Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Zsa Zsa's Cat

Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Hungarian 'actress' and socialite, was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

She appeared many, many times - but it's that one episode, the time she showed up with a large, white Persian cat on late night TV that made history.

You know the story, Zsa Zsa appeared on the show, cat in lap, and famously asked Carson "Would you like to pet my pussy?"

To which Carson replied with his trademark dry wit, "I'd love to. But first, you'll have to move that damned cat..."

Ba dump bump and cue rimshot.

Millions of people saw that episode, it's the stuff of television legend. I've known folks who saw that episode and tell the story with great relish. I know folks who remember exactly what they were doing when it happened, who they were with, and the exact date it occurred on. Hell, I used to know a guy who claimed to have the episode on tape (BetaMax, no less, and extremely valuable if true, since the original tape archives of the Tonight Show were accidentally erased), though he never could find it.

There's just one problem - it never happened.

It never happened, but to this day, and for the foreseeable future, there are folks who truly believe that it did, that they actually witnessed the event with their own eyes.

It began as a joke, an urban legend, spread by rumor and old fashioned word of mouth - long before the days of the Internet and instantaneous communications. And it has become so ingrained into the legendary fabric of Television history that a significantly large number of folks have actually manufactured memories to support the story, some of whom weren't even born when Johnny was in his heyday - and they actually believe those memories are true, and in some cases will vehemently defend those manufactured memories as authentic despite all validated evidence to the contrary.

When I taught intelligence gathering techniques and information warfare to military folks, I used to use this example as a demonstration of why it is so damned important to verify your input, and especially input that is based on data that 'everybody knows is true.' Failure to do so can put people and missions at risk. Somewhere upstairs, in the file I keep of my military service, is a Navy Commendation Medal, awarded to me for saving the lives of 43 Iraqis. I won't go into detail, much of which are still classified, but those men weren't terrorists, Saddam fedayeen, of even common soldiers. They were simply fishermen who's vessel ended up on a target list during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. They were literally within minutes of death when I happened to see the name of their vessel on the strike package. That vessel had been designated as hostile, because intelligence caught them laying mines in the Straights of Hormuz. Just one problem, I and my team had boarded that vessel less than 48 hours previously - and found no mines, no weapons, or anything else of military significance. The vessel's master had been polite and as open as you would expect with a heavily armed US Navy boarding team inspecting every part of his vessel from bilge to gunwales. With strike aircraft moving into launch position on the carrier, I notified my CO and immediately contacted Strike (the senior battle group commander in charge of these types of operations) via radio on the general circuit. Strike dismissed my report, claiming that he had photographic evidence of mine-laying. Well shit, I thought, how did I miss that? I didn't, I knew I didn't, I'd been over that vessel with a fine toothed comb, I couldn't have missed a deck full of mines - but it's pretty hard to argue with a man who has photographs in hand. As a tactical intelligence officer, I demanded the photos via electronic transfer. Strike then reported that while he hadn't actually seen the photos, his intelligence officer had, and that was good enough. I switched to my own encrypted direct intelligence circuits and contacted Battle Group Intel, and demanded the pictures along with the tactical analysis.

As it turned out, nobody in the BG Intel cell had seen the pictures either, but they had confirmed analysis from another source. That source happened to be my own particular branch of tactical intelligence. I switched circuits again - and had my own special intelligence team begin pulling logs of the last 12 hours of raw data - and requested the pictures directly from the originating entity. That entity turned out to be a very junior maintenance technician who was speculating about mine laying on an intel chat circuit with another junior technician while troubleshooting our communications system. Neither of the technicians were actual intel types, or qualified in military or maritime analysis, or were actually even in the theater of operations. There were no pictures. In fact the entire incident stemmed from a single line on an encrypted chat circuit that went something along the lines of "I've seen pictures of vessel xxxx, and I bet it could lay mines..." Like the child's game of "Telephone," the fog of war morphed that single line of speculation into solid, validated, photographic intelligence - and 43 innocent fishermen were about to die.

Logs in hand, and egg on my face (I was a member of that community, remember, one of us screws up, and we all look like idiots) I attempted to call off the strike. But events were already in motion and there was literally only seconds to left to abort, the strike commander was deeply vested in the intelligence and extremely reluctant to change course when assets had already been committed. Admission that the strike was based on false information was extremely difficult for him. (To his credit, he was an exceptionally competent Officer and a good guy, but it is a very difficult thing to admit you've been fooled when you should have demanded confirming proof to begin with, especially in an environment as chaotic as war). In the end I had to put my own ass on the line to get that strike called off. I thought for a while that I would get cashiered over that event because of the methodology I had to use in the end - I was right, but that's not always the right thing to be if you get my drift - but in the end cooler heads prevailed and I ended up with a commendation instead of a court martial for insubordination.

The reason I relate this story is not because I like blowing my own horn about one event, significant only to me and a handful of others, in an operation long buried amongst thousands of similar things. I mention it to illustrate how otherwise shrewd and intelligent people can, just like in the Zsa Zsa Gabor story above, come to believe something that simply has no basis in fact whatsoever, and then act on that false foundation as if it were actually true. And how people can become so emotionally and personally vested in that false position that they lose the power of dispassionate reason and the ability to admit when they are wrong.

In both the civilian world, and in the field of military intelligence, the scope and influence of false or manufactured information used to be self limiting to a certain extent. Time and distance, communication lag and limited bandwidth, and more than anything else professionalism, served as a damper. News organizations prided themselves on their research in the mold of Edward R. Murrow, strictly separating opinion from validated fact. This of course, wasn't a hard and fast rule, witness how America became involved in the Spanish American War, largely at the goading of Hearst and Pultizer's race for dramatic and timely headlines. But in the early days of electronic information, i.e. TV News, there were certain criteria and most editors prided themselves on their professional adherence to those standards. As a result, people came to trust the faces of Network news, Brinkely, Chronkite, Brokaw, and the other famous names from the heyday of broadcast TV. In the military intelligence field, the standards were much stricter. Our bandwidth was limited, and so each piece of information was filtered, verified, and vetted before being placed on the circuit; a senior and experienced officer or NCO signed off on every single piece of information that entered the group consensus. This is not to say that things were perfect, either in the civilian media or within military channels, far from it in fact. But there was layering, filtering, and analysis in both systems, at every step along the way. The drawback, of course, was that information flow was limited by these choke points. Both military leaders and the civilian population demanded more information, faster and more timely. And as the instantaneous connectivity of the information age evolved, and bandwidth on all channels expanded exponentially in accordance with Moore's Law, that's precisely what we got.

In the world of cable news and under increasing pressure to publish first or be left behind, civilian news organizations began to remove those professional filters until there are only vestiges left today - and increasingly the population is being bombarded with raw, unfiltered information. A perfect example is the once vaunted CNN, who nowadays broadcasts a segment called "News to Me," where anyone with a video camera can become an iReporter. Unfortunately, the general population has never had either the training or the need to perform information filtering and validation on their own. They are conditioned to believe that what they see is indeed fact and this increasingly leads to false perceptions on a national level.

At the same time, in government and in the military world, our leaders began to demand raw information as well, believing that they have the ability to sort fact from fiction without the aid of trained and experienced professionals, and that speed over accuracy is what matters. Arguably, the most public example is, of course, the infamous "Yellow Cake" incident which led directly to war in Iraq - and subsequently to the deaths of tens of thousands with the counter still ticking. In addition to that incident, there have been many, many more in recent history - some that I've witnessed personally and have been powerless to divert.

With the advent of unlimited interpersonal connectivity between individuals on a global scale, without filters such as the traditional technical, social, political, geographic, and linguistic boundaries, and without any other form of validation or verification, the ability of information to take on the trappings of reality has become a true and terrifying new power.

Take this website for example, published by a couple of folks who claim to be full time Alaskan residents and appear, as such, to have special insight into the GOP Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. If you surf the site, however, you'll see immediately that these folks are just a touch biased, and that they've actually lived in Alaska for less than a year. They came here with an eco-tourism agenda and, like many of their inclination, a preconceived notion of Alaska and a solid contempt for Alaskans, and they've done nothing to change that. It's their right to do so, but they are hardly dispassionate in their viewpoint. And yet, their words provide unvetted input into the group consciousness, and validation of viewpoints that a certain element of the population already wants to believe.

Take this letter for example, this time from a long-time Alaskan resident. A resident of Wasilla, Alaska and an ardent town meeting attendee (and every other kind of meeting, yes I know who she is) - she's also the town busybody. Note how she, according to her own words, claims special knowledge and selflessly places her own life and livelihood between the vindictive Governor and all those who would be persecuted, and how only she has the courage to stand up when others won't.

Note the number of folks who, never having heard of Sarah Palin before, are suddenly experts. Note the vast army of strawmen suddenly marching forth from our TV screens and Internet browsers. The rumors run the gamut from the already tired whispers of Trig Palin being Sarah Palin's grandson to her reworking of the Alaskan public school system in her own creationist image to the fact that she dines on endangered polar bear meat for lunch.

Strangely, note the vast number of Americans who believe with absolute certainty that if the republicans win the White House, Sarah Palin will become President by default - when John McCain dies in office. I find it strange that so many folks, including a great many republicans, believe this - and yet are willing to vote for a man they are certain will not live out his term.

Understand something here, I am not a Republican, I feel no compelling need to defend Sarah Palin. I am also not a Democrat, I feel no compelling need to attack Sarah Palin. I am not a Libertarian, big L or otherwise, and so feel no compelling need to hide under my bed and wait for the end of the world. I doubt very much that I will vote for John McCain, however, I know why I will not. And that knowledge is based on verified fact and the actual words, actions, and expressed intentions of the candidates - and not the urban legends and false intelligence manufactured by party wonks and propagated by so called 'experts' like those linked to above.

When it comes to Zsa Zsa's cat - I want to see the tape, or I'm going to have to call bullshit on the story. And I highly advise you to do the same.


  1. Anyone who wants to seriously understand the phenomena you describe (I'm not speaking of you, you obviously understand it) would do well to study urban legends and how they start and are spread. My favorite expert on this is Dr. Jan Harold Brunvand, Fulbright scholar, former editor of the Journal of American Folklore and president of the American Folklore Society, and an expert in folklore and urban legends.

    He discusses in detail the FOAF (friend of a friend) phenomena, and in a number of books analyzed a large number of urban legends, tracking down how they likely started and noting how they are kept alive by even when debunked by the media and officials. Yes, I own all his books.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: we do a piss-poor job of teaching our kids how to think - and by this I mean how to apply logic and research to statements/claims to determine their truth content. What is generally taught is facts to be memorized, then regurgitated at test time.

    Shoot low boys, they're riding Shetland ponies!

  2. First, I'll say that I'm an Obama supporter, & have been since the beginning. I think Sarah Palin's nomination is a move to grab the votes of the still VERY unhappy Hillary supporters.
    That said, I'm being inundated w/ emails from the local Obama volunteer groups I've been involved w/ spreading all kinds of info about her. It's natural to try to dig up dirt on your opponent, & boy is all kinds of info & most likely misinfo, like you say, spreading like wildfire.
    In just tried to post the links to just 2 of the things I've gotten just today, but they're too long to show up. Go to http://mudflats.wordpress.com/ & you'll see a lot of extremely biased 'truth'.
    As you said, Akn's are suddenly coming out of the woodwork as 'experts'.

  3. Good post.

    It's good to see that there are still sensible people around who haven't jumped into the media cesspool.

  4. Great post, Jim. The difference between facts and what we think happened has always fascinated me. I think sometime after my 85th birthday, I might actually have something wise to say about it. ;)

    Thanks for being a voice for reason.

  5. Hmmm, more blog fodder for me. Curse you, I don't have time to write.




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