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Mar 30 2006

Internet sleuthing

I am a firm believer in cooperative learning. The combined efforts of many people can produce results that would be impossible for a single person. And the internet is a wonderful mechanism for enabling collective action.

What follows is a modern-day detective story that illustrates what is possible when the collective strength of people working together, sharing information and ideas, and building on each others’ ideas, combined with the speed of communication and resources available on the internet.

Howard Kaloogian is a Republican candidate in San Diego’s special congressional election to replace disgraced Republican Duke Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to bribery, resigned his seat, and is now in jail. In his campaign, Kaloogian tried to propagate the White House meme that things are just peachy in Iraq and that the media is deliberately sabotaging the war effort, painting a dark picture by reporting only the daily bombings, beheadings, kidnappings, extortions, etc.

To bolster his claim and to counteract this alleged deliberate negativity, he posted on his website on March 17 a photo (scroll down) that he said he took on his recent trip to Baghdad showing a peaceful street intersection with people strolling around casually in what seems to be a commercial area. [UPDATE: Kaloogian has removed this photo from the website. But nothing really ever disappears on the internet and you can see the photo here.]

The caption to the photo said: “Downtown Baghdad 
We took this photo of dowtown [sic] Baghdad while we were in Iraq. Iraq (including Baghdad) is much more calm and stable than what many people believe it to be. But, each day the news media finds any violence occurring in the country and screams and shouts about it – in part because many journalists are opposed to the U.S. effort to fight terrorism.”

Before reading further, I’d like you to take a look at this picture and see if you notice anything about it.

Ok, done? Now read on. . .

At about 4:30pm (EDT) on March 28th, an alert observer noticed something a little strange about the picture and raised suspicions as to its authenticity. The main thing that was puzzling was that none of the street and shop signs had Arabic lettering on them. Also, the people were dressed in ways not consistent with the increasingly restrictive cleric-dominated Iraqi society. The poster mentioned these oddities on the blog site.

Once that bugle blew, the hunt was on, with many people looking over the photo carefully for clues, finding more and more discrepancies, and using their diverse knowledge to find answers. Some suggested, after blowing up the photo and examining carefully some of the lettering in the signs and the words and products advertised, that the location depicted was actually in Turkey, not Iraq.

At about 7:00pm on that same day, an Operation Desert Storm vet, who had been alerted to the strange photo and who had been to Iraq, met Kaloogian and told him that the photo did not look at all like the Baghdad he knew. Kaloogian was directly asked for an explanation and replied that they had a lot of pictures with Arabic script in them but that they picked one with no Arabic in it so that the location of the photo could not be identified (which seems an unnecessary precaution if things are going so swimmingly in Iraq).

But soon after, another investigator found a photo online (taken by a commercial photographer) that showed the very same intersection, which was identified as being in Bakirkoy, a suburb of Istanbul, Turkey. Josh Marshall compares the two photos and finds a convincing four point match.

The amazing thing was that this final denouement occurred at about noon on the 29th, which meant that the fake was convincingly exposed within twenty-four hours of the initial suspicion being raised, a remarkable feat of collaborative journalism, made possible by the networking capability of the internet.

Later that same day, when he was faced with the overwhelming evidence that the photo on his website was a lie, Kaloogian did the honorable thing: he promptly blamed a low-level staffer for the embarassment.

Fortunately for Kaloogian, Jesus’ General has come to his rescue and offers him a much better photo poster for him to use in his campaign, one that shows Baghdad looking even more peaceful.

[UPDATE: Scrambling to recover, Kaloogian has replaced his original photo of "peaceful Baghdad" with another one that looks like an aerial shot of distant buildings where you cannot even see any people!

Other investigators suggests that it looks like this new photo was taken from the rooftop of the Rashid Hotel within the heavily fortified Green Zone, and that one of the buildings on that photo (a police station) had been bombed even before Kaloogian's visit about nice months ago.

Kaloogian should give up his laughable efforts to show how peaceful Iraq is. If this is the best that he can do, then things are even worse than I thought.]

POST SCRIPT: Peter Sellers

Peter Sellers is one of the greatest comic actors I have seen. His films are part of the select few that I watch more than once. Hence it was sad to learn that as a person, he was an awful man, cruel to his wives and children and friends and co-workers.

The film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers captures the complexity and sadness behind the life of one of the funniest actors of all time.

Peter Sellers himself felt that he had no character, no personality, other than the ones he adopted for his roles. He once said “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am.” And thus he was able to blend, chameleon-like, into the many characters he played on screen.

Geoffrey Rush gives an amazing performance in the title role. I had doubts about seeing any actor playing Peter Seller, especially in his signature role of Inspector Clousseau. How could anyone capture that idiotic solemnity and self-importance? But right from the opening scene, Rush dispelled my concerns. Rush was Peter Sellers

The scene that best captures this is on the plane when Sellers is on his way to Italy to work on the first Pink Panther film. He goes into the bathroom as Peter Sellers and comes out dressed as Inspector Clousseau and starts arguing, in character, with the flight attendant. Rush is channeling priceless, vintage Sellers.

But the film is not a comedy, although it has funny bits. It is a portrayal of a hugely gifted yet tragically flawed man.

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