Wednesday, June 30, 2004


It’s pointless to get too deeply into the U.S. Court of Appeals decision today against Massachusetts and in favor of Microsoft. The battle is lost and the war may be over, and I’m a little late to add anything unique anyway.

The problem with Microsoft, of course, is that it controls more than 90 percent of the computers on the planet, and probably some of the computers elsewhere. That sounds suspiciously close to monopoly, the existence of which runs contrary to common sense and U.S. policy. For anyone who’s heard the cliche about not putting all your eggs in one basket, our reliance on Microsoft is kind of like putting more than 90 percent of eggs worldwide in the same basket -- except that the basket is made of crepe paper and already has many, many rips and tears.

Massachusetts’ allies against Microsoft have dropped away, some of them bought off. I see now that West Virginia has joined the sellouts, trading its anti-monopoly efforts for $20 million in vouchers for Microsoft computers and software.

So the penalty for being a monopoly is giving away $20 million more of your own products? Flooding the market further with the stuff that has already made competition difficult in the extreme?

As punishments go, it’s like getting punched by someone disgusted that you’re a masochist.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004


Seeing “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” this past weekend was a strong delineation of the difference between competence and artistry -- a valuable lesson for those convinced that “I can do that.”

People have always said “I can do that” or “my kid could do that,” often when looking at modern art. Technological advances, alas, have allowed them to follow through on these threats. Desktop publishing let everyone be graphic designers or news magnates. Now computer graphics programs, digital video editing and DVD burners are turning everyone’s children into auteurs. Recent print-on-demand progress gives the same everyones, especially those in New Jersey, the ability to walk into a store with a disk and walk out with an ISBN, 10 copies of a book and a $150 hole in their pocket. Soon those books will be stored on the Internet for downloading and printing, one at a time, from anywhere in the world. Then, truly, will everyone be a published author, just like everyone I know, among them this guy, that chick or the other person.

But should everyone be able to create whatever they want? In the United States, the first instinct is to say, “Yes, of course, with certain exceptions in the medical and munitions fields.” That’s what freedom means, we think. But some wild-card strain of Mencken elitism should assert itself from our collective DNA to rescue us from the hell of endless amateurism, although it is not difficult now to find examples of even top-paid professionals in various fields who’d do well to retire and spare us their mediocrity. Let the Salieris stay home, leaving the public its Mozarts.

Among the Mozarts is director Alfonso Cuaron, whose work on the third Harry Potter film revealed Chris Columbus’ work on the first two to be agonizing hack work -- so bad that “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” watched in preparation for “Azkaban,” remains the only DVD I’ve ever rented for which I could not bring myself to watch the deleted scenes. The movie was so dull and artificial that merely ejecting it from my player was a relief. Watching it made me feel dirty. Like the first film, it suck-diddily-ucked. Cuaron’s Harry Potter was something of a revelation, though, dark and wonderful.

In short, Cuaron is a director. Columbus has been allowed to direct through a combination of low expectations and good connections. (Although I enjoyed “Adventures in Babysitting” in a cheesy way.)

I first learned the Salieri lesson years ago trying to eat at Tacos Lupita in Somerville. It was closed that day, so our group traveled on to Union Square to try a new Mexican eatery we’d spotted. The atmosphere there was very basic, like Tacos Lupita, and the food was uninspired -- unlike Tacos Lupita, whose solid, savory dishes work the kind of transformative magic native to all good cooking, with every ingredient soloing in harmony. Like Columbus and Cuaron, it is possible to take the same basic ingredients, whether it’s a novel or beans, rice and guacamole, and reveal that some people can synthesize it into something incredible while others will just make a bland mush.

As a further example, the pictures I take with my digital camera range from mediocre to awful, and I acknowledge sadly that an actual photographer, as in someone with the skill to do it for a living, could use it, or a box with a hole in it, or possibly a fish and a paper clip, to make photos ranging from fantastic to brilliant.

There are artists out there. For the rest of us, it may be the most noble thing to recognize that we are not artists -- and let the others take the lead on such things as directing films, cooking or photography.

Applying this philosophy raises significant questions about this blog, of course, but at least I’m not taking food off the table of professional bloggers, or even inflicting it on the unsuspecting for money.

Monday, June 28, 2004


Health maintenance organizations, never at the top of the warm-and-cuddly list, dropped a few notches with a comment in today’s Boston Herald:

HMO leaders say, however, they only make decisions about whether to pay for care, they don’t deny it.

The context is the recent Supreme Court decision against patients suing the organizations for denying care, which prompted the Boston Herald to write about Massachusetts’ appeals process, which takes place when treatment is requested, rather than when it’s too late and denied care has resulted in damage of some kind.

The comment by HMO leaders hints that they can’t be responsible for damage resulting from denied care, because the patient is always free to get care on their own. This is ridiculous, since direct-payer health care is generally possible only for the very wealthy -- or for the kind of care unlikely to bring on a lawsuit or even an appeal.

This is similar to the story over at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to someone trying desperately to get out of the country for a funeral and ensure the right to return. What was needed was “emergency advance parole,” but this was complicated by a document missing because of an agency mistake.

Two workers there gave the same asinine answer to the distraught immigrant: Go ahead and leave! Then just ask to get back in. That way you don’t have to worry about the document, see. No problem.

Of course, it’s no more reassuring to hear that from an agency that’s retired an active file than it is to be told by HMO officials that patients should go ahead and pay for a procedure expensive enough that insurers don’t want to pay for it.

Even the appeals process has a built-in contradiction, also not noted in the Herald piece: The burden of paperwork and effort falls on the patient, who are by necessity sick and vulnerable, and HMO doctors, who are already pressed for time, forced into “seeing thousands of patients a year to survive, and the result is hamster care, or treadmill medicine,” according to Jack Lewin, head of the California Medical Association, in a recent Knight-Ridder chain article. An internist in the same article broke that down as being more than 30 patients a day.

HMO leaders, of course, don’t insist they see that many patients. They can choose not to and see their practices fail. Although, come to think of it, health maintenance organizations don’t have to deny care to patients or pay doctors so little. They can do the opposite and see revenue plummet.

A very freeing philosophy, even if it is very expensive.

Friday, June 25, 2004


The First National Bank of Ipswich is expanding rapidly. It has 12 branches, having opened one in Beverly this month, less than two months after opening its sole Cambridge branch here in Galvin Square. Next up is Portsmouth, N.H.

How is this possible, if the people running the bank -- and handling calls at its flagship in Ipswich -- are irredeemable idiots?

The Cambridge site replaced a branch of the Atlantic Bank of New York, which obviously failed to get much traction here. While Ipswich at least is in the same state, it is hard to see how it will gain any more traction by creating outposts 25.13 miles from the nearest related bank without being part of a larger automated teller network. Surely anyone seeking a new bank will be put off by the notion that all their transactions must take place at one site without incurring surcharges of up to $2.50 anywhere else. Giants such as Bank of America attract customers by scattering around thousands of their own automated tellers -- in some areas, one every couple of blocks -- that can be used for free. Smaller banks have grouped together in the SUM Program, agreeing to forgo surcharges for each other to compete with giant closed networks such as Bank of America’s.

Ipswich, though, is going it alone, which is fine for anyone living and banking on the North Shore, since Ipswich, Beverly, Essex, Gloucester, Newburyport, Rowley and Topsfield are fairly close together, and anyone running out of money at 2 a.m. is likely to be within easy driving distance of a free recharge. But a Bank of Ipswich customer in the Cambridge area is going to be within easy walking or driving distance only of a $1 surcharge from Cambridge Savings Bank or $1.50 or more elsewhere; SUM doesn’t cut any breaks for nonmembers.

One wonders what Ipswich offers to make up for this lack and stand out from the other small banks in the area, including Cambridge Savings Bank, Cambridge Trust Co., East Savings Bank and Wainwright Bank & Trust, even Citizen’s -- in fact, 14 financial institutions speckling this 6.4-square mile land mass with 36 SUM Program automated tellers.

I called Ipswich’s home office to have someone explain it. To establish a groundwork for the question, I first asked the woman who answered the phone whether Ipswich was a SUM Program member (as is even its competitor, the Ipswich Cooperative Bank).

She didn’t know what the program was, so I explained it. She cut me off to tell me she wasn’t authorized to deal with salesmen. I told her I wasn’t a salesman. She told me to wait while she asked another worker how to answer my question.

I heard her speak to someone briefly, then come back on the line.

“I don’t have that information, and I can’t put your call through,” she said.

And she hung up.

Thursday, June 24, 2004


I have never spoken about this before.

I was silent out of fear of being thought insane, because it’s so obvious an observation that, well, if no one else was saying it, it must be because my perceptions are completely out of whack. It goes beyond asserting something such as “Proust sucks,” which may reveal one as simple but sane, I thought, all the way to the San Andreas Fault-shaky grounds of saying such things as “The writing on ‘Full House’ was genius, especially compared with that Proust crap.”

But I can be silent no more.

Here goes:

The phrase “in order to” is useless. I have never seen an instance in which it could not be simply “to.” For instance, “The first lady lies in order to make the president look ... stupid?” could be, instead, “The first lady lies to make the president look ... stupid?” or, even more economically, “The first lady is the undead.”

There. I’ve said it. I feel better. Perhaps soon I will discuss some of my favorite transitions: “Still,” “however” and, ugh, “For his part ...”

Wednesday, June 23, 2004


Anyone who reads this site regularly knows how much it relies on The New York Times as source material and as inspiration to write. It’s because the Times is comprehensive, yes, but not necessarily because it’s brilliant; it’s just that reading the Times every day leaves little time for reading much else.

Well, the Times has inspired another posting. It’s even providing the source material. Unfortunately, it’s a speculative piece that could have been called (if I didn’t want to spoil the surprise) “Is The New York Times put together by idiots?”

Thanks to the miracle of packaging, and synchronicity, the Times today gives us partners in appalling on page A12 -- “State Department Report Shows Increase in Terrorism” and “Book by C.I.A. Officer Says U.S. Is Losing Fight Against Terrorism” -- and, for dark comic relief, dual dryly witty headlines on page A11 -- “Wolfowitz Testifies Pentagon Misjudged Iraqi Insurgency” and “Seoul Says Killing Won’t Alter Plans for Iraq.” (Actually, that last one is only funny out of context, but it’s sure fun to play with: “Seoul Says Plans Won’t Alter Killing For Iraq”; “Seoul Says Won’t Alter Killing For Iraq Plans”; “Seoul Says Won’t Alter Plans For Iraq Killing”; et cetera.)

There is also page A15, with “Toxic Release Increase In 2002, Study Says” and “Kerry’s Long Flight To Say ‘Aye’ Runs Into a Storm of GOP Delays.”

What’s the match, you ask? Fumbled stories. Missed opportunities. The worst tendency in journalism -- to raise questions by dutifully getting each side’s version of reality then end the article without analysis, leaving the reader to wallow in uncertainty.

In the “Toxic Release” story, officials say an increase in emissions is mostly due to “one large copper-smelting operation in Arizona” and mining operations that “should not be, according to a 2003 Federal District Court decision,” included in the figures. Environmentalists say that, in fact, emissions of dangerous materials are underreported, so the problem is actually far worse than the report says, copper-smelting in Arizona or federal court decisions be damned. In response, a U.S. environmental official says her agency “had seen no evidence of systematic underreporting.” A refinery official also criticizes the environmentalists. Five paragraphs later, the story ends.

There is no examination of what the environmentalists say, no explanation of their methodology, no suggestion of the validity of their statements.


The John Kerry story is about the presidential candidate flying in for a U.S. Senate vote on veterans health care, only to find the vote put off by, as the headline says, “G.O.P. Delays.” In the last paragraph of this 16-paragraph story, Sen. Tom Daschle states his belief that Republicans delayed the vote just to frustrate Kerry. Then Sen. John Warner, a Republican, disagrees and says the vote was delayed by “procedural glitches.” Then the story ends.

At 24 inches of copy, one could reasonably wonder: If this issue is raised and ignored in the very last paragraph of the story, what the hell is the rest of the article about? Good question. It’s about whether Kerry bothers to show up for votes or not and how people feel about it across the the political spectrum (which includes the colors black and white).

The Times can spend a combined 41 inches on these stories and say a hell of a lot without actually saying anything -- sort of the journalistic equivalent of getting painstaking, turn-by-turn directions to an address and finding, when you finally get there, that whatever you were looking for has been removed. If you’re lucky, you can return and say you’ve found nothing, but chances are you’re just going to be told to try again tomorrow, with another painstaking, turn-by-turn set of directions.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004


Guilt. Massive guilt and shame. Yesterday’s posting was so pointless, such an exemplification of the worst of bloggerdom, that I am still shellshocked at my poor judgment. Tomorrow I will go to the hospital to get my palm removed from my forehead. The posting was the voice of a no one sniping at a Washington insider who will never hear the voice or be affected by it in any way over a glib comment reflecting a knee-jerk right-wing position no one actually cares about. Further, any of the four people reading the posting will probably agree with it, meaning I’m preaching to the choir. So what was the point of doing it?

You can probably guess: I needed to post, so I found something easy to write about. I’ve been erratic lately, not the paragon of consistency I was before the April hiatus, and yet sensitive to and resistant to the research showing that some huge number of blogs are quickly abandoned by their creators.

The spirit is gone, but the flesh is still here, typing. Going through the motions.

Where did the spirit go? Personal crises were a factor in its fleeing, but personal crises are almost always a copout, and certainly are in this case. Another factor is the process of deciding what to write about -- so as not to bore anyone -- producing self-consciousness, leading to fatal indecisiveness. Another: A warning was passed to me that my employers were aware of my blog and displeased with what I was writing about them and all our employer, the Boston Herald. Revealing just how low I’ve sunk into whoredom, I decided to, in exchange for a decent paycheck, abandon my First Amendment rights to moan, whine and complain. This led directly to the final factor in my lack of motivation, which can best be summed up as, well, lack of motivation.

Having more or less turned my life over to nonfiction, I suffer from being unable to write when there’s nothing to write about. Having paid too much attention to cybercynics, I all too often find myself asking “Who cares what I think?” and, fatally, “So why am I doing this?” My reasons, I’m afraid, don’t result in motivation, spirit or scintillating material. It’s not quite writer’s block, which people can’t get around. It’s more like writer’s tesseract, and I’m lost in it.

So I find myself compounding the horror. Not only am I writing about my inability to write, which is inevitably masturbatory and pathetic, but -- driven by a compulsion to post that is not quite obsessive enough to ensure high standards -- actually putting it online for all to cluck over as their hands creep, apologetically and awkwardly, to the touchpad in search of another, more entertaining, more meaningful link.

Monday, June 21, 2004


"Whatever disagreements you may have with President Bush on one issue or another," said Gary Bauer, head of the American Values group, in today's New York Times, "nobody can argue that he hasn't restored honor to the White House."

Another way to say that is that everybody can't argue that Bush has restored honor to the White House, and I would have to count myself among those who can't argue it. Bauer's comment is almost too silly to respond to -- and it would certainly be too tedious and pointless to try to dismantle it completely -- but he surely must be talking only about that particular and peculiar brand of honor practiced by today's conservatives.

For there is a great contingent that feels Bush has dishonored the White House in any number of ways, especially those who feel the president should be honest with his constituents about matters that affect them and do his best for them -- all of them. But this, too, is subjective and unprovable, like Bauer's comment, the point of which was to compare Bush's sober morality with Bill Clinton's easygoing adultery. (Was there something else? Or does the dishonor all come down to dallying with an intern?)

It's better to sidestep the argument entirely, which is made easy by recalling that Clinton was actually more popular than Ronald Reagan by one percentage point, on average, over the course of the two presidents' respective terms (another reference owed to the Times). What this shows is that, while Bush may have "restored honor to the White House," that isn't necessarily the most popular thing, or even the best thing, for America.

Saturday, June 19, 2004


In Hollywood, it’s not the lunatics running the asylum, but the janitors.

In other words, the mechanics of putting together and marketing movies -- editing and the “notes” given by studio execs to keep a story racing along, no matter what -- seem to be overwhelming the artistry of storytelling, if the use of the word “artistry” isn’t a little much for an industry best known for such things as Julia Roberts as a hooker, Freddie Prinze Jr. as anything and Sylvester Stallone’s entire output from 1984 to 1992.

Still, watching “Eight Legged Freaks” and “Hollywood Homicide” on DVD and “The Stepford Wives” in the theater in quick succession has made it clear that consistency, clarity and exposition are endangered in A-list Hollywood stuff, just as they always have been in the B-list, Ed Wood school of filmmaking. Count on the audience to fill in the gaps, or at least not to notice that there are gaps, and maybe -- if in a generous mood -- put the missing stuff in the “deleted scenes” when the DVD comes out.

That’s where you’ll find the pesky details in “Eight Legged Freaks,” the scary spider movie in which David Arquette meets the young son of the woman he loves but doesn’t know who he is -- and then somehow does. See the deleted scenes for how. And for plenty of other boring fill-in-the-details stuff that clearly got in the way of the movie’s frantic, slightly slap-happy pace. It’s not so much a DVD as it is an ADHD.

Don’t bother looking for any answers on the “Hollywood Homicide” DVD, though, as there are no deleted scenes. So the conspiracy haunting the hero police detectives throughout the movie, the connection between bad guys Lt. Bennie Macko and Leroy Wasley, who are in essentially different story lines, is never explained. The hero detective played by Harrison Ford is plagued by an internal affairs investigation, and there is clearly cause for the investigation, but the resolution to that question is forgotten in the rush to wrap up the story. Which is odd, since the 116-minute movie sure as hell wasn’t in a rush for its first 110 or so minutes.

As to “Stepford Wives,” what are the wives, other than peroxide? They’re referred to as robots, but when the bad guy explains how a Stepford wife is created, it involves implanting microchips into a woman’s brain. At one point Nicole Kidman looks down at a bald, eyeless body that, it’s implied, will replace her, but since she’s not replaced -- oops, just gave it away -- what is it she’s looking at? Especially since all the women become de-Stepford-ized -- oops, gave it away -- at the end of the movie and revert to their old selves? Apparently, the moment is worth the confusion, or the audience is intended to be so dazzled by the mastery of the filmmakers, which is generally not a safe bet to make on a Frank Oz film, that this won’t be noticed. The filmmakers almost get their wish, in that their work induces enough cringing that this one question, important though it may seem, never seems worth getting angry (or even confused) about.

Surely no one’s crying out “Author! Author!” for these films. It makes more sense to cry out “Editor! Editor!” and much, much more sense just to cry out.

Thursday, June 17, 2004


Did you notice? The terrorists have won.

Anyone making their way through queues lately -- to board an airplane, enter a government building or a professional sporting event -- has felt the slow, irritating, even somewhat humiliating effects of the war on terrorism. Innocent people are kept from flying because they’ve wound up on a secret list for unknown reasons. And for others, the reasons aren’t quite unknown enough: It’s clear they’ve been marked for legitimate, patriotic dissent, including, for instance, “some two dozen members of a group called Peace Action of Wisconsin, including a priest, a nun and high-school students [who] were detained in Milwaukee on their way to a ‘teach-in’ and missed their flight,” according to Wednesday’s New York Times.

Locally, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has gone from its vaguely Orwellian efforts to inspire watchfulness -- strange free verse signs and recorded announcements from the MBTA police chief urging riders, “If you see something, say something” -- to random bag searches of people waiting on T platforms.

All this has happened since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the name of keeping another attack from happening, which makes it somewhat ugly to imagine what the country would be like if the attacks had gone on. The movie “The Siege,” released in 1998, imagines it for us, with a series of explosions in Manhattan bringing down martial law on Brooklyn, where the terrorists are hiding.

Critics thought the movie was slow-moving, sodden with speeches, like most Ed Zwick movies. Muslims hated the movie, saying it demonized them and misrepresented Islam, despite the fact that the filmmakers bent over backward to defuse the charge. The message of the film was explicitly anti-discriminatory, and one of the heroes was a Beirut-born FBI agent played by Tony Shalhoub. Such complaints may be muted now, post-9/11, as the movie comes to seem less unlikely and more prescient. There is even a scene with an Arab man, tied naked to a chair, being interrogated by a woman, tortured and ultimately killed at the hands of the U.S. military.

“You can’t do this,” says the good guy, an FBI agent played by Denzel Washington. “What if what [the terrorists] really want... what if they don’t even want the Sheik? Have you considered that, huh? What if what they really want is for us to herd children into stadiums like we’re doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit. Because if we torture him, general, we do that and everything we have bled and fought and died for is over. And they’ve won. They’ve already won!”

Back to reality, an equally ghostwritten speech was given Sept. 20, 2001, by President Bush to a joint session of Congress.

“Americans are asking, why do they hate us?” Bush said, referring to our real-life terrorists. “They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other ...

“These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends.”

Reading over this list given only nine days after 9/11, it is difficult to identify any item that has not since been threatened or already sacrificed in the name of our safety. In fact, by the president’s own prescription, with our way of life disrupted and very likely ended, America fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking its friends, it is becoming very clear:

The terrorists have won.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004


At the risk someone is missing this vital Associated Press article, here are the key paragraphs:

OPEC signaled it would boost oil production and said it would ask other major oil producers outside the group such as Mexico to do so as well to make up for lost crude exports from sabotaged pipelines in Iraq.

But analysts said pumping the extra oil would strain the world’s limited spare production capacity and leave a wafer-thin cushion with which to absorb any future supply disruptions.
[And] Russia and Norway -- the world’s second and third largest exporters after Saudi Arabia -- said they could do little to help.

“We are producing as much as we can,” the director of Russia’s Federal Energy Agency, Sergei Oganesyan, told the Interfax news agency. In Norway, Deputy Oil Minister Oeyvind Haabrekke told the state radio network NRK that his country had “no excess capacity and no possibility of increasing production.”

There was no immediate response from Mexico’s energy department.

The most worrisome aspect of this clip is the disagreement between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, independent oil-producing nations and industry analysts. There’s no collusion that fits these facts, no conspiracy to keep prices high or produce an urgency to find more oil instead of energy alternatives. Keeping prices high would have had OPEC claiming inability to produce more oil, not the independents and analysts. And the statements from Russia and Norway are too blunt and alarming to inspire long-term exploration, since it’s widely believed that there’s not much oil left in the Earth.

On that topic, read what Washington, D.C.-based business writer James Srodes had to say on the topic in the Oct. 19, 1998, issue of Barron’s:

It was only last November that two top oil geologists presented papers on the impending oil depletion to a conference of the International Energy Agency of the United Nations in Paris. Colin J. Campbell, an Oxford-trained geologist, and his French counterpart, Jean H. Laherrere, have been senior geologists for firms such as Total, Texaco and Amoco for more than 40 years. Currently they work at the industry think tank Petroconsultants in Geneva.

The two geologists were so convincing that the IEA dropped a generation-old view that held oil discoveries to be merely a function of price -- that is, the higher the price the more oil will be found. Last March, at the Moscow summit of the Group of Eight major industrial nations, the IEA presented its own paper to the national leaders accepting the Campbell-Laherrere view that sometime between 2010 and 2020 the crisis will be upon us full blast. The Campbell-Laherrere analysis also cut the reserve of oil currently known to be in the ground to about 850 billion barrels.

Since then, others have joined in the public debate. Recently, Franco Bernabe, chief executive of the Italian oil company ENI SpA, has given a series of interviews in which he moved the doomsday clock forward to between 2000 and 2005. He forecast that today’s world price for a barrel of oil would soon begin to rise from its $15 base and quickly pass the $30 mark. He forecast that both the British and Norwegian sides of the North Sea will begin to see production declines within three years. The United States passed its peak (even with Alaska) long ago. Left open for argument is the amount of new oil left to be discovered in the Third World.

It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that the planet is hitting that full-blast crisis, especially since oil-producing nations are showing pumping capacity to be barely adequate and inadequate if there are “future supply disruptions” -- a phrase that can be read to mean terrorist attacks like those made yesterday on Iraqi oil facilities.

More attacks are certain. Things are looking grim.

And only now are sales of sport utility vehicles, not just the Hummer, beginning to slow.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004


I should have made it clear that yesterday’s posting, while clearly labeled as a “guest blog,” did not say who the guest was. It was Eric LeMay. Eric LeMay, who seems to think I’ve been a little thin on material lately.

Oh, how wrong he is. And to prove it, I’ve a posting right here that uses material provided me by Boston Herald editorial assistant Andrew Manuse. He has some good things to say about a Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority plan to randomly stop and search mass transit passengers. Well, he doesn’t have good things to say about it. Rather, he says well what we’re all thinking: Hey, MBTA, fuck off.

This is the letter he sent me:

Hello Boston,

I’m not sure if you’ve heard yet, but the MBTA plans to conduct random bag searches of passengers riding the T starting in July. During the Democratic National Convention, the authority plans to search every person's bag. See the Boston Herald’s piece about this.

I have already written a letter of complaint to the MBTA, which you can also do here. I told the MBTA that I would refuse to allow the search of any of my personal property without a written warrant with my name on it that spells out the probable cause used for the search. I also told the MBTA that I would attempt to recruit as many people as possible to do the same.

This is an egregious affront on civil liberties that can not stand. The Fourth Amendment clearly states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against
unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” I don't think we should allow this inalienable right to be trampled for any reason.

If you agree, it would help if you sent this to everyone you know that will be in Boston during July. If you don't, then, well, have a good day.

Take care,

Monday, June 14, 2004


My dad once told me I had “cart-before-the-horse mouth.” After a certain press conference about 12 years ago, he now jokes that I have “orgy of the senses” mouth, but that’s a whole ’nother story ...

Have you ever had one of those childhood times you said something and realized that what sounded “exciting” to you had a much more dramatic effect than you could have imagined? I had two gigantic times I’ve blurted something out like that. The first was when I was coming to school from a dentist appointment as a 10-year-old and heard that the President had been shot.

(Now, in my defense, just a few months earlier I’d watched my grandpa stand at a microphone in front of 600 employees at a company Christmas party and announce something I had already heard on the radio an hour earlier: John Lennon had been shot and killed. The prism of a 10-year-old reporter. ’Nuff said. Even though he wasn't a John Lennon fan, grandpa stood up and handled it with grace and dignity.)

As I signed into Shining Mountain Elementary School that morning in 1981, I kind of shouted to the office staff, basically, “Hey, by the way, did you hear the President was shot?” Well, they hadn’t.

I didn’t really know about JFK ... hell, I wasn’t even that aware of what being President meant in general -- I just thought it was cool that, really for the first time, I comprehended that there was this huge event going on outside of school, and I, me, knew it before all the grownups in school.

The secretary of the school burst into tears.


My filters didn’t get any more refined, though.

The second time was in 1985, when I was 15 and we were going to a friend’s New Year’s Eve party. As we drove to the party, the first news flashes came over the radio that Ricky Nelson had died in an airplane crash. I asked my dad who he was, because it was obvious by the way we sat in the driveway outside the party that he was important; dad and mom were just stopped for a moment. Reflecting. Dad kind of gathered himself and said, “Well, when Elvis went into the army, Ricky Nelson was bigger than Elvis.”

Hmm ... here were all these grownups sitting inside at a New Year’s party, my parents were sitting in the car, and I simply asked if I could go inside because I had to pee. I went inside, and all the usual party stuff was going on and I was pretty much unnoticed while I went into the bathroom. When I came out, my parents still weren’t out of the car. Bob, the party’s host, asked where my mom and dad were, and I said, “They’re sitting out in the car because they just heard Ricky Nelson is dead in an airplane crash.”

(Cue the sound of a vinyl LP ripping to a halt.)

And then I kept firmly entrenching myself in the bastion of all things insensitive.

“Yeah ... he got his big break when Elvis went in the Army.”

Silence. It was like Benjamin Braddock at the bottom of the pool.

I was standing there in front of a roomful of Baby Boomers who grew up in the Ricky Nelson era. They heard him on the radio, they watched him on television, and they went to his Garden Party in the 1970s. I mean, this guy was everyplace as they all grew up together.

(Side note: Never let your young teenagers think they can ever, EVER be the life of the party.)

I was thinking about all of this the Saturday before. I was doing a museum tour, and the son of somebody on the tour -- couldn’t have been more than 12 -- said to my little tour group, “Did you hear that Ronald Reagan just died?” There was a long, long silence (we hadn’t), and the kid finally said, “Yeah, he was president before Bill Clinton.”

Elvis left the building in both instances, I guess. (Does that make George W. Bush into Fabian?)

Even though there is nothing truly tragic about 93-year-old humans dying, I admit I was sad. Reagan wasn’t there for the last 10 years, publicly, or by some accounts, most of that time, mentally; this kid just told me we lost someone that had been a part of my culture -- if not physically, but by legacy -- for almost two-thirds of my life.

I awoke at 6 Friday morning and watched the services. I also came home that night just as the plane was landing at Point Mugu and watched those services. I cried both times. I might be a Reagan Democrat, or, by old accounts a Rockefeller Republican, but, even at such a young age, I didn’t agree with some of the things he did domestically. So I’m a Reaganfeller Somethingerrather. Doesn’t matter. But wasn't that the way it was in the 1980s?

Anyway ... all the pomp was done and I sat down to look at a box of stuff that my wife had taken out of storage before she left for New Jersey. On the top was a letter, handwritten, dated May 4, 1981, from the White House:

Dear Eric,

I was very happy to hear from you. You were a very nice young man to think of me, and I want to send you all of my thanks and good wishes always. Sincerely,

Ronald Reagan

Agree? Disagree? Like him? Hate him? Liberal or conservative? I sent the guy a get-well card as a 10-year-old. He sent a handwritten note back.

Damn he was good.

And now that he’s gone and buried ... maybe, no matter what, it’s time to say to him:

“My thanks and good wishes always, too, Mr. President.”

It took me a week to blurt that out.

Sunday, June 13, 2004


Galvin Square, where I live, isn’t as great as I thought. Now that I’m paying more attention to the tiny honorary areas along Massachusetts Avenue, I notice that they’re almost as common as street signs -- some disguised by the simple fact that they’re not important enough to be noticeable even from across the street. Dodge four lanes of traffic and you’ll find yourself somewhere completely new, just because it’s called something different.

Head up the street from Porter Square toward Arlington and within four short blocks you’re in Galvin Square, which is probably, sadly, known as “The Gas With a Smile square.” But only a block away is Walden Street and James F. Dottin Square (which actually claims Buzkashi and the combined Taco Bell and KFC; any more combining and it’ll be Taco Buzkashi, the Mexican-Afghan fusion cuisine craze).

Go another block and you’ll find Russell Street, which holds the sign identifying that area as Joseph M. Curran Square, the, oh, I don’t know, American Friends Service Committee square.

A fun one.

In another block, at Rindge, you’ll find Charles D. Keefe Sr. Square, undoubtedly named for the patriarch of the funeral home across the street, but probably better known as “the liquor store square.” Virtually across the street, at Chester, is Judge Jeremiah Sullivan Square, home of ... not much. Perhaps Kate’s Mystery Bookstore lands in Sullivan Square, but Raymond & Theresa Proulx Square could claim it as well, along with Pemberton Farms and the White Hen Pantry. But Chief Leo Davenport Square is just across the street, meaning it would be able to claim Kate’s if squares here were actual squares, not intersections or junctions.

Davenport Square needs Kate’s, actually, as it is otherwise “The City Lights lamp shop square.”

Sad. Oh, if only the T stopped there.

Friday, June 11, 2004


Most outsourced jobs stay in the United States, a report says, implying we have little to fear of “offshoring” to countries with a cheaper work force.

The U.S. Labor Department report, relatively big news today, says that “In more than seven out of 10 cases, the work activities were reassigned to places elsewhere in the U.S.,” making it about 9 percent of nonseasonal layoffs that can be blamed on offshoring in the first three months of this year.

But the report -- even rejecting fears that the numbers are manipulated like other Bush administration reports -- can be accurate without being all that meaningful.

First, the numbers only record layoffs: at companies employing at least 50 workers; where at least 50 made claims for unemployment benefits; and the layoffs lasted more than 30 days. Also missing from the numbers are jobs created overseas by U.S. companies without directly resulting in a layoff here. So the 4,633 offshored jobs, out of 239,361 total jobs lost in the first quarter, seem small and hint that analysts are wrong to project 3.3 million jobs offshored by 2015.

But there’s a second factor to consider: A watched pot never sends its boiling to be done by cheap labor in other countries -- but an unwatched pot may. Remember the Jan. 7 business roundtable held by chief executives such as Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina (“There is no job that is America’s God-given right anymore. We have to compete for jobs.”) at which there was little dispute that the jobs were going, just a recommendation that if it wanted to avoid the situation, the United States had better get busy educating, serving up tax breaks and such. Then the backlash began, and no chief executive is going to alarm an entire nation by offshoring energetically while attention, and presidential candidate John Kerry, is focused on the issue. After a couple of these reports, though, showing that people’s fears are overblown ... well, watch the jobs fly.

That brings up a third point why the Labor Department report is worth more than a shrug and a glare: Work tends to cluster, especially in high-tech and biotech, which is why communities from Malaysia to Kendall Square try to build infrastructure supporting an industry and tout it loudly. It’s a circular element mentioned time after time in industry-hungry Massachusetts, where colleges and universities churn out techies who can work in nearby industries which rely on colleges and universities churning out techies. There are also plenty of nearby support industries that exist here to serve the tech industry that relies on nearby support industries. And so on.

When jobs get offshored, it begins to create elsewhere that symbiotic, vital infrastructure. And the more infrastructure elsewhere, the less here. The less here, well, the less reason there is for tech companies to be here. And so on, again.

So how wonderful it is that not many jobs are being sent overseas, but that conclusion merely brings up another troublesome detail: If the Bush administration, and some more independent voices, truly believes offshoring is great for our economy, isn’t this report something of a disappointment?

Mysteriously, it’s almost as though our economy is doing fine without jobs being taken from Americans and sent elsewhere.

Yes, mysterious.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


At the risk of just becoming a sardonic clipping service for The New York Times, I must quote a couple of paragraphs from today’s piece by Jennifer 8. Lee (what’s the 8 short for? Eighty? Eight hundred?) on efforts by acolytes of Ronald Reagan to put his image on the $10 bill -- or anything and everything else.

Grover G. Norquist, founder of the legacy project, said the group had also considered bumping Benjamin Franklin, another nonpresident, off the $100 bill, which is widely used overseas if not in the United States. “There was a discussion that it would be appropriate because it is the international currency and Ronald Reagan was the president of the whole world,” Mr. Norquist said.

But that notion was nixed, he said, “because it is also associated with the pharmaceutical industry of Colombia.”

It’s reassuring, in a “Catch-22” kind of a way, that such a scary man can also be funny and ridiculous, which is exactly what this nonsense is. Unfortunately, it won’t be funny at all when such efforts inevitably succeed.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004


Faced with government tests showing its sport utility vehicles to be bad rollover risks, General Motors did the right thing: It blamed drivers.

By “right thing,” of course, I mean “irresponsible and deceptive,” but it’s all relative.

Here’s the GM statement quoted in today’s New York Times:

The dominant causes of rollover crashes and injuries are: excessive vehicle speed; impaired driving due to alcohol, drugs, fatigue and distraction; and failure to wear seat belts.

So although there are sport utility vehicles -- the Dodge Durango and Honda Pilot among them -- that will not roll over, according to the government tests, GM prefers rhetorical tricks to engineering skill. Throwing in “injuries” when the issue is rollovers is brilliant: The company actually succeeds at seeming reasonable when it blames drivers for “failure to wear seat belts” when their multiton hunk of steel tips over at 40 miles per hour and rolls down a hill onto train tracks.

Monday, June 07, 2004


Praise of Ronald Reagan was excessive during his life and -- to paraphrase “The Thin Man Goes Home” -- his death hasn’t imbued him with better qualities. Predictably, though, his death raises the level of praise from excessive to overwhelming. My gorge is rising with it.

Yes, President Reagan made us feel good about ourselves -- at least those of us whose skin didn’t crawl and blood boil upon hearing his fatuous, hypocritical moralizing. But it’s easy to make people feel good about themselves by lying and appealing to their baser instincts.

Now, in addition to the deluded millions who truly thought he was a statesman and a wonderful guy, others lie to make themselves feel better about electing him. Twice. Or to sell papers.

It’s reasonable to remember that Reagan was a half-bright actor who confused reality with movies, citing events in speeches that had only happened in scripts. (People credit him with being eternally optimistic and very focused, neither of which is all that difficult or remarkable for a moron.) He was a wealthy white man who seemed to care solely about other wealthy white people, when his charge as president was to do the best for his country, not his class. He was an armchair warrior who vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, then sent weapons to Iranians who’d held U.S. citizens hostage for months. He was a self-proclaimed patriot who subverted the Constitution to back nun-killing, terrorizing thugs simply because they opposed a popular communist government.

Since we survived the Reagan years, recovering fiscally, de-emphasizing nuclear arms for awhile and playing good catch-up in the fight against AIDS, the worst legacy of his presidential terms seems to be the worship of him enabling his other legacy: an arrogance that rationalizes lies because the ends justify the means. And, anyway, God is on our side.

Our current president is a Reagan fan, and it is easy to see in him the fruit of Iran-Contra, which itself germinated in the musty shadow of Watergate. (Talking Points Memo has a terrifying post that pinpoints the administration’s justification of sacrificing the law for expediency.) When Nixon died, Watergate was played down, stunningly, and we’re seeing a similar blindness in the media’s eulogizing of Reagan.

The Sacramento Bee says Reagan “took full responsibility” for Iran-Contra, an absurd misrepresentation caught by Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp. The Wall Street Journal, in discussing Reagan’s “enduring economic legacy,” notes that “Corners of the globe where Communism and state control of the economy once were seen as the salvation of the poor now celebrate stock markets and entrepreneurs” -- as though the failures of an unsustainable economic model were somehow the work of a U.S. president. The coverage everywhere glows, because we mustn’t speak ill of the dead.

President Bush, although saddened by the loss of his idol, must be happy.

Because if Reagan can get away with it, maybe he can too.

Friday, June 04, 2004


Instead of complaining about Porter Square, perhaps it makes more sense to secede.

Thanks to the city’s endless gratitude for soldiers and firefighters, there is no shortage of subsquares clustering about and overlapping the larger ones, along the lines of Harvard Square including Brattle Square, but obscure to the point of uselessness (as honors go, it’s sort of like getting an award named after you that’s never given out), and I live in one.

I can be visited in Galvin Square, or, fully, Vincent P. Galvin Square, where Blake Street meets Massachusetts Avenue a couple of blocks down from Porter. It’s where the fire station is, which is reasonable: Galvin was fire chief from May 17, 1960, to Feb. 16, 1965.

In addition to a fire station, Galvin Square is loaded with amenities (car wash, gas station, an automated teller or two and a bank, optometrist, hair stylist, nail salon, dry cleaner and cellular phone shop), and, in the same way I found out upon graduating that I’d minored in history, specializes in limited foods. What does that mean? Well, it has Andy’s, which is open for breakfast and lunch but not dinner, and Buzkashi and Elephant Walk, which are open for dinner and nothing else. It has a combination KFC and Taco Bell, which has limited menus for each crowded cuisine because doing twice as much means having half as much. We have a culinary school that doesn’t serve food and a language institute that, well, doesn’t either. We have a senior center that serves as a polling place during elections and churches for every denomination that happens to be episcopalian.

It’s a good-looking church. And it has places to sit.

It’s a grand place, Galvin Square.

Somewhere out there must be squares for Cambridge’s other fire chiefs, especially for those who served more than five years. I will look around; I suspect I live in those squares, too, and just haven’t seen the signs yet.

Thursday, June 03, 2004


My lazy conjecture about Felipe’s Taqueria, the newest tenant in Harvard Square’s Garage mall, was that it was an Anna’s Taqueria in disguise -- to keep its higher prices from smearing the Anna’s name.

I hypothesized this without asking the people behind the counter or even consulting the menu. (The line was too long to even consider eating there.) I just recognized the employees from the Porter and Davis square Anna’s and guessed that rents are higher in Harvard Square, ergo higher prices, ergo different name.

I’m wrong, gauging from this Chowhound posting, and this looks to be a new entry in the book of angry cooking families, which includes the Tomboy’s variants in southern California and the Olé folks here in the Cambridge area.

Visit Los Angeles and its suburbs and you’ll find chili burger joints called Greek Tommy’s, Tomboy’s, Big Tomy’s and so on, apparently the results of an endlessly dividing family of cooking entrepreneurs. They stick together for as long as they can stand it, learning the family recipes and the ins and outs of running a burger joint. Eventually they can stand it no longer, and one splits to open their own stand -- one with a name just different enough to be on the right side of trademark law.

The local Mexican food epic started in Somerville with a place called Andalé, but a feud caused some of the staff to flee to Arlington for a clone called Olé. Success allowed them to go upscale with an Olé in Cambridge’s Inman Square, but the relatives running the two soon found each cared for one Olé and not the other. Now Arlington’s Olé has a cart in the financial district called ... see if you can guess ... Andalé.

Felipe’s, the story goes, is a spinoff of Anna’s, which is itself a spinoff from Boca Grande on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. A falling out among chef types is, again, blamed.

The good news: This only happens at successful restaurants, and it means successful restaurants, with good food, proliferate. It also gets angry people away from each other and all those giant, gleaming kitchen knives.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004


There’s no need to wonder why the White House Web site doesn’t include the speech President Bush gave tonight at the U.S. Air Force Academy. It’s gibberish. And it includes assertions that are, by now, ludicrous in the telling.

In it, Bush directly compares the war in Iraq with World War II, talks again of weapons of mass destruction -- in carefully chosen weasel words -- and, incredibly, continues to connect Iraq with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless surprise attack on the United States. We will not forget that treachery, and we will accept nothing less than victory over the enemy,” he told the graduating Air Force cadets.

Perhaps it’s a flaw in New York Times reportage, but the speech even seemed to include sentences that literally, as well as reasonably, made no sense. What are we to make of Bush’s warning that “We can only imagine the scale of terrorist crimes were they to gain control of states of weapons of mass murder or vast oil revenues”? The Times doesn’t give context on who “they” is, but what are “states of weapons of mass murder”? If Bush is implying an oil- or weapon-rich Iraq could invade a terrorist state as it did Kuwait, taking over its munitions, why didn’t we take on those actual terrorist states that could have been invaded? The comment also ignores the reality that Iraq had no active program for weapons of mass destruction, mainly because containment and United Nations inspections were working.

More so than many Bush speeches, which are merely full of rhetoric, this one comes off as a true embarrassment, yet another White House product that fails to stand up to even the most casual analysis. Its distance from reality isn’t new, though -- just its loneliness. Even the White House Web site won’t claim it.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


David Brooks, in his role of The New York Times’ reasonable conservative columnist, showed again today that he’s just playing a role. In assessing the results and reasoning behind the Bush administration’s tax cuts, he writes:

Their first answer, not surprisingly, is that you have to understand the reality that confronted them when they took office in 2001. Business leaders were calling in to say that economic activity was falling off a cliff. The dot-com bubble was over, manufacturing was getting hit, business confidence was plummeting. Before it became a general concern in the papers, administration folks were worrying that the U.S. might go through a Japanese-style stagnation. Deflation was an unlikely but scary possibility.

They decided to do what was necessary to head off any immediate catastrophe. As Stephen Friedman, director of the National Economic Council, sums it up, “We didn't want to err on the light side when it comes to stimulus.” Hence, the large tax cuts.

Brooks’ aw-shucks pose ignores that there were three rounds of tax cuts. It also, improbably, tries to suggest he isn’t aware that the tax cuts were planned long before Bush took office and that there were no circumstances in which tax cuts wouldn’t have been proposed. (I’m looking at a clipping from a Jan. 6, 2000, Washington Post that ran under the heading “Campaign 2000.” The lead of the story, by Terry M. Neal, says: “Confronted with an unexpectedly strong challenge from Arizona Sen. John McCain, George W. Bush has narrowed his message almost exclusively to the need for a broad-based tax cut.” So it wasn’t calls to the White House that sparked the idea to cut taxes, although calls to the Times could spark the idea to cut the disingenuous Brooks.)

It was my intention to post solely on this topic today, but I had the misfortune to visit Talking Points Memo to find, tragically, a far better posting than I could do on this very topic. So I may as well refer you to the Memo and wander on a bit to a new thought:

How, exactly, does the extravagantly incompetent Bush administration get away with this stuff? Their bluff on tax cuts has been called several times, in prominent places and by prominent voices, including:

By The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, who noted on Jan. 11, 2000, that Bush “can’t imagine circumstances in which he wouldn’t cut taxes ... After a few economic cycles, the government wouldn’t have a dime. Maybe that’s the point.”

By the Financial Times in 2003, in its much-quoted indictment that “The lunatics are now in charge of the asylum ... a fiscal crisis offers the tantalizing prospect of forcing [social services] cuts through the back door.”

By New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on May 27, 2003, when he notes the cost of the tax cuts “are so large that the nation can’t possibly afford it while keeping its other promises ... the people now running America aren’t conservatives: they’re radicals who want to do away with the social and economic system we have, and the fiscal crisis they are concocting may give them the excuse they need.”

It is astounding that Brooks has the guts to pass on the Bush administration line without pause or qualification. But it is more astounding that the Bush administration can speak it at all, and that’s not Brooks’ fault. It’s ours.