Thursday, September 30, 2004


I didn’t get to see all of the first Bush-Kerry debate, but my perception is that Kerry did pretty well — or, at least, that Bush did pretty poorly. Some day I may watch the whole thing (if I get Real Player or Windows Media I can watch it online from C-SPAN) or read the whole thing (here’s a transcript from The Washington Post), but in the meantime I’m content to take a quick look at the electoral college map or polls and know that in a day or so I can look and see them remade. In Kerry’s favor.

But now that we’re talking about remakes, it’s worth noting that the original “Star Wars” trilogy is out on DVD and, as keen as I am on DVD sets, I feel constrained from buying this one.

Normally, I wouldn’t hesitate. While individual DVDs are fine, my collector’s blood truly starts pumping when it comes to sets such as “The Simpsons” (I have them up through season four and am waiting impatiently for the next), “Family Guy” and “Futurama” (complete sets), “The Lord of the Rings” (extended editions, of course, and hurry up November!), the Marx Brothers (waiting for the Paramount years with a fiery intensity) ... and I’m as nostalgic about “Star Wars” as most of my peers, although with many of the same criticisms. (As in: Why couldn’t they all have been like “The Empire Strikes Back”?)

What’s keeping me from buying is, predictably, the Greedo situation, meaning that the “A New Hope” disc in this set has Han Solo shooting Greedo in self-defense. And that’s just not how it happened. Here’s the cloddish liar, George Lucas, from the Sept. 24 issue of Entertainment Weekly:

GL: The thing that really caused the trouble on “Star Wars” is the whole question of whether Han Solo or Greedo shoots first. The way it got cobbled together at the time, it came off that [Han] fired first. He didn’t fire first.
EW: So you consider this a correction?
GL: It’s a correction.
[When I made “Star Wars”] I said, “Well, I don’t have the shot, so I’ll just, you know, fudge it editorially.” In my mind [Greedo] shot first or at the same time. We like to thing of [Han Solo] as a murderer because that’s hip — I don’t think that’s a good thing for people. I mean, I don’t see how you could redeem somebody who kills people in cold blood.

To clarify, Lucas is either a liar or self-deceiving, as an entire generation of people grew up believing Han Solo shot first, and these were, I feel comfortable saying, not the people shooting up their high schools. Not murderers. Certainly not thinking of Solo as a murderer, and uniformly wanting to be him. It was widely understood that Solo was dangerous, crude and sexy, but that his love for Leia redeemed him somewhat, made him a better person — and that Greedo was scum anyway.

If this is the rationale for perverting his truer instincts, perhaps Lucas should have gone back and redone the audio as well, renaming Greedo something like “Misunderstoodo” or, in the opposite direction, “Evillo.” That way we can feel better about his fate, whether through confidence there is no true evil in Lucas’ universe, or that there is, and that Greedo was it. But, really, Greedo probably wasn’t such a bad guy to drink with, for instance. And he was someone’s son. Live with it.

Lucas insults us by coddling us, and he insults us further by cooking up this lame, revisionist tale.

Somehow I’m even further insulted by knowing that there’s a good chance I’ll buy the set anyway, largely just for “Empire” and because it’s a set, and that I may even do so quickly, before Newbury Comics raises the price.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004


This is sort of an odd post script to yesterday’s item, in which an electronic-check-clearing law was described as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Today, with the parents in town, we went to the Museum of Fine Arts for the Josef Sudek photography exhibit and encountered another questionable echo of this defining moment of our time.

The watcher-over-art was alert. When my father, mother and Martina huddled in a corner for an intense discussion of one picture, she told them to stop touching “the painting.” My father shifted, leaning against the corner’s opposite wall. She told him he wasn’t allowed to be in the corner.

Later, in exactly the same corner, discussing exactly the same work, Martina and I fell into the same trap. We were told we were too close to “the painting.” (Don’t these museum guards have to pass some rudimentary test of knowledge to work around art?) Why, we asked. We were told, in fact, that these had been the rules since, and because of, 9/11.

A heartbeat passed in silence. A silent buzz of electricity passed between Martina and me. We could feel each other bristling. And together we questioned — I’m paraphrasing — what possible connection the terrorist hijackings of four planes, with the intention of bringing down icons of American capitalism and democracy, had to do with two rooms full of the intimate black-and-white works of Sudek, the “poet of Prague.”

She backed off minimally, but refused to acknowledge the absurdity of her reasoning. She told us to pursue it with her higher-ups.

Coming up next: The impact 9/11 has had on lining up to use the water fountain in the park. Al Qaeda’s effect on Christmas caroling. How to whistle without letting the terrorists win.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


Supporters say it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks that inspired the “Check 21” law allowing banks to exchange data instead of paper checks. That means, starting Oct. 28, checks will clear much more quickly. They will also bounce much more quickly, for those without money in their accounts equal to the amount they’re paying.

Why 9/11? Because the attacks froze transit in the United States, making the shuffling of paper checks around the country much more difficult. And that hurt commerce.

But there’s something else working behind Check 21, officially known as the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act: It allows banks to hire fewer people, sell check-processing facilities — including the magnificent old building in Porter Square that until recently served that purpose for Cambridge Savings Bank — and work more efficiently. It also allows allows banks to rake in cash in those bounced-check fees, up to $30 each. As the Boston Herald puts it:

By mid-2005, consumers could be bouncing 7 million more checks annually and paying an additional $170 million in fees each month, according to a banking industry source.

The newspaper also quotes Bruce Spitzer, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bankers Association, sternly warning customers not to try to “float” checks, or write them hoping to get enough money into a bank account to cover them before they’re cashed.

“Don’t play the float. The float has never been legal, it’s fraud,” Spitzer says, as though there are cadres of con artists out there purposely keeping their checking accounts low just for kicks.

The Herald article fails to ask why check bouncing fees are as high as $30 and will stay at current levels, despite the increased efficiency and cost savings from electronic data transfer. (Banks, by the way, get to keep customers’ money just as long as before, raking in even more benefit.) Congress similarly failed to demand, in passing Check 21 into law, that banks lower their bounced-check fees.

So the poorest among us, who already have trouble keeping enough money in their accounts to cover their checks, will get hit harder. Who is looking out for them? When will this country stop helping industry reward its richest and strike at its most vulnerable, especially as computerization means more and more people out of jobs?

The country is also writing some checks it can’t cash, and the bounce fee is going to suck.

Monday, September 27, 2004


At the doors of the Porter Square T were people handing out Juicy Fruit gum. I thought they were corporate shock troops, intent on introducing nonchewers to the sweet, fleeting delight of this enduring brand.


I reached out to accept my consumer due and a half-second later was through the door of the station, slowing as I read the equally bright yellow-and-blue card that came with the gum:

Yes ... it really is free!
We hope this small gift
brings some light into
your day. It’s a simple
way of saying that God
loves you — no strings
attached. Lets us know
if we can be of more

The obvious first reaction is, “Sure you can be of more assistance. You can give me more gum.” But as tired as I am of giving money to the homeless and being told that God blesses me, it’s worse to be evangelized when all one is trying to do is walk in peace, catch a ride to work and get something for nothing. I walked back to the door, leaned out and politely told the man, a pleasant, gray-haired sort, that “I really couldn’t. Thanks.” I handed him back the gum and card and went back inside, feeling righteously unholy. I’d resisted free gum for a principle.

Inside the station, of course, there were several of the cards littered around, left behind after people had absorbed and rejected its message. I saw then from the back of the card that the gum was a gift from Hope Fellowship Church, on Beech Street. My agnostic smugness drained away.

These were the same people from whom I’d accepted a free Christmas tree this past holiday season. I may have kept my soul clear of Christian taint by resisting a gift worth 25 cents, but that merely leaves me down the remaining $49.75 value, roughly, of the tree they gave me.

Friday, September 24, 2004


My previous attempt at injecting a homemade acronym into popular usage (MINTA, or people who Move In Next to The Airport then complain about the noise) has obviously failed. A Google search today failed to find a single pertinent usage.

So I’m trying again. My latest invention is intended to help all those people such as myself, whose brothers or sisters have children with people whom they never married. The acronyms are:

Moso, for “mother of sibling’s offspring.”
Foso, for “father of sibling’s offspring.”

As in: “The moso is coming over tonight” or “the foso is a mofo.”

Thursday, September 23, 2004


I know I’m doing a lot of linking this week, rather than original reporting or even original thinking. Sorry. Sometimes the well just runs dry, and you find yourself running to the corner for a two-liter bottle of Caffeine-Free Diet Coke.

And even as you ponder whether that metaphor works, here’s another link, this one to a Boston Globe article (is this a first for me?) about Peter Rost, a Pfizer Inc. executive who says his employer and its peers are “employing misleading and immoral tactics in their effort to stop the importation of low-cost prescription medicine from Canada” — perhaps the only high-ranking drug exec to do so.

I link to this mainly so it doesn’t get lost, because Rost says some great things, getting on the record, from an expert source, the obvious ones we’ve always known: mainly that drugs from Canada and much of Europe are quite safe.

Rost is very brave to do this, or he’s independently wealthy. Pfizer is watching him, and foreshadowing action against him.

In the Globe article, a company spokesman notes Rost “is clearly identifying himself as a Pfizer employee, while at the same time professing to express his own personal views, and that does represent a conflict.” There is no conflict, of course. Rost’s identity as a Pfizer executive — not just an employee, but an executive — is what gives him his credibility.

To Rost, it’s Pfizer that has a conflict. He sees it as a company that can help people but chooses not to, and is lying to justify its decision.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


I love learning about people’s work. Most find it hard to believe that I like to hear them whine about such minutiae, but the details of office politics, how to grind a lens, what to do when someone’s masturbating in the back of the store ... it’s all gold to me.

As I may have said before — I’m aged, and my memory is failing — this is what I most love about the 3Jake blog. Anyone can make observations, and I’m generally glad to hear them, but nothing compares with the interest commanded by an in-the-trenches report from (sexism intact for added flavor) a cop, a hooker, a garbage man, a factory worker, a shopgirl, a caterer or, in this case, a high school guidance counselor.

Jake’s current posting is compelling and heartbreaking, as are many of her walks Up The Down Staircase, and the tension and toll of her job come through very effectively.

But I know there’s a brighter side, Jake. I’m still waiting for the one about the beautiful underage lesbian experimentation.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


The real estate news is that the top floors of the Virgin Megastore building at Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue are going to become — right, you guessed it — luxury condominiums.

It sometimes seems as though there hasn’t been a condominium built in Boston, Cambridge or neighboring communities in the past five years that hasn’t been “luxurious.” Speaking as a person of moderate income and aspirations of downward mobility, this can be a little disheartening. Since I can’t afford to buy, I can keep living in the area so long as I’m prepared to rent increasingly small apartments. By 80, if I last that long, I could be living in a walk-in closet with a chamber pot.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to get completely disheartened, because there’s a chance things will go in the opposite direction. With every condominium built for the rich, a glut is a good bet, and I could wind up living it up for very little money.

It can only help that many of these condominiums are wildly oversold. People’s idea of luxury varies, but not everyone finds it luxurious, for instance, to live amid the incessant sounds of traffic on a major city’s main thoroughfare, whether off Cambridge’s Porter Square, as this office-building wannabe will be, or in the throbbing bass line of the Urban Outfitters end of Newbury Street, as is the Virgin building.

Some may also mind being conned into a purchase by the allure of a dropped name, a la George Costanza’s purchase of a car once driven by “John Voight.” In this case, Boston Residential Group is claiming 360 Newbury St. has “Frank Gehry design.”

It’s true the building has inexplicably won design awards. It’s true Gehry had a hand in the building’s revamp in 1987, in that he “collaborated with” the architects, as the Boston Business Journal notes. But the building is essentially a big box wearing a platform supported by some big, funky beams. It’s borderline fraud to call it a Gehry, when what that brings to mind is the Bilbao Guggenheim or Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Stata Center.

I picture it occupied by a lot of too-rich young people who intend to do a lot of hanging out at Armani and hold a lot of parties where they will tell guests that they’re living in a Gehry. And the better-informed guests will undoubtedly irritate them by quipping, “Which Gehry? Irving?”

Monday, September 20, 2004


The sometimes gratuitously offensive Ted Rall gets it right in this cartoon — and even declines to blow it all in the last panel.

Friday, September 17, 2004


Old memos about President Bush’s time in the National Guard appear to be fake, but the information in them appears to be correct — probably because a whistleblower named Bill Burkett dug them out of the trash when he saw Bush’s military file sanitized, then reproduced them to get the word out.

CBS is taking a lot of heat for ignoring warning signs that the memos are fake. It’s also insisting that its reporters confirmed the material. How can both be true?

It is possible, and it reminds me of another famous case in which the information was correct and the vehicle for the information wrong: Watergate.

(In this posting, we shall be using the final script for the movie “All the President’s Men” by William Goldman, rather than the nonfiction work by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that served as its basis. I just don’t have a copy of the book here, but I do have a copy of the movie. And a copy of Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” in which he writes that, in writing the script from the reporters’ book, “Great liberties would not be taken with the material. Not just for legal reasons, which were potentially enormous. But if there ever was a movie that had to be authentic, it was this one ... And if we ‘Hollywooded it up’ — i.e., put in dancing girls — there was no way [the media] would take it kindly.” So let’s rely on the movie being close enough to reality, except, oddly, for a scene written by Bernstein, not included here, that was completely made up.)

The action: Intrepid reporters Woodward and Bernstein, their sideburns and wide ties are pursuing H.R. “Bob” Haldeman as the key source controlling a White House slush fund used to pay the Watergate burglars. It’s come to this, they realize in a Washington, D.C., fast food joint in 1972: “If we can’t prove the fifth man is Haldeman,” Bernstein says, “we’re wiped out.”

WOODWARD: Common sense says it’s Haldeman.
BERNSTEIN: We go, and see sloan and we tell him that we know he named Haldeman to the grand jury ...
WOODWARD: Then all we would need to do is have him confirm it.
BERNSTEIN: Right. Want to do it that way?
WOODWARD: Yes. Let’s go back and see Sloan.

The reporters go to Hugh W. Sloan’s house to see if they can use the man, a White House aide turned whistleblower, to confirm Haldeman’s involvement. Sloan, whose wife is pregnant, is scared of the White House dirty tricksters and unhappy to see the reporters again.

SLOAN: Please.
BERNSTEIN: We’ve already written the story, we just need you to define a couple ...
SLOAN: Deborah’s in the hospital and my in-laws are coming over ...
WOODWARD: Two questions, we understand. Two questions. [Sloan lets them in.] The cash that financed the watergate break-in, five men had control of the fund.
BERNSTEIN: Mitchell, Stans, Magruder, Kalmbach, we have confirmations on those four.
WOODWARD: We just found out Haldeman’s the fifth.
SLOAN: I’m not your source on that.
BERNSTEIN: We’re not asking you to be our source. All we’re asking you to do is confirm ...
SLOAN: I’m not your source on Haldeman.
BERNSTEIN: Okay, look, when you, you were questioned by the grand jury ...
WOODWARD: You had to name names.
SLOAN: Of course ...
WOODWARD: Well, uh [uncertain pause, looks at Bernstein] ... I don’t know, okay, say we wrote a story that said Haldeman was the fifth name to control the fund.
BERNSTEIN: Right. Would we be in any trouble?
WOODWARD: Would we be wrong?
SLOAN: [slowly and carefully] Let me put it this way. I would have no problems if you run a story like that.
WOODWARD: You wouldn’t.

The reporters confer, decide they have what they need and leave, wishing Sloan and his wife well. Sloan is relieved to see them leave, off to the next task, which is to get a real confirmation now that they’ve tricked Sloan into being a primary source by telling him he was the confirmation. It’s a common technique among reporters to get people to talk by acting as though the reporters have more information than they really do. The next stop is a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent named Joe, whom Woodward and Bernstein get on the telephone late one night.

WOODWARD: You didn’t know Haldeman had control of the slush fund.
JOE: Oh, yes we did. It’s all in our file.
WOODWARD: Not about Haldeman.
JOE: Yeah, Haldeman, John Haldeman. Look, now, look, I’m very busy. I gotta go, I gotta go put the kids to bed.

We hear Joe hang up the phone abruptly. We see Bernstein hang up, exultant.

BERNSTEIN: That’s a confirmation! That’s a confirmation right there!
WOODWARD: [still holding phone] Wait a minute, wait a second. Did he say “John”?
BERNSTEIN: He said Haldeman.
WOODWARD: He said John Haldeman!
BERNSTEIN: What the hell difference does it make he said Isaiah or David, there’s only one Haldeman!
WOODWARD: Yeah, well, Isaiah or David aren’t assistant to the president!

We find out later that the reporters called Joe back to confirm it was Bob Haldeman he meant, which allows them to go to Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and say, “Sloan told the grand jury, the FBI confirms, what more do you need?” Bernstein is “absolutely” sure of the story, and Woodward tells Bradlee he’s “sure” of it. But Bradlee demands yet another source giving yet another confirmation. So Bernstein calls a friend at the Justice Department and, well, lies a little.

BERNSTEIN: I’m sorry to disturb you, but we’re going with a story that says Haldeman was the fifth name to control the fund and they’re hassling us here. We’ve got three confirmations, but if you’d just help us, I’d appreciate it.
SOURCE: Look, I won’t say anything about Haldeman, not ever.
BERNSTEIN: I understand that, we wouldn’t want you to do that, we know it’s against the law for you to say anything, if there’s some way you could warn us to hold on the story, we’d appreciate it.
SOURCE: I’d really like to help you, but I can’t.
BERNSTEIN: Look, I’m going to count to 10, all right? If there’s any reason we should hold on the story, hang up on the phone before I get to 10. If the story’s all right, you’ll just be on the phone after I get to 10, all right?
SOURCE: Hang up, right?
BERNSTEIN: That’s right. You got it?
BERNSTEIN: We’re straight. All right. I’m going to start counting. Okay? We all right?

Bernstein slowly counts to 10, looking more and more relieved as he goes. He reaches 10 nearly in a state of bliss.

SOURCE: You got it straight, man? Everything okay?
BERNSTEIN: Everything’s fine. [He hangs up and goes running back to the newsroom.] Woodward! I got it! He confirmed!
WOODWARD: What happened?
BERNSTEIN: I said if I get to 10, you don’t hang up, it’s solid.
WOODWARD: Did he confirm?
BERNSTEIN: Absolutely.
[They run to Bradlee.]
WOODWARD: Bernstein got another source!
BERNSTEIN: Guy at Justice confirmed!
BRADLEE: If there’s any doubt, we can run it tomorrow.
WOODWARD: You don’t have to. The story’s solid, we’re sure of it.
BERNSTEIN: Just got off the phone with him. It’s gold.
BRADLEE: [doubt etched on face] Okay, we go with it.

But, in fact, something is very, very wrong. The next day, with the story that Sloan named Haldeman in grand jury testimony splashed all over the Post’s front page, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler is on television, blasting away.

ZIEGLER: All I know is that story that ran this morning is incorrect and has been so stated not only by me, but by the individual whose grand jury, secret grand jury testimony they based their story on. That individual has denied he ever so testified.

When Bernstein has a chance to talk to Sloan, he clears up the matter. Fearing audio surveillance, Bernstein types to Woodward: “Heard what we wanted to hear. [Sloan] said he would have named Haldeman to Grand Jury — was ready to blame Haldeman but nobody asked him about Haldeman!” They go tell Bradlee.

BRADLEE: What happened to that Justice source of yours?
BERNSTEIN: Well, I guess I made the instructions too complicated, because he thought I said “hang up” when I just said “hang on.”
BRADLEE: Oh, Jesus.
WOODWARD: The story is right. Haldeman was the fifth name to control the fund, and Sloan would have told the grand jury.
BERNSTEIN: Sloan wanted to tell the grand jury.
BRADLEE: Why didn’t he?
BERNSTEIN: Because nobody asked him.
WOODWARD: Nobody asked him!

The reporters’ tricks and arcane techniques had them lying even while three independent sources confirmed the truth of their information. Something similar may have happened to CBS and Dan Rather, as they confirmed the information in memos and, finding it correct, glossed over warnings about the vehicle in which that information arrived. If this is what happened, it’s a shame. But, Dan, it happens to the best of them, and the truth may yet survive.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


The Chinatown buses aren't in Chinatown. They’re at South Station.

A handwritten note, taped to the ticket window at Beach and Harrison in Boston’s Chinatown, says so, and the ticket office, carved from space beneath stairs leading to the Chinatown Eatery, is empty.

This is significant because it implies either a slight defeat for Chinese organized crime or the crushing power of big industry — meaning, in this case, larger bus companies such as Greyhound and Peter Pan (which are actually one company). The big companies hated Fung Wah, Lucky Star and Travel Pack for keeping fares as low as $10 one way, forcing their own prices lower (to $15 from a typical $35) and hurting their bottom lines. And one way Fung Wah and its indistinguishable competitors could sell so cheap is that they picked up and disgorged customers on the streets, rather than having to pay for berths at bus stations.

The Chinatown companies are putting on a brave face. “Rain or shine, hot or cold, customers can now enjoy the comforts of an indoor bus terminal for all their traveling needs,” says another sign at the Lucky Star and Travel Pack nook. But down the street, at the Crown Royal Bakery, the women who until Sept. 1 were selling Fung Wah tickets grimace when asked why the buses have moved.

“The city,” says one.

“The law,” says the other.

The Chinatown buses had played a cat and mouse game with police, who ticketed the buses when they stopped to pick up riders. Fung Wah losing was a foregone conclusion, since Chinatown is small and the buses are big. Pretty much all the police have to do to spot an illegally parked Fung Wah bus is show up. It’s like finding a Tonka truck on a coffee table.

But this is also a blow to the theory that Chinese organized crime was in charge. If the idea behind the buses was to generate a lot of paper money that would enable the mob to launder cash made elsewhere, there’s no reason the crime lords wouldn’t go on paying a lot of $50 parking tickets for the privilege. That Fung Wah has a sophisticated Web site that allows online payments is another minor blow to the theory, which was advanced by the New York Daily News about a year ago.

Now the Chinatown buses are tucked far down the bus terminals, in the small-company ghetto with Brockton & Plymouth. Their prices are uniformly up half, to $15 from $10, because, a ticket seller shrugged, “We come here. We pay the terminal.”

Outside, Peter Pan and Greyhound have people passing out fliers for their new rates, competitive with the Chinatown buses: $20, up from $15.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


If I were writing a novel, this would have to be in it, as it is a ridiculously literary bit, such an obvious bit of symbolism it’d be embarrassing if it weren’t true.

For weeks now a couple of motorcycle cops have been lurking on one side of Porter Square’s St. James Episcopal Church, pulling over drivers on Massachusetts Avenue and issuing tickets. Yes: symbols of authority hiding behind the church — and it’s quite a beautiful church, truly the most classically attractive part of the area — to extract money from the unsuspecting, who drive through the Beech Street intersection clueless there are watchers in the sidewalk nook at St. James’ back door. Last week I even saw one poor bastard in an electric-green Geo Metro pulled over, a withered, middle-aged man with a scraggly beard, hunched over and shifting uncertainly in his obsolete, cluttered little runabout. Truly a pathetic sight. This man should not be bothered with a ticket, as his life has clearly gone entirely awry.

The metaphor is complicated by the reason behind the traffic stops, though. I asked first one officer, then the other for that reason today, and each gave brusque and even mildly threatening non-answers, implying they were too busy to talk and they would deal with me later. But the police officer serving as crossing guard at the corner (in a nice bit of pathos, he is hearing-impaired) told me very simply that the drivers were busted for passing a school bus when it stops there on weekday afternoons.

Don’t pass a stopped school bus. Even if it means blocking a busy intersection, I guess.

The motorcycle cops could have said this in a tidy, terse four words, if they’d been inclined to be helpful, but they preferred to be menacing. So, despite them doing what should be a service to the community, their tone left me suspicious rather than grateful. And, in fact, I don’t think the bus has been present during the several traffic stops I’ve seen there. How many times a day can the bus come? Are the police pulling over people they think would have passed a stopped school bus had they been given the chance? Surely not the little man in the Metro!

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


It is astounding that conservatives and the toadies that serve them — in this case, editorial cartoonists — go on ridiculing John Kerry over “flip-flopping” over Iraq. Observe this example from Chip Bok of the Akron Beacon Journal, which also ran recently in the New York Post, in which Kerry says, supposedly confusing even himself, “I’m opposed to the war in Iraq ... and I would have voted for it even knowing what we know now ... but we didn’t send enough troops ... so, I’ll bring some of them home in the first 6 months of my administration.”

Each of these is supposed to present a flip-flop, which means Bok sees four changes of position on Iraq, given that Kerry voted to authorize the president to use force against Saddam Hussein. But remember that language.

When Bok has Kerry saying “I’m opposed to the war in Iraq,” he is correct. When he has Kerry saying “And I would have voted for it even knowing what we know now,” he is misquoting, because Kerry’s vote was not for war, but to authorize force if necessary. When he has Kerry saying “but we didn’t send enough troops,” he’s missing the fact that this complaint is not inconsistent with being against the war (because if we’re going to be there, we should do it right) or voting in favor of authorizing force (obviously). When Bok has Kerry saying “So, I’ll bring some of them home in the first 6 months of my administration,” he’s ignoring the fact that much time has passed since the start of the war, and that the war has failed.

The consistent message here, on the part of Kerry, is that the Iraq war was pursued incorrectly: rushed into and executed badly. He didn’t want it. He didn’t actually vote for it. He wanted it done right if it had to be done at all. And it needs to be ended, to save lives, now that it’s failed utterly.

For anyone who doesn’t believe Kerry has been consistent on this, check out this Slate piece that takes it step by step, with the Republican’s own attack video on this topic as a guide to the pertinent “flip-flops.” It’s no surprise to find out that the Republicans got the flip-flops on record through editing out the context of what Kerry was saying.

Monday, September 13, 2004


I’ve stumbled across an interesting artifact, not just on the World Wide Web, but of the World Wide Web. Visit this site and you’ll see what Sergey Brin, the co-founder of the Google search engine, was up to during the end of his time at Stanford University.

Dig the photo with the geeky ripple special effect. Dig the geeky letterman-style letters at the top right. Dig the tempting e-mail address, and contemplate whether Brin was allowed to hang on to it, and thus whether simply anyone could just e-mail him ...

It’s fascinating to poke around Brin’s life, frozen in time, even though there’s no access anymore to his favorite personal photographs or the Web pages of his brother, Sam, his mother (at NASA!) or Meredith (who’s Meredith?). His father’s Web site can be visited, though, and some of Brin’s academic papers seem downloadable — though not, unfortunately, a little thing called “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” that apparently led directly to the creation of Google.

Making up for that loss is an offhand mention that “Research on the Web seems to be fashionable these days and I guess I’m no exception. Recently I have been working on the Google search engine with Larry Page.” A genius of understatement.

Brin also lists his favorite books, an assortment so exhaustive as to be almost pointless, and somewhat mysterious as well, because there are numerous repetitions based on misspellings. (For instance, cruise to the very bottom of the list and you’ll see Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and another book by Zora Neale Hurston, a lesser-known work called “There Eyes Were Watching God.”) This is obviously not a mistake a human would make, and it’s far too clumsy to be deception, so the list must somehow have been compiled by computer.

Indeed, there’s a hint in one of Brin’s data-mining papers, which he calls “Extracting Patterns and Relations from the World Wide Web” and describes as “a technique for extracting relations from the WWW based on the duality of patterns and relations. We experiment with it by extracting a relations of books.”

A flawed experiment, certainly, and somehow an oddly reassuring one. While popping ghostlike into the past to peer over Brin’s predoctoral shoulder, we see simultaneously his brilliance and his bumbling, foreshadowing of Google’s rambunctious public offering, where billions were made and other billions lost — the result of two goofy Stanford grads who wanted to play a bit with a concept, and did it successfully but not perfectly. The reassurance is that these guys cannot take over the world. But if someone had to, we could do worse.

Friday, September 10, 2004


So a couple of days before the third anniversary of 9/11, a videotape arrives featuring Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He warns the United States to expect an attack.

The country, already stuck in permanent yellow with frequent trips to edgy orange, already treated to constant insistences that it panic-and-purchase by Tom Ridge and Dick Cheney, already assured that at some point before the Nov. 2 elections (or after!) a terrorist attack will come, was now told that intelligence officials “played down the tape’s significance, saying it was not necessarily an indication of a pending Qaeda attack.”

This is business as usual for the Bush administration. When North Korea says straight out that it’s building nuclear weapons, we go hunting for them in Iraq, which claims not to have them and which is being searched by United Nations experts who can’t find them either.

The United States continues to suffer a logic deficit, which is why Bush might get re-elected. The nation thinks it’s at its cleverest when it zigs instead of zags, especially when zigging makes no sense. Our enemies would expect us to zag, you see!

Vice President Cheney’s vomitous speech in Iowa on Tuesday, warning U.S. voters that a vote for John Kerry for president means another 9/11, was another good example of this.

“It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again and we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States,” he said. The White House has declined to back away from this, instead saying Cheney was discussing policy about whether Kerry would slip into a “pre-9/11 mindset.”

Cheney’s comments were reminiscent of President Bush’s “Bring it on” challenge to terrorists shortly after 9/11, which was peculiar because, well, that’s exactly what the terrorists had done. (What Bush had been trying to say was “Bring it on now that we’re ready.”)

The Iowa comments were similarly peculiar in that the 9/11 attacks were pretty devastating themselves, and Bush and Cheney were in office then. Furthermore, there has been no shortage of terrorist alerts during this administration, although Cheney seems to be hinting that Homeland Security need not try too hard to prevent terrorists attacks before the election, because they won’t be “devastating.” Intelligence officials agree, apparently.

So now the country is to believe that the terrorists will hit really, really hard when Kerry is elected because they think they can get away with it — although it’s Bush and Cheney who have allowed Al Qaeda to continue to make threats, by shifting resources and energy to Iraq, that hotbed of terrorism so devious and subtle that incidences of terrorism have risen since its invasion and occupation.

But it’s not illogical that Osama bin Laden has been allowed to stay out there, plotting. Bush said he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive,” and he got the latter, allowing him to remain a war president, allowing Cheney to strike fear in the hearts of voters.

That part, at least, makes sense.

Thursday, September 09, 2004


I just realized that there will be no October surprise. The Bush administration will not magically produce Osama bin Laden just in time to produce a landslide victory Nov. 2.

I’m not sure why I didn’t think of it before. It’s been right in front of me: There’s been no shortage of complaints that President Bush and his cynical, sleazy crowd have focused entirely on claiming that our presence in Iraq is a good thing, vital to the war on terrorism, even though it’s diverted resources away from capturing bin Laden. That bin Laden, ostensibly the mastermind behind 9/11, wasn’t mentioned during or since the Republican National Convention means we aren’t holding him prisoner somewhere.

Not that the Republicans necessarily need him. The polls are against Kerry, and most Democrats and liberals I know are gloomily certain we’re getting four more years of this nightmare. The polls, in fact, seem to be increasingly in Bush’s favor — based on what, I don’t know — and largely united in message. Strangely, the most significant note of discord is the Fox poll. As a conservative mouthpiece, the predictable thing for Fox would do is just what it’s done in the past: Produce numbers showing an outsize show of support for Bush, way ahead of what other polls find.

But the Fox numbers are consistently showing Bush with only a modest lead, surely within the margin of error.

It’s possible Fox has decided to lay low for a while, feeling heat from charges that it slants news. It’s also possible it’s diminishing expectations to make the results it predicts look all the more spectacular, just as the White House prepped the nation for a deficit bigger than anyone else expected, just so it looked better when the actual deficit was announced. (Although a federal deficit of $422 billion is still a record, not to mention pretty bloody awful.)

Neither of these scenarios is all that likely, but neither is the idea that Fox has suddenly become fair and balanced. While it’s a relief to find one conspiracy theory collapsing, these days there’s plenty to go around.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004


There’s a very funny headline on The New York Times Web site, and in the paper in a slightly less funny version, on the successful quadruple bypass surgery that former President Clinton has undergone:

Clinton Reported Comfortable and Talking

The classic anecdote about Clinton is that when he introduced presidential candidate Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, the biggest applause during his hour-plus speech came when he said, “In conclusion ...”

Tuesday, September 07, 2004


Left behind by a roommate of Martina’s: a Freedom Greetings card “For A One of a Kind Niece,” decorated with abstract, spastic askterisks in pastels and silver glitter. Inside is this inane message:

There’s no one quite like you,
and there could never be,
You’re really loved
by your whole family.
So when your birthday’s here,
sure hope that you will find
Your day is just like you —
and that’s one of a kind!

“Love you lots,” it’s signed, “your ‘Aunt Mary.’”

Now, why would anyone leave such a lovely card behind when moving? Could it be an inability to reconcile the message — that the recipient is “one of a kind” — with the fact that this is a mass-produced card, being bought by thousands of thoughtless relatives a day and given to thousands of mildly confused and disappointed girls? Could it be that, in furtherance of the “we care so much about you that we bought you this card” message, this cheap, ugly piece of cardboard was addressed “Dear Michael,” instead of “Michelle”?

The Freedom Web site continues the fiction, noting that the company has long been “providing the consuming public with insightful, inspired thinking product making our greeting cards truly unique,” the proof being that surely no other greeting card company would think of asserting that a niece is “one of a kind” or include a poem saying straight out that she is thought well of by her family (in fact, “really loved”).

The site has news, by the way, reinforcing the vital role the company plays in the dispassionate, objective service of humankind. The latest news, as of today, is a month old, from Aug. 2, and tells visitors that “CHRISTMAS SEASON IS HERE.”

That is one of a kind. Most people are waiting for Halloween to declare that it’s Christmastime.

Friday, September 03, 2004


Here’s something it would be good for Republicans, as well as the rest of the electorate, to know: The Bush administration’s claim that it has raised real wages in the United States is based mainly on increased spending by the government.

Most people can shrug this off, since spending is spending and rising wages are rising wages. No matter what, it’s a good thing, or at least doesn’t hurt.

But Republicans want less government. It’s what they’re all about. So they might question the people in charge if government spending is the only thing about rising wages that actually has to do with money people are getting in paychecks.

Floyd Norris’ column in The New York Times today goes into much more depth about this, and I will quote it at length. If this election needs more of anything, it’s more dissemination of facts:
The tax cuts that President Bush pushed through Congress were a big reason for the gain. Adjusted for inflation, taxes paid in July were down 23 percent from December 2000, the last month of the Clinton administration. (All numbers are at seasonally adjusted annual rates.)

What else contributed to the increase? Private businesses are paying a lot more for employee benefits, especially health care. Those costs are up 23 percent, adjusted for inflation. And government spending on its benefit programs, principally Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, is up 19 percent. All that spending counts in disposable personal income, and makes the overall number look better. But few of us feel better off when health insurance premiums go up.

In the area people think of when they hear about personal income — wage and salary payments — the picture is not as pretty. The entire increase there comes from the government payroll. Adjusted for inflation, private industry is paying almost exactly the same as in 2000. To be precise, private spending on wages is up less than 0.1 percent.

No administration back to John F. Kennedy has done as poorly ...

The share of wage and salary income coming from the government can be seen as a measure of the size of government relative to the economy. It ... fell rapidly under Bill Clinton, hitting a low of 16 percent in late 2000.

It has risen under the current administration. The latest quarterly figure showed 17.4 percent of all wage and salary payments came directly from the government.

Republicans will still love the part about the tax cuts helping. Democrats will still note that more of those tax cuts could have gone to people who weren’t already bringing home hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary.

Thursday, September 02, 2004


Coverage of the Republican National Convention has been depressing for those who want to see President Bush defeated in November, and especially for those who want to see him confined for life to clearing brush from his Texas ranch.

It’s possible, though, that the perception of Republican gains against the Democrats is just that, perception, the natural result of the Republican National Convention dominating the news — and the Democrats’ usual reluctance to go for the jugular.

Hopefully they’ll emerge from the RNC week attacking relentlessly with plans, truth and a bit of righteous outrage. But polls show Bush still has some significant negatives to overcome and that his progress, after all, has merely brought him even with Kerry, not put him ahead.

And the economic numbers lurching angrily after Bush like the ghost of Missions Accomplished have staggered in yet again to ruin his party. Here’s The Associated Press lead on the economy as of last night:

Worker productivity growth slowed in the second quarter, retailers saw tepid sales in August and new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, according to a trio of reports that suggested the economy was still working through its rough patch.

Also, there are going to be a bunch of newly angry voters stomping around the country, possibly just around Election Day. Starbucks, it turns out, is raising its prices before “the end of the calendar year.”

Wednesday, September 01, 2004


Britney Spears and the Republicans do have something in common, which is that they aren’t all that good at what they’re supposed to do — singing for Spears, governing for Republicans — but terrific at the accompanying secondary functions — publicity or getting elected, winning no matter what it takes.

Spears, who also complained that indie films make you think, was famously shown in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” as saying that she thinks “we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes and we should just support that.” She trusts Bush. She’s essentially come out as a Republican, and one would think that the Republicans, who are somewhat starved for A-list celebrities, would be grateful. But amid the sleazy moralizers there is tension over the vacuous trollop.

Apparently, Spears’ sweaty bosoms and glitzy dances aren’t enough, somehow, to shake an image as slutty home wrecker. The Republicans are declining to let Spears perform for them! Or they’re not. The media hasn’t quite come through with a consensus.

This is delicious no matter which way it turns out: Either Spears finds herself rejected by her party for being herself; or those big-tent Republicans let her perform, tacitly presenting themselves as the party of Madonna-kissing, masturbating pinup darlings who get married (briefly) after drunken flings in Vegas.

It’s a marriage made in heaven, for all those who believe God has a sense of humor. Britney’s third.