Friday, October 31, 2003


Thomas L. Friedman, the Middle East-focused columnist for The New York Times, continued his descent into deranged apologia yesterday in a piece titled, “It’s no Vietnam.” (Iraq, he means.)

I admired his work only before Bush started his drive toward Iraq, which is when Friedman yelled, “Shotgun!” and jumped in for a fast and reckless ride that, in retrospect, shouldn’t have been undertaken with the nation’s most notorious DUI. Now that our soldiers are being attacked “an average of 33 times a day,” and continuing to die accordingly, notes an article found only 17 pages earlier in the Times’ front section, Friedman has been unable to leave the president’s vehicle -- which has, admittedly, yet to come to a complete stop.

Jump out, Tom! You look like an idiot in there.

Friedman is deranged because he is so in love with the Democratic experiment he sees going on in Iraq, despite the contradiction that the great Democratic experiment was the result of an immense con job on the American people, that before we export Democracy to Iraq and ask its people to pay for it, perhaps we should make sure it’s in good working order here.

“Many liberals oppose this war because they can’t believe that someone as radically conservative as George W. Bush could be mounting such a liberal war,” Friedman writes. “Some, though, just don’t believe the Bush team will do it right.”

Ugh. Has Friedman been reading his own newspaper? Or any? Has he not noticed that our efforts in Iraq are dramatically lacking in credibility? That killing innocents and forcing a way of life on people is not the most liberal of acts? That the Bush version of democracy is an improvement only by default? At least Friedman doesn’t try to pretend, despite his panting romanticism over what we could do in Iraq, that “this war” is over.

But his refusal to see the war as tainted translates into another blindness. He asserts that Iraq is “no Vietnam,” and that “The people who mounted the attacks on the Red Cross are not the Iraqi Vietcong. They are the Iraqi Khmer Rouge -- a murderous band of Saddam loyalists and Al Qaeda nihilists, who are not killing us so Iraqis can rule themselves. They are killing us so they can rule Iraqis.”

The blindness: So what? It’s a distinction without a difference. I don’t think Iraq is Vietnam either, for what it’s worth, but U.S. soldiers are still dying, as they did in Vietnam, Iraqis are still dying, as the Vietnamese did, and we still have no valid reason for being there, just as we lacked valid reasons to be in Vietnam.

Friedman wants us to think it matters which brand of killer is wrecking our glorious occupation, but the more important point is that the killers exist at all, and are attacking an average, just an average, of 33 times a day long after we drove in, guns blazing, and screamed, “Attack us!”

Friedman, riding shotgun, was screaming something somewhat different. He seems not to notice that his garbled message was indistinguishable from that insane provocation and is still -- still -- being drowned out by the sounds of gunfire.

Thursday, October 30, 2003


Oh, God. Yes, please.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003


Journalists are supposed to doubt everything, confirm everything, but that’s awfully difficult. If the police tell you a thief escaped in a green Volvo, it takes a lot of energy to think of doubting, let alone to doubt and confirm, that the Volvo may not have been green, that it may not have been a Volvo and that there may have been no theft in the first place.

You should doubt all three. But, well, come on.

So on Oct. 9, when I pointed out that California’s budget deficit of $38 billion was tiny as a percent of gross state product (borrowing from a Republican defense on the U.S. deficit), I was checking the wrong thing.

It’s not that $38 billion is only 2.7 percent of California’s GSP; it’s that the deficit was cut down to only $8 billion in July, long before the gubernatorial recall vote that traded Gray Davis for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As much as I’m kicking myself, why not spread the blame? The lamebrains trying to keep Davis in office did a terrible job of getting the word out.

By the way, $8 billion is 0.6 percent of California’s gross state product.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003


At last someone’s saying it and, even better, backing it up with a numbers: “The question is really safety, and the fact is ... Canadian procedures for safety are comparable and sometimes even better” than those of the United States.

The speaker was Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a leader in the effort to import prescription drugs from Canada, where government price controls make them cheaper than in the United States, where, of course, the competition of the free market conspires to blah, blah, blah. Blagojevich’s 70-page study says that “as much as $90.7 million a year could be saved if drugs for (Illinois) state employees and retired employees were brought across the border,” according to the Monday New York Times. Readers were implicitly invited to multiply that by 50.

The idea is obviously seductive, and Springfield has followed Illinois, and Cambridge, Boston and Somerville are following Springfield. There’s a Congressional field hearing today in Boston -- yes, a politicians’ field trip, with U.S. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) visiting to weigh the pros and cons.

But the debate has so far been framed by the pharmaceuticals and biotech industry, which carries a lot of weight in Massachusetts, and the industry seems unfortunately to have been studying the playbook of the Recording Industry Association of America: hysteria and lawsuits for everyone!

“Industry leaders are concerned that short-term price cuts will undermine investment in research and development. That could slow the progress of drugs in the pipeline to the consumers who need them,” writes the credulous Boston Herald today. But Jennifer Heldt Powell’s article fails to note how little those consumers will care if they can’t afford the drugs in the first place.

It’s been reported that drug companies have threatened to end sales of pharmaceuticals to Canada, but that surely must be a reporting error, especially for an industry so weepy over the costs of research and development. The revised threat -- that sales to Canada would be limited to just what it’s determined Canada needs -- is more likely, but also a little silly. First would come the lawsuits when the inevitable shortage occurs, depriving sick people of their medicine; then would come the realization that making revenue in Canada from lower-cost exported drugs is better than making no revenue in the United States from people (and governments) who can’t buy them at the higher cost. Memo to the drug industry: Your products are frequently too expensive. Americans shouldn’t have to subsidize your research and development, and they no longer can.

The industry has hired the voice of reason in ex-New York City cop Richard “Bo” Dietl, who was played by Stephen Baldwin in “One Tough Cop: The Bo Dietl Story” (a 1998 release the Los Angeles Daily News called boring for those “not interested in self-destructive stupidity or counting how many expletives can be squeezed into an hour and a half”). Dietl, according the Wall Street Journal, interrupts news conferences to yell policy statements such as “This is a life or death issue ... you’re going to poison half of America.” (Half? Reminder: Dietl is a duly paid employee of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, so this may have to be considered an official policy statement.)

Dietl has a standard packet he hands out showing “a mug shot of a convicted thief who runs online Web sites selling prescription drugs,” the Journal’s Sarah Lueck wrote on Oct. 22, and “another shot, snapped by Mr. Dietl’s man on the ground in Kashmir, shows a dusty truck allegedly transporting medications that will be shipped to U.S. consumers who ordered them online.” And here’s a picture of the dog that almost bit me.

Dietl says his underage children have ordered drugs online, too, as a test of safety protocols. But either he or Lueck fail to note whether the drugs were to be delivered from a different country, such as Canada, or from one of the jillions of questionable businesses operating right here in these United States, bastion of drug safety and reputable business practices.

What’s gone missing in all this, until the study Blagojevich handed over to the U.S. government yesterday, is that Canada, our friend to the north, our Nafta buddy, is not a fly-by-night fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck business in Kashmir. It’s not a developing nation. The drug industry assertions that the United States can’t inspect every drug that comes across its borders is about as reasonable as noting that it also can’t test drive every car that enters the country.

The United States did $353 billion in trade with Canada in 2002, making it our top trading partner, said Walker Pollard, an international economist with the U.S. International Trade Commission, and we accept about $68 billion more in goods from Canada than we send it.

Check out the commission’s “data web” and you’ll see that pharmaceuticals are only 0.576 percent of Canada’s exports to us (for about $1.2 million in 2002). So if we’re going to freak out about inspecting things entering the country from Canada, shouldn’t it be killer cars and other rolling deathtraps, which account for a quarter of all imports from Canada?

As any rational person would expect, especially if they visited Canada, which is one of the more rational countries on Earth, the efforts of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are matched up north. The nation’s Food and Drug Act says, predictably, that before drugs “can be marketed for sale, they must go through a regulatory process for quality, safety and efficacy,” said Krista Apse, a spokeswoman for Health Canada. “Drugs not manufactured in Canada can only legally be exported if they are approved by us ... and only a licensed pharmacist can dispense (drugs).”

The main difference is that regulation is handled at the level of provinces, Apse said, rather than federally, as is done in the United States, but the level of quality, safety and efficacy is set by the act, not by local officials.

Despite Dietl and the drug industry’s panicked warnings, it is not the sky that would fall if drug imports were allowed -- just the cost of pharmaceuticals. Warnings about drugs bought from other nations or online are reasonable if there are no trustworthy mechanisms in place to ensure safety. In Canada, there are, and the U.S. Senate bill is written to allow imports only from Canada.

That’s fine news, and Blagojevich’s study will make such a bill more likely to pass.

If so, concern would have to shift to Canada, where Apse says there is already concern over drug shortages and industry anger making the problem even worse. But that would leave drug manufacturers looking like bad guys instead of saviors, and probably worsen the outlook for a sector that has struggled enough in recent years.

Pharmacist, heal thyself.

Monday, October 27, 2003


I’m just now catching up to Saturday’s lead editorial in the Boston Herald, which, I note with glee and horror, actually jeers a supporter of John Kerry’s presidential campaign for ... endorsing John Kerry for president!

The editorial begins:

“Now here's a real political shocker for you. Joseph Wilson, the former diplomat who threw a hissy-fit when his CIA-employed wife was outed in a Robert Novak column, has officially endorsed Sen. John Kerry for president.

“Oh, stop the presses!”

An odd stance to take, considering that the Herald was among the newspapers running such an article. But the editorial writers have another cunning point to make:

“Wilson also acknowledged that he has been advising Kerry on foreign policy for about five months. Yes, that would put it BEFORE Wilson started criticizing President Bush for the line in his State of the Union message about Iraq seeking uranium from Niger for use in Saddam Hussein's nuclear program. (Wilson was the one sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate the charge, but insists he found no evidence of same.)”

Again odd, this time concerning the phrasing of that last sentence, since no one has found such evidence. Or, to quote then-spokesman for the White House Ari Fleischer in the July 8, 2003, New York Times, “We’ve long acknowledged (the information) did, indeed, turn out to be incorrect.”

Even more funny, and I can only hope that’s what the editorial writers were trying to be, was the charge that Wilson’s “righteous indignation” is suspect, and his endorsement somehow questionable, because he’s been advising Kerry for several months. In other words, he’d been advising Kerry since June, while his public chiding of the Bush administration for misusing his report took place in July. But his trip to Niger to track down the uranium sale took place in 2002, and the speech George Bush gave incorrectly using Wilson’s information took place in January.

The Herald’s more strident cousin, The Washington Times, had a similarly odd point to make on Oct. 2. In pointing out that “Wilson, wife have tight ties to Democrats,” the Times’ Rowan Scarborough cleverly notes Wilson’s duplicity in having told ABC in November that Iraqis “would use a biological weapon in a battle that we might have,” although, Scarborough writes, “he now criticizes Mr. Bush for relying on the same intelligence.”

Wilson, of course, had nothing to do with biological weapons and wouldn’t necessarily have known anything about them, especially in November. In a fine point that eludes the Times, Wilson investigated a specific allegation of a purchase of uranium -- a material popular in nuclear warfare -- not general allegations of biological weaponry. So he didn’t necessarily have any intelligence on biological weapons, although Bush sure did.

Well, whatever.


While Republicans have been inconsistent on Wilson, who was a hawk during the first Gulf War, Wilson has not been inconsistent on Iraq. He’s been quite prescient, in fact, and diplomatic, attempting to warn against a dangerous policy in Iraq while not blowing the whistle on the Bush administration’s deceit or incompetence (your choice) in regard to his own intelligence gathering. The proof is in the transcript of “The World Today” episode of March 13, months before his New York Times piece, in which Wilson tells Eleanor Hall:

“I have no doubt whatsoever that the United States is going to win the battle for Baghdad. We will go in, there may be some surprises, there may be some real nasty surprises, but we will succeed in our objective of throwing out the regime of Saddam Hussein and occupying Baghdad. But that is only the first battle. The success or failure of this operation won't be known until after we have effectively withdrawn from Iraq.”

“(The United States) is taking a terribly large gamble, and I’m not sure it’s a necessary gamble for the purposes of assuring our national security. I think, on the contrary, that if the photos coming out of Baghdad after we implement our strategy or anything like the military has described it, it may in fact become a wonderful recruiting tool for Osama bin Laden and others like him.

“We need to assume that after a brief period, when we’re perceived as liberators, we will come to be seen as occupiers. That will then have the effect, I think, of alienating a broader swath of the Arab and Muslim world, from Indonesia to Mauritania.”


Herald editorials are frequently as silly as the Wilson item. The writers trot after liberal issues, hopping indignantly in a Limbaughesque kind of sputtering rage, with the same lapses of fairness and logic. It’s always seemed harmless enough, mostly because no one at the newspaper tends to take the editorials very seriously -- just as something to put up with, like the junior high punctuation of the Inside Track gossip column or cheesecake shots linked winkingly to “news” (Here’s another giant photo of Miss Massachusetts in a bikini, because she’s competing in another beauty pageant, and here’s a giant photo of Jennifer Lopez in a wet, white bikini because she’s ... without Ben Affleck).

But there was one piece I hung onto, because it was so deliciously absurd.

“At the start of every academic year, the Young America’s Foundation calls attention to the idiocies of political correctness on campus in a little guide called ‘The Dirty Dozen.’ It’s an eye-opener,” ran an Aug. 26, 2001, editorial. “Conservative scholars such as Nobel-prize winner Milton Friedman and historian Paul Johnson are virtually ignored in college curricula (and) Karl Marx and his successors are widely favored in assigned reading.”

In fact, the piece said, “You would be as hard-pressed to find a course at a major university that treats capitalism sympathetically as you would be to locate one that examines feminism, Marxism or multiculturalism critically.”

This floored me, as, just within a several-mile radius around the Herald offices were, and are, the Harvard Business School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, Babson College’s MBA program, the Carroll School of Management at Boston College ... well, think of a school with a business program, which is where capitalism would be a main topic, and there you will find programs that are not only “sympathetic” to capitalism, but focused on wringing every advantage out of it.

Unlike The Washington Times, the Herald reserves most of its bosh for the editorial page and flags it as such with melodramatic rhetoric (hissy-fits, I’d call them). The Herald has a way to go before it’s spinning as fast as the No-Spin Zone is or tilted as far to the right as the Fair and Balanced.

But, lord, it’s in there trying. At least it’s trying.

Saturday, October 25, 2003


What? Still no word from Cingular Wireless?

No, not as of yesterday, so I called the company again and reminded them that their agreement to let me out of my contract was, so far, just a lot of talk. Cingular worker Kamille Gregory told me Sept. 30 that she’d send me our breakup note the next day; when I hadn’t gotten it by Oct. 10, I called back (and discovered she’d sent the letter to someone else) and was told again that the letter was on its way.

Two weeks later, nothing.

And during my latest, and last, round of calls, yesterday, the customer service representative handling me by agreeing to fax me the letter put me on hold and -- ah, nostalgia -- lost me. I was left holding a telephone receiver telling me that if I’d “like to make a call ...”

But success, I think, as the final rep of the day managed to survive my outraged ranting and fax me the letter. It’s dated Oct. 10, making me wonder about that Sept. 30th promise, as well as the claim of an incorrect address, but no matter. Here it is, misspellings and such intact:

“Dear Mr. Levy,

“Cingular Wireless strives for premium customer service and we are very displeased that we were unable to meet your demands for service.

“Per our phone conversation on October 1, 2003, this letter is acknowledgement that we have agreed to cancel your wireless account without you having fulfilled your commitment due to expire on August 2, 2004. Any associated termination penalties will be waived upon the return of your wireless equipment. Please remit to my attention at the following address:

“Cingular Wireless, 17000 Cantrell Road, Little Rock AR 72223

“If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me at 1 (866) 220-8446 ext. 2110.

“Sincerely, Kamille Gregory, Cingular Wireless, Office of the President.”

Friday, October 24, 2003


I’m slow in getting to it -- “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” being far more important -- but the official word on the U.S. deficit came out this week: At $374 billion for the fiscal year that’s just passed, White House estimates in July were off by $81 billion.

Thus the White House confirms it cannot do math; the averaged guess of bond-trading firms surveyed by Bloomberg News at the time was off by only $58 billion, and they had less data. Or, if the surprise $26 billion boost of the past few months of tax revenue is factored in, the White House is off by $55 billion, while the traders were off by $32 billion.

Good going, White House. But we know you’re doing the best you can -- that you have problems with numbers, such as how much a war will cost or how much malpractice reform will help ease the staggering cost of health care premiums in the United States. (The answers, respectively, are “a lot” and “not much.”)

And it must be respected that the White House Office of Management and Budget concedes that not only is the $374 billion double what it was in the previous fiscal year, but that the deficit in the next fiscal year will be more than $500 billion.

(Looking at this year for guidance, that indicates a deficit for fiscal year 2004 of somewhere around $419 billion.)

It defends the deficits by noting their size compared with gross domestic product, of which $374 billion is only 3.5 percent.

But the office can’t keep its figures straight, probably because it benefits from the confusion. A look at the tables posted on its Web site yesterday shows that by its own estimates, the $500 billion deficit it expects for fiscal year 2004 will be 4.2 percent of gross domestic product -- but that it matches the percentage of deficit for fiscal year 2003.

It doesn’t.

While two plus two may equal five, 3.5 percent does not equal 4.2 percent.

The punchline is that the chart showing this is labeled “As a percentage of GDP, the budget deficit is expected to be cut by more than half by 2006.”

More than half! You can trust that!

Thursday, October 23, 2003


Steven Spielberg, director of the “Indiana Jones” movies, had time to digitally transform the guns in the rereleased “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” into walkie-talkies and give prolonged consideration to eliminating its use of the phrase “penis breath.”

George Lucas, executive producer of the “Indiana Jones” movies, by now has probably changed more on the original “Star Wars” trilogy than he’s kept -- including making Greedo shoot first in an entirely unnecessary attempt to make Han Solo less of a scoundrel.

Yet in 14 years neither could be bothered to fix the lame bluescreen effects in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”?

Wednesday, October 22, 2003


There was a notable trip to the Porter Square Star Market, a quick jaunt to pick up a couple of bagels and replenish the house’s dwindling supply of roasted, unsalted store-brand peanuts. The trip was notable because the store had neither, making the trip worthless.

But that makes many of my trips to the store notable, because many wind up in that kind of frustration. And it’s not because most of my shopping is done between 11 p.m. and midnight, before restocking is done, since there are other nights when bagels are plentiful and yet other nights when there are at least a few, even if -- oddly -- it is only one flavor. You’d think the demand for bagels would be somewhat more steady, like the demand for roasted, unsalted store-brand peanuts, but you wouldn’t know it from the supply.

The store seems to have two main failings: It doesn’t note when something’s running out, so it can reorder, restock and keep a supply on hand -- although millions of people in households across the United States do that without thinking; and it invests heavily in merchandise that gathers dust on the shelf, sometimes a lot of dust, but lightly in the merchandise that sells out quickly. I’m confident of this because many times I shop night after night, buying one or two items and returning to buy one or two more, so I get a good sense of flow of, say, the roasted, unsalted store-brand peanuts I buy (fast, but few jars are put on the shelves) vs. the salted variety (slow, with an army of jars available). The same goes for the Tribe brand Calamata Chunky Olive Hummus vs. its many hummus siblings, SoBe teas vs. the various bizarre nontea liquids SoBe puts out (“SoBe Fuerte,” “Lizard Lava,” et. al.), and probably many more.

The store does learn, slowly, at least on some items. The calamata hummus is now in steadier supply, after weeks or months of spotty appearances, and the same goes for the Peloponnese Kalatama Olive Spread, rare but encouraging examples of store managers doing what they’re supposed to: noticing what sells out when and figuring out when to get more. And, although prices remain high, at least the store has stopped moving stuff around so frequently.

But managers are stubborn on other improvements, citing excuses such as the disproportionate number of people served by the relatively small store (an odd mea culpa coming from a site that was open 24 hours but now closes at midnight). Nonsense. If Newbury Comics can think to keep reordering 13-year-old spoken-word albums by dead beat writer William S. Burroughs, Star Market managers can arrange to keep some popular peanuts around.

That excuse is weak, also, for many of the other mysteries of the market.

The bags of salad, for instance, lacked individual price labels when I ate salad wraps daily, and there were no shelf labels, either. (I have pictures of this, from back when I blackmailed the store into action by complaining repeatedly that it was illegal and that I intended to notify the attorney general.) It’s insidious because, although the bags are almost all the same size, they have different weights and prices. A 10-ounce bag of one kind of salad looks the same as a 16-ounce bag of another kind, but today it cost $2.99, while the 16-ounce bag cost $1.99. And the 32-ounce bag, although twice as large, is just $1.79. There are also 5-ounce bags for $2.99 and 6-ounce bags for $3.29, as well as at least two brands on sale, with the store’s costing counterintuitively more. So ... good luck.

I also have pictures of individual cans of Hanson’s soda from the market’s bargain bin, priced to move at a mere $1. Interesting, considering that a six-pack costs $2.

During a recent visit, some of the Nikos Feta Cheese packages had individual price stickers, which are necessary because the weight of the cheese slabs vary. But some didn’t have stickers, and the bin holding them offered no guidance.

And how about Shaw’s Dandruff Shampoo? There are two kinds, for normal hair or for fine or oily hair, and each bottle holds 13.5 fluid ounces. The normal-hair version cost $8.27 per quart, or $3.49 for a bottle, and the other version costs $7.34 per quart or ... $3.49 for a bottle. I pointed out to a manager that this was mathematically impossible. He walked away.

Some three months later, nothing has changed.

My revenge for this cold incompetence is to snack as I wander the aisles, feasting from the penny candy and bins of cashews or yogurt pretzels intended for bagging.

It’s petty, but satisfying. Unlike the shopping experience.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003


Once I was excited by Virgin Megastores, and Tower had its day, too, but I’m devoted to Newbury Comics now -- the 24-store chain doing about $75 million in business a year. The prices are the best around and the vibe is good. But the chain, and the canny inventory system that underlies its success, won my admiration and continued patronage Thursday, when I called to see if the Harvard Square store happened to have a copy of a somewhat, shall we say, specialized album.

It was stupid of me. I wanted to give someone a copy of the album within the next two hours. But I asked anyway:

“Do you have a copy of William S. Burroughs’ ‘Dead City Radio’?”

Amazingly, they had it. In fact, not only did the store have a copy of this 13-year-old spoken-word album by a dead heroin addict, but the guy answering the phone didn’t even hesitate before answering. He knew.

Is there a lesson here? Maybe. If Newbury Comics didn’t have it, I was going to have to put my own “Dead City Radio” into the laptop and burn a copy.

Monday, October 20, 2003


Americans love standardized tests. The latest wrinkle is in Massachusetts, where the agency that gives state workers health insurance plans to identify the most efficient doctors and send more work their way.

There are weird echoes of this from the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind act, in which schools are rated and, if deemed failures for two years in a row, can be abandoned for others. As Michael Winerip’s damningly solid reporting has shown in The New York Times, the act is entirely arbitrary and punishing to the schools that pass, as well as those that fail. Passing schools are flooded with new students; when the schools can’t serve all their students adequately, it increases their chances of becoming failing schools.

There could be benefits to the Massachusetts health plan, but not the ones dominating today’s Boston Herald article, which is by Jennifer Heldt Powell. It isn’t until the tenth paragraph that study organizers note, in a paraphrase, that “The intention is to ... determine what treatments work best and promote those practices” as well as to “reward more efficient doctors.”

Best for Massachusetts and other states considering this approach to focus on those instead of insisting thousands of state workers pack the offices of a few more-efficient doctors, whose work would inevitably become less efficient -- punishing patients and competent doctors just as Bush’s education act punishes students and good schools.

Sunday, October 19, 2003


It is one of the first lessons a copy editor learns: ATM stands for automated teller machine, so referring to “an ATM machine” is redundant. I must have walked around with that in my head for more than a decade before, last week, being smacked violently in the same area by a related thought:

“Automated teller machine” itself is redundant. An automated teller is, by definition, a machine.

So they’re really just automated tellers.

Pass it around.

Saturday, October 18, 2003


It sounds ominous: As many as 10 workers at Guantanamo Bay charged with espionage, treason and aiding the enemy. Since most of the 600 prisoners at Guantanamo, although they’re from more than 40 countries, are supposed to be members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban, the horrors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks provide a chilling subtext to the charges.

But the Red Cross protests, the reports of suicide attempts, the fact that some of the prisoners are 15 or younger, the unending and uncertain nature of the imprisonments at the government installation -- indeed, the very lack of transparency at Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray -- beg the questions: Is the treason just general sympathy for the prisoners? Is the espionage actually attempts to act against prison conditions, rather than against the United States?

So little information has been released that it’s difficult to assess. One of the few details U.S. Army lawyers have given is that Muslim Army chaplain Capt. Yousef Yee, now being held at the Charlestown, S.C., Naval Weapons Station brig, was arrested carrying a list of Guantanamo detainees and a map of the facility. Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, a translator who’s also been charged, was found with a compact disc containing “secret information obtained from Guantanamo Bay,” according to The Associated Press. The judge in the case “also cited a later search of Mehalba’s personal computer -- which he sold before leaving Guantanamo -- that turned up similar classified documents.” (Mehalba’s security clearance meant he was allowed to see classified documents, but not travel with them. So the compact disc was illegal, but the PC documents may not have been.)

A list of detainees? A map of Camp X-Ray? “Secret information” from a place where 600 prisoners are being kept indefinitely without being charged? “Similar classified documents” on a PC that was sold?

Would a single Muslim chaplain serving 600 people need a map or list of his ministry? Even if he didn’t, what sinister purpose could he serve with such secrets? And is it truly such a cause for concern that someone who can look at secret documents might actually break a rule (or law) to travel with them? And, unless the buyer of his computer is also under suspicion for treason or espionage, what does it say about the value of those documents that Mehalba failed to wipe them from his hard drive before letting them slip through his fingers?

All of this can be argued the other way, too, because these are simply bits of odd data without meaning. But it’s worth remembering that things can look damning for no reason just as easily as people can look innocent but have evil motives. Either way, it’s odd that the U.S. government can’t come up with anything more alarming to release to the public.

It could be sort of a “man arrested for carrying knife” story, without it being mentioned that it was a dull knife, and he was also carrying a pan of brownies.

Friday, October 17, 2003


President Bush was feeling his oats again, pumped up by his win at the United Nations over support in Iraq and by the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger was nearby. So today in California, about to fly to Japan, he spoke again about his policy of preemptive strikes on nations he perceives to be hostile.

“America is following a new strategy,” he said. “We are not waiting for further attacks. We are striking our enemies before they can strike us again.”

Some may think of this as the Hitler’s Grandfather stratagem, in which you are offered the chance to kill Hitler before he gains power and causes so much trouble and pain. You’d do it? What about killing the baby Hitler? Yes? Well, how about Hitler’s parents? How about killing Hitler’s grandfathers and grandmothers? Where would you draw the line on preemptive killing?

The United States attacked Iraq preemptively, remember, but we seem to have killed Hitler’s great-great-great-grandfather. There was no attack imminent. And we got away with it ... this time.

But there’s a problem with the Bush administration’s preemptive-strike policy, something I call the Fletcher-Stanwyk conundrum.

In Gregory McDonald’s novel “Fletch,” a decent guy named Stanwyk hires Fletch to kill him, although his plan is really to kill Fletch and make people think Fletch’s corpse is his own. When Fletch catches on, he asks Stanwyk how he could morally justify the murder. Stanwyk replies that “I have the right to kill anyone who has agreed to murder me, under any circumstances.”

The United States will attack any nation it is convinced is a threat. But, in doing so, it actually provides a preemptive justification to those countries: We say we’re ready to attack preemptively; so the nation we’re about to strike attacks us to preempt our preemptive attack. When they know we’re coming in, they no longer have any reason to hold back -- that’s why Saddam Hussein either deserves credit for restraint or audacity for some plan yet to come to fruition. Or, of course, he really wasn’t such a threat. (Hmm.)

In Bush’s mind, and the minds of many, the United States gets to do things no other nation gets to, just because it’s the United States (and you’re not). Let’s hope all those foreign leaders we may attack agree.

Thursday, October 16, 2003


President Bush met today with California’s next governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, drawing the keen attention of many who’d be reluctant to admit watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie -- even if they got to sit next to President Bush. Those would be the analysts and experts who say such things as:

“It may be that you can’t take Arnold on the road to, say, South Carolina. He has political views far to the left of most mainstream Republicans.”

That was Bruce Cain, of the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, quoted in The New York Times. He was almost certainly referring to Schwarzenegger’s support of abortion rights and gay rights, which “most mainstream Republicans” oppose. And Cain certainly isn’t the only one watching the Bush-Schwarzenegger relationship with curiosity and anticipation.

But herein lies one of the central mysteries of mainstream Republicans: They insist they want to reduce government intrusion into people’s lives ... but not if they disapprove of what people want to do with their life, such as sleep with people of the same sex, or take part in a medical procedure opposed mainly by the religious.

Maybe Bush’s requisite renewed interest in California will force the conflict to some sort of resolution. The chances are greater, though, that Bush will admit to a making a mistake on Iraq or his tax cuts.

So it’s not very likely.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003


When California courts decided Michael Newdow’s case -- getting rid of the “under God” part of the pledge of allegiance his daughter was reciting at school -- there were derisive hoots that next there would be attempts to remove references to God from our currency, oaths and government architecture.

That would be nice, actually.

Now is not the time, as the United States has more pressing problems: Its political and health care systems are broken; terrorism threatens; the deficit swells. You name it, the United States suffers from it, and all take precedence over the willful striking of God from public discourse. But the inclusion of God in politics and its products is simply silly.

As was noted in 2002, when Newdow’s case was heard in Sacramento, Calif., and rejected, and as will be noted again now that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear an appeal, God was only added to the pledge in 1954. You may remember the year: Teachers were fired for failing to sign loyalty oaths, and U.S. senators unanimously voted to impose up to a $10,000 fine and five years in jail for belonging to the Communist Party; Eisenhower got us into a war in Vietnam; racism was rampant, even established legal policy for much of it.

This is just another policy that may require rethinking from the 1950s.

But people want to protect God -- who, I’ve heard, can protect himself -- by keeping him in the pledge, and apparently on U.S. currency and elsewhere as well. (Although why it’s so nice that our dollar bills say “In God we trust” is a mystery. “Gimme a copy of Hustler. In exchange, here’s a strip of cloth-paper hybrid that refers to God.”) This makes sense for a country where, as noted by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof in August, a representative 83 percent of Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and 58 percent believe it is necessary to believe in God to be moral.

What’s worse than this sloppy urge Americans have to defy common sense is their even more pressing need to share their beliefs with others. This goes beyond silly. It’s offensive and ill-mannered. Pushing religion is not like trying to gather votes for a politician, an initiative or a recall, because religion is supposed to be private. And the intent of the First Amendment on the matter seems clear enough: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It doesn’t mention a specific religion, but religion in general, and when the government includes all sorts of references to God in its materials, that violates the spirit of the amendment.

It doesn’t matter how long those references have been around, or even if the founders of the country chose to cite their religious beliefs at every opportunity. They also boasted of the equality of their new nation’s inhabitants and kept slaves anyway -- but we seem to have gotten beyond that quirk.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003


Blacks seeking mortgages in Boston were turned away 2.66 times more frequently than whites last year, and Hispanics 2.28 times more, says the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. These figures are slight improvements over those of 2001.

It’s uncertain if industry rhetoric has improved with Acorn’s figures, but it does have a certain audacious quality all its own. The Boston Herald paraphrases Kevin Cuff, executive director of the Massachusetts Mortgage Bankers Association, as saying there’s no doubt “historical discrimination exists here and elsewhere” but that “lenders work hard with regulators and activists to reduce discrimination when it’s found.”

It’s possible blacks and Hispanics would be more reassured to hear that lenders were working hard to reduce discrimination, period, instead of just when it’s “found” -- a bland word that could also be “revealed,” “discovered” or “exposed.” And the phrase “historical discrimination exists here” is significantly different from saying “historically, discrimination existed here.”

Cuff’s actual quotes may be clear of what look to be simply clever evasions, although the paraphrases really do read like standard industry stuff. Either way, at least he’s honest, after a fashion.

Monday, October 13, 2003


Cambridge isn’t going to be getting rent control anytime soon. Whether it’s needed is a little less certain.

The city, like the rest of Massachusetts, has been without rent control since 1994, but activists have put it on the Nov. 4 ballot as a home-rule petition, which means that even if enough voters in the city approve it, rent control must still be approved by the Legislature and Republican Gov. Mitt Romney. So the argument is probably pointless, as the chances of this happening are, well, extremely slim. Slimmer than a Slim Jim. About like a single strand of hair.

On the one hand, there’s census data showing that one in eight Cambridge homes are worth at least $1 million, making it the nation’s highest concentration of such homes, and rent generally tracks that. The fact is, people want to live in Cambridge, and that raises the cost of housing.

“I knew we had high housing costs,” Mayor Michael A. Sullivan told The Boston Globe in May, reacting to the million-dollar-home findings. “I never stopped to think of us in comparison to other communities. I just knew it was high, and higher than the means of most families.”

A city survey said that in April, average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,400, and average rent for a two-bedroom was $1,725, which, yes, may seem high. But that’s $710.52 per person. And these average rates in 1994 dollars are actually $1,130.07 for a one-bedroom apartment or $1,392.40 for a two-bedroom, meaning two people sharing an apartment would pay $696.20. That’s not that bad.

But the economy sucks, and, while people took advantage of the accompanying low interest rates to buy homes, even $1 million homes, the rental market suffered and is still suffering. Real estate agents are giving up their fees and security deposits and lowering rents just to get people in. In the summer of 2001, a one-bedroom apartment could easily have gone for $1,800 (which, in 1994 dollars, would be $1,506.27). When the economy improves, of course, those figures will be back.

But ... there is also a significant amount of building going on, with an incredible 4,320 housing units planned among Kendall Square, the “Maple Leaf” project of East Cambridge and the North Point tract by Lechmere. As apartments come on the market -- beautiful, shiny new apartments -- they should dampen rising rent costs.

But ... that doesn’t mean costs won’t still be high. The developers must set aside in their projects “affordable housing,” which has oddly come to mean “where poor people live,” and that’s not very helpful for the middle class, whether it take the form of families, professionals or students. If the Cambridge housing being built follows the trend in Boston, developers will pitch the costs to the high end to ensure glowing property values and recoup their investment. Because people want to live in Cambridge, the units are likely to fill up, even at a high price.

But ... the rent control proposal on the ballot, the one that won’t get enacted anyway, may not be the best possible proposal, and opposition is fierce and, including the arguments above, may have some good points. (It’s hard to escape the feeling that, yes, something must be done about high rental costs, but, no, this proposal isn’t that something.)

But ... the opponents can be their own worst enemy.

Lenore Monello Schloming, president of the Small Property Owners Association and, coincidentally, owner of 22 rental units in the city (if that qualifies for “small”), wrote against the rent control proposal in an April edition of the Cambridge Chronicle, summoning a great deal of outrage, some good points and a few specious arguments. For instance, she asks the goal of rent control, wondering if it’s “To stop migration out of Cambridge? To help the poor? These are false arguments,” and answers by citing census figures showing Cambridge growth and noting that the city “already has the second-highest percentage of subsidized housing for poor families. We have done plenty for the poor.” (Second-highest among what, she doesn’t say. It could be among U.S. cities, Massachusetts cities or possibly cities starting with “C” that are roughly the shape of a bow tie.)

By asking and answering her own questions, she gets to shape the debate, but growth in Cambridge doesn’t mean there isn’t migration out of Cambridge, just that more people are coming in than are leaving. The point of rent control is that it helps people stay. As to the other point, Schloming is correct in saying Cambridge is high in government-subsidized housing -- 17 percent, according to state Sen. Jarrett Barrios. But he admitted in May what the class-minded Schloming doesn’t in April: “The reality of Cambridge is that the middle class is disappearing.”

But what’s really damaging to Schloming and, by extension, the rent-control opponents she represents, is when her arguments slip into a grotesquely fascinating screed about what she feels really lies behind rent control:

“The truth is their goal is not to help poor people, but to drive private owners out of business. By keeping rents too low to maintain buildings and correct illegal code violations, tenants don’t have to pay all or part of their rent. As their rents get choked, as their buildings fall apart, owners ultimately have no choice but to either abandon their buildings or -- the true goal of rent control advocates -- sell their buildings cheap to government agencies to own and operate. The true goal of rent control is to end privately owned property.”

Take that! all you people who thought you just wanted to save a few bucks.

Regardless of Schloming’s borderline-paranoid ranting, the rent control proposal -- which actually says that “When controlled units are offered for sale ... tenants of those buildings would have the right to buy the building before other bidders” -- has little chance of success.

The effort gathered more signatures than it needed to get on the ballot, though, and the comments of the mayor and Barrios reflect a reasonable concern for the city, on the record. That means that when the proposal goes down, its proponents will be back, writing a more widely acceptable version and waiting for a more sympathetic state government.

Sunday, October 12, 2003


Cingular Wireless said Sept. 30 that it would let me out of my contract, but the letter I insisted on, the one explaining what I had to do, has not yet come. So I call the company and, despite the rage I’ve been in over its incompetence and lame service, ask in an even tone when I might be expecting my instructions.

Elite customer service representative Camille expresses gentle confusion as to where that letter could be. So she asks me to confirm if my address is (as closely as I can remember) in Riviera Beach, Fla.


Cambridge, Mass.

But thanks for the reminder as to why I’m moving on.

Saturday, October 11, 2003


The New York Times is not just “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” It’s also pretty much all the news a reasonable person can fit into a single day.

That’s why, despite my preference for local news, I do not tend to seek it out from local newspapers. Bizarrely, I find myself reading what the Times offers as its local news, even though it tells me very little about where I live (I have to extrapolate) and even takes time away from things I could be doing -- such as, arguably, reading local news in a local newspaper.

But it’s hard to look at the Globe, much less read it, the same goes for the Phoenix, and different reasons keep me from looking at, much less buying, the Cambridge Chronicle. The Herald, which I pick on a lot, would also be by default exempt from scorn if I weren’t actually forced to read it as part of my job. And the Boston Metro, well, that’s just beneath contempt.

Say what you will about the free market and competition, and how competition makes for better businesses. I’ll say: That’s not always true. It sure isn’t here.

The Metro is filling a need. Of course. And it’s not the Metro’s fault that its formula gives it enough circulation to hurt the paid competition, publications that try to keep up by providing less content with smaller staffs. (Nor is it the Metro’s fault that crack cocaine and high-salt, high-fat snacks fill a need in the free market. Why, the comparison is downright unfair, isn’t it? To which my answer is “No, it isn’t” and “So what if it is?”)

Regardless, I must give someone at the Metro his or her due. In clearing my in box of clutter, I found a clipping from the Sept. 10, 2002, edition (that’s right, it hung around on my desk for more than a year) that deserves to be immortalized -- or at least given the kind of immortality I can give it, meaning it’ll be seen by a few people and then slip into my archives section until destroyed by the shutdown of, a bug in the system or electromagnetic pulse betokening the end of life As We Know It.

It’s a page one football headline:

in debut

Friday, October 10, 2003


Frogs. Hail. Darkness. Locusts. Apostrophes.

If the plagues are coming, the apostrophes are upon us. You may not have noticed it yet; this warning is probably way ahead of the curve (the curving part of an apostrophe?). But it’s best to be on the lookout.

So far, the apostrophes are at a trickle. There are the vaguely irritating Macy’s ads that advise us that when you wear the Roca brand you’re “workin’ it” and that when you wear Tommy Jeans you’ll be “lovin’ it,” and there’s what may be a dramatically obnoxious trend in the Boston Herald. (And there’s another example, but one I foolishly didn’t write down and cannot cite. I know it’s out there, though, lurking, ready to strike.)

Technically, it’s called apocope, the omission of a letter or letters at the end of word, and for some reason the Herald perpetrated it twice last month. On Sept. 3, it was U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s campaign for president that was “Steamin’ ahead” in giant san serif letters on the front of the Herald. On Sept. 26, the same venue had the city “Goin’ Wild” over the Red Sox gettin’ to compete in the playoffs for some championship or other.

There had been no Herald apocoping in August, certainly. Nor the month before that. In fact, the last I’d been aware of -- although I hadn’t really been paying attention until a month was horrifyingly bookended by them -- was way back at the last presidential election, when an early version of a front was designed telling readers that the results were “Lookin’ Gore.”

Was last month’s horror a fluke? Nearly a third of the way through October, there’s been no sign of apocopery on Herald fronts, and I am relieved but on edge. My reaction to the overt bonhomie of the Herald’s apocopes, and the eager hepness of Macy’s, is the same: I am appalled by the uselessness of the effort. Both have the stink of desperation, of a bad-breathed man in green plaid pants who wants to be your buddy, and both are so numbingly silly that it’s hard to conjure the words to condemn them.

But neither Macy’s ads, fashion campaigns nor Herald fronts are created whimsically or alone. Committees stand around debating content, color, placement and (in this case) punctuation, all with the intention of selling, or sellin’, to the desired market. That means that someone had to say, “I dunno. It’s missing something. What if we employed apocope?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s a turnoff. When we say fans are ‘Going wild,’ it’s like we’re saying, ‘Don’t read this paper!’ Let’s instead say, ‘Read this paper!’ I say, drop the ‘g’! Let’s get the kids reading! Kids love to drop the ‘g’ from the end of words! It’s like MTV for them.”

“Uh ... like this?”

“That’s it! ‘Goin’ wild!’ Now we’re cookin’ with gas!”

Thursday, October 09, 2003


The White House says the federal deficit for fiscal year 2003 will be “comfortably under $400 billion,” even though it estimated in July that it would be $455 billion.

This is nice, in a way, but for a couple of things: The deficit for fiscal year 2004, which began with October, is still supposed to be $480 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office; also, the White House isn’t very good at math. Notice that its estimate is off by, yes, more than $55 billion, and possibly as much as $75 billion. (Bloomberg News points out that in July, when the White House was saying $455 billion, its survey of bond-trading firms averaged a deficit of $432 billion -- still off by a significant amount, if you can trust White House figures at all, but you’d think the White House would be off less than a private-industry guess, right?)

It doesn’t matter anyway, at least according to the Bush administration, because although this is a record deficit in dollars, even at the lowest end of the projections, it’s small compared with our gross domestic product. Short of 4 percent of GDP, in fact.


What’s odd is that I distinctly recall -- er, remember -- Republicans complaining about the size of California’s deficit, which is almost $38 billion. But the state’s Department of Finance says gross state product as of 2002, the latest figures available, is $1.4 trillion, making California’s the fifth-largest GDP in the world, if it were a country instead of a state. That’s behind the United States as a whole, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom, but ahead of France, China, Italy, Canada and Mexico (and everyone else).

So isn’t $38 billion just about 2.7 percent of the state’s GSP?

So what the hell are they complaining about?

Wednesday, October 08, 2003


So Gray Davis lost and California gets the governor it -- but not my parents -- deserves: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The painful fact is that I’m a lousy bettor, because with awful, doomed monotony I tend to back the underdog and the unlikely over a sure thing I dislike. This pays off only rarely and explains why I gamble very little. (For example, the last time I played blackjack, at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn., I decided to hit on a 17, even though I would have busted on anything except an ace, two, three or four. The entire table moaned in anxiety and frustration and the dealer actually hesitated to make sure I knew what I was doing. When I awkwardly explained that I really wanted another card, at least one player gurgled something dark and exasperated at me and the dealer asked me, yes, again if I really truly wanted a card, explaining that I was likely to bust. Isn’t this a violation of dealer rules? I backed down, but still lost.)

When I predict what’ll happen politically, too, it always goes some other way no matter how logical my reasoning, and that’s what happened in California. Unbowed, I’m going to pundificate further anyway.


The problem with a Gov. Schwarzenegger, other than the one headline writers will experience, is that everyone wants to be Ronald Reagan, but strikingly few can be. Take note of President Bush, who was coming close for awhile but is now looking more like, well, George H.W. Bush. He has learned what Schwarzenegger is about to learn: Charisma only gets a politician so far, Teflon wears off and bad times, bad ideas and bad karma begin to stick. Schwarzenegger has nothing; even if his governorship is really Pete Wilson, part three, there’s little even Wilson, an ex-governor and Arnold adviser, can do to make California immediately functional again.

But there will be no recall of Schwarzenegger. Any Democrat who thinks there will be needs to remember that most sequels do poorly at the box office. California will be suffering recall fatigue, suddenly newly conscious of the madness of recalls and their expense -- the Golden State doesn’t have that much gold -- and Schwarzenegger will be waltzing through a honeymoon of sorts.

Things are probably really going to be sucking around the time Californians need to vote for president, and Bush is going to be even more unhappy with Gov. Gropinator than he was with candidate Schwarzenspanker. So, even given my caveat above about my betting tendencies (as in: Watch me to see which way not to go), I feel I still must explain my recent comments about Gen. Wesley K. Clark and the upcoming presidential election.

The field of Democratic candidates is going to thin out quickly. My gut says that, even though U.S. Sen. John Kerry will stick it out longest of the also-rans, it’s going to come down to Clark and Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, and that Clark will pick up a lot of support going to candidates who won’t be around in November 2004. Barring scandals, he’s going to look more electable than Dean, who certainly won’t be drawing the same Republican swing voters. (That Clark-voted-for-Nixon-and-Reagan stuff is only a drawback before the primaries; when it comes time to draw votes, it’s going to look like a huge plus, and you can count on Clark campaigners alluding to the example of U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, another politician who stalked, disgusted, out of the GOP’s big tent. Jeffords, of course, is an independent who has already endorsed Dean, who is also from Vermont, but the Democrats will hijack him anyway.)

So Clark will be the Democratic candidate in 2004 and Bush will be the Republican, although many in the GOP will be gnashing their teeth and gnawing their fingernails in concern. Unless Bush gets very, very lucky, he will not be in the White House in 2005.

That’s why I say Clark is likely to be our next president ... and I’m crossing my fingers that the promise I see in Clark doesn’t dissipate the morning after.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003


I spend a lot of time in cheap, no-atmosphere joints and a very little bit in high society. What Anna’s Taqueria and the Locke-Ober Cafe have in common, other than my money, is a lack of flat-panel televisions and sports, and somewhere in between are those scattered Cafe Algiers and Enormous Rooms, whose rarefied vibes similarly conspire to block that intrusive broadcast signal.

It’s this that puts another kind of establishment into high contrast: the stylish eatery with pretensions to elegance -- but an ambiance overrun by teams of hulkish men chasing footballs, baseballs or pucks across garish green and white.

Cambridge 1, the wood-and-slate pizza grill in Harvard Square; News 24/7, the sleek all-purpose clubhouse open around the clock, kind of, near South Station; and Teatro, the gleaming technicolor window on the Boston Common. They have all gouged open their souls to let in the evil eye of ESPN. It hunts through the austerity of Cambridge 1, the careful plantings of News 24/7, the azure glow of Teatro and insinuates itself, distracts, dominates. Ugh.

Greater Boston is sports-crazed. But are these establishments so unsure of their appeal that they must sell themselves so cheap? They’re demure and self-possessed as you approach, but when you’re actually inside you find those damnable screens coming on to you, an oppressive and constant too-wet drunken kiss. No self-control, no self-esteem, they go all the way and beg you to see them again. But the sports television they offer is exactly what’s offered at countless other bars and restaurants across the region, a reflection of -- prepare for a shift in metaphor -- the great American entrepreneurship that says you can take anything and put a clock in it. These businesses should think instead about what sets them apart, and the generic sports fixation is anyway at odds with their atmospheres.

At Cambridge 1, they are convinced business would suffer with the removal of their sports television, or so a server told me, as though the careful, clever menu might as well be burgers and curly fries. At Teatro, the screen was searching constantly for satellite connection and the bartender finally turned it off -- but no one was paying attention anyway, since, vital Sox game or no, the limpid hall was nearly empty near closing time on a Saturday. At News 24/7, where after sports “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” plays silently (and unsettlingly) amid languid trip-hop, the receipts ask, “Are you cool enough?” and I must answer, no, I just have money.

But if this is what’s cool, this eatery of easy virtue, this backward-baseball-cap doofus of an establishment, I can think of better places to spend that money, places where cool is -- as cool is supposed to be -- not what everyone else is doing, and secure enough to know better.

Monday, October 06, 2003


Yet another Boston Herald blogger -- with Cosmo Macero Jr., that’s three just among the business-section staff -- is Jay Fitzgerald, whose Hub Blog takes me to task for the large type you’re reading now. I know. It’s painful. But I’m using a free template and am unsure how much control I have over such things. Having gotten a complaint, though, I vow to look at my template controls and see if I can rein in the madness. (UPDATE: Consider the problem as fixed as it’s going to get. The type is, believe it or not, smaller.)

One of my inspirations for blogging is Mike Moore, whose novel “Too Much of Nothing” was reviewed brilliantly yesterday by someone named J.L. Johnson. I may have to write soon about the curious phenomenon of elaborate bylines adopted by people with much simpler names. For now I’ll just appreciate a review that’s as well-written as the book it discusses.

The California recall vote is tomorrow. I recklessly said Gray Davis would stay governor, and I still hope that’s so ... but it once again appears iffy. My other reckless bet, on the eventual failure of the youth-oriented free daily soon to premiere in New York, should pan out. It suddenly finds itself in a race, as the Metro plans to take Manhattan.

Finally,, the Bush watchdog site, seems to be endorsing the U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy view of the Iraq war timeline, albeit indirectly, since the senator isn’t mentioned. The site charges that the decision to go after Saddam Hussein came shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and offers, as usual, extensive footnotes backing up its assertion. Kennedy came under attack also, for saying Sept. 18 that the Iraq war “was made up in Texas, (and it was) announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud.” It would be interesting to see Bush administration supporters say precisely what’s unlikely or truly offensive about that first sentence, especially considering the backup noted by Misleader. (Kennedy’s second sentence will always be a matter of taste, I think.)

Sunday, October 05, 2003


First the collapse of Iraq. Then the collapse of all the justifications for the Iraq war.

The latest is the assurances of Bush administration officials that Iraqi oil would pay for our war. Today’s New York Times goes on at length about a “book-length report” handed to the administration about a year ago that showed extremely low expectations for Iraqi oil production.

What the administration did with the results of its own report is, by now, predictable.

“Despite those findings, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told Congress during the war that ‘we are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon,’ ” the article says.

Of course, the “relatively soon” arguably lets Wolfowitz and the rest of the pack off the hook, but it’s likely his audience didn’t take it to mean “years after we authorize the next $87 billion, and then maybe some more.”

Saturday, October 04, 2003


Here’s something of a metablog, in that Misanthropicity is commenting on a Talking Points Memo reaction on the Web site of The New York Sun that was brought up by commentary on Radio Free Mike.

Talking Points Memo quotes Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who is likely to be our next president, as saying that in dealing with Iraq, the Clinton administration, “in an odd replay of the Carter administration, found itself chained to the Iraqi policy -- promoted by the Project for a New American Century -- much the same way that in the Carter administration some of the same people formed the Committee on the Present Danger which cut out from the Carter administration the ability to move forward on SALT II.”

The Sun (which, and I mean this in genuine surprise, not as an ad hominem attack, has a remarkably ugly Web presence) quotes neo-conservatives as saying that Clark’s comments are “bizarre” and, in the words of project chief William Kristol, “really a little bit crackpot.”

“I don’t think Clinton was really following the PNAC script,” Kristol said. “We called for regime change. Last I looked, Saddam was still there when Clinton left.”

And from another project director, Randy Scheunemann: “The Clinton administration was on the verge of cutting a deal with Saddam. If they would have followed the Iraq policy of PNAC, they would have empowered the Iraqi opposition instead of going around denigrating it.”

The neo-cons use this to paint Clark as a crackpot. But if this is the best they can do, and the Sun as well, their cause must truly be bankrupt. Even the reply by Talking Points Memo’s Joshua Micah Marshall gives them too much credit.

Clark said Clinton was “chained” to the project’s policy. But the neo-cons respond as though Clark said Clinton endorsed its policy. It’s a cheap trick. They only get away with it because they’re preaching to the choir -- which says nothing good about the neo-cons or the Sun.

Friday, October 03, 2003


Intractable service problems with large companies? Go right to the top. Call corporate headquarters. Personal experience shows this works 66 percent of the time -- meaning it’s worked two of the three times I’ve had to do it.


Yes, praise be. I’m breaking free of Cingular Wireless.

I was resigned to suffering through another nine or 10 month of wretched service -- the kind that has me begging people to call on a land line, and calling people back on a land line when they call me on the cell phone. But Cingular had to push it.

Here’s what happened:

For some reason, when I signed up for Cingular service, I was given one plan and, two weeks later, mysteriously switched to another. The first let me make calls from anywhere without roaming fees, and when I traveled to Maine and California this past summer, I made a bunch; the second charged me roaming fees, so every call I made from Maine and California cost plenty. My bill for that month was around $250, while my typical bill is about $50. Ouch.

I didn’t know about the switch in service until I called Sept. 8 to ask just what plan I was on. I frankly don’t know which plan I’d ordered, so I was prepared to suck it up and pay the bill. But I wanted to know why the plan had been changed.

Cingular offered to adjust my bill (downward, as the customer service representative couldn’t explain the switch in service either) but couldn’t say immediately what I would have to pay for that month. I waited a day or two for a call, but got none. I called back, worried about the looming Sept. 29 due date for my bill, and was told it would take seven to 10 days to figure out how much I’d have to pay -- but I would know in plenty of time to pay.

On Oct. 1, I still hadn’t heard back, which means I hadn’t paid anything and my bill, through no fault of my own, was late. Calling Cingular to find out what was going on, I found that not only had no action been taken on my bill, but I had been assessed a late fee for not paying on time. I freaked out, of course, and spent an hour on the telephone suffering various indignities too boring to deserve much detail.

Most striking was that during the several times Cingular put me on hold that first hour, even when I demanded they not, they lost me twice. This requires calling back and going through the entire process again, including waiting on hold for someone to pick up the phone and explaining the entire problem all over again. You must do this even though all information about you and your ongoing problem is supposed to be displayed on the customer service rep’s computer screen.

"There's nothing direct in this company," a customer service rep said coldly.

After the second time I was put on hold and found myself holding a dead phone, I tried to call corporate headquarters for Cingular, which is somewhere in Atlanta.

Right: “somewhere.” Good luck trying to reach it.

The company’s Web site is unhelpful, and information gave me eight numbers, none of which worked. (One was a fax machine; one never picked up; one call “cannot be completed as dialed”; one was a “conference bridge” requiring a security code; one was, similarly, an emergency conference number; et cetera.) I understand that a huge company such as Cingular doesn’t want to be bothered by its icky customers, who call up and make unreasonable and unrealistic demands probably about, oh, better service. But, frankly, being unable to reach the corporate headquarters of a company is creepy. It’s something you expect of a top-secret intelligence agency, not a phone company, and it just raises the horror-movie image of a clumsy, angry body walking around without a head.

I called the company’s media relations offices, which are listed on the company Web site, and went down the list until I found someone who actually picked up her own phone. I ranted to her for a while, and she promised to get someone from the president’s office to call me back. When that finally happened, I was so sputtering mad over the company’s incompetence and secrecy that I simply demanded to be let out of my contract.

The president’s representative balked at first, asking instead what the company could do to retain me as a happy customer, but I told her that in explaining why I wanted out, I’d just said what it could do, and that was, basically, to do everything differently and better. Never mind the bad sound of their phone lines, I said, or their failure to live up to promises or even prevent a late fee from being added, but how can I have any faith in a telephone company that can’t even keep someone on hold?

Her fatal mistake was that she’d called me on my cell phone. At times, I couldn’t hear her. She sounded distant, her voice dropped out, and the line was staticky.

In the end, she agreed to let me out of the many months remaining on my contract. My roaming fees from Maine and California were dropped. All I had to do was pay two months’ of service and return my phone.


The Cingular experience was similar to my experience years earlier with AT&T, which had been my local as well as long-distance carrier during the first year I lived in Connecticut. When I moved from Derby to Middletown, though, I found that AT&T was leaving the local business, so I would have to find a different carrier at my new address. But I kept the company for long-distance, I think, and for phone card services.

Months passed before I stopped to really look at my AT&T bills, finding they were very high and packed with calls to and from an area code in which I no longer lived. A call to the company conformed that my service in Derby had never been shut off; whoever moved into my apartment discovered this and happily made an impressive amount of phone calls on my dime. The customer service representative I spoke with was very helpful, even giving me an estimate of the hundreds of dollars I would get back from the company for the local and long-distance calls made from my old phone line since I’d called to tell them I was moving.

But more months passed, and I kept getting bills for the old service. Every time I got a bill, I called up to find out what was going on. I kept being told that the complication was that the calls were local and long-distance, and those were two distinct divisions of the company (even though I recall the bills being consolidated). As the months wore on, this seemed less and less my problem and more and more a bizarrely lame excuse for what is arguably the largest applied high-tech company in the world -- the old they-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon argument.

My co-workers were amused by my calls, which were increasingly fraught with tension and invective. They seemed to relish the calls, made from my desk in the center of the newsroom, because from their side it just sounded like an hourlong experiment in low-volume, high-intensity insult, but with the volume rising by a notch every month.

I was hardly so amused. I decided that calling the customer service number on the bills was counterproductive. Instead, I tracked down the phone number of AT&T headquarters and called the office of the highest-level executive I could find. I discovered that, apparently just like Cingular, the president’s office retained its own elite customer service representatives -- the Special Ops of the customer service corps -- and, from this high level, the walls between local and long-distance divisions were insubstantial and irrelevant. Within a day I had my resolution. The check was on its way.

I told the elite customer service rep that I would never, ever use AT&T for anything again. So, with Cingular, that’s two companies down.


Despite what it sounds like from the examples above, Apple’s customer service department is the worst I’ve encountered, solely because -- beyond the arrogance and unhelpfulness of its front-line representatives -- its very structure prevents the solving of problems, or at least the knowledge that a problem has been solved.

Callers’ complaints are typed into a database that “management teams look at from time to time,” a customer service rep told me, and “as issues need to be addressed, they are.” This really means that a customer with a complaint is never contacted to be told that a problem has been fixed, or even considered. Problems are not necessarily dealt with quickly and may not be dealt with at all.

What’s worse about this is that Apple’s technical support department is about 95 percent wonderful; it was just a customer service representative that I had a problem with. I asked for the rep’s superior and left a message with her saying that I wished to speak with her, but that if I couldn’t, I didn’t wish to be called by anyone. I got a call back -- from the original customer service rep. I tried again and had yet another bad experience with a representative. I tried once more and, in a final wretched experience, was at last told that the manager doesn’t talk to customers, because she’s too busy, so I really had no choice but to complain about the department and a customer service representative ... to a customer service representative working for that department.

This is like getting bad service in a restaurant and wanting to complain to a manager or maitre d’ but having the manager send the same server back to the table. Or another server, who admitted to being a friend of the first one.

To show what a bad idea this was, I not only called Apple headquarters, but told a contact there that I was going to send letters to the editors of Consumer Reports, MacAddict and Macworld magazines (which I did), stay away from the Apple store in my hometown that holiday season and instead gave my money to MacWarehouse and Staples (which I did, enclosing receipts showing Apple it had lost more than $266) and buy Apple stock (which I did) so I could be at the next shareholders’ meeting (which I wasn’t) specifically to complain about the customer service system.

I also listed all my connections in business journalism and noted that “if any of these journalists need examples of poor customer service in the technology sector, or context for an article having to do with any future poor quarterly or annual results for Apple, my information can be of help.”

“All I want,” I told them, “is for someone at Apple to contact me with the news that it is acknowledged that the company’s customer service system is arrogant, unhelpful and alienating, and that this should and will change.”

Apple, damn it, was unfazed. And since it is the anti-monopoly monopoly, I had no recourse but to stick with them and keep buying their products -- which generally work very well. I still feel its attitude is dangerous and wrong for a company to have, especially one that claims as little of the market as Apple does, but this is one of the few companies in the world whose misbehavior I have to accept.

Thursday, October 02, 2003


A group of White House advisors released a report Wednesday that noted that “hostility toward America has reached shocking levels,” partially because of the Iraq war -- the one pitched as a preemptive strike that would make us safer.

Right. Anyone who didn’t see this coming, you can’t run for president next year.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003


Reading Dawn Powell’s “The Locusts Have No King,” specifically the section in which she describes Rubberleg Square, provoked jealousy. So lively. Such a personality this square has, such powerful memories it would compel from its visitors. A roaring, jittering, manic place, a pixilated place, a wisecracking, bitter, passionate nonstop-talker-barfly kind of a place.

And then there’s Cambridge’s Porter Square, which has the personality, perhaps, of a blankly sullen checkout clerk from a third-tier minimart: the kind that can’t afford Hostess products, and even the supply of Little Debbie is erratic.

Porter’s problem is that it is a place, or rather a collection of places, without really being a destination, and you can go from place to place in Porter all day long without feeling as though you’ve been anywhere. It’s the frontier town that never came into its own, a collection of services that sprang up because the train went through, but that train -- Massachusetts Avenue -- doesn’t stop but long enough for the passengers to stretch their legs, load up on supplies and be on their way again. The T and Commuter Rail stop here, but the riders, too, emerge just to head elsewhere. Somerville Avenue ends and begins here, but the lanes add only traffic. Porter’s rhythm as a byway is constant; it’s rhythm as metropolis stops and starts, all humps and bumps, stretched out erratically by anti-urban outposts of off-street parking. Useable, but unembraceable, like the White Hen Pantries and Taco Bell/KFC combinations the parking serves.

Approaching always gives hope something will come of it. The structures start low and small, one-story shops cursed to fail, and raise themselves optimistically to mirrored office buildings and handsome bricked towers. But they can’t leap those parking lots without effort. They tire themselves out, stagger. The square exists on its knees, mismatched buildings wheezing at each other from across gaps of parking and streets of humming traffic.

Students might syncopate the place, as the Tufts students do Davis or the Harvard students their digs, but the school here is Lesley University, a bland what? a misspelled who? and an only mildly interesting why. The all-night options are fluorescent: the doughnuts, the minimart, the CVS. The entertainment is washed out: There is the townie bar, the chain bar and the small, dark bar blowing it with chipper also-ran bands, the bright blues, the white jazz, the country western. Next door is the cell phone store, the tax preparer, the sporting goods emporium. The eateries are good without being stylish, or what fades into the background in strip malls and main streets across America: the sub shops, the pizza places, the Wok ’n’ Roll greasy Chinese.

Come here to Porter to do your shopping, to clean your clothes, to refill your prescription. This is a square to get the job done, and its pleasures lie in efficiency, convenience, accomplishment that’s only slightly sweaty if utterly inelegant. You can find parking, find a watch shop without the smugness (or the artistry) of Harvard Square’s, find what you paid for roses is half that of the cost one T stop away. Find yourself mildly charmed, perhaps, to learn that the hidden melody of Porter is not that of the train, the frontier or the avant-garde, but of the electric zigzag from Korean Kaya to Kotobukiya, sushi and soba in the Porter Exchange and finally to the Sasuga Japanese bookstore: an Asian chord, an atonal strum, the peace of a rock garden behind, somehow logically, a third-tier minimart with off-street parking.