Glenn Greenwald on CNN

Greenwald is doing heroic work defending WikiLeaks all over the place. In this segment, he demolishes alleged CNN journalist Jessica Yellin and former Homeland Security advisor to George W. Bush (and now CNN employee) Fran Townsend. The authoritarian mindset of these people and their willingness to ignore the facts is astonishing (via Balloon Juice)

Greenwald provides some background to the program.

It’s snow story

Here are some simple facts.

Weather is unpredictable. In the northeast we get snow during the winter months. Most of the time the falling snow is spread out over time. But as with any stochastic process, on occasion a lot of snow will fall in a short time, more than one can be reasonably prepared for. During such times, there will be disruptions, such as flights being cancelled, roads being treacherous, and delays. This will happen a couple of times each winter and is completely normal and to be expected.

So why is it that when it inevitably happens, the news media get so worked up over it? Why is it treated as being of major national and even international significance instead of just a local story? Why are cities berated for not being prepared to deal with it? A snowstorm is not like a flood or an earthquake that can cause widespread and lasting damage. It makes no sense for cities to spend a lot of money to be ready for a problem that will disappear by itself in a day or two.

It’s just snow, people. It’s just pure, clean water and it will go away.

The secrets of an academic ghostwriter

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an article by someone who has made a good living (about $66,000 this year) by writing custom research papers on almost any topic for undergraduate and graduate students who hire him to do their assignments.

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

His strategy was to collect the minimal information necessary from Wikipedia and other online sources and simply write everything down, cutting and pasting quotes, and using filler language to get to the necessary word count, without rewriting or editing or polishing.

After I’ve gathered my sources, I pull out usable quotes, cite them, and distribute them among the sections of the assignment. Over the years, I’ve refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I’ll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph.

I’ve also got a mental library of stock academic phrases: “A close consideration of the events which occurred in ____ during the ____ demonstrate that ____ had entered into a phase of widespread cultural, social, and economic change that would define ____ for decades to come.” Fill in the blanks using words provided by the professor in the assignment’s instructions.

The reason he gets away with this is because this is what some students do on their own. For them too, their first version is the one they hand in as their ‘finished’ work, so the roughness of the submitted manuscript must seem familiar to the teacher. As the author says:

I don’t ever edit my assignments. That way I get fewer customer requests to “dumb it down.” So some of my work is great. Some of it is not so great. Most of my clients do not have the wherewithal to tell the difference, which probably means that in most cases the work is better than what the student would have produced on his or her own. I’ve actually had customers thank me for being clever enough to insert typos. “Nice touch,” they’ll say.

As a writing generalist myself, I was vaguely curious about whether I could be as successful a ghostwriter, assuming that I could overcome any scruples. I don’t think I could simply because over the years I have developed habits that would give me away immediately. I would not be able to avoid being opinionated and this would undoubtedly set off suspicions. I am also somewhat obsessive about avoiding typos and grammatical errors, repeatedly rewriting and editing even for my blog posts. My books may not be great works of literature but they are ‘clean’ in the sense that they have very few or no basic errors of this sort. All this attention to detail would slow me down too much, while also likely to set off alarm bells for the reader. As an academic hired gun, I would be a bust.

I was of course bothered by students passing off other people’s work as their own and wondered how widespread it was. But I was also impressed with the writer’s ability to churn out papers on topics for which he had no training and yet be able to fool the student’s teachers and even their graduate thesis advisors into thinking their students had written them.

This article makes for fascinating but disturbing reading and is as much an indictment of the way our educational system is structured, that enables such practices to pass undetected, as it is of the students who use ghostwriters.

Julian Assange on interviewed on TED

The video highlights two things: (1) that WikiLeaks is not only about the US but exposes secrets of governments the world over; and (2) that I suspect that most ordinary people (like those in the audience) have an instinctive sympathy for WikiLeaks as fighting for what is right. (via Norm)

Hillary Clinton’s merciless assault on irony

Our Secretary of State is concerned and saddened by a Russian court’s guilty verdict on a tycoon on embezzlement charges.

“This and similar cases have a negative impact on Russia’s reputation for fulfilling its international human rights obligations and improving its investment climate,” Mrs Clinton said.

She said the verdict “raised serious questions about selective prosecution – and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations”.

It never ceases to amaze me that she can say these things about other countries with a straight face. Selective prosecution? Violations of human rights obligations? The law subverted for political reasons? These things never happen in the US. We are so, so scrupulous about the rule of law and due process, aren’t we, that we can sanctimoniously lecture other countries on these virtues.

Fear and irrationality

When people are fearful, they do irrational things. Tom Englehardt looks at who benefits from all these allegedly terrorist plots that have been uncovered with great fanfare and which seem to be aimed purely and simply at keeping people scared.

We now live not just with all the usual fears that life has to offer, but in something like a United States of Fear.

Here’s a singular fact to absorb: we now know that a bunch of Yemeni al-Qaeda adherents have a far better hit on just who we are, psychologically speaking, and what makes us tick than we do. Imagine that. They have a more accurate profile of us than our leading intelligence profilers undoubtedly do of them.

This is a new definition of asymmetrical warfare. The terrorists never have to strike an actual target. It’s not even incumbent upon them to build a bomb that works. Just about anything will do. To be successful, they just have to repeatedly send things in our direction, inciting the expectable Pavlovian reaction from the U.S. national security state, causing it to further tighten its grip (grope?) at yet greater taxpayer expense.
In a sense, both the American national security state and al-Qaeda are building their strength and prestige as our lives grow more constrained and our treasure vanishes.

Bruce Fein lists all the encroachments on our freedoms that we have allowed to creep stealthily into our lives ever since the ‘war on terror’ began.

  • The president is empowered to target American citizens off the battlefield for assassination abroad who have not engaged in hostilities against the United States on his say-so alone.

  • Citizens and non-citizens may be detained indefinitely without accusation or trial at Bagram prison in Afghanistan or in undisclosed locations abroad on the president’s say-so alone.
  • Predator drones kill civilians off the battlefield in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The protocols for targeting decisions are secret.
  • Military commissions are established for the trial of alleged war crimes that may be equally prosecuted in civilian courts, for example, material assistance to a foreign terrorist organization. Military commissions combine judge, jury, and prosecutor in a single branch — the very definition of tyranny according to the Founding Fathers.
  • State secrets are invoked by the president to prevent victims of constitutional wrongdoing, including torture or kidnapping, from judicial redress for their injuries.
  • Telephone calls and emails are intercepted by the government without probable cause to believe the target is connected to international terrorism.
  • Lawyers who defend alleged international terrorist organizations are vulnerable to prosecution under the material assistance law.
  • The Patriot Act authorizes the FBI to obtain business, bank, or other records by unilateral issuance of national security letters alleging a relationship to a terrorist investigation.
  • Extraordinary rendition is employed to dispatch detainees to countries notorious for torture.
  • Individuals or organizations are designated as “terrorists” and quarantined from human intercourse based on secret evidence.
  • Government crimes — including torture, illegal surveillance, obstruction of justice, and war crimes — go unprosecuted despite the President’s constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

People who try to justify these things as necessary because of the danger of terrorism, and look back with nostalgia to the days before the ‘war on terror’ began as carefree days, forget that during the Cold War they lived with the threat of total nuclear annihilation at a moment’s notice, a far more deadly threat than what can be mounted by the current threat which consists of a rag-tag group of terrorists operating out of remote areas in distant countries with primitive technology. The reason that people back then were able to go about their normal lives was, I suspect, because the initial fear wore off when they realized that there was nothing that they or their government could do to protect them if a nuclear war should break out.

The bad news is that there is little that the government or we can do now to protect us from a random terrorist attack either. The good news is that our chances of being harmed by such an attack are minuscule, that even if such attacks occur they will be highly localized pin-pricks. It is unfortunate if you happen to be the victim of such an attack but the government can no more protect you from it than it can protect you from a drunk driver who careens onto the sidewalk while you are walking there.

If we could learn to live normal lives in the face of total nuclear annihilation, surely we can do so in the face of the occasional random bombing?

News without mercy

I enjoy the Onion News Network and was pleased to see that it is coming to TV at 10 p.m. Fridays, starting on January 21 on the IFC channel.

Then perhaps we will hear the news that the rest of the media is afraid to tell us, like how Obama is going to replace his high-speed rail plans with a high-speed bus plan.

Obama Replaces Costly High-Speed Rail Plan With High-Speed Bus Plan

Since I do not have cable I will not be able to watch though I hope I can see it online.