USA 2012: the land of poll rigging

AS THE 2012 US presidential election nears, the ugly spectre of poll rigging has reared its head, despite the fact that the last poll saw the Republican candidate, John McCain, being wiped out.

Given that there are cases pending over laws that insist on photo IDs if one wants to vote, the Democrats are now recalling the polls of 2000 and 2004, when the Republicans rigged the polls in Florida and Ohio respectively to get George the younger into the White House. Voting patterns show that black and Latino voters go for the Democrats to the extent of about 80 per cent, hence it is logical to assume that blocking these categories will strengthen the Republican vote. Many counties in Ohio have black majorities, and the rigging concentrated on these areas.

Thus it is not surprising that Struggle, a film on the 2004 rigging should be shown right now. The documentary was screened in a small theatre in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday (September 25) night, a rush job, but one that serves as a grim reminder of how powerful political operatives can function when they want to get their man into office.

In 2000, it was the Florida secretary of state, Kathleen Harris, who ensured that masses of black voters were knocked off the rolls so that the state would swing Bush’s way; even then, it was only stopping a recount that ensured Bush would slip through. In 2004, it was Harris’s Ohio counterpart, J. Kenneth Blackwell, who did the honours for the Republicans.

Crude means were used in 2004 – less voting machines than needed were provided, voters were sent from polling station to polling station until time ran out, voters were locked out with the excuse that time had run out, the machines themselves were rigged, and no paper trail was provided for cross-checking.

The exit polls in Ohio in 2004 showed John Kerry having a four per cent lead over Bush among male voters and a six per cent lead among females. Yet the final “result” showed Bush winning overall by 6.7 per cent, something incredible if one respects the laws of statistics.

This year, Democrats know that the incumbent, President Barack Obama, leads Republican Mitt Romney by pretty big margins in what are considered battleground states – for example, Obama has an eight per cent lead in Ohio and a four per cent lead in Florida as of September 25. They figure that Republicans are getting desperate now; after all, there are just six weeks to go for their man to swing things around.

Struggle director Roger Hill admits that the film is a rush job and that he is trying his level best to polish it up in order that it can be released on the web for people to be educated and avoid being cheated. Free Press Columbus editor Bob Fitrakis explained the mechanics of rigging to the small crowd that viewed the film in Columbus; he is a veteran of this kind of exercise.

But it shows one thing – the squeaky clean image that the US of A has been projecting for so long is pure fantasy; the reality is that crooks in the US, like those in every other part of the world, will stick at nothing to achieve their ends. The land of the brave and the free is also the land of A-grade cheats and thieves.

In India or in the US, boors are boors

IT’S strange that one has to get far away from one’s own home to think about one’s roots, but that’s what happened to me on Sunday (September 23) night.

Sitting in a theatre in Columbus, Ohio, watching an Indian singer on stage, it came home to me with some force that no matter where in the world they are, expatriate Indians can be very boorish.

The night was obviously not meant for those of no means; everyone at the theatre had paid at least $US30 a seat and those in the seats from where they could focus properly had forked out a hundred big ones.

Yet when the singer, Shreya Ghoshal, came on stage and started giving voice to songs that the audience was obviously familiar with, the catcalls and howls, which sounded quite feral at times, were not geared towards allowing the audience to enjoy the music.

No, they were meant to establish in people’s minds the familiar idea that those making the noise were very much there and that they meant to keep making that point right through the performance. They were shouting loudly, “hey, we are here. Look at us.”

Never mind if it showed that Indians, whether at home or abroad, can be extremely boorish.

I guess the singer did not quite cut it as well; she seemed to be in a constant battle to make herself heard above the orchestra accompanying her. This made it quite plain that the musicians who were around her did not constitute a group who have played with her for any length of time, but rather a group put together for the tour.

But even this lack of professionalism does not provide an excuse for the sort of behaviour one witnessed. No, this is common when Indians congregate together for any kind of function; most of them are in a schizophrenoid state of mind brought about by living abroad despite being desperately homesick.

They can’t go home and enjoy the material prosperity they do in the US; they can’t stay here and behave as they do in India. Hence when opportunity presents itself – and the Ghoshal concert was one where there was hardly anybody not of Indian origin – they behave as they would in their village back home in India.

Which is, frankly, not exactly edifying to either man or beast.

US TV channels firmly in one camp or the other

IN THE United States, not only is the nation split in various directions as the presidential election approaches; the media is split as well.

The TV channels are crammed with “analysts” who are clearly either in the Democrat or Republican camp. And neither set holds back when it come to giving a view on anything.

The media is expected to use logic to decide whether one side is right or wrong. But in the US, Fox News cannot find anything wrong with the Republican contender Mitt Romney. And CNN can find nothing wrong with the president, Barack Obama.

This kind of campaigning by proxy is extraordinary. But then most things about this country tend to fall into that category.

Take the literal parade of young, right-wing women on talk shows who can do much better than sulphuric acid when it comes to burning people. Where do these women come by these views at such a tender age? How do they become so bitter and twisted? It’s extraordinary.

The TV channels may be divided on many things, but when it comes to the level of racism they are as one. To both sides, there is a single unified vote called the Hispanic vote. This is an insult to all those with such origins – surely they are not dumb and voting en bloc for one candidate?

That also applies to the black population; the only plus is that the TV people call it the African-American vote. Once again, them dumb black folk are all expected to vote only one way.

People never refer to anything called the white vote. No, white folk are thinking, educated individuals, who may vote one way or the other after careful consideration and thinking things through.

Another clear indication of the racism at play is evidenced by the approach the TV channels took to the reaction in the Middle East to the 14-minute film trailer full of insults to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Of course, to the TV folk, this only means that Muslims are intolerant, that they have no sense of humour. One TV chap, Wolf Blitzer of CNN, went so far as to ask why other religions did not react violently when issues like this arose; after all, did not Muslim countries respect freedom of speech?

Nobody thought to ask – what would have happened if this 14-minute trailer had been poking fun at the Holocaust. Would Google have made any fuss about taking it down? Would there have been outrage all over the West or not? Would Israel have kept quiet?

No, it’s easy for those in the US to look on just one side of the question and continue to delude themselves that they are the most tolerant people in the world.

Dallas: home of cowboys and inefficiency

EVERYTHING in the US is said to be big. That is very true of Dallas, the first city I saw in the US of A. But big does not equal efficiency; it only looks grand, it just isn’t so.

Take the system for checking people through immigration; it’s clumsy, and there are a lot of barely educated types in uniforms who do nothing but add to the problems.

The US has a requirement that every non-citizen fill in a form from the Department of Homeland Security, in addition to the regular customs declaration. This form is not given to passengers on airliners that land in the US; only the customs form is given.

The DHS form is only available near the immigration queues, and there is no indication as to who needs to fill it in. If you’ve entered this country before, then you would know. Else, you wouldn’t have a clue.

A simple notice, in big type, providing the information about the DHS form would not cost much, though Uncle Sam is now in deep trouble as far as money goes. It would avoid telling people who have made their way through the queue and are close to being checked that they need to go back and fill another form.

People who land in the US have travelled from near and far and nobody looks forward to the prospect of spending more time in the immigration queue. But to many that is exactly what happens.

To add to that, once one starts filling the DHS form there are many half-educated officials who approach and try to help. A man who barely spoke English offered to help me fill out my form. I didn’t need his help but many others did avail of aid from him and others; it took them ages.

There are many well-dressed officials around the airport, replete with the trademark hats that one associates with Texas. Here again, not all the information that is doled out is correct. To a newcomer, no information is much better than half-correct information.

The airlines do not seem to be able to leave on time. I had a flight from Dallas to Orlando, Florida, that was supposed to leave at five minutes past five in the evening. The time for departure was gradually extended by 15- or 30-minute blocks, until people were finally allowed to board with an expected departure time of 7.30pm. That extended to 7.45pm, with the last 15 minutes spent on the tarmac. At no point were officials willing to tell passengers the full story – it came in drips and drabs, with the whole thing atributed to maintenance staff.

And this is said to have once been the third biggest international entry point in this country after JFK in New York and Chicago.

US: lots of technology, poor implementations

AUSTRALIAN nationals do not require a visa to visit the United States as tourists. They merely have to fill in a form on a website, wait for approval and then carry a printout of the resultant permission when they travel.

But any Australian passport holder who visits the US to report on an event has to get a journalist’s visa, what is known as an I category visa.

Going through the process is illuminating because one discovers the level of incompetence in the American system, if nothing else.

In July, I received an invitation from SUSE Linux, a company based in Germany, to attend their 20th anniversary celebrations to be held in Orlando, Florida. As it would have been churlish to refuse, I indicated I would accept.

SUSE was once an independent company and was bought by Novell in 2003. Novell, at that time, was a public company and SUSE was run from the US, not exactly very successfully. In 2011, Novell was bought by Attachmate Corporation which decided to relocate SUSE in Germany and run it from there. Attachmate also took Novell private.

The US visa can be applied for online – but the form leaves much to be desired. Firstly, it is built using Microsoft technology and thus works best with Internet Explorer. Nobody tells you this – I found out by trial and error due to my technology background.

A form which is properly designed should take one from page to page, allowing for both negative and positive answers. If a particular question cannot be left vacant, then there should be an option to get past that spot.

But with the visa application form, this does not happen. For example, I was clearly not going to work for an American company during my stay in the US. But the logic (?) built into the form clearly decided that this was the case even though I had clearly indicated that I was applying for a visa for a foreign media representative. I could not progress from this page.

I had to contact the US State Department to find out what to do – and the way to contact them is not provided. No, I found out the email address by going to the website of the US consulate in Melbourne and emailing them. I got an automated reply, giving me the correct email address. What a bloody circuitous way to deliver information!

One has to upload a picture along with the application. And there are all kinds of inane questions to answer – have you ever been involved in terrorist acts? have you been involved in genocide? Sure, people who are inclined this way would genuflect and tell Uncle Sam that they are indeed so oriented. Who designs these forms?

After this, one needs to make an appointment at the nearest consulate or embassy. But the amazing thing was that when I did so, I could not select the category of visa which I had specified in my application. I was offered other choices. To get past the form, I chose the B1/B2 which is a business visa.

Came the day of the interview and I was witness to what technology guru Bruce Schneier calls “security theatre”. At the consulate, there are two solemn men in uniform who act as though everyone who comes through the door is a member of al-Qaeda. They would be comical if they did not take themselves so seriously. The process is drawn out as much as possible to make it seem as though the security is the best in the world.

Upstairs, again papers were checked. No bags allowed, no mobile phones either. One had to sit in an area where a TV was blaring American propaganda – the US is the land of innovation, the land of racial harmony (lots of footage of Muslims saying the US was a beautiful place to live), the land of education, the land of opportunity. No mention was made of the national debt which now stands at $US15 trillion.

After 20 minutes (my appointment was at 10am), I was called to the counter. I explained the problem about the visa category and was given a long list of things which I would have to do. I then asked, sarcastically why I had to be delayed because of an error in the US web form. Back came the reply, “I will speak to my officer”.

Back to the same counter after 15 minutes. Now the girl told me that I had filled in the form correctly, something I already knew. I was fingerprinted and then went back to wait.

After 40 minutes more of listening to the propaganda, I was called for an interview. No seat, it’s done standing up. There is no toilet available for use by visitors on that floor – though the staff obviously do have a place to do their jobs. Way to go, USA.

Routine questions were asked, some of them redundant. Are you travelling alone? (already indicated on the form). Have you been to the US before? (also indicated on same form). How long are you going to be there? (again, asked and answered on the form). Have you ever been arrested? I was about to say that I had been arrested 13 times but then held my tongue. Humour is not appreciated in the US these days.

I had already paid $A160 for the visa; now I was told that I would have to pay a further $A105. Maybe that’s how the US is managing its budget deficit these days, by charging such outrageous sums for visas.

Another wait to pay the fee. A total of 90 minutes in the consulate. I’ve seen things done far more expeditiously in the German and British consulates. And things done far faster in the Indian, Thai and Sri Lankan consulates too.

After three days my passport arrived in the mail with the visa duly stamped. Sad to see that the country which identifies itself with technological progress cannot even build a proper web form.

Getting blind drunk and acting stupid is the hallmark of a hero

An Australian rules football player goes on an end-of-season trip to Las Vegas with some of his teammates. He gets blind drunk, ends up at a hotel where he is not staying, tries to jump from the balcony of a room onto a palm tree and falls to the ground.

Unfortunately, the man dies as a result of this fall. He is just 22, not anywhere near the age where one thinks of death.

A local paper in Melbourne describes him as a hero.

Which means that many others should aspire to be like him. After all, we all want to be heroes don’t we?

Exactly, how stupid can the media be? You’d have to wonder.

Australian rules footballers and participants in other sports in Australia have a habit of getting blind drunk and doing stupid things. It is always excused. Partly because there is a historic reverence for booze in the country.

Every time it happens, no-one talks about the danger of drinking to excess. That is never brought up, for if it was, then a lot of people would have to look very hard at themselves.

The first white people brought to Australia were prisoners from England. In chains, they were locked up and made to work, hard, back-breaking work. Their only relief in the evening was to get sozzled to forget. And so it has continued down the years.

One of the prime ministers who was said to be a crowd favourite, Bob Hawke, was two parts cut right through his eight years as the head of government. Nobody in the country thought this was an issue.

Had someone been driving while drunk and ended up dead as a result, there would be a lot of talk about the danger of driving while high. But in the case of this footballer, there will be no such caution.

He will be extolled as a great mate, and all his other noble qualities will be talked about. There will not be a word said about the fact that if you get blind drunk, then you are bound to do stupid things.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow: Al Qaeda has won

Today marks 11 years since Al Qaeda flew planes into the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and made the US aware that it was not safe on its own soil. Sad to say, the US has used the attacks down the years to curtail freedoms for its own residents.

All kinds of ridiculous curbs have been put in place; fear has been used time and again to restrict the lives of ordinary citizens, with the government all the while claiming to be doing so in the cause of freedom.

With the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the US has been claiming that it has emerged victorious over the attackers. But is that really the case?

Bin Laden’s stated goal behind the attacks was to hit the US economy in such a way that it would lose its clout. In that, Al Qaeda has succeeded to a remarkable extent.

After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the US economy tanked as money flowed out of the country. In order to push things along, interest rates were lowered and a flood of cheap money hit the streets. This money was used to build up a housing boom, much of it being loans to people who could not afford them.

The US also undertook an invasion of Iraq, a foolish move that began bankrupting the country. Billions have been spent in Iraq and also in Afghanistan, both missions mounted in reaction to the 2001 attacks.

Seven years after the attacks, the global financial crisis manifested itself, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The US is now technically bankrupt. It has a national debt close to $US16 trillion.

So who has the better claim to being the victor?

Destroying the joint?

AUSTRALIA is a a sexist country. There’s that phrase again. And with good reason.

Last Friday, one of the country’s well-known radio broadcasters, let fly a tirade against the prime minister Julia Gillard and women in general.

In the words of shock-jock Alan Jones, known for his sympathies to the conservative cause, the women he cited – he also mentioned Clover Moore, the mayor of Sydney, and a former police commissioner of Victoria, Christine Nixon – were “destroying the joint”.

Australia has a fairly decent number of women in positions of power – in addition to the three mentioned above, the governor-general is a woman, as is the attorney-general. There are a number of women ministers and plenty of women in public life. Many of them are capable.

But Jones is not required to substantiate his point; he just rants on and on and people do not bother to raise a stink about him.

This particular piece of abuse got him attention on the BBC, which was where I first heard it on a Saturday evening. It wasn’t particularly shocking as Jones has form on things like this, but it is a disturbing trend in a country where women are often treated as chattel.

Jones carries the can for the conservative opposition which is straining at the leash to get into power. Given the current poll ratings, they should take office when the next election is held, but that cannot come too soon for the likes of Jones.

Gillard has a tough gig. She is prone to talk in a patronising manner to people, as though she is talking to a two-year-old and that adds to her problems. Being a woman leader of Australia is not easy.