Stephen Baker

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Tom cats and lightning bugs: Two approaches to data
July 16, 2020General


On a summer evening in the Northeast, an orange tom cat creeps under a wooden fence and hides in the bushes behind a bird-feeder. It’s getting dark. The cat is hidden and silent. His tail twitches. Above him, wrens and blue jays and cardinals land on the feeder. This cat has placed himself at the most highly trafficked node of a network. Seeds spill from the feeder. A blue mourning dove, its head bobbing like a pigeon, pecks at the ground. The cat leaps from behind the bush and nabs it.

A few minutes later, it’s a bit darker in the garden, and tiny lights flicker in the summer air. These are fireflies, or lightning bugs. These insects carry chemicals in their abdomens that produce the yellow or pale red light. The patterns of these lights send signals to potential mates who lie below, in the grass. Each species has different signals. When a female  lightning bug below sends back the appropriate signal, the male lands and mates. This is risky for the bugs, because at the same time they’re going through their mating ritual, whippoorwills in the nearby trees are looking for their evening meal.

If you look at the tom cat and the lightning bug, they represent two different approaches to data. The cat is stealthy. It shares no data. He places himself at the busiest intersection in the network and he hunts. He inspires fear, which affects the behavior of the birds.

The lightning bugs, by contrast, share data to get data. Yes, it involves risk, but they weigh that risk (or evolution has accomplished that calculation for them), and it’s worth it for them. In this sense, they represent a more modern approach to data.

 

 


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Peter Copeland's journalistic voyage
October 15, 2019General


A young news reporter covers a dreadful fire in Chicago. His editor tells him to hunt down the chief, and find out how many trucks are there, and how the fire started. The chief, she says, will be wearing a white helmet. The reporter runs up to a man with white headgear and starts asking questions--before learning that he’s talking to the chaplain. 

That’s Peter Copeland at work, on his first assignment, back when reporters still called in their stories and editors, the phone propped between ear and shoulder, typed the words, and made carbon copies. Over the following decades, Copeland would cover the border, Mexico, the Pentagon, and report on wars in Central America, Africa and the Middle East. Along the way, he stayed true to the orders he heard from that editor in Chicago: Get the facts--including middle initials--and don’t let other stuff get in the way.

He has written an excellent memoir, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter. I should mention that Peter is a great friend of mine. He had worked at the El Paso Herald-Post before I got there, and when I moved to Mexico, for BusinessWeek, in 1987, Peter was Scripps-Howard's Mexico correspondent. I counted on him as my cultural, culinary and journalistic guide. He and his wife Maru had a home in Colonia Roma, which for me was the warmest and most welcoming spot in all of Mesoamerica. 

Now, back to the book. The fascinating tension in Peter’s memoir runs between his journalistic values--just the facts--and the confusion arising from the context surrounding those facts. Again and again, he finds himself in situations that he doesn’t at first understand. They’re foreign. And he has to make sense of them in order to find and describe the facts.

We see this from the get-go, when he is a foreigner to fire departments. Later, he’s a foreigner to Mexico. The place seems inscrutable. He learns Spanish, and yet Mexican sources hide their meaning under layers of hints and allusions. There’s a sense there that saying things clearly is not just simplistic, but also simple-minded, and even dangerous. Newspapers are puzzles and publish their stories in code. Peter is helped immensely in his assimilation by falling in love with Maru Montero, a dancer from Oaxaca. But that adds emotional complexity to the story he’s covering. He covers the deadly 1985 earthquake wondering the whole time where Maru is, and if she’s OK.

Later in his career, Peter finds himself covering another foreign and Byzantine culture: The Pentagon. Once again, he would have to stitch together a network of sources and interpreters, and use them to get to the facts and make sense of them.

Parts of this book seem to harken from a distant time. It’s not just the technology--the typewriters, telephones, telexes, and even newspapers--it’s the role of the journalist: the person we’re counting on to get the story. With the expansion of digital and social media, that reporter increasingly seems to be lost. Stories  pop up on the screen, and it’s often up to the consumers themselves to decide whether to believe them.

Great reporters, needless to say, are still doing brave work. But their reporting swims on screens with a lot of crap. And often, for political expediency, it’s dismissed. At the same time, the business model for reporting is disintegrating. This reduces to a whisper the “share of voice” for diligent reporting.

I read an early draft of Peter’s book. My sole contribution was to push for more lessons throughout the narrative. Digging out stories and telling them well is central to our democracy. Here’s hoping that Peter Copeland’s vivid experiences inform the coming generation of reporters.

 



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Spain: sidestepping the avalanche of Santiago pilgrims
October 12, 2019General


After a baptism in Manzanares El Real, north of Madrid

I've been going to Spain since I was 16. I try to go at least every other year, and take some kind of strenuous trip with my lifelong friend there. Back in 2011, we biked the last 200 miles on the pilgrimage "camino de Santiago." Since then, spurred by movies, books, and social media, throngs of new pilgrims have been making their way to Santiago. It's on millions of people's bucket list.

This is the scourge of Europe. It not really fair for me, as a tourist, to criticize everyone else for crowding into my idyll. But that's the long and short of it. The goal, increasingly, is to search out the spots that still feel like Spain, where people lead their normal lives. So on the first leg of my trip--10 days through the south with my wife--we avoided Granada and Cordoba, and instead went to Caceres and Cadiz. 

 



After a wedding in Caceres

After that trip, I went northwest with my Spanish friend, to Galicia. We hiked along a gorgeous coastal trail called "O Camino dos Faros," or the Lighthouse Way. People in these small fishing villages realized that they could turn the goat-herds trails along their coast into an attraction, one that would generate business for hotels, restaurants, and a handful of taxis. 

By the time we rolled in, in late September, traffic along the trail was sparse. Not that I'm complaining! In our first full day of hiking, we came across only two other parties, one German, the other Italian. 

 

 



Off the coast near Malpica

The maps of this northwest stretch of coast feature stars for every recorded shipwreck. There's a veritable constellation of them, and you can understand why when you walk high above the raging ocean slamming against the rocks. It's known as the Costa da Morte, Galician for Coast of Death. It's anyone's guess if if that brand sparks tourism.

Galicia, originally settled by Celts, feels a bit like Ireland, and has a similar climate. On day three of our hike the rains came, and according to our weather apps, they were going to stick around for a while. So we drove east, for sunnier weather. The nice thing about Spain is that you can go virtually anywhere, find beauty and eat and drink royally.

We toured the province of Ourense, and got lost in the woods near a town called Parada de Sil. Later we hiked around an ancient Roman gold mining operations, Las Medulas, whose denuded mountains look like imports from Utah or New Mexico.

 

 

 



Las Medulas

We eventually made our way to Leon, where we'd started our bike pilgrimage eight years earlier.



Cathedral Square in Leon


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Iconoclysms: Shattered in Venice, Rome and Barcelona
July 5, 2019General

 

 

 



The painting above, Saint Dominic of Silos Enshrined as a Bishop, was painted by a Spaniard named Bertolome Bermejo in the 1470s. It was just two decades before Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the Christian victory in Granada, the Moors’ last foothold in the Iberian Peninsula. 

My friend Tim Harris and I were studying in Spain in 1975-76, the year Franco died. We had an art history class that took us to the Prado once a week. Few visitors to the Prado paid much attention to the Gothic art of Bermejo. The masses were upstairs, crowded around the later masterpieces by Velazquez, El Greco and Goya. We’d eventually get there, of course. Everything in history is chonological, and we were still in the late middle ages. Still, it felt special to be exploring the museum’s hidden corners.

Tim and his wife, Tara Key, have turned the hidden corners of art and art history into a model for travel. While others have their bucket lists, and make sure they cross off all the must-sees, whether the Mona Lisa or Anghor Wat, Tim and Tara return to the same handful of cities again and again. They do research. They hunt for meaning.

Which brings me to Tim and Tara’s book, Iconoclysms. It’s a memoir, but also an exploration, of three artists and three cities. A pivotal moment occurs on an early trip to Venice, where they walk into a small museum and are startled to see a damaged painting by Antonello da Messina, a Renaissance master. It’s a Pieta, but looks like Christ’s face, and those of the angels surrounding him, have been wiped with Clorox, or maybe battery acid.

This opens a mystery. It appears to be a badly botched restoration. When did it happen? Were they happy with the result? Could they be? Did they try to fix it, perhaps making things worse? What exactly happens when you come very close to destroying a masterpiece?

Tim and Tara dig through old books and question experts. Questions arise. If it were possible to restore the faces, should it be done? Or is the painting, instead, what it has become? If you look at the emptiness where the faces used to be, it forces you to imagine them. In that sense, the painting has aged into modernism.



Pieta (detail), by Antonello da Messina 

If you look at the St. Dominic painting from Spain, and then the Pieta by Antonello, you can see that at least the part of Spain depicted by Bartolome Bermejo was still hewing to the Gothic model of medieval Europe, while some 1,000 miles away, Antonello was deep into the Renaissance. He'd even traveled to the Low Countries, and he may have been the one who introduced oil painting to the Italians. 

Later in the book, Tim and Tara are in Catalonia, learning everything they can about Josep Jujols, and artist/architect who collaborated with the more famous Antoni Gaudi. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), anti-clerical forces torched the interior of a church he had built, Sagrat Cor de Jesus. Looking at it afterwards, Jujols said that the fire had given it a tonality that would have taken centuries to develop.

Tim (Tara takes the photos) weaves this exploration into the time of their lives. They have loved ones dying. They’re living in Manhattan and 9/11 happens. They go to Venice, and later Roma and Barcelona, to take refuge, find something about the world and themselves, to find beauty, peel back our history, and to celebrate the chance we have to do these things. 


It’s a model not just for traveling, but for learning and living.



Tim and I, and his friend Choni, traveled to the western city of Caceres in the spring of 76. He took this picture of me with some of the locals who found us curious. Caceres is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, and locals no longer find foreigners the least bit exotic.


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The Eagles, the Phillies, and JFK
February 4, 2018General


                                              Tommy McDonald in action

 

On Super Sunday, a trip back to the roots of my Philadelphia Eagle fandom…

In November of 1963, I turned eight. My father promised to take me to Franklin Field, in Philadelphia, for my first Eagles game. My two favorite players for the Eagles were a scrawny wide receiver named Tommy McDonald (5-9, 175 pounds) and a running back named Timmy Brown (who would later play Spearchucker Jones in the movie Mash). The quarterback was Sonny Jurgensen, who months later would be traded to the Redskins.

Two days before the game, President Kennedy was assassinated. In one of his most controversial decisions as commissioner of the the NFL, Pete Rozelle, decided not to cancel the games, insisting that football was “Kennedy’s game.” Philadelphia Mayor James Tate tried to get a court to stop the game. But he failed. A famous Philadelphia sportswriter, Sandy Grady, wrote, “I am ashamed of this fatuous dreamland.”

My father was disgusted by Rozelle’s decision, and refused to take me to the game. (Tommy McDonald, according to a Sports Illustrated story, couldn't stop crying the whole game.) Since the season was already drawing to a close, he told me we’d go the next season.

That would be 1964, my first big year as a Phillies fan. Behind Jim Bunning, Johnny Callison and Richie Allen, the rookie of the year, the Phillies held onto first place almost the entire season. In September, my father bought World Series tickets. But the Phillies suffered an epic collapse. Ahead by 6.5 games with only 12 games left, they spiraled into a 10-game losing streak. (And if you’re wondering as you watch the Superbowl why Philadelphia fans seem to have such a chip on our collective shoulder, that collapse is seared into our memory, even of those born long after ‘64.



                                           (I still have that yearbook somewhere...)

The last day of the 1964 baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals had the passed the Phillies in the standings. But if the hapless Mets could beat the Cardinals, the Phillies would pull into a tie. There was still hope.

On that October 4, I was at Franklin Field with my father. It was my delayed birthday present. The Eagles were beating the Steelers. Every few minutes, they would announce on the PA system the score from Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cards were clobbering the Mets. All I remember from that football game is the death of the baseball season.

On that somber note, bridging the ‘63 Kennedy assassination with the ‘64 Phillies collapse, I look forward to watching the Eagles in the Superbowl tonight.


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Google answers my mail
December 6, 2017General

Just yesterday, I asked a friend about freelancing possibilities. She wrote back to my Gmail account with the news that a certain spending spigot was closed off. She also provided the status on something I’d written. (Delayed, but still plowing ahead)

Right above the reply blank (and below the email), I saw three possible responses. They were cooked up by my co-reader of this email, Google’s computer. All I had to do was pick one of them, and hit the send button. My choices:

Thanks!  
Cool, Thanks!
No Worries, thank for the update!

These were viable responses. I could conceivably have chosen one of them, but only if I could remove the exclamation points, which remind me of a certain tweeter in chief.

The AI reading our emails is getting a lot smarters. It’s moved beyond primitive targeting for ads, and is now zeroed in on our motives. Why did we write the email? What were we looking for? The computer is interpreting our dialogues, or at least their dynamics. It can come to all kinds of conclusions, even judging the relationships in which we appear to be dominant, and others in which we tread closely to subservience.

Today, a new chapter. A friend sent out a Gmail alert that her account may have been hacked.

Google, no doubt perceiving the emergency, provided sober-minded answers, with none of those light-hearted exclamation marks.

Thanks for the heads up.
OK, thanks.
Got it.

For a few minutes, I toyed around with the Gmail system, trying to elicit suggested replys from the server. It seems to be a sporadic effort. This makes sense. Google, after all, is attempting to automate a layer of our communication. The company will want to roll it out slowly, gathering data from users, and calculating which types of people make use of it, and which types of communication do they use the most, and under what circumstances? An AI can learn a lot from humanities’ emails.



On the drive last summer between Butte, MT., and Pocatello, Idaho.


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Confederate copies, and the joys of recyling
August 20, 2017General


In the late 1800s, the Metropolitan Bronze Co. in Bridgeport, Conn., had a steady business making statues of Civil War soldiers. As Marc Fisher writes in the Washington Post, many of the statues featured the same moustachioed Northern soldier wearing a greatcoats and holding a rifle to his chest. Towns throughout the north and midwest bought copies of this soldier to plant in front of the post office, or on the village green.

Then someone at the company saw another market opportunity. They could sell the very same statue as a Confederate soldier in the south. All they had to do was change the insignia on his belt from US to CS, for Confederate States. Pretty soon, they were shipping scores of the same statue to towns across the Mason-Dixon line.

It wasn’t too long before Confederate veterans in a Georgia town noticed that the soldier was wearing a Northern greatcoat and a union cap, not the shorter southern jacket and “slouch” hat of the south. They angrily buried the Yankee statue face down. (photo from Washington Post, above)

This forced Metropolitan Bronze to add a bit of customization for their Southern customers. But the bare minimum. It was the same guy, but with a different hat and jacket.

This got me thinking about how all of us re-use content in our lives and our jobs. If the subject of hitchhiking comes up at a dinner party, for example, I immediately look around the table and try to remember if anyone seated there has heard my story about hitching in Argentina during the Dirty War in 1978. If the answer is no, I’m liable to recycle my old story, replaying some of the sentences almost verbatim. Like most people, I have hundreds of my “greatest hits” cued up and ready to roll. Just like Metropolitan Bronze, I’ll edit a few of the details for each audience. (If my wife is there, I’m more likely to keep it short, since these re-runs test her patience.)

It’s so much easier to re-use content, whether it’s statues or stories, than to come up with something fresh. When President Trump heads out to Arizona this week for one of his mass rallies, you can bet he’ll replay about 100 of his favorite lines, adding just the thinnest veneer of Southwest customization (and maybe a pardon for Joe Arpaio). Trump is a replay machine.



 

When my parents died, I inherited a portrait of a 19th century ancestor of mine named Matthias Ludwig. When we looked at the back of the canvas, we saw a name scrawled in pen: Thomas Sully. This was a famous painter! He wasn’t on the level of his American contemporaries, like Gilbert Stuart, the portraitist of George Washington. But still, I’d seen paintings by Sully in the leading museums. And we had one.

Then I did some research. Like most artists, Sully had high artistic ambitions, and he also had to make money. So while he labored for months on his artistic projects, including the paintings I’d seen at the Metropolitan Art Museum, he made money by painting Philadelphia’s bourgeoisie, including Matthias Ludwig, for $50 a pop.

Here’s one of Sully's ambitious paintings, A Mother and Her Son:



See the detail in the sky and the fabric, the relationship between the mother and the boy? That took some work. Every detail was fresh, or at least most of them were.

Now look at Matthias Ludwig.



I’m guessing that this came from a template. Sully probably used the same coat and shirt, and the same dark background, and he would plop a face into it. He recycled content. Everyone does.


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Scenario planning for Trump White House
May 16, 2017General


I like to look at the Trump administration as a series on Netflix or Amazon (which one day soon it will be). For me, the template is Wolf Hall. A king is surrounded by courtiers and flatterers, and they engage in endless (and lethal) power plays. Henry VIII wasn’t anywhere near as incompetent as Trump, but the basic scheme still works.

One frightening future episode is coming into focus for me. I would hope that the adults surrounding Trump, people like his national security advisor McMaster and Defense Secretary Mattis, have taken steps to protect the world from an Oval Office tantrum that goes nuclear. They must have pieced together some sort of circuit breakers so that if Trump gives the order to launch nuclear missiles, someone has the opportunity to countermand him. (If they don’t have these circuit-breakers in place by now, yesterday’s news that Trump revealed classified information to the Russians should mobilize their efforts.)

So one morning Steve Bannon walks into the Oval Office and whispers to the president that the two most senior members of his national security team have taken away his nukes. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s "fake news." How does Trump respond?

For starters, he gets very mad, very quickly. That’s his power! And they’ve taken it away (or at least might have done so, which for Trump is pretty much the same thing). Bannon reminds him that their behavior undermines the Constitution. It’s criminal, even treasonous.

Should the president call McMaster and Mattis, and confront them with Bannon’s charge? He could, but what does he say when they deny it? He has no proof, only Bannon’s words. As he deliberates, the seeds of treachery and grievance are already sprouting in his mind, and leafing out. 

He sits down and composes a series of angry tweets. One of them charges that powerful people inside and outside his administration are hatching plots, and he will have them sent to Ft. Leavenworth! Another reminds his followers that they elected him, and only him, as commander in chief! A third mentions outlines the tremendous power of the commander in chief, including NUKES! 

A Constitutional crisis is upon us. Practically everyone in Washington, with the notable exceptions of Trump and Steve Bannon, wants those nuclear circuit-breakers in place. But they do represent a quiet coup d’etat. 

Trump is beside himself with righteous rage. He asks Bannon if Mike Pence is part of the plot. Bannon nods gravely.

Trump is so mad he’s shaking. How does he assuage this burning grievance? How does he assert, for once and for all, his absolute power over the nuclear arsenal? And how can members of his own party in Congress stop him?

 

 

 


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As Franco Died
April 1, 2017General


I continue to write fiction, though I haven't published any of since The Boost, in 2014. One novel manuscript is making the tours of the publishing houses, but it hasn't sold it yet. In mid-March, I was walking through the snow in Montclair and trying to think of new stories to write. And then it occurred to me that I wrote several stories in the '90s. No one bought them. And back then, self-publishing was extravagantly expensive, and known derisively as "vanity press." Unthinkable. So my stories just moved, digitally, from one computer to the next, and hung out by themselves in the cloud.

Since then all of us have been granted free rights to publish anything we want, globally. We may not have readers, but that's not the point. At least it's out there, with a shareable URL, and if it finds a few readers, so much the better. 

When I wrote these stories, in the '90s, I was living in Pittsburgh and working for BusinessWeek. And, no offense to Pittsburgh, but I wanted out of there in my head, mostly to exotic places I'd lived in my 20s. I wrote this one, As Franco Died, to put myself back in my junior year in Madrid. Another one takes place in Quito, Ecuador, where I taught English briefly in the late '70s, and the (unpublished) novel, Donkey Show, plays out on the El Paso/Juarez border, where I met my wife and got married in the mid-80s. 

 I was thinking about Arianna Huffington as I wrote this story. At that point this glamorous Greek immigrant was guiding her rich Republican husband, Michael, toward the Senate in California. She established her stardom there, even though she ended up losing in that race). She was on my mind as I wrote about Paloma.

Later, in 2005, Heather Green and I had written a BusinessWeek cover story on how blogs were going to shake up everything. We used it to launch the blogspotting.net. blog. And strange as it seems now, Arianna met with me for an hour one afternoon in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel. She wanted me to write in Blogspotting about her new venture, The Huffington Post. Her venture grew quite large. Mine folded when Heather and I left a collapsing Businessweek, four years later. I told Arianna at the time that she'd inspired this short story. I sent it to her, but never heard back, though she gave me a very nice blurb for The Numerati.

Here's the link to As Franco Died, on Medium.

 


I went through several photos to illustrate the piece on Medium. None was quite right, but I sprinkled them in anyway. 



I saw that woman in a plaza in Aranda del Duero (I think). We were riding our bikes through there a few years ago. It was just about to start pouring. 



This is a wall in Caceres, Spain. It's an homage to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, a charismatic Fascist in Spain before the Civil War ('36-'39). The Republicans executed him in the early months of the war, and he became a martyr to Franco's cause. You used to see his name on churches, streets and plazas all over Spain.



This is a wall near Merida, which was a large Roman city. We biked through there a couple of years ago, en route to Seville. 


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Can we blame the NYTimes for our ignorance?
January 3, 2017General


An antiwar demonstration in NYC, before the Iraq invasion


It seems that every time we’re surprised by something, whether it’s the emergence of Isis or rising anger from white middle America, people blame the press, and especially the New York Times. Why weren’t they covering it?!


People rail against the Times.. And one of their prized examples is botched coverage of the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. The Times sold us on Iraq’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction, the line goes, and led us like millions of lemmings into the Iraq war.


I was reading the New York Times then, and it just isn’t true. The coverage included different points of view. The arms inspector, Hans Blix, and his Egyptian colleague who oversaw nukes, Mohamed ElBaradei were both highly skeptical, and begged for the inspectors to be given time to do their job. I read their arguments in the Times.


The French, of course, opposed the war, and while their foreign secretary, Dominique de Villepin, preened and strutted way too much, his message was included in Times coverage. The case on WMD, he argued, was far from clear, and war not necessary, especially with inspection teams at work on the ground in Iraq. He predicted presciently that Iraq, like the old Yugoslavia, would break into vicious tribal and ethnic violence following an invasion. This was all known. And at least a few people suggested in Times articles that the Bush administration was using fears of WMDs to fight a war they wanted.


On a Feb. 15, 2003, I went with my kids to a massive antiwar demonstration on Second Ave in Manhattan. Hundreds of thousands of people were there, and millions of others protested in cities around the world. Now some of them were simply anti-war, or anti-Bush. But loads of them were like me, convinced that this was not a war to fight, at least not yet. And most of them got a lot of their ideas from the Times. Even for those who didn’t read it directly, Times coverage worked its way onto NPR and throughout mainstream news (One interesting note: In 2003, blogs and social networks were still in infancy. Mainstream still ran the show, along with cable TV.)


So I'd argue that much of the Times’ coverage was OK. It was the weighing and placement of the articles that bent the paper toward subservience to the Bush-Cheney administration, and to war. Pro-war articles by people like Judith Miller, fueled by lying and exaggerating “sources,” ran on A1, and the skeptical ones quoting Hans Blix appeared under much smaller headlines inside. What’s more, editors let France’s opposition morph into a political story, one in which France curried favor in the Arab world by sticking its thumb in Uncle Sam’s eye. They should have paid more front-page attention to the gist of the French argument.


Still, plenty of people had reason to be skeptical, and they could fuel this from reading the Times. So it bothers me to hear politicians and others defend themselves by claiming ignorance, in this case and others, and blaming the press for it.


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