Saturday, July 31, 2004

More speculation on bunny suit spin

Following up my earlier derision towards a recent column by R. Novak, Digby points to a New Republic piece on GOP oppo research. Revealing quote (emphasis added):

Example A was the headquarters Republicans installed a few blocks from the FleetCenter to coordinate their response to the Democrats. At center was a so-called war room--a dozen or so computer terminals arranged around a pair of TV sets, at which a team of young GOP staffers pulled up research on Democrats and skimmed the Drudge Report as they watched the convention. For maximum partisan effect, the office's walls had been festooned with blown-up quotes of Kerry saying various foolish or purportedly revealing things ("I'm a liberal and proud of it"), images of a recent Boston Herald front-page headline declaring John Kerry and John Edwards "left of ted," and, by Tuesday morning, multiple images of Kerry in that absurd blue nasa space suit. (Republicans seemed to consider this a defining moment in the campaign. Several staffers promptly made this photo their computer desktop image, and the office distributed a flyer juxtaposing the Kerry photo with the infamously goofy image of a tank-riding Michael Dukakis.)

No wonder Republicans think (or claim to think) that this bunny suit b.s. is going to get traction. They've spun themselves into a totally insular coccoon consisting of their own fantasies and talking points. Novak, of course, is not one of these young staffers, but he is undoubtedly part of the propaganda distribution network for which the oppo research staffers are the advance scouts.

Free clue for Republicans: there are many silly pictures of politicians. It's the inevitable result of the continuous media blitz in which they live, and people know this. For a picture to get traction, it has to resonate with some larger theme. The reason the Dukakis tank photo hit home was that it reinforced the pre-existing perception of Dukakis as ineffectual, wimpy, and not a credible military leader. This contrasted with the perceived strengths of Bush the elder.

Yes, Kerry in a bunny suit (which all visitors to NASA clean rooms are required to wear) is funny, but what weakness of Kerry's does it draw attention to? That he wouldn't be a good NASA engineer? That he's not strong on the space program?

So, actually, my thinking on this business is changing. I think the smarter Republican strategists cannot really believe this photo's going to get any traction in the general public at all. It's more of a propaganda poster to rally the (receptive/gullible) junior troops --- staffers like the ones in the oppo research room, who must be feeling pretty demoralized after six months of almost nonstop bad news for Bush, followed by the Democrats' execution of a nearly flawless convention.

Friday, July 30, 2004

"Why the Dems Will Lose"

Humble prediction: this guy's going to look pretty stupid in four months.

One of the odd things about getting your news via Google is that you come across links to publications you would never otherwise read. Anyway, it's pretty funny --- or maybe just sad --- how Novak bloviates for half the column, working up his masturbatory fantasy of Republican triumphalism and Democratic dejection, and then finally gets around to giving six limp and laughable "reasons" that Kerry will lose. Kerry in a NASA bunny suit? Are you kidding? Do right-wingers seriously think that voters care about this stuff, or are they just desperately throwing random shit at the wall, praying that some of it sticks? (Why do I bother asking?)

Most laughable of all is the way Novak closes the column, attempting to deputize Tom Paine to prop up Novak's theory that God will guarantee Bush's win. This is wrong on so many levels I simply cannot do it justice, except by saying that it is fractally wrong.

Yankee insanity

In tight fiscal times, New York City would be insane to chip in $100 million for infrastructure improvements to serve a new Yankee Stadium. Plus, say what you like about the Yankees, but Yankee Stadium has a unique preeminence in baseball history. The idea of converting the existing Yankee Stadium into a parking garage is dumb, only slightly less idiotic than converting Wrigley Field into a shopping mall or Fenway Park into a driving range. I mean, even Red Sox fans would rather win the AL championship by beating the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.

To cap the irony, this story ran on the Times homepage today a few dozen pixels above Bob Herbert's op-ed on the deepening problems of American cities.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Minorities and anti-democratic features of the United States Constitution

Following up my prior post, today I ran across a random unrelated blog post, whose link I have lost, that defended the electoral college and the bicameral legislature as evidence of the founders' wisdom, a bulwark against majoritarianism, etc. --- all the standard b.s. that's always hauled out in defense of these institutions. Well, in my opinion, the United States could use more bulwarks against minoritarianism. Take, for example, the United States Senate.

First of all, many of the Founders were quite skeptical of the bicameral legislature. Schoolchildren have been propagandized to call it the "Great Compromise" between the large and small states, but in fact it was, as Hendrik Hertzberg writes, an odious "surrender to blackmail" by the smaller states. Luminaries like Madison and Hamilton --- possibly the two most brilliant Founders --- thought the Senate was absurd. Hertzberg quotes Hamilton's forceful argument at the Constitutional Convention:

"As states are a collection of individual men," he harangued his fellow-delegates, "which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter. It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small states be less free than those composing the larger?"

Second, defenders of disproportionate representation might say that giving a modest boost to the rights of states does little harm and much good. Let's see how the Senate looks in practice. Did you know that the 26 less populated states have roughly 20% of the population? That's right: on the floor of the Senate, 20% of Americans can dictate law to the other 80% of Americans. The effect of this imbalance is worsened by the fact that House members are elected for two-year terms, and therefore operate in a state of continual insecurity, always hustling for money and recognition; Senators, by contrast, can afford to build a long-term legislative agenda, and have proportionately more influence. Critics of majoritarianism lose sight of a basic fact: in a government constituted by the will of the people, the only alternative to rule of the majority is rule of a minority, in this case a staggeringly small minority of 20%. Lexical nitpicking over whether we call such a government a "democracy" or a "republic" cannot change this. When you give 20% of the American population power over the other 80%, you are creating a structural geographical elite whose votes count more than the non-elite voters.

Third, even in theory, it is a terribly dubious proposition that geographical minorities need a disproportionately huge vote to protect their interests. We have many laws and institutions to protect members of minorities --- for example, the Bill of Rights, or the requirement of large supermajorities for structural change to the Constitution, or the separation of powers among government branches. What makes members of geographical minorities so special that, unlike members of any other minorities, they deserve overrepresentation in the voting process?

I propose we create a third house of Congress, in which Latino voters get to elect 60 seats, and all non-Latino voters get to elect 20 seats. After all, how do we know that the majority of non-Latino voters won't take away the rights of Latino voters? The Latino minority deserves structural protection via overrepresentation.

Try as they might, defenders of the Senate have no argument in defense of the Senate that is not also a defense of my Latino Legislature. But the Latino Legislature strikes us as absurd. Why does the Senate not strike most Americans as equally absurd? I submit that American citizens have been thoroughly and unrelentingly propagandized by their social studies classes. Such grossly disproportionate representation is an abomination. It is contrary to the principles of egalitarianism and representative government.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Time travel and computation

Today I came across Wikipedia's article on time loop logic. A mind-bending, yet elegant, idea. Be sure to read the linked article on the Novikov self-consistency principle as well.

Krugman on voting shenanigans; thoughts on the electoral college

Krugman writes today about (un)trustworthy elections, a subject that I've mentioned several times before (bonus link).

It occurs to me today that, aside from all the inherent awfulness of the voting machine companies and the officials who hired them, this whole business is yet more evidence that the electoral college is a crock. If we had a direct popular election, then the shenanigans of a few Florida election officials would matter much less. We've all become desensitized and resigned to the absurd notion of "swing states", but it's fundamentally undemocratic to allow certain geographical minorities such disproportionate influence over the electoral process. And it's dangerous, because such concentration of power provides a small number of powerful levers by which corruption or ineptitude can swing elections, rather than a large number of weak levers.

This betrays a basic system engineering principle: it is better to have many redundant subsystems than a few critical subsystems, because in the latter case the failure of any one part can bring down the whole system. The electoral college is sort of interesting because, at first glance, one might have thought that the electoral college would do exactly that: rather than one monolithic system with a single point of failure (the national election), you would have fifty smaller systems, each of which provides a "safety" against the failure of the rest. In practice, however, the electoral college has done the opposite. By vaulting a handful of states to disproportionately huge influence, it has introduced a small number of highly critical points of failure.

And, in retrospect, it's clear that a nationwide direct election would provide better redundancy --- because all the votes would get thrown into a single pool, every single well-counted vote would act as a bulwark against every single ill-counted vote. By contrast, in the electoral college, only well-counted votes within a single state can counterbalance the ill-counted votes in that state. A simple analysis of probability dictates that the electoral college is more vulnerable to being thrown by ill-counted votes than a national direct election.

Monday, July 26, 2004

The crucial role of PBS

Specifically in order to keep up with the Democratic Convention, I finally caved in and bought a television antenna today (this follows the recent purchase of the television itself to watch DVDs). So... there's probably about a hundred free channels of broadcast television bandwidth in the Seattle area. Only nine of them are occupied. Guess how many of those channels are rebroadcasting the Democratic National Convention right now, during Pacific prime time? One.

I guess that's enough to cover the main stage (although the main stage show is hardly the only thing that happens at conventions, and it wouldn't hurt if Americans got a chance to see the rest), but it still pisses me off that the publicly owned airwaves are currently broadcasting all kinds of trivial b.s. instead of one of the key events of our political process. Trivial b.s. is OK, sure, but we have the bandwidth to support both trivial b.s. and a lot more coverage of the convention.

Incidentally, what the fuck is with David Brooks being chosen to do the color commentary on PBS? Blech.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Mass. governor Romney: infuriating

Just heard Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney talking on NPR. Mostly same old Republican b.s. ("I support our President", "some of the President's critics are going too far", "some would say the current atmosphere of partisanship began with Republicans attacking Clinton in the 90's, but, er, uh... Chewbacca is a wookie!").

But one thing in this heap of bullshit stands out in my mind: his answer to the gay marriage question. To paraphrase, he said, roughly, "There's not enough research on the effects on children of being raised without both a mother and a father, so I think we need to be wary of taking a step, as a society, of blah blah blah." It's almost hilarious: this line is transparently bullshit in so many ways that it's difficult to keep track...

  1. What a non sequitur! He gets asked a question about gay marriage, and he answers with a line about adoption by gay couples.
  2. How, exactly, does Romney propose society could conduct further "research" on the effects on human children of being raised without a mother and a father?
  3. Actually, children have been raised by gay parents, and they've turned out fine.
  4. Let's grant that marriage and children are inextricably linked, as Romney seems to imply. Does Romney suggest, then, that single parents should not be allowed to raise children? Conversely, does he suggest that childless married couples should have their marriages annulled?
  5. Taken to its logical conclusion, Romney's position implies that the state should only recognize marriages between couples who are demonstrably capable of raising physically and psychological healthy children. Well then, why not require that couples --- both gay and straight --- pass a psychological screening to this effect prior to getting married? This seems much more likely to screen out bad parents than an arbitrary litmus test for sexual orientation.
  6. Why can't an aunt or uncle (or family friend of equivalent gender) provide the role of opposite-gender role models for gay and lesbian couples respectively?
  7. How about couples wherein one of the parents is a transgendered person? Should we impose genital tests on married couples at the altar?
  8. In a free and egalitarian society, the presumptive position is one of non-discrimination, and the burden of proof is on those who would impose or preserve invidious distinctions. The burden of proof is on gay marriage opponents to demonstrate that gay marriage harms society, not on those who would advocate for it.

Of course, I'm not really surprised by the logical incoherence of Romney's so-called position. He's not a complete idiot. It's transparently obvious that he doesn't really believe any of this crap, or if he does then it's only through a heroic application of doublethink. It's obviously, obviously just political positioning: a Massachusetts governor cannot come out as an anti-homosexual bigot, but a Republican with political ambitions cannot come out against Our Dear Leader's anti-faggot crusade. Still, it's funny to see the contortions that so-called "moderate Republicans" will twist themselves into on this issue. I mean, you'd think that with all those think tanks you could get somebody to come up with talking points that sound vaguely plausible.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Let us now smack our foreheads in unison

It's Crypto-Gram day again. It's a good issue this month, IMO worth reading in full, but my favorite highlights follow.

Item number one: airport security officers planted a bomb in an air passenger's luggage as a system security test, then failed to find it:

Dateline: Canada—A routine test of airport security turned into a Marx Brothers routine after security officers mistakenly sent a passenger home with a suitcase full of TNT. The TNT was supposed to be planted in the bags of a Montreal security agent. Instead, it somehow ended up stuffed into the luggage of an unsuspecting overseas passenger who arrived at Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport last Friday. The unnamed passenger went to a friend's house where he found the explosives concealed in a jam jar and placed inside his suitcase. The man immediately called Quebec provincial police. The TNT, which officials say had no detonator attached, was meant as part of a weekly test for bomb-sniffing dogs at the airport. Ironically, the dogs failed to detect the explosives. The passenger and his baggage were able to pass though airport security unchecked. “Our investigation is going to reveal exactly what happened,” airport security spokesman Pierre Goupil told TV network TVA.

Item number two: Schneier points to a Wired News article about Coca-Cola and the NSA:

Coca-Cola has a new contest.  Hidden inside 100 cans of Coke there's a SIM card, GPS transmitter, and a microphone.  The winners activate the Coke can by pressing a button, which will call a central monitoring facility.  Then Coke tracks the winners down using the GPS transmitter and surprises them with their prize.

NSA engineers drink Coke.  Lots and lots of Coke.  The possibility that an active microphone in a Coke can could be in one of the NSA's highly secure facilities is worth considering.  A reasonable threat analysis might look like this: "You know, the chances that one of these 100 cans out of hundreds of millions of cans ends up in our building is extremely small -- somewhere around 1 in 100,000 -- so it's not worth worrying about."

But the NSA's Information Staff Security Office) decreed differently:  "It is important that ALL cans of Coca-Cola within our spaces be inspected.  This includes cans already in our buildings and those being delivered on a daily basis.  If you discover one of these cans, DO NOT activate it.  Instead, you should alert your ISSO immediately and report the incident."

Schneier has more... (scroll down to "Security Notes from All Over")

Lastly, on a serious note, Schneier discusses security implications of torture, in light of a couple of recent Salon articles on Abu Ghraib and the French experience with torture in Algiers. Schneier writes:

Torture has been in the news since 9/11, most recently regarding the U.S. military's practices at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  Politics isn't my area of expertise, and I don't want to debate the politics of the scandal.  I don't even want to debate the moral issues: Is it moral to torture a bomber to find a hidden ticking bomb, is it moral to torture an innocent to get someone to defuse a ticking bomb, is it moral to torture N-1 people to save N lives?  What interests me more are the security implications of torture: How well does it work as a security countermeasure, and what are the trade-offs?  This is an excellent pair of essays about how ineffective torture really is.  Given that torture doesn't actually produce useful intelligence, why in the world are we spending so much good will on the world stage to do it?

Which puts me in mind of some truly nausea-inducing claims that Sy Hersh has been talking about recently. We must, we must win America back from the criminals running this country, for the sake of our consciences and for the sake of the world.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

How to distribute video

D. S. Isenberg notes that R. Cringely is smoking crack when he says that we should try to squeeze high-fidelity video down the wire at 64kbps. But Isenberg doesn't go far enough: the fact is, both the circuit-switched telephone network and the packet-switched Internet are pretty inefficient ways to deliver high-fidelity video to the world.

Demand for video content, like demand for nearly all human content, follows something like a power law ("Zipf's Law") distribution. To a first approximation, this means that, at any given time, (1) the vast majority of people want to watch the same small number of shows, and (2) there is a small minority of people who all want to watch different movies from each other. So you want to send the 100 most popular movies to everyone, and the 1,000,000 least popular movies to one person each. Call these two groups the "head" and the "tail" of the demand distribution respectively.

The telecom network and the Internet are both "point-to-point" networks: for anything to get sent anywhere, the endpoints of the communication have to agree to open up a dedicated connection. This means that the load on the content provider scales roughly in proportion to the number of clients. (OK, well, there's ongoing research on cooperative proxy caching, but these systems are not fully deployed, and even when they were fully deployed it's not clear the proxy caching overlay can overcome the inherent per-client costs associated with the Internet's underlying architecture.)

For the head of the video demand distribution, point-to-point networks are fantastically inefficient, because the server can't send out the content that everyone wants at once --- it must send out the content to each client individually. And the tail of the video demand distribution is so long that it's basically futile to try to cram all those unique bytes of video down existing pipes. Even if you got a fiber optic line leading all the way from the ISP to your wall socket, the Internet's center would not hold --- there is not enough backbone bandwidth to carry all the video content people would want. We can upgrade the Internet, but it would be costly.

So what should we do? Well, as it happens, our department had a reading seminar last year on this very problem, and some bright people in the systems group have been devising solutions...

For the head, use TiVo on steroids: digitally broadcast all the most popular video over the air; put a big hard drive in everyone's house; cache all the video on the hard drive until the user wants to watch it. We have terabytes of data raining down on our houses every day, and nearly all of it goes completely unused.

For the tail of the distribution, use Netflix/Greencine on steroids: "sneakernet", a.k.a. physical media distribution. Physical media has high latency, but also high throughput and low cost. In a few years, an iPod-sized hard disk-based device will be able to hold dozens of DVD movies. You could mail one of these to your customers. Barring that (maybe hard drives remain too expensive to mail), optical disks improve more slowly, but the next generation of DVD will have higher capacity, and better video codecs will reduce the size of DVD-quality movies considerably. It should be possible to mail a dozen movies or more per disc by the end of the decade. Or, you could require that customers bring their iPods to the video store; the store, in turn, could use terascale sneakernet [note: 200K MS Word file] (Google HTML translation) to get each week's videos from central distribution.

Together, broadcast + caching + sneakernet are much more efficient than point-to-point networks. With the combination of these systems, you do give up the ability to get any video, in high quality, on demand at any time without leaving your living room --- but that wasn't going to scale at reasonable cost anyway.

p.s. Astute observers may ask: Well, web page demand follows a power law distribution too, so why shouldn't we use broadcast + caching + sneakernet for the web? The answer is that unlike movies, web pages (1) are relatively small, (2) change over time, (3) number in the billions, not the thousands; these three facts change the arithmetic, and make the point-to-point Internet more attractive. Nevertheless, these are mere engineering concerns; at the rate that hard drives are growing, it may soon be feasible to broadcast and cache a nontrivial fraction of the web in individual households.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

More on F9/11

I'm seeing more and more nonsense marshalled against Michael Moore's film. Almost everyone I hear on the radio, or see in print or on the Internet, accuses him of promulgating ill-informed or absurd conspiracy theories. However, I've yet to see an accurate argument explaining why the major hypotheses Moore advances are absurd and wrong. For example, M. Yglesias writes:

The fact that an uninformed viewer may leave Fahrenheit 9-11 thinking that Bush invaded Afghanistan to build a pipleine is regrettable. I hope that few people who did not already believes this have been caused to believe it by the film.

Not to pick on Yglesias, who often has thoughtful and interesting things to say (and therefore is head and shoulders above most journalists), but why is it implausible that Bush invaded Afghanistan to build a pipeline?

Is it because America had a legitimate reason to invade Afghanistan? Well, sure we did: the Taliban, which provided direct and undeniable support to Al Qaeda, was running Afghanistan. But that's no counterargument: two people can agree to take common action without agreeing on the reason for that action. Regardless of our reasons, Bush could still have invaded Afghanistan to build a pipeline. And, indeed, he probably did. If Bush were seriously trying to fight terrorism, would he not have taken steps to capture or kill the Taliban and Al Qaeda? Would he not have made serious postwar efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, thereby preventing a resurgence of warlordism and Islamic extremism? As it is --- and as Moore's film accurately and cogently points out --- the Taliban and Al Qaeda mostly got away, and Afghanistan is a mess, but the oil gas pipeline deal was inked posthaste. If a person's actions reveal their priorities, then what conclusion would a reasonable observer draw about Bush?

Moore's argument is not terribly complicated, although it requires roughly a paragraph to explain. The Bush administration saw that we had a good reason to invade Afghanistan. However, what they wanted to do was invade Iraq. Therefore, they decided to get the Afghanistan war out of the way as quickly as possible. While they were at it, they opportunistically noted that there was money to be made from an oil gas pipeline, and they made sure that deal was near the top of their list of priorities. As a consequence, they let the Taliban and Al Qaeda slip down to the bottom of their list of priorities.

Any sensible viewer of Moore's film should come away with this narrative. A good one-sentence summary of this narrative would be: "The Bush administration didn't invade Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but rather to build an oil a gas pipeline." There is nothing absurd about this narrative. It is completely consistent with the facts and with everything we know about the Bush administration's modus operandi: politics over policy, appearance over substance, ideology over competence, handouts for their cronies over serving the American people.

So why the hell is it so difficult for journalists to swallow? Why is a collective fiction emerging that Moore's a ridiculous conspiracy theorist? I don't know. Maybe it's because a paragraph exceeds the 2-second sound-bite attention span of some journalists. Or maybe it's because there's a certain unwillingness among Americans to admit just how bad the Bush administration is.

Or maybe journalists feel guilty and defensive about having let Bush hoodwink them for so long. After all, it should not have taken the distemper of a shaggy schlub like Moore to get this story out in the open. If our press had been functioning properly, journalists would have broken this story and asked these questions. If Moore's right --- and, looking at the big picture, he is --- then a huge number of journalists have been derelict in duty for the past three and a half years. That's a truth that many journalists don't want to face.

UPDATE (13 July): I should clarify that the last two paragraphs of this post are about the journalistic consensus in general, and not Yglesias in particular. Yglesias, though initially a war supporter, has --- like the rest of the staff at The American Prospect --- obviously been deeply skeptical of Bush throughout. I won't speculate on this blog as to his motivations for disagreeing with Moore. The more interesting and broader question is why journalists are nearly unanimous in denouncing Moore as a conspiracy theorist, but provide only vague information at best to justify that statement. (For example, if Moore's hypothesis about our war in Afghanistan is incorrect, then I would love to hear a precise debunking. I have not read any such thing.)

UPDATE 2007-08-27: Sorry, I mangled my hydrocarbons. s/oil/gas/ throughout. Also, since writing this I have been pointed to this article by Ken Silverstein, which is a fairly convincing rebuttal, although not in my opinion an ironclad one.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Reflections on Fahrenheit 9/11

Saw Fahrenheit 9/11 last night with some Microsoft intern friends. My conclusion, when I compare the advance press with the actual film, is that most reviewers totally missed the mark. To recap in PowerPoint bullet-list form, the typical Fahrenheit 9/11 review --- and most have been similar enough that they could have been written by filling in blanks in a PowerPoint macro --- goes like this:

  • Fahrenheit 9/11: controversial.
  • Some footage rather effective.
  • Flaws:
    • cheap shots
    • innuendo
    • emotional manipulation

This treatment is about as fair and perceptive as noting that Chris Rock says ridiculous things in his standup routine, or that Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World is cartoonishly drawn. Which is to say, it's completely, obviously, trivially true, and also beside the point. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not, and was not meant to be, a dispassionate investigation of the Bush administration's accomplishments; it's a combination of pep rally and polemic on celluloid, and on that level it succeeds rather well. Michael Moore isn't a journalist or a scholar, or even much of a filmmaker in the ordinary sense. He's more like a political standup comic who uses the medium of carefully edited documentary footage rather than live performance.

Hence, there are roughly two relevant questions when considering the merits of a film like Moore's. First, is it boring? Second, does it, like all truly great comedy routines, speak to a deeper truth, regardless of its sometimes outlandish treatment of particular details? Your answers to these questions will depend a great deal on your relative opinions of Bush and Moore, but mine are: no, it's not boring, and yes, it does speak to a deeper truth.

For example, when Moore accosts Congressmen to encourage them to enlist their children for military service, it's pure theater. The stunt isn't even logical: you can't, of course, enlist your children in the military; you can only enlist yourself. But the rapid-fire montage of Congressmen turning tail and running away from Moore's entreaty nevertheless hits home, because Moore has provoked them into enacting symbolically exactly what they did with the resolution authorizing war: they ran away from their responsibilities.

Additionally, a lot of the journalists who are running down Moore are far more unfair and tendentious than Moore's film. Today I listened to David Denby, Richard Just, and others on NPR call Moore a conspiracy theorist. Someone (a caller? a journalist? I missed the name) said that the film claims that because certain corporations profited from the war, those corporations therefore controlled the decision-makers who sent us to war. The film says no such thing, and you must be either obtuse or prone to conspiracy theories yourself to draw that conclusion. To me, it was obvious that Moore was drawing a contrast between the devastating grief that the war has inflicted on people like Lila Lipscombe (whose son was killed in Iraq), and the combination of frivolity, greed, and even delight with which Bush and his associates greeted the war. Is it a "conspiracy theory" to suggest that people who bear so few of the burdens of war --- who, on the contrary, reap enormous benefits for themselves and their cronies --- would be less hesitant to lead us to war than the American people would prefer?

But then, perhaps subtle concepts like "common interest" are lost on most journalists. Perhaps their imaginations are delimited to the much simpler movie logic of "sinister white-haired men smoking in darkened conference rooms and plotting world domination". Perhaps if you don't have incontrovertible video evidence of a claque of sinister white-haired smokers in a conference room, then you have no point.

Now, Fahrenheit 9/11 has its flaws: it is disorganized, it rambles, and sometimes you wish Moore had been more sparing with the voice-over. Still, it's a movie worth seeing on the big screen. When I said this movie was like a rally, I meant it: watching this movie in a theater, where you can collectively laugh, cry, and gasp in outrage with your fellow moviegoers, is a qualitatively different experience than watching the video at home will be.

We live in charged and fateful times. In years past, the performances of brilliant orators or musicians might have crystallized the national mood, and speeches or concerts might have provided the occasion for dissenters to gather. For better or for worse, we've got, instead, a movie, made by a shaggy, tubby, disreputable guy from Flint, Michigan.