Sunday, May 30, 2004


Providence presents itself well, at least in spring and summer, when brilliant landscapes and dramatic Waterfire events make one forget its ongoing corruption problems and the crack habit nibbling at the edges of its downtown.

But in keeping with my tradition of critiquing saplings to avoid the grandeur of a forest, I found one thing worth ribbing the city about (that is, aside from the cutesy references to being “downcity” as opposed to “downtown”): Where Westminster and Eddy streets meet, visitors will be thrilled to find a store conveniently combining the wares of Dress Barn and Dress Barn Woman -- which implies what? That plain ol’ Dress Barn is for men?

Actually, Dress Barn is for females and Dress Barn Woman is a coy way of marketing to the “plus-size market,” or females wearing sizes 14 to 24. But this doesn’t impress me, because I have a tendency to sneer at any commerce that sells the delicate and precious by transplanting it into the cold and industrial: The Cheesecake Factory. Lingerie Mart Warehouse. The Dress Barn.

It’s like, why not eat tonight at, you know, The Souffle Sweatshop?

Friday, May 28, 2004


The Federal Bureau of Investigation has put Adam Yahiye Gadahn, 25, at the top of its list of people suspected of helping terrorists commit mayhem around the world.

Gadahn is one of those lost boys who found himself in Islam -- that most gentle of religions, which he celebrated by, according to Orange County police, punching a mosque elder when he critiqued the kid’s work skills. An even better contradiction is from today’s New York Times, which passes on an image of Gadahn as “seeking a simpler and less materialistic life than he had found in California.”

That life was as a child of a goat farmer and carpenter who “lived an isolated life ... ‘off the grid,’ relatives said, seldom watching television or using a telephone.”

Kids! Never satisfied.

Thursday, May 27, 2004


Ah, academia. Thine contradictions shine down from thine ivory towers.

In this case, it’s about the Internet, where a Harvard employee’s blog has caused a bit of executive panic -- or is it just payback? -- with its cartoonish threats of violence. (“I am one shade lighter than homicidal today. I am 2 snotty emails from professors away from bombing the entire Harvard campus” being one of the suddenly more infamous postings of the employee, Amy Norah Burch.)

It’s hard to take such threats seriously, especially when you catch the tone of the fun Web site -- -- through which the blog is reached.

Since it’s unlikely even the most literal-minded Harvard academic could take the threats seriously, payback is the obvious motivation behind Burch’s firing. Check out this extended, and hilarious, rant:

I Officially despise my stupid job now. I hate it more than anything. It is driving me crazy. I just don't give a shit about it on any level. I've been looking for a new job for a while now, but I'm going to triple my search efforts. I cannot work for those losers anymore. Anya with her random freaking out, Sarah with her anal retentive control freakishness, the stupid professors who think they are so important there is no need to follow little simple instructions to make my life easier... I swear, someday I'm going to find every single Senior Faculty member and force them to take a test-- one that in all their learned, educated smartness, they will be sure to fail. It will involve loading a stapler, following some simple instructions, like writing 5 sentences about something, printing it out, and putting their name on it. I bet none of them would be able to do it. Just FOLLOW THE GODDAMN INSTRUCTIONS, PEOPLE! IT'S REALLY NOT THAT HARD! Oh yeah. The clincher is that they'd have to do it all by a certain deadline, and they would get points deducted for every minute it was late.

Grrr. My stupid job makes me want to club baby seals to death with severed pony legs.

Burch advertised her blog, so it was inevitable this stuff would get out, but there’s a long and honored history of people hating their bosses -- and bosses knowing it. Burch’s blog is being used as an excuse to fire her, and one no less dishonorable than reading someone’s diary, even if it’s left lying around.

It is sad to see an institution such as Harvard seize upon dubious threats of violence as cause for firing, considering the school’s combined intellectual capacity. But there’s an oddly funny coda to the story in its appearance in The Harvard Crimson, a daily newspaper with a good Web presence put out by the technology-savvy young geniuses at the school.

The tech-savvy young geniuses used the headline “Online Weblog Leads To Firing” -- you know, as opposed to all the Weblogs being created somewhere other than the World Wide Web.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004


Christian groups are predictably freaking out over MTV’s plans to start a cable-television channel for gays and lesbians. The Traditional Values Coalition is mounting a boycott of anyone who might advertise on the channel, which will be called Logo, The New York Times reports.

“Madison Avenue has gone amok,” said the coalition’s leader, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, and some person over at Focus on the Family warned, also predictably, that Logo will seduce children into the gay lifestyle. “I really am sad and fearful for these kids who are going to want to be as happy and as happy-go-lucky as Will is on ‘Will and Grace,’” said the guy, Mike Healey.

Healey, who says he was gay for 12 years, did not disclose what television show it was he watched that made him so.

As sad and fearful as anyone is when faced with the possibility that kids will want to be happy or even happy-go-lucky, it is difficult to take the Christians’ consternation seriously. Logo will be on cable, for one thing, and religious programming — primarily Christian — has long had a home in most markets on free TV.

Frequently, religious programming is one of the few channels to come in without an antenna, so anyone can watch its tedious tales of redemption and miracles, and usually for 24 hours a day. Yet you rarely hear atheists, or gays, for that matter, getting worked up over children being seduced by TV into a Christian lifestyle.

Healey’s full quote, for the record, includes fears for “a kid who is looking to fit in, and here you have a network that looks very inviting, very accepting, and this young kid is going to get a false representation of what homosexuality has to offer.”

Any kid who becomes gay because he wants to fit in pretty much gets what he deserves.

The same goes for any kid who becomes a Christian for the same reason. But isn’t it odd that Christians consider the gay lifestyle to be so much more seductive than theirs?

Tuesday, May 25, 2004


From the speech President Bush gave last night at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.:

The swift removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime last spring had an unintended effect. Instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, some of Saddam’s elite guards shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population.

These elements of Saddam’s repressive regime and secret police have reorganized, rearmed and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics. They’ve linked up with foreign fighters and terrorists. In a few cities, extremists have tried to sow chaos and seize regional power for themselves.

Unintended? It’s like saying a loud noise is an unintended effect of blowing something up.


Back trouble has frozen my body into an unnatural shape, bent at the spine, and, horrifyingly, I can feel it protesting. There is growing tension midback on the left, just below the shoulder blade. The lower back on the right is creased with dull pain.

Fortunately, Tufts-New England Medical Center has sprung to my aid, immediately setting up an appointment with the doctor who will save me from this.

For two weeks from now.

In the meantime, I have giant ibuprofen to shrink whatever it is putting pressure on my nerve and a muscle relaxant to take when I go to sleep. Since I don’t like taking drugs, though, I couldn’t resist sneaking up to my future doctor’s office to petition for an earlier visit. Like, today. Like, now.

But the receptionists were like, no way.

“Two weeks is good,” they told me. “Usually people have to wait a month to get seen.”

“A month?” I asked bitterly, picturing myself gnarled and palsied. “What happens to the patients during that month?”

The good news is that the receptionists called a couple of hours later to offer me time with another doctor -- tomorrow. (Mysteriously, this doctor had two openings in one day, which repeats an experience I had last time I was medically needy: It’s absolutely, without question, impossible to get you in quickly. But we happen to have times available now and now and now and now and now and now.)

Monday, May 24, 2004


My back has sent me into what I hope is a health crisis, because crises are short by nature, and I can’t take too much of this -- partly because back problems bring interaction with doctors, which brings doctor problems. These started immediately.

The receptionist asked me whether I was calling for a “physical or a follow-up.”

I told her I didn’t understand the question. So of course she repeated it.

“It’s not a physical or a follow-up,” I said. “This is a new emergency, a new problem.”

She explained that “anything that’s not a physical is a follow-up.”

To her credit, she sounded slightly embarrassed saying it, but to me the explanation was the sound of doom -- the same prolonged, harrying buzz that accompanied the 30-second diagnosis giving me arthritis when I really had flat feet, or that sent me off to a pain-management center that tried to delay treating my pain as long as possible.

I’m not looking forward to this.

Saturday, May 22, 2004


So teenagers are having less unprotected sex and drinking and smoking less. Good for them, right? But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say those risky behaviors have been replaced by “obesity, poor diet and a lack of exercise.”

For God’s sake, kids. That’s no tradeoff. Get with it.

Friday, May 21, 2004


Work began this week on improvements to street-level elements of the Porter Square T stop, the beginning of not-dramatic-enough changes to the square itself. Typical of Porter (which is also getting -- brace yourself -- a Radio Shack), the changes are more about traffic patterns than making Porter a destination rather than an efficient way to run errands. The thought must be: Why bother, when Davis and Harvard are so close?

To get a sense of the tragic low expectations of Porter Square, my home, compare its Web site with that of Harvard Square or even Central Square.

Oh, God, it’s so embarrassing. The last update appears to be from some time last summer.

Thursday, May 20, 2004


Cambridge has been annexed by The Improper Bostonian in its “30 Reasons Why We Love Boston,” a list that includes Harvard Square.

Before you start whining that Harvard Square is in Cambridge, not Boston, the piece reads, let’s get one thing straight: Cambridge is just an outcropping of Boston. In fact, when Harvard was founded, the area surrounding it was referred to simply as “the new land” until -- lacking a sense of urgency or originality -- our forefathers named the land for an English university town and were done with it.

Having spent about a third of the text justifying their decision, the Improper editors go on to extol the delights of the square, summing up that “It’s still got the funk.”

Thanks. But the compliments are backhanded and inspire biting, especially since the Improper is abusing history in its desperation to justify the inclusion. Cambridge had the name “Newtowne,” not the general description “the new land,” when Harvard was founded, so there was no urgency to change it. It’s not like the villagers were just moping around for eight years, fitfully trying to come up with a name but failing through lack of stick-to-itiveness.

Further, the city was not and is not an outcropping of Boston (which was eight miles away when Cambridge was founded, so even the geological metaphor doesn’t work) and calling it one is about as meaningful as calling Somerville an outcropping of Cambridge.

If pointing out a geographical or historical inaccuracy is “whining,” certainly the editors of The Improper Bostonian would reject this philosophical objection as well. So be it. But if they’re going to hang out in Boston’s Harvard Square, I’m going to abandon it for Cambridge’s Davis Square.

If that keeps up, pretty soon they’ll find themselves not so welcome in Quincy’s Copley Square.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004


In the parking lot of the CVS in Belmont’s Cushing Square. Eleven in the morning. A dark green Mitsubishi Eclipse -- flashy, low to the ground. A look-at-me car. A bumper sticker, white on black: HONK TWICE IF YOU WANT TO FUCK! Parked in a handicapped space.

Getting a ticket.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004


Now that the stock market is generally rising and there's been several months of job creation, the country is finally pessimistic about the economy, even panicking at the first hint of inflation.

Bizarre, I thought, until reminded that the price of gasoline is well above $2 a gallon -- and suddenly this seems to be the only factor that counts. I was slow to catch on because I don't drive; while I notice the high prices, it's with the same distant alarm with which I notice cigarette smokers coughing.

The timing is still counterintuitive, as there are certainly other economic indicators to be considered. By now, everyone knows that when gas prices rise, it's possible to beat it back through conservation. For instance, buying something other than a sport utility vehicle to drive. Indeed, although most media reports on gas costs show drivers plan to keep buying, The New York Times has reported that sales of the Hummer are lagging badly.

It's a start, I suppose, but there's no getting around the fact that when the economy picks up is a stupid time to start getting cynical. Numbers on Iraq are only dropping now that things are obviously bad, so why the divergence in reaction on the nation's fiscal health?

Probably the same wrong-headed groupthink that has the nation terrified of tax-and-spend liberals and believing that Republicans are strict guardians of the public pocketbook.

That's why, depressingly, as President Bush's numbers on the economy and Iraq plummet, I grow increasingly convinced that the idiot will be re-elected. This is not an electorate on which one can count for sound reasoning.

Monday, May 17, 2004


Cambridge’s Forrester Research says the offshoring of jobs to lower-wage countries is accelerating -- 830,000 jobs gone by 2005, a 40 percent jump from its projections last year.

The jobs are no longer just technology related, but growing to include white-collar stuff: research and accounting and such.

But the long-term numbers haven’t changed significantly, the company points out. About 3.4 million jobs will be gone to India and such counties by 2016, rather than the 3.3 million it predicted in its last report.

That is a relief. Regardless, it may make sense to move to India, China, Brazil and whatnot to look for work after 2015. You won’t get paid as much as you would working in the states, but at least you’ll be working.

Sunday, May 16, 2004


The cliche is that if you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart, but if you’re still a liberal when you’re 50, you have no brain.

Nonsense. Today I celebrate my father, who remains a thoughtful and brainy liberal despite having just turned 71.

When I was a child he experimented with alternative lifestyles in a 1970s way and lived social justice in a 1960s way, and he led us to nudist parks as well as kept us on our block in Gardena when all the other white families had fled.

Now he quietly blasts the conservatives and votes accordingly, resisting the urges that lead the comfortable to ensure their own comfort at, inevitably, the cost of others. His retirement (from aerospace, of all illiberal things) brought him back to performing magic, but instead of hanging around at The Magic Castle swilling cocktails he drives weekly to a hospital to do magic as therapy for patients -- getting neurons to fire and synapses connect in the heads of the hurt and recovering.

Instead of calcifying, my father’s getting more flexible. He recently healed tremendous personal rifts through tremendous effort, which surely demanded him to question and modify deeply ingrained behavior. His appetites, including an addiction to smoking, threatened his life decades ago, but only recently he beat those, too. These things needed strength and a willingness to question the order of things, include others and see behind emotional traps that I think of as being, in the best sense, liberal traits.

As a child, of course, I was unable to appreciate those traits, or at least their precursors, as I had no context. As an adult, I appreciate those things immensely, with no shortage of envy.

Saturday, May 15, 2004


A line I still can’t shake from yesterday’s New York Times:

As Mr. Berg screamed, the man believed to be Mr. Zarqawi put a knife to his neck as others yelled, “God is Great!”

Because God loves a beheading. Especially of an innocent.

Friday, May 14, 2004


Recent visits to Chinese restaurants present great mysteries:

First, what happened to hot mustard? I remember quite clearly visiting fancier Chinese restaurants in my youth (fancier meaning a stab at exoticism, overwhelming red, thick menus with tassels and gaudy, gold-plated decor) and being served delicate little platters of a sweet red sauce and hot mustard arranged in a culinary yin-yang. The red sauce was a waste; our table would lunge for the mustard, quickly depleting it and just as quickly asking for more. This was given grudgingly, again with the red sauce, throughout the meal until the waiters finally gave up and brought an entire dish or two of the yellow. Inevitably, we would be finishing by then and leave the small platters virtually untouched, which surely had them gnashing their teeth at the servers’ station.

The mustard still comes with dim sum, and they still are stingy with it. But it has been years since I’ve been treated to the more-mustard-please ritual at lunch and dinner, although almost everything else about these sumptuous Chinese restaurants remains. (Except for those red-speckled almond cookies, but I shrug off their disappearance as an economic consideration. I’m guessing fortune cookies are cheaper and more, um, fun. But there was a time, children, when at the end of a Chinese meal you got both kinds of cookies!)

The second mystery involves white rice. It’s parceled out with such stinginess at Asian restaurants that one would almost suspect it was worth something, rather than being the staple food of 67 percent of the Earth’s population, much of it impoverished. Dinner a few hours ago was $26 for a single plate of food (honey-glazed walnut jumbo shrimp), a glass of merlot and rice for two, and I suspect it was the rice that was priced obscenely. If the shrimp hadn’t been so good, perhaps I’d have been paying more attention to the fact that my wallet was being raped.

I’ve been told that in Asian nations, rice is the main dish and the meats, sauces, vegetables and so on are frills offered to soften the hard fact that you’re having rice again, as you have every day, for every meal, for your entire life. Here it’s the other way around, in an insupportably frustrating way, but it points out far removed from China our Chinese food is.

Fortune cookies were invented in Los Angeles in the early 1900s and apparently are still unpopular in China. (A wise people.) General Tso’s chicken was probably invented in the 1970s in New York. Chop suey at least stretches back to the 1800s, but was still first made in the United States.

I’d give them all up for some damn rice. And some hot mustard.

And maybe some more honey-glazed walnut jumbo shrimp.

Hmm. I’m hungry again.

Thursday, May 13, 2004


I could have sworn that a few minutes ago FOX-25 flashed an ad onscreen for its nightly news that said, among other things, it had “serious reporting.”

This is kind of sad, like a restaurant offering “edible food,” and not the first time Fox has gotten a little silly with its commercials. The last time I paid attention, which is admittedly years ago, the ads were touting “Fox undercover,” with images of reporter Michael Beaudet (a fellow Emersonian!) chasing after people with camera and microphone and asking incisive questions. (“When did you stop beating your wife?” being the tone.)

When the Boston Herald had a union demonstration and a Fox camera crew showed up to cover it, I asked its members, in a manner full of fellowship and good cheer, whether they would speak to their higher-ups about the ads. They were unsure what I meant.

“Well, you see him running around with a microphone,” I said. “That’s not undercover.”

“It’s investigative reporting,” they said, a little testily.

“Sure, but investigative, undercover — not synonymous,” I said.

I can’t remember where the conversation went from there. It went nowhere good.

But it proves one thing: Fox really does have “serious reporting.” Very serious, indeed. No sense of humor at all.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004


This is what I’ve been trying to tell everyone.

Monday, May 10, 2004


The tanning salon in the Porter Exchange advertises its services, at least on one poster, as “heliotherapy” -- which is used to treat what? Morbid lack of skin cancer? But this self-serving pseudoscientific phrase is used all over by the tanning industry.

“Of course you love the way you look with a beautiful tan, but did you know that regular exposure to UV light could help you live a longer, healthier life?” one Web site asks. “It is recognized that sunburn and long-term UV-overexposure can cause premature aging of the skin and skin cancer. However, there is no proof that moderate tanning is harmful.”

Nor is there, unfortunately, proof that there is such a thing as moderate tanning.

Still, better heliotherapy than paleontology, right?

Sunday, May 09, 2004


The abuses at Abu Ghraib reminded my brother of the experiment in which subjects were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards. The experiment, held at Stanford University in 1973, became so brutal and ugly so quickly that it was called off after six days, rather than the two weeks it was intended to last.

The lead scientist, Philip Zimbardo, said “it had passed beyond the point of being an experiment -- it had, in fact, become a prison for all of the participants, even the experimenters,” according to Raven & Rubin’s second-edition Social Psychology text.

Here’s an overview of the experiment. Here’s Zimbardo’s own, lengthier account.

Saturday, May 08, 2004


The Methodists who want to split the church over gay rights must work harder. The church’s General Conference voted 869-41 yesterday against splitting, The New York Times says, but the conservatives are going to keep trying for divorce.

“They say the church is so deeply divided over homosexuality that the ‘covenant’ that holds it together has already been broken,” the Times reports.

Deeply divided, yes. Like a pitcher’s mound in Kansas towers over the rest of the state.

Friday, May 07, 2004


The United Methodist Church is looking a little less united, The New York Times says, with conservative members gathering votes for an eventual split over the inclusion of homosexual parishioners.

The last time the church split was “over slavery in 1844, but [it] reunited in 1939.” One would think that would tell the conservatives something, but it means nothing to such members as the Rev. Dr. William Hinson, who wants the schism.

“There is a great gulf fixed between those of us who are centered on Scripture and our friends who are of another persuasion. Repeatedly they have spoken of the need to get our church in step with our culture. We, on the other hand, have no desire to be the chaplain to an increasingly godless society,” he said.

The first comment is interesting, considering he’s talking about fellow church members and worshipers. The second is odd, considering he appears to be closing the door to Methodism.

Thursday, May 06, 2004


Who could believe we were God’s chosen? Those swarthy heathens in Iraq seem to be besting us in public relations as well as in the battle over Iraq and its people’s hearts and minds. While the world recoils at U.S. and British treatment of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, the Iraqis prove themselves more clever. Compare the Army’s investigation of prisoner abuse, for instance, with this text from The Associated Press about Thomas Hamill, the American held hostage for about a month in Iraq and recently found in good health:

Hamill was shot in the arm and struck in the head with a rifle butt when his convoy was ambushed on April 9. He underwent surgery that cleaned away dead tissue after about a week in captivity, though it’s unclear whether he was taken to a clinic or a doctor came to him, [a U.S. doctor] told reporters. His bandages were changed daily and he got antibiotics.

His English-speaking captors initially “left him with some water and a couple packages of cookies,”
[the doctor] said. “He did say he was fed regularly.”

No beatings reported. No sexual humiliation. No torture -- even though it’s doubtful the Iraqi captors had extensive training in the rules of the Geneva Convention, which so far has been the primary lame excuse offered by this country for the actions of its soldiers.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004


The Broadway T stop isn’t striking in art or architecture and only notable geographically because it’s the gateway to South Boston -- area Irish flock to it annually to provide a harbinger of spring: slightly skanky girls underdressed for persistent cold in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Figuring illicit beer will keep them warm.

Behind an anonymous side door in the unremarkable station, though, a hint of horror: On the dark far wall of an access tunnel, an unprettified, ill-lit area of dank concrete, someone has painted in rough white: “YOU’VE BEEN RAPED.”

The ramp’s ugliness is mildly disturbing, revealing the white-tiled walls and efficient escalators as a facade. But the painted message is oddly powerful, and I would not want to walk into darkness to be confronted by it. The rape could be metaphorical, certainly, even a union complaint, but its anger is obvious.

These reminders keep popping up. The “Stop rape” spray painted on Porter Square construction, now poorly painted over, or the “Rape happens at Harvard” button on a purse seen whisked into the crowd at the Harvard Square T stop. Jarring, briskly tragic hints. Fury imposed on functionality, behind a facade.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004


To ease back into blogging, I’ll see whether everyone followed my advice about using the Misanthropicity links. If not, go back and read a bit of Waterbones, which has been brilliant lately, albeit for tragic reasons, and 3Jake, which continues to delight and surprise. For purposes of illustration, I’ll even steal some 3Jake on her job as high school guidance counselor and source of cheap candy:

When boys get dumped it hits hard. Really hard. Even though the girls are the ones that cry the loudest and the longest -- the boys just sit and look at you. They feel utterly alone and have no idea what to do. They don’t understand why. They don’t understand how. They don’t eat candy. They just stare. Until at some point, they just nod and leave your office. I wish that I knew how to help the boys more. I wish they would eat more candy.

The best thing I can post now is this orange line sign seen Sunday returning from a party in Jamaica Plain. (The party included a trip to Triple D’s bar that was notably bookended by one person carrying in a contraband can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and another, acting independently, carrying out a glass of merlot.) Having been taken in twice in the recent past by viral marketing cons about the paranormal, this is all the more remarkable for being real:

Harvard brain study at the VA Medical Center

Do you believe you have ESP, telepathy, or a “sixth sense”? Do you have anxiety or discomfort in situations with unfamiliar people? Do you have few close friends? Do you mistake noises for voices?

A Harvard Medical School study seeks right-handed people, ages 18-55, fitting this description for a study concerned with personality traits and brain function. For more information, call (617) 232-9500 x 5621.