Tuesday, November 30, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 29, 2004


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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 23, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2004


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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 20, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Renting a car? Forget Alamo National. Consider Enterprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


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

The rest is terrifying:

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2004



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The suggestions for reforming our political system are similarly questionable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know, for the cat.

Friday, November 12, 2004


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


Thursday, November 11, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 10, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


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

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

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

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

Usually he gets anonymous rage.

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 08, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail democracy.

Saturday, November 06, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not familiar with the Postal Service?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 04, 2004


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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 03, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to hopelessness.


The Kerry-Edwards campaign isn’t conceding.


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 01, 2004


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

“The series that redefined a generation is back.”

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

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

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

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