Friday, December 15, 2006

Get Well Soon, Senator! (I mean, really)

I, for one, am not troubled by the spectacle of discussion about the dramatic change in the political landscape that might result from the death of a single politician, rather than mere concern for his well-being.

This is one of the things that journalists get a bad rap for, unfairly: the most newsworthy thing about the condition of Tim Johnson, the relatively-obscure South Dakota senator upon whom surgery was conducted to stop bleeding on his brain, is that if he must be replaced the power in the Senate could revert to Republicans despite the hard-fought and dramatic mid-terms elections which gave Democrats a one-seat majority.

One of the interesting questions is what muse South Dakota's Republican governor, Mike Rounds, would heed should it be necessary that he select a successor:
  • Would he see the wisdom in replacing one elected Democrat with another?
  • Would he support the spirit of the mid-term by not taking this opportunity to undo the impact of the election?
  • Would he do what any partisan is permitted, by making the most of an opportunity?
It's bad enough that the Democratic majority in the next Congress depends on the contentment of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has good reason to consider the Democrats fair-weather friends. Now we have to worry about those couple of dozen states that have Republican governors and more than a dozen Democratic U.S. Senators among them.

Perhaps the last word of reason will be provided by Trent Lott, who knows a lot about saying the wrong thing:

On the state of the Senate, some have taken the high road, complaining that talking about politics at this time remains rather ghoulish. (Senator Trent Lott, the incoming minority whip, said that while he’d like to have Republicans in the majority, he would not want it this way.)

Digital Breadcrumbs

Reuters CEO Tom Glocer publishes the text of a recent speech in his blog in which he says that the news organization is partnering with Canon, which makes the pro-grade digital cameras Reuters uses, and Adobe, of image-editing software fame, to create a "solution" that will report what changes have been made to photographs.

This is a direct result of an incident last summer in which two photos Reuters published had been doctored in a way which changed their meaning and thus no longer accurately portrayed what had been shot.

I am pleased to announce today that we are working with Adobe and Canon to create a solution that enables photo editors to view an audit trail of changes to a digital image, which is permanently embedded in the photograph, ensuring the accuracy of the image.

We are still working through the details and hope this will be a new standard for Reuters and I believe should be the new industry standard.

It is important to say that we sought this technical solution, not because we don’t trust our photographers – far from it. I am incredibly proud of the amazing and dangerous work our photographers and journalists do. They all too often risk their lives to get the photograph that tells the true story of a conflict or captures the horror of war. The threat of injury or death is a daily hazard for many.

No, we sought a technical solution so that we had total and full transparency of our work. It’s what we stand for. It’s what we’ve always stood for. And we hope that it will provide reassurance to editors and consumers of our services.

Clearly, there needs to be a more detailed description of this, which I hope will be forthcoming. But for now I'm not sure how this will "ensure the accuracy of the image," per se, because it will not programatically prevent the publication -- even by Reuters, apparently -- of an image whose audit trail is not inspected. And in the online world images are published by the provider -- Reuters, AP, AFP, etc. -- directly on client sites, not by the Yahoos of the world.

There is also the matter of what weight this embedded information might add: will the audit trail data merely report what Photoshop tools had been used -- crop, autolevels, clone -- or will it include thumbnails of the before and after, which strikes me as the only way to know if a legal tool had been used legally? If the latter, this could add considerable weight, which is anathema in the online world, even in the era of broadband.

Reuters has some pretty specific rules about what can be done to a news photo. The short answer is, very little. It can be cropped to remove extraneous scenery (zeroing in on the action) but not to alter the appearance of the scene (like cutting out your boyfriend from a picture taken in happier times). An editor cannot make an overcast day look like a gathering storm, add a hockey puck or copy and paste smoke clouds from a bombing site.

And herein likes the problem: unless it is specific tools that must be left in the chest -- thus making it possible to automatically stop an image in its tracks on the production line -- computer-assisted auditing may provide an editor with nothing more helpful than her keen obervational and forensic skills. Each of the two embarrassing incidents of last August were detected by scrutinizing amateurs, not by digital analysis. This suggests to me that it is time that is needed most, not something new for the toolbelt.

And also unmentioned is how Reuters would vet the photographs from amateurs it is now soliciting with Yahoo. These will contain no information beyond the usual EXIF stuff, if that. Reuters intended to make these available for use in news stories, and Reuters Media President Chris Ahearn has raised the stakes to about as high as they can go by saying, "What if everybody in the world were my stringers?"

I did some programming when I was at Reuters and discovered a basic principle: Figure out which are machine decisions and which are human decisions. Shield humans from the machine decisions and never let the machine make a human one.

This Reuters initiative is well-intentioned and it may help. But my fear is that it will provide Reuters with nothing more than a false sense of security, and if anything goes wrong it won't be Canon or Adobe -- or Glocer -- who gets to fall on his sword.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What's the Hurry?

President Bush has delayed any announcement of any new strategy in the Iraq War until next year. I won't be rushed, Bush says.

Reuters reports that among the reasons Bush needs more time is so that Robert Gates, who takes over as defense secretary next week, has time to settle in:
Bush, speaking after talks with top Pentagon officials, said one reason for the delay was to give the incoming defense secretary, Robert Gates, to be able to provide input on Iraq when he takes over from Donald Rumsfeld on Monday.
That would be the same Gates who was on the Iraq Study Group until he was tapped to run the Pentagon. That would be the same Iraq Study Group which unanimously came up with a 79-point plan, the key provisions of which Bush has said he doesn't necessarily intend to heed.

So, he hasn't yet sat down in the big chair but Gates is apparently to blame for further dithering.

Great boss.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Bush on Iraq: Mr. Hide or Dr. Jekyll?

We won't know for a couple of week, when the president is likely to announce his Santa Clause strategy for Iraq to the nation, but I wonder if the pushback is a negotiating tactic -- with himself, even -- or a sign that Bush intends to remain thick-skinned and bunkered against difficult realities.

Evidence of the latter is easy to see, as it comes in a news conference with last best friend concerning Iraq policy, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, giving visual assurance that Bush does not stand alone (although the New York Times includes a somewhat contrary picture of the two, backs to the camera, walking out of the room).

Evidence of the former is tougher, though words seem to take on whatever meaning a cunning politician wants them to. So, there may be no "direct talks" with Iran and Syria, but indirect talks conducted by third parties are semantically possible and often these are more productive (hint: Blair was in town, he believes in engaging these two states, and he is not a member of the U.S. government).

If you buy that, then characterizing the state of affairs when minimal forces remain in Iraq and are not primarily engaged in combat duties by, say, late 2007 early 2008 could easily be characterized as having been achieved by a) conditions on the ground and b) Iraq's ability to pick up the slack (hint: Al-Malaki says his boys will be ready by June). Mission Accomplished!

The point/counterpoint debates and "gotcha" screamfests have nothing to do with what may be going on. We already know that the administration doesn't always believe what it says in public -- Rumsfeld is not here to stay, alas. It is also very difficult to appear to be moderating if one is constantly baited about how extreme and one-dimensional one is. Smart negotiators don't tell a kidnapper how stupid they were to give up hostages for a pizza and a pack of cigarettes. Even dumb ones probably don't.

This president has shown little desire to give up on some ideas easily, but he does. We hear nothing these days about Social Security reform -- but we would if someone got in his face. He doesn't bring up immigration policy, but hit him with a bar rag and you would hear that tune again.

The next meaningful words coming from his mouth will be around Christmas. Until then, this is all just looks like dodging and weaving the crossfire and I put very little stock in any of it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Iraq: Cut and Walk

"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. There is no path than can guarantee success, but the prospects can be improved."
So begins the eagerly-anticipated report of the Iraq Study Group, which criticizes the goals, strategy and tactics of the war. It remains to be seen how this analysis will be attacked, and thus how it will resonate among the caretakers of this problem, but there are very few long knives out in the early hours of its release, which bodes extremely well.

President Bush, who last week was nearly pronouncing the report preemptively DOA, today was was speaking like a uniter not a divider when he ascribed to it the power to be basis for common ground. That is a very positive step. It costs him nothing, but magnanimity isn't his style, so perhaps this means something.

The rapid pace of change of attitude towards the war has been astonishing, of course, because of the resounding expression of disgust in the mid-term election just a month ago. But the torrent -- starting with Rumsfeld's resignation (and subsequent leak, one presumes, of his legacy-imprinting 21 Big Ideas) to Robert Gate's two word answer, "No, sir," to Carl Levin's only slightly more loquacious question whether the United States "is currently winning the war in Iraq" -- seems to have completely obliterated all happy talk, at least outside the White House briefing room.

There is no more talk of "fighting them there so we don't have to fight them there," just of not abandoning Iraq so that a bad situation of our creation doesn't become worse; there are no more jibes about "cut and run" whenever anyone suggests a timetable to leave, because Republican royalty is now suggesting it; no denigration of attaching conditions to performance by telling Iraq -- ISG recommendation # 41 -- that the U.S. needs to redeploy even if Iraq doesn't prepare itself properly for this eventuality; no squawk about a redefinition of the mission from being part of the global war on terror to training police and military to hold together a young, struggling nation teetering on edge of implosion.

The report speaks of possible success but not of winning the war, even though it speaks of the dangers of handing Al Quaeda a propoganda victory.

As I've said before, the momentum seems to be squarely behind the ISG report as the focal point for an exit strategy. It seems inconceivable that the president, having lost credibility, moral and political capital, and the last election, will continue to blithley lose the peace by not embracing the basic logic of this document.

Friday, December 1, 2006

ISG Shoes Dropping with Regularity Now

The drip drip drip from the Iraq Study Group continues with a Washington Post report that the panel will recommend the withdrawal of all US combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2008, leaving behind only trainers and advisors (making this war Vietnam in reverse).

Iraqi PM Al-Malaki again upstages President Bush by promising that'll be plenty of time, since his army should be all trained up by the middle of next year.

So, who is going to rain on this parade? Not Bush, who has threatened only that he won't countenance a graceful withdrawal for the sake of a graceful withdrawal. Not Congress, some of whose Democratic leaders might grouse that even early 2008 is too far into the future to put things right (even though this is eons better than Bush's prediction months ago that extricating from Iraq will be the next president's problem) while others take vaciarious credit for a suggestion that is not a whole lot different from what Jack Murtha was saying a year ago.

What the ISQ is saying, if it is saying this at all -- the report won't be "released" until Dec. 6 -- is that it believes it ought to be possible to accomplish this redefinition of goal and strategy in a year, not that it is advisable to do so come Hell or high water. After all, only a fool says he is never going to change course even if only his wife and dog are his only supporters.

My money is on it becoming suddenly possible.