Last call at the Oak Bar

From the “paging-George-Kaplan department.”

My first trip to the Oak Bar was way back in the twentieth century, during a trip to New York, before I lived here. It was an evening of contrasts: stuffy old expensive midtown, followed by hip, cheap downtown. The three of us had two rounds of cocktails and the tab came to 50 bucks. After that, we headed down to the West Village and had a nice dinner for three with a bottle of wine for the same amount. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about New York, you can find the extremes and all points in between.

Covert Propaganda

There’s a substantial piece in today’s NY Times about the current Bush administration’s unprecedented efforts to sway public opinion by distributing fake news reports to the major televsion networks, and by putting pundits on the payroll. Fake TV news in particular seems to be a favorite ploy of this administration–remember the RNC last summer when pretend reporters “interviewed” people on the convention floor?

To date, the Bush administration has spent over $250M on a PR firm which helps them to produce the “Video New Releases”. The VNRs are then distributed to TV news stations, who often run the pieces unedited and without attribution. Even worse, stations will sometimes redo the narrations using local talent, which really makes them seem like legitimate new pieces. The Times reports that the administration was called on this practice last year by the GAO:

Yet in three separate opinions in the past year, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies the federal government and its expenditures, has held that government-made news segments may constitute improper “covert propaganda” even if their origin is made clear to the television stations.

The next part of the story is a little strange, because there’s no shortage of diehard Bush apologists among the conservative babbling class. And yet, the Bush administration still felt the need to buy a little help. In January, we found out about three pundits on the Bush payroll. First there was Armstrong Williams, a conservative columnist who was given $240,000 by the administration to promote No Child Left Behind.

Then came Maggie Gallagher, another conservative columnist and talking head. Gallagher had previously garnered a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote Bush’s $300M pro-marriage initiative. She then received $20,000 from the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003 for writing a report titled “Can Government Strengthen Marriage?” Often appeared on television backing the “take marriage rights away from gay people” amendment.

And then a few weeks later came the story that was by far the funniest of the lot. James Guckert, a.k.a Jeff Gannon: a pretend journalist from a fake news agnecy who was somehow given a Whitehouse press pass under a false name. Known for lobbing incredibly softball questions to Bush during the all-too-rare presidential press conferences. The blogs have latched on to this story in particular because of Guckert’s alleged other line of work, which was to run gay military-themed prostitution services and pornography web sites (and he wasn’t just the president, he got in on the action himself). And perhaps it’s partly because all the images here are X-rated that this story didn’t hit big outside of the internets.

Here’s a typical example of a Guckert pitch to Bush:

“Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy: Harry Reid, who’s talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock solid and there’s no crisis there. You’ve said you’re going to reach out to these people. How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?”

Tough question, Jeff. Tough, but fair.

Cyril Rugby is cyberkrunk’s (pretend) senior political correspondent.

The Rice Filibuster

Seeing Condi on MTP this morning reminds me of the method preferred by the current administration for dealing with the press, namely to avoid any direct answer to questions, but instead to filibuster them with long responses peppered with talking points. Condi is one of the true masters of this technique, owing to her ability to instantly begin a long speech on any subject. Ideally, the response is long enough that your eyes begin to glaze over, and you forget what the question was. Journalists, whose prime directive now seems to be to protect their coveted access, play along with this game, and rarely press them on the tactic.

At the end of Tim Russert’s interview with Rice today, he raised the point that six secretaries of state have gone on to become president. How interesting would it be to have a Rice vs. Clinton face off in 2008?

Bush himself invariably, and quite clumsily, resorts to the filibuster style. You can find examples pretty much every time he deals with the press. The April 2004 prime time press conference was particularly good example, since he was given many very direct questions. Here’s an example, taken more or less randomly:

Q Do you feel a sense of personal responsibility for September 11th?

THE PRESIDENT: I feel incredibly grieved when I meet with family members, and I do quite frequently. I grieve for the incredible loss of life that they feel, the emptiness they feel.

There are some things I wish we’d have done when I look back. I mean, hindsight is easy. It’s easy for a President to stand up and say, now that I know what happened, it would have been nice if there were certain things in place; for example, a homeland security department. And why I — I say that because it’s — that provides the ability for our agencies to coordinate better and to work together better than it was before.

I think the hearings will show that the Patriot Act is an important change in the law that will allow the FBI and the CIA to better share information together. We were kind of stove-piped, I guess is a way to describe it. There was kind of — departments that at times didn’t communicate, because of law, in the FBI’s case.

And the other thing I look back on and realize is that we weren’t on a war footing. The country was not on a war footing, and yet the enemy was at war with us. And it’s — it didn’t take me long to put us on a war footing. And we’ve been on war ever since. The lessons of 9/11 that I — one lesson was, we must deal with gathering threats. And that’s part of the reason I dealt with Iraq the way I did.

The other lesson is, is that this country must go on the offense and stay on the offense. In order to secure the country, we must do everything in our power to find these killers and bring them to justice, before they hurt us again. I’m afraid they want to hurt us again. They’re still there.

They can be right one time; we’ve got to be right a hundred percent of the time in order to protect the country. It’s a mighty task. But our government has changed since the 9/11 attacks. We’re better equipped to respond; we’re better at sharing intelligence. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

But back to Condi. I watched as much of the 9/11 commission hearings as I could. Thanks to C-SPAN, that was pretty much all of it. Lee Hamilton, the second commissioner to speak that day, did his best to set the tone by asking Condi questions along the lines of “Dr. Rice, please speak at length on a topic of your chosing.” It was a great tactic, but Richard Ben-Veniste wasn’t playing along and repeatedly pressed Condi to actually answer his questions:

BEN-VENISTE: Did you tell the president, at any time prior to August 6th, of the existence of al-Qaida cells in the United States?

RICE: First, let me just make certain …

BEN-VENISTE: If you could just answer that question, because I only have a very limited …

RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but it’s important …

BEN-VENISTE: Did you tell the president …

RICE: … that I also address …

(APPLAUSE)

It’s also important that, Commissioner, that I address the other issues that you have raised. So I will do it quickly, but if you’ll just give me a moment.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, my only question to you is whether you …

RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but I will …

BEN-VENISTE: … told the president.

RICE: If you’ll just give me a moment, I will address fully the questions that you’ve asked.

First of all, yes, the August 6th PDB was in response to questions of the president and that since he asked that this be done. It was not a particular threat report. And there was historical information in there about various aspects of al-Qaida’s operations.

Dick Clarke had told me, I think in a memorandum “I remember it as being only a line or two” that there were al-Qaida cells in the United States.

Now, the question is, what did we need to do about that?

And I also understood that that was what the FBI was doing, that the FBI was pursuing these al-Qaida cells. I believe in the August 6th memorandum it says that there were 70 full field investigations under way of these cells. And so there was no recommendation that we do something about this; the FBI was pursuing it.

I really don’t remember, Commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

RICE: I remember very well that the president was aware that there were issues inside the United States. He talked to people about this. But I don’t remember the al-Qaida cells as being something that we were told we needed to do something about.

It was later that session that Bob Kerrey actually brought up the “F” word. What’s interesting is that if you read the transcripts, there was a good amount of back and forth between Rice and Jerry leading up to this exchange. I got the sense that Kerrey was as much reacting against the way Rice was responding to other panel members. (Kerrey, btw, clearly had Richard Clarke on the brain and repeatedly referred to Condi as “Dr. Clarke.” Condi eventually made a nice little quip about it.)

KERREY: Let me move to another area.

RICE: May I finish answering your question, though, because this is an important…

KERREY: I know it’s important. Everything that’s going on here is important. But I get 10 minutes.

RICE: But since we have a point of disagreement, I’d like to have a chance to address it.

KERREY: Well, no, no, actually, we have many points of disagreement, Dr. Clarke, but we’ll have a chance to do in closed session. Please don’t filibuster me. It’s not fair. It is not fair. I have been polite. I have been courteous. It is not fair to me.

(APPLAUSE)

I understand that we have a disagreement.

RICE: Commissioner, I am here to answer questions. And you’ve asked me a question, and I’d like to have an opportunity to answer it.

The fact is that what we were presented on January the 25th was a set of ideas and a paper, most of which was about what the Clinton administration had done and something called the Delenda plan which had been considered in 1998 and never adopted. We decided to take a different track.

RICE: We decided to put together a strategic approach to this that would get the regional powers the problem wasn’t that you didn’t have a good counterterrorism person.

The problem was you didn’t have an approach against Al Qaida because you didn’t have an approach against Afghanistan. And you didn’t have an approach against Afghanistan because you didn’t have an approach against Pakistan. And until we could get that right, we didn’t have a policy.

KERREY: Thank you for answering my question.

RICE: You’re welcome.

Back to the journalists. By not pressing members of the administration to give clear responses to their questions, the way Ben-Veniste and Kerry tried to, they do us all a great disservice. In fact, they create the dangerous illusion that we the public have full access to our highest government officials, when in fact we don’t–they put up a smoke screen. The journalists are supposed to serve the public, but instead serve up free air time to the government for political speech-making; this is why people like Condi are so willing to go on the Sunday shows every week. We need to call the Condis on it, but we need especially to call the Tweeties on it.

Cyril Rugby is cyberkrunk’s senior political correspondent.

Friday Cat Blogging!

action-cat edition!

Part the second… Billie:

Zachary:

And now for the bonus round, Friday antique Noguchi Akari lamp blogging:

CBGB MBGBB

From the “things-that-make-Joey-Ramone-cry department…”

After the Plaza closes, what’s next? Well, CBGB Might-Be-Going-Bye-Bye. This due to a long-standing rent dispute with the current owners. The Bitter End went through similar gyrations recently, but managed to save itself at the last minute. Let’s hope we see a similar miracle here…

This from the NY Times story:

In an arrangement known to few of the club’s patrons, CBGB subleases its spaces at 313 and 315 Bowery from the organization, which shelters 175 homeless people in the floors above the club. In 2001, the organization began efforts to collect more than $300,000 in back rent from the club. Although much of that has now been paid, the club faces eviction over remaining debts of about $75,000, both parties say.

Both organizations have dug in their heels and claim a moral right to the property.

“We’re an institution,” said Hilly Kristal, the grandfatherly 73-year-old who started CBGB – with plans to stage “country, bluegrass and blues,” not punk – in late 1973. “I think we’re an important part of this community. The city uses us in their Olympics ad, along with the Statue of Liberty.”

The story doesn’t mention whether the homeless people also happen to be deaf. Better come visit NYC while it’s still here!

Remember Googlezon?

Dexter writes “…you don’t think I really believe you work for a drug company, do you?

EPIC 2014

Now, Dex, I assure you that I have nothing whatever to do with EPIC <evil-laugh src=”muahaha.mp3″>. But like many people, I am anxious about what seems to be our current trajectory towards one mega-monopoly controlling everything. When Walmart buys McDonalds, it’s time to be really afraid gastrointernally distressed and shabbily dressed. Technology will either hasten or forestall this process, I’m not sure which. It’s just like the universe, we don’t know which will win out, gravity or entropy…

For example, Microsoft seems to pose less of a threat now than it did a few years ago. For one thing, their anti-competitive practices are better understood by the general public. And for another, Open Source software is proving to be a viable alternative, at least it is outside of North America. Having a sufficiently tamed Microsoft out in the marketplace, may actually be a good thing, just like Maureen Dowd thinks we will all be able to like Martha Stewart again after we’ve all seen her pilloried. Google, on the other hand, is the company whose corporate motto is “don’t be evil” and yet they’ve been having moral lapses of their own lately. It’s also a lot more tempting (and possible) to be evil once you have everyone exclusively using your search engine service, your email service, your interactive map service, your satellite photo service. And (following the first law of evil thermodynamics?) we’ve even seen direct transfers of evil straight from MS to Google, namely in the Google toolbar’s AutoLink function, which seems to be descended from the MS SmartTag, which never quite made it into IE. You can look at Google Watch for all the details. And yet, Google’s anarchic approach to news aggregating seems, in the short run, to be positive, drawing people away from CCN to news sources they’ve never seen before–almost like blogging!

As for the role of Amazon, it’s another mixed bag. It’s true that they are killing independent book sellers, but we actually get something in return for this: selection. It has never been easier to order obscure titles. But more than anything, they are the anti-Walmart. Even slack-jawed yokels can use Amazon to bypass Walmart’s censoriously limited stock.

And McDonalds owns Chipotle, but of course you knew that already.

…One Ring to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them…

New York: The Plaza closing its doors

So we were sitting in the Oak Bar, having cocktails with friends who had traveled from Toronto to see the Gates, when B. said, “it’s a shame about the Plaza closing, isn’t it?” “The Plaza closing?” I replied with my trademark incredulity, “no, you’re probably thinking of the Gramercy Hotel, which just closed to go condo.” I think it was the next day when I saw an ad from the union protesting the hotel’s closing–and then it sank in. $400 a night for a room and a grand for a jr. suite just isn’t enough to make money in NYC anymore. Not when you can carve the place up into $50M condos…

One of the prettiest small parks in New York is Gramercy Park. What was interesting to me when I first saw it is that it’s not open to the public. In fact, is has a tall wrought iron fence around it and big locked gates. It’s a private park, and one of the privileges of living in this square (hi Julia!) is getting the keys to the park. Coming from Canada, this notion of a locked park struck me as a bit odd, a bit in the same way that bringing a credit card to the doctor’s office did. But New York has always been comfortable with this interplay of public and private. The Villard Houses were originally built as private homes, now they are the New York Palace hotel. But the current real estate boom is driving everything in the private direction. Earlier this year, the Gramercy Hotel ceased operations, sold off its furniture and now is converting to condos. This had been sort of a shabby-chic version of the Plaza, a place for rock stars to smash furniture when they couldn’t get into the Chelsea. And another fine hotel-bar watering hole.

Spending a weekend at the Plaza has always been on my to-do list, but low on the priority level because I live just down the street, and because, well it’s the Plaza, it’s not going anywhere! A few years back, a similar to-do was dining at the Rainbow Room, which also closed its doors before I could enjoy it. I think this means I have to re-evaluate some other entries on that list: seeing Bobby Short at the Carlyle, Les Paul at Iridium on Monday nights and maybe even Woody doing his thing. Not that these guys are about to be privatized…

Here’s what’s on the Hotel’s web site at present:

The owners of The Plaza have announced that on April 30, 2005, the hotel will close for extensive redevelopment into a mixed use retail, residential and hotel complex, at which point Fairmont Hotels & Resorts will no longer manage The Plaza. […]

The crown jewel of Manhattan’s fabled Fifth Avenue, The Plaza reigns over New York with a grace and glamour that has drawn visitors from around the globe throughout the century. From glorious meeting rooms and palatial ballrooms to the brilliance of the legendary restaurants, The Plaza dwells in a class by itself. Whether for business or pure pleasure, a stay at The Plaza entails the ultimate in gracious luxury, attentive personal service and the pleasures of an incomparable location at the foot of Central Park.

There’s more in a section on the Hotel’s history:

The Plaza opened its doors on October 1, 1907, amid a flurry of impressive reports describing it as the greatest hotel in the world. Located at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, it was constructed in the most fashionable residential section of New York. […]

Construction of the 19-story building (a skyscraper back then) took two years at a cost of $12 million – an unprecedented sum in those days. Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who also designed the Dakota apartments, the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. and The Fairmont Copley Plaza Boston, set about his task to provide all the pomp, glory, and opulence of a French chateau. No cost was spared. The largest single order in history for gold-encrusted china was placed with L. Straus & Sons, and no less than 1,650 crystal chandeliers were purchased. […]

Although The Plaza appeared fleetingly in earlier films, the hotel made its true movie debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic North by Northwest – the first time a crew, director and cast assembled on site to make a picture. Before then, movies were shot almost entirely on Hollywood soundstages and rarely on location. The Plaza has provided the location for other motion pictures such as Plaza Suite, The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby, Barefoot in the Park, Funny Girl, Cotton Club, Crocodile Dundee I and II and Home Alone II: Lost In New-York.

For the love of God, let’s hope they keep the Oak Bar open.

Friday Cat Blogging

Here’s the first installment… Billie:

Zachary:

And now for the bonus round, Friday Vancouver Sea Otter Blogging! (Props to Prof M. for this shot.)

Sweety Das Küken and other weird iMemes

On my last few working trips to Europe, I would tune in to German MTV from time to time. Somehow inanity dubbed or subtitled into German is more engaging than plain old English inanity. But if you watch for more than a few minutes, you will see, endlessly repeated, these bizarre little commercials for special songs and ringtones to download into your mobile phone (that is, after they’re permanently encoded into your neural network) … The most popular one seems to be this little singing and dancing chick called Sweety das Küken. If you’ve never seen Sweety, maybe that’s for the best. If you’re really curious, go ahead and google, but mostly you will find video along the lines of “Sweety in a Blender,” the sure-fire sign of Internet mega-memedom. (Europeans are now completely obsessed with the customized ringtones. It’s not uncommon to see a senior executive at the second largest company in France run out of a meeting clutching a phone blaring something ridiculous like Dragostea Din Tei, a hit Romanian techno tune.)

And if you happen to make a video of yourself chair-dancing (Roadie!) to this same techno tune, you become instantly famous a la William Hung. This story has hit the Times a few days ago. If you haven’t seen the video yet, you owe it to yourself to watch. For me, I think the kid is genuinely talented, if a little misguided. Sorry to hear that he’s so distressed by all this unwanted attention.

I don’t know how I managed to miss it the first time around, but in 2003 a teenager from Quebec, who became known as the Star Wars Kid, inspired countless video post-production hacks to produce hundreds of minutes of video based on the kid’s 1:48 clip of himself practicing Jedi arts. This one is funny to watch too, but the attention SWK got was a little more mean spirited. Just google “star wars kid” and you’ll be amazed at how much stuff is out there.

And it’s not an iMeme, but Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand” must be a virus from outer space…

Numa Numa, Yay!

There and Back Again

From the, “Then again, maybe I won’t… department.”

Cyberkunk industry insiders have known since December 2004 about plans to re-locate the global headquarters of cyberkrunk Labs, Inc. to Paris. The cyberkrunk corporate communications department reports that cyberkrunk will actually remain in midtown Manhattan. This decision came after detailed analysis of a contract proposal that centered on cost of living comparisons between the two cities. While the proposed move was highly attractive on a personal and professional level, the numbers simply didn’t work out.

Paris remains one of my favorite places, but we’re not at all displeased about staying in the world’s capital, NYC.