Friday, December 31, 2004


To enter the next year with a relatively clear conscience, less karmically afflicted, I will once again unburden myself publicly about some lame thing I’ve done. Last year’s unburdening had festered for a very long time; this one is from within the past couple of months.

I was bad about birthdays. Readers may have noted my acknowledgment of Indri’s birthday. But what about 3Jake? Why no mention of her “big 3-5” on Nov. 10, back when I was complaining about silly practices in journalism, like no-jump policies and USA Today worship?

Sorry, Jake. And happy new year.

Happy new year, everyone.

Thursday, December 30, 2004


During a recent conversation about collegiality, I slipped briefly into metaphor, remembering my experience with the dress code at a small newspaper in central Massachusetts.

It’s been a long time, but I think part of the rules was that men couldn’t wear jeans and had to wear button-front shirts with ties. This was to give the place some class, which seemed a trifle silly knowing there were no such dress codes at papers with far better circulations and reputations, such as The Boston Globe and Boston Herald.

And I felt oafish and provincial rotating my small wardrobe to accommodate the code — until I observed a couple of my fellow employees, whose wardrobes seemed to be just as small and whose efforts at meeting the code several times more ludicrous. That is, they made the code seem ludicrous, not the clothing.

The attire of the stocky, unshaven Brit was, appropriately, rumpled, ill-fitting and worn. That of the balding, mustachioed editor seemed to consist entirely of green, much of it in the mildly toxic hue of frothy gelatin desserts and furniture of the early 1970s. Both favored short-sleeved shirts.

All of this was within the letter of the dress code. And it was entirely unironic: If these men were participating in an endless, straight-faced scam to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the rules, they refused to let on for literally years. Yet every day’s iterative unveiling was such a devastating affront to the spirit of the code that it seemed astounding that higher-ups weren’t shamed into revisions. More likely they were dazed into apathy.

No one found it remarkable but me, though. Such things are subjective.

I learned from this that there are ways to adhere to the letter of the law while knocking the spirit violently on its ass. The learning has gone on over the years. Mostly by observation.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


I found a cell phone tonight at the Broadway T stop, searched its phone book for a number to call to arrange its return, found an entry for “Dad.” I called dad. I explained the situation. Dad said he had no idea what I was talking about. I explained the situation again. Dad said I’d reached the wrong person. He denied having offspring. I asked if he knew of anyone who might have him listed in their phone book as “Dad,” whether he was one or not. No, he said.

He told me I had the wrong number.

“But you’re on speed dial,” I said. Silence.

I hung up.

I wound up returning the phone to a girl at Park Street several minutes later, connected through the most-recently dialed number in the phone’s memory. I handed over her phone and asked no questions.

I was in a rush, and almost preferred leaving it a mystery.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Congratulations to The Boston Phoenix, which has been recently redesigned, making it slightly less ugly and dramatically less stupid. It’s just sad and bewildering — like watching a 15-year-old finally figure out how to tie their own shoes — that it took so long.

The change is that the arts section puts film reviews, listings and capsule descriptions in one place.

Certainly that doesn’t sound very impressive. But the Phoenix had been arranged in such a fashion that readers had to bypass a section called “Eight Days a Week,” which listed events but not movies, and go on to a separate arts section where: film reviews came on, say, page six; film listings on, oh, page 21; and the capsule reviews somewhere after that. For everything else, you went back to “Eight Days a Week.”

The alternative weekly also experimented recently with an alternative front-page design. It abandoned the new look after a couple of weeks, returning to its usual appearance of jagged neon vomit.

So the 15-year-old can tie his own shoes, but you sure don’t want to watch it happening.

Monday, December 27, 2004


Let all weep for the downtrodden Christians.

“It seems that it’s okay to be anything these days but Christian,” said the Rev. Gaylord Hatler, of the First Christian Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the Dec. 24 New York Times.

One of the Christians’ major complaints these days is, as Chris Birkett says in the Times today, “We’re being asked not to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ They want you to say ‘Happy holidays.’” Even Eric, of the Movin’ Out blog, speaks up boldly to wish everyone “Merry Christmas” and wonder “Am I the last person in the world not afraid to say that?"

Yes. Eric and Chris are the last people in the United States bold enough to break through the chains of political correctness constricting this once great nation ... except perhaps for all the other citizens identifying themselves as Christian, now between 76.5 percent and 82 percent of the entire country. Perhaps standing among more than 235 million people against 59 million will reassure these poor men that it is, in fact, okay to be Christian, or wish people “Merry Christmas” or any combination thereof.

Maybe they would be comforted by a reminder that “The Passion of the Christ” grossed more than $370 million in the United States just as of July 29, never mind sales of the DVD. Or that the hardcover fiction best-seller list of the Times is topped by Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” which has been on the list for 65 weeks. Also on the list is “The Christmas Thief” at No. 11, “A Redbird Christmas” at No. 15, “The Christmas Blessing” at No. 29 and “The Christmas Shoes” at No. 32. The “Left Behind” series has sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. “Skipping Christmas,” by John Grisham, is No. 6 on the paperback fiction best-sellers list, and it’s been on the list for 10 weeks. Despite awful reviews, the movie it became, “Christmas with the Kranks,” has grossed more than $62 million in the United States as of Dec. 19, and it was only released Nov. 24. The television is polluted with everything from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to reruns of “Touched by an Angel,” which ran for nine seasons before ending last year. Our president is a born-again Christian and may have been re-elected based on “values and morals.” Dramatic advances are being made in the field of religious ignorance, with Christian pet projects such as abortion and evolution on the run around the country.

So maybe the Christians could shut up and stop whining for a moment. They are not an oppressed minority, or even an oppressed majority.

“Happy holidays” is simply a safer thing to say than “Merry Christmas” in a country of growing diversity, as well as more inclusive — not only of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but of New Year’s.

And how about this most Christian of holidays, which Christians intend to safeguard semantically by preserving the “Merry Christmas” greeting? Are Christians aware Dec. 25 was a holiday belonging to Mithraism, and that early Christians moved Christ’s birthday to the date just to make it easier to win converts?

“Fudging the Lord’s birthday for the purpose of gaining converts may seem like a terrible sin today, but in the fourth century A.D. it was no big deal,” writes John Dollison in “Pope-Pourri” (Simon & Schuster, 1994). “In those days it was a person’s death day that mattered; except for kings, in most cases birthdays weren’t even recorded. Jesus probably didn’t know his own birthdate (which most contemporary estimates place at the end of May).”

Tom Flynn’s “The Trouble with Christmas” (Prometheus, 1993) expands on this:

No, the odds that the historic Jesus was actually born on December 25 are, at best, 365 to 1. Even those odds may be overly generous, for evidence in the gospel of Luke all but rules out a winter birth date. Recall that the shepherds were out in the fields watching their flocks by night. Palestine is warm, but not tropical. To this day, shepherding peoples leave their flocks in the pastures overnight — and stay outside with them — only in the nicer weather. In some areas, the flocks are supervised by night only in the spring, during the lambing season. This is the only clue the gospels give that links the Nativity to a specific season of the year, and it argues against a December birth date.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2004


Awful day. Then I stayed at work overtime, ran to catch the T but arrived too late. So I walked from Broadway to the ITOA taxi depot behind the Herald and asked, incredibly for me, for a cab to Porter Square. Unfortunately, the taxi company was unable to get me one. (I’m not kidding.) The five men sitting around playing cards advised me to hope to find one of their drivers on the street somewhere.


But I found one: Richard Piotrowski, who explained that — every episode of “Taxi” to the contrary — cab drivers don’t sit around the garage waiting for fares. They’re only there every 12 hours for shift changes.

There aren’t many jobs that demand 12-hour shifts. It turns out Piotrowski, who fled Poland about 23 years ago when martial law was declared, wound up in Alaska working at one of the few other jobs that do: commercial fisherman.

The information about taxi-driver shifts soothed me a bit. But Piotrowski went on to talk about fishing, all the way to Porter, and was, well, just short of enthralling. I was sorry when the trip ended.

Much of it was just details about how the industry operates compared with how it was when Piotrowski, now something like an older Robin Williams with a Polish accent, thinning hair and a mustache, started working the boats. His most vivid stories were somewhat grotesque. He told them with mildly embarrassed, but unrestrained, laughter.

The fishing attracted seagulls — in such numbers “they cut off the sun,” Piotrowski recalled — and the fishermen, punchy and savage after days spent awake, working constantly in below-freezing temperatures, took their revenge upon them. There were seagull gladiator games, in which the birds were stuck in the chest with large hooks and tied together to claw each other to bits. And there was seagull baseball, in which the birds, swarming in claustrophobic profusion, could merely be swung at with a bat and knocked brutally out of midair, then to be torn apart and eaten by their friends.

Awful stories. But distracting. Transporting. From Poland to America, from fishing to driving, from Southie to Porter Square, from a newspaper desk to a bloodsoaked boat deck. Nice to be taken away after an absurdly enraging day of technical problems and interoffice politics.

Thursday, December 23, 2004


I’d like to blog, but I’m too angry. And the details of my anger are so esoteric and picayune that saying anything specific about it, let alone piling on enough detail to make my rage reasonable, would undoubtedly bore even the most faithful reader.

Some people can pull off writing about their personal life, meaning keeping it interesting. (Two such people, who write about other things as well, have links to the right.)

Some can’t. (For jawdropping proof, look here, here or here, if you dare.)

I can’t pull it off.

So let me just say I am convinced anew that the Boston Herald employs some of the biggest fucking assholes in the world. The culture — seemingly structured to prevent rather than encourage progress — encourages it.

I acknowledge that the biggest assholes probably think the same of me.

But, then, I didn’t go into their offices and break their fucking equipment. Then leave it broken for two days. Then ...

Oops. Was that the sound of everyone leaving my blog?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


It didn’t take me long to recognize we were listening to all-Christmas music radio, not much longer to be sick of it. So I asked Michelle, my hairstylist — if you can call Supercuts employees that — if she were a full-time employee, and, if so, how she could stand it.

She couldn’t, really, even though full time at Supercuts is only 30 hours a week. Michelle told me she’d cracked a few days back, gone back to the radio and tuned it to another station, in slight defiance of her absent manager’s wishes.

Yesterday, though, the Christmas tunes played on. Then a swell of sweet, adventurous music, a line about taking your kid on a magical adventure: a Disney ad. Then strings, a fruity voice, a cringe-inducing claim to present “perfection at its finest”: an ad for L’Espalier, fine dining on Gloucester Street in Boston.

All-Christmas radio is a growing trend. In practicality, it results, though, in Christmas music, Christmas music, Christmas music, commercials; Christmas music, Christmas music, Christmas music, commercials. To a surprising extent, the advertisements become the relief from the music.

The ads become a gift. How’s that for commercializing Christmas?

The commercialism of Christmas is actually a common plaint, but it seems the only cure anyone can suggest is more of it — but the right kind, not the commercial kind! And music seems to be safe, as it doesn’t explicitly advocate the buying of a specific product. But the road to commercialism is paved with good intentions, and you listen to irritating tunes along the way, over and over again. When hearing an ad that has nothing to do with Christmas is like rolling down the window for a rush of fresh air, you can stop driving: You’re there.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


William Safire will soon be gone from the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, thank goodness, so it might have been a bit of prenostalgia that suckered me in to reading yesterday’s column.


The piece imagined what would have happened if Bush hadn’t invaded Iraq and, predictably, shows things going horribly. It gets off to a rousing start by suggesting that, with tensions from terrorism ratcheted up and intelligence showing Iraq harboring evildoers and seeking weapons of mass destruction, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggests “relaxing U.N. pressure on Iraq” and easing sanctions to “persuade Saddam to permit inspections.” Bush goes along!

Fact: United Nations sanctions, despite Hussein’s perversion of the oil-for-food program, were working, including keeping him from building weapons of mass destruction. Fact: Hussein permitted inspections, and they worked, finding no weapons of mass destruction.

Safire goes on to conjecture that an emboldened Hussein would “increase contacts with Al Qaeda ... take leadership of the Arab world by developing WMD or pretending to have them already and .... openly challenge Bush.”

Fact: Iraq and Al Qaeda were not allies. They were ideological opposites. There is no reason this would have changed while Hussein was in power. Fact: Hussein could not build WMDs and was already pretending to have them. Strangely, this was not making him the darling of the neighboring governments. In general, they loathed Hussein. Question: Openly challenge Bush to what?

Safire imagines that when Hussein finally does shoot down one of our aircraft — in his terms, Hussein would have “gloriously faced down the U.S.” — “Saddam becomes an iconic, heroic figure in the Arab and Muslim world.”

Question: For shooting down a warplane? While it might have boosted his stature a bit, would it really stand up compared with Osama bin Laden killing 3,000 Americans in New York and attacking the Pentagon? Fact: Hussein had been shooting at our planes all along. It would be more likely that Arabs and Muslims would consider it about time a shot succeeded.

“Cut to Libya,” Safire writes, “where Qaddafi ... shifts his fear of the U.S. to fear and envy of Iraq, and presses ahead to produce a nuclear bomb of his own.”

Question: Since Safire postulates that Hussein’s success would lead to Iraq strengthening its ties with Palestinian terrorists and those of Al Qaeda, what is it exactly that Libya, a fellow terrorist nation, would have had to fear from Iraq? Invasion, as Kuwait suffered in 1991? Doubtful. Between Iraq and Libya are Egypt, Israel and Jordan. But Safire does not explain.

What he does do, unfortunately, is go on and on and on with this nonsense.

But Safire will be gone toward the beginning of next year, and this nonsense will not go on and on and on. And it will not be missed or missed or missed.

That is, unless he were writing coherent columns that made sense. And if I had a different mother and father and had been raised in a red state. And if on Sept. 17, 1979, Ronald Reagan had traveled to Damascus and met a Norwegian transvestite prostitute named Mona who carried a disease known to be deadly in people wearing cowboy boots. And if this antagonized Greenpeace, causing the group to shatter into several splinter groups. And if one of them started selling a gourmet popcorn called “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.” And if a ferret ate the popcorn and became king of Utah.

And if ...

Monday, December 20, 2004


There’s a story in today’s Boston Herald — with the classically yawn-inducing hyperbolic headline “Hero Hub cop saves families from blaze” in all-caps, of course — in which “Inside the burning house, 19-year-old Cindy Castro was awakened by the doorbell.”

In the editors’ meeting yesterday, the city editor on duty described the story and muttered that she didn’t know what someone was doing still in bed at 10 a.m. (Actually, the fire was noticed at 10:30 a.m., meaning Castro was awoken even after that.)

People wonder why newspapers aren’t doing so hot with younger readers. It may be because they hire editors mystified that someone may have been up so late that they could still be in bed past dawn.

On the other hand, I may just have been offended by what’s implied by the question. I was asleep until 11 a.m.

Friday, December 17, 2004


In lieu of making schedules public, the MBTA is broadcasting information to T stop platforms about the proximity of approaching trains.

It tells people at Porter Square, for instance, that a southbound train has left Alewife, or that a northbound train has left Kendall.

What’s difficult to appreciate about this is that the MBTA doesn’t deal with “north” or “south.” The platforms are labeled “inbound” (meaning toward Boston) and “outbound” (away from Boston), and when you arrive in Boston, tracks are merely labeled with the farthest T stops as destinations. For instance, at Park Street, you can get on the red line “To Alewife via Harvard” or “To Ashmont, Braintree via Downtown Crossing.”

This “northbound, southbound” stuff doesn’t particularly upset me, and it didn’t confuse me for long. But it doesn’t help much, either, if only because from Porter, a northbound train goes west and a southbound train east before heading in a general southerly direction. Or rather, south to Harvard, east to Central, northeast to Kendall ... but, yes, it goes to the south shore. Ultimately.

What’s striking about the announcements is their uselessness, their silliness, their microscopic overlay of a system on entirely different systems that stretch hundreds of miles and back more than 100 years. Newcomers will look to a sign that says “inbound” or “Ashmont/Braintree” and hear an announcement that says “southbound.” They will hear an announcement about a “northbound train” and look in vain for a sign that confirms this, or conforms to it.

Frankly, our system is confusing enough on its own. The compass can be left out of it.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


At his Social Security summit, President Bush asked, “Are we willing to confront the problem now or are we going to pass it on to future Congresses and future generations?”

Details are scant, unfortunately, on whether anyone appreciated the joke.


The Bush administration, notoriously composed of Republicans, who are notoriously reluctant to regulate industry or enforce existing regulations, wants us to give up the Social Security safety net for privately handled investments.

Never mind the poverty and despair of the Great Depression, which led to the creation of Social Security and was itself the spawn of an immense stock market crash. Never mind the fresh abominations of Worldcom, Adelphia, Tyco and Enron, among others. Ignore even the tech bubble of the 1990s. Try to forget for a moment the fragility of our economy in the face of renewed terrorist attacks.

With all this accomplished, what is it about the stock market now — years off a major scandal and 9/11 — that so encourages private investment over Social Security? It’s not really doing that well. Especially with investors fleeing U.S. stocks for foreign stocks as the dollar weakens, it is unclear why Bush’s privatization plans have earned even modest interest among ordinary citizens.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Our missile defense system failed another test today, what The New York Times calls “an $85 million failure” because it’s (appropriately) too hung up on objectivity to call the program “a $90 billion failure.”

The story did not say whether this test was faked, as others have been, by putting a global positioning device in the attacking “warhead” showing our missiles where it can be found and destroyed. It does point out that the test had been delayed several times by “weather and other factors” and that its predecessor (was it really as long ago as December 2002?) also failed.

So what the Times points out, implicitly, is that it’s not so much that tests were rigged, or that some still didn’t succeed — but that even when weather and other factors permit a test, we can’t reliably get a missile in the air!

A target rocket carrying a mock warhead was successfully launched from Kodiak, Alaska. But the interceptor, which was to have gone aloft 16 minutes later and picked off the target 100 miles over the earth, automatically shut down instead because of “an unknown anomaly,” the Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency said.

Despite the disappointment, today’s event was not a total failure, said Richard A. Lehner, an agency spokesman. He said “quite a bit” had been learned from the aborted test, which he called “a very good training exercise.”

A very good $85 million training exercise.

Considering it’s been almost two decades since Star Wars began, when can we expect a test to work when we want it to — and succeed honestly, rather than relying on a homing beacon cheat? Could it be another couple of decades?

In the meantime, if we have such an urgent need for missile defense, isn’t our utter failure rather provocative to anyone against whom we need the defense? If our failure doesn’t convince these enemies to attack, isn’t that rather convincing evidence that we have no need of such a shield? If we continue to project a need for this system far into the future, doesn’t that suggest an ongoing, in fact, unending, and equally immense failure of diplomacy and conventional force, if not a complete surrender?

These are questions worth considering before another $90 billion go down the tubes — then to be shot harmlessly into the sky.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Wainwright Bank is doing its best to put the funk in FDIC. Its corporate identity screams “rainbow coalition” with colors that can’t be found on any rainbow, projecting a gay-friendly, socially conscious image that goes so far as to ensure people know its 10 branches “are friendly places to visit.”

It’s sweet, and a little desperate.

The bank’s public transportation advertising, for instance, features a swirl of colored bubbles, each with a liberal selling point in pleasantly hippie-ish rounded typeface. One says Wainwright is one of the top 10 “green” banks.

Another says Wainwright is one of the top 11 lenders to women.

One of the top 11?

Um, it wouldn’t actually be No. 11, would it? Meaning one short of the top 10?

Monday, December 13, 2004


A Supreme Court justice advocates for an end to the separation of church and state. I learned about it Saturday from Radio Free Mike, where Mike locates the vulnerabilities and scores powerful shots. I suspect, unfortunately, it’ll take a lot more power and a lot more shots to make this idea go away.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


Happy birthday, Indri!

Friday, December 10, 2004


No wonder people back away from politics with such discomfort and disbelief.

The country has a coming shortfall in Social Security benefits to cover, and President Bush is intent on allowing private investing to take the place of some money going into the Social Security pool. By proceeding with this plan and ruling out a rise in payroll taxes, as he did yesterday, Bush has essentially committed to borrowing between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.

Keep in mind that he has also committed to cutting the $413 billion deficit in half within four years. And that he also intends to make his tax cuts permanent.

These intentions cannot coexist. It’s simply impossible to cut the deficit within four years when you’ve vowed to, within the same four years, privatize Social Security, ultimately decreasing the money flowing to it by up to $2 trillion, forcing the country to borrow the same amount to get the baby boomers the retirement money they’re owed.

You can’t decrease overall debt by borrowing more money.

It’s not complex. But the impossibility makes it seem complex, and it is difficult for Americans to grasp that they are being blatantly conned by the President of the United States, for whom many of these Americans voted.

The New York Times notes today that

If the government was to let people divert part of their payroll taxes to private accounts, the budget deficit would be more than $100 billion a year higher than otherwise and the surpluses in the Social Security trust fund expected over the next 13 years would disappear.

With that in mind, administration officials and Republicans in Congress hint that they are looking at ways to exclude the expected transition costs from the official deficit numbers.

Again: It’s a con.

The Times’ Paul Krugman suggests that explaining the insanity of Bush’s plans for Social Security will be a top priority when he returns to his column regularly next month. But he fired an opening salvo Tuesday, which I quote below in full.

The dazed confusion that ensues from discussion of Social Security is not a reason to withdraw from debate. It’s the result of a trick, and that’s reason to shake it off and think again.

Let it start here, if it must:

Inventing a crisis
By Paul Krugman
The New York Times
Dec. 7, 2004

Privatizing Social Security — replacing the current system, in whole or in part, with personal investment accounts — won’t do anything to strengthen the system’s finances. If anything, it will make things worse. Nonetheless, the politics of privatization depend crucially on convincing the public that the system is in imminent danger of collapse, that we must destroy Social Security in order to save it.

I’ll have a lot to say about all this when I return to my regular schedule in January. But right now it seems important to take a break from my break, and debunk the hype about a Social Security crisis.

There’s nothing strange or mysterious about how Social Security works: It’s just a government program supported by a dedicated tax on payroll earnings, just as highway maintenance is supported by a dedicated tax on gasoline.

Right now the revenues from the payroll tax exceed the amount paid out in benefits. This is deliberate, the result of a payroll tax increase — recommended by none other than Alan Greenspan — two decades ago. His justification at the time for raising a tax that falls mainly on lower- and middle-income families, even though Ronald Reagan had just cut the taxes that fall mainly on the very well-off, was that the extra revenue was needed to build up a trust fund. This could be drawn on to pay benefits once the baby boomers began to retire.

The grain of truth in claims of a Social Security crisis is that this tax increase wasn’t quite big enough. Projections in a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office (which are probably more realistic than the very cautious projections of the Social Security Administration) say that the trust fund will run out in 2052. The system won't become “bankrupt” at that point; even after the trust fund is gone, Social Security revenues will cover 81 percent of the promised benefits. Still, there is a long-run financing problem.

But it’s a problem of modest size. The report finds that extending the life of the trust fund into the 22nd century, with no change in benefits, would require additional revenues equal to only 0.54 percent of G.D.P. That's less than 3 percent of federal spending — less than we’re currently spending in Iraq. And it's only about one-quarter of the revenue lost each year because of President Bush's tax cuts — roughly equal to the fraction of those cuts that goes to people with incomes over $500,000 a year.

Given these numbers, it’s not at all hard to come up with fiscal packages that would secure the retirement program, with no major changes, for generations to come.

It’s true that the federal government as a whole faces a very large financial shortfall. That shortfall, however, has much more to do with tax cuts — cuts that Mr. Bush nonetheless insists on making permanent — than it does with Social Security.

But since the politics of privatization depend on convincing the public that there is a Social Security crisis, the privatizers have done their best to invent one.

My favorite example of their three-card-monte logic goes like this: First, they insist that the Social Security system’s current surplus and the trust fund it has been accumulating with that surplus are meaningless. Social Security, they say, isn't really an independent entity — it’s just part of the federal government.

If the trust fund is meaningless, by the way, that Greenspan-sponsored tax increase in the 1980s was nothing but an exercise in class warfare: Taxes on working-class Americans went up, taxes on the affluent went down, and the workers have nothing to show for their sacrifice.

But never mind: The same people who claim that Social Security isn’t an independent entity when it runs surpluses also insist that late next decade, when the benefit payments start to exceed the payroll tax receipts, this will represent a crisis — you see, Social Security has its own dedicated financing, and therefore must stand on its own.

There’s no honest way anyone can hold both these positions, but very little about the privatizers’ position is honest. They come to bury Social Security, not to save it. They aren’t sincerely concerned about the possibility that the system will someday fail; they’re disturbed by the system’s historic success.

For Social Security is a government program that works, a demonstration that a modest amount of taxing and spending can make people’s lives better and more secure. And that’s why the right wants to destroy it.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Well, I’ll be.

What glares out from 2245 Massachusetts Ave. not two hours ago but a White Hen Pantry stripped and emptied, adorned only by several paper signs advertising, instead of a redundant pale chicken cabinet, a “Bread & Butter Convenience Store [is] Coming Soon.”

Aside from the name, it’s unclear how it’ll differ. But it’s one less thing to moan over.

If this post makes no sense, read below.


Porter Square is rapidly becoming a Moebius strip mall. If it wasn’t enough to travel a half-mile from one White Hen Pantry to the next down Massachusetts Avenue, there came the Big Picture Framing shop at 2044 Massachusetts Ave., a barely significant 0.3 miles distant from the Corners Picture Framing Superstore by Star Market.

Now the defunct photo shop at 2032 Massachusetts Ave. is becoming a Cartridge World — a refurbisher and reseller of toner cartridges for printers — because, apparently, the kiosk at 1 Porter Square, a significantly bare 0.4 miles away, suggested the market was ripe for competition.

How weird is this? The next nearest SaveOnInks site is about four miles away, across the river at the Prudential Center. The next nearest Cartridge World is in East Weymouth, more than 20 miles away. So there is plenty of room to spread out, making the reason the chains must go head-to-head within a few blocks of each other elusive at best. The possibilities include:

Someone has decided to perform a perverse economics experiment that will soon drive down the cost of toner cartridges in Porter Square to virtually nothing;

Someone else has decided to perform a perverse sociological experiment to keep Porter Square as dull and silly as possible, and this was the most dramatic step possible in that direction after the counterproductively exciting opening of Porter Square Books;

There is an aberrantly huge demand for toner cartridges in the Porter Square area, enough for both businesses to thrive;

The much larger Cartridge World intends to slay the upstart SaveOnInks by directly challenging it site for site;

Someone didn’t do very good market research.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


My cousin Nina, whose Web site is among the links to the right, is an artist of striking and unique ability. But she is not so unique that ARTnews magazine hasn’t been able to lump her in with a few other sculptors as proponents of “The New Realism.” I’m proud to say Nina is featured prominently in the story, which leads the December issue: Her art is on the cover and takes up a full page inside, she is quoted and discussed at length and — in what she must take to be a rather nice turn of events — her showings are listed. (In addition to the Feigen Contemporary gallery in New York and Metaphor Contemporary Art in Brooklyn, she has two pieces at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park here in Massachusetts.)

That’s pretty much all I had to say. I have no point. Just bragging.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


Ugh. New York party boy Jason Binn intends to start a magazine here called Commonwealth — emphasis on “wealth” — that, according to the Boston Herald, will “meld celebrity and A-list party scene gossip with entertainment, arts, real estate and fashion coverage ... all wrapped in a lifestyle package targeted at affluent readers.”

This is for all those grasping people who don’t get their fill of this with Stuff@Night, The Improper Bostonian and Boston magazine and, in fact, much of the Boston Herald and Boston Globe and who need what Binn calls “a true celebration of Boston and all Boston has to offer in the world of luxury.”

I’ll keep Cambridge. There, dressing up makes one feel mildly uncomfortable, a sensation that lasts until the Charles is safely past and Park Street’s exits beckon; music clubs don’t start shows at family hour and throw crowds out before 10 p.m. to make room for the next paying audience; the defining square is Harvard, not Louisburg; the defining path is Massachusetts Avenue, not Newbury Street; black is worn because it’s easy, not because it’s fashionable; a celebrity is John Malkovich, not Tom Brady; the music is Morphine, not Boston; the defining store sells books, not clothes; and wealth is subtle, not celebrated.

Even the magazine title “Commonwealth” is repulsive in this context — a complete betrayal of what a commonwealth implies, highlighting differences between haves and have-nots rather than striving to help people have wealth, of any kind, in common.

I hope the magazine dies a quick death, as all shamelessly social-climbing toadies should.

Or at least sticks to its side of the river.

Monday, December 06, 2004


Last week’s comments boosting a sales tax by N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers to President Bush, were little noted and are already skittering off into the shadows, disappearing into crevices on tiny, insectile legs.

When these ideas are exposed to light, ordinary people are filled with loathing and an instinct to kill. Republicans know this, so they’re happy there’s plenty of distraction: Bright colors flash by on television screens, drawing attention, while these ideas crawl through cabinets and race across sleeping children.

On the off chance these little ideological cockroaches are spotted, Republicans have outfitted them with tiny, sequined red, white and blue outfits — top hats, vests, spats and little canes — meant to convince the unwary that what they’re seeing is good and embraceable, rather than dirty and scummy.

This particular bug wants Americans to pay more taxes when they buy things, rather than based on what they earn. Not surprisingly, this hurts poorer people, who spend a higher proportion of income even by buying such essentials as food, and benefits richer people for whom such things as food are a tiny percentage of income, and probably far more of a luxury. (Think hot dogs vs. caviar or cola vs. fine wines.)

Here’s what Mankiw said Thursday at a conference held by the American Enterprise Institute and International Tax Policy Forum, as quoted by Bloomberg News:

Under an income tax, a person who immediately spends all his wages pays lower taxes over his lifetime than his neighbor who earns the same amount but chooses to save and invest in order to enjoy a more prosperous retirement or to leave a bequest to his children. Savers would no longer be disadvantaged relative to spendthrifts.

Who are these thoughtless people spending everything they earn instead of saving and investing?

To start, there are more than 7.4 million workers earning the federal minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, meaning someone with a full-time job paying that earns $206 a week. It may be difficult to imagine living on $206 a week, or $10,712 a year, but that’s actually above the federal poverty threshold for a single person with no kids: $9,573 for someone under the age of 65. For a family of three, such as a full-time worker with a spouse taking care of a small child at home, it’s short of the poverty threshold by $4,112. Even taking into account the earned-income tax credit, says the Economic Policy Institute,

the current minimum wage is still inadequate to support a single parent with two children. In 2003, a single parent working full time with two children would have a combined earnings and tax credit of $14,097, only 95 percent of the 2003 poverty threshold of $14,824 for a family of three.

And the numbers of people living in poverty is growing, the U.S. Census Bureau says, to 12.5 percent of the U.S. population last year from 12.1 percent in 2002, an increase of 1.3 million people.

This would be a good time for Mankiw, that cockroach wrangler, to visit the Twilight Zone, and wake up tomorrow as someone earning the federal minimum wage. It would be instructive to see how much money he socks away for his kids and retirement while earning $5.15 an hour, and how he sets an example for his “spendthrift” peers.

Or he could wake up tomorrow as a cockroach, which haunt the homes of the poor, and get stomped on.

Friday, December 03, 2004


The resignation of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge was revelatory, and probably not in a way preferred by the fearmongers of the Bush administration.

In the time Ridge has been in his post (he accepted it Sept. 21, 2001, resigned as Pennsylvania’s governor Oct. 5, 2001, but was sworn into office at the new department on Jan. 24, 2003) there have been constant warnings of terrorist attacks, all apparently based on surges in “chatter” among the bad guys, and subsequent claims of antiterrorist actions.

But those actions have invariably resulted in silence, not exultation that a second 9/11 has been averted.

The generous assumption is that good spies don’t run around talking about their work. The government has said repeatedly that, to keep intelligence flowing, it can’t reveal too much about the terrorist plots it uncovers. (Then it ignores that whenever there’s a political need, such as in the case of “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla. In June 2002, the government was getting pounded for missing warnings on 9/11, so Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of Padilla — presenting it as though it had just happened, although he’d been in custody for a month.)

In quitting, though, Ridge didn’t stay silent on his record for national security reasons. And he didn’t boast of success in busting terrorists and keeping the nation safe. He said:

I am confident that the terrorists are aware that from the curb to the cockpit we’ve got additional security measures that didn’t exist a couple years ago, that from port to port we do things differently with maritime security. Confident that they know the borders are more secure. I'm confident that they know that we’ve developed and are sharing information with the state and local law enforcement.

Or, as The New York Times summed it up,

Mr. Ridge said he was “fairly confident” that the measures his department enacted had helped thwart terrorist attacks, but he acknowledged that he could not prove it.

The meaning is clear: For all the patrolled borders, guarded curbs, armed sky marshals and security queues, Ridge not only didn’t have statistics about suspects arrested and plots prevented ... he didn’t even have examples.

You can’t prove a negative. Any amount of terrorism could have been prevented just by the creation of Homeland Security and advertising of information about its efforts.

But this is Tom Ridge, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and commander of its 180,000 employees. It would be reasonable if he had the slightest clue. Something to offer.

Surprisingly, he does not.

Thursday, December 02, 2004


I dumped my AAA Financial Services credit card, finally, after calling to confirm I’d been assessed a $29 fee for being late on a $44 bill.

The customer service representative agreed it was the $44 September T pass bill on which I’d been late. Then he explained the late fee structure: about $15 for less than $100 and $29 for more.

Hunh? What $100, then? He’d just agreed the total bill was $44.

Well, see, on the October statement on which the late fee appears, there was another $44 bill for the next month’s T pass, $20.50 at Loew’s Boston Common movie theater and $15.65 for Brother’s Pizza & Grill in Belmont, a total of $80.15 ...

... which means the only way the late fee is justified at the higher rate is by including the fee itself, for a total of $109.15.

The logic was so tortured that I couldn’t, at first, deal with that last violent twist. I began to grapple with it only after canceling the card and hanging up with the customer service rep.

Hours later, I’m still mystified why a company would play such an absurd game with late fees — and be so quick to agree to ending an until-recently functional relationship — with someone getting an average of two credit card solicitations per day from every company under the sun and probably a few on it. AAA Financial Services itself had been asking me to move up to its platinum card.

Perhaps I should have. Maybe the advantage of being a platinum-card holder is that the late-fee rules make sense. On the other hand, following their logic, perhaps platinum-card late fees are assessed before a check is late. Or before the card is used. Or before the card arrives in the mail.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004


I feel as though I am going insane. The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case concerning medical marijuana on Monday and debated it, according to The New York Times, on the precedent of Wickard vs. Filburn — a 1942 case that decided wheat grown for private consumption interfered with interstate commerce and thus was under federal jurisdiction.

“It looks like Wickard to me,” Justice Antonin Scalia said. “Why is this not economic activity? This marijuana that’s grown is like wheat. Since it’s grown, it doesn’t have to be bought elsewhere.”

Um, isn’t this an argument better left to a product intended to be bought and sold, not something the U.S. government is trying to keep illegal? Saying the pot cancer patients grow for medical reasons interferes with pot that could be “bought elsewhere” is like complaining that masturbation robs hookers of work.

What’s crazier is that the Times’ article hints strongly that the case will fail, the federal government will step in and desperately sick people will be deprived surcease from pain. Because, of all things, the government has a right to keep interstate commerce flowing — in reefer.