Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for December, 2007

Taxes fair and foul

Posted by metaphorical on 31 December 2007

In an interesting article about the so-called “fair tax,” the LA Times mentions in passing a key reason Mike Huckabee has jumped from the pack in the polls. (A recent AP poll put him first, though within the margin of error.)

Anyone who has watched the Republican debates knows that Huckabee is one of several candidates who would close the doors at the IRS. The tax proposal in question is one that would create a national sales tax of 23% and abolish the income tax.

The LAT article describes a group called Fairtax.org.

The group has spent about $2.5 million to mobilize supporters in early caucus and primary states, and plans to spend $1 million more in coming months.

As a nonprofit, it cannot endorse a candidate. But it lets people know where the candidates stand — and that Huckabee is a particularly strong backer of the tax.

According to the article, “The group’s biggest push was in Iowa leading up to the August straw poll.”

Fairtax.org rented 10 buses and paid the $35 individual fee for 400 tickets to the event.

Huckabee placed second, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and garnered the first major coverage he had received in the campaign.

Is it the only reason Huckabee has emerged as a leading candidate? Of course not. But as the Times points out, “For Huckabee, the proposal may prove a politically useful antidote to the intense criticism he has taken from his party’s anti-tax wing for overseeing several tax increases as Arkansas governor.”

Furthermore, Huckabee benefits from still being a big unknown. The AP notes that according to its polling, “Fifty percent of all voters and 40 percent of Republicans say they don’t know enough about Huckabee to say if they like him or not.”

To be sure, the Republican race is still wide open. Here are the AP numbers:

Mike Huckabee, 22 percent

Rudy Giuliani, 21 percent

John McCain, 14 percent

Mitt Romney, 13 percent

Fred Thompson, 11 percent

The November numbers were,

Giuliani 27 percent

Thompson 17 percent

McCain 15 percent

Romney 11 percent

Huckabee 9 percent.

A month from now things will look very different. Only 3 or 4 candidates will be viable after New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina. It’ll be interesting to see if Huckabee is one of them. Right now, my money is on him being the Howard Dean of 2008 — a candidate who peaks too early and won’t survive the press attention and financial demands of front-runner status. On the other hand, it’s hard to see who of his opponents will emerge as the Republicans’ Kerry.

Meanwhile, the “fair tax” is a two-edged sword as a campaign issue.

The Times article points out that according to a number of experts, 23% isn’t nearly enough to bring in revenue equivalent to today’s income tax.

William G. Gale, a tax expert at the centrist Brookings Institution think tank, estimates that the levy could run as high as 50% — a tax so steep that it would be an invitation to mass tax evasion.

“It’s a crackpot plan,” said Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and former Treasury Department official who is a leading critic of the sales tax. “Anyone who supports it should not be taken seriously.”

To my own thinking, something needs to be done. A flat income tax would be grossly unprogressive — except compared to today’s twisted tax code, which allows the rich to pay very little in the way of taxes.

A single rate of, say, 20%, along with a modest national sales tax of, say, 10%, would be roughly revenue neutral and take from the rich at least what they’re paying now, and perhaps more so. (There would have to be some form of credit for the working poor and lower middle class. Even Huckabee’s proposal has something along those lines.)

With such a scheme, we could largely eliminate the IRS after all, and tax policy would no longer be used as a means to advance certain ideas about how people should best live, such as home ownership, or heterosexual-only marriages.

As misguided and unrealistic as the Fairtax.org/Huckabee proposals are, they tap into something that resonates with the American public. The tax code today is too complex, has too many loopholes, and lets rich people and corporations pay far too little. If something isn’t done about that, crazy ideas will have to be taken more seriously than they deserve.

Posted in politics, technology | 12 Comments »

Queen City loses one of its princes

Posted by metaphorical on 28 December 2007

How can a newspaper survive if it loses 90% of its readership? It can’t, and so it won’t, and so another afternoon paper bites the dust. In this case it’s the Cincinnati Post.

The Post’s last day will be December 31st, after 126 years of publishing. The town won’t be without a paper, it has the Cincinnati Enquirer. It’s a Gannett paper, while the Post is owned by E.W. Scripps Co. Just on that basis, the odds are the Post was the better paper. (I’ve never read either one.)

But the Enquirer is a morning paper and afternoon papers have been dropping like flies for 40 years now. According to an AP article,

As recently as 1960, The Post’s daily circulation was more than 270,000 and the nation had 1,459 afternoon newspapers. That was down to 614 by 2006, according to trade publication Editor & Publisher, and Post weekday circulation is about 27,000. Multiple newspapers in U.S. cities have also been disappearing. Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio’s two larger cities, lost an afternoon paper decades ago….

Scripps Co. two years ago closed The Birmingham (Ala.) Post-Herald and has said it will close the Albuquerque Tribune if it can’t be sold.

The 90% drop in circulation isn’t exactly the reason the Post is folding, though it’s surely behind all the other reasons. The proximate cause is that Gannett terminated an operating agreement that goes back to 1977.

For Scripps, there was study of possible ways to keep a daily newspaper in the media company’s corporate home, then a decision it wasn’t financially feasible.

For that, presumably, we have to blame the 90% drop in readership. If the people of Cincinnati won’t support a newspaper with their dollars, then maybe they don’t deserve two papers. But we’re all the poorer. According to the AP, the Post “once dispatched reporters to cover Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in Florida, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

The irony, of course, is that newspapers are moving online, and won’t much longer need the big presses that Gannett was providing the Post. The irony is that newspapers are more than ever about journalists, not paper. If only they’d hung on a little longer.

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing

Posted by metaphorical on 27 December 2007

Apparently, Dreamgirls started a nightmare year for the music industry. MTV has done a good job cataloguing, among other things, how much music distribution changed in 2007.

The industry seems completely off the rails. My own prediction is that the major labels will lose control of distribution entirely within the next two years and shrink to almost nothing. Here are some of the highlights—that is, lowlights—of this train-wreck of a year.

In January,

The “Dreamgirls” soundtrack tops the Billboard albums chart with sales of just over 60,000 copies. It’s the lowest sales total for a #1 album in SoundScan’s 16-year run.

In March

Paul McCartney leaves longtime label EMI to sign with Starbucks’ new record label, Hear Music. His album, Memory Almost Full, is released in June through both traditional retailers and more than 6,000 Starbucks locations in the U.S., and sells more than 160,000 copies in its first week.

In July, Prince released a new album for

for free with the Sunday edition of the British newspaper The Mail. It’s estimated that 2.27 million people receive the album, which helps boost sales of tickets for his 21-night stand at London’s O2 arena.

October saw the well-publicized Radiohead album release.

The bandmembers, who have been free agents since the release of 2003’s Hail to the Thief, decide to release the album by themselves in two formats: download-only, which allows fans to name their price for the album, and as a deluxe “discbox” version (priced at approximately $80).

October also saw Trent Reznor ending a “13-year relationship with Interscope Records” and Madonna finalizing “a massive 10-year deal with Live Nation, believed to be worth $120 million.”

A month later, the Eagles released an album exclusively at Wal-Mart. It debuted

at #1 on the Billboard albums chart with sales of more than 711,000 copies. The total nearly triples that of the country’s #2 album, Britney Spears’ Blackout, and gives the group — which hadn’t released an album of new studio material in 28 years — the second-highest debut of 2007.


Reigning “American Idol” champ Jordin Sparks’ self-titled debut lands at #10 on the Billboard chart with sales of 119,000 copies. It’s the lowest first-week sales total for any “Idol” winner — by more than 180,000 copies.

In December, Island Def Jam laid off “nearly 6 percent of its staff” despite the fact that a hip-hop album, Kanye West’s Graduation was the best-selling #1 album of the year and it and 50 Cent’s new album, Curtis, made September the industry’s best, or at least least-worst, month of a disastrous and confusing year.

The smart record labels will become pure producers and marketers in a way that I described a bit earlier this month. As these lowlights show, there’s just no need for the labels to manage the distribution of music anymore; they’re just standing between artists and fans.

Madonna apparently said of her new deal, which ended a 25-year relationship with Warner Music,
“For the first time in my career, the way that my music can reach my fans is unlimited. The possibilities are endless. Who knows how my albums will be distributed in the future?”

Posted in pop culture, technology, the arts | 1 Comment »

Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?

Posted by metaphorical on 26 December 2007

“If anyone has questions about whether our efforts have been fruitful over the past five years — come on…. While we can’t publicize everything that we’ve done, every event, we can say definitively that our efforts over the last five years have not been for nothing.”

Now there’s a rousing defense for a $27 billion program—”our efforts have not been for nothing.”

Yes, $27 billion. The program in question is airport security, on which we apparently spend an annual $5.6 billion. The quotes come from TSA spokesman Christopher White, and the occasion for them was a study by three researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, described last week in the British Medical Journal.

According to a Reuters article, the researchers

could not find any studies showing whether the time-consuming process of X-raying carry-on luggage prevents hijackings or attacks.

They also found no evidence to suggest that making passengers take off their shoes and confiscating small items prevented any incidents.

Coming, as they do, from the Harvard School of Public Health, the researchers have a natural orientation toward data, when it comes to justifying the expenditure of billions of dollars for some putative public good.

The researchers said it would be interesting to apply medical standards to airport security. Screening programs for illnesses like cancer are usually not broadly instituted unless they have been shown to work.

“We’d like airport security screening to be of value. As passengers and members of the public we’d like to know the evidence and the reasoning behind these measures,” Linos said in a telephone interview.

“Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?” they asked.

Of course, we do have some data, in the form of periodic testing done by outside agencies, as reported by the GAO. So far, TSA has done nothing but fail at these tests, usually quite spectacularly. The most recent tests have concerned liquid explosives, the alleged means by which some British transatlantic flights were going to be blown up back in August 2006. Here’s a snippet from a GAO report from last month.

Our investigators succeeded in passing through TSA security screening checkpoints undetected with components for several IEDs and an improvised incendiary device (IID) 4 concealed in their carry-on luggage and on their persons. The components for these devices and the items used to conceal the components were commercially available.

Here’s the part I like:

By using concealment methods for the components, two GAO investigators demonstrated that it is possible to bring the components for several IEDs and one IID through TSA checkpoints and onto airline flights without being challenged by transportation security officers. In most cases, transportation security officers appeared to follow TSA procedures and used technology appropriately

In other words, the problem isn’t (just) incompetent TSA security officials. The problem is incompetent TSA security. We’re spending billions of dollars annually for procedures that simply do not make us more secure. At a minimum, the burden of proof is on TSA to show that they have some efficacy.

It’s one thing for TSA to say that they have to move fast to react to newly proved threats, for example the British liquid explosive plot. It’s another thing for TSA to maintain these nonsensical procedures well over a year later; to spend billions to keep us from carrying a bottle of water or cup of coffee through security with absolutely no justification for the belief that it makes us any safer.

Posted in politics, technology | 4 Comments »

Christians hog-tied? You decide

Posted by metaphorical on 24 December 2007

“I know this is probably a very controversial thing, but may I say to you, ‘Merry Christmas!’”

That’s Mike Huckabee, playing the Persecuted Christian card.

It’s hard to imagine a more heavily celebrated holiday anywhere on earth than Christmas in America, and it’s hard to imagine a less controversial thing to say than “Merry Christmas.” You don’t hear “Have a good Yom Kipper” from people who don’t knowing if you’re Jewish. You don’t tell someone to have a good Ramadan without first asking if they celebrate it. But every store clerk and fellow elevator passenger can tell you to have a merry Christmas without giving it a second thought. And it is, after all, the only full-on religious day that’s a U.S. national holiday.

And yet, the right-wing fundamentalist Christians sure feel persecuted. And it sure serves some politicians’ political ends to ensure that they do.

And so we have Huckabee saying, “What’s wrong with our country, what is wrong with our culture, is that you can’t say the name Jesus Christ without people going completely berserk.”

And so we have him declaring that “Merry Christmas” is a controversial thing to say.

Robert Parry had a good rant about this two years ago. He reprises it and adds the Huckabee angle over on Consortiumnews.com.


By the way, if, like me, you were one of the half-dozen or so people who hasn’t actually seen the bookcase-in-the-shape-of-a-cross tv ad, and doesn’t really get how blatant and offensively pandering it is, take a gander:


(And if you want to see the crazy people deny the imagery, check out the National Ledger, which calls it “a ‘white’ bookshelf, nicely lit, with Christmas ornaments in a corner of one cubby that is visually impossible to change in shape.”)

In the words of Huckabee himself, in the ad: “At this time of year, sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and that I win the Iowa caucuses.”

Okay. Maybe he didn’t say that last part. But it’s what really matters, isn’t it Mike?

Posted in journalism, language, politics, religion | 5 Comments »

Multicar Pileup As Snowstorm Hits Plains

Posted by metaphorical on 23 December 2007

DATELINE | CITY, PLAINS_STATE. — A strong snowstorm that cut visibility nearly to zero in some places as it rolled across the Plains on Saturday caused numerous vehicle pileups and forced authorities to close portions of several major highways.

Dozens of vehicles were involved in a pileup on Interstate NN in [western|eastern] PLAINS_STATE, authorities said. Sections of some NEIGHBORING_STATE_1 highways were closed because of whiteout conditions. Local authorities said it was the worst snowstorm in X years.

The PLAINS_STATE State Highway Patrol said preliminary reports indicated NUMBER to 2x_NUMBER vehicles, including NUMBER tractor-trailer rigs, were involved in the early afternoon chain-reaction wreck on Interstate NN [at|near] CITY.

Multiple ambulances were sent to the scene but there was no immediate indication how many people were injured or if there were any fatalities. HOSPITAL_NAME in CITY said it was treating several people from the accident though none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.

The Patrol closed about 100 miles of I-NN from CITY2 to the NEIGHBORING_STATE_1 state line. The storm blew locally heavy snow across NEIGHBORING_STATE_2, [eastern|western] NEIGHBORING_STATE_3 and parts of NEIGHBORING_STATE_4 and NEIGHBORING_STATE_5.

In NEIGHBORING_STATE_1, Highway NN near TOWN was closed because NN to NN+10 cars had slid off the road or had been involved in collisions, authorities said.

By early afternoon, the storm had dropped N inches of snow in the CITY area, said National Weather Service meteorologist NWS_SPOKESPERSON_NAME. Accumulations of up to N+M inches were possible.


In [CURRENT_YEAR – X] a severe snowstorm claimed Y lives. Mayor MAYOR_NAME noted that OPTIMISTIC_COMPARISON_GOES HERE.

[Inspired by a recent AP report here .]

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Books not dead yet

Posted by metaphorical on 21 December 2007

Webster University and Lee University have each “announced the creation of their own university presses,” Inside Higher Ed reported today.

The article calls this “a challenging time for the economics of scholarly publishing” and notes that they “will both publish in cooperation with other entities.”

I can guess what that means. Both the organization I work for and the one I worked for before that—professional societies each—had a Press unit that, during my tenure, developed “cooperation” agreements with large academic publishers. The book operation where I am now, for example, publishes them in cooperation with Wiley Press.

In such a situation, the Press isn’t exactly an imprint of the bigger publisher. My organization does all the up-front work of acquiring and editing manuscripts. Wiley handles production and distribution. The two do their own marketing in, um, cooperation. Each, in other words, does what it’s good at.

With the development of digital technologies, I wonder if music won’t eventually go a similar route. Why aren’t there small imprint labels that develop acts and produce them? Let the big record companies handle manufacturing and distribution. Well, in a sense, we may see a little of that—except that in the iPod/iTunes era, manufacturing and distribution are somewhat trivial. [ADDED: Music distribution was the subject of a forward blog entry, here.]

Well, let’s turn it around then. When will manufacturing and distribution become trivial for books?

As a partial answer to that, I saw my first Sony Digital Reader in the wild yesterday on the subway. The guy next to its owner was quizzing her as if it were an iPhone on June 30th. I heard her to say she’d had it since September and loves it. Maybe when ebooks are are common as iPods, the small universities and and the professional societies won’t need the “cooperation” of “other entities.”

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“Do we really want this—to live eternally?”

Posted by metaphorical on 16 December 2007

A reasonable question, but not one you would expect the Pope to be asking. Bob Parks noticed this in his unending and endlessly useful “What’s New” newsletter of 14 December.


Under Pope John Paul II, from whom so much was expected, there was little progress. However, in his second encyclical letter to the faithful last week, “On Christian Hope,” Pope Benedict XVI, reveals an unexpected side. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had headed the Vatican office once known as “The Inquisition,” and was the defender of traditional Catholic doctrine. About “eternal life” he now asks: “Do we really want this – to live eternally? It appears more like a curse than a gift.” Elsewhere he finds: “The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is – in its origins and aims – a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history.”

Here’s more of what the Pope said, in his second Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi, a title which apparently comes from Rom 8:24, “Spe salvi facti sumus”—in hope we were saved.” I’m quoting extensively, but it’s still only a little of a very long essay. Paragraph breaks are my own, for easier reading.

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.

To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.

This is precisely the point made, for example, by Saint Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus: “Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin … began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”

A little earlier, Ambrose had said: “Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind’s salvation.”

To some extent, this is simply the usual confusion about infinities. We can no more imagine living forever than we can imagine a set of infinite numbers, to say nothing of a set of numbers even greater than a set of infinite numbers.

Then there are the additional puzzles about eternity. During this eternity – and the word “during” is already misleading, as if it has an endpoint – would we have new experiences? Or simply relive the old ones? If the latter, than every experience we could remember would be remembered an infinite number of times, which certainly seems unpleasant, even if each of them were pleasant in an of themselves. After all, even a great experience could have been made better by just the right choice of word, by a look, by a gesture. An eternity of remembering seems like an eternity of remorse and regret.

This Pope is willing to squarely face this hard truth:

To eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would place the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, and even for the individual would bring no benefit. Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view.

I have always found all of Christianity’s talk of infinities to be meaningless, and this is the wellspring of much of my atheism. Omnipotence and omniscience are incompatible with one another; the classic paradox along those lines has never been effectively resolved. And if an omniscient Christ, knowing how many people would eventually die in his name, for naught, as the Calvinists battled Roman Catholics, and each enslaved the Africans, and on and on, chose to die on the Cross anyway, then wasn’t he the morally worst human being to have ever lived?

Eternity have always been impossible to imagine, as has a disembodied soul. The soul, after all, is the form of man; as such, it is indistinguishable in you and in me. Only the body differentiates. (Hence, as Aquinas argues, each angel is its own species, since they are distinct souls yet disembodied.) The idea of each of us, individually, sitting at God’s side, for all eternity, is, then, doubly meaningless.

It’s nice to see this Pope address some of this, and I like the way he does it. After quoting Augustine, he says,

I think that in this very precise and permanently valid way, Augustine is describing man’s essential situation, the situation that gives rise to all his contradictions and hopes. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity.

The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it.

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt.

It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.

To some extent, the Pope is simply substituting one infinity for another – the infinite ocean of love for eternity, and, for the infinite number of natural numbers, perhaps the infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1.

But he is onto some poetical, if not analytical, insight when he talks about both desiring and not desiring life. We push on in life, even knowing that it’s end is death.

We cling to life, without knowing why. We do so out of fear, but also out of hope, unjustified hope. In our ambivalence, time stops. Yet it starts again, and for no reason at all. And yet, could it be any other way? Life is meaningful only if it ends, love is meaningful only if it can be lost. And yet a single moment of joy can give us hope, a reason to reject death or statis in each moment of life. For each moment of life, we hope for a next one, just as, for each number, there is a next one. It is an infinity of hope, which is faith.

Posted in language, philosophy, religion | 5 Comments »

Robots and hip-hop artists of the world, unite!

Posted by metaphorical on 12 December 2007

I defy anyone to not read a story that begins,

“A University of Iowa professor dressed as a robot interrupted Bill Clinton at a campaign stop here late Monday, screaming for an apology before security escorted him from the building.”

(Thanks to KTK, in private correspondence, for the link.) Kembrew McLeod, a tenured professor in the U of I’s Communications Dept., wanted Clinton to apologize for a remark he made 15 years ago in the wake of the Rodney King trial. (Yes, that’s 15 years, which is 105 for dogs, and about 750 for current events.) As the Des Moines Register explains it,

Sister Souljah made statements to the Washington Post about the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparked when an all-white jury acquitted the white police officers who were captured on tape beating a black man, Rodney King.

Her statement focused on how society largely ignores black-on-black violence. It included the quote: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”

That quote has largely been picked up on its own, without the larger context. Clinton, in June of 1992, gave a speech at the Rainbow Coalition, which compared Sister Souljah’s quote to David Duke, a former white supremist.

“If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech,” Bill Clinton said in 1992.

The Register helpfully links to a 45-second YouTube video. If you watch it, you’ll see that McLeod starts walking out almost before campus police ask him to. The “robot” costume, by the way, is pure hoke, and I mean that in a good way. Picture whatever sci-fi movie had the lowest production values you’ve ever seen and now scale it down to 1950s Saturday morning kids television.

This is nonviolent protest at its finest, a subject my friend Angus Johnston discussed a couple of weeks ago in a 40-minute interview on the webvideo show “Shoot The Messenger.” (It can also be found here.)

The show’s host, Lizz Winstead (a co-founder of The Daily Show and an early force in Air America), asked him about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University, the UCLA taser incident, and the history and general decline of protest in America.

I think Angus would greatly approve of McLeod’s protest. The interruption to Clinton’s speech was brief and entertaining. McLeod stood on a chair, shouted his question to Clinton, and threw some business cards containing a URL into the crowd. When asked who he was, he said “It’s all in there,” and threw more cards into the air. And you have to like his explanation for leaving so quickly. “This is Iowa so they were polite and I was polite. When they told me I had to leave, I did.”

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