Archive for October, 2006

>The Anti-Empire Report

>Some things you need to know before the world ends

by William Blum (October 19 2006)

The jingo bells are ringing

“Who really poses the greatest danger to world peace: Iraq, North Korea or the United States?” asked Time magazine in an online poll in early 2003, shortly before the US invasion of Iraq. The final results were: North Korea 6.7%, Iraq 6.3%, the United States 86.9%; 706,842 total votes cast. {1}

Imagine that following North Korea’s recent underground nuclear test neither the United States nor any other government cried out that the sky was falling. No threat to world peace and security was declared by the White House or any other house. It was thus not the lead story on every radio and TV broadcast and newspaper page one. The UN Security Council did not unanimously condemn it. Nor did NATO. “What should we do about him?” was not America Online’s plaintive all-day headline alongside a photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Who would have known about the explosion, even if it wasn’t baby-sized? Who would have cared? But because all this fear mongering did in fact take place, was able to pose the question – “North Korea’s Nuclear Threat: Is It Time For An International Economic Blockade To Make Them Stop?” – and hence compile a 93% “yes” vote. It doesn’t actually take too much to win hearts and mindless. Media pundit Ben Bagdikian once wrote: “While it is impossible for the media to tell the population what to think, they do tell the public what to think about”.

So sometime in the future, the world might, or might not, have nine states possessing nuclear weapons instead of eight. So what? Do you know of all the scary warnings the United States issued about a nuclear-armed Soviet Union? A nuclear-armed China? And the non-warnings about a nuclear-armed Israel? There were no scary warnings or threats against ally Pakistan for the nuclear-development aid it gave to North Korea a few years ago, and Washington has been busy this year enhancing the nuclear arsenal of India, events which the world has paid little attention to, because the United States did not mount a campaign to tell the world to worry. There’s still only one country that’s used nuclear weapons on other people, but we’re not given any warnings about them.

In 2005, Secretary of War Rumsfeld, commenting about large Chinese military expenditures, said: “Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: Why this growing investment?” {2} The following year, when asked if he believed the Venezuelans’ contention that their large weapons buildup was strictly for defense, Rumsfeld replied: “I don’t know of anyone threatening Venezuela – anyone in this hemisphere”. {3} Presumably, the honorable secretary, if asked, would say that no one threatens North Korea either. Or Iran. Or Syria. Or Cuba. He may even believe this. However, beginning with the Soviet Union, as one country after another joined the nuclear club, Washington’s ability to threaten them or coerce them declined, which is of course North Korea’s overriding reason for trying to become a nuclear power; or Iran’s if it goes that route.

Undoubtedly there are some in the Bush administration who are not unhappy about the North Korean test. A nuclear North Korea with a “crazy” leader serves as a rationale for policies the White House is pursuing anyway, like anti-missile systems, military bases all over the map, ever-higher military spending, and all the other nice things a respectable empire bent on world domination needs. And of course, important elections are imminent and getting real tough with looney commies always sells well.

Did I miss something or is there an international law prohibiting only North Korea from testing nuclear weapons? And just what is the danger? North Korea, even if it had nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and there’s no evidence that it does, is of course no threat to attack anyone with them. Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, North Korea is not suicidal.

And just for the record, contrary to what we’ve been told a million times, there’s no objective evidence that North Korea invaded South Korea on that famous day of June 25 1950. The accusations came only from the South Korean and US governments, neither being a witness to the event, neither with the least amount of credible impartiality. No, the United Nations observers did not observe the invasion. Even more important, it doesn’t really matter much which side was the first to fire a shot or cross the border on that day because whatever happened was just the latest incident in an already-ongoing war of several years. {4}

Operation Because We Can

Captain Ahab had his Moby Dick. Inspector Javert had his Jean Valjean. The United States has its Fidel Castro. Washington also has its Daniel Ortega. For 27 years, the most powerful nation in the world has found it impossible to share the Western Hemisphere with one of its poorest and weakest neighbors, Nicaragua, if the country’s leader was not in love with capitalism.

From the moment the Sandinista revolutionaries overthrew the US-supported Somoza dictatorship in 1979, Washington was concerned about the rising up of that long-dreaded beast – “another Cuba”. This was war. On the battlefield and in the voting booths. For almost ten years, the American proxy army, the Contras, carried out a particularly brutal insurgency against the Sandinista government and its supporters. In 1984, Washington tried its best to sabotage the elections, but failed to keep Sandinista leader Ortega from becoming president. And the war continued. In 1990, Washington’s electoral tactic was to hammer home the simple and clear message to the people of Nicaragua: If you re-elect Ortega all the horrors of the civil war and America’s economic hostility will continue. Just two months before the election, in December 1989, the United States invaded Panama for no apparent reason acceptable to international law, morality, or common sense (The United States naturally called it “Operation Just Cause”); one likely reason it was carried out was to send a clear message to the people of Nicaragua that this is what they could expect, that the US/Contra war would continue and even escalate, if they re-elected the Sandinistas.

It worked; one cannot overestimate the power of fear, of murder, rape, and your house being burned down. Ortega lost, and Nicaragua returned to the rule of the free market, striving to roll back the progressive social and economic programs that had been undertaken by the Sandinistas. Within a few years widespread malnutrition, wholly inadequate access to health care and education, and other social ills, had once again become a widespread daily fact of life for the people of Nicaragua.

Each presidential election since then has pitted perennial candidate Ortega against Washington’s interference in the process in shamelessly blatant ways. Pressure has been regularly exerted on certain political parties to withdraw their candidates so as to avoid splitting the conservative vote against the Sandinistas. US ambassadors and visiting State Department officials publicly and explicitly campaign for anti-Sandinista candidates, threatening all kinds of economic and diplomatic punishment if Ortega wins, including difficulties with exports, visas, and vital family remittances by Nicaraguans living in the United States. In the 2001 election, shortly after the September 11 attacks, American officials tried their best to tie Ortega to terrorism, placing a full-page ad in the leading newspaper which declared, among other things, that: “Ortega has a relationship of more than thirty years with states and individuals who shelter and condone international terrorism”. {5} That same year a senior analyst in Nicaragua for the international pollsters Gallup was moved to declare: “Never in my whole life have I seen a sitting ambassador get publicly involved in a sovereign country’s electoral process, nor have I ever heard of it”. {6}

Additionally, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – which would like the world to believe that it’s a private non-governmental organization, when it’s actually a creation and an agency of the US government – regularly furnishes large amounts of money and other aid to organizations in Nicaragua which are opposed to the Sandinistas. The International Republican Institute (IRI), a long-time wing of NED, whose chairman is Arizona Senator John McCain, has also been active in Nicaragua creating the Movement for Nicaragua, which has helped organize marches against the Sandinistas. An IRI official in Nicaragua, speaking to a visiting American delegation in June of this year, equated the relationship between Nicaragua and the United States to that of a son to a father. “Children should not argue with their parents”, she said.

With the 2006 presidential election in mind, one senior US official wrote in a Nicaraguan newspaper last year that should Ortega be elected, “Nicaragua would sink like a stone”. In March, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the US Ambassador to the UN under Reagan and a prime supporter of the Contras, came to visit. She met with members of all the major Sandinista opposition parties and declared her belief that democracy in Nicaragua “is in danger” but that she had no doubt that the “Sandinista dictatorship” would not return to power. The following month, the American ambassador in Managua, Paul Trivelli, who openly speaks of his disapproval of Ortega and the Sandinista party, sent a letter to the presidential candidates of conservative parties offering financial and technical help to unite them for the general election of November 5. The ambassador stated that he was responding to requests by Nicaraguan “democratic parties” for US support in their mission to keep Daniel Ortega from a presidential victory. The visiting American delegation reported: “In a somewhat opaque statement Trivelli said that if Ortega were to win, the concept of governments recognizing governments wouldn’t exist anymore and it was a 19th century concept anyway. The relationship would depend on what his government put in place.” One of the fears of the ambassador likely has to do with Ortega talking of renegotiating CAFTA, the trade agreement between the US and Central America, so dear to the hearts of corporate globalizationists.

Then, in June, US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said it was necessary for the Organization of American States (OAS) to send a mission of Electoral Observation to Nicaragua “as soon as possible” so as to “prevent the old leaders of corruption and communism from attempting to remain in power” (though the Sandinistas have not occupied the presidency, only lower offices, since 1990).

The explicit or implicit message of American pronouncements concerning Nicaragua is often the warning that if the Sandinistas come back to power, the horrible war, so fresh in the memory of Nicaraguans, will return. The London Independent reported in September that “One of the Ortega billboards in Nicaragua was spray-painted ‘We don’t want another war’. What it was saying was that if you vote for Ortega you are voting for a possible war with the US.” {7}

Per capita income in Nicaragua is $900 a year; some seventy percent of the people live in poverty. It is worth noting that Nicaragua and Haiti are the two nations in the Western Hemisphere that the United States has intervened in the most, from the 19th century to the 21st, including long periods of occupation. And they are today the two poorest in the hemisphere, wretchedly so.

Don’t look back

The cartoon awfulness of the Bush crime syndicate’s foreign policy is enough to make Americans nostalgic for almost anything that came before. And as Bill Clinton parades around the country and the world associating himself with “good” causes, it’s enough to evoke yearnings in many people on the left who should know better. So here’s a little reminder of what Clinton’s foreign policy was composed of. Hold on to it in case Lady Macbeth runs in 2008 and tries to capitalize on lover boy’s record.

Yugoslavia: The United States played the principal role during the 1990s in the destruction of this nation, republic by republic, the low point of which was 78 consecutive days of terrible bombing of the population in 1999. No, it was not an act of “humanitarianism”. It was pure imperialism, corporate globalization, getting rid of “the last communist government in Europe”, keeping NATO alive by giving it a function after the end of the Cold War. There was no moral issue behind US policy. The ousted Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, is routinely labeled “authoritarian” (Compared to whom? To the Busheviks?), but that had nothing to do with it. The great exodus of the people of Kosovo resulted from the bombing, not Serbian “ethnic cleansing”; and while saving Kosovars the Clinton administration was servicing the Turkish massacre of Kurds. NATO admitted (sic) to repeatedly and deliberately targeting civilians; amongst other war crimes. {8}

Somalia: The 1993 intervention was presented as a mission to help feed the starving masses. But the US soon started taking sides in the clan-based civil war and tried to rearrange the country’s political map by eliminating the dominant warlord, Mohamed Aidid, and his power base. On many occasions, US helicopters strafed groups of Aidid’s supporters or fired missiles at them; missiles were fired into a hospital because of the belief that Aidid’s forces had taken refuge there; also a private home, where members of Aidid’s political movement were holding a meeting; finally, an attempt by American forces to kidnap two leaders of Aidid’s clan resulted in a horrendous bloody battle. This last action alone cost the lives of more than a thousand Somalis, with many more wounded.

It’s questionable that getting food to hungry people was as important as the fact that four American oil giants held exploratory rights to large areas of Somali land and were hoping that US troops would put an end to the prevailing chaos which threatened their highly expensive investments. {9}

Ecuador: In 2000, downtrodden Indian peasants rose up once again against the hardships of US/IMF globalization policies, such as privatization. The Indians were joined by labor unions and some junior military officers and their coalition forced the president to resign. Washington was alarmed. American officials in Quito and Washington unleashed a blitz of threats against Ecuadorian government and military officials. And that was the end of the Ecuadorian revolution. {10}

Sudan: The US deliberately bombed and destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum in 1998 in the stated belief that it was a plant for making chemical weapons for terrorists. In actuality, the plant produced about ninety percent of the drugs used to treat the most deadly illnesses in that desperately poor country; it was reportedly one of the biggest and best of its kind in Africa. And had no connection to chemical weapons. {11}

Sierra Leone: In 1998, Clinton sent Jesse Jackson as his special envoy to Liberia and Sierra Leone, the latter being in the midst of one of the great horrors of the 20th century – an army of mostly young boys, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), going around raping and chopping off people’s arms and legs. African and world opinion was enraged against the RUF, which was committed to protecting the diamond mines they controlled. Liberian president Charles Taylor was an indispensable ally and supporter of the RUF and Jackson was an old friend of his. Jesse was not sent to the region to try to curtail the RUF’s atrocities, nor to hound Taylor about his widespread human rights violations, but instead, in June 1999, Jackson and other American officials drafted entire sections of an accord that made RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, the vice president of Sierra Leone, and gave him official control over the diamond mines, the country’s major source of wealth. {12}

Iraq: Eight more years of the economic sanctions which Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, called “the most pervasive sanctions ever imposed on a nation in the history of mankind”, {13} absolutely devastating every aspect of the lives of the Iraqi people, particularly their health; truly a weapon of mass destruction.

Cuba: Eight more years of economic sanctions, political hostility, and giving haven to anti-Castro terrorists in Florida. In 1999, Cuba filed a suit against the United States for $181.1 billion in compensation for economic losses and loss of life during the first forty years of this aggression. The suit holds Washington responsible for the death of 3,478 Cubans and the wounding and disabling of 2,099 others.

Only the imperialist powers have the ability to enforce sanctions and are therefore always exempt from them.

As to Clinton’s domestic policies, keep in mind those two beauties: The “Effective Death Penalty Act” and the “Welfare Reform Act”. And let’s not forget the massacre at Waco, Texas.

Three billion years from amoebas to Homeland Security

“The Department of Homeland Security would like to remind passengers that you may not take any liquids onto the plane. This includes ice cream, as the ice cream will melt and turn into a liquid.”

This was actually heard by one of my readers at the Atlanta Airport recently; he laughed out loud. He informs me that he didn’t know what was more bizarre, that such an announcement was made or that he was the only person that he could see who reacted to its absurdity. {14} This is the way it is with societies of people. Like with the proverbial frog who submits to being boiled to death in a pot of water if the water is heated very gradually, people submit to one heightened absurdity and indignation after another if they’re subjected to them at a gradual enough rate. That’s one of the most common threads one finds in the personal stories of Germans living in the Third Reich. This airport story is actually an example of an absurdity within an absurdity. Since the “bomb made from liquids and gels” story was foisted upon the public, several chemists and other experts have pointed out the technical near-impossibility of manufacturing such a bomb in a moving airplane, if for no other reason than the necessity of spending at least an hour or two in the airplane bathroom.


{1} Time European edition online:

{2} Washington Post, June 4 2005

{3} Associated Press, October 3 2006

{4} William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military & CIA Interventions Since World War II (2004), chapter 5

{5} Nicaragua Network (Washington, DC), October 29 2001 – – and New York Times, November 4 2001, page 3

{6} Miami Herald, October 29 2001

{7} The remainder of the section on Nicaragua is derived primarily from The Independent (London), September 6 2006, and “2006 Nicaraguan Elections and the US Government Role. Report of the Nicaragua Network delegation to investigate US intervention in the Nicaraguan elections of November 2006” –

See also: “List of interventions by the United States government in Nicaragua’s democratic process”. –

{8} Michael Parenti, To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia (2000); Diana Johnstone, Fool’s Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (2002); and William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (2005), see “Yugoslavia” in index.

{9} Rogue State, pages 204-5

{10} Ibid, pages 212-3

{11} William Blum, Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire, chapter 7

{12} Ryan Lizza, “Where angels fear to tread”, New Republic, July 24 2000

{13} White House press briefing, November 14 1997, US Newswire transcript

{14} Story related to me by Jack Muir


To make a financial donation to support the work of the Anti-Empire Report you can use the following address. But if you are not in pretty good shape financially, please do not donate. Thanks.

William Blum
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William Blum is the author of:-

Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War 2
(Common Courage Press, 1995)

Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Zed Books, 2002)

West-Bloc Dissident: A Cold War Memoir (Soft Skull Press, 2002)

Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire
(Common Courage Press, 2004)

Portions of the books can be read, and copies purchased, at
and previous Anti-Empire Reports can be read at this website.

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Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>America’s Nuremberg Laws

>The End of the US as a Civilized Nation

by Ted Rall (October 10 2006)

Students of historical hysteria immediately saw 9/11 as America’s version of the Reichstag Fire. Both incidents were organic acts of terrorism (contrary to popular misconception, the Nazis didn’t set the 1933 fire) seized upon by power-hungry government officials to justify the crushing of political dissent and the rolling back of civil liberties. Hitler began marching his people into the abyss immediately upon seizing power in 1933, but Nazi Germany’s fate as a rogue nation wasn’t sealed until two years later, in the late summer of 1935.

Before then there had been heinous violations of human rights. Nazi authorities detained thousands of socialists and communists in concentration camps (death camps weren’t built until 1941). Many were tortured; some died in custody. Stormtroopers enforced state-sanctioned boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses. Brownshirts beat Jews in the streets as the police stood by and watched. Ignoring Germany’s treaty obligations, Hitler poured millions into the armed forces and threatened to use them against Germany’s neighbors. No one could doubt that Germany was in the hands of militaristic right-wing thugs.

Until 1935, however, the home of Goethe and Beethoven had not entirely abandoned the universal values accepted by civilized states. True, top German officials and street-level Nazi Party members were breaking all sorts of laws, including constitutional protections against racial and religious discrimination. That’s precisely the point: the law endured. Pre-Nazi legal infrastructure and laws, including the 1920s-era “Weimar” Constitution – still the Western world’s gold standard for protecting individual rights and privileges – remained in force. Technically, anyway.

Had there been the political will, Hitler and his goons could have been arrested and tried under German law. The German government was a lost cause, but the German nation still had a (slim) chance. Until 1935.

That’s when Germany officially codified the Nazis’ uncivilized anti-Semitism by passing the Nuremberg Laws. Jews were stripped of citizenship and banned from marrying or dating non-Jews. The laws were a form of legalized harassment, prohibiting Jews from displaying German flags or shopping in stores at certain times. Turning Jews into legal pariahs paved the way for the Holocaust. More immediately, the barbaric ipso facto policies of the Nazi government had corrupted Germany’s lofty and admirable system of legal guarantees. Even though German law hadn’t been of much help to Jews before – well, there had been the occasional arrest and prosecution of a brownshirt who had gone “too far” – now there was every reason for them to succumb to hopelessness. Germany was no longer a civilized nation in the clutches of gangsters. It had become a gangster nation.

Similarly, the recently passed Military Commissions Act removes the United States from the ranks of civilized nations. It codifies racial and political discrimination, legalizes kidnapping and torture of those the government deems its political enemies, and eliminates habeas corpus – the ancient precept that prevents the police from arresting and holding you without cause – a basic protection common to all (other) modern legal systems, and one that dates to the Magna Carta.

Between 2001 and 2006, George W Bush worked tirelessly to eliminate freedoms and liberties Americans have long taken for granted. The Bush Administration’s CIA, mercenary and military state terrorists kidnapped thousands of innocent people and held them at secret prisons around the world for months and years at a time. These people were never charged with a crime. (There was good reason for that. As the government itself admitted, fewer than ten had actually done anything wrong.) Yet hundreds, maybe even thousands, were tortured.

Under American law these despicable acts were illegal. They were, by definition, un-American. Although it didn’t help the dozens of Bush torture victims who died from beatings and drowning, the pre-Bush American judicial system worked. The Republican-controlled US Supreme Court handed down one decision after another ordering the White House to give its “detainees” trials or let them go. For a brief, shining moment, it looked like there was hope for the US to find its way back to the light.

Now, thanks to a gullible passel of Republican senators and an unhinged leader who is banking that Americans are just as passive as the Germans of the mid-1930s, we have our own Nuremberg Laws.

Under the terrifying terms of the radical new Military Commissions Act, Bush can declare anyone – including you – an “unlawful enemy combatant”, a term that doesn’t exist in US or international law. All he has to do is sign a piece of paper claiming that you “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States”. The law’s language is brilliantly vague, allowing the president to imprison – for the rest of his or her life – anyone, including a US citizen, from someone who makes a contribution to a group he disapproves of to a journalist who criticizes the government.

Although Bush and his top officials ordered and endorsed torture, the courts had found that it was illegal under US law and treaty obligations. Now torture is, for the first time, legal.

“Over all”, reports The New York Times, “the legislation reallocates power among the three branches of government, taking authority away from the judiciary and handing it to the president”. Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale, notes that the MCA trashes the centuries-old right of a prisoner to petition to the courts: “If Congress can strip courts of jurisdiction over cases because it fears their outcome, judicial independence is threatened”.

How did we get here? Good Germans – and many of them were decent, moral people – asked themselves the same thing. The answer is incrementalism, the tendency of radical change to manifest itself in bits and pieces. People who should have known better – journalists, Democrats, and Republicans who are more loyal to their country than their party – allowed Bush and his neofascist gangsters to hijack our republic and its values. They weren’t as bad as Bush. They just couldn’t see the big picture.

Just as no single rollback led marked the transition from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich, no event is individually responsible for America’s shocking five-year transformation from beacon of freedom to autocratic torture state. It wasn’t just letting Bush get away with his 2000 coup d’e’tat. It wasn’t just us standing by as he deliberately allowed his family friend Osama bin Laden to escape, or as he invaded Afghanistan, or as he built the concentration camps at Guanta’namo and elsewhere, or even Iraq. It was all of those things collectively.

The Military Commissions Act signals that our traditional system of beliefs and government has irrevocably devolved into moral bankruptcy. Memo to Senator McCain: You don’t negotiate with terrorists, and you don’t compromise with torturers.

It doesn’t matter how much food aid we ship to the victims of the next global natural disaster, or how diplomatic our next president is, or whether we come to regret what we have done in the name of law and order. Our laws permit kidnapping, torture and murder. Our laws deny access to the courts. The United States has ceded the moral high ground to its enemies.

We are done.


Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East? (Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing, 2006), an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America’s next big foreign policy challenge.

Copyright (c) 2006 Ted Rall

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Absolute Powerpoint

2006/10/23 1 comment

>Can a software package edit our thoughts

by Ian Parker

New Yorker (May 28 2001)

Before there were presentations, there were conversations, which were a little like presentations but used fewer bullet points, and no one had to dim the lights. A woman we can call Sarah Wyndham, a defense-industry consultant living in Alexandria, Virginia, recently began to feel that her two daughters weren’t listening when she asked them to clean their bedrooms and do their chores. So, one morning, she sat down at her computer, opened Microsoft’s PowerPoint program, and typed:

Family Matters
An approach for positive change to the
Wyndham family team

On a new page, she wrote:

* Lack of organization leads to confusion and frustration among all family members.
* Disorganization is detrimental to grades and to your social life.
* Disorganization leads to inefficiencies that impact the entire family.

Instead of pleading for domestic harmony, Sarah Wyndham was pitching for it. Soon she had eighteen pages of large type, supplemented by a color photograph of a generic happy family riding bicycles, and, on the final page, a drawing key – the key to success. The briefing was given only once, last fall. The experience was so upsetting to her children that the threat of a second showing was enough to make one of the Wyndham girls burst into tears.

PowerPoint, which can be found on two hundred and fifty million computers around the world, is software you impose on other people. It allows you to arrange text and graphics in a series of pages, which you can project, slide by slide, from a laptop computer onto a screen, or print as a booklet (as Sarah Wyndham did). The usual metaphor for everyday software is the tool, but that doesn’t seem to be right here. PowerPoint is more like a suit of clothes, or a car, or plastic surgery. You take it out with you. You are judged by it – you insist on being judged by it. It is by definition a social instrument, turning middle managers into bullet-point dandies.

But PowerPoint also has a private, interior influence. It edits ideas. It is, almost surreptitiously, a business manual as well as a business suit, with an opinion – an oddly pedantic, prescriptive opinion – about the way we should think. It helps you make a case, but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information, how much information to organize, how to look at the world. One feature of this is the AutoContent Wizard, which supplies templates – “Managing Organizational Change” or “Communicating Bad News”, say – that are so close to finished presentations you barely need to do more then add your company logo. The “Motivating a Team” template, for example, includes a slide headed “Conduct a Creative Thinking Session”:

Ask: In what ways can we … ?

* – Assess the situation. Get the facts.
* – Generate possible solutions with green light, nonjudgmental thinking.
* – Select the best solution.

The final injunction is “Have an inspirational close”.

It’s easy to avoid these extreme templates – many people do – as well as embellishments like clip art, animations, and sound effects. But it’s hard to shake off AutoContent’s spirit: even the most easygoing PowerPoint template insists on a heading followed by bullet points, so that the user is shepherded toward a staccato, summarizing frame of mind, of the kind parodied, for example, in a PowerPoint Gettysburg Address posted on the Internet: “Dedicate portion of field-fitting!”

Because PowerPoint can be an impressive antidote to fear – converting public-speaking dread into moviemaking pleasure – there seems to be no great impulse to fight this influence, as you might fight the unrelenting animated paperclip in Microsoft Word. Rather, PowerPoint’s restraints seem to be soothing – so much so that where Microsoft has not written rules, businesses write them for themselves. A leading US computer manufacturer has distributed guidelines to its employees about PowerPoint presentations, insisting on something it calls the “Rules of Seven”: “Seven (7) bullets or lines per page, seven (7) words per line”.

Today, after Microsoft’s decade of dizzying growth, there are great tracts of corporate America where to appear at a meeting without PowerPoint would be unwelcome and vaguely pretentious, like wearing no shoes. In darkened rooms at industrial plants and ad agencies, at sales pitches and conferences, this is how people are communicating: no paragraphs, no pronouns – the world condensed into a few upbeat slides, with seven or so words on a line, seven or so lines on a slide. And now it’s happening during sermons and university lectures and family arguments, too. A New Jersey PowerPoint user recently wrote in an online discussion, “Last week I caught myself planning out (in my head) the slides I would need to explain to my wife why we couldn’t afford a vacation this year”. Somehow, a piece of software designed, fifteen years ago, to meet a simple business need has become a way of organizing thought at kindergarten show-and-tells. “Oh, Lord”, one of the early developers said to me. “What have we done?”

Forty years ago, a workplace meeting was a discussion with your immediate colleagues. Engineers would meet with other engineers and talk in the language of engineering. A manager might make an appearance – acting as an interpreter, a bridge to the rest of the company – but no one from the marketing or production or sales department would be there. Somebody might have gone to the trouble of cranking out mimeographs – that would be the person with purple fingers.

But the structure of American industry changed in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Clifford Nass, who teaches in the Department of Communication at Stanford, says, “Companies weren’t discovering things in the laboratory and then trying to convince consumers to buy them. They were discovering – or creating – consumer demand, figuring out what they can convince consumers they need, then going to the laboratory and saying, ‘Build this!’ People were saying, ‘We can create demand. Even if demand doesn’t exist, we know how to market this.’ SpaghettiOs is the great example. The guy came up with the jingle first: ‘The neat round spaghetti you can eat with a spoon.: And he said, ‘Hey! Make spaghetti in the shape of small circles!'”

As Jerry Porras, a professor of organizational behavior and change at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says, “When technologies no longer just drove the product out but the customer sucked it out, then you had to know what the customer wanted, and that meant a lot more interaction inside the company”. There are new conversations: Can we make this? How do we sell this if we make it? Can we do it in blue?

America began to go to more meetings. By the early nineteen-eighties, when the story of PowerPoint starts, employees had to find ways to talk to colleagues from other departments, colleagues who spoke a different language, brought together by SpaghettiOs and by the simple fact that technology was generating more information. There was more to know and, as the notion of a job for life eroded, more reason to know it.

In this environment, visual aids were bound to thrive. In 1975, fifty thousand overhead projectors were sold in America. By 1985, that figure had increased to more than a hundred and twenty thousand. Overheads, which were developed in the mid-forties for use by the police, and were then widely used in bowling alleys and schools, did not fully enter business life until the mid seventies, when a transparency film that could survive the heat of a photocopier became available. Now anything on a sheet of paper could be transferred to an overhead slide. Overheads were cheaper than the popular alternative, the 35-mm slide (which needed graphics professionals), and they were easier to use. But they restricted you to your typewriter’s font – rather, your secretary’s typewriter’s font – or your skill with Letraset and a felt-tipped pen. A businessman couldn’t generate a handsome, professional-looking font in his own office.

In 1980, though, it was clear that a future of widespread personal computers – and laser printers and screens that showed the very thing you were about to print – was tantalizingly close. In the Mountain View, California, laboratory of Bell-Northern Research, computer-research scientists had set up a great mainframe computer, a graphics workstation, a phototypesetter, and the earliest Canon laser printer, which was the size of a bathtub and took six men to carry into the building – together, a cumbersome approximation of what would later fit on a coffee table and cost a thousand dollars. With much trial and error, and jogging from one room to another, you could use this collection of machines as a kind of word processor.

Whitfield Diffie had access to this equipment. A mathematician, a former peacenik, and an enemy of exclusive government control of encryption systems, Diffie had secured a place for himself in computing legend in 1976, when he and a colleague, Martin Hellman, announced the discovery of a new method of protecting secrets electronically – public-key cryptography. At Bell-Northern, Diffie was researching the security of telephone systems. In 1981, preparing to give a presentation with 35-mm slides, he wrote a little program, tinkering with some graphics software designed by a Bell-Northern colleague, that allowed you to draw a black frame on a piece of paper. Diffie expanded it so that the page could show a number of frames, and text inside each frame, with space for commentary around them. In other words, he produced a storyboard – a slide show on paper – that could be sent to the designers who made up the slides, and that would also serve as a script for his lecture. (At this stage, he wasn’t photocopying what he had produced to make overhead transparencies, although scientists in other facilities were doing that.) With a few days’ effort, Diffie had pointed the way to PowerPoint.

Diffie has long gray hair and likes to wear English suits. Today, he works for Sun Microsystems, as an internal consultant on encryption matters. I recently had lunch with him in Palo Alto, and for the first time he publicly acknowledged his presence at the birth of PowerPoint. It was an odd piece of news: as if Lenin had invented the stapler. Yes, he said, PowerPoint was “based on” his work at Bell-Northern. This is not of great consequence to Diffie, whose reputation in his own field is so high that he is one of the few computer scientists to receive erotically charged fan mail. He said he was “mildly miffed” to have made no money from the PowerPoint connection, but he has no interest in beginning a feud with an old friend. “Bob was the one who had the vision to understand how important it was to the world”, he said. “And I didn’t”.

Bob is Bob Gaskins, the man who has to take final responsibility for the drawn blinds of high-rise offices around the world and the bullet points dashing across computer screens inside. His account of PowerPoint’s parentage does not exactly match Diffie’s, but he readily accepts his former colleague as “my inspiration”. In the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, Gaskins was Bell-Northern’s head of computer-science research. A former Berkeley PhD student, he had a family background in industrial photographic supplies and grew up around overhead projectors and inks and gels. In 1982, he returned for a six-month overseas business trip and, with a vivid sense of the future impact of the Apple Macintosh and of Microsoft’s Windows (both of which were in development), he wrote a list of fifty commercial possibilities – Arabic typesetting, menus, signs. And then he looked around his own laboratory and realized what had happened while he was away: following Diffie’s lead, his colleagues were trying to make overheads to pitch their projects for funding, despite the difficulties of using the equipment. (What you saw was not at all what you got.) “Our mainframe was buckling under the load”, Gaskins says.

He now had his idea: a graphics program that would work with Windows and the Macintosh, and that would put together, and edit, a string of single pages, or “slides”. In 1984, he left Bell-Northern, joined an ailing Silicon Valley software firm, Forethought, in exchange for a sizeable share of the company, and hired a software developer, Dennis Austin. They began work on a program called Presenter. After a trademark problem, and an epiphany Gaskins had in the shower, Presenter became PowerPoint.

Gaskins is a precise, bookish man who lives with his wife in a meticulously restored and furnished nineteenth-century house in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. He has recently discovered an interest in antique concertinas. When I visited him, he was persuaded to play a tune, and he gave me a copy of a forthcoming paper he had co-written:”A Wheatstone Twelve-Sided ‘Edeophone’ Concertina with Pre-MacCann Chromatic Duet Fingering”. Gaskins is skeptical about the product that PowerPoint has become – AutoContent and animated fades between slides – but he is devoted to the simpler thing that it was, and he led me through a well-preserved archive of PowerPoint memorabilia, including the souvenir program for the PowerPoint reunion party, in 1997, which had a quiz filled with in-jokes about font size and programming languages. He also found an old business plan from 1984. One phrase – the only one in italics – read, “Allows the content-originator to control the presentation”. For Gaskins, that had always been the point: to get rid of the intermediaries – graphic designers – and never mind the consequences. Whenever colleagues sought to restrict the design possibilities of the program (to make a design disaster less likely), Gaskins would overrule them, quoting Thoreau: “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad”.

PowerPoint 1.0 went on sale in April 1987 – available only for the Macintosh, and only in black-and-white. It generated text-and-graphics pages that a photocopier could turn into overhead transparencies. (This was before laptop computers and portable projectors made PowerPoint a tool for live electronic presentations. Gaskins thinks he may have been the first person to use the program in the modern way, in a Paris hotel in 1992 – which is like being the first person ever to tap a microphone and say, “Can you hear me at the back?”) The Macintosh market was small and specialized, but within this market PowerPoint – the first product of its kind – was a hit. “I can’t describe how wonderful it was”, Gaskins says. “When we demonstrated at trade shows, we were mobbed”. Shortly after the launch, Forethought accepted an acquisition offer of fourteen million dollars from Microsoft. Microsoft paid cash and allowed Bob Gaskins and his colleagues to remain partly self-governing in Silicon Valley, far from the Microsoft campus, in Redmond, Washington. Microsoft soon regretted the terms of the deal; PowerPoint workers became known for a troublesome independence of spirit (and for rewarding themselves, now and then, with beautifully staged parties – caviar, string quartets, Renaissance-period fancy dress).

PowerPoint had been created, in part, as a response to the new corporate world of interdepartmental communication. Those involved with the program now experienced the phenomenon at first hand. In 1990, the first PowerPoint for Windows was launched, alongside Windows 3.0. And PowerPoint quickly became what Gaskins calls “a cog in the great machine”. The PowerPoint programmers were forced to make unwelcome changes, partly because in 1990 Word, Excel, and PowerPoint began to be integrated into Microsoft Office – a strategy that would eventually make PowerPoint invincible – and partly in response to market research. AutoContent was added in the mid-nineties, when Microsoft learned that some would-be presenters were uncomfortable with a blank PowerPoint page – it was hard to get started. “We said, ‘What we need is some automatic content!'” a former Microsoft developer recalls, laughing. “‘Punch the button and you’ll have a presentation'”. The idea, he thought, was “crazy”. And the name was meant as a joke. But Microsoft took the idea and kept the name – a rare example of a product named in outright mockery of its target customers.

Gaskins left PowerPoint in 1992, and many of his colleagues followed soon after. Now rich from Microsoft stock, and beginning the concertina-collecting phase of their careers, they watched as their old product made its way into the heart of American business culture. By 1993, PowerPoint had a majority share of the presentation market. In 1995, the average user created four and a half presentations a month. Three years later, the monthly average was nine. PowerPoint began to appear in cartoon strips and everyday conversation. A few years ago, Bob Gaskins was at a presentations-heavy conference in Britain. The organizer brought the proceedings to a sudden stop, saying, “I’ve just been told that the inventor of PowerPoint is in the audience – will he please identify himself so we can recognize his contribution to the advancement of science?” Gaskins stood up. The audience laughed and applauded.

Cathleen Belleville, a former graphic designer who worked at PowerPoint as a product planner from 1989 to 1995, was amazed to see a clip-art series she had created become modern business icons. The images were androgynous silhouette stick figures (she called them Screen Beans), modelled on a former college roommate: a little figure clicking its heels; another with an inspirational light bulb above its head. One Screen Bean, the patron saint of PowerPoint – a figure that stands beneath a question mark, scratching its head in puzzlement – is so popular that a lawyer at a New York firm who has seen many PowerPoint presentations claims never to have seen one without the head-scratcher. Belleville herself has seen her Beans all over the world, reprinted on baseball caps, blown up fifteen feet high in a Hamburg bank. “I told my mom, ‘You know, my artwork is in danger of being more famous than the Mona Lisa'”. Above the counter in a laundromat on Third Avenue in New York, a sign explains that no responsibility can be taken for deliveries to doorman buildings. And there, next to the words, is the famous puzzled figure. It is hard to understand the puzzlement. Doorman? Delivery? But perhaps this is simply how a modern poster clears its throat: Belleville has created the international sign for “sign”.

According to Microsoft estimates, at least thirty million PowerPoint presentations are made every day. The program has about ninety-five per cent of the presentations-software market. And so perhaps it was inevitable that it would migrate out of business and into other areas of our lives. I recently spoke to Sew Meng Chung, a Malaysian research engineer living in Singapore who got married in 1999. He told me that, as his guests took their seats for a wedding party in the Goodwood Park Hotel, they were treated to a PowerPoint presentation: a hundred and thirty photographs – one fading into the next every four or five seconds, to musical accompaniment. “They were baby photos, and courtship photos, and photos taken with our friends and family”, he told me.

I also spoke to Terry Taylor, who runs a Web site called, which supplies materials for churches that use electronic visual aids. “Jesus was a storyteller, and he gave graphic images”, Taylor said. “He would say, ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow’, and all indications are that there were lilies in the field when he was talking, you know. He used illustrations.” Taylor estimates that fifteen per cent of American churches now have video projectors, and many use PowerPoint regularly for announcements, for song lyrics, and to accompany preaching. (Taylor has seen more than one sermon featuring the head-scratching figure.) Visitors to Taylor’s site can download photographs of locations in the Holy Land, as well as complete PowerPoint sermons – for example, “Making Your Marriage Great”:

* Find out what you are doing to harm your marriage and heal it.
* Financial irresponsibility
* Temper
* Pornography
* Substance abuse
* You name it!

When PowerPoint is used to flash hymn lyrics, or make a quick pitch to a new client, or produce an eye-catching laundromat poster, it’s easy to understand the enthusiasm of, say, Tony Kurz, the vice-president for sales and marketing of a New York-based Internet company, who told me, “I love PowerPoint. It’s a brilliant application. I can take you through at exactly the pace I want to take you.” There are probably worse ways to transmit fifty or a hundred words of text, or information that is mainly visual – ways that involve more droning, more drifting. And PowerPoint demands at least some rudimentary preparation: a PowerPoint presenter is, by definition, not thinking about his or her material for the very first time. Steven Pinker, the author of “The Language Instinct” and a psychology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that PowerPoint can give visual shape to an argument. “Language is a linear medium: one damn word after another”, he says. “But ideas are multidimensional … When properly employed, PowerPoint makes the logical structure of an argument more transparent. Two channels sending the same information are better than one.”

Still, it’s hard to be perfectly comfortable with a product whose developers occasionally find themselves trying to suppress its use. Jolene Rocchio, who is a product planner for Microsoft Office (and is upbeat about PowerPoint in general,) told me that, at a recent meeting of a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, she argued against a speaker’s using PowerPoint at a future conference. “I said, ‘I think we just need her to get up and speak'”. On an earlier occasion, Rocchio said, the same speaker had tried to use PowerPoint and the projector didn’t work, “and everybody was, like, cheering. They just wanted to hear this woman speak, and they wanted it to be from her heart. And the PowerPoint almost alienated her audience.”

This is the most common complaint about PowerPoint. Instead of human contact, we are given human display. “I think that we as a people have become unaccustomed to having real conversations with each other, where actually give and take to arrive at a new answer. We present to each other, instead of discussing”, Cathy Belleville says. Tad Simons, the editor of the magazine Presentations (whose second-grade son used PowerPoint for show-and-tell), is familiar with the sin of triple delivery, where precisely the same text is seen on the screen, spoken aloud, and printed on the handout in front of you (the “leave-behind”, as it is known in some circles). “The thing that makes my heart sing is when somebody pressed the ‘B’ button and the screen goes black and you can actually talk to the person”, Simons told me.

In 1997, Sun Microsystems’ chairman and CEO, Scott McNealy, “banned” PowerPoint (a ban widely disregarded by his staff). The move might have been driven, in part, by Sun’s public-relations needs as a Microsoft rival, but, according to McNealy, there were genuine productivity issues. “Why did we ban it? Let me put it this way: If I want to tell my forty thousand employees to attack, the word ‘attack’ in ASCII is forty-eight bits. As a Microsoft Word document, it’s 90,112 bits. Put that same word in a PowerPoint slide and it becomes 458,048 bits. That’s a pig through the python when you try to send it over the Net.” McNealy’s concern is shared by the American military. Enormously elaborate PowerPoint files (generated by presentation-obsessives – so-called PowerPoint Rangers) were said to be clogging up the military’s bandwidth. Last year, to the delight of many under his command, General Henry H Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued an order to US bases around the world insisting on simpler presentations.

PowerPoint was developed to give public speakers control over design decisions. But it’s possible that those speakers should be making other, more important decisions. “In the past, I think we had an inefficient system, where executives passed all of their work to secretaries”, Cathy Belleville says. “But now we’ve got highly paid people sitting there formatting slides – spending hours formatting slides – because it’s more fun to do that than concentrate on what you’re going to say. It would be much more efficient to offload that work onto someone who could do it in a tenth of the time, and be paid less. Millions of executives around the world are sitting there going, ‘Arial? Times Roman? Twenty-four point? Eighteen point?'”

In the glow of a PowerPoint show, the world is condensed, simplified, and smoothed over – yet bright and hyperreal – like the cityscape background in a PlayStation motor race. PowerPoint is strangely adept at disguising the fragile foundations of a proposal, the emptiness of a business plan; usually, the audience is respectfully still (only venture capitalists dare to dictate the pace of someone else’s slide show), and, with the visual distraction of a dancing pie chart, a speaker can quickly move past the laughable flaw in his argument. If anyone notices, it’s too late – the narrative presses on.

Last year, three researchers at Arizona State University, including Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and the author of “Influence: Science and Practice”, conducted an experiment in which they presented three groups of volunteers with information about Andrew, a fictional high-school student under consideration for a university football scholarship. One group was given Andrew’s football statistics typed on a piece of paper. The second group was shown bar graphs. Those in the third group were given a PowerPoint presentation, in which animated bar graphs grew before their eyes.

Given Andrew’s record, what kind of prospect was he? According to Cialdini, when Andrew was PowerPointed, viewers saw him as a greater potential asset to the football team. The first group rated Andrew four and a half on a scale of one to seven; the second rated him five; and the PowerPoint group rated him six. PowerPoint gave him power. The experiment was repeated, with three groups of sports fans that were accustomed to digesting sports statistics; this time, the first two groups gave Andrew the same rating. But the group that saw the PowerPoint presentation still couldn’t resist it. Again, Andrew got a six. PowerPoint seems to be a way for organizations to turn expensive, expert decision-makers into novice decision-makers. “It’s frightening”, Cialdini says. He always preferred to use slides when he spoke to business groups, but one high-tech company recently hinted that his authority suffered as a result. “They said, ‘You know what, Bob? You’ve got to get into PowerPoint, otherwise people aren’t going to respond’. So I made the transfer.”

Clifford Nass has an office overlooking the Oval lawn at Stanford, a university where the use of PowerPoint is so widespread that to refrain from using it is sometimes seen as a mark of seniority and privilege, like egg on one’s tie. Nass once worked for Intel, and then got a PhD in sociology, and now he writes about and lectures on the ways people think about computers. But, before embarking on any of that, Professor Nass was a professional magician – Cliff Conjure – so he has some confidence in his abilities as a public performer.

According to Nass, who now gives PowerPoint lectures because his students asked him to, PowerPoint “lifts the floor” of public speaking: a lecture is less likely to be poor if the speaker is using the program. “What PowerPoint does is very efficiently deliver content”, Nass told me. “What students gain is a lot more information – not just facts but rules, ways of thinking, examples”.

At the same time, PowerPoint “lowers the ceiling”, Nass says. “What you miss is the process. The classes I remember most, the professors I remember most, were the ones where you could watch how they thought. You don’t remember what they said, the details. It was ‘What an elegant way to wrap around a problem!’ PowerPoint takes that away. PowerPoint gives you the outcome, but it removes the process.”

“What I miss is, when I used to lecture without PowerPoint, every now and then I’d get a cool idea”, he went on. “I remember once it just hit me. I’m lecturing, and all of a sudden I go, ‘God! “The Wizard of Oz”! The scene at the end of “The Wizard of Oz”!'” Nass, telling this story, was almost shouting. (The lecture, he later explained, was about definitions of “the human” applied to computers.) “I just went for it – twenty-five minutes. And to this day students who were in that class remember it. That couldn’t happen now: ‘Where the hell is the slide?'”

PowerPoint could lead us to believe that information is all there is. According to Nass, PowerPoint empowers the provider of simple content (and that was the task Bob Gaskins originally set for it), but it risks squeezing out the provider of process – that is to say, the rhetorician, the storyteller, the poet, the person whose thoughts cannot be arranged in the shape of an AutoContent slide. “I hate to admit this”, Nass said, “but I actually removed a book from my syllabus last year because I couldn’t figure out how to PowerPoint it. It’s a lovely book called Interface Culture (Perseus, 1999), by Steven Johnson, but it’s very discursive; the charm of it is the throwaways. When I read this book, I thought, My head’s filled with ideas, and now I’ve got to write out exactly what those ideas are, and – they’re not neat”. He couldn’t get the book into bullet points; every time he put something down, he realized that it wasn’t quite right. Eventually, he abandoned the attempt, and instead of a lecture, he gave his students a recommendation. He told them it was a good book, urged them to read it, and moved on to the next bullet point.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Presidential Neglect

>by Charley Reese

King Features Syndicate (October 20 2006)

The president concentrated so hard on the two members of his infamous “axis of evil” that didn’t have nuclear weapons that he neglected the one that does. North Korea announced that it would test a nuclear weapon, and now it has done so.

I’m sure the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, said, “Woe is me” when he heard such words as “provocative” and “unacceptable” tossed at him as if words were weapons. By the way, how can a fact be unacceptable? The fact exists whether the president likes it or not.

It’s a good idea not to call anything unacceptable that you aren’t prepared to prevent, and, of course, the president was not prepared to prevent the nuclear test. I seriously hope he didn’t believe that mere words would deter the North Koreans.

A nuclear-armed North Korea represents a failure of American diplomacy. For the sake of fairness, it should be said that the most skilled diplomats in the world might have failed to dissuade the North Koreans from pursuing nuclear weapons. The president’s stumblebum, lead-footed style of diplomacy, however, virtually guaranteed that the North Koreans would develop nuclear weapons.

For example, he included North Korea in his stupid axis of evil, a phrase coined by David Frum, a fanatic neoconservative who at the time was a White House speechwriter. Next Bush announces a US policy of preemptive wars. He tells the whole world, “You’re either with us or against us”.

He then proceeds to launch two pre-emptive wars, on Afghanistan and Iraq. Even as he remains bogged down in those two countries, he launches a verbal war against Iran. At the same time, his so-called negotiations with North Korea had been reduced to threats and demands.

Well, if you were North Korea’s “Dear Leader”, what would you conclude? The logical conclusion is that the US eventually plans to attack North Korea. The best deterrence against that is to have nuclear weapons. The North Korean leader might strike us as odd or even comical, but he’s not stupid. Nobody who can survive in the midst of all those grim-faced generals is stupid.

Diplomacy is not molecular biology. It is simply negotiations. The first mistake Bush made was to include Japan. Koreans, North and South, hate Japan because its half-century occupation of the Korean peninsula was so brutal. Bush should have asked Japan to sit out the negotiation process.

Russia, China and South Korea are the three countries most likely to have influence with North Korea. Working closely with these countries, Bush should have presented the North Koreans with a menu of incentives and disincentives. Instead, he refused everything they asked for, such as one-on-one talks and a security guarantee, and simply made threats.

Well, North Korea has called the president’s bluff. Other than bluster, the president is not going to do anything. Even without nukes, North Korea is a little dragon with a lot of very sharp teeth. A military attack on North Korea would unleash a blood bath involving scores of thousands of casualties.

One view of history is that it is a record of political leaders making decisions. If they are smart and make good decisions, good things happen. If they are stupid and make bad decisions, then disasters can befall innocent people.

We have elected ourselves a president who is not very smart when it comes to foreign affairs and, even worse, seems to have no real interest in them. Instead of seeking wise counsel, he has surrounded himself with neoconservative ideologues who think the US can bully the rest of the world into doing what they want it to do.

I’ll be glad when he retires to Crawford, Texas, and I’m reasonably sure the rest of the world will feel the same way. In the meantime, nuclear nonproliferation is a dead issue.

Write to Charley Reese at Post Office Box 2446, Orlando, Florida 32802.

Copyright (c) 2006 by King Features Syndicate

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Ban It Now!

>Friends Don’t Let Friends Use PowerPoint

by Thomas A Stewart

Fortune (February 05 2001)

Nearly a decade ago I met with Jack Welch in the office he keeps in Manhattan, high up in Rockefeller Center. I’d just made a swing around the company, visiting GE businesses in must-see spots like Erie, Pennsylvania, Schenectady, New York, and Burkville, Alabama.

“What did you learn?” Welch asked as we sat at a round table.

“Well”, I began, “I saw how GE could save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year”. His alert-status instantly ratcheted up. I continued: “Ban overheads”.

He laughed: “You should have seen how much they cost before we got Macs”.

Neither of us knew it, but we were seeing the first signs of an epidemic that threatens the cerebrums of business more than bovine spongiform encephalopathy does Elsie and her ilk. GE had those Macs (since replaced with PCs) because Macs, and at the time only Macs, could run an application called PowerPoint.

The time has come to think the unthinkable, say the unsayable, and then, gulp, do the undoable: Ban PowerPoint. Make up one last slide that reads: FRIENDS DON’T LET FRIENDS USE POWERPOINT. Then stop. Just say no. Whip inflation now. Expunge it. Find the application. Select it with the mouse. Drag it to the trash. Then make sure your machine empties it.

Here’s why.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It’s a monopoly.

PowerPoint was the brainchild of a company called Forethought, which Microsoft bought in 1987. Programmers for the Evil Empire took the application, then Mac-specific, made a PC version, steadily improved it, and put it into Office. There is now no realistic alternative. The other day someone at IBM said, “I think Lotus” – which IBM owns – “makes some kind of presentation software”. But he couldn’t remember its name – and he joined IBM in the Lotus acquisition. (It’s called Freelance Graphics. There are other applications, including one from Corel, the limping maker of WordPerfect. Microsoft just invested in Corel, keeping it afloat and creating the simulacrum of competition.)

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It’s a monopoly. It’s inescapable.

I go to a lot of conferences, do a lot of speaking. I used to use no graphics, but that meant I got a zero where speaker-evaluation forms ask the audience to rate the speaker’s graphics, and it was bringing down my grade. So like any student who studies for the test rather than for the joy of learning, I learned to use acetate graphics and an overhead projector. But these days conference organizers say, “We’ll put them on PowerPoint for you. We want a uniform look.”

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It’s a monopoly. It’s inescapable. It’s monotonous.

Why in the world would you want a uniform look? The price of giving a lot of speeches is having to listen to a lot of them. They’re all the same. One speaker finishes, his last slide saying thank you and giving his e-mail address. There is applause. The lights go up, he unplugs his laptop and leaves the podium, the emcee introduces the next speaker. She walks up, mumbles inconsequentially while she plugs in her laptop. The lights dim and she shows her first slide. It reads good morning. This starts at eight, goes to twelve, resumes at one, and ends at five. Somewhere a bird must be singing.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It’s intellectually suspect.

Never put more than three bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, experts say. It confuses people. Keep it simple. You know, the way life is. In “The American Scholar”, Emerson warned against the tendency to believe something just because it is written down. How much greater the danger when it is also boiled down.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It’s intellectually suspect. Complexity exists, really. It disguises tone of voice and point of view. In real life, bullet points kill.

I was at a conference in Boston when a speaker proposed as a best practice something that was directly the opposite of advice given by a speaker the day before. An irate member of the audience rose during the Q&A and insisted that this be sorted out then and there. “I paid good money to come here”, he said, “and I want to know what to do”. The speaker had no slide giving the right answer – “Think for yourself”.

Nor does PowerPoint allow for idiosyncrasy. See, for example, what happens to the Gettysburg Address when it’s converted into a PowerPoint presentation, . Only by thinking and acting differently from the competition can you perform differently from it.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It’s intellectually suspect. It’s business television.

If this is Thursday, this must be … Loews Coronado Bay in San Diego? The Turnberry Isle in Aventura, Florida? The Pointe Hilton South Mountain in Phoenix? Wherever you are, half the audience arrived last night from at least two time zones away. Another half – to some degree the two groups overlap – was up way late, drinking and carousing. By all means, fire up PowerPoint and dim the lights. These guys need their beauty sleep. Besides, they’ll have a hard copy of your presentation to puzzle over on the plane ride home.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It’s intellectually suspect. It’s business television. It discourages questioning.

Wherever you are, note where you’re not: Pebble Beach or the Greenbrier. Your boss is there, drinking better wine and eating better food. PowerPoint is very rare at CEO conferences. Like Supreme Court justices, captains of industry like to see a speaker think, not watch him read.

WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! You have nothing to lose but your frames! Thank You!

Copies of this presentation are available at the back of the auditorium.

Copyright (c) 2001 Time, Inc.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Project Manager Leaves Suicide PowerPoint Presentation

>The Onion | Issue 41.06 (February 09 2005)

Portland, Oregon – Project manager Ron Butler left behind a 48-slide PowerPoint presentation explaining his tragic decision to commit suicide, coworkers reported Tuesday.

“When I first heard that Ron had swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills, I was shocked”, said Hector Benitez, Butler’s friend and coworker at Williams+Kennedy Marketing Consultants. “But after the team went through Ron’s final PowerPoint presentation, I had a solid working knowledge of the pain he was feeling, his attempts to cope, and the reasons for his ultimate decision”.

“I just wish he would’ve shot me an e-mail asking for help”, Benitez added.

Butler broke his presentation into four categories: Assessment Of Current Situation, Apologies & Farewells, Will & Funeral Arrangements, and Final Thoughts.

According to Williams+Kennedy president Bradford Williams, finalgoodbye.ppt was “clear, concise, and persuasive”.

“After everyone left the room, I sat down and went through Ron’s final presentation in slide-sorter view”, Williams said. “Man, I gotta tell you, it blew me away. That presentation really utilized the full multimedia capabilities of Microsoft’s PowerPoint application.”

“We’re really gonna miss Ron around here”, Williams added.

In the presentation’s first section, a three-dimensional bar graph illustrated the growth of Butler’s sorrow during the two years since his wife and only child died in a car accident.

“We all got Ron’s message loud and clear when that JPEG of his wife wipe-transitioned to a photo of her tombstone”, coworker Anne Thibideux said.

The first section closed with a review of key objectives and critical success factors. The two-column text display was enlivened by colorful background wallpaper and clip-art question marks depicting Ron’s confusion over his choice.

The second portion of the presentation comprised an ordered list of goodbyes to colleagues and apologies to friends.

“The colors in Apologies & Farewells were perfectly calibrated for digital-projector display”, IT director Bill Schapp said. “I think Ron was the only guy at W+K who understood the importance of running the Gretag-Macbeth Eye-One Beamer on presentations”.

The third segment, Will & Funeral Arrangements, included a list of Butler’s friends and family indexed with phone numbers, a last will and testament, and scrolling-text instructions for the dissemination of his ashes.

“To Ron’s credit, it was one helluva way to go out”, human resources manager Gail Everts said. “Ron clearly spent a lot of time on that presentation. If the subject matter weren’t so heavy, we’d probably use it to train his replacement.”

Copywriter Gita Pruriyaran said the presentation “had room for improvement”.

“I felt some of the later transitions were weak”, Pruriyaran said. “The point of a transition is to maintain audience interest and lighten the mood. To me, the door-closing sound effects in Will & Funeral were repetitive and heavy-handed. But Ron’s choice to end with that Hamlet quote and then fade to black was really powerful. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when Hector flipped off the projector and brought up the lights.”

Coworkers were shocked to learn that Butler’s document was initially created on August 8 2004.

“I should have seen this coming, but I didn’t”, Benitez said. “When Ron started deleting all of his old files last week, I thought he was worried about another hard-drive crash. I never imagined he was, you know, preparing.”

“If only we’d all paid more attention to Ron during the Microsoft Project workshop he held last month”, Benitez added.

Butler is survived by his parents Gerald and Martha Butler, who described their relationship with their son as “distant”.

“Ron would e-mail us photos and home movies, but we’re not very good with computers”, said Gerald, 71, a retired postal worker. “We tried to stay close, but we just never learned how to open up those files. At the very end, Ron was sending us his suicidal thoughts, but we didn’t get the instant message – until it was too late”.

Williams+Kennedy vice president Vivien Esterhaus said Butler “will not be forgotten”.

“We have made arrangements for his PowerPoint presentation to be stored in the W+K off-site secure file-storage archive”, Esterhaus said. “Barring a virus or major computer malfunction, his final words will always be accessible. If only Ron could’ve been saved, too.”


The late Ron and his slides are shown at URL below.

(c) Copyright 2006, Onion, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Onion is not intended for readers under 18 years of age.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>PowerPoint: Killer App?

>by Ruth Marcus

Washington Post (August 30 2005)

Did PowerPoint make the space shuttle crash? Could it doom another mission? Preposterous as this may sound, the ubiquitous Microsoft “presentation software” has twice been singled out for special criticism by task forces reviewing the space shuttle disaster.

Perhaps I’ve sat through too many PowerPoint presentations lately, but I think the trouble with these critics is that they don’t go far enough: The software may be as much of a mind-numbing menace to those of us who intend to remain earthbound as it is to astronauts.

PowerPoint’s failings have been outlined most vividly by Yale political scientist Edward Tufte, a specialist in the visual display of information. In a 2003 Wired magazine article headlined “PowerPoint Is Evil” and a less dramatically titled pamphlet, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Graphics Press, 2006), Tufte argued that the program encourages “faux-analytical” thinking that favors the slickly produced “sales pitch” over the sober exchange of information.

Exhibit A in Tufte’s analysis is a PowerPoint slide presented to NASA senior managers in January 2003, while the space shuttle Columbia was in the air and the agency was weighing the risk posed by tile damage on the shuttle wings. Key information was so buried and condensed in the rigid PowerPoint format as to be useless.

“It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation”, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded, citing Tufte’s work. The board devoted a full page of its 2003 report to the issue, criticizing a space agency culture in which, it said, “the endemic use of PowerPoint” substituted for rigorous technical analysis.

But NASA – like the rest of corporate and bureaucratic America – seems powerless to resist PowerPoint. Just this month a minority report by the latest shuttle safety task force echoed the earlier concerns: Often, the group said, when it asked for data it ended up with PowerPoints – without supporting documentation.

These critiques are, pardon the phrase, on point, but I suspect that the insidious influence of PowerPoint goes beyond the way it frustrates scientific analysis. The deeper problem with the PowerPointing of America – the PowerPointing of the planet, actually – is that the program tends to flatten the most complex, subtle, even beautiful, ideas into tedious, bullet-pointed bureaucratese.

I experienced a particularly dreary example of this under a starry Hawaiian sky this year, listening to a talk on astronomy. It was the perfect moment for magical images of distant stars and newly discovered planets. Yet, instead of using technology to transport, the lecturer plodded point-by-point through cookie-cutter slides.

The soul-sapping essence of PowerPoint was captured perfectly in a spoof of the Gettysburg Address by computer whiz Peter Norvig of Google. It featured Abe Lincoln fumbling with his computer (“Just a second while I get this connection to work. Do I press this button here? Function-F7?”) and collapsing his speech into six slides, complete with a bar chart depicting four score and seven years.

For example, Slide 4:

Review of Key Objectives & Critical Success Factors

* What makes nation unique

— Conceived in liberty

— Men are equal

* Shared vision

— New birth of freedom

— Gov’t of/by/for the people.

If NASA managers didn’t recognize the safety problem, perhaps it’s because they were dazed from having to endure too many presentations like this – the inevitable computer balkiness, the robotic recitation of bullet points, the truncated language of a marketing pitch. Hence the New Yorker cartoon in which the devil, seated at his desk in Hell, interviews a potential assistant: “I need someone well versed in the art of torture – do you know PowerPoint?”

Like all forms of torture, though, PowerPoint degrades its practitioners as well as its victims. Yes, boring slides were plentiful in the pre-PowerPoint era – remember the overhead projector? Yes, it can help the intellectually inept organize their thoughts. But the seductive availability of PowerPoint and the built-in drive to reduce all subjects to a series of short-handed bullet points eliminates nuances and enables, even encourages, the absence of serious thinking. Really, why think at all when the auto-content wizard can do it for you?

The most disturbing development in the world of PowerPoint is its migration to the schools – like sex and drugs, at earlier and earlier ages. Now we have second-graders being tutored in PowerPoint. No matter that students who compose at the keyboard already spend more energy perfecting their fonts than polishing their sentences – PowerPoint dispenses with the need to write any sentences at all. Perhaps the politicians who are so worked up about the ill effects of violent video games should turn their attention to PowerPoint instead.

In the meantime, Tufte, who’s now doing consulting work for NASA, has a modest proposal for its new administrator: Ban the use of PowerPoint. Sounds good to me. After all, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the perils of PowerPoint.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized