Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Blinded by my anti-Reuters Bias

If you have read my blog you will have noticed that the Reuters news service and I do not see eye-to-eye on most issues. I have removed most of the Reuters feeds for hard news from my MyYahoo home page since their outrageous slanting of the news tends to distract me. I do let Yahoo display a few Reuters headlines from the Reuters "Science" and "Internet Report" feeds, and even there Reuters manages to annoy me. A recent story in their "Internet Report," for instance, reported Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of the "MySpace" web site -- an online community that is very popular with teens and young adults. Reuters, being quite liberal in its outlook, is not particularly fond of conservative Murdoch (founder of Fox news) and their report on the acquisition focused primarily on the problem of pedophile sexual predators in online communities. (MySpace: Murdoch's big hope, parents' nightmare).

But every now and then my anti-Reuters bias can make me pass over a good story. Case in point is the story in Reuters Science entitled Suit may prevent maternal deaths during childbirth. I passed on that story several times thinking Oh great. Another medical class-action lawsuit. Just what we need. But when I did get around to reading the story I find that the "suit" is a garment -- a compression garment worn on the extremities that appears to greatly reduce the risk of shock associated with blood loss during childbirth. Its rather an interesting story actually, and worth reading.

Sunday, February 26, 2006



There is a new company called Goodmail Systems that has a new angle on fighting spam and other email-related problems. They are partnering with AOL and Yahoo to launch a new "Certified" email system in which legitimate companies will pay Goodmail to certify that messages they send are actually from the claimed source. Goodmail will attach a cryptographic certificate to the message that AOL, Yahoo and other ISPs will recognize. Messages certified by Goodmail will be delivered directly to the users' inboxes and will never go to the spam or junk mailboxes. You will be hearing a lot about Goodmail in the coming months -- it will be quite controversial -- and I will be discussing it in this posting... in a minute. But first, a trip down memory lane.

Do you remember those birthday cards you used to get when you were a kid -- the ones that were just a sleeve with an oval opening on one side where a dead president could look out? As an adult you might now suspect that Uncle Irving or Aunt Sue were too lazy to shop for cards and found it convenient just to slip a few bucks in a sleeve and mail it out. But that is because, as an adult, you have forgotten the crucial thing that all kids know: a birthday card with money in it is high-quality mail -- much better, for instance, than the birthday postcard you get from your dentist with the slightly-creepy happy, smiling toothbrush.

Your mom may have thought the money-card was tacky but Aunt Sue wasn't sending it to your mom; she was sending it to you and Aunt Sue knew that her six dollar investment -- one dollar for the sleeve, the envelope and postsage, and five dollars as payload -- would result in at least six dollars worth of seven-year-old birthday glee. The card from Dr Molar, your dentist, on the other hand, was mostly intended for your mother; it said to her that Dr. Molar was still in business and his practice was sufficiently well-managed to send out birthday postcards to the children on his patient list. The postcard cost less to send and was of less value when it arrived but, on balance, it too was worthwhile.

Ahhh, nostalgia... But, back to Goodmail. Goodmail is targetted at buisness-related email. It is intended to allow companies who need to get email to their customers -- for things like monthly account statements or airline e-tickets -- to be sure their messages will be delivered. The company can enter into an arrangement with Goodmail, pay a small per-message charge and have their mail marked as legitimate in a way that AOL, Yahoo, etc. can recognize using a cryptographically secure mark that spammers (phishers, etc.) cannot replicate. When the message arrives, not only will it bypass the spam filters, but it will also be marked with an indication that AOL/Yahoo/Goodmail certify that it was sent by the claimed sender and has not been modified in transit.

Let me be clear about one thing. This is a very good idea. If properly implemented it will take a big bite out of the problem of "phishing" (fraulent emails claiming to come from a trusted business or organization that ask for personal information which will be used for indentity theft.) It will also help somewhat with spam -- but not as much as it could. It is, as I said, a good idea, but I wish it would go farther.

What will be controversial about the use of Goodmail is that it will divide email into two classes: trustworthy certified mail and unvetted ordinary email. The certified email will be generally safe to open and, since the source is known, will be less prone to fraud. Also, since sending each message will cost the sender money there will be an incentive to limit the messages to high-value communications. The non-certified mail, on the other hand, will be the same mess it is now. One will never know for sure from whom a message has come and whether or not a message is safe to open. Since the incremental cost of sending an email message is neglegable, low-value bulk email will continue to flood user's inboxes. The technological battle between spammers and spam filterers will continue with both sides claiming advances but neither side winning. One will never be able to send an email and know that it will be received and read -- a false-positive match in a spam filter may cause it to be blocked, of if delivered it may still get lost among the hundreds of bulk messages the user doesn't have time to read. Private email will continue to be mired in this morass while commercial messages flow freely and reliably.

The main opposition to the use of this new channel will come from non-profit organizations who don't want their bulk messages to arrive uncertified but are unwilling to pony up for the per-message price to have them certified. (See this from InfoWorld.) They know that once users realize that messages marked as certified email are safer to open and less prone to fraud they will become more reluctant to open uncertified bulk mail. Goodmail states that they plan to offer certification services at cost to non-profit organizations -- setting the price at a cost-recovery level so they neither profit from, nor subsidize, the NPOs -- but it will still represent a cost to the NPOs. Many of them are currently spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about the certified email program in an effort to prevent the service from being launched.

Goodmail is targetting business emaail (with a slight concession to the larger NPOs) but are doing nothing about private email. Their FAQ states, in part:
CertifiedEmail is NOT "email postage" for personal, individual, consumer emails. Individuals will not pay. Neither Goodmail nor its ISP partners have ever, or would ever, suggest that any consumer should pay to send emails.
CertifiedEmail is NOT "a tax. Neither AOL nor Yahoo! nor any other ISP with whom Goodmail partners will require senders to use the service in order to get their volume email delivered. Those who do decide not to use the service will see no change in their current delivery metric as a result of the Goodmail/AOL partnership.

CertifiedEmail is NOT for prospecting. CertifiedEmail is only for organizations' permissioned-based or transaction-based email. Those who receive their messages are people who have agreed to be contacted--typically they have transacted business with the sending organization and expect the communication, for example, a travel confirmation.

CertifiedEmail is NOT for spammers. Only reputable ogranizations can use the service. Goodmail carefully vets its senders, accrediting each one to verify its good sending practices, and rigorously monitor its complaint levels to be sure the sender is complying with Goodmail's acceptable use policy. The service is NOT a way for an organization to buy its way past AOL and Yahoo! spam filters.
CertifedEmail is NOT a barrier for those who don't use it. CertifiedEmail does not limit consumer access to the Internet or harm notions of free speech--rather, it protects consumers from online fraud, identity theft, and overzealous marketing practices.

CertifiedEmail is NOT a spam filter or spam blocker. Goodmail's goal is to raise the bar so high on sender behavior that messages are not second-guessed by filters and get a direct path to the inbox and a visual identification that the message is good. Goodmail has never suggested CertifiedEmail is the silver bullet for all of email's ills.
While this is an altogether sensible position for Goodmail to take it does not attempt to solve all the problems with email. Goodmail's FAQ admits this in the last section I quoted. It is quite likely that Goodmail has chosen the right target for their business. Business email is where the (honest) money is to be made in the email biz and their approach should be a big help with phishing. But it would be nice to see something a bit more effective against spam. In particular, I would like to see a way for private individuals to be able to send "certified" emails without opening the door for spammers.

The key to understanding how this might work is to remember Aunt Sue's birthday card. It was demonstrably a valuable piece of mail because it contained money. And Dr. Molar's postcard, while it did not contain currency, still cost something to send and Dr Molar was not likely to send one to everyone in the phone book. He, at least, needed to think it had some value to send it out at all.

That, I think, is the most significant indicator of spam -- each message is of very low value to either the sender or the receiver. The sender tries to compensate for the low value by sending his message to millions of addresses. The receiver compensates for the low value by actually reading less and less of the email he is sent, trying by various error-prone processes to pick out the increasingly small percentage of email that has any value and ignoring the rest.

A Modest Proposal.

Form a company to allow individuals to send "certified" emails using Goodmail as the channel (obviously Goodmail would have to approve the deal.) Users would create accounts and would choose user ids and passwords to control access to the account. Users would need to log in to send certified email. Users would be charged an initial amount to fund the account and would be able to provide additional funds as needed to maintain their balance. When a user wished to send a certified email the user would specify an amount to be drawn from their account balance and attached to the message. A minimum amount (perhaps initially ten cents) would apply. The user sending the message would designate a charity to receive the funds (less a small processing fee) when the message was opened unless the recipient preferred to have the funds sent to a different charity or applied to the receiver's account balance. The user would also have a receiver's profile which would allow them to specify a minimum amount that would need to be attached for messages addressed to them to be delivered. They could also specify whether this amount should go into their account or be donated to a charity of their choice. If a message was delivered but remained unopened for thirty days the funds attached to it (less the handling fee) would revert to the senders balance and the recipient would be able to read the message without triggering any transfer of funds.

The idea here is to associate a nominal fee with sending a message. The fee would reflect the value of the receiver's time and attention in reading it. If we assume that the recipient actually reads his email then deliberately sending a low-value message is a theft of the recipient's time. The recipient can set whatever value he wants on his time but not less than the minimum amount needed to make sending spam uneconomic. The disposition of the funds (to the recipient's account or to a charity of his choice) is up to the recipient if he has an account. If the recipient has no account, and declines to set one up, the funds will go to the charity suggested by the sender. The funds in a user's account can only be used to send messages and can never be converted to cash paid to the user but can be converted to cash paid to a non-profit charity either at the user's direction or as part of the process of sending messages as described above. All funds paid to the company to maintain the users' balances will eventually either be consumed by transaction fees in sending messages or will be paid to non-profit organizations as directed by the users' profiles.

Obvoiusly the concept still needs work. But I think the ideas are sound and the central idea is that "free" email is a bad idea. Email-related fraud and other crime doubles year over year and the root cause is the silly idea that email ought to be "free". As it turns out email is neither free as in speech or free as in beer. Instead, it is free as in free-for-all and free as in free-fall. I think it should be fixed and I think Goodmail is a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Jimmy and Me

carter Past President Jimmy Carter is a nice man. He is a thoughtful man and tries very hard to be a good man. Sadly, the thoughtful part doesn't seem to work out very well for him and most of the things he thinks are wrong. Realizing this, it always makes me nervous to find that I agree with him on a contentious issue, and it has happened again. Jimmy supports President Bush on the issue of allowing a United Arab Emirate owned company to buy the company that handles the commercial operation of six east-coast US ports -- and so do I.

Finding myself on the other side of the issue from pretty much everybody with whom I generally agree, it was something of a relief to read this editorial opinion from the Wall Street Journal that nicely outlines my position.
Some of us are scratching our heads all right, but we're wondering why Mr. Graham and others believe Dubai Ports World has been insufficiently vetted for the task at hand. So far, none of the critics have provided any evidence that the Administration hasn't done its due diligence. The deal has been blessed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multiagency panel that includes representatives from the departments of Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security.

Yes, some of the 9/11 hijackers were UAE citizens. But then the London subway bombings last year were perpetrated by citizens of Britain, home to the company (P&O) that currently manages the ports that Dubai Ports World would take over. Which tells us three things: First, this work is already being outsourced to "a foreign-based company"; second, discriminating against a Mideast company offers no security guarantees because attacks are sometimes homegrown; and third, Mr. Graham likes to talk first and ask questions later.

Besides, the notion that the Bush Administration is farming out port "security" to hostile Arab nations is alarmist nonsense. Dubai Ports World would be managing the commercial activities of these U.S. ports, not securing them. There's a difference. Port security falls to Coast Guard and U.S. Customs officials. "Nothing changes with respect to security under the contract," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday. "The Coast Guard is in charge of security, not the corporation."

In a telephone interview yesterday, Kristie Clemens of U.S. Customs and Border Protection elaborated that "Customs and Border Protection has the sole responsibility for the cargo processing and cargo security, incoming and outgoing. The port authority sets the guidelines for the entire port, and port operators have to follow those guidelines." Again, nothing in the pending deal would affect that arrangement.
This issue offers the politicians in Congress an irresistable opportunity to appear hawkish on the War on Terror by demanding that nothing whatsoever be done about it. By giving the impression that port security is the responsibility of the private company running the Port Authority, and not of the Customs Agency and the Coast Guard, they can make political capital without the painful outlay of financial capital that would be involved in properly financing the agencies actually charged to do the job. If anything, having the UAE company running the port may make us safer by making it clear to the voting public that port security is the job of the US government and not of the contractor running the port.

And what is more disappointing is that opinion leaders who like to talk endlessly about finding ways to build relationships with the moderates in the Arab world, when faced with an actual opportunity to do so in a way that represents real cooperation and an element of trust, are leading the xenophobic charge. Confronted with organization of Arab businessmen, many of the usual UN-apologist, internationalist-leaning pols have constructed efigies of Jihadist madmen and are carrying them flaming up and down the halls of Congress.

There has been quite a bit of discussion -- rather too much, actually, some of it here -- about the damage that the Danish Cartoons have done to relations between the West and the Islamic world. But the people who are rioting over the cartoons are already beyond the reach of any appeal we might make. People marching with signs that read "God Bless Hitler" are not likely to be among the "moderates" to whom we seek to reach out. I have heard it said that President Bush has made a political blunder with his support for the ports deal. Perhaps he has made a domestic political blunder but, I would argue, he has done so to avoid the major geopolitical blunder of telling one of our best allies in the Arab world that, despite what we say when we are asking them for things, we don't trust them enough to do business with them.

At least that's how I see it. Me and Jimmy, God help me.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an Islamic dissadent. She is a Somali expatriate living in the Netherlands where she is an MP. She recently gave a speech in Berlin that, I think resonates with the photo above which I found in the Brussels Journal. Here's the end:
I think it is right to make critical drawings and films of Muhammad. It is necessary to write books on him in order to educate ordinary citizens on Muhammad.

I do not seek to offend religious sentiment, but I will not submit to tyranny. Demanding that people who do not accept Muhammad’s teachings should refrain from drawing him is not a request for respect but a demand for submission.

I am not the only dissident in Islam. There are more like me here in the West. If they have no bodyguards they work under false identities to protect themselves from harm. But there are also others who refuse to conform: in Teheran, in Doha and Riyadh, in Amman and Cairo, in Khartoum and in Mogadishu, in Lahore and in Kabul.

The dissidents of Islamism, like the dissidents of communism, don’t have nuclear bombs or any other weapons. We have no money from oil like the Saudis. We will not burn embassies and flags. We refuse to get carried away in a frenzy of collective violence. In number we are too small and too scattered to become a collective of anything. In electoral terms here in the west we are practically useless.

All we have are our thoughts; and all we ask is a fair chance to express them. Our opponents will use force to silence us. They will use manipulation; they will claim they are mortally offended. They will claim we are mentally unstable and should not be taken seriously. The defenders of Communism, too, used these methods.

Berlin is a city of optimism. Communism failed. The wall was broken down. Things may seem difficult and confusing today. But I am optimistic that the virtual wall, between lovers of liberty and those who succumb to the seduction and safety of totalitarian ideas will also, one day, come down.
It is an excellent speech. It has the same sense of the moment and the same ringing tone as Churchill at his best. Read the whole thing here.

The Brussels Journal piece is also worth reading. In it Paul Belien quotes an unidentified Danish letter-writer as saying
I feel that currently my beloved country is being pissed upon rather too much. Denmark has not been neglecting its duties on the international stage. We have supported poor people with acts and advice, we have worked for peace, we have sent soldiers, policemen and experts to all the far flung corners of the world. We have democracy, a rule of law and a welfare state. Not all is perfect, but we harbor no malice towards our fellow men.

And yet Denmark is being pissed upon. The spokesman of the US State Department is pissing on Denmark, the British Secretary of Foreign Affairs is pissing on Denmark, the President of Afghanistan is pissing on Denmark, the Government of Iraq is pissing on Denmark, other Muslim regimes are pissing on Denmark. In Gaza, where Danes for years have provided humanitarian aid, crazed Imams encourage people to cut off the hands and heads of the cartoonists who made the drawings of Mohammed for the Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

Excuse my choice of words, but all this pissing is pissing me off.
Read the whole thing here.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Imposing Sharia in Jante

Consider the following ten axioms which might describe a Danish multiculturalist's position on relations with the Islamic community in Denmark. As you read please bear in mind that I a describing a set of ideas that I do not myself believe.

1. Native, non-Muslim Danes should not think that they are special. Danes are by nature a deeply egalitarian people but Danish culture is not without its elements of racist and cultural exceptionalism.
2. Danes should not assume that they are of the same standing as the Muslim minority.Without consideration of differences of opportunity and the history of past oppression a simple comparison of social standing and achievement would be grossly unfair.
3. Danes should not think that they are smarter than Muslims. The idea that differences in achievement between Muslim and non-Muslim Danes can be explained, even in part, by differences in intellectual capacity is unacceptable.
4. Danish culture is no better than that of the Islamic community. If there were to be a core principle of multiculturalism this would be it.
5. Danes should not assume themselves better educated than the Muslims. Comparison of levels of education between groups with different ethnicity and different culturally-based standards is frustrated, and ultimately rendered pointless, by the impossibility of evaluating the importance of the skills and information imparted.
6. Danes should not think that they are more important than Muslims. Denmark is a small country and the Islamic world community is vast. The Danes have much to gain and much to lose depending on their relationship with Islam.
7. Danes should not feel that they, as a people, are uniquely good at anything. Danes tend to be quietly proud of their abilities. While their reticence about putting themselves forward speaks well of them they should still remember that they see their own accomplishments through the filter of their culture and others may view them differently.
8. Danes should not laugh at Islam. Islam is a serious religion and the Danes a serious people. It mars the dignity of both for the Danes to ridicule Islam.
9. Danes should not think that the world cares especially about them. National alliances are weak and the EU and other Western nations are too pressed with other concerns to worry about the Dane's internal problems with their Islamic community, and what is more, the other Western powers are in many cases pursuing approaches that give them some real or imagined advantage, but are not necessarily good for Denmark.
10. Danes should not assume that they can teach the Islamic community anything. The Danes have a long history and a rich culture but so does the Islamic community. It would be presumptuous of the Danes to insist that immigrants become somehow Danish just to live in Denmark -- presumptuous and a waste of the advantages that diversity could give to a small country in an increasingly Islamic world.

By this point any Danes, Norwegians or students of Scandinavian culture will have recognized my ten axioms as a trivial rewording of Janteloven (Jante Law) which is described in Wikipedia thusly:
The Jante Law (Danish and Norwegian: Janteloven Swedish: Jantelagen Finnish: Jante-laki) is a concept created by the Danish/Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his novel A refugee crosses his tracks (En flygtning krysser sitt spor, 1933), where he portrays the small Danish town Jante, modeled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was in the beginning of the 20th century.

There are 10 different rules in the law, but they are all variations on a single theme and are usually referred to as a homogeneous unit: Don't think you're anyone special or that you're better than us. The 10 rules are:

1. You shall not think that you are special.
2. You shall not think that you are of the same standing as us.
3. You shall not think that you are smarter than us.
4. Don't fancy yourself as being better than us.
5. You shall not think that you know more than us.
6. You shall not think that you are more important than us.
7. You shall not think that you are good at anything.
8. You shall not laugh at us.
9. You shall not think that anyone cares about you.
10. You shall not think that you can teach us anything.

In the book, those Janters who transgress this unwritten 'law' are regarded with suspicion and some hostility, as it goes against communal desire in the town, which is to preserve social stability and uniformity.

Most Danes will deny, with varying degrees of indignation, that Jante Law has anything to do with them, or with the Danish psyche, but the fact that these "laws" from a novel written over seventy years ago are still being discussed [mild profanity] suggests that Sandemose may have been on to something.

While few Danes will agree with the ten points of Jante Law as written, if you state them the other way around -- "I should not think the I am special; I should not think that I am smarter than they are; etc." -- you will find them nodding along, at least for the first few until they catch on to what you are doing. While they can generally see that Jantelowen is repressive and stifling when applied to other people they still see many of the precepts as guide to how they themselves should act.

I mention all this to offer a possible answer to a question that a number of people are asking: Why did the "cartoon" crisis erupt in Denmark, of all places? The Danes are natural multiculturalists, not so much because they value diversity more than other peoples or are less xenophobic (neither of which is particlarly true) but because they tend to be reserverd and private and they have an aversion to putting themselves forward. This means that when groups from other culturs emmigrate to Denmark the Danes make very few demands that they integrate into Danish society as a whole. Given that they have a large degree of autonomy, why is the Danish Islamic community making so much trouble?

My theory about this question is that the Danes, and other Scandanavian peoples, who like to be left alone and expect others to be the same, failed to give fair warning to the Islamic community that there were aspects of the local culture that they feel strongly about. One often hears this idea expressed in terms of the perception of weakness and a determination on the part of the Muslims to exploit it. My notion is slightly different; As I see it the Muslims have come to the conclusion that they can simply demand that Sharia be imposed incrementally on Denmark since they (the Muslims) feel strongly about it and the Danes don't seem to have any strong opinions about it one way or the other.

There are some signs that the Muslims may have overplayed their hand with the cartoons. The cartoons, once you get to see them, are surprisingly mild and tasteful, despite the furor that has sprung up around them. They fall well within the boundaries of alowable commentary in any modern Western culture. They do violate some aspects of Islamic law but Denamrk is not an Islamic theocracy and even from an Islamic point of view there is some reason to question the ban. Representations of God and the Prophet are forbidden because of concerns about idolatry and so, unless one imagines that the Danes are going to bow down to a picture of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, it is hard to see the problem they pose. Of course, they do violate the Islamic law that states that "Islam cannot take a joke" which, come to think of it is not that different from rule number 8 in the Janteloven

See teleoscope: Cartoon Fun. for an animation with small versions of the cartoons and a link to a source for larger ones.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Huge, Lily-Scented Worm Found as Reuters Burys Lede

Discovery News has reported the finding of a rare earthworm.
Feb. 10, 2006 — A gigantic white worm that smells like lilies was recently unearthed in the state of Washington.

The invertebrate, called the giant Palouse earthworm because it can grow to around three feet long, had not been seen in nearly two decades and is believed to be extremely rare, according to a University of Idaho press release.
Slightly later the Reuters News Service reported the release of the election reports in Iraq in a story entitled Car bomb kills nine as poll results released.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A car bomb outside a mosque in Baghdad killed nine people on Friday as poll results confirmed the new political dominance of
Iraq's long-oppressed Shi'ites.

Interior Ministry sources and police said initially that the mosque in the violent Doura district of Baghdad was Shi'ite. They later said the bomb exploded outside a Sunni mosque nearby.

There have been numerous killings [... ]

As electoral commission official Adel al-Lami read out the results at a media briefing in the heavily fortified Green Zone, 10 km (six miles) to the south the car bomb exploded, hurling worshippers to the ground.
The scientist who found the giant earthworm has not yet commented on the Reuters story but she was quoted as saying that she noticed the worm immediately because "it's very white and the anterior part is pink near the mouth. She reported that she did not notice the pleasant, lily-like odor said to be associated with her rare earthworm, an odor also coincidentally missing from the Reuters story.

Cartoon Fun.

The images embedded in the animation above have been much discussed in the news but very few people have actually seen them. The endless discussion of how 'offensive' these cartoons are, combined with the refusal on the part of much of the press to run them so people can form their own opinions, has given the impression -- I would argue the false impression -- that they are animated by a hate-filled, far right xenophobia that would offend the sensibilities of anyone with good taste. I have put up this animation featuring small images of the cartoons to give people a sense of what the cartoons are like. My images are too small to see details and are mostly too small to read the captions (most of which are not in English anyway) but they suffice, I think, to give the general sense of what they are about.

I found the images at this site that displays them in more detail.

Update: Michelle Malkin has a better formatted page to see the original cartoons.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


oscarsDo you recognize the fish? They are Oscars -- Golden Oscars, as it happens. They seem a suitable illustration for a piece about the nominations for the 78th Academy Awards. These Golden Oscars have nothing do do with movies and, for a large part of the moviegoing public neither do the other ones.

In Oscars and the New Hollywood Triviality on the conservative film blog Libertas Jason Apuzzo continues his argument that Oscar nominees are increasingly chosen for their politics and tend to be independent films that fewer and fewer people have actually seen.

I must confess that I am beginning to respond to speculation about Oscar-worthiness in a film review in much the same way I respond to claims that a breakfast cereal is healthy. A few claims that a cereal is "good for you" or a "nutritious part of a good breakfast" are to be expected -- but when the ad copy is mostly about how healthy a cereal is I begin to expect texturized pine fiber nuggets flavored with flax seed oil. Similarly, when all I hear about a film is how likely it is to win Oscars I expect it to provide more heavy-handed left-leaning political pummelling than lively entertainment. This is unfair in many cases -- many of the films nominated are fine films -- but it is fair in enough cases that I have trouble freeing myself of the predisposition.

To examine Mr. Apuzzo's theory that nobody ever sees the films that get nominated for Oscars these days I offer the following scientific survey of one person randomly chosen among those sitting in my chair right now. The nominees are here if you want to follow along.

Teleoscope: Can I ask you a few questions about this year's Oscan nominees?
BigLee: I'm kind of busy right now...
Teleoscope: No you're not. You are blogging.
BigLee: Wellll... OK.
Teleoscope: Of the films with Best Actor nominations how many have you seen?
BigLee: I've been meaning to see "Walk the Line".
Teleoscope: That's none, then.
BigLee: Yes, none.
Teleoscope: Best Actor supporting?
BigLee: Nope.
Teleoscope: Best Actress?
BigLee: I saw "Pride and Prejudice".
Teleoscope: One of the five, then. Best actress supporting?
BigLee: Um, no. Not actually.
Teleoscope: Best Animated Feature?
BigLee: Two of the three.
Teleoscope: Ahh. Art Direction?
BigLee: Three of five. King Kong deserves it but it won't win.
Teleoscope: Why not? I don't think of Art Direction as being that political.
BigLee: The thing is, members of the Academy vote in their own specialty. This award gives the Art Directors their big chance to show that they hate Republicans, too. I think "Good Night, and Good Luck" has a good shot at the Oscar.
Teleoscope: Cinematography?
BigLee: One of five.
Teleoscope: That would be the Batman film...?
BigLee: Yes, how'd you guess?
Teleoscope: I got lucky. Costume Design?
BigLee: Two of five.
Teleoscope: Best Director?
BigLee: Go fish.
Teleoscope: Documentary?
BigLee: Surprisingly, I've seen one of them. March of the Penguins deserves the Oscar -- in spades. It's tragic really that they won't win. If the script had just mentioned the threat that "Global Warming" poses to the penguin's breeding grounds they'd have been a shoe-in, especially what their with being French and all...
Teleoscope: Ummm. Let's pick up the pace. Documentary Short? Editing? Foreign Language Film?
BigLee: Nope. Nope and nope.
Teleoscope: Best Picture?
BigLee: Zero.
Teleoscope: Animated Short? Live Action Short?
BigLee: None of them. Bit surprised I haven't seen the Pixar short.
Teleoscope: Sound Editing?
BigLee: Two out of three.
Teleoscope: Sound Mixing?
BigLee: Three of four.
Teleoscope: Visual Effects?
BigLee: All three of them. This is the only category where I have seen them all.
Teleoscope: I notice that you score higher in the more technical categories. How do you respond to the idea that you may just be a "special effects" geek?
BigLee: That could be, I suppose, but I don't think so, or at least not completely. Special effects are enablers. They allow the filmmaker to tell a story that would not have been possible to tell as well without them. C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter that he didn't think that live action films should be made from his Narnia books since the talking lion would appear silly and spoil the story. The new Narnia film is wonderful -- not because we get to see a talking lion but because "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is a fabulous story and it can finally be filmed. I don't think I am any more attracted to the films because of their special effects than the films are ignored by the Academy for being too busy telling stories to address "social issues".
Teleoscope: That was your longest answer yet. Pushed your buttons, did I?
BigLee: Ummm.
Teleoscope: So let's finish up. Original Screenplay? Adapted Screenplay?
BigLee: Nada and zilch.
Teleoscope: So, by my rough count there are something like sixty different films represented. And of those you have seen...
BigLee: Eleven.
Teleoscope: And in the big four awards -- Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Picture?
BigLee: I have seen only "Pride and Prejudice". One in eleven. There are several of them I have been planning to see... once they get to the second-run theaters. They tend to be films that I think I ought to see but am not that excited about... and now that they are nominated for Academy Awards it will be that much harder to work up any enthusiasm.