “strong line of continuity”: democracy is acceptable if and only if it is consistent with strategic and economic interests (Thomas Carothers). In modified form, the doctrine holds at home as well. …

The persistence of the strong line of continuity to the present again reveals that the United States is very much like other powerful states. It pursues the strategic and economic interests of dominant sectors of the domestic population, to the accompaniment of rhetorical flourishes about its dedication to the highest values. That is practically a historical universal, and the reason why sensible people pay scant attention to declarations of noble intent by leaders, or accolades by their followers.

The US is becoming less democratic

From Tony Judt’s “The New World Order” (The New York Review of Books: 14 July 2005):

For there is a precedent in modern Western history for a country whose leader exploits national humiliation and fear to restrict public freedoms; for a government that makes permanent war as a tool of state policy and arranges for the torture of its political enemies; for a ruling class that pursues divisive social goals under the guise of national “values”; for a culture that asserts its unique destiny and superiority and that worships military prowess; for a political system in which the dominant party manipulates procedural rules and threatens to change the law in order to get its own way; where journalists are intimidated into confessing their errors and made to do public penance. Europeans in particular have experienced such a regime in the recent past and they have a word for it. That word is not “democracy.”

An empire cannot be created by a republic

From Tony Judt’s “The New World Order” (The New York Review of Books: 14 July 2005):

Historians and pundits who leap aboard the bandwagon of American Empire have forgotten a little too quickly that for an empire to be born, a republic has first to die. In the longer run no country can expect to behave imperially – brutally, contemptuously, illegally – abroad while preserving republican values at home. For it is a mistake to suppose that institutions alone will save a republic from the abuses of power to which empire inevitably leads. It is not institutions that make or break republics, it is men. And in the United States today, the men (and women) of the country’s political class have failed. Congress appears helpless to impede the concentration of power in the executive branch; indeed, with few exceptions it has contributed actively and even enthusiastically to the process.

Illegality practices by the US in the “War on Terror”

From Tony Judt’s “The New World Order” (The New York Review of Books: 14 July 2005):

The unrepublican veneration of our presidential “leader” has made it uniquely difficult for Americans to see their country’s behavior as others see it. The latest report from Amnesty International – which says nothing that the rest of the world doesn’t already know or believe but which has been denied and ridiculed by President Bush – is a case in point. The United States “renders” (i.e., kidnaps and hands over) targeted suspects to third-party states for interrogation and torture beyond the reach of US law and the press. The countries to whom we outsource this task include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria (!), Pakistan – and Uzbekistan. Where outsourcing is impractical, we import qualified interrogators from abroad: in September 2002 a visiting Chinese “delegation” was invited to participate in the “interrogation” of ethnic Uighur detainees held at Guantánamo.

At the US’s own interrogation centers and prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, at least twenty-seven “suspects” have been killed in custody. This number does not include extrajudicial, extraterritorial “targeted assassinations”: a practice inaugurated by Benito Mussolini with the murder of the Rosselli brothers in Normandy in 1937, pursued with vigor by Israel, and now adopted by the Bush administration. The Amnesty report lists sixty alleged incarceration and interrogation practices routinely employed at US detention centers, Guantánamo in particular. These include immersion in cold water to simulate drowning, forced shaving of facial and body hair, electric shocks to body parts, humiliation (e.g., being urinated upon), sex-ual taunting, the mocking of religious belief, suspension from shackles, physical exertion to the point of exhaus-tion (e.g., rock-carrying), and mock execution.

Any and all of these practices will be familiar to students of Eastern Europe in the Fifties or Latin America in the Seventies and Eighties – including the reported presence of “medical personnel.” But American interrogators have also innovated. One technique has been forcibly to wrap suspects – and their Korans – in Israeli flags: a generous gesture to our only unconditional ally, but calculated to ensure that a new generation of Muslims worldwide will identify the two countries as one and hate them equally.

All of these practices – and many, many others routinely employed at Guantánamo, at Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan, at al-Qaim, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere in Iraq – are in breach of the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention against Torture, to both of which the US is a signatory

America, a militarized society

From Tony Judt’s “The New World Order” (The New York Review of Books: 14 July 2005):

[Andrew] Bacevich is a graduate of West Point, a Vietnam veteran, and a conservative Catholic who now directs the study of international relations at Boston University. He has thus earned the right to a hearing even in circles typically immune to criticism. What he writes should give them pause. His argument is complex, resting on a close account of changes in the US military since Vietnam, on the militarization of strategic political thinking, and on the role of the military in American culture. But his conclusion is clear. The United States, he writes, is becoming not just a militarized state but a military society: a country where armed power is the measure of national greatness, and war, or planning for war, is the exemplary (and only) common project.

Why does the US Department of Defense currently maintain 725 official US military bases outside the country and 969 at home (not to mention numerous secret bases)? Why does the US spend more on “defense” than all the rest of the world put together? After all, it has no present or likely enemies of the kind who could be intimidated or defeated by “star wars” missile defense or bunker-busting “nukes.” And yet this country is obsessed with war: rumors of war, images of war, “preemptive” war, “preventive” war, “surgical” war, “prophylactic” war, “permanent” war. As President Bush explained at a news conference on April 13, 2004, “This country must go on the offense and stay on the offense.”

Among democracies, only in America do soldiers and other uniformed servicemen figure ubiquitously in political photo ops and popular movies. Only in America do civilians eagerly buy expensive military service vehicles for suburban shopping runs. In a country no longer supreme in most other fields of human endeavor, war and warriors have become the last, enduring symbols of American dominance and the American way of life. “In war, it seemed,” writes Bacevich, “lay America’s true comparative advantage.” …

For Bacevich’s deepest concern lies closer to home. In a militarized society the range of acceptable opinion inevitably shrinks. Opposition to the “commander in chief” is swiftly characterized as lèse-majesté; criticism becomes betrayal. No nation, as Madison wrote in 1795 and Bacevich recalls approvingly, can “preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”[12] “Full-spectrum dominance” begins as a Pentagon cliché and ends as an executive project.

Change the AMD K8 CPU without authentication checks

From Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-Gram Newsletter (15 August 2004):

Here’s an interesting hardware security vulnerability. Turns out that it’s possible to update the AMD K8 processor (Athlon64 or Opteron) microcode. And, get this, there’s no authentication check. So it’s possible that an attacker who has access to a machine can backdoor the CPU.