Friday, December 31, 2004


To enter the next year with a relatively clear conscience, less karmically afflicted, I will once again unburden myself publicly about some lame thing I’ve done. Last year’s unburdening had festered for a very long time; this one is from within the past couple of months.

I was bad about birthdays. Readers may have noted my acknowledgment of Indri’s birthday. But what about 3Jake? Why no mention of her “big 3-5” on Nov. 10, back when I was complaining about silly practices in journalism, like no-jump policies and USA Today worship?

Sorry, Jake. And happy new year.

Happy new year, everyone.

Thursday, December 30, 2004


During a recent conversation about collegiality, I slipped briefly into metaphor, remembering my experience with the dress code at a small newspaper in central Massachusetts.

It’s been a long time, but I think part of the rules was that men couldn’t wear jeans and had to wear button-front shirts with ties. This was to give the place some class, which seemed a trifle silly knowing there were no such dress codes at papers with far better circulations and reputations, such as The Boston Globe and Boston Herald.

And I felt oafish and provincial rotating my small wardrobe to accommodate the code — until I observed a couple of my fellow employees, whose wardrobes seemed to be just as small and whose efforts at meeting the code several times more ludicrous. That is, they made the code seem ludicrous, not the clothing.

The attire of the stocky, unshaven Brit was, appropriately, rumpled, ill-fitting and worn. That of the balding, mustachioed editor seemed to consist entirely of green, much of it in the mildly toxic hue of frothy gelatin desserts and furniture of the early 1970s. Both favored short-sleeved shirts.

All of this was within the letter of the dress code. And it was entirely unironic: If these men were participating in an endless, straight-faced scam to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the rules, they refused to let on for literally years. Yet every day’s iterative unveiling was such a devastating affront to the spirit of the code that it seemed astounding that higher-ups weren’t shamed into revisions. More likely they were dazed into apathy.

No one found it remarkable but me, though. Such things are subjective.

I learned from this that there are ways to adhere to the letter of the law while knocking the spirit violently on its ass. The learning has gone on over the years. Mostly by observation.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


I found a cell phone tonight at the Broadway T stop, searched its phone book for a number to call to arrange its return, found an entry for “Dad.” I called dad. I explained the situation. Dad said he had no idea what I was talking about. I explained the situation again. Dad said I’d reached the wrong person. He denied having offspring. I asked if he knew of anyone who might have him listed in their phone book as “Dad,” whether he was one or not. No, he said.

He told me I had the wrong number.

“But you’re on speed dial,” I said. Silence.

I hung up.

I wound up returning the phone to a girl at Park Street several minutes later, connected through the most-recently dialed number in the phone’s memory. I handed over her phone and asked no questions.

I was in a rush, and almost preferred leaving it a mystery.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Congratulations to The Boston Phoenix, which has been recently redesigned, making it slightly less ugly and dramatically less stupid. It’s just sad and bewildering — like watching a 15-year-old finally figure out how to tie their own shoes — that it took so long.

The change is that the arts section puts film reviews, listings and capsule descriptions in one place.

Certainly that doesn’t sound very impressive. But the Phoenix had been arranged in such a fashion that readers had to bypass a section called “Eight Days a Week,” which listed events but not movies, and go on to a separate arts section where: film reviews came on, say, page six; film listings on, oh, page 21; and the capsule reviews somewhere after that. For everything else, you went back to “Eight Days a Week.”

The alternative weekly also experimented recently with an alternative front-page design. It abandoned the new look after a couple of weeks, returning to its usual appearance of jagged neon vomit.

So the 15-year-old can tie his own shoes, but you sure don’t want to watch it happening.

Monday, December 27, 2004


Let all weep for the downtrodden Christians.

“It seems that it’s okay to be anything these days but Christian,” said the Rev. Gaylord Hatler, of the First Christian Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the Dec. 24 New York Times.

One of the Christians’ major complaints these days is, as Chris Birkett says in the Times today, “We’re being asked not to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ They want you to say ‘Happy holidays.’” Even Eric, of the Movin’ Out blog, speaks up boldly to wish everyone “Merry Christmas” and wonder “Am I the last person in the world not afraid to say that?"

Yes. Eric and Chris are the last people in the United States bold enough to break through the chains of political correctness constricting this once great nation ... except perhaps for all the other citizens identifying themselves as Christian, now between 76.5 percent and 82 percent of the entire country. Perhaps standing among more than 235 million people against 59 million will reassure these poor men that it is, in fact, okay to be Christian, or wish people “Merry Christmas” or any combination thereof.

Maybe they would be comforted by a reminder that “The Passion of the Christ” grossed more than $370 million in the United States just as of July 29, never mind sales of the DVD. Or that the hardcover fiction best-seller list of the Times is topped by Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” which has been on the list for 65 weeks. Also on the list is “The Christmas Thief” at No. 11, “A Redbird Christmas” at No. 15, “The Christmas Blessing” at No. 29 and “The Christmas Shoes” at No. 32. The “Left Behind” series has sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. “Skipping Christmas,” by John Grisham, is No. 6 on the paperback fiction best-sellers list, and it’s been on the list for 10 weeks. Despite awful reviews, the movie it became, “Christmas with the Kranks,” has grossed more than $62 million in the United States as of Dec. 19, and it was only released Nov. 24. The television is polluted with everything from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to reruns of “Touched by an Angel,” which ran for nine seasons before ending last year. Our president is a born-again Christian and may have been re-elected based on “values and morals.” Dramatic advances are being made in the field of religious ignorance, with Christian pet projects such as abortion and evolution on the run around the country.

So maybe the Christians could shut up and stop whining for a moment. They are not an oppressed minority, or even an oppressed majority.

“Happy holidays” is simply a safer thing to say than “Merry Christmas” in a country of growing diversity, as well as more inclusive — not only of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but of New Year’s.

And how about this most Christian of holidays, which Christians intend to safeguard semantically by preserving the “Merry Christmas” greeting? Are Christians aware Dec. 25 was a holiday belonging to Mithraism, and that early Christians moved Christ’s birthday to the date just to make it easier to win converts?

“Fudging the Lord’s birthday for the purpose of gaining converts may seem like a terrible sin today, but in the fourth century A.D. it was no big deal,” writes John Dollison in “Pope-Pourri” (Simon & Schuster, 1994). “In those days it was a person’s death day that mattered; except for kings, in most cases birthdays weren’t even recorded. Jesus probably didn’t know his own birthdate (which most contemporary estimates place at the end of May).”

Tom Flynn’s “The Trouble with Christmas” (Prometheus, 1993) expands on this:

No, the odds that the historic Jesus was actually born on December 25 are, at best, 365 to 1. Even those odds may be overly generous, for evidence in the gospel of Luke all but rules out a winter birth date. Recall that the shepherds were out in the fields watching their flocks by night. Palestine is warm, but not tropical. To this day, shepherding peoples leave their flocks in the pastures overnight — and stay outside with them — only in the nicer weather. In some areas, the flocks are supervised by night only in the spring, during the lambing season. This is the only clue the gospels give that links the Nativity to a specific season of the year, and it argues against a December birth date.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2004


Awful day. Then I stayed at work overtime, ran to catch the T but arrived too late. So I walked from Broadway to the ITOA taxi depot behind the Herald and asked, incredibly for me, for a cab to Porter Square. Unfortunately, the taxi company was unable to get me one. (I’m not kidding.) The five men sitting around playing cards advised me to hope to find one of their drivers on the street somewhere.


But I found one: Richard Piotrowski, who explained that — every episode of “Taxi” to the contrary — cab drivers don’t sit around the garage waiting for fares. They’re only there every 12 hours for shift changes.

There aren’t many jobs that demand 12-hour shifts. It turns out Piotrowski, who fled Poland about 23 years ago when martial law was declared, wound up in Alaska working at one of the few other jobs that do: commercial fisherman.

The information about taxi-driver shifts soothed me a bit. But Piotrowski went on to talk about fishing, all the way to Porter, and was, well, just short of enthralling. I was sorry when the trip ended.

Much of it was just details about how the industry operates compared with how it was when Piotrowski, now something like an older Robin Williams with a Polish accent, thinning hair and a mustache, started working the boats. His most vivid stories were somewhat grotesque. He told them with mildly embarrassed, but unrestrained, laughter.

The fishing attracted seagulls — in such numbers “they cut off the sun,” Piotrowski recalled — and the fishermen, punchy and savage after days spent awake, working constantly in below-freezing temperatures, took their revenge upon them. There were seagull gladiator games, in which the birds were stuck in the chest with large hooks and tied together to claw each other to bits. And there was seagull baseball, in which the birds, swarming in claustrophobic profusion, could merely be swung at with a bat and knocked brutally out of midair, then to be torn apart and eaten by their friends.

Awful stories. But distracting. Transporting. From Poland to America, from fishing to driving, from Southie to Porter Square, from a newspaper desk to a bloodsoaked boat deck. Nice to be taken away after an absurdly enraging day of technical problems and interoffice politics.

Thursday, December 23, 2004


I’d like to blog, but I’m too angry. And the details of my anger are so esoteric and picayune that saying anything specific about it, let alone piling on enough detail to make my rage reasonable, would undoubtedly bore even the most faithful reader.

Some people can pull off writing about their personal life, meaning keeping it interesting. (Two such people, who write about other things as well, have links to the right.)

Some can’t. (For jawdropping proof, look here, here or here, if you dare.)

I can’t pull it off.

So let me just say I am convinced anew that the Boston Herald employs some of the biggest fucking assholes in the world. The culture — seemingly structured to prevent rather than encourage progress — encourages it.

I acknowledge that the biggest assholes probably think the same of me.

But, then, I didn’t go into their offices and break their fucking equipment. Then leave it broken for two days. Then ...

Oops. Was that the sound of everyone leaving my blog?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


It didn’t take me long to recognize we were listening to all-Christmas music radio, not much longer to be sick of it. So I asked Michelle, my hairstylist — if you can call Supercuts employees that — if she were a full-time employee, and, if so, how she could stand it.

She couldn’t, really, even though full time at Supercuts is only 30 hours a week. Michelle told me she’d cracked a few days back, gone back to the radio and tuned it to another station, in slight defiance of her absent manager’s wishes.

Yesterday, though, the Christmas tunes played on. Then a swell of sweet, adventurous music, a line about taking your kid on a magical adventure: a Disney ad. Then strings, a fruity voice, a cringe-inducing claim to present “perfection at its finest”: an ad for L’Espalier, fine dining on Gloucester Street in Boston.

All-Christmas radio is a growing trend. In practicality, it results, though, in Christmas music, Christmas music, Christmas music, commercials; Christmas music, Christmas music, Christmas music, commercials. To a surprising extent, the advertisements become the relief from the music.

The ads become a gift. How’s that for commercializing Christmas?

The commercialism of Christmas is actually a common plaint, but it seems the only cure anyone can suggest is more of it — but the right kind, not the commercial kind! And music seems to be safe, as it doesn’t explicitly advocate the buying of a specific product. But the road to commercialism is paved with good intentions, and you listen to irritating tunes along the way, over and over again. When hearing an ad that has nothing to do with Christmas is like rolling down the window for a rush of fresh air, you can stop driving: You’re there.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


William Safire will soon be gone from the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, thank goodness, so it might have been a bit of prenostalgia that suckered me in to reading yesterday’s column.


The piece imagined what would have happened if Bush hadn’t invaded Iraq and, predictably, shows things going horribly. It gets off to a rousing start by suggesting that, with tensions from terrorism ratcheted up and intelligence showing Iraq harboring evildoers and seeking weapons of mass destruction, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggests “relaxing U.N. pressure on Iraq” and easing sanctions to “persuade Saddam to permit inspections.” Bush goes along!

Fact: United Nations sanctions, despite Hussein’s perversion of the oil-for-food program, were working, including keeping him from building weapons of mass destruction. Fact: Hussein permitted inspections, and they worked, finding no weapons of mass destruction.

Safire goes on to conjecture that an emboldened Hussein would “increase contacts with Al Qaeda ... take leadership of the Arab world by developing WMD or pretending to have them already and .... openly challenge Bush.”

Fact: Iraq and Al Qaeda were not allies. They were ideological opposites. There is no reason this would have changed while Hussein was in power. Fact: Hussein could not build WMDs and was already pretending to have them. Strangely, this was not making him the darling of the neighboring governments. In general, they loathed Hussein. Question: Openly challenge Bush to what?

Safire imagines that when Hussein finally does shoot down one of our aircraft — in his terms, Hussein would have “gloriously faced down the U.S.” — “Saddam becomes an iconic, heroic figure in the Arab and Muslim world.”

Question: For shooting down a warplane? While it might have boosted his stature a bit, would it really stand up compared with Osama bin Laden killing 3,000 Americans in New York and attacking the Pentagon? Fact: Hussein had been shooting at our planes all along. It would be more likely that Arabs and Muslims would consider it about time a shot succeeded.

“Cut to Libya,” Safire writes, “where Qaddafi ... shifts his fear of the U.S. to fear and envy of Iraq, and presses ahead to produce a nuclear bomb of his own.”

Question: Since Safire postulates that Hussein’s success would lead to Iraq strengthening its ties with Palestinian terrorists and those of Al Qaeda, what is it exactly that Libya, a fellow terrorist nation, would have had to fear from Iraq? Invasion, as Kuwait suffered in 1991? Doubtful. Between Iraq and Libya are Egypt, Israel and Jordan. But Safire does not explain.

What he does do, unfortunately, is go on and on and on with this nonsense.

But Safire will be gone toward the beginning of next year, and this nonsense will not go on and on and on. And it will not be missed or missed or missed.

That is, unless he were writing coherent columns that made sense. And if I had a different mother and father and had been raised in a red state. And if on Sept. 17, 1979, Ronald Reagan had traveled to Damascus and met a Norwegian transvestite prostitute named Mona who carried a disease known to be deadly in people wearing cowboy boots. And if this antagonized Greenpeace, causing the group to shatter into several splinter groups. And if one of them started selling a gourmet popcorn called “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.” And if a ferret ate the popcorn and became king of Utah.

And if ...

Monday, December 20, 2004


There’s a story in today’s Boston Herald — with the classically yawn-inducing hyperbolic headline “Hero Hub cop saves families from blaze” in all-caps, of course — in which “Inside the burning house, 19-year-old Cindy Castro was awakened by the doorbell.”

In the editors’ meeting yesterday, the city editor on duty described the story and muttered that she didn’t know what someone was doing still in bed at 10 a.m. (Actually, the fire was noticed at 10:30 a.m., meaning Castro was awoken even after that.)

People wonder why newspapers aren’t doing so hot with younger readers. It may be because they hire editors mystified that someone may have been up so late that they could still be in bed past dawn.

On the other hand, I may just have been offended by what’s implied by the question. I was asleep until 11 a.m.

Friday, December 17, 2004


In lieu of making schedules public, the MBTA is broadcasting information to T stop platforms about the proximity of approaching trains.

It tells people at Porter Square, for instance, that a southbound train has left Alewife, or that a northbound train has left Kendall.

What’s difficult to appreciate about this is that the MBTA doesn’t deal with “north” or “south.” The platforms are labeled “inbound” (meaning toward Boston) and “outbound” (away from Boston), and when you arrive in Boston, tracks are merely labeled with the farthest T stops as destinations. For instance, at Park Street, you can get on the red line “To Alewife via Harvard” or “To Ashmont, Braintree via Downtown Crossing.”

This “northbound, southbound” stuff doesn’t particularly upset me, and it didn’t confuse me for long. But it doesn’t help much, either, if only because from Porter, a northbound train goes west and a southbound train east before heading in a general southerly direction. Or rather, south to Harvard, east to Central, northeast to Kendall ... but, yes, it goes to the south shore. Ultimately.

What’s striking about the announcements is their uselessness, their silliness, their microscopic overlay of a system on entirely different systems that stretch hundreds of miles and back more than 100 years. Newcomers will look to a sign that says “inbound” or “Ashmont/Braintree” and hear an announcement that says “southbound.” They will hear an announcement about a “northbound train” and look in vain for a sign that confirms this, or conforms to it.

Frankly, our system is confusing enough on its own. The compass can be left out of it.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


At his Social Security summit, President Bush asked, “Are we willing to confront the problem now or are we going to pass it on to future Congresses and future generations?”

Details are scant, unfortunately, on whether anyone appreciated the joke.


The Bush administration, notoriously composed of Republicans, who are notoriously reluctant to regulate industry or enforce existing regulations, wants us to give up the Social Security safety net for privately handled investments.

Never mind the poverty and despair of the Great Depression, which led to the creation of Social Security and was itself the spawn of an immense stock market crash. Never mind the fresh abominations of Worldcom, Adelphia, Tyco and Enron, among others. Ignore even the tech bubble of the 1990s. Try to forget for a moment the fragility of our economy in the face of renewed terrorist attacks.

With all this accomplished, what is it about the stock market now — years off a major scandal and 9/11 — that so encourages private investment over Social Security? It’s not really doing that well. Especially with investors fleeing U.S. stocks for foreign stocks as the dollar weakens, it is unclear why Bush’s privatization plans have earned even modest interest among ordinary citizens.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Our missile defense system failed another test today, what The New York Times calls “an $85 million failure” because it’s (appropriately) too hung up on objectivity to call the program “a $90 billion failure.”

The story did not say whether this test was faked, as others have been, by putting a global positioning device in the attacking “warhead” showing our missiles where it can be found and destroyed. It does point out that the test had been delayed several times by “weather and other factors” and that its predecessor (was it really as long ago as December 2002?) also failed.

So what the Times points out, implicitly, is that it’s not so much that tests were rigged, or that some still didn’t succeed — but that even when weather and other factors permit a test, we can’t reliably get a missile in the air!

A target rocket carrying a mock warhead was successfully launched from Kodiak, Alaska. But the interceptor, which was to have gone aloft 16 minutes later and picked off the target 100 miles over the earth, automatically shut down instead because of “an unknown anomaly,” the Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency said.

Despite the disappointment, today’s event was not a total failure, said Richard A. Lehner, an agency spokesman. He said “quite a bit” had been learned from the aborted test, which he called “a very good training exercise.”

A very good $85 million training exercise.

Considering it’s been almost two decades since Star Wars began, when can we expect a test to work when we want it to — and succeed honestly, rather than relying on a homing beacon cheat? Could it be another couple of decades?

In the meantime, if we have such an urgent need for missile defense, isn’t our utter failure rather provocative to anyone against whom we need the defense? If our failure doesn’t convince these enemies to attack, isn’t that rather convincing evidence that we have no need of such a shield? If we continue to project a need for this system far into the future, doesn’t that suggest an ongoing, in fact, unending, and equally immense failure of diplomacy and conventional force, if not a complete surrender?

These are questions worth considering before another $90 billion go down the tubes — then to be shot harmlessly into the sky.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Wainwright Bank is doing its best to put the funk in FDIC. Its corporate identity screams “rainbow coalition” with colors that can’t be found on any rainbow, projecting a gay-friendly, socially conscious image that goes so far as to ensure people know its 10 branches “are friendly places to visit.”

It’s sweet, and a little desperate.

The bank’s public transportation advertising, for instance, features a swirl of colored bubbles, each with a liberal selling point in pleasantly hippie-ish rounded typeface. One says Wainwright is one of the top 10 “green” banks.

Another says Wainwright is one of the top 11 lenders to women.

One of the top 11?

Um, it wouldn’t actually be No. 11, would it? Meaning one short of the top 10?

Monday, December 13, 2004


A Supreme Court justice advocates for an end to the separation of church and state. I learned about it Saturday from Radio Free Mike, where Mike locates the vulnerabilities and scores powerful shots. I suspect, unfortunately, it’ll take a lot more power and a lot more shots to make this idea go away.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


Happy birthday, Indri!

Friday, December 10, 2004


No wonder people back away from politics with such discomfort and disbelief.

The country has a coming shortfall in Social Security benefits to cover, and President Bush is intent on allowing private investing to take the place of some money going into the Social Security pool. By proceeding with this plan and ruling out a rise in payroll taxes, as he did yesterday, Bush has essentially committed to borrowing between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.

Keep in mind that he has also committed to cutting the $413 billion deficit in half within four years. And that he also intends to make his tax cuts permanent.

These intentions cannot coexist. It’s simply impossible to cut the deficit within four years when you’ve vowed to, within the same four years, privatize Social Security, ultimately decreasing the money flowing to it by up to $2 trillion, forcing the country to borrow the same amount to get the baby boomers the retirement money they’re owed.

You can’t decrease overall debt by borrowing more money.

It’s not complex. But the impossibility makes it seem complex, and it is difficult for Americans to grasp that they are being blatantly conned by the President of the United States, for whom many of these Americans voted.

The New York Times notes today that

If the government was to let people divert part of their payroll taxes to private accounts, the budget deficit would be more than $100 billion a year higher than otherwise and the surpluses in the Social Security trust fund expected over the next 13 years would disappear.

With that in mind, administration officials and Republicans in Congress hint that they are looking at ways to exclude the expected transition costs from the official deficit numbers.

Again: It’s a con.

The Times’ Paul Krugman suggests that explaining the insanity of Bush’s plans for Social Security will be a top priority when he returns to his column regularly next month. But he fired an opening salvo Tuesday, which I quote below in full.

The dazed confusion that ensues from discussion of Social Security is not a reason to withdraw from debate. It’s the result of a trick, and that’s reason to shake it off and think again.

Let it start here, if it must:

Inventing a crisis
By Paul Krugman
The New York Times
Dec. 7, 2004

Privatizing Social Security — replacing the current system, in whole or in part, with personal investment accounts — won’t do anything to strengthen the system’s finances. If anything, it will make things worse. Nonetheless, the politics of privatization depend crucially on convincing the public that the system is in imminent danger of collapse, that we must destroy Social Security in order to save it.

I’ll have a lot to say about all this when I return to my regular schedule in January. But right now it seems important to take a break from my break, and debunk the hype about a Social Security crisis.

There’s nothing strange or mysterious about how Social Security works: It’s just a government program supported by a dedicated tax on payroll earnings, just as highway maintenance is supported by a dedicated tax on gasoline.

Right now the revenues from the payroll tax exceed the amount paid out in benefits. This is deliberate, the result of a payroll tax increase — recommended by none other than Alan Greenspan — two decades ago. His justification at the time for raising a tax that falls mainly on lower- and middle-income families, even though Ronald Reagan had just cut the taxes that fall mainly on the very well-off, was that the extra revenue was needed to build up a trust fund. This could be drawn on to pay benefits once the baby boomers began to retire.

The grain of truth in claims of a Social Security crisis is that this tax increase wasn’t quite big enough. Projections in a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office (which are probably more realistic than the very cautious projections of the Social Security Administration) say that the trust fund will run out in 2052. The system won't become “bankrupt” at that point; even after the trust fund is gone, Social Security revenues will cover 81 percent of the promised benefits. Still, there is a long-run financing problem.

But it’s a problem of modest size. The report finds that extending the life of the trust fund into the 22nd century, with no change in benefits, would require additional revenues equal to only 0.54 percent of G.D.P. That's less than 3 percent of federal spending — less than we’re currently spending in Iraq. And it's only about one-quarter of the revenue lost each year because of President Bush's tax cuts — roughly equal to the fraction of those cuts that goes to people with incomes over $500,000 a year.

Given these numbers, it’s not at all hard to come up with fiscal packages that would secure the retirement program, with no major changes, for generations to come.

It’s true that the federal government as a whole faces a very large financial shortfall. That shortfall, however, has much more to do with tax cuts — cuts that Mr. Bush nonetheless insists on making permanent — than it does with Social Security.

But since the politics of privatization depend on convincing the public that there is a Social Security crisis, the privatizers have done their best to invent one.

My favorite example of their three-card-monte logic goes like this: First, they insist that the Social Security system’s current surplus and the trust fund it has been accumulating with that surplus are meaningless. Social Security, they say, isn't really an independent entity — it’s just part of the federal government.

If the trust fund is meaningless, by the way, that Greenspan-sponsored tax increase in the 1980s was nothing but an exercise in class warfare: Taxes on working-class Americans went up, taxes on the affluent went down, and the workers have nothing to show for their sacrifice.

But never mind: The same people who claim that Social Security isn’t an independent entity when it runs surpluses also insist that late next decade, when the benefit payments start to exceed the payroll tax receipts, this will represent a crisis — you see, Social Security has its own dedicated financing, and therefore must stand on its own.

There’s no honest way anyone can hold both these positions, but very little about the privatizers’ position is honest. They come to bury Social Security, not to save it. They aren’t sincerely concerned about the possibility that the system will someday fail; they’re disturbed by the system’s historic success.

For Social Security is a government program that works, a demonstration that a modest amount of taxing and spending can make people’s lives better and more secure. And that’s why the right wants to destroy it.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Well, I’ll be.

What glares out from 2245 Massachusetts Ave. not two hours ago but a White Hen Pantry stripped and emptied, adorned only by several paper signs advertising, instead of a redundant pale chicken cabinet, a “Bread & Butter Convenience Store [is] Coming Soon.”

Aside from the name, it’s unclear how it’ll differ. But it’s one less thing to moan over.

If this post makes no sense, read below.


Porter Square is rapidly becoming a Moebius strip mall. If it wasn’t enough to travel a half-mile from one White Hen Pantry to the next down Massachusetts Avenue, there came the Big Picture Framing shop at 2044 Massachusetts Ave., a barely significant 0.3 miles distant from the Corners Picture Framing Superstore by Star Market.

Now the defunct photo shop at 2032 Massachusetts Ave. is becoming a Cartridge World — a refurbisher and reseller of toner cartridges for printers — because, apparently, the kiosk at 1 Porter Square, a significantly bare 0.4 miles away, suggested the market was ripe for competition.

How weird is this? The next nearest SaveOnInks site is about four miles away, across the river at the Prudential Center. The next nearest Cartridge World is in East Weymouth, more than 20 miles away. So there is plenty of room to spread out, making the reason the chains must go head-to-head within a few blocks of each other elusive at best. The possibilities include:

Someone has decided to perform a perverse economics experiment that will soon drive down the cost of toner cartridges in Porter Square to virtually nothing;

Someone else has decided to perform a perverse sociological experiment to keep Porter Square as dull and silly as possible, and this was the most dramatic step possible in that direction after the counterproductively exciting opening of Porter Square Books;

There is an aberrantly huge demand for toner cartridges in the Porter Square area, enough for both businesses to thrive;

The much larger Cartridge World intends to slay the upstart SaveOnInks by directly challenging it site for site;

Someone didn’t do very good market research.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


My cousin Nina, whose Web site is among the links to the right, is an artist of striking and unique ability. But she is not so unique that ARTnews magazine hasn’t been able to lump her in with a few other sculptors as proponents of “The New Realism.” I’m proud to say Nina is featured prominently in the story, which leads the December issue: Her art is on the cover and takes up a full page inside, she is quoted and discussed at length and — in what she must take to be a rather nice turn of events — her showings are listed. (In addition to the Feigen Contemporary gallery in New York and Metaphor Contemporary Art in Brooklyn, she has two pieces at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park here in Massachusetts.)

That’s pretty much all I had to say. I have no point. Just bragging.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


Ugh. New York party boy Jason Binn intends to start a magazine here called Commonwealth — emphasis on “wealth” — that, according to the Boston Herald, will “meld celebrity and A-list party scene gossip with entertainment, arts, real estate and fashion coverage ... all wrapped in a lifestyle package targeted at affluent readers.”

This is for all those grasping people who don’t get their fill of this with Stuff@Night, The Improper Bostonian and Boston magazine and, in fact, much of the Boston Herald and Boston Globe and who need what Binn calls “a true celebration of Boston and all Boston has to offer in the world of luxury.”

I’ll keep Cambridge. There, dressing up makes one feel mildly uncomfortable, a sensation that lasts until the Charles is safely past and Park Street’s exits beckon; music clubs don’t start shows at family hour and throw crowds out before 10 p.m. to make room for the next paying audience; the defining square is Harvard, not Louisburg; the defining path is Massachusetts Avenue, not Newbury Street; black is worn because it’s easy, not because it’s fashionable; a celebrity is John Malkovich, not Tom Brady; the music is Morphine, not Boston; the defining store sells books, not clothes; and wealth is subtle, not celebrated.

Even the magazine title “Commonwealth” is repulsive in this context — a complete betrayal of what a commonwealth implies, highlighting differences between haves and have-nots rather than striving to help people have wealth, of any kind, in common.

I hope the magazine dies a quick death, as all shamelessly social-climbing toadies should.

Or at least sticks to its side of the river.

Monday, December 06, 2004


Last week’s comments boosting a sales tax by N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers to President Bush, were little noted and are already skittering off into the shadows, disappearing into crevices on tiny, insectile legs.

When these ideas are exposed to light, ordinary people are filled with loathing and an instinct to kill. Republicans know this, so they’re happy there’s plenty of distraction: Bright colors flash by on television screens, drawing attention, while these ideas crawl through cabinets and race across sleeping children.

On the off chance these little ideological cockroaches are spotted, Republicans have outfitted them with tiny, sequined red, white and blue outfits — top hats, vests, spats and little canes — meant to convince the unwary that what they’re seeing is good and embraceable, rather than dirty and scummy.

This particular bug wants Americans to pay more taxes when they buy things, rather than based on what they earn. Not surprisingly, this hurts poorer people, who spend a higher proportion of income even by buying such essentials as food, and benefits richer people for whom such things as food are a tiny percentage of income, and probably far more of a luxury. (Think hot dogs vs. caviar or cola vs. fine wines.)

Here’s what Mankiw said Thursday at a conference held by the American Enterprise Institute and International Tax Policy Forum, as quoted by Bloomberg News:

Under an income tax, a person who immediately spends all his wages pays lower taxes over his lifetime than his neighbor who earns the same amount but chooses to save and invest in order to enjoy a more prosperous retirement or to leave a bequest to his children. Savers would no longer be disadvantaged relative to spendthrifts.

Who are these thoughtless people spending everything they earn instead of saving and investing?

To start, there are more than 7.4 million workers earning the federal minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, meaning someone with a full-time job paying that earns $206 a week. It may be difficult to imagine living on $206 a week, or $10,712 a year, but that’s actually above the federal poverty threshold for a single person with no kids: $9,573 for someone under the age of 65. For a family of three, such as a full-time worker with a spouse taking care of a small child at home, it’s short of the poverty threshold by $4,112. Even taking into account the earned-income tax credit, says the Economic Policy Institute,

the current minimum wage is still inadequate to support a single parent with two children. In 2003, a single parent working full time with two children would have a combined earnings and tax credit of $14,097, only 95 percent of the 2003 poverty threshold of $14,824 for a family of three.

And the numbers of people living in poverty is growing, the U.S. Census Bureau says, to 12.5 percent of the U.S. population last year from 12.1 percent in 2002, an increase of 1.3 million people.

This would be a good time for Mankiw, that cockroach wrangler, to visit the Twilight Zone, and wake up tomorrow as someone earning the federal minimum wage. It would be instructive to see how much money he socks away for his kids and retirement while earning $5.15 an hour, and how he sets an example for his “spendthrift” peers.

Or he could wake up tomorrow as a cockroach, which haunt the homes of the poor, and get stomped on.

Friday, December 03, 2004


The resignation of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge was revelatory, and probably not in a way preferred by the fearmongers of the Bush administration.

In the time Ridge has been in his post (he accepted it Sept. 21, 2001, resigned as Pennsylvania’s governor Oct. 5, 2001, but was sworn into office at the new department on Jan. 24, 2003) there have been constant warnings of terrorist attacks, all apparently based on surges in “chatter” among the bad guys, and subsequent claims of antiterrorist actions.

But those actions have invariably resulted in silence, not exultation that a second 9/11 has been averted.

The generous assumption is that good spies don’t run around talking about their work. The government has said repeatedly that, to keep intelligence flowing, it can’t reveal too much about the terrorist plots it uncovers. (Then it ignores that whenever there’s a political need, such as in the case of “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla. In June 2002, the government was getting pounded for missing warnings on 9/11, so Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of Padilla — presenting it as though it had just happened, although he’d been in custody for a month.)

In quitting, though, Ridge didn’t stay silent on his record for national security reasons. And he didn’t boast of success in busting terrorists and keeping the nation safe. He said:

I am confident that the terrorists are aware that from the curb to the cockpit we’ve got additional security measures that didn’t exist a couple years ago, that from port to port we do things differently with maritime security. Confident that they know the borders are more secure. I'm confident that they know that we’ve developed and are sharing information with the state and local law enforcement.

Or, as The New York Times summed it up,

Mr. Ridge said he was “fairly confident” that the measures his department enacted had helped thwart terrorist attacks, but he acknowledged that he could not prove it.

The meaning is clear: For all the patrolled borders, guarded curbs, armed sky marshals and security queues, Ridge not only didn’t have statistics about suspects arrested and plots prevented ... he didn’t even have examples.

You can’t prove a negative. Any amount of terrorism could have been prevented just by the creation of Homeland Security and advertising of information about its efforts.

But this is Tom Ridge, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and commander of its 180,000 employees. It would be reasonable if he had the slightest clue. Something to offer.

Surprisingly, he does not.

Thursday, December 02, 2004


I dumped my AAA Financial Services credit card, finally, after calling to confirm I’d been assessed a $29 fee for being late on a $44 bill.

The customer service representative agreed it was the $44 September T pass bill on which I’d been late. Then he explained the late fee structure: about $15 for less than $100 and $29 for more.

Hunh? What $100, then? He’d just agreed the total bill was $44.

Well, see, on the October statement on which the late fee appears, there was another $44 bill for the next month’s T pass, $20.50 at Loew’s Boston Common movie theater and $15.65 for Brother’s Pizza & Grill in Belmont, a total of $80.15 ...

... which means the only way the late fee is justified at the higher rate is by including the fee itself, for a total of $109.15.

The logic was so tortured that I couldn’t, at first, deal with that last violent twist. I began to grapple with it only after canceling the card and hanging up with the customer service rep.

Hours later, I’m still mystified why a company would play such an absurd game with late fees — and be so quick to agree to ending an until-recently functional relationship — with someone getting an average of two credit card solicitations per day from every company under the sun and probably a few on it. AAA Financial Services itself had been asking me to move up to its platinum card.

Perhaps I should have. Maybe the advantage of being a platinum-card holder is that the late-fee rules make sense. On the other hand, following their logic, perhaps platinum-card late fees are assessed before a check is late. Or before the card is used. Or before the card arrives in the mail.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004


I feel as though I am going insane. The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case concerning medical marijuana on Monday and debated it, according to The New York Times, on the precedent of Wickard vs. Filburn — a 1942 case that decided wheat grown for private consumption interfered with interstate commerce and thus was under federal jurisdiction.

“It looks like Wickard to me,” Justice Antonin Scalia said. “Why is this not economic activity? This marijuana that’s grown is like wheat. Since it’s grown, it doesn’t have to be bought elsewhere.”

Um, isn’t this an argument better left to a product intended to be bought and sold, not something the U.S. government is trying to keep illegal? Saying the pot cancer patients grow for medical reasons interferes with pot that could be “bought elsewhere” is like complaining that masturbation robs hookers of work.

What’s crazier is that the Times’ article hints strongly that the case will fail, the federal government will step in and desperately sick people will be deprived surcease from pain. Because, of all things, the government has a right to keep interstate commerce flowing — in reefer.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Krispy Kreme and Zipcar have forged an unlikely alliance: Krispy Kreme brings doughnuts, as could be expected, to people using cars provided by, as may be obvious, Zipcar. All customers have to do is buy a lot of doughnuts (at least $30 worth), pay a delivery fee ($5) and wait for a delivery person to bring the sweet, hot lumps of slow, horrible death.

This is nice of Krispy Kreme, at least because the delivery fee does not cover the cost of an hour’s rental of a Zipcar in Boston — delivery is only from the Prudential Center site, and nearby Zipcars start with minimal one-hour rental fees from $9.50 to $12.50 — and even nicer of Zipcar, because this little partnership is against its rules and effectively takes a Zipcar off the streets. Out of the crunchy, urban driving gloves of its users.

“The use of a Zipcar vehicle under the following conditions is prohibited,” the rules say, starting with “any speed race, competition or timely delivery of goods.” Even the “Zipcar to Business Driving” plans discuss hourly or daily rental, meaning something’s got to give: Either Krispy Kreme rents a car daily, every day it’s open, which is all week, removing a car from the streets; or it plays the hourly rental game, in which it may be unable to deliver reliably because cars are rented out from under it.

Cold Krispy Kreme doughnuts aren’t so special. And unreliable delivery is hardly a selling point for a company that’s already struggling.

In perhaps a warning sign, when the Boston Herald wanted Krispy Kreme to send over a driver in a Zipcar, for a photograph, Krispy Kreme officials resisted.

Because, it’s all too possible, there was no Zipcar available.

Monday, November 29, 2004


Three travel observations, courtesy of the Thanksgiving holiday but having nothing to do with it, and at least a third of which have nothing to do with bathrooms:

On the first leg of my trip to California, passengers were invited to buy movie headphones for $2 and take them for use on future flights. On the second leg, passengers were told headphones cost $2 and discouraged from using any they’d brought on board. I’m still wondering if the airline has unfair expectations or stupid customers. (The policy doesn’t affect me; I almost always bring an assortment of headphones of my own, most stolen from first class as I leave airplanes and stored for future flights.)

At the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, I used a bathroom stall intended for the disabled. Like all such stalls, it was spacious, so someone in a wheelchair could roll in and shift himself onto the toilet. There was something a little odd about it, too: The toilet paper dispenser was on the wall far to the right of the toilet, which was on the left of the stall, and getting to it would require a ridiculously long stretch, one almost certainly overextending and unbalancing the person stretching. That’s silly, I thought, why make it so far away? Oh right, I realized, the wheelchair goes in that great space. Right! That’s where the wheelchair goes — between the toilet and the toilet paper dispenser, at exactly the height where the seat, arms and possibly motor get in the way of the effort. Brilliant. Has this stall ever been used by someone in a wheelchair? I’ll bet it wasn’t designed by someone in a wheelchair.

Finally, now that I have bicoastal experience with Colgate and Crest toothpastes, I can confirm the difference between the two. Crest, when used to brush teeth, soon turns into a froth; Colgate remains a goop, a thick paste, no matter how much the brusher saws away at it.

Anyway, I’m back. And all I can think about is that once airplane flights inspired in me thoughts of class warfare, philosophy and personal resolution; now I return with gripes about $2 headphones and the consistency of toothpastes.


Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Cambridge’s Biogen Idec got government approval today to sell its second multiple sclerosis drug, as interested readers can see from this numbing press release.

What could have been cause for rejoicing or relief, however, is tainted by the cancerous growth of health care costs in this country.

The company claims the best medical results come from combining the drug with its older MS drug, Avonex — in fact, patients in a study had 54 percent fewer relapses than those taking only Avonex. Is it cynical to wonder how much trouble it would have been to combine the active ingredients into one dose, rather than selling them separately for twice the money?

Avonex is the No. 1 multiple sclerosis drug in sales. That means the success of the new drug would have cannibalized its success, and its profits.

The most gracious interpretation is that the company is merely getting a drug to market as soon as possible and will combine it with Avonex later to better, more cheaply serve a needy community.

There would be a bonus: Biogen Idec would get the chance to name the combined drug replacing its two predecessors.

This is good because the new drug is named Tysabri, which stands out against a sea of names that, while meaningless, at least suggest a sense of health or progress — the Claritins, Viagras and even Avonexes of the world (as well as meaningless car names such as Elantra, Alero and Altima). “Tysabri” suggests nothing, except possibly a contest in which Biogen Idec employees can win more vacation time for coming up with a better name.

Science marches on, and so does commerce. Apparently they forgot to tell marketing they were leaving.

Monday, November 22, 2004


The world may already have clued into this phenomenon, but I got clued in one step behind Martina. (Thanks, Martina.) It’s a Web site of Blue America, apologizing to the world one by one, called

Of course there are Red America sites that serve as replies to “Sorry,” about as wittily and proficiently as “Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at which the Brain ... Begins to Die” responded to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but I will not be linking to them, as even the experience of looking briefly at one made me mildly nauseous. And I refuse to be sued by weak-stomached readers for dry cleaning expenses or pain and suffering.

To be fair, the Reds are probably just as put off by “Sorry,” even though most of the images are gentle, even wistful. The inverse post-election Blue phenomenon, which surely everyone and their great-great-grandmothers know about by now, is the breathtakingly angry and rude, but dead-on,

Interestingly, there is no Has no one in the South a reply?

Saturday, November 20, 2004


I had forgotten about this guy: the skinny, bearded and long-haired blond with clothes suggesting hippiedom more than homelessness. Perhaps it was his mildly insolent way of asking for money, less like a man wondering where he’d sleep that night and more like a boy reminding you he’s owed his allowance — and needs your keys and the car. Now.

For whatever reason, I never gave money when he haunted me daily from his pacing grounds by the Porter Square Dunkin’ Donuts. (I tend to restrict my handouts to Spare Change vendors, older folk, the disabled and the convincingly piteous, with the edge to black people for reasons of unresolved white guilt.) He disappeared without my noticing about a year ago, and now, I think, he’s back.

Or is he? The past several months, he’s gained a lot of weight. He’s comfortably bloated, enough to make me doubt he’s the same guy, and in Harvard Square, not Porter, and it almost seems that his receding hairline has rethought its recession. But the clothes are strongly familiar, and the attitude is a dead ringer — in fact, this fellow stood a meter from me for several seconds while I was making a phone call near the Out of Town Newsstand, despite my waving him off and quite clearly shaking my head at him, relatively politely for someone in the midst of a phone call. (Did it not occur to him that his chances for success might be better if he didn’t ask for money while his sucker is on the phone? I would never suggest that a homeless person didn’t have places to rush off to, but it seems useless to rush into certain rejection rather than delay a potential payoff.)

What convinced me he is the same man is that he stayed there, a few feet from me, despite my rejection. His answer was to swing his arms out by his hips, widen his eyes the tiniest bit, match it with a minimal tilt to the head, shake it back at me quizzically and try again: I know you’re still on the phone and have already turned me down, but I find it difficult to understand why you’re not giving me your money, and thus will continue standing here challengingly in the expectation that you will be shamed into remembering that, after all, you owe me.

I don’t blame him that he’s offering nothing, such as a Spare Change; I don’t blame him for being a hippie, white, young, healthy-looking or even far fatter than he was. The tubercular look, while a good sales technique, is not something I can wish on anyone.

If anything, I blame him for radiating menace without humor, which, in combination with his apparent growing good health, makes him one of the only homeless people — if he is that — that I’ve ever resisted so fully. Well, it’s beyond resistance. He’s the only one that has ever made me say to myself: “I’ll burn in hell, my testicles fried and fed me, before I give him money.”

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Renting a car? Forget Alamo National. Consider Enterprise.

That’s it. That’s the whole post, the sum of all my wisdom on the matter. You can all stop reading now.

But if details are needed, a justification for this advice, read on. Just remember that you can stop reading whenever you want. And that I warned you.

Martina and I wanted a full-sized sedan for 10 days, and, looking online, Alamo National’s prices were lower than those of Enterprise — except that there’s more to cost than mere dollars, and that cost surged to near-unacceptable limits when it was revealed that, on a large lot choked with vehicles, there were only three full-sized sedans we could use. Two were two-door models. All were red.

A two-door, full-sized sedan may appeal to some. It doesn’t make a bit of sense to me. And what’s with all the red cars? Is there a huge demand for red full-size two-door sedans all of a sudden? (The New York Times said recently that colorful cars are “on the way back in,” but the forecast was for over the next few years. So there will be no credit given for being cutting-edge when the preponderance of red is likely to be just cruel coincidence or a brutal streak of bad taste.)

There were other full-size cars on the lot, employees said, but to get to them, a lot of other cars would have to be moved out of the way. And they’d have to be cleaned. They may be filthy, we were told.

Meanwhile, two other unmarried couples came in and rented, with the clerk helping them offering each — out of the blue, and a four-door blue, at that — a waiver of the additional-driver fee. It never came up on our side of the counter.

The Alamo National clerks were unwilling to replace our red-or-possibly-filthy full-size with a premium car, but they would give us a sport utility vehicle. (In what is very unlikely to be a coincidence, the lot was overloaded with them. Strangely, when gas prices get past $2 a gallon on top of rental fees, people tend to find SUVs a little less chic.) We took the beast and instantly regretted it. It was loud, uncomfortable and, yes, filthy. It felt like we were sneaking illegal aliens into the country ... because we desperately needed money to fix our truck. Hell, this thing didn’t even have a keychain remote, which is pretty standard for rental cars.

We drove it to my house in Porter Square so I could shower, then to the Davis Square Enterprise car rental site. There we asked them to save us from the sport utility creature for the same cost or better, and they found us an excellent Volvo station wagon that had pretty much every amenity one could want. It was like going from the monkey scenes in “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the scenes set in the future, and we were in and out within a half-hour.

Then we took the SUV back to Alamo National. It had been gone an hour and driven less than three miles, but the company charged us for a full day and said we’d taken it 16 miles.

Strangely, I wasn’t even all that surprised or upset, as though it was worth it just to learn the lesson.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


The news today is scarier than it was Sept. 12, 2001, when at least the enemy wasn’t us. Today my eyes dart around the front of The New York Times looking for relief, finally finding a relatively harmless story about a new medical technology.

The rest is terrifying:

“The Americans raced Tuesday to contain a spreading insurgency” in Iraq, which we attacked because of faulty intelligence and a lack of proper debate. In fact, when the information we were getting didn’t build a strong enough case for attacking, the Bush administration set up its own office to correct the problem.

Yet in a nearby story the new, Bush-appointed chief of the Central Intelligence Agency is clearing out senior staff and advising his employees via memo that they are to “support the administration and its policies in our work ... As agency employees we do not identify with, support or champion opposition to the administration or its policies.”

And, back at the top of the page, “New Bush Cabinet Seen as Move For More Harmony and Control,” meaning the president doesn’t want an attorney general that goes too far or a secretary of state that doesn’t go far enough. He wants only support, consistent with his pride in not reading the news, insistence on keeping protesters so far away he cannot see or hear the protest and assumption of a mandate based on a bare majority of the country’s voters.

At the bottom is a story from Spring, Texas, where a school district that has never had a kidnapping has put in place an electronic watchdog system intended to keep its students from getting kidnapped. The kids carry electronic radio frequency identification tags that keep track of where they are. It doesn’t work very well yet, but that doesn’t keep “advocates of the technology [from seeing] broader possibilities, such as implanting RFID tags under the skin of children to avoid problems with lost or forgotten tags.” Right.

This is where we’re headed: War no matter what. Dissent isn’t welcome. And we’re watching you.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004



I was one of many anyone-but-Bush people in this past election, not a John Kerry fan, but that’s not Kerry’s fault. It would have been the same, or has been, for Edwards, Gore, a Clinton or two, Dukakis, Bentsen, Mondale and Ferraro. Were I to be a Republican, the names would change, but not the attitude.

That’s because I’ve believed, just like third-party voters, that Democratic and Republican politicians are essentially the same. After all, they’re politicians, not statesmen or activists, and our political system increasingly demands a certain sameness — “electability” — that has candidates avowing faith, quashing uniqueness, flaunting families, dressing alike and serving special interests.

All that set the politicians apart were that their parties paid lip service to different constituencies. But every four years or so, to get re-elected, they had to prove to those constituencies that they did a little more, so there was always minimal action in the direction of gun control, or deregulation, or environmentalism, or prayer in schools.

A vote for Republicans was a baby step toward corporate freedom. A vote for Democrats nudged us back toward protecting workers. And so on.

Republicans have been raising the stakes. Instead of incremental movement toward reshaping America, they’ve been promising greater and greater leaps, setting themselves up to have to deliver them. Those great leaps will take us into a scary future by way of a demonstrably dangerous present, justified by unhealthy paranoia, religious faith and juvenile fear. And they make it impossible to continue the cynicism that keeps me voting for lazy, minimal steps in the right direction.

In fact, the elephants’ thunderous, earthshaking leaps make it vital to vote and okay to vote against rather than for. It should have been obvious this year that a vote against Bush was the most important vote that could be cast, and, just as in 2000, the only practical way to do that was to vote for the electable opposing candidate. Four years ago that was Al Gore, before more than a thousand U.S. soldiers and perhaps 100,000 Iraqi civilians paid the price, before thousands of U.S. citizens lost health care, jobs or hope.

This year it was Kerry. A vote for anyone else was a vote for Bush — and more death, fewer jobs, a greater divide between rich and poor, the stage set for a dramatically worsening environment and possibly the end of Roe vs. Wade and any number of our civil liberties — despite the 2.4 million votes separating the candidates even if every independent voter had gone for Kerry instead.

The independent voters all have extraordinarily high-minded reasons for voting for their candidates. My co-worker Andrew J. Manuse writes, for instance:

I believe my decision to vote for [Libertarian candidate Michael] Badnarik was thoughtful, educated, moral, principled and purposeful. He had the best ideas for protecting and restoring our Constitutional and individual freedoms at home, restoring our economic well being, fighting terrorists, winning the war in Iraq and bringing our troops home. He supported giving individuals more power over their own destiny, primarily by stripping away government constraints on individuals' financial and social freedoms and responsibility. He believed that corporations should not be granted legal status as persons. I think that if we did away with the precedent that makes corporations “legal persons,” there would be less corruption and greed, and overall the world would be a much better place.

Principled and moral the vote may have been. Thoughtful, educated and purposeful it was not, any more than deciding to forgo voting against Bush’s ongoing evil in exchange for the expectation of finding a genie in a bottle — to wish for it to put Bush out of office.

As an example of how thoughtful the decision was, one reason the co-worker didn’t vote for Kerry is that he has “disdain [for] his support for the United Nations and I fear he would surrender U.S. sovereignty to the organization, which I believe is anti-American and mostly made up of nations that support terrorists.”

For the record, there are 191 countries in the United Nations. That’s every country on Earth, except for the Vatican and Taiwan. And not everyone accepts that Taiwan is still a sovereign nation.


The suggestions for reforming our political system are similarly questionable.

1) We can stop allowing the government to steal our money to fund political parties. How? We can lobby Congress for a Constitutional Amendment that would make it illegal for the government to fund political parties and mandatory to allow all parties equal protection under the law. Let candidates get their own funding. They will be able to collect all the money they need if their ideas are strong enough.

This is a peculiar suggestion coming after a campaign in which Bush raised about $286 million and Kerry about $243.2 million on their own, getting only $74.6 million each from the government. The private fund-raising went so well that the candidates apparently flirted with the idea of rejecting public funding because it limited them, since only the public funding could be used after the candidates accepted their parties’ nomination.

2) We can stop buying newspapers, watching television news and listening to radio news programs that are biased toward one candidate and don't give alternative-party candidates the time of day. We can start our own news services online or work toward changing one of them and making it serve the people the way a news organization is supposed to: openly, without bias and with balance.

Better, but who funds the new media? It’s not so easy to get money for start-up news organizations, especially considering that the main font of interest in the idea would be from independent voters, who gave the top four third-party candidates all of $5.6 million through the election. Also, what money goes to this new media would shrink the money available for actual candidates, while people committed to more mainstream candidates would be relucant to leave more mainstream media behind without an established alternative, resulting in little financial incentive for existing media to change. Encouraging change there is the far better idea, but I foresee skepticism that more space would be warranted for “fringe” candidates.

3) We can force the organization that runs the debates ( to include all the candidates that have made their way onto the ballots in some of the states.

Even better, but the skepticism of the media would extend to the debate commission.

4) We can create organizations that would work toward making our election more fair and become powerful ourselves by working together.

A bit vague, but in fact the only suggestion that deals with the reality that, in this dangerous, delicate time, voting for a third-party candidate only makes sense if it is possible for one to win. A foundation for such a win must be built. It is only by laying the groundwork for a strong showing by a third-party candidate, which implies the possibility of a win, that such organizations can break through widespread skepticism to convince the media and debate planners to include more candidates. This inclusion, in turn, legitimizes the candidates and brings them more publicity, making more funding possible.

But something must start the cycle and make all this possible.

The first step of the organizations, then, would be to convince more communities, and then states, to move to instant runoff voting. This system lets people rank their candidate choices, meaning every person using it could vote for the third-party candidate they wanted as their No. 1 choice, with their safety candidate — a Democrat such as Kerry, for instance — somewhere down the list. Candidates are successively discarded by determining who got the least votes, then the second-least number of votes, the third-least number, and so on until one candidate has enough votes to win. It means there’s no such thing as a spoiler candidate and no such thing as vote splitting. It means a decline in “electability” as the defining factor in campaigns and an increase in the power of ideas.

In addition to encouraging coalitions and positive campaigning, as candidates vie to be a No. 2 choice for voters with whom they’re not No. 1, it encourages people to vote as they truly feel they should, including for third-party candidates, without throwing a vote away.

Forms of this are already in use in Cambridge and San Francisco.

It’s the only concrete step that improves U.S. politics without risking our culture. All else follows. It has to come from the grass roots up, though, and the grass roots seem focused on party instead of process.

Monday, November 15, 2004


I begin to suspect there’s more than noise behind cats’ loathing of vacuum cleaners.

This occurred to me Saturday, when the niece was over and Roger Mexico, as usual, was hiding. It’s inexplicable. Sophia’s never done anything to the cat. She’s never had the opportunity, if only because he’s always hiding. And it’s hard to imagine Mexico reacting to some long-ago memory of being tortured by tots in some other house, since he’s been here since he was a baby.

When I went to the basement to do laundry, he emerged from his hiding place, thinking my presence was meant to give him the all-clear. “She’s still up there,” I warned him, repeatedly, but when I left, so did he. Saw Sophia. Froze.

Shaking my head, I went upstairs, seizing the opportunity to get some stuff done even though I knew it meant missing the outcome of the standoff. (She pets him, he tenses and walks quickly from the room. High drama.) My light-gray carpet was a horror — speckled with pebbles of cloth from new dark socks, littered with microscopic bits of paper and other rubble, clotted with hair off Mexico’s lush charcoal coat. This was my chance to vacuum, finally.

So I did, but ruefully, recognizing what a nightmare this was for the poor cat. First, confrontation with his most dread nemesis, a four-and-three-quarters-year-old girl in a purple princess dress. Then, overhead, the awful announcement of the only other thing that sends him running, that screaming, brutally gleaming, hard plastic eliminator of evidence, the vacuum.

I assumed Mexico would get over it. He gets over everything, returning quickly to his comic solemnity as whatever he suffers fades into foggy long-term memory or unimportance compared with more immediate possibilities: a pet, a nap or a feed.

But that must be it, I thought, running the vacuum repeatedly over the roughage of my room, watching it reluctantly suck up Mexico’s cottony patches of hair. Cats don’t have possessions. The only way they can claim ownership is by rubbing against something, marking it with their scent, leaving a little of themselves behind after a cleaning. Having so decorated, they can return to a room and look around approvingly, smelling themselves on the bookshelf and bedspread, seeing themselves on the carpet and closet floor.

Then here comes the vacuum, to destroy all their hard work, to eliminate all signs of occupation. It’s as though every week we come in with new books, magazines, wallpaper, furniture, dishware and Hummel figurines and regularly return to find it wiped away, just the raw architecture of our house remaining, for us to once again make into a home.

It’s not an easy thing to deal with. But I don’t vacuum that frequently.

You know, for the cat.

Friday, November 12, 2004


CBS has fired a producer for interrupting “CSI: N.Y.” with breaking news.


Thursday, November 11, 2004


I’m fascinated by the absorption of rules without critical thought. In some cases, it’s rewarded because the opposite is punished: If there’s no walk signal, but no cars coming, either, it’s still jaywalking to cross the street. (Crossing the street with a walk signal and intense, speeding traffic is legal, if fatal, so far as I know.)

Why it happens in journalism, I have no idea, but examples abound. Here are two:

Newspapers try to avoid starting a story on one page and finishing it on another, because readers don’t like making the jump. Usually jumps are done solely from the front page of a section. At a tabloid newspaper, though, like a magazine there’s only one section, meaning one front page. The business section might start on page 39, for instance, with three stories jumping to later pages.

Sometimes the section will start on an even-numbered page, though, and readers will get two facing pages of news at once — pages 38 and 39, for a second instance.

Suddenly the question of jumps becomes far more complicated. Can you jump all six or so stories from those two pages? Do you stick to jumping only the stories on what is still technically the first page of the section, 38? Do you jump only from the second page, 39, because it’s the traditional right-hand page, where readers’ eyes go first? Do you jump no stories? Can you jump from 38 to 39?

The right answer is: No one cares! About 0.01 percent of newspaper readers think about these rules or even know of them, so clenching up, sweating and grappling over the choices with aggrieved desperation is a waste of time. One editors engage in all too frequently. Here’s my call: Jump stories from your front, even if it’s a two-page front. Also, consider getting a life.

There is also a long-standing rule that photographs in a newspaper aren’t supposed to be “posed.” It’s to ensure that the pictures are, in essence, factual, not fake: To reassure readers that, just as reporters aren’t making things up, photographers also aren’t faking action or results, and that newspapers represent reality and tell the truth.

But not every photograph shows breaking news of an actual event. Some are, in fact, posed, because that’s the risk you run in assigning a photo for any story from restaurant-hires-chef to chef-donates-kidney. Photographers aren’t always allowed in the kitchen, or the operating room. Sometimes they only have time to shake hands, explain who they are and shoot a few frames.

Editors come across pictures of people looking directly at the camera or holding things up for display and complain that they look posed. Yes. Because if a news photographer asks a subject to act as though they’re doing something they normally wouldn’t be, and to ignore the camera, that’s more fake than a picture that is obviously posed. Which is called, not to put too fine a point on it, a portrait.


Wednesday, November 10, 2004


There are idiots in all professions. Having long ago chosen journalism, I liked to think it was the exception, but in fact the field is crawling with vermin, halfwits, bottom feeders and mad dogs, as well as your garden-variety hacks, lifers and conference dwellers.

A conference dweller is the sort that goes to peer gatherings, or merely scans the resulting literature, and comes away with a mistaken impression they’ve learned something. The problem with conference dwellers absorbing the lessons of accomplishments elsewhere is that they forget to think critically about what they’ve learned, much less to adapt what they’ve learned to where ever they return when their expense account runs out.

After USA Today hit the streets in 1982, for instance, a panicked clot of editors and publishers raced to produce the briefest, most colorful news report possible; in the U.S.A. today, most of those editors and publishers would blush furiously if shown their own product. It’s like unveiling long-lost home movies of them trying to moonwalk wearing one sequined glove.

Another bastard offspring of this was market research showing people didn’t like jumps, meaning they didn’t want to have to turn a page to finish an article.

This is reasonable. People don’t like to get up to answer the doorbell, either, even if it’s Ed McMahon and a giant check on the other side of the door, and they don’t even always like having to meet or exchange names with people with whom they want to have sex. But, darn it, sometimes you have to work a little. In the case of traditional newspapers, readers are asked to turn to a certain page if, and only if, they are adequately interested in a given topic. Whew.

The insight that this was a burden was taken very seriously by the executive editor of the midsize daily newspaper I worked at in the mid-1990s. For a brief, embarrassing period, we had no jumps from our front page. Because the front page is where newspapers keep the most exciting, interesting and urgent news, this meant that our newspaper’s most exciting, interesting and urgent news was also its shortest. The hotter the news, the less readers got to know about it.

Soon, some of the front-page articles were as long as ever, but we still couldn’t jump. Instead, our front page was just very, very ugly.

Eventually, the paper moved on to new concerns. If I remember correctly, one of them was journalism.

Tomorrow: More true, chilling tales of misguided newspaper policy! Not for the weak of heart!

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


Today I talked to Boston Herald columnist Joe Fitzgerald about my fears for the direction of the country, the nature of his column and its exaltation of the people voting for Bush and against gay marriage. Fitzgerald moralizes; nearly every column is about how liberal values are leading the United States straight to hell.

He writes that it was John Kerry and the Democrats who ran a sleazy campaign for president, not George Bush and the Republicans; and when I note, for example, that not a single charge of the bilious Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was substantiated, he admits he never really looked into the issue. He writes that it’s the 62 percent of voters blocking gay marriage that are standing up for American values; and when I note that freedom, equality and minding your own damn business are great American values, he replies that first-graders are being indoctrinated in the gay lifestyle and taught abortion is okay.

If one of his children said they were in a homosexual relationship, or getting an abortion, he’d love them no less, he said. But he clearly doesn’t want either to be legal.

The conversation got a bit heated. It never overheated. I’m old enough to realize that there’s little to be gained from getting crazy, and possibly something to gain from staying calm — even today, even after the dirty tricks of Bush Cheney ’04. Some of my anger dissipated as Fitzgerald told me of the personal attacks he suffers for his conservative views, even from people he works with daily in the Herald newsroom, and how even his 20-something daughter and wife of 30-plus years are upset by some of his opinions. Mainly it diminished when he shook my hand and expressed how impressed he was by the way I spoke with him: directly and reasonably.

Usually he gets anonymous rage.

Amazingly, Fitzgerald came over to me later and told me again how impressed he was. He patted me on the back. He shook my hand. Again.

Neither of our viewpoints budged an inch, so far as I can tell. Neither of us changed the other. But it was something, right? It was civility amid civil war. Culture amid a culture war. It’s the way things should be.

But the conservatives are still sticking their noses in other people’s business, taking away freedoms, rejecting equality.

Fitzgerald is courtly. A stand-up guy. And still quite probably the most pleasant face of a terrifying reality.

Monday, November 08, 2004


Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s 60-day state of emergency, which sounds suspiciously like martial law, comes replete with material so sad it’s funny, or vice versa. Referring to the state of emergency, Allawi said:

We declared it today, and we are going to implement it whenever and wherever it is necessary. This will send a very powerful message that we are serious.

Actually, it sends an even more powerful message that we’re desperate.

President Bush declared the major fighting in Iraq over on May 1, 2003, beginning a U.S. occupation that sort of ended June 28 of this year with a ceremonial handoff of power to Allawi’s interim government. Four months later, that government — in a somewhat iffy lead-up to free, democratic elections planned for January — decides to use its “broad” powers to, as The New York Times says today, “impose curfews, order house-to-house searches and detain suspected criminals and insurgents.”

It’s obvious that the ongoing attack on the insurgent stronghold Fallujah, combined with the state of emergency, is a last-ditch effort to get the country under control. It’s also obvious that this is hopeless. The occupation forces just went through this in Samarra last month, and that city is already back in the hands of the insurgents (meaning, in an unfortunate and impossible to ignore irony, the Iraqi people).

Allawi and the United States are desperate because it’s already acknowledged that the January elections will be held only in some of Iraq, not in parts Allawi’s government and the United States can’t control. But you can’t establish a legitimate government from only the pacified part of a country. That makes it, to those elsewhere, an illegitimate government. Hell, many in the United States considered George Bush an illegitimate president, and we really did vote in the 2004 election.

What is now a battle between two countries will become a civil war over a government that much of the country didn’t elect. To keep that from happening, the interim government’s best solution is: martial law.

Hail democracy.

Saturday, November 06, 2004


The Postal Service, the band, ran afoul of the Postal Service, the postal service, but there was a happy ending, which The New York Times reports today.

I’m a fan of both services, although the band’s sweet music and gently biting lyrics come out a little ahead of the U.S. Postal Service’s growing restrictions (no more free mailing tape, for instance) and productivity enhancers (fewer employees, more mail-it-yourself machines along the lines of automated tellers and supermarket checkout kiosks).

Mainly I think the story, printed below for those without a Times password, is a great example of how problems should be worked out. The services found a civil solution, so to speak.

Postal Service Tale: Indie Rock, Snail Mail and Trademark Law

About two and a half years ago, Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard began to make music together despite the distance between them. Mr. Tamborello, who makes electronica with a group called Dntel, lived in Los Angeles, while Mr. Gibbard, who sings in the emo band Death Cab for Cutie, lived in Seattle. They sent each other music through the mail, completing songs bit by bit, and after about five months, they had finished an album.

In honor of their working method they called themselves the Postal Service. Their album, “Give Up,” was released by the Seattle-based Sub Pop Records in early 2003 and became an indie-rock hit, eventually selling almost 400,000 copies, the label’s second biggest seller ever, after Nirvana’s “Bleach.”

Then they heard from the real Postal Service, in the form of a cease-and-desist letter.

“It was really polite,” said Tony Kiewel, an artist and repertory representative at Sub Pop who works with the band. “It said that the Postal Service is a registered trademark of the United States Postal Service, and that though they were very, very flattered that we were using the name, they need to enforce their copyright.”

The letter arrived in August 2003, and for months the label and the band fretted over the consequences: Would the band have to change its name? Would Sub Pop have to destroy its stock of the album?

The outcome was as unusual as the band itself: this week the United States Postal Service - the real one, as in stamps and letters - signed an agreement with Sub Pop granting a free license to use the name in exchange for working to promote using the mail. Future copies of the album and the group’s follow-up work will have a notice about the trademark, while the federal Postal Service will sell the band’s CD’s on its Web site, potentially earning a profit. The band may do some television commercials for the post office.

The group also agreed to perform at the postmaster general’s annual National Executive Conference in Washington on Nov. 17. The attendees might not realize what a rare treat they are in for since the Postal Service does not play many gigs. Mr. Tamborello and Mr. Gibbard are busy with their regular bands: Dntel, with its atmospheric electronic dance music, and Death Cab for Cutie, which has become a college rock favorite for its heartfelt, jangly punk rock known as emo.

Gary Thuro, a manager of communications for the United States Postal Service who handles licensing and promotion, said the publicity would be valuable.

“We’re always looking for ways to extend our brand and reach into areas we don’t typically reach,” he said, “like teens and people in their 20’s, who are typically doing business online and are not familiar with the Postal Service.”

Not familiar with the Postal Service?

“I have three kids, and they do most of their correspondence online,” Mr. Thuro said.

He said the post office had been looking to promote its brand through popular culture tie-ins and cited the campaign for the 2003 film “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.” The post office is ending its sponsorship of Lance Armstrong’s cycling team at the end of this year.

The agency’s only concern, Mr. Thuro said, was that a rock band might prove an inappropriate mascot for a federal agency. But when executives met with Mr. Tamborello and Mr. Gibbard in Los Angeles earlier this year, they were set at ease. Soft-spoken, well groomed and unusually polite, they are two of the least offensive rock stars imaginable, and their music — bubbly yet pensive electronic pop with earnest vocals by Mr. Gibbard — is unlikely to dissuade anyone from buying stamps.

Mr. Tamborello, 29, said the band was happy to comply with the agreement.

“Doing promos for the post office seems a little bit weird,” he said. “But it’s a funny story for them to have — it’s a good story of how you can still use normal snail mail.”

He noted that the regular mail is inexpensive and easy to use, and that packages containing their working discs arrived in a couple of days, a comfortable margin for their unhurried schedule — although when finishing the album, they did use Federal Express a couple of times.

“Just to get it back and forth as quick as possible,” he said. “It saved a day.”

Thursday, November 04, 2004


It is depressing to look at an electoral college map, with its stark red-blue division — mostly red, making a passage from Massachusetts to California seem much like a trip from the Shire to Rivendell by way of Mordor.

It gets a little better if you look at a county-by-county breakdown, such as The Boston Globe did, where you can see patches of blue, counties huddled together for strength, even amid the blood red of Texas, Alabama and Mississippi.

Now that the election’s over, though, it may help us noble losers to blur the lines even further. Never mind the binary division of the electoral vote, the brittle lines of the county-by-county chart. Forget razor-wired red and blue entirely and instead blend the colors by percentage, making much of the country a somewhat pleasant purple, albeit one with, state by state, more of a red hue.

In this election, there were many states divided by presidential vote by around 20 percentage points, but less than a fifth of the country was more divided, about nine states ranging from Kansas (a 26 percentage point difference) to Utah (a 44 percentage point difference). (Oh, and the District of Columbia, whose three electoral college votes went Democratic in a striking 81 percentage point split.)

We are more alike, or at least more evenly divided, than a look at the electoral college map suggests. While it’s valuable to acknowledge the divisions, especially county by county, it’s vital that we remember too that we share the same space. The borders aren’t quite so solid.


Wednesday, November 03, 2004


My hopes were that the next four years would bring more civility to our political process. With George Bush’s acceptance speech, those hopes are all but gone.

When appointed president four years ago, Bush’s lack of mandate and hints of bipartisanship as governor of Texas — added to his own claims to be humble in foreign policy, “a uniter, not a divider” and “a compassionate conservative” — had the nation thinking the bruising politics of the Clinton years would be put behind us. Bush spat on that.

Democratic anger was already high after the irresponsible Republican cruelties of those years, from rumors about Vince Foster being murdered to a $50 million-plus real estate investigation that wound up impeaching Clinton for having an affair. Had the Bush-Gore fight been decided in a nonpartisan way, possibly producing a President Gore, that anger would have dissipated, but Republicans have long since given up being fair fighters, reasonable losers or gracious winners. They will do anything to win a race, while Democrats are steeped in plurality; it’s against their nature, in general, to launch an attack like that of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

And Republicans are the ones claiming the moral high ground, and getting away with it, because Americans are strange. A slim majority perceive themselves simultaneously as underdogs and as the paragons of humankind. They are angered by others being angered by U.S. anger. They are scared by others being scared of them. They think they’re smart for rejecting intelligence. They mistake entertainment for facts, facts for lies and lies for entertainment.

And for another four years, in the eyes of the world, Democrats are lumped in with them, for reasons venal and mystifying, distressing and appalling.

As I say, I’ve all but given up on healing. It’s unclear why a Republican sweep would create it, when the tenuousness of 2000 didn’t.

What I was going to say instead is that for the race four years from now, all I’m looking for is a fairer fight.

For instance, let’s hold real debates. The candidates should speak to each other; moderators should be allowed to correct candidates’ inaccuracies and note their lies; when citizens ask questions, they should feel empowered to remind the candidates they haven’t answered.

But after that, I come up empty. The fight isn’t going to be fair, because — again — the Republicans know what they have to do to win, and they do it without compunction. Democrats can’t do it because they’d become as bad as the Republicans. All they can do is hope that something happens in the next four years to convince people that the Republican way is wrong, but that would mean horror and misery, and what good person can hope for that? Not to mention the danger inherent in that gamble: that things don’t become so bad that we can’t find our way back. Democratic anger is impotent.

That brings me back to hoping, including for more civility in our public process. Back to the beginning.

Back to hopelessness.


The Kerry-Edwards campaign isn’t conceding.


It’s been a horrible night, in the truest sense of the word. I’ve felt horror. Despair.

And now I feel a moment of gratitude, almost a moment of grace, and I wish I could shake the hands of my candidates and simply tell them, “Thank you for not giving up. Thank you for fighting.”

America deserves it — certainly the half that voted Democratic this year, and the half that did so in 2000, surrendering too easily and finding only a betrayal of bipartisanship, an assumption of an absent mandate. Because of that betrayal, our half knows it has nothing at all to gain by conceding. And everything to lose.

So I would add to my thanks to the Democratic candidates, “Thank you for fighting honorably.”

And I would tell them, “Good night,” and hope for a better morning.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Graffiti is usually sadly preadolescent, with even attempted wit tending to stink of tired shtick, whether it’s suspiciously earnest homophobia or intellectualism. That’s the saddest: people sitting on a toilet proclaiming their heterosexuality when no one’s challenged it, somehow not recognizing how desperate it seems; and someone correcting their spelling, even though the chances are infinitesimal the first writer will see the corrections.

But at the Charlton rest stop on the way back from New York, I emerged from a toilet stall, I confess, charmed and amused, chuckling and eager to share the thoughts I’d found scrawled within. It could have been punchiness after so long on the road, or maybe just low expectations. But it worked.

On the door of my stall, in red: BOSTON RED SUCKS
Underneath, in smaller black writing: Yeah, they suck so much they won the World Series!

And by the toilet paper assembly, etched into areas freed by the scraping away of toothpaste-blue paint, in cramped and mild writing made funnier by its subversive modesty: Lesbians are awesome! And up and to the right: Gays suck dick! And, finally, lower and to the right again, the completion of an arc, the arch of an eyebrow, the culmination of a wide-open wink, the end of the rainbow: Fags are gay!

Interstate 90 eastbound. Farthest stall from the men’s room entrance. Visit quickly. It’s a transitory medium.

Monday, November 01, 2004


Unbelievably, a promo is running on Fox Television reassuring us that:

“The series that redefined a generation is back.”

It’s unbelievable because the promo is for “The O.C.,” which is returning for a second season of what is essentially a transplanted “Dawson’s Creek” with faux class consciousness. Somehow, this show, all one season of it so far, meaning all 27 episodes, has redefined a generation?

Probably only because this has become the generation that, until a year ago, had to watch something else Thursdays at 8 p.m. The promo’s claim falls into that numbing gap of things that seem like hyperbole but aren’t, like the claim that something will “change life as we know it,” when things are actually doing that constantly: “The O.C.” has changed life as we know it, for those who’ve heard of it, but so has the salad spinner, bubble tea and the fact that you can get stamps from an automated teller.

The line is even vague on which generation has been redefined. It’s possible, although unlikely, that it refers to the greatest generation, meaning those old enough to fight World War II. Its members may be shutting off televisions in disgust, for instance, earning redefinition from “the greatest generation” to “the generation that can’t stand the crap they have on television now.”

Of course it’s most likely the tagline refers to the youth of America, those watching and enjoying “The O.C.,” buying the first season on DVD, posting to or creating “O.C.” Web sites and listening to all three “O.C.” soundtrack albums, which implies that the show really has redefined a generation — as the generation that will O.D. on “The O.C.” and, in a year or so, move on to another redefinition.