Archive for August, 2006

Match Point

Friday, August 25th, 2006

“Match Point” is a beautifully photographed, well-crafted story set in the upper classes of modern London, with surprising plot twists in support of a depressingly narcissistic and nihilistic world view of writer and director Woody Allen.

The conspicuous thesis of the movie is that luck and good fortune more than merit determine life’s successes and failures. While hard work increases one’s odds, and morality is generally preferable, ultimately random chance dominates human affairs. The movie begins with the apt tennis metaphor of a ball hitting the top of the net. Mere chance determines whether the ball bounces back for a lost point, or dibbles over the net for a won point. On such minor turns of fate, lives change. Allen has his characters return to this theme again and again, but always with a light touch.

Chris Wilton, played earnestly by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is upwardly mobile professional tennis player from a working-class Irish family that quits the professional tour because he doesn’t have quite have the commitment to win. We learn later that a few different bounces of the ball might have made him a far more successful tennis player, but alas luck failed him

We meet Chris as he is being retained as a tennis pro at an exclusive tennis club in London. In a few short weeks, he manages to befriend a Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) the scion of wealthy and well-connected London businessman. Soon, Chris becomes the escort for Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris and Chloe some become engaged, while Chloe’s father, ever eager to secure the happiness of his daughter, arranges jobs and business opportunities for Chris. Chris and Chloe are soon married, living on a fashionable apartment overlooking the Thames. Chris, who started out in small flat transported by taxis, is now driven around town by chauffer. Chris may be the boss’s son, but he does work hard and seems to justify the trust placed in him, but Chris always recognized that the good fortune of being the son-in-law is a necessary condition of his success.

The drama arises from the fact that though Chris truly cares for his wife, he is madly in lust with, played by Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Originally, we meet her as Tim’s fiancée, but this relationship eventually peters out under the weight of parental disapproval of the rather unsuccessful, if alluring, American actress.

Chris purses Nola with the same upwardly-mobile single-mindedness with which he ensconced himself into an upper-class British family. Ultimately successful in his pursuit of Nola, he enjoys a passionate affair at the cost of some business setbacks that are made good by his father-in-law. However, the costs of the affair become overwhelming as Nola becomes pregnant and refused to have an abortion. Chris keeps promising the convenient promise of an adultery that he will leave his wife. Then Chloe also becomes pregnant. Chris is torn between the twin sins of greed and lust. His choices are to stay with his pleasant though uninspiring wife and maintain a life of wealth and privilege, or leave his wife for his lover. Of course, there always remains the possibility, if he acts clumsily, of loosing both Nora and having his marriage collapse. Juggling his business life, his affair, and his promises to leave his wife provides the gripping tension of the movie.

The movie has been out sometime, so it is now fair to reveal the ending. Chris decides in favor of greed over lust, calculating that wealth lasts longer than passion. He kills the elderly Mrs. Eastby (Margaret Tyzak), a resident of the apartment building where Nora lives, and makes it appear as robbery gone wrong. When Nola returns to her apartment, Chris shoots her, killing both his love and unborn child. Police are quick to jump to the conclusion that an addict, in pursuit of goods to support of his habit, killed the elderly resident and later stumbled on to Nola and killed her.

Throwing away some of the jewelry Chris stole to suggest the motivation of robbery, one of the Mrs. Eastby’s rings bounces on a railing and deflecting up in the air, mimicking the bounce of a tennis ball at the top of the net that began the movie. We do not know in what direction the ring bounces.

The theory of a drug addict killing retains its saliency until the police discover Nola’s diary. The authorities now realize that Nola had an affair with Chris, and Chris now falls under the suspicion of the police. However, the police pursuit of Chris is tempered because he is associated with a wealthy family and they are not sure whether Chris had an ordinary affair or was involved in the killing. Chris certainly had the motive.

Just as one of the police officers begins to pull the facts together and truly suspect Chris, a dug addict is found dead in possession of the ring that had bounced on the railing. This cements the original theory of the police who now drop Chris as a suspect. The random bounce of the ring determined whether Chris goes on to live a pleasant and affluent life or is jailed for the murder of his lover.

Despite the beauty of the film with which the film is constructed, Allen’s thesis, the cynical view of sophisticates, is pernicious. According to Allen, good work and morality are quaint and sometimes useful concepts, but ultimately there is no justice, just chance. Since we can expect no justice and we not led by the movie to really care about the lack of justice. We are somehow strangely relieved when Chris succeeds in his crime when we should be outraged.

The theme pretends to be modernly post-religious, under girded by the conviction that the universe “just is” with no presumption of justice. Rather the movie represents a concealed reversion to paganism, the belief in a fickle fate controlled by forces outside human control. This represents the simple exchange of gods for chaos theory, the scientific theory of the unpredictable. However, the dispiriting consequences are the same.

Battered Wife Syndrome

Saturday, August 19th, 2006

The historical record on bombing civilians as a psychological tactic to dishearten civilian populations has, at best, a mixed record of effectiveness. The Nazi “Blitz” of London during World War II from 1940 to 1941, was devastating. It resulted in the deaths of 43,000 people, many of them civilians. The Blitz did not force surrender, but it served to harden the resolve of Britons against the Germans. The suffering caused by bombing did not grow into an excuse for self doubt, but acted as a source of strength to redouble efforts against the Nazis. Likewise, the strategic bombing of Germany by the Allies, particularly by the British who were somewhat bent upon retribution, did little to break the will of the Germans. The disruption of oil supplies to the German war machine helped defeat the Nazis, but the bombing of civilians did little.

In a more modern example, in 1999, NATO forces bombed Belgrade. The bombing was not directed at civilians, though civilians were inadvertently and inevitably killed. Rather than being cowed, civilians defiantly mocked the attacks by placing bull’s eyes on their backs. The bombing added burdens to the civilian population, but it was not intimidating. It was not until NATO threatened the use of ground forces, that the Serbian government led by Slobodan Milosevic conceded defeat.

It seems that the only people that are intimidated by bombing attacks on civilians are Western progressives who appear obsessed with the question, “Why do they hate us?” Of course, there is no crime, real or imagined, that justifies actions deliberately calibrated to kill as many innocent civilians as possible such as the attacks on September 11, 2001. Some of these terrorists harbor lingering anger toward the Crusades or the expulsion of Muslims from Spain, events that occurred centuries ago. Perhaps the real source of Muslim anger is a sense of economic vulnerability caused by the fact that much of the Muslim World has not embraced modernity. What wealth there is a consequence of the fortune of sitting on deposits of natural resources like oil. It not based on the creativity of the once advanced and proud Islamic culture. Many Middle Eastern Muslims simply feel threatened by the ubiquity of Western Culture.

The focus on the question “Why do they hate us?” is a measure of the rejection of the full history Western Culture by the Left. The continuous quest by the Left to blame the West for terrorist acts is very analogous to battered wife syndrome. In such cases, a wife rationalizes domestic abuse by believing that she must have done something wrong to merit a beating, a beating that no wife deserves. Such women often refuse to press charges against their abusive husbands even when there is police intervention. Battered wife syndrome is usually a consequence of low self-esteem. Likewise, it is hard to escape the suspicion that the Left remains intensely self-loathing, convinced that they are a part a fundamentally unjust and racist society deserving of hatred. They can see many reasons why they hate us.

Wife abusers are encouraged by the low self-esteem of their victims. It is no small irony that radical Islamists are encouraged by the weakness evident in the self-doubt of the Left. They despise a culture that when bombed asks, “Why do they hate us?”

A Loss for the Israelis

Sunday, August 13th, 2006

Perhaps the only modern war in the Mideast that can be said to have led to a continuing peace was the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. After the humiliation of the Six Day War when Israeli forces captured the Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria, Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, realized that it would be impossible to make peace with Israel and save face. Any peace would have to appear to be an agreement among equals.

Israeli complacency and military hubris grew in direct proportion to Egypt’s embarrassment. Israel was convinced that its vaunted intelligence service would make them aware of any planned attacked well in advance. During the Six Day War, Arab troops were undisciplined and ill-trained. At the first contact they retreated. The behavior convinced the Israelis that they could deal with any Arab military threat.

Enamored of their prowess, Israel was surprised by the military assault launched by Egypt and Syria on the Jewish holiday day. For the few days, the Arab armies had the momentum as the Israelis were caught on their heels. The Arab troops were aggressive, they effectively used new anti-tank weapons, and the Israeli Air Force was largely neutralized by new anti-aircraft missiles provided by the Soviets.

The Israelis counterpunched by devising new tactics to circumvent the effectiveness anti-tank weapons. After the Egyptians pushed too far ahead of their anti-aircraft installations, the Israeli Air Force decimated columns of Egyptians. In a counter attack, the Israelis pushed across the Suez Canal and were marching to Cairo. With the Egyptians still on the east side of the Suez and the Israelis wrapping around the southern end of the Suez, a cease fire could be called with both sides on fairly even turns. The Israelis were clearly on the offensive and the Egyptians regained a measure of military respect lost after their pitiful performance of seven years earlier.

In the aftermath of the war, Sadat had the courage to travel to Jerusalem and make peace with the Israelis. The Israelis made a trade of land for peace that has lasted. For his efforts, Sadat was assassinated by the same radical Islam that has since come to power in Iran and animates Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The land-for-peace-formula has been employed since then in Lebanon and Gaza, but no peace followed. The Israelis offered land for peace in the West Bank and rewarded by the civil unrest known as the Intifada. The difference is that there is not another Anwar Sadat genuinely seeking peace.

In some ways the current conflict of the Israelis with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon has similarities with the Yom Kippur War. Israel was convinced that they could make easy work of the Arabs, but the Hezbollah fighters have fought tenaciously and made life complicated for Israelis by deliberately mixing among civilians. Israeli intelligence was surprised by the quantity and sophistication of weapons that had been smuggled into southern Lebanon from Iran via Syria.

After initially trying to use surgical strikes to push out Hezbollah fighters, Israel was amassing troops for a large more overwhelming initiative. At this writing this initiative is being thwarted by the cease fire agreement signed by the UN Security Council and agreed to, at least for now, by Lebanon and Israel. The extent to which Hezbollah will comply with any agreement is not clear, given that the UN Resolution 1559 which called for the disarmament of militias in southern Lebanon was ignored by Hezbollah.

In the current conflict, if the result can be spun as a victory by Hezbollah (a draw equals a Hezbollah public relations victory), it will not, as in the case of Sadat and the Yom Kippur War, provide an opportunity for peace. In this situation anything other than a clear victory by Israel, will embolden Hezbollah and other terrorists.

At the end of the Yom Kippur War, Israel was racing into Egypt just as Israel is now racing towards the Latani River, the original goal of the Israelis. Unless Israel is able to hobble Hezbollah before the cease fire takes place, it will continue to threaten northern Israel. If an all out assault by Israel has not cleaned up southern Lebanon, there is little hope that the Lebanese army even aided by UN troops will do so.

When this conflict began, the Bush Administration claimed it did not want a return to the status quo, where a cease fire did not bring security and simply led to more violence later. At this point, it is difficult to recognize much of a distinction between the status quo before the conflict and the present cease fire agreement. If that proves to be the case, it will be a loss for the US, Israel, and the Bush Administration.

For contrasting view points check “An Unmitigated Disaster” by Caroline Glick and “UN Resolution Meets Government Goals” by Herb Keinon.

Photo Authenication

Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

In March of this year, the Duke University community was shocked when members of the Duke Lacrosse team were accused of raping a 27-year old student attending North Carolina State University. Apparently, the woman was originally hired as a stripper to perform at a party.

Of interest here is the fact that defense attorneys are attempting to use time-stamped digital photos to construct an alibi for at least one of the defendants. Certainly, during the course of the upcoming trial the credibility of such a time stamp will be an issue. The time stamp embedded in digital photographs is only as good as the accuracy of the internal clock and the original setting of the time. Moreover, it does not take much computer savvy to modify the time in a digital image file. Indeed, in most cameras the time is stored in plain text format. The credibility of the time stamps will in part be a function of how soon the camera was seized by authorities and the consistency of the time stamps on other photographs with some sort of fiducial references.

This last week, the blog site Little Green Footballs alerted the blog community of a conspicuously altered photograph published by the Reuters News Service. Apparently, a free lance photographer, Adnan Hajj, had clumsily duplicated buildings and smoke on an aerial shot of Beirut making it appear that the damage cause by Israeli bombing in Lebanon was more extensive. Later it was discovered that another one of Hajj’s photographs had been modified. An Israeli jet was identified as firing rockets, when it had instead launched a flare. The flare and its trail were been duplicated in the photo to suggest more aggressive action by the Israeli Air Force than captured on the image. Reuters fired the photographer and pulled his photographs. More recent analysis suggests that Hajj’s “Photoshop” sins are perhaps outweighed by unmodified, but staged photographs.

In view of these developments, the question arises as to whether digital photographs could be self-authenticating. Is it possible to design a camera that would mark a photograph in a way that would make any tampering difficult to hide? One would expect that journalistic organizations would require such equipment. Given inexpensive and wide spread availability of photo-editing software, it would lend credibility to their photographs. Moreover, if the time stamps could be automatically syncing to time standards, then the reconstruction of timelines would more authoritative. If such a technology became ubiquitous, then common commercial cameras could aid in the prosecution or vindication of legal suspects.

One method suggested by Kodak is to use a public and private key encryption scheme to encrypt a message summary in each photo. The photograph could be read by any conventional software and the message summary read with the public key. The file could be copied and modified for any purpose, but any modification of the original would make the encrypted message summary inconsistent with the image, indicating that the file had been changed. The fudging of photographs by the likes of Mr. Hajj would be made far more difficult if possible at all.

However, the time stamp included in the message summary is only as good as the time setting of the camera. One could imagine cameras with no human time-setting function, but whose clocks were periodically updated with GPS satellite signals. Of course, it would be possible to pull batteries and zero out the time and take a photograph before there was an opportunity to sync the time. Fortunately, such deliberate circumvention attempts would be conspicuous and invalidate self-authentication, making such an effort less valuable for alibis and photojournalism.

For photo-journalism, we will still be largely dependent upon the honesty of photojournalists, because there is no way for a camera to provide authentication that a photograph was not staged. For this we must rely on the scrutiny of editors, who at least in the case of Reuters and these photographs appears unprofessionally credulous. Hajj was correctly fired. We hope that in the near future, Reuters will punish the professional photo-editors that could not spot clearly manipulated images that took the blogosphere only a short time to debunk. Nor did Reuters detect clearly staged photographs. If the blogs had not performed this service, it is likely that these phony photos would still be circulating at the Reuters news service.

The Enablers

Sunday, August 6th, 2006

Of some people and institutions we expect and demand scrupulously moral behavior. Of others, while we may not approve of their behavior, we expect the worse. Expecting the best can be ennobling. Expecting the worst not only provides an implicit excuse for bad behavior, but can represent a subtle form of bigotry. We are witnessing the classic case of the phenomenon in the current conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

One the one hand, we have Israel trying to free its northern border with Lebanon from the armed terrorist group Hezbollah. This goal is consistent with UN resolution 1559 which explicitly “calls for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” Israeli military actions have sometimes resulted in the death of innocent civilians. However, in large measure, the civilian deaths were a direct consequence of Hezbollah hiding themselves and their missiles in civilian areas including residences, schools, and mosques. Moreover, Israel has used door-to-door tactics to remove Hezbollah. They could have achieved the same goals by more indiscriminate use of air power. Instead, they have chosen a tactic that will cost more Israeli military lives, but will minimize civilian casualties. Yet, Israel is roundly criticized by the international community for the civilian deaths that do occur.

One the other hand, besides putting Lebanese civilians in jeopardy as a tactic of war, Hezbollah is launching Katyusha rockets into Israel. These rockets are so inaccurate that they can have no practical military value. Instead, they are lofted indiscriminately in the murderous hopes that they will kill civilians and terrorize populations in northern Israel. These rockets even include small metal pellets, a Syrian innovation, designed to cause as many casualties as possible. While these tactics are criticized, the criticism is milder, perhaps because we do no expect much of Hezbollah. These low expectations represent a form of anti-Muslim prejudice

If we find situations where the Israelis have, either accidentally or through other errors in judgment caused collateral damage, they should be criticized. No one is beyond criticism. Indeed, the Israelis have a robust tradition of self-critique.

However, we cannot permit such serious examination to draw a moral equivalency between Israeli and Hezbollah tactics. To do so is to provide an incentive for Hezbollah to use schemes that will maximize civilian causalities and to act as a terrorism enabler. If every time civilians were killed as a consequence of the deliberate intermingling of fighters and civilians by Hezbollah, Hezbollah rather than Israel were portrayed as the primary culprit, the tactic would cease to be of political advantage.

Of the fact that Hezbollah cynically facilitates civilian casualties, there can be no doubt. Even more gruesome, there is even evidence that Hezbollah imports in corpses from other areas as a propaganda ploy for the benefit of reporters.

World opinion can legitimately aim its rhetorical firepower at inappropriate use of military power, however unless it does so carefully it risks the collateral damage of a moral equivalency which encourages the use of civilian populations as shields. In such cases, the ill-place shots of world criticism can result in unnecessary civilian deaths just as surely as an errant bomb intended for a different target. In some significant measure anti-Israel world opinion encourages Hezbollah’s tactics and makes the world community unintentionally responsible for civilian causalities.

What Was He Thinking?

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

In early 2004, to mixed critical review, and widespread popular appeal, Mel Gibson directed a graphic re-enactment of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ in The Passion of the Christ. At the time, there were genuine, but as it turned out, groundless fears that the film might inflame anti-Jewish sentiment.

In particular, the movie portrayed the passage in Matthew 27 when crowd urged the crucifixion of Jesus. As the Roman governor Pilate washed his hands of the matter, “…the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children’” (Matthew 27:25). That passage had been exploited as an excuse for anti-Jewish persecution for centuries.

Criticism of the movie was complicated by the blatantly anti-Semitic views of Hutton Gibson, Mel Gibson’s father. It is unfair to automatically condemn a son for the sins of a father, no matter how egregious. Nonetheless, Hutton Gibson’s beliefs helped poison the atmosphere surrounding the release of the film.

The movie did not create a ripple of anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it generated a modest wave of spiritual renewal among Christians. It may have also had the salutary effect of reassuring Jewish Americans that modern American Christians have largely abandoned any residual anti-Semitism. Defenders of Mel Gibson and the movie could enjoy deserved vindication.

On July 28, 2006, Mel Gibson was arrested for drunk driving. As terrible as this lapse was, it was enormously compounded by awful anti-Semitic remarks he blurted out to police. Alcohol reduces inhibitions and we are forced to assume that some latent anti-Semitism on the part of Gibson surfaced. It may well be the case that Gibson is not bigoted on an intellectual level, but harbors bitter emotional feelings that he is usually able to suppress.

Wisely, Gibson immediately apologized, saying in part:

“I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested, and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said.”

Though the apology was necessary, the words did not sufficiently identify the direct offense he committed against Jewish people. Gibson recognized the deficiency and added a more complete apology

“There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or expresses any kind of anti-Semitic remark. I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge.

“I am a public person, and when I say something, either articulated and thought out, or blurted out in a moment of insanity, my words carry weight in the public arena. As a result, I must assume personal responsibility for my words and apologize directly to those who have been hurt and offended by those words.

“The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life. Every human being is God’s child, and if I wish to honor my God I have to honour his children. But please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.

“I’m not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing.

“I have begun an ongoing program of recovery and what I am now realizing is that I cannot do it alone. I am in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display, and I am asking the Jewish community, whom I have personally offended, to help me on my journey through recovery.

“Again, I am reaching out to the Jewish community for its help. I know there will be many in that community who will want nothing to do with me, and that would be understandable. But I pray that that door is not forever closed.”

Gibson must follow through on the commitment explicit in the second apology. He needs to work with his spiritual advisors with willing members of the Jewish community toward reconciliation.

Minimum Wage Debate

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

It is not uncommon for ideologies to adhere to articles of faith long refuted by the evidence. The goal of increasing the minimum wage is one such reflexive Liberal policy position that keeps finding its way into the political debate despite its intellectual vacuousness. It can only be sustained by the deliberate exploitation of the worst in populist sentiments for short-term political gain. Liberals employ rhetoric about mandating a “living wage” knowing that most earning the minimum wage do not remain at the minimum very long, and are many times the second and third workers in a household.

At best, minimum wage laws will have little effect on employment, when the government-mandated minimum wage is lower than the prevailing market minimum wage. However, under such circumstances there is little potential benefit to low-age workers in raising the minimum wage because they are already being paid more than that.

On the other hand, if the government-mandated minimum wage rises above the market wage, people whose work does not justify the minimum wage will inevitably loose their jobs. It is not so much, to use the common metaphor, that the bottom rung of the economic latter is knocked out, but it is at least raised out the reach of some. This negative consequence falls most heavily on the least-skilled workers.

Even when higher minimum wages do not immediately decrease employment, they may have other negative long term consequences. Studies suggest that higher minimum wages can lure teenagers prematurely into the labor market, decreasing their education attainment and long-term wage prospects.

Serious liberals really understand these economic effects, though a few are in perpetual denial. Their motivation for pursuing an increase in the minimum wage is far different. For the Left, disparity of incomes, what they would label as “fairness,” is the key issue. High-income workers should not be making that much than low-income workers. This explains the rhetoric about how much business CEOs make in public arguments about the minimum wage. The amount earned by CEOs is really orthogonal to the question about the exact level of minimum wage that might maximize benefits to low-wage workers. The Left’s argument is about a broader issue of equity, not economic benefits to low-wage workers.

Hence, it is preferable to cause unemployment to rise (presumably while allowing an increase benefits to non-workers) than to allow the lowest wage workers to accept wages lower than some abstract minimum.

At present, Democrats in Congress are trying to pass legislation to increase the minimum wage, while Republicans are trying to tie to a minimum wage increase to decreases in taxes. The latter provision is a “poison pill” for Democrats.

Congressional Republicans will probably yield to demands for a minimum wage increase, realizing that the impact would be marginal. In many places the prevailing market wages are significantly higher than any proposed increases. Moreover, individual states are considering an increase in minimum wages, further reducing the impact of any federal legislation. Voting for the minimum wage may turn out to be an easy vote with little positive or negative import. Politicians have rarely been known to avoid votes of little consequence but for which they can publicly congratulate themselves.