Friday, July 30, 2004


MBTA security looked at me for the first time yesterday. Unpleasant.

I’d assumed I would be searched at some point this past week, even while assuring people Massachusetts was too poor to sustain random baggage searches or a big T police presence much beyond the Democratic National Convention. It was intended to comfort me as well as I faced the inevitable hassle of refusing to be searched, being turned away from my commute to work and possibly worse.

But the threat was exaggerated, at least in Cambridge, which spent the week touting itself as “the Unconventional city.” My week with heightened security at the Porter Square T station, so far, has been anticlimactic.

Monday: Several serious-looking men stand at attention inside, watching closely as Cambridge rabble infiltrate the station. They are in black, heavily armed. All business. No chitchat. Their T-shirts say “MBTA POLICE” on the back in white, all-capital letters. The men exude solidity and resolve. I feel safer already, if I ignore the fact that this is a startlingly concrete sign of the erosion of civil liberties that threatens to turn my home into a police state.

Tuesday: Two guards in earth tones -- looking very much like large boy scouts -- lounge on the turnstiles, chatting. We travelers pass by unnoticed.

Wednesday: A combination of black-clad jackbooted thugs and overgrown boy scouts stand talking in a loose circle outside one entrance to the station. There is little change in atmosphere from yesterday, just an indication more personnel were needed to do the same amount of not looking out for terrorists. There are no police inside.

Thursday: There are two guards in the station, again leaning on the turnstiles. They aren’t chatting, though. They’re looking -- at me. I’m so rattled by them looking directly at me that I don’t absorb whether they are SWATtish or Scouting-For-Boys-style. Scouts, I’d bet, but I’m still surprised when I get to the escalators without being stopped for a search. They would have found my copy of the Times and my Macintosh laptop. Which means I could have been busted on suspicion.

Soon I will head off to the T for my Friday experience, heavily armed with towel, sunscreen and a leisurely attitude. I’ve no idea what to expect in security, as the staffing at Porter has so far followed no discernible pattern. It’s been so dull that I’ve feared security forces would fall into the usual trap: They’re heavily armed, purposefully riled up to expect the worst -- and insanely bored. This is a recipe for violence anywhere, and I suspect its absence means simply that we’re getting off lucky.

Thursday, July 29, 2004


I started at Emerson College just as its plans to move to Lawrence, Mass., sank glub-glub out of sight, weighed down by logistics, resistance and the psychic horror of the notion itself: Leaving Boston’s, glamorous, cozy, brown-brick Back Bay for the crime-riddled strip malls, traffic and cultural isolation of Lawrence.

The move would have saved money, as the brownstone campus was incredibly wasteful in almost every way imaginable, and it would have transformed Emerson. But that was an inevitable and obvious loser: Location is why I chose Emerson, and probably the defining factor for most of my fellow students, past, present and future. Although an imperfect metaphor, moving the college to Lawrence would have been like relocating the human heart to somewhere around the left knee. If a restaurant keeps selling out of chocolate cake, it shouldn’t urge its buyers: “Hey, let’s take chocolate cake off the menu!”

Emerson has sold off its brownstones and moved across the Common, gathering with cool-by-association around its Majestic Theatre. A good move, even if nostalgia prevents unrestrained celebration.

But the Democratic National Convention at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center?

Something can make perfect sense -- as did the plan to move Emerson -- and still be completely idiotic, and this idea was. Holding the convention at the FleetCenter put it in the mainstream of Boston, one of the greatest tourist cities in the world, and a heartbeat from everything that makes it so: the cuisine, the shopping, the sights, the history, the spirit.

Moving the convention to the undeveloped, unattractive South Boston waterfront would have meant thousands of visitors gathering daily in a corner of Boston just to be shuttled off in crowded, rattling buses to the city’s lamest, dullest outskirts. Its Lawrence, Mass., equivalent. Its left knee.

There are reasons why Boston deserved to host the convention, and the wastelands of the waterfront and some giant, impersonal sloping shoe box of a convention center aren’t among them.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004


The sky is falling in Boston. Businesses are enraged by the money lost during the Democratic National Convention -- one FleetCenter neighbor hung out a “Thanks for nothing, DNC ... vote Bush” banner -- and cursing Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the local media for bringing the event in the first place, then scaring all the locals away.

But it worked. The T was easy to navigate. The roadways were a breeze. Restaurants and shopkeepers were excited and pleased to serve, so grateful were they to have any customers at all. And for the delegates, politicians, journalists and hangers-on who came to Boston this week, this laughably false image of the city is the one that will go home with them. This is what they will tell people of their visit. This is the image that will be reflected by the DNC host city for years and decades to come, even if, like all reflections, it’s an illusion of the actual host city.

What this means to Boston is even more tourism: more people eating in the restaurants; more people shopping in the shops; more people getting haircuts in the salons shut down for the week; more people taking Duck Tours; more people, more spending, more money.

It’s not the sky falling. It’s the sun setting on an event. The sun rises again tomorrow, and next week, and next summer.

Even for those angry banner hangers. Even if they vote for Bush.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004


The U.S. Missile Defense Agency fixed its Web site today and responded to the calls I made yesterday for funding details. Yes, just in time, since I needed the information for yesterday’s post.

It turns out that funding for National Missile Defense and its predecessors is at about $90 billion over 21 years, including the coming fiscal year. But what’s interesting here is the upswing in funding you see in the current administration.

Looking at the historical funding document the agency provides, I note that even President Reagan, who came up with the idea for Star Wars, never asked for more than $5.2 billion for it in a year -- and it was only funded for $3.6 billion that year.

The first President Bush essentially maintained Reagan’s spending levels, and President Clinton’s ambivalence about the project is palpable in his budget requests. The project almost died during his presidency.

When the current President Bush takes office, though, the excitement is obvious. His first request for missile defense spending almost doubles Clinton’s final request, and spending levels since have been at their highest, even adjusting for inflation from the Reagan era. Next year, with actual launch sites being installed, will be the highest so far; Bush asked for $9.2 billion and got $9.1 billion.

This is remarkable for a program that doesn’t work and is of questionable value even if it does work.

But if research goes on, eventually we should be able to play a large-scale version of “Missile Command,” even though, after all, the only winning move is not to play.

Monday, July 26, 2004


The reasons why John Kerry shouldn’t be president are very strong ... if you already feel Kerry shouldn’t be president. Otherwise, they sound like the assertions of the calm, presentable person who engages you on the T and informs you he communicates with aliens through the fillings in his teeth.

He’s missed a ton of Senate votes? Yes, because he’s running for president, thank god. He’s bad for business? Give me a break. If billionaire politicians for some reason manage to sell the public on a reform that hurts them or the economy, can they also get it past the millionaire politicians in Congress? He’s going to hand U.S. foreign policy over to the United Nations? Oddly, the phrase “Give me a break” comes to mind again. He’s selfish? Damn, there’s that “Give me a break” phrase again, if only because such judgments are subjective and largely the product of attack-dog media and right-wing nuts.

And fears about Teresa Heinz Kerry’s experimentation with reforming health care, and about those experiments being “wildly overbudget”?

It occurs to me that many billions of dollars have been spent on our missile shield technology -- if you can call it that -- since President Reagan proposed it in 1983 after an overstimulating night at the cinema. The budget for National Missile Defense in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2005 budget alone is $10 billion.

This is a system that, 20 years after scientists started work, still has to be shown which are the decoys and which are the real missiles. This is okay, we’re told, because all science has to start somewhere, and it starts with miserable failures. The funding looks almost justified by the refusal of the Bush administration to take serious steps to prevent nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran -- which ensures we’ll have enemies to use a missile shield against -- but also sort of silly considering serious threats can now be packed into suitcases and driven across the border.

So why not let Teresa Heinz Kerry experiment with health care a bit, even if the numbers aren’t working out the first couple of years? Instead of perpetuating an arms race, perhaps she can save a few lives, or make some lives a little easier.

And raising the specter of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care efforts in the early 1990s is perhaps digging in the wrong spot. Look instead to the millions spent by “special interests” in defeating the efforts, and to the delightful situation in which we find ourselves -- double-digit increases in health premiums, rising abandonment of employee benefits and demands for drug imports because our prescriptions aren’t affordable. Yes, it’s a good thing health care reform didn’t take place a decade ago; we’d all be screwed!

It’s also good to remember what James Fallows noted in The Atlantic in 1994, describing Wall Street Journal comparisons of health plans with a focus group. The members liked the Clinton plan upon hearing from Journal staffers how it worked, but “when they explained that the preferred group of provisions was in fact ‘the Clinton plan,’ most members of the panel changed their minds and opposed it.”

Friday, July 23, 2004


Cracks are beginning to appear in my relationship with cellular telephone service T-Mobile. When my bill shot up from the usual $45 or so to a panic-inducing $125.75, I contacted customer service and noted a bunch of calls that I couldn’t have made (and yet, inevitably, had). The young schmuck at the T-Mobile call center -- the kind of young schmuck that makes one actually yearn for such work to be offshored to India -- told me: Someone else had been probably been using my service; that I should set up a security code; and I should increase my minutes for only $19.99 a month.

That was the extent of the solicitude. After the conversation went on a bit and it became obvious T-Mobile help was limited to, “Too bad, pay up, would you like to increase your minutes for only $19.99 a month?” I said goodbye and hung up abruptly.

The schmuck actually called me back. He noted that our conversation had ended somewhat abruptly and wondered if I would like to increase my minutes for only $19.99 a month.

I told him I’d hung up on him and that hounding me with a service I’d told him I didn’t want didn’t endear the company to me -- in fact, it was the kind of thing that made me want to switch services. He reminded me that there was a fee involved in that sort of thing. I told him I would obviously wait until the end of my contract.

Then he asked me, in that case, “Would you like to increase your minutes for only $19.99 a month?”

For the love of god.

Also, there was the strange case of lack of signal in the hinterlands known as Southie. Not very reassuring, especially since everyone else seemed to have signal there.

And the absurd interface on my Motorola cellular phone that sends me a little text message every time I get a voice mail, and each little text message must be deleted, which can take between five and eight steps. Or how about calling someone to leave an urgent message? Urgency means nothing to the people at T-Mobile and Motorola. Because this, too, can take several steps.

Except that when I tried it just now, it took only one step (push 4).


On the plus side, by the way, T-Mobile makes it very easy to take your cell phone overseas with consistent service, a benefit of being the offspring of Deutsche Telekom. But that doesn’t make up for employing a customer service schmuck with the patter of a salesman and the persistence of the Terminator.

Thursday, July 22, 2004


I remain confused on the How-dumb-is-Bush? question. I think he’s stupid as a Fox -- capitalized, in case anyone missed it, as an allusion to Fox News. What I mean is that he’s obviously a half-bright individual, but he’s evil, and that makes up for a lot. What I mean by evil is that he believes he has a mandate (but it’s from God and a synonymous sense of entitlement and elitism, rather than from voters) and that allows him to think the ends justify the means.

This is how Bush can do the stupidest things and come out shining: It’s never over until it’s over, meaning Iraq may look like a mess, but just look at it in 100 years! And it may seem as though the U.S. government raped democracy, but look back on it from the perspective of what might happen over the next several decades! Sure our troops are being slaughtered in Iraq -- that's because we intended Iraq to serve as a terrorism magnet that draws attacks away from the United States. So we’re safer today than before we attacked Iraq. And, yes, we’re having more and more terrorism alerts, which is why we can’t fail in Iraq and must re-elect the idiot who got us there because now there’s so much at stake ...

This is all incredibly stupid, but it looks exactly like the work of an evil genius. Since you can’t pin down results or intentions, and the history keeps changing, you can never gain any traction against the guy in control.

This applied madness is exactly the kind of muddled thinking polluting all Christianity. If good things happen, it’s a blessing from God. If bad things happen, it’s a test from God. Both are true because God moves in mysterious ways, and he always does things for the best, even if it doesn't seem best for us. But sometimes the devil steps in and causes evil. And sometimes that evil can seem like a good thing, but really be bad. And sometimes that evil is indistinguishable from a test from God.

So what is truth? The truth is that this stuff is impossible for rational people to deal with.

Bush is an idiot-savant, good at pursuing an absolutely stupid agenda.

It’s like something my brother once told me: Politics is the only job there is in which the only qualification is being good at getting the job.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004


How does Bush get away with this stuff?

Plenty of people gleefully and glibly note when the president mangles his native language (“They misunderestimated me”), but so long as he speaks clearly, his most outrageous assertions seem to slide by unquestioned. In a speech Tuesday in Iowa, as quoted by The New York Times, he told a cheering crowd that:

“In the campaign, you’ll hear, we’re only going to tax the rich ... And only taxing the rich, first of all, creates a huge tax gap, which means buyer beware. You see, if you can’t raise enough by taxing the rich, guess who gets to pay next? Yes, the not-rich. That’s all of us.”

Hmm. My answer would have been phrased somewhat differently: “The people who are paying all the taxes now?”

There are so many things wrong with the president’s blast at Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry -- including the basis for the whole statement, that Kerry plans to tax only the rich -- that it becomes overwhelming to point them all out and easier to tune it out completely.

Sadly, Bush can count on that and still come out ahead in November, and we will have misunderestimated him again, whatever that means.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004


One of the perverse delights of “Seinfeld,” especially for an erratic watcher such as myself, was that tuning in late in the show would produce bewilderment -- short cuts between various characters, all behaving in inexplicable ways and employing language that frequently made no sense. Unlike almost every other sitcom, whose scripts are so predictable and obvious that it’s possible to tune in for the last five minutes and grasp all the plot points of the previous 17, “Seinfeld” obligated watchers to tune in from the start.

It passed on an appreciation for the absurdity of life. It was almost dada.

But that kind of thing only goes so far.

I stumbled across a comic strip called “Algernon’s Dilemma” today that gives a hint of exactly how far that kind of thing does go. It stops back with “Seinfeld,” apparently.

“Algernon’s Dilemma” is an Internet-only serial mixing science fiction and soap opera, starring primitively drawn characters that include, ubiquitously, ridiculously large-breasted women -- so large-breasted that the trait suggests either parody, mental imbalance or poor depth perception. The argument for mild mental imbalance is strengthened by the strip’s hyperbolic punctuation, the fact that it’s been on the Web apparently without funding, posting more or less daily, since October 1999, and that the artist links to Fox News as “the only news I watch.” (Bless the social conservatives who draw comix where every chick is hot and has really big breasts. That’s good wholesome fun those filthy liberals would never understand.)

According to the site’s FAQ, there is no character named Algernon, nor any dilemma, so it’s possible the artist, Jim Alexander (“Jim has no formal education beyond High School. He is a Christian and conservative Republican who has never been married, and has driven a schoolbus for the past six years,” his bio says) intends for his narrative to be as stupefying as it is.

The obliqueness of “Seinfeld” offered intrigue and a sprinkling of context-free laughs. “Algernon’s Dilemma” conks visitors over their heads with a whirlwind of leaden nonsequiturs, all screamed with implied asterisks demanding that attention be paid to the clenched-teeth screams and alarmed bursts of sweat for the entire past five years. It seems to be a comic strip about everything, all at once, and that’s exhausting without being interesting.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out today’s strip.

Monday, July 19, 2004


Here’s another half-assed post on the increasingly tedious overlapping topics of politics, the economy and the offshoring of jobs -- a quickie, really just a comparison of some material coming from various sources in the past few days.

First, while it’s free, check out The New York Times’ take on how “India sees backlash fading over boom in outsourcing.” (Actually, I’ve put it all online at the bottom of this posting.)

Then read Reason Online’s gloss on how offshoring is a terrific thing for the country, including this:

Challenging, High-Paying Jobs Are Becoming More Plentiful, Not Less

The ongoing growth in total employment is frequently dismissed on the ground that most of the new positions being created are low-paying, dead-end “McJobs.” The facts show otherwise.

Managerial and specialized professional jobs have grown rapidly, nearly doubling between 1983 and 2002, from 23.6 million to 42.5 million. These challenging, high-paying positions have jumped from 23.4 percent of total employment to 31.1 percent.

And these high-quality jobs will continue growing in the years to come. According to projections for 2002-12 prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, management, business, financial, and professional positions will grow from 43.2 million to 52 million, increasing from 30 percent of total employment to 31.5 percent.

Finally, when you’re half-convinced that the Libertarians over at Reason and the Cato Institute are correct, check out this Bloomberg item, in which “Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s assertion that the U.S. has been creating mainly low-paying, ‘second-rate’ jobs during the past year’s expansion is starting to resonate on Wall Street.”

So Indian companies are seeing the benefits of an improved U.S. economy, but American consumers aren’t.

The problem with the Reason piece, as indicated by the agreement between Wall Street economists and Kerry, is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is operating off old information. It does no good to cite bureau information if the bureau isn’t up-to-date, and it cannot be it includes “projections” for 2002. The Wall Streeters are looking at recent data (including information in a Sunday Times piece, which I will not run below, saying “Hourly pay in U.S. not keeping pace with price rises”). There’s also been a dramatic short-term increase in offshoring, predicted here and validated in the Times’ India article.

Reason’s assurances, which sounds reasonable, begins to look a little unreasoned.

Anyway, here’s that first Times article:

India sees backlash fading over boom in outsourcing
July 14, 2004, in The New York Times

BANGALORE, India, July 13 -- The backlash against the outsourcing of software and back-office services to India appears to have died down, executives here said Tuesday as a bellwether company posted better-than-expected earnings, mostly on improved business from the United States.

The company, India’s second largest for software and services outsourcing, Infosys Technologies, said on Tuesday that its quarterly profit had increased 39.2 percent, helped by the economic recovery in United States, its prime market. Net profit rose to 3.88 billion rupees ($84.3 million) in the April to June period, its first fiscal quarter, while revenue was 15.2 billion rupees ($33.04 million), a rise of almost 39 percent.

The results at Infosys, the first of a series of Indian outsourcing companies to post earnings, underscored that pressure against Indian software and back-office companies was easing, though the emotional protests against it in the United States and Europe never seemed to actually cut into business.

“The backlash against outsourcing has abated, customer spending is on the rise and we have redesigned ourselves internally to take advantage of the vast opportunities,” said Nandan M. Nilekani, chief executive of Infosys.

Nearly two-thirds of Infosys’s earnings come from customers in the United States. The outsourcing company hired 2,305 employees in the quarter, bringing its work force to nearly 28,000, and added 29 clients, taking that total to more than 400. That roster includes Reebok, Amazon, Cisco, Apple and Boeing.

Infosys shares closed almost 2 percent higher on the Mumbai stock exchange.

India’s outsourcing sector has boomed as global companies have shifted work offshore to take advantage of the country's skilled, cheap, English-speaking labor force. The loss of jobs to India from the United States and Europe became a political cause, however, which sent ripples of anxiety through the industry.

India’s $15 billion software and back-office services sector has grown at around 30 percent in the last few years, with the industry looking for $50 billion in business by 2008. Most of the business, about $12.5 billion, is with companies outside India, and more than two-thirds of that from the United States. The industry employs just short of a million people in India.

Some executives said the Infosys results could be the turning point for the industry’s preoccupation with the backlash issue.

“The debate about outsourcing appears to have moved from an emotional, anecdotal, job-losses plane to a more sober, balanced one about the advantages of globalization of services,” said Sunil Mehta, vice president of Nasscom, India’s leading software industry trade body.

Infosys, known for its conservative earnings outlook, especially during the backlash period, said it expected sales to rise nearly 40 percent in the current year. “Infosys continues to benefit from the positive demand environment for offshore services,” said S. D. Shibulal, head of worldwide customer delivery.

Though the furor in the United States has died down some, the National Foundation for American Policy, a research group, says more than 100 bills are pending in 38 states to curb the use of offshore contractors by state and local governments, and legislation has been passed in 5 states and vetoed in 2.

Earlier this year, Congress enacted an amendment to the federal omnibus appropriations act, sponsored by Senators Craig Thomas of Wyoming and George V. Voinovich of Ohio, both Republicans, that prohibits the use of offshore workers on some government jobs. And Senator John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president, earlier this year referred to the outsourcers as “Benedict Arnold companies and C.E.O.’s,” but lately has been relatively quiet on the issue.

Earlier this year, executives from American companies that outsourced to India came on clandestine visits, rarely spoke about what deals were being negotiated and forbade Indian companies from publicizing the contracts.

As Indian outsourcing companies grew fearful that negative publicity would harm business, Nasscom tried to protect themselves by campaigning for outsourcing with lawmakers, government officials and industry lobbies in the United States and Europe.

But in the last two months, analysts say the backlash issue seems to be fading in importance to the American public and to United States businesses.

“No longer are customers prefacing outsourcing questions with what they should do to deflect the backlash issue,” said Partha Iyengar, research director for Gartner in Mumbai. Gartner nonetheless still recommends that its United States clients continue with employee-impact assessments and community audits before embarking on outsourcing.

Some experts said they expected the concerns to be replaced by more pressing matters, like the shortage of skilled labor.

“Most companies are expanding so rapidly,” Mr. Mehta of Nasscom said, “that we fear the new threat for outsourcing is not the backlash but the imbalance in supply of skilled professionals.”

The hostility against outsourcing may have inadvertently helped the industry, some experts suggested.

“The backlash proved a gold mine of free publicity for Indian outsourcing companies,” Mr. Iyengar of Gartner said. “For many U.S. companies, the backlash made offshoring a compelling proposition.”

Even smaller outsourcing companies, like iGate Global Solutions, based in Bangalore, reached some deals after the controversy. The company, with $125 million in annual revenues and 4,000 employees, has customers like General Electric, GreenPoint Financial and Kraft Foods.

“The backlash issue made outsourcing so mainstream that even my barber was speaking knowledgeably about outsourcing,” said iGate's chief executive, Phaneesh Murthy, who is based in Fremont, Calif.

Friday, July 16, 2004


The look of Jack Ohman’s editorial cartooning is usually far more impressive than the points he makes, but this recent panel reminds me of why I check in with him daily. I’d been about to give that up, but he’s been on a roll lately.

Thursday, July 15, 2004


After 30 years contemplating the nature of black holes, Stephen Hawking has changed his mind about whether they allow information to escape. I am relieved to learn, as is everyone, surely, that the answer is: Information does escape from black holes.

Still, in the spirit of the Republican party and the Boston Herald’s front page, I find myself angered and disillusioned that this horrible man, after preying on our sympathies for so long with the whole wheelchair thing, after leading us to believe he was a good and intelligent person with some degree of honor, would dare to manipulate us so arrogantly and whimsically. Or can he really be this stupid? How could be not have known? Why didn’t he think it through before speaking in the first place?

Sorry. In my rage, I am ranting.

My entry for Boston Herald lead headline tomorrow, in the most gigantic type our aging computers can manage, in the font a friend has inspired me to call Sneer Bold Italic:




(Because he’s British, you see.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2004


The Porter Square churn continues. The arrival of Radio Shack several weeks ago (rolling of eyes) seemed to signal the end of Photo Star Developing and Passport Photos and the Cambridge Savings Bank processing facility (shrugging of shoulders).

Although there was an automated teller at the bank office, neither site drew customers with the regularity of, oh, your average broken telephone booth. The bank because no customer business was transacted there and Photo Star, no doubt, because digital cameras made it obsolete. It’s particularly tragic that I had never been there, nor ever had a reason to, and cannot say with the slightest certainty when it shut down. It is the vacancy left by the quiet man two floors below whom you saw in the elevator every week or so and never spoke to. When did he disappear? No one knows. He is survived by a 37-year-old nephew who cannot attend the services.

But who gets his office, right? Photo Star is advertised as “store for rent” and the bank as “retail space for lease,” and both are a little bit of a puzzle.

While the Photo Star site is good for pretty much anything, in this case “anything” includes “disaster.” It is behind a tree that has more claim to being 2032 Massachusetts Ave. than does the store, which is -- not to be repetitive -- subtle to the point of anonymity. I have the creeping, awful feeling that Porter Square’s trend of attracting the most disappointing services will continue, and soon it will be host to a Hummel figurine shop, a Thomas Kinkade knockoff gallery or, ye gods, a vacuum repair shop. Although first it’ll be empty for a year.

The bank is just as much a riddle, but one more pleasant to think about. It’s a handsome building -- a true edifice, built for the eons, with “North Avenue Savings Bank” etched into it (a name lost in a merger with Cambridge Savings Bank in 1971) and its own respectable wraparound parking lot. Nice. But retail? What kind of retail fits best in a bank building? Hello Kitty? Or (please, God, no) a cell phone store?

More office space would be the best fit, really, as much as Porter Square needs something wonderful, but failing offices a restaurant, believe it or not, would be a nice addition. Not that the North Avenue Savings Bank people should have had the foresight to install a grill, but Arlington’s Flora (it has been pointed out to me) is in the old Greek revival Arlington Five Cents Savings Bank building. Another such evolution is featured in today’s New York Times business section, about a Home Savings Bank in White Plains, N.Y., that is becoming Zanaro’s Italian Restaurant. The name screams quality, I know. And it’s owned by the same company that franchises Applebee’s. But $3 million has been spent on it, so ... hope springs eternal.

Does hope spring eternal in Porter Square?

Maybe the guys down at Radio Shack know.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


Macintosh computers boast of being easy to use, but Boston’s Macworld trade show, and its home at the new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, can’t make the same claim.

Well, they can. But with the same credibility of Windows-based PCs.

Take the shuttle bus from South Station: Out those doors. Take a left. Go to the lights. Cross the street. Go to the left again. Take the bus.

Strangely, no bus. No signs. But you find yourself at another entrance to South Station, which brings you right back to the person holding the Macworld sign who gave the confusing, incorrect directions in the first place. This time the directions are a little different: Out these doors. Take a right ...

But that 180 degree difference isn’t even the real problem, which is the distance to the shuttle buses and lack of signs, making it easy for people to wander off in the wrong direction. When the shuttle buses are found, boarded and have arrived at the convention center, though, there’s more clunkiness. The buses bring you to the second level of the convention center, but registration and the exhibit hall -- so, basically, everything -- is downstairs. Go forward. Take a left. Take another left. Go down the escalator ...

Downstairs, there are several desks scattered around, none with large signs explaining their purpose, none for registration, and there are no signs pointing visitors in the right direction. Wander around. Take a right. Keep going. Keep going. Take another right. Approach one desk. Wrong desk. Turn to the left. Keep going. Keep going. Turn to the right. Approach another desk. Give name. Now go back to where you came from. No. Not that desk. The one next to it ...

Macworld Boston -- taking place without Apple’s support, downgraded to 10,000 expected visitors from 40,000 -- needs some work. So does the convention center -- a $700 million project upgraded to $834 million with marketing costs, expected to have 38 shows in its first year, lucky to get 16.

Unlike Macintoshes, though, at least there isn’t a better version available the instant you’ve spent your money on the current one. These improvements are likely to take a great deal of time.

Monday, July 12, 2004


High-tech hysteria is upon us, enabled by ignorance. From news reports this past weekend:

“Nearly a quarter of Internet users worldwide have illegally downloaded a movie,” according to a report trumpeted by the Motion Picture Association of America.

And information-technology analysis firm Gartner Inc. suggests that iPod music players be banned from the workplace because it is a storage device that can carry out secrets or bring in viruses and other destructive software.

Now, Jupiter’s NUA estimated two years ago that there were 606 million Internet users worldwide, a number that can only have grown, suggesting that more than 152 million people have illegally downloaded a movie. Who are these 152 million? Well, the research firm that provided the study, OTX, says the biggest problem (“much bigger than in the other [seven] countries” surveyed, according to the Hollywood Reporter) is in South Korea, where 58 percent of Internet users have robbed Hollywood, Bollywood and what have you of hard-earned popcorn money.

These numbers seem, to put it delicately, weird. My workplace has a pretty fast connection, but even downloading and watching a movie preview, all two minutes or so, is a little clunky. Using the slightly slower DSL at home can make downloading the same trailers downright problematic, and that’s about as good as connections get for most of the world’s Internet users. What, do 58 percent of South Korea’s Internet users have T3 connections as well as the will to use them to watch movies for which they haven’t paid? And they’d rather spend the time on what are likely to be tinny, jerky images, rather than spend a few dollars to rent or buy a DVD?

Even if the numbers are trustworthy, the MPAA conclusions -- that illegal downloads are eating into movie profits -- are suspect. Here’s what other analysts say:

[Yankee Group] research reported a similar number (16 percent) of downloaders, but had indicated that 43 percent of downloaders attended movies as frequently as they had prior to downloading and 41 percent reported increased movie attendance.

The other high-tech alert is even more obviously ridiculous. The Associated Press notes that the Gartner report “did not compare the risk from portable storage with those from floppy disks, compact disc burners, e-mail and printers” -- meaning Gartner is targeting the iPod for banishment rather than, say, any of the hundreds of flash drives out there, including the $17.21 device that can hold 32 megabytes of data.

Hell, why not ban compact discs from the workplace? That innocent-looking copy of The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” could be sneaking in the next killer worm, or carrying out valuable, proprietary information.

None of this is going anywhere good, I suspect.

Just like the money spent on these studies.

Friday, July 09, 2004


So the Texas Air National Guard microfilm of President Bush’s records has accidentally been destroyed, and on the same day Homeland Security feels the need to warn us -- without raising the official threat level -- of a “catastrophic” terrorist attack that will take place somewhere, sometime within the next four months. Maybe.

The destruction of the microfilm alone is a huge coincidence, as it would have proved whether Bush legitimately served out his time in the Guard and if not, why not. Certainly the timing of the typically vague terrorist alert, which distracts from the other news, boosts the quality of coincidence into the stratospheric.

But, hey. It could be.

Please remember Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” a similar situation in which complex, interweaving plots, all featuring brooding, damaged people, were interrupted by an unlikely rain of frogs. Moviegoers were outraged. They saw it as a lame, forced application of contemptible magic realism by a guy who, three hours into a movie, couldn’t figure out an ending.

But, as the kid in the movie says, “This happens. This is something that happens.”

Our current situation isn’t a movie, of course. It’s not “Magnolia.” This is real life. It’s “Pennsylvania,” since that’s the avenue on which the White House sits. But anyone outraged by this literally incredible turn of events would do well to calm themselves by replacing that other outrageous moment in the movie, when all the characters start singing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” and the movie turns briefly into a wistful musical, with characters from the White House singing the same, moving song. Here’s President Bush in an Oval Office mired in gloom, then Vice President Cheney in a dank bunker, Donald Rumsfeld in a helicopter pelted by rain, Colin Powell in a cluttered, claustrophobic office, all singing to you:

Now you can hardly stand it though,
By now you know
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
‘Til you wise up.

Thursday, July 08, 2004


The people over at Radio Free Mike said much of what I was thinking about John Kerry’s selection of John Edwards as a vice presidential candidate -- and about President Bush’s response, a cutting remark that the difference between Edwards and Vice President Cheney is that “Dick Cheney can be president.”

In essence, the response to the response is that Bush himself became president with little experience, especially in foreign relations. I would go further and point out that even having Cheney pulling the strings didn’t save the administration from massive blunders and subsequent massive reversals on, for instance, nation-building, an Israeli-Palestinian road map and the value of the United Nations. On several other topics, centering around Iraq, not only did Cheney’s experience not save the administration, but has actually sent it pell-mell into disaster. The latest sign of Bush foreign policy tanking is that the United States is even losing the votes necessary to stay out of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

That Bush is gambling on Americans’ short attention spans is even more obvious when one remembers the popular joke from his father’s presidency: That if the elder President Bush were to die, the Secret Service was under orders to shoot Dan Quayle.

The final response to “Dick Cheney can be president” is that not only should he not be, but he certainly couldn’t be on his own. Starting in 1993 he spent two years figuring out whether he should run for president and decided, realistically, he should not. The electorate would never go for a truculent, withdrawn business-beholden attack dog with a permanent twisted smirk, a man who seems to be going to undisclosed, secure locations largely to get away from people whom he thinks to be, as friends describe his feelings for ex-colleagues in Congress, “a bunch of annoying gnats.”

Every recent poll but that of Fox News (surely it’s a coincidence) shows Cheney’s unfavorable ratings growing and favorable ratings shrinking. Meanwhile, 57 percent of respondents to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken Tuesday said they felt Edwards was prepared to be president.

So it’s looking more likely that pretty soon, putting aside the quips of an increasingly nervous president, Dick Cheney can’t even be vice president.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004


Eagle-eyed readers may notice that I have finally added a “comments” field to each posting, even the ones I find excruciatingly embarrassing and want to delete as soon as I push the “publish” button. This is your opportunity to sound off on what I’ve written or offer other readers opportunities to work at home or even enlarge their penis. (If any.)

Brian Wanamaker, of my.bicycle fame -- without whose help there would still be no comments, as I can barely handle the bewildering high tech of Blogger or your basic light switch -- has already taken advantage of the feature. You can read what’s he’s said under the June 29 posting on amateurism. His comment is probably better thought out than the posting itself.

Keep that up, Brian, and I’ll turn the comments off again.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


A committee of the U.S. Senate has discovered yet another instance in which the truth about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- there were none -- was made clear before the invasion of Iraq, only to be ignored.

The latest revelation: Before the war, the Central Intelligence Agency talked to relatives of Iraqi scientists about the weapons programs and were told the programs were defunct.

The interviews began in 2000, according to today’s New York Times, five years after Hussein Kamel -- head of Iraq’s weapons programs for 10 years and Saddam Hussein’s brother-in-law -- defected and told U.S. and British intelligence the same thing. The interviews were surely going on at the same time Scott Ritter, the former United Nations weapons inspector, was gathering the information that formed the basis for his movie “In Shifting Sands: The Truth About Unscom and the Disarming of Iraq,” which had the same message and was released in the United States in July 2001. The interviews may even have been going on in October 2001, when “60 Minutes” anchor Leslie Stahl traveled to Iraq and also was told there were no active weapons programs there.

They were almost certainly over by March 18, 2003, when Saddam Hussein himself, trying to head off the war that started the next day, said Iraq had once had the weapons, as protection against Iran and Israel, but no longer did. “We are not weapons collectors. When Saddam Hussein says he has no weapons of mass destruction, he means what he says,” the national news agency quoted him as saying.

March 18 was also the day U.N. weapons inspectors left, after more than three months of, not surprisingly, finding no evidence of active Iraqi weapons programs or the weapons themselves.

U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell in his infamous U.N. speech, used information provided by Hussein Kamel but ignored him saying there were no weapons. What the Times shows is even worse: The CIA disseminated information about Iraqi weapons but not assertions that the programs were dead even though they confirmed Kamel’s statements, the corroborative statements of others and the on-the-ground experience of U.N. weapons inspectors.

Again and again U.S. intelligence and media were presented with a consistent reason for the failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; but again and again they accepted and used data from sources that somehow couldn’t be trusted on the single most important point those sources were making.

How does anyone, in good conscience, build a case based on evidence from people who, it must have been argued, were either lying or didn’t know what they were talking about?

Friday, July 02, 2004


Search via Google for “Cambridge events” and you’ll find a slightly confusing “Cambridge in America” headline and a much more reassuring “” link. Reassuring because it’s obviously the Web site of the Cantab Lounge, that delightfully wheezy Central Square gin-and-jazz joint, home to the legendary Little Joe Cook.

But it’s obvious where this is going: It’s not obvious at all, because “Cambridge in America” has to do with Britain’s Cambridge University. “” is a Web site for Cambridge University.

But I get a weird kick out of seeing this dive sharing an identity, sort of, with hallowed Cambridge University -- like Ronald Albemarle Blodgett Islington Dimwitty Fletcher IV (representing the university) learning that there’s another Ronald Albemarle Blodgett Islington Dimwitty Fletcher IV (standing in for the lounge) who’s a Nascar-loving construction worker with a wife named Tammi Faye.

Not that I’m anything like that, but it’s odd how the reverse snobbery of the Colonies still runs irrationally in a third-generation Jewish emigrant from Russia, Poland and thereabouts. Take that, Britain!

Thursday, July 01, 2004


It’s easy to tune out when a president travels to some faraway country to give a rote speech on democracy. This is a wonderful country. You should be more like us. I won’t be seeing you again, because this country isn’t very important, but maybe the next president will visit. Or the vice president.

And so it was with President Bush in Turkey on Tuesday, except that things this president says about democracy have come to be freighted with a certain irony. Suddenly it’s as easy to pay rapt attention and respond with outrage as it used to be to tune out.

No need to go through the whole speech. It’s worth it just to cite one sentence Bush and his speechwriters saw fit to pass pontifically down to those grubby, primitive, feckless Turks:

“Suppressing dissent only increases radicalism.”

Did Bush learn that here, with protesters forced far from political events? Did he learn it from the members of his Cabinet who say opponents of their policies are unpatriotic -- or even terrorists? Or did he learn it in Iraq, when his forces shut down Moktada al-Sadr’s newspaper, lighting the fuse of an explosive insurgency?

Perhaps he learned it in Turkey, reading it off typed crib notes.

Like many C students, he probably hasn’t learned it at all -- just memorized it long enough to get past his latest oral presentation, and now he’s tuning out again.

If only we could.