Monday, October 31, 2005


One last thing I think I must do before I get to sleep tonight: Wish you all, whoever’s still reading, my gratitude. This blog is done for a while.

I’m moving on to create a newspaper here in Cambridge, and if tonight is any indication — I think it is — I will not have the time to post. Not with anything worthwhile. Not with anything coherent.

(I assume anyone who would make the obvious joke after reading the past two sentences has long since stopped reading.)

I will make one last Misanthropic observation, or, actually, a last Misanthropicitic observation: The first couple of times I Googled this blog name over the years, I was intrigued to find that there is a gamer out there who rolls by the name Misanthropicity. A little odd, but who am I to raise an eyebrow? Recently, though, I Googled and found that the word “misanthropicity” has begun to creep into use as an ignorant replacement for the real word, “misanthropy.”

Is it my fault somehow? Do I share blame with the gamer? Did he get the name from me? (I sure didn’t get it from him.) Or did I just race ahead of the zeitgeist all the way to pointlessnessicity or idiocity?

I’ll probably never know. But it seems a fitting way to end this blog: confused, confounded, irritated and amused all at once by what people have done through some hard-to-grasp mix of cleverness, ignorance, humor and pretentiousness.

Myself included, I suppose. As usual.

Anyway, again, my heartfelt thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


I’m on hiatus, by the way. I thought it rude not to say anything, or to continue not saying anything. I really must remind myself to be more thoughtful about this — to be more, what do they say? Proactive.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


“Harvard Square is in crisis,” one shopkeeper said tonight after a two -hour public brainstorming session on the square at Christ Church, and the sentiment was hardly unique. While the event offered optimism alongside group critiques of the area, the afterparty was distinctly darker.

Vast sections of prime real estate are empty, even as the cost of renting has dropped dramatically, in some cases, said one real estate agent at the meeting, by $20 a square foot. Foot traffic is down, just as dramatically. The summer was a disaster. The holidays aren’t looking so good, either.

But the primary criticism of the criticism was that, in answering the four questions proposed by the city’s community development department, residents, officials and even business owners revealed a big, bitter truth: There’s plenty of stuff in Harvard Square that people simply don’t know about.

Even in answering question No. 1, “What works well in Harvard Square?,” some negativity crept in regarding how bad the economic picture is. But it was in answering the other questions — “What do you think is missing in the retail mix?”; “Of the things that are missing, what are the top three items that might improve the mix?”; and “Any ideas about improvements that would bolster the retail mix?” — that the awful truth crept in, as six subgroups announced their wishes that the square had a deli, lingerie, late-night cafes, cheap places to hang out, live music you could dance to, housewares ...

It may be argued that the square needs all of the above in more variety, but it was also clear that people were failing to think of Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, Clothwares, Au Bon Pain, Cafe Pamplona, Phatt Boys, Dickson Bros. True Value ...

“And these are the people who live and work here,” a business owner said.

Little was decided at the meeting. At the end, city workers took the six oversized lists away for posting on the Web and further mulling.

A few things were clear, though, made so by appearing on multiple lists: Everyone loathes the banks that have turned prime Harvard Square real estate into a barren video arcade; everyone wants Harvard Square to get a grocery store, whether or not they knew Sage’s died of neglect years ago; and pretty much everyone wants cheap-nonchain-coffee-shops-that-are-open-late-to-hang-out-in-for-hours. And many people suggested that brand management, meaning better public relations, was the way to a Harvard Square resurrection.

“The solution may lie [in funding] a communications firm, which will take the image of Harvard Square as an intellectual, historical and cultural Mecca and revitalize and manage this image over a five-year period,” said one handout, amid complaints about bad press Harvard Square gets locally and nationally.

The idea was not universally embraced.

Walking out of the meeting, one Harvard Square businessperson was heard asking something along the lines of: “Communications firm? What the hell do we have an office of tourism for?”

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


The U.S. Postal Service long-ago introduced self-service kiosks that, at least in Porter Square, still require constant attendance by a postal worker. This seems to defeat the purpose, but, nonetheless, one of two workers hovered over the machine this afternoon, instructing the rare customer in its use while the line languished — growing five deep, then six, then seven.

“Anybody want to use the machine?” the worker asked. “It’ll save you a long wait in line.” Sometimes he amplified his sales pitch by noting that using the machine would save customers a “20- or 30-minute wait.”

When asked why he waited by the machine when there was such a long line of customers, the worker explained that employees on site have “no control” over how they spend their day; a manager for the city, who works elsewhere, decides how employees are used. When asked whether he could get behind the counter and help the lone worker there, doubling the effective staffing of the station, if no one wanted to use the machine … well, no. Even when the worker at the counter had to leave to use the restroom, he was prevented from budging from beside that ridiculous, job-destroying machine.

And when asked if this was frustrating, he replied, “You got that right.”

The worker ran back to her spot behind the counter. The line advanced one space.

From behind, the other worker could be heard making his pitch. When a customer responded, he could be heard assuring the man there was nothing to fear from using the machine.

“It’s pretty self-explanatory,” he said.

Monday, October 17, 2005


As if more evidence is needed of the effect “The Simpsons” have had on the world,’s reverse address search offers this: The sample house number is 742; the sample street name is Evergreen Terrace. This is the Simpsons’ address. And, just like in the television show, the state or province is without a sample and it is left unclear in what state the family lives.

Aliens or archaeologists of the far future will keep stumbling across these cultural artifacts, these fossilized indications of our objects of worship, and be astounded. No more so than we should be.

Friday, October 14, 2005


Scanning down one of the yummy snack food racks at Quick Food Mart in Inman Square, one finds: Hostess apple pies; Suzy Qs; Yodels and Devil Dogs; packaged fudge brownies and Frosted Donettes; and, at the bottom, several red onions in an open Tupperware container.

These appear to be the healthiest thing in the store, but possibly the least appetizing — at least to my postadolescent American mentality.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


This will be short. No matter how many people have been burned by Verizon — and the number is roughly equal to how many angels can stand around on the head of a pin complaining — a long rant would be boring and, ultimately, sad. For it would lead to thoughts of how the problem is not Verizon itself, but customer service these days in general and outsourcing and offshoring and the economy and the work ethic and oh it’s not like it used to be.

Still, it’s astonishing that Verizon has done it to me again. I was told to hang around at my new place from 8 a.m. to noon on Oct. 5 for a Verizon phone installer, who was a no-show. At about 5 p.m., when I called to complain about the lack of installation, I was told the installer had indeed shown up. At my old place. He installed two lines there.

I noted to the customer service rep, if one can “note” something at that volume, that in setting up the appointment I had explicitly asked that the installer speak with me before or at least after doing his work, and that I still wanted that to happen when Verizon came to correct the mistake. The rep, Cathy LaMarche — give her a call at (508) 502-1267 — blandly assured me that the installers are required to talk to the customer at installation.

She did not explain how two lines got installed at my old home while I was at the new one.

This required chat failed to happen again this time, yesterday, something I learned upon calling to complain that, once again, kind of, Verizon had failed to show up to install my phone lines. This call took place at 4:53 p.m., when I pointed out that I’d been told to be at home between 1 and 5 p.m. I counted down with the customer service reps.

“Will your installer be here in four minutes?” I asked one.

“Will your installer be here within the next seven seconds?” I had to ask the next one.

It gets weird. I was told that the installer had already been there. I was told there was no request on my file for the installer to speak with me.

I plugged in my land-line phone. No signal.

Later, upon the departure of one of three people who’d been in my apartment during this phone call, a brochure was discovered outside, taped to the door. It was from Verizon.

It said, on the cover, “Outstanding Service.”

It also said Technician IS2 had been at my home at 5:30 to take care of my “telephone service request.” This means the installer was there while I was on the phone complaining. He was there when I'd been told he’d already been and gone.

It’s a half-hour later than the latest time I was told to be at home to meet the guy. Is it the start time? The time he left? Was he there for 31 minutes? Or one? Obviously the time given was more than a half-hour after I called Verizon to complain he wasn’t there. In fact, I was on the phone with Verizon for an hour, two minutes and 44 seconds — the digital call log being one of the prizes of cell phones.

Twice I haven’t had to be home while Verizon workers came and did work for which they insisted I be home. Twice they’ve screwed it up. And one more twice:

Inside the brochure, I’m told to “Please refer to this number when contacting Verizon.”

And I’m told, “If you have questions or concerns relating to this visit, please call ...”

Neither number has been filled in.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


The U.S. Postal Service sent me a relocation packet that includes a $25 coupon (off any purchase of $500 or more) from my local Blinds To Go outlet.

Surely this is one the stupidest business names ever registered. It was apparently needed to differentiate the chain from those catering to buyers who wanted to keep their window dressings on site rather than take them home for installation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Blocks away, where Central Square’s nightclubs dominate and black-clad youth throng sidewalks to smoke, the muffled sound of amplified rock has become mere background. The lively, crisp sound leaking onto the street from Sandy’s Music, though, still startles, even after a dozen years of Monday night jam sessions.

Passers-by glance into the shop in surprise, drawn by the counterintuitive twang of banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle, as though seeing Sandy’s — now deep in its third decade — for the first time. Indeed, it is exactly the kind of shop that fades into obscurity but is always around for those who need it, and it is largely the same for the old-time music played there.

“Some nights nobody will show up. Other nights there’ll be one or two. Six or eight these days is most common,” says Sandy Sheehan, owner of the shop and overseer of the event. “We’ve had people from teenagers up to people in their 60s or 70s. It’s totally informal, totally unstructured. It starts when people show up and ends when they leave.”

There is one rule: “We do not want singer-songwriters. This is specifically old-time music.”

Sheehan, also the host of WUMB-FM’s late Saturday “Traditional Folk” show, fits his part: He is scraggly and lined, a bit reclusive, the perfect mountain man, laconic and blunt, and his narrow shop is similarly well cast, crammed full of slide whistles, “authentic Ozark harps,” sheet music, packets of string, straps, light-absorbing black matte instrument cases and, hanging everywhere, those lustrous guitar and banjo bodies. The only bow to modernity is the computer, already yellowed although Sheehan claims it’s new, and a rack of compact discs.

The musicians wedge themselves into the aisle, showing up in profusion on a recent Monday that would seem to overwhelm the store’s resources — but somehow don’t. Folding chairs are produced from odd crevices as players arrive.

“We always seem to have enough,” Sheehan says.

The sessions are reputed to have drawn such names as Peter Wolf (“once in a great while,” Sheehan says), John Hartford, David Bromberg (“when he was in town”) and Mark Sandman and others from Morphine. The players that show up regularly are retirees, homemakers, software engineers, market researchers. They are grizzled old-timers with ponytails, such as Len Katz, or buttoned-down types such as Bob Miller, celebrating time away from his job at Procter & Gamble. Somewhere between the two is young John Ostwald, the software engineer from Cambridge’s BBN Technologies, who shows up with long hair, a button-front shirt and, this night, a homemade mandolin, its body made of a Coleman oil can. A candolin. The players marvel and crack jokes. Even Sheehan, who is dismissive of his own banjo playing and stays grimly behind his computer while the others zip through “Bumblebee in a Jug” and “Sandy River Belle,” gets up to see the thing.

“How do you manage up by the 12th fret,” he asks, looking dubiously at the instrument’s neck.

“I usually don’t,” Ostwald replies. He offers Rebecca Bearden, a mandolin player, a chance to try it.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she says.

“It’s a mandolin!” he tells her, passing the instrument and taking out his fiddle. “Try cello fingering. You’ll be much happier.”

The group plays companionably, speaking occasionally, comparing notes between songs, some concentrating, some in that magical zone where they seem to watch in pleasant surprise as their fingers play for themselves. The songs are short. Most are played with a jaunty, seamless elegance, even as more and more musicians take their place and join in. Once or twice a song is started and abandoned — experiments that the group kindly, and without formality, votes down.

Some players, such as Katz, have been coming since the beginning. Barkev Kaligian, 69, of Lexington, recently stopped in for the first time, drawn by a calendar of events in a bluegrass newsletter. The musicians play in peace and apparent perfection without benefit of long experience with each other.

“After every session I go home and my wife says, ‘Did you have a great session?’ Every session is a great session,” Miller says. “It’s always a lot of fun, that’s for sure.”

Bearden sets aside the oilcan instrument and goes back to her own mandolin, which has an old-time appropriate thin rope in place of a strap. More people arrive. More chairs are magically produced.

“It’s totally unstructured, informal and unpredictable,” Sheehan says again.

“Just like the music itself,” Katz says.

The old-time jam sessions start at about 7 p.m. on Mondays at Sandy’s Music, 896A Massachusetts Ave., Central Square. There is competitive parking on the avenue at metered spaces (free at night). Call (617) 491-2812 for more information, or go to The sessions are free.

Monday, October 10, 2005


With no shame I reveal that over years I have worked at otherwise idle times on deciding what I would wish for from a genie. This requires a lot of thought because, at least in popular culture, the genie is a capricious and contrary wish giver, angry over his servitude and eager to exploit the wisher’s slightest semantic slip to deliver a result that is technically correct and totally wrong.

An innocent wish to be a millionaire, for instance, could result in becoming some schmo in a McMansion in Henderson, Nev., with exactly $1 million ... and it’s all tied up in a stock that crashes the next day. One could wish to be as smart as Einstein ... and the genie might grant that but put the wisher in a coma, as well, unable to communicate any knowledge or insight.

Real petty “Twilight Zone” nonsense.

So the trick is to come up with wishes without loopholes, and I think I have some good ones. I have made sure to keep the actual wishes — usually there are three, and, as everyone knows, it is against the rules to wish for more — at a single sentence in length.

Listen up, genie:

1. I wish that a multimillionaire or billionaire who is a citizen of and will die in the United States or United Kingdom within the next month or two summon his lawyers, has them fill out the proper documents and wills me an unquestionably legal and unassailably proper inheritance of at least [how many millions of dollars are wanted] after all taxes and any legal fees.

(The provision about the United States or United Kingdom is to ensure that a perfectly legal financial transaction isn’t slowed interminably by dramatically different inheritance laws or cultural or linguistic difficulties.)

2. I wish for total, lasting and conscious control over every aspect of my physical being, including but not limited to strength and speed, general health and resistance to all disease and every aspect of how I look and the aging process, and that these powers be manifested by thought or speech but persist until I again consciously and wakefully think or say for the attributes to change.

(This wish still has at least one unavoidable ironic trap, which is that the wisher can remain eternally young, but those the wisher loves will inevitably age and die. Still, this is a very flexible wish, and the emotionally mature user may well use it to age and die gracefully and without pain. Also ...)

There is a wish remaining, held for some future emergency.

Does anyone spot any loopholes a willful genie could exploit? I’d like to address them before it’s too late.

Friday, October 07, 2005


How long will the Chinese food take-home container survive? One standard box has a clear plastic top but a metal body that makes it impossible to use in a microwave — a bit odd considering microwave ovens have been around since 1947 and are estimated to be in about 95 percent of U.S. households.

Even worse is the classic white cardboard version of the Chinese take-home box, the kind with the tiny metal handle. This handle must be less than 5 percent of the container, but it, too, means the box cannot be microwaved.

Although almost all Chinese food leftovers are excellent cold, the presence of the metal bits is gallingly contradictory and suggestive of a pointlessly provocative epicurean conspiracy. If the boxes are good enough to hold the food in the first place, why aren’t we able to heat in them and eat from them? It’s like mass manufacturing umbrellas with a single part that musn’t get wet, and nobody seems to mind.

There are all-plastic alternatives out there, folks. Let’s start ordering from different catalogs.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


I’ve been collecting New York Times news sections since Tuesday, March 23, 2004, and thought it would be interesting to see what was going on in the papers a year ago today.

Iraq, basically.

Even in the heat of the battle for the White House — Vice President Cheney and John Edwards had just held their fiery debate at Case Western University — the overriding topic was the war and the wisdom of our strategy there.

Cheney said our actions in Iraq were “exactly the right thing to do” in part because of the country’s “established relationship with Al Qaeda.” He also said the Bush administration had “never let up on Osama bin Laden from Day One. We’ll continue to aggressively pursue him and I’m confident we’ll get him.”

In Iraq, prime minister Ayad Allawi had just given his first speech to the National Assembly, saying the insurgency was a “source of worry for many people” and “a challenge to our will.”

Most striking, though, were the four subsequent paragraphs from Iraq, all about the U.S. military’s “second major offensive of the last week,” which “followed a much larger and deadlier weekend offensive in the insurgent-controlled city of Samarra ... American and Iraqi officials have been saying they intend to take back rebel territory this fall to lay the groundwork for general elections scheduled for January.”

And so they did.

Now fast forward a year and consider something from Monday’s paper about current military efforts in Iraq: “American military commanders see this effort as a crucial step in their strategy of cutting off the supply of foreign fighters that has fed the insurgency,” the Times says, “and threatens to tip the country into civil war.”

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


My new bedroom has a ceiling fan.

In the morning, murky light filters in through the cheap plastic blinds, and I’m groggy and without glasses. In these circumstances, the five-bladed fan resembles nothing so much as a giant asterisk hovering above me. It takes a moment to remember it’s just a fan.

That moment isn’t scary, really. I have no fear that the giant asterisk means me harm or can hurt me.

In that first second of consciousness, though, my eyes dart around the gloom looking for context. I wonder if I’m at the jumping-off point or the footnote. I wonder if the asterisk is merely pausing in a search for its proper home — perhaps a billboard somewhere where it will tell people mileage may vary or no purchase is necessary to win.

When I stand up the fan returns to three dimensions and the illusion is gone. When I lie down to sleep, it returns.

If I were a more poetic sort, I would see the asterisk as signifying my waking life as an extended explanation of my dreams and my dreams as a somewhat briefer explanation of my waking life.

But it’s really just a fan.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


MCI, still struggling to recover from the scandal and bankruptcy that sent the Worldcom name from the stock pages to the stocks, called recently with a great deal. It already had my long-distance business for a measly $5 or so a month; it would take over my local service as well and send a combined bill saving about $10 off what I paid Verizon.

It seemed too easy, and I was suspicious. But I was also easily convinced and, a few days later, became a complete MCI customer. It was, in fact, easy.

A week or so ago I called MCI to arrange a move and a change in billing to my new apartment.

I was put on hold for — literally — an hour.

It undoubtedly would have gone on longer. I hung up.

Called Verizon. Switched back. Told them to move my line and shift my billing.

And you know what? It was easy.

That would be a delightful end to the story, but agonizing contacts with Verizon over the next couple of days by me and my parents resulted instead in a limping, listless sort of denouement. The contacts included similarly excruciating hold times and a Monty Orwellian (or is it George Pythonesque?) examination of the advantages of business lines vs. personal lines (a listing in the white pages, basically, a lame prize in the age of the Internet). Never have people struggled so heroically to pay bills. Never has a company made it so difficult. I hope.

Coming up Thursday: MCI shareholders vote on whether to merge into Verizon for $8.4 billion.

Suddenly I’m feeling rather uneasy.

Monday, October 03, 2005


Although summer ended Sept. 23, the days have stayed hot. The nights have done their best to warn Cambridge of the inevitability of winter — by showing what winter nights are like — but this hasn’t really sunk in with people here. Women have stuck to their tube tops, so to speak, and flip-flops, even if it means clutching their arms around themselves as they walk from place to place.

But, like the first leaf turning color, or the first spotting of a migratory bird, there has been a sighting intoning the change of year.

Today in the Central Square T stop, the first Ug boots of the season were seen. Women’s footwear is finally acknowledging the chill of reality.

It’s all downhill from here until the skanks flock to South Boston for the annual spring-bringing baring of the midriffs.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


There are a million Comcast horror stories out there, and now I have one.

The installer showed up at least 15 minutes after the 9 to 11 a.m. window set by the company; wasn’t aware he was to hook up to an Apple Extreme Base Station wireless router — despite my specific orders when ordering broadband Internet access — and couldn’t accomplish it; left to go to another appointment; and never — despite collecting my cell phone number to do so — got back to me to tell me he was returning.

Ultimately the company told me it refuses to connect any wireless router but its own Gateway devices (never mentioned to me when I called for the appointment or by the installer himself) and that it understood I’d called to reschedule my appointment (I’d actually called twice just to find out where the hell the installer was — once when he was late showing up, the second time when he failed to return).

The only reason I’m going with Comcast is that I may eventually want to get basic cable television for city government meetings. Otherwise I would have gotten broadband through my local Internet service provider, Cyber Access Internet Communications.

Considering stories about Comcast I’ve heard just from the people I was with Saturday, never mind the entire continental United States, why does the company hold the monopoly in Cambridge? How do we get rid of them?

And has anyone, anywhere ever had a pleasant experience with their local cable provider? Perhaps it’s better to stick with the devil we know.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


I know this is shameless, but I’m actually reposting.

See, when I originally wrote this, in November 2005, Blogger didn’t offer cheap bastards such as myself, who don’t pay anything for the privilege of blogging, the ability to post pictures with words. Now it does.

Once again, then, with color art:

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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Dunno when it happened, but the venerable pharmacy on Huron Avenue has closed. That means Cambridge has lost its two best unintentionally funny business names.

First the city lost the Long Funeral Service.

Now it’s lacking the sign telling people “Huron Drugs.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Cambridge homeowners can relax. Last night’s unanimous city council vote sends to the state Department of Revenue a plan that freezes or reverses most city property tax rates — a needed salve after last year’s brutal revaluation.

Under the city manager’s plan, $10 million of the city’s free cash will be used to pay for various needs, with the bulk of it — $6 million — directly easing the pain of tax bills due Oct. 13 after rote state approval. The average single-family home will be assessed at 2.9 percent less than last year; the average two-family at 15.3 percent less; and the average three-family at 7.6 percent less. The average condo assessment will not change.

The owner of that average two-family home will save $718, according to figures provided by city manager Robert Healy.

Those seeing increases of $500 or more, city officials said, were those who’d done major renovations in the past year. They represent less than 2 percent of city property, or 312 parcels out of Cambridge’s 17,785.

The two-hour hearing was full of councilors expressing gratitude for the work of Healy’s office, including near-unanimous praise for fiscal management giving the city $53 million in free cash this year and, as more than one councilor noted, the lowest tax rate in the state. The only dissonant note from the council came from Ken Reeves, who noted a tax freeze does little to help people whose houses were reassessed to nosebleed value but can’t afford to pay the higher tax bill.

“I’m glad you’re so house-rich, but if you’re not also bank-rich, it doesn’t help,” Reeves said, calling the forcible enriching of retired, middle-class people who scramble to keep up with payments “unfair, and I’d say it’s un-American.”

Reeves suggested the city could do more to protect those hurt most by last year’s revaluation. Alluding to the three explanatory tax brochures being sent by the city, and those noting it was not in Cambridge’s nature to cut services to avoid tax hikes, he rebuked his peers by noting that “the best government doesn’t just explain why you just got run over by a car. They want to keep you from getting run over by a car.”

That seemed to earn an allusion in return from Mayor Michael A. Sullivan: “How anybody can say this body hasn’t done anything is beyond me,” he said. “It’s self-serving.”

But Reeves better captured the feeling of the public comments, which warned against taking money from free cash while bringing on debt to build city projects and, most stridently, blasted the city’s deferral of too-high taxes for the disabled, poor and elderly. One member of the public called it “another shell game where you take the property of elders who have taxes deferred.”

Brian Murphy, the councilor who leads the city’s finance committee, agreed the deferrals — now to be for people with income of up to $40,000, from $20,000 — weren’t ideal. The deferrals pile up over the years to up to half the value of a house, essentially leaving a lien that causes massive debt for the inheritors.

Unfortunately, he said, reform must go through the state and is years away. But the process has started.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Go to the Great and Secret Comedy Show as soon as possible. The Walsh brothers, the amiable hosts of the late-night ImprovBoston show, may soon leave for bigger things in Hollywood or New York. No more free shows. No more free beer. Worst of all, no more Walsh brothers — no more of the amazing alchemy that makes a couple of Charlestown underachievers standing around on stage so astonishingly funny and winning.

The humor is more or less irreproducible. That is, the brothers can reproduce it, but it’s pointless to try to share a Walsh brothers joke on paper: One-liners and jokes are the least part of their act, and their personality is the rest. No theater company will be casting Great and Secret comedy franchises like they do Blue Man Group.

David shuffles around the stage, chews on his thumb, looks thoughtful, smiles wryly. Chris struts more, yells, leaps, being more prone to physical comedy, and his smile is wider, more boyishly enthusiastic. They tell stories about growing up, their life now, what they’ve been doing.

And, barring a bit of standup and sketches from guest comics, and even more rarely, very funny sketches from the brothers, that’s pretty much the show.

It’s great that comedians come to The Great and Secret Comedy Show to try out material, but their desperation when a joke or series of jokes go poorly only makes what the Walsh brothers do all the more amazing. While more traditional comics hone material from performance to performance and eventually arrive at perhaps 15 minutes of killer material, the Walshes have more than an hour’s worth of new stuff each week, and it takes several shows for bits to reappear.

The brothers host some very funny comics in the more traditional observational vein, proving all the more that not everyone can or should do what the brothers do. It is still striking to see comics get up to do a few minutes of material, some checking their watch or their cheat sheet of topics with sweaty desperation, and compare it with the brothers’ winning shiftlessness. The comics can cover 20 topics in five minutes in a kind of swirling panic, while the brothers come on and riff for an hour with cool ease, keeping an audience not just chuckling but regularly laughing aloud. The comics strain for their material to be funny. The Walshes simply are funny, and they get material out of it. But they’re still funny, it can seem, without material.

The trick seems to be that deceptive ease: The Walshes go low-key and take the pressure off.

What’s deceptive about it is that the Walshes are under tremendous pressure. They’ve commandeered the latter half of their show to recount a meandering story about sneaking over the Canadian border to a comedy convention, having already used more than a half-hour of stage time that night. They rely on fleshing out details of the story, and on each other’s amplifications, to fill an hour — and come out the other side without finishing the story. The audience is so amused, charmed and intrigued by the provenance of what it’s hearing that it leaves pleased, not at all put off by the lack of resolution. If energy lags during a show, the brothers simply talk until they find their rhythm again.

It’s hanging out with and hearing the stories of two enormously likable guys, not a series of hit and miss jokes. And it’s great.

But it’s probably not secret enough. Not if Cambridge is to keep the brothers to itself.

The Great and Secret Comedy show runs 10 p.m. to midnight on Thursdays at ImprovBoston, 1253 Cambridge St., Inman Square. The closest T stop is in Central Square, and parking is a bit hellish. Call (617) 576-1253 for more information, or go to Suggested donation: $5.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Local alternative media are united in their disregard for Sidekick, the new Boston Globe section serving as a “Guide to a Better Day” with comics, puzzles, television listings, things to do and assorted junk. The Boston Phoenix calls it “muddled” and “confusing.” The Weekly Dig reached these conclusions first in a piece marked by a tone of revulsion over the Globe “groveling” in establishing the section.

In general, the complaint is that Sidekick lacks identity, which smacks of the media’s usual overthinking when confronted with something pushing the boundaries, however incrementally, of U.S. journalistic tradition. There’s a meaningful kind of navel gazing that goes on when, for instance, advertising and marketing invade once sacrosanct parts of a newspaper or the reporting process. It becomes narcissistic — if not downright masturbatory — in examinations such as this, about Sidekick, from the Phoenix’ Mark Jurkowitz:

Some features — those steering people to nightlife, music, and food — are apparently designed for younger, hipper folks ready to hit the town. But others — such as the comics and TV listings — were newspaper nomads looking for a home and happened to find one in Sidekick. Do the demographics of people who like crossword and jumble puzzles and bridge columns match those of readers who send in messages trying to hook up with people they spotted at Supercuts or Avalon? Or those debating whether Snoop Dogg or Metallica produced the best album of the last 20 years? I’d guess not.

Like the panicky probes into what stories can jump from what pages, this kind of media criticism is along the lines of arguing over the proper way to diagram a sentence instead of looking at whether a sentence works on its own merits. Were Sidekick a standalone publication for which people paid daily, such criticism might matter. But Sidekick is just a section in a newspaper that crams together a bunch of features that may or may not work well together, but are needed or wanted wherever they are. If it anchors features, allowing readers to find them easily, Sidekick is doing its job. And by serving readers, the Globe is serving advertisers.

Cramming together a bunch of features into an uncomfortable package is, frankly, what newspapers do. That’s how they include something for everyone — and a fair amount of nothing for a whole hell of a lot of somebodies.

It’s easy to tell critics just need something to write about when the Dig spends a paragraph on this:

First off, the name. Sidekick? Sidekick? Who the fuck named this thing? It’s promoted as “Your guide to a better day.” Your guide. Save for Sherlock Holmes and Don Quixote, who is guided by their sidekick? A sidekick is a occasionally clever little guy who follows you around. He’s not a leader. He’s not the hip, young dude who turns you on to the hottest trends (ick). He’s a sycophant, a tagalong, an ancillary character. Robin to your Batman. Messina to your Loggins.

This may be funny, but it’s supposed to be funny because it’s true. This is less funny because it’s weak, and you can tell the argument is weak when this staff-written piece begins by making allowances for Holmes’ Watson and Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza.

Without thinking too hard you can add Indiana Jones’ Short Round and Salah, both sidekicks by whom our hero is guided, Wang Chi in “Big Trouble in Little China,” Billy Kwan in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” Ron Eldard’s fellow workers in the “Blind Justice” television series and Grover in Gregory McDonald’s “Flynn” detective novels. In short, any time a protagonist ventures into unknown territory, the friendly person who leads them is their sidekick and guide. It’s just not that rare or odd, which makes the Dig’s point somewhat ... pointless.

There may be nothing all that right with Sidekick, but there’s nothing all that wrong with it, either.

Our local media critics would do better to contemplate why they’re spending time on such minutiae.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


I figure I should get this out, so to speak, before I lose the opportunity to claim it as original — if, in fact, it is original, which I seriously doubt.

Not being a serious artist, I wouldn’t dare undertake this, but it’s a serious art project that pretty much anyone could do. Especially anyone with a Polaroid instant camera.

The project:

Find a wide open exhibition space, preferably something industrial that has a nearly endless expanse of wall. Every time you make a bowel movement, take a picture of it. Take the Polaroids, carefully label them with date, time and whatever other information you feel is appropriate and adhere them to the wall. This should go on for at least a year, or until the wall is full. Affix the images in chronological order at first, but let the project evolve by its own, internal logic. It may stay strictly chronological. My guess is that eventually patterns will suggest themselves, about the artist’s health as well as about the project’s aesthetic possibilities: color, texture and so on.

This is not just crudity for the sake of crudity. The project could show all sorts of interesting things and even be a valuable tool for diagnosis. From a distance, the flow and range of colors should be intriguing and possibly even beautiful. Up close, obviously, is another story.

I conceived of this idea as fiction, with an artist only reluctantly revealing his work to a date. At the end of the revelation, scanning a factory’s width of small, square patches of filmic yellow and brown, she tells him wryly that “Your work is shit.”

For an idea of how objectionable this kind of project can be, consider Rate My Poo, which is almost like a “hot or not” Web site for bowel movements. Dana advises you not to look at all. I didn’t get beyond the home page, just long enough to bookmark it for this posting.

I would consider looking further if someone can convince me it’s art.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


All right, that’s it. I’m turning on the Blogger spam zapper, and my apologies to those who wish to comment and must now leap another hurdle to do so — typing in the magic random word that people can see and spam generators can’t. Yet.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Whatever Somerville’s Davis Square T stop is saying about newspapers, it isn’t good. There’s a row of forlorn, neglected news boxes there for The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today, unfilled, unused and informative in an utterly unintended way.

One thing being said is actually quite clear. In the window of the abandoned USA Today box sits that paper’s bastard child — the Metro, which followed USA Today’s path of bright color and short stories even as USA Today walked off toward more serious journalism. But with newspapers struggling for market share against a gargantuan number of competitors in various media, those in the journalism business must do what they can to make it to better Times. USA Today has arrived, more or less, but the Metro does what it must to survive. It’s not Metro’s fault that desperation, garish makeup and spending a short, efficient time together feels more like whoring than a relationship.

This creates resentment among those who feel the papers, heavy on entertainment coverage and light on substance, pander. So while the majority has voted with their dollars to let newspaper vendors surrender the Davis boxes to decay, an angry minority has written in opposition.

“Metro” is scribbled out. The proper name of the publication, apparently, is “The Idiot Paper for People Who Move Their Lips When They Read.”

Monday, September 19, 2005


Dumbstruck in the checkout lane, mind sent spinning at the sight of the latest Us Weekly.

BABY NEWS! it cries, misplaced amid candy and gum, over a picture of a pregnant Britney Spears filched from an Elle photo shoot.

HEIDI KLUM names son Henry

JENNIFER GARNER 2 months to go

It is a tired bit of pretension to contrast the vapidity of popular culture with dire current events. But it is also almost impossible — I certainly failed — to think of cataclysm in Iraq and catastrophe after Hurricane Katrina (among other things) and comprehend it being news at all that a celebrity is seven months pregnant, especially considering that roughly 30 days ago we knew she was six months along. And Heidi Klum, well, she named her son Henry. Not Ishmael, Sunshine or Britney, not Michael, John or Joseph, but Henry.

Inside, presumably, is a six-inch sidebar story on the likelihood of his chums calling him Hank.

We may be more desperate than ever to escape our ever more obvious limp toward total collapse, but can it really be escapism to find out celebrities are mind-numbingly dull?

Friday, September 16, 2005


Why don’t people buy American? Rent a new Dodge Caravan and find out.

It’s the minivan of choice for the Avis rental-car agency, and buying one costs up to $27,000. But for a minivan it’s surprisingly cramped, and for a fairly basic vehicle it’s surprisingly confounding. Why won’t this chair move? What’s wrong with this door? Where the hell is the release for the parking brake?

My parents rented a Caravan at night, and Avis had taken the driver’s manual from the glove compartment. Still, even if these count as excuses, there simply aren’t that many drivers who want a car they have to figure out. Having to wrestle a door or seat into submission imparts the unsettling feeling that there’s some soft of “feature” that turns your headlights off if you’re driving faster than 55 miles per hour after midnight.

Just as an example: On other cars in which the parking brake is controlled by a pedal rather than hand-operated lever, it releases when you shift into “drive.” Or you put light pressure on the pedal to make it spring up. Or there’s an obvious handle to pull, usually black plastic with a white icon sticking out from the dashboard.

On the Caravan, the parking brake release is molded to be part of the dashboard’s underside. You pull it with your left hand to release the brake.

It feels and looks like part of the dashboard, though. The driver must know it’s there, as even a concentrated search can be frustrating, especially at night, when arched dark plastic blends almost seamlessly into a whole span of identically colored, congruently arched dark plastic.

Odd that after so many years, U.S. auto manufacturers must be reminded to check out what the Japanese are doing. While the big three shares shrink, even amid big incentives and “employee discounts” for all, Honda, Toyota and Nissan are doing just fine without the desperate gimmicks. What could it be? The lower gas mileage? The reliability?

The ability to just get in one and drive?

Thursday, September 15, 2005


President Bush finally taking responsibility for something? Incredible. But what’s unbelievable, especially in light of his new, disastrous polling numbers, is that as recently as his Monday press conference, Bush was making this same old tired lie:

Now, as far as my own personal popularity goes, I don’t make decisions based upon polls. I hope the American people appreciate that. You can’t make difficult decisions if you have to take a poll. That’s been my style ever since I’ve been the president.

This is nonsense and always has been. Bush spends millions on polling, just like other presidents and politicians. As the Washington Monthly reported in April 2002, he leans most heavily on Market Strategies, of Southfield, Mich., which has been around since the first Bush presidency, and Voter/Consumer Research, of Washington, D.C., which has worked with Bush since his 1991 campaign to raise a Texas sales tax to help pay for his baseball team’s stadium.

Article author Joshua Green notes that the “Bush doesn’t do polls” policy even extends to the president’s pollsters ...

who are discouraged from identifying themselves as such. The strategy seems to be working. A brief, unscientific survey of White House reporters revealed that most couldn’t name [Jan van Lohuizen, of Voter/Consumer Research] as Bush’s primary pollster (most guessed [Matthew] Dowd, who doesn’t actually poll). For his part, van Lohuizen sounded genuinely alarmed when I contacted him.

In addition to rejecting the idea that polls help him make decisions, Bush says polls don’t help him “fine-tune” political or PR messages, which is exactly how pollsters help Bush most, Green shows. This is confirmed in the coldest of fashions a couple of years later when, at the time of his testimony before the Sept. 11 commission, Bush refuses to express regret or admit mistakes regarding the government’s reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“One [Bush] adviser said the White House had examined polling and focus group studies in determining that it would be a mistake for Mr. Bush to appear to yield and apologize for mistakes,” said a New York Times article printed April 15, 2004.

At least this all makes for some darkly funny irony.

“If I tried to fine-tune my messages based upon polls,” Bush is quoted as saying, “I think I’d be pretty ineffective.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Book publishers are beginning to steal ideas from the makers of digital videodiscs, even offering readers “deleted scenes” and trailers. Above is an example of this from an ad for Brian Freeman’s “Immoral” in yesterday’s New York Times arts section.

Just like on most discs, these deleted scenes promise to be mostly junk that slowed down action, made the story too long or just didn’t fit. Stuff gets deleted for a reason, you know, and there’s a great distance between Julie Andrews mattress surfing in “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement” and fleshing out Middle Earth to an epic nine hours in “The Lord of the Rings.”

In this ambiguous spirit, here’s stuff I cut yesterday because it slowed down the action, made my posting too long and just didn’t fit. I also suspect it’s all been said before.

The recovery from Hurricane Katrina is almost universally a horror. The thing that comes closest to even grim fun is watching the Bush administration and its ideological toughs get stuck in what they were punching at: the tar baby of federal responsibility. The more they struggle, the more they get caught up in it. So despite arriving touting small government, this gang has enlarged it considerably, first by creating the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, then with its Medicare drug benefit and now by essentially proving, again, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a vital role in protecting the nation.

Thinking state and local governments are going to fulfill the agency’s role by sending help to troubled neighbors (or even farther) means expecting cities and states to have resources and rescue workers expendable enough to send away and do without for lengthy periods. This is unrealistic, and should be especially so to fans of small government, even though they’re the ones espousing such plans. Without a federal response to natural disasters, taxpayers in Cambridge, for instance, would be expected to pay for more police officers, firefighters and equipment than the city needs. They would have to do so even in tight financial times to help in future emergencies in, say, Connecticut, Florida and Michigan, knowing that if they didn’t, the chances of getting emergency help in response are weakened.

That’s a tough sell. It inevitably brings the rational thinker back to the realization that in a country of 50 states and 3.7 million square miles, including Alaska and Hawaii, a patchwork of aid decided by annually revised tax revenue, local need and political expediency might run a distant second to a federal agency whose sole job is to coordinate and implement disaster response.

President Bush wants faith-based initiatives and small government. Reality — or, in Bush’s case, God — seems to be making this goal very difficult to achieve.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


As many have noted, the Bush administration’s fetish for smaller government made it lethally slow and ineffective in responding to Hurricane Katrina. Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman suggested yesterday that the weakening of Federal Emergency Management Agency infrastructure that caused this is also going on in (at the least) the Food and Drug Administration, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Treasury Department and even the agency’s parent, the Department of Homeland Security, and this means weaker infrastructure for the entire nation.

Seeing this, it’s hard not to fixate on Bush adviser Grover Norquist’s infamous comment that he doesn’t “want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” And now we get a glimpse of what the United States looks like with Bush implementing Norquist’s vision: like New Orleans and parts of Mississippi after Katrina, like everywhere before the New Deal and Great Society.

It’s working, too. Donations to help victims of Katrina have been huge, far bigger and faster than after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and today Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, told the Times why: “I really think the biggest reason has got to be people seeing government agencies not doing the right thing, and that drove them to support a private response.” Eventually, taxpayers will wonder why they’re giving so much money to the federal government when private-sector groups are doing all the work. (It’s sort of like being taxed twice.)

But there’s an undertone that’s even more ominous than Norquist’s “bathtub” comment, and an image of America that’s even uglier.

Consider that FEMA’s list of volunteer agencies accepting Katrina donations comprised 25 groups, perhaps three of which are secular, such as the American Red Cross, rather than religious, such as televangelist Pat Robertson’s controversial Operation Blessing. Among those left off the list was Operation USA, which has been helping nations recover from disasters for more than a quarter of a century — and is, in fact, accepting donations and helping victims of Katrina.

This isn’t so strange from an administration pushing “faith-based initiatives” since before it seized the White House. (It is strange from a group of politicians that claim to be interested in the intent of the nation’s founders, though. All the way back in 1811, President Madison vetoed a bill that would have given federal money to a church helping the poor, saying the funding “exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions.”) The message from this administration is that it values the help of religious groups and wants people to rely on them more than they do secular groups. And surely some of the emotionally, physically or financially injured people getting help from religious groups in especially trying times will become more religious; it’s the principle on which missionary work rests.

The image of America that arises, then, is of a nation whose government is too poor to provide for people and whose religious groups make up for the lack. At its most extreme, the image is that of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where people have little choice but to send their kids to madrassas, where room and board is free and the education is strict and religious, where children become fit for little but more religion and jihad, except that in the United States the education would be Christian rather than Islamic.

Christian conservatives have long been fans of vouchers so kids can escape failing public schools, the prime alternative being, not so coincidentally, religious schools. The faith-based initiatives effort is the same, but for social-service and safety-net needs rather than for education.

They are a patient bunch, these religious conservatives, but every time they elect one of their own to high office their need for patience diminishes. Now they’ve got Bush, who said God wanted him to run for president, who declared a Jesus Day in Texas and who feels that “Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance [but] by the hand of a just and faithful God.”

Despite this, and despite FEMA’s transparent attempts to steer money toward religious groups, there are signs the conservatives must still wait for their fully Christian nation. As of Sept. 11, about 75 percent of money donated for Katrina aid went to the secular American Red Cross — $584 million out of $738 million.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Okay, so perhaps there is reason to worry about President Bush’s nomination of John G. Roberts for the Supreme Court.

First came Bush citing Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as his model for future court appointments, because Scalia and Thomas believe in convenient interpretations of “original intent” to decide issues. Roberts hasn’t admitted to or boasted of being an originalist, though, instead saying in written comments during his 2003 federal appeals court confirmation that:

I do not have an all-encompassing approach to constitutional interpretation; the appropriate approach depends to some degree on the specific provision at issue. Some provisions of the Constitution provide considerable guidance on how they should be construed; others are less precise. I would not hew to a particular ‘school’ of interpretation, but would follow the approach or approaches that seemed most suited in the particular case to correctly discerning the meaning of the provision at issue.

This is very reassuring, if one can get past suspicions raised by Bush nominating him at all. It doesn’t help when conservative religious kingpins such as Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, says “The president is a man of his word. He promised to nominate someone along the lines of a Scalia or Thomas, and that is exactly what he has done.”

Belief in Biblical inerrancy is a warning sign that beats even belief in the right’s version of original intent, and Roberts certainly hasn’t come out espousing inerrancy.

This isn’t all that reassuring, though, remembering what Bush said in the summer of 2002:

We need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. Those are the kinds of judges I intend to put on the bench.

And for some reason Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) gets angry at Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) for asking Roberts about his religion because “We have no religious test for public office.” Cornyn should be at least equally angry with Bush for appearing to violate Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution. (Whether Bush actually did violate the Constitution is up for debate, but Roberts is described as being a devout Catholic. One almost begins to hope Bush is as bad at vetting Supreme Court justices as he is at vetting leaders for Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

Where this comes together, raising all sorts of alarms, is in a 1992 case called Lee vs. Weisman, in which Roberts wrote:

History suggests that listening to a religious invocation at a civic ceremony was seen not as an establishment of religion by the government but, on the contrary, as an expression of civic tolerance and accommodation to all citizens.

It is hard to imagine what Roberts meant by this, especially given the reasonable assumption that he is familiar with the constitutional clause promising equal protection of the law. How can a religious invocation at a civic ceremony offer accommodation to citizens who don’t believe in God? By definition, a religious invocation has no role at a civic ceremony, just as a mayoral vote or similar civic function has no role at a church ceremony. Religious invocations are allowed because they’re popular, not because they’re right, and that’s exactly the constitutional problem with them.

It’s hardly reassuring that to argue for religion at graduation ceremonies Roberts looks to “history” rather than the Constitution itself, but it’s interesting that he looks to history rather than to “intent.” Keep an eye on how his decisions rove between these three justifications — enabled by his, um, catholic way of discerning “an appropriate approach” to a case in a justification that suddenly seems even more sinister than straight orginalism.

History suggests many things, including many abhorrent to modern people. Roberts’ abuse of history in this instance makes it seem as though Bush has, indeed, done exactly as he promised for his conservative constituency, and that’s hardly an accommodation for us citizens who reject religion’s role in our government.

Friday, September 09, 2005


The bookstores are creeping back to Harvard Square. The recent losses of Wordsworth and the travel-focused Globe Corner Bookstore left mainly the venerable Harvard Book Store, Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Coop and Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, but Raven Used Books is coming to JFK Street, due to open late next week. Looks like the Raven of Northampton and Amherst alighting in the east.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


The usual hypocrisies were on display at yesterday’s service for William H. Rehnquist, chief justice for the Supreme Court, some inspired by grief for the dead, some by a political agenda. The most notable was by Cardinal Theodore W. McCarrick, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, who hailed Rehnquist as “a tireless champion of life.”

It really depends, doesn’t it? Consider this from Monday’s edition of The New York Times:

“The existence of the death penalty in this country is virtually an illusion,” [Rehnquist] declared in a typical dissent in 1981, complaining that “virtually nothing happens except endlessly drawn-out legal proceedings.” No other member of the court joined him.

But eventually not only a majority of the court but Congress as well — due in part to Chief Justice Rehnquist’s advocacy from his platform as head of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the judiciary’s policy-making arm — agreed that there were too many procedural obstacles blocking states from carrying out the death penalty. Through the interaction of legislation and Supreme Court decisions, the pace of executions quickened sharply through the 1990’s.

At least the cardinal could have qualified his words somewhat, crediting Rehnquist instead for being “a tireless champion of some life” or “indisputably innocent life” or “a tireless champion of the right of unwanted babies to have lives that could someday lead them to kill others and be executed for it by lethal injection ... or not.”

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Somehow the Labor Day blogging break became extended to yesterday. Today, I’m simply not sure what to say.

Everything worth saying about the current national disasters is being said already, and it’s hard to counterprogram without coming off as frivolous and out of touch, especially when others are suffering or heading off into danger, sacrifice and hardship.

This is why punditry is all the rage — not just because technology allows people to learn about anything anywhere and talk about it immediately, but because people seize desperately on that technology to say something, anything, new, knowing it’ll remain so for a few minutes, an hour, a day at best.

What alternative is there? Writing on timeless topics seems a waste when the point of your lengthy essay is captured in a single centuries-old sentence from a book of quotations. Expressing an opinion on breaking news looks like a good deal in comparison, so long as you’re fast enough to get credit for saying something before anyone else.

After all, people aren’t born tired of being asked why the chicken crossed the road.

I could go on, but the point eludes me. As you’ll find in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Or, as Terence said in “Eunuchus” some 150 years before the birth of Christ, “Nothing can be said nowadays which has not already been said.” Or, to quote Mademoiselle Bertin, dressmaker to Marie Antoinette, “There is nothing new except that which has been forgotten.”

Thanks, book of quotations.

To think there was a time when every thought was new, every plot original, every comment startling, every note groundbreaking.

That’s impossible to sustain, of course, and eventually someone lost to history became the first schlub to inadvertently repeat someone else’s thought. Imagine the withering looks. The crushing presumption of inferiority.

Which brings us back to punditry.

Friday, September 02, 2005


I’m still bemused every time I see the latest addition to our police cruisers: the Web site address


Shouldn't that be dot-gov?

It’s a bit of a stretch, I suppose, but it makes the police sound like a business, which raises the specter of quotas on parking tickets and moving violations ... which means I’m not sure why it’s not instead of, because this White House is sure as hell open for business.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Having been in love with Boston during my time at Emerson College, I'd stuck close, eschewing even a semester abroad in Europe. By the end of the four years, during which Charles Stuart's murderous lies revealed a readiness to fear and humiliate black males, Southie kept reeling from busing tensions and reverberations hit when Rodney King's assailants largely escaped punishment in Los Angeles, I was feeling claustrophobic, all too aware of Boston's hermetic whiteness and how it ended in a shock crossing the street into Roxbury and Dorchester. Just as one can go to the Museum of Science and be entertained by hopping back and forth Boston-Cambridge-Boston-Cambridge while looking out at the Charles River, it was possible to play a grimmer version on these dirty streets: white boston-black boston-white boston-black boston. The scale of the city had seemed cute, and the ability to walk from one well-defined section to the next seemed charming. At the end of the four years, though, they felt cloying and I felt caged.

In a white, middle-class, liberal kind of way, that is.

It took leaving Boston to appreciate it anew, and the city's increasing diversity is encouraging, although some of it is taking place with the taint of gentrification, more an invasion of black areas than a mutual crossing of boundaries. I'd already crossed the river for Cambridge anyway and found it incrementally more soothing. Slowly, I am learning to understand why. In fact, slowly, I am learning to understand all of this better.

So. Another piece of that growth in understanding, from "A Tale of Three Cities in One," by George H. Hanford (Cambridge Historical Society, 1996):

In the 1880s Boston was engaged in a bitter fight over the issue of segregated versus integrated public schools. Segregation won, with the result that many African-American families moved to Cambridge, whose schools were integrated.

More than a decade after the Civil War, Boston, home of the great abolitionists, voted to segregate its schools.

Cambridge, to my great relief, did not.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


I haven’t been able to find any studies directly addressing what percentage of constitutional originalists are also believers in Biblical inerrancy, but there’s good anecdotal evidence that there’s a lot of overlap. It makes sense that the same people boasting of thinking like the founding fathers are keen on doing the same with the disciples.

The main problem with originalism in terms of the U.S. Constitution is that many espousing it are only interested in discerning original intent, or describing it accurately, when it matches their own agenda. Claims of Biblical inerrancy have a far greater problem — that every single word is said to be accurate because it comes from God — and should serve as a warning sign in someone who is also a constitutional originalist. Just as you shouldn’t turn your finances over to someone who can’t do simple math, there’s cause for concern in letting someone interpret the Constitution after saying every single word in the Bible is the literal truth.

All one must do to question a literal reading of the Bible is step into a religious bookstore and compare texts from one edition to the next. One of the more recent versions of the Bible is the scandalous, profane and out of print Queen Jane’s Version, which employs icons to highlight themes such as torture, sex and misogyny verse by verse, blunt language in place of flowery and, by the writer’s admission, some very loose translations, all intended to “inspire people to live for life rather than for death.”

It’s not hard, then, to find a contemporary Bible purposely mistranslated to conform to an individual’s agenda; what’s remarkable is that belief in the inerrancy of the Bible demands belief that no one has ever before purposely mistranslated the Bible for the same reason. What are the chances?

Not very good. For an example of why, take a peek at an essay at that quotes nine Bibles’ versions of 1 Samuels 20:41 and finds, not surprisingly, nine different interpretations of whatever the orginal text says. Here’s how the New International Version has it:

David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together — but David wept the most.

Interestingly, only about half the Bibles end the passages with this image. The other half, give or take, say things such as “David got control of himself” (from the Amplified Bible).

Eight of these Bibles say David and Jonathan kissed. The Living Bible says “they sadly shook hands.”

It’s not plausible for one of nine Bibles to innocently have such a radically different interpretation, but there’s a far greater possibility that all of these Bibles are cheating, not just the Living in Denial Bible. The essay’s author, B.A. Robinson, notes that in the original language David and Jonathan wept together until David “became great.” Robinson may be wrong. Otherwise, why none of these Bibles attempted to interpret this more closely is left to the reader’s imagination.

Problems of mistranslation are endemic to ancient texts, and not limited to Christianity. In 2001 a German scholar noted that some images in the Koran are borrowed from the works of Ephrem the Syrian, who naturally wrote in the Semitic language known as Syriac. Going back over the translation from Ephrem’s Syriac, in a work called “Hymns of Paradise,” to the Arabic in the Koran, the most serious reconsideration is that Ephrem doesn’t talk about the dead being greeted by houris, or virgins, but by hur, meaning white raisins. There are many youths martyring themselves expecting endless sex when they reach paradise — the sex their culture and religion deny them on Earth — who will instead be greeted by relatively abundant fruit.

And the “72 wives” aren’t even reserved for martyrs. In an example of bad math skills and an ignorance of the needs of the female faithful that belies Islam’s claims of exalting their women, unlike us soulless Westerners, tradition actually says:

The Prophet Muhammad was heard saying: “The smallest reward for the people of paradise is an abode where there are 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine, and ruby, as wide as the distance from Al-Jabiyyah to Sana‘a.”

Even when passages are translated accurately, it’s not easy to know what the Bible is trying to say.

“People will dismiss plain Bible teaching about moral issues (such as homosexuality, divorce, or abortion) or about salvation from sin or the church because they say the teaching is too confusing or difficult to understand,” says. “As Christians we believe God speaks to us through the holy Scripture of the Bible. It is our duty, then, to do our best to understand what the Bible says to us,” says — as though the history of religion isn’t just a series of disagreements over intent.

This includes everything from Martin Luther’s great break to Nikon’s somewhat incremental but controversial attempts in 1652 to make the Russian church more like the Eastern Greek (including saying a third “hallelujah” during ceremonies and giving up two of seven consecrated loaves) all the way to the creation of the International Church of Christ only decades ago and its insistence (based on Acts 11:26) that one must be a committed “disciple” before baptism, not be baptized and then study religion.

Jessica Stern, in her “Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill” (HarperCollins, 2003), offers another example:

“Pretribulation” fundamentalist Protestants believe that Jesus will save them from experiencing the Apocalypse through a “divine rapture,” the simultaneous ascension to heaven of all good Christians. Followers of Christian Identity expect to be present during the Apocalypse. Christian militants who subscribe to “posttribulation” beliefs consider it their duty to attack the forces of the Antichrist, who will become leader of the world during the Endtimes.

These are all pretty important issues, especially considering that people are dying and killing based on their belief in them, and yet debate goes on about what the truth is. Irreconcilable debate, in fact, made all the more difficult by contradictions in religious texts themselves no matter what the source of translation.

There are notoriously many contradictions in the Bible, not just from book to book, but even within books. It starts right in Genesis, which describes creation twice, once with animals coming first and once with humans — well, Man — coming first. It doesn’t stop with Judas’ death, which may be by hanging (in Matthew) or by “falling headlong [so] his bowels gushed out” (Acts). The Koran is riddled with contradictions as well, from how many days it took Allah to create the heavens and the Earth to whether there is “compulsion in religion” (there isn’t, but the faithful are commanded to “slay the idolaters wherever ye find them”).

It’s common sense that the Bible is not the literal truth. Anyone who says it is should not be put in a position of authority to interpret the constitution also. They are certainly free to be; but any culture that appoints such a person is asking for trouble.

None of this is to imply John G. Roberts, the nominee to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, is such a person. There’s question he’s an originalist, let alone a Christian fundamentalist. But with a government overrun by people claiming to be Biblical textualists, one never knows when one might be slipped before Congress for confirmation.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Wow. I must put off the intended posting for a terrifying Tale of Customer Service, once again featuring the monstrous Apple zombie army.

This time the army was marching in support of a rampaging Frankenstein’s monster:

My laptop’s automatic Software Update program alerted me a little while ago that there was a security fix and Web browser update available. I began the process immediately, quitting the other programs I was running while the update made its way to my laptop. When it arrived and a message box told me to restart my computer, I restarted my computer.

When it was back up, taking all of a minute, I went to the Mail program, which is made by Apple. It didn’t work. I tried my Web browser, Safari, which is made by Apple. It also didn’t work. Going through the program Apple provides to help get users back on the Internet, I discovered that all of the stuff needed to connect a specific machine with its Internet service provider — the DNS numbers, IP addresses, PPPoE information and all those other incomprehensible acronyms and mysterious data — had disappeared.

I called Apple technical support, plunging deep into their policy horror.

If your product is within its AppleCare protection period, dealing with technical support is like being royalty, but when that time runs out — and the plan cannot be renewed — you’re a vulnerable villager, cast out and invited back inside to safety only briefly and only for $49.99 a pop. That is, each time you call with a question or problem, tech support must get that money before helping.

Even after I explained the situation, my tech support reps insisted on charging me the $49.99. I argued with the first guy, who transferred me to the second guy, and there it ended, with him insisting on the money and me insisting there was no way in hell I was going to pay Apple for creating a software update that wipes out Internet connection information. There is no appeal. I was hung up on.

Basically, I wanted to know from Apple whether my Internet connection information was buried somewhere on my computer where I could get at it and correct the problem. I also wanted the company to know I was upset by it unleashing an update that would do such a thing.

Little luck. The tech support rep just kept repeating that he would need my $49.99 before he could troubleshoot my problem, which could have been hardware, or software, or anything, really ... he wouldn’t know until he got my money. Having told them my story and reminded them that there was another computer in the house still connected to the same Internet router with no problem, I couldn’t believe they were still trying to suggest my problem could be mechanical or the result of an “existing software problem.” That it was their software anyway moved them not at all.

It was the software updates, you freaks. The software updates. It’s what changed from one minute to the next. The only thing. On my Apple laptop with the latest Apple operating system using Apple’s Web browser and Apple’s Mail program getting the latest Apple software updates at Apple’s suggestion. Before the update, the information was there; since the update, the information is gone. This is worth $49.99?

I was forced to bother the Internet service provider to get the information. For the record, the provider is Very nice people who didn’t ask whether I was on some kind of protection plan or charge me any money. Very nice people who just gave me the information I needed, essentially saving me from an unprovoked attack of the Apple software updates while the Dr. Frankensteins at Apple, who let loose the monster, looked on in feigned helplessness:

“How can we correct what we did to you if you don’t give us your money?”

Monday, August 29, 2005


Spoiled and ill-spirited the Sunnis may be, but no one can deny that the suggested Iraqi constitution did not — for whatever reasons — include enough of their input and does not — again, for whatever reasons — engage them adequately. As a result the constitution’s failure, political chaos and civil war threaten.

This looks like the result of strangely conflicting trends: The Sunni minority is disliked by the Shiite and Kurdish majority because it was their Baath political party that ran the country from 1968 to 2003, including the reign of Saddam Hussein begun in 1979; but Iraq, cobbled together by the British after World War I, is intended to remain one country despite the fact that the three main ethnicities are largely in separate regions. The Kurds want out. The Shiites want out. The Sunnis, although they’re not participating in the country’s political process, are the ones who hope the nation stays together, as it’s their part of the country that lacks oil. A major part of the constitution is about oil and revenue-sharing concessions for the Sunni.

This makes it somewhat astonishing that the country has held together as well as it has, and clear there should be more holding it together long term, since the oil won’t last forever.

In the meantime, my impossible suggestion for smoothing the political process in Iraq is to move the seat of government to a Sunni city, such as Baquba, from Baghdad, which Sunnis feel is no longer a home. Grand buildings would rise, people and money would flood in and infrastructures of all sorts would grow as the Iraqi constitution specifies that the business of running the nation (and foreign diplomacy, including the hosting of foreign embassies) will move to Sunni land from Baghdad. Baquba isn’t even that far from Baghdad, but the action, if done right, accomplishes many things:

It ties the Sunnis into the country in a new, vital and concrete way, giving them a role equal to the creation of oil revenue;

It gives the Sunnis something concrete to hold onto in an uncertain time, increasing their comfort with changes in the country and decreasing the need for an insurgency;

It brings Shiites and Kurds into a Sunni city where — again, if done right — a host/guest relationship can create a balance of power until the everyday details of governing makes such distinctions less important;

It’s also a way to start over again on rebuilding the country, this time letting Iraqis do more of the actual work than U.S. contractors such as Halliburton.

Iraqis dislike the Baathists, but there are worse things than letting them feel they get to keep running the country’s government, even if the reality is one of power sharing. Two-thirds of the people get to feel like they’re being big and giving the Sunnis something to hang onto; the remainder get to feel as though they have an important task. And a significant concession.

Friday, August 26, 2005


It’s not every day the world watches a constitution come together or the Supreme Court get a new member. We’re seeing both, but with little appreciation of how one informs the other.

The nomination of John G. Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court frankly matters little to Iraq, but the writing of an Iraqi constitution matters for Roberts because it’s unclear where he stands on original intent.

This notion, that judges should hew to the intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, is what drives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who have been cited by President Bush as his model for Supreme Court justices. It follows that Bush nominated Roberts because he’s confident Roberts is an originalist.

The evidence is circumstantial, including that Roberts has the blessing of Edwin Meese, who’s credited with putting original intent atop the national agenda as far back as 1985 and has somehow gone from national embarrassment to eminence grise. (Come to think of it, that’s an even bigger national embarrassment.)

Harry Reid, the Senate’s top Democrat, has slightly better evidence that Roberts believes in precedent over originalism, having discussed it with the nominee recently. Roberts’ record supports this, with Texas law professor Sanford V. Levinson telling The New York Times that he “would be shocked if he turned out to be a strict constitutionalist like Scalia or Thomas.”

The problem with being an originalist, not to be too obvious, is that you really have to know what writers of our Constitution were thinking. This is complicated by the fact that time doesn’t stand still, meaning it’s hard to discern Thomas Jefferson’s intent on issues of the Internet, and by originalists’ tendency to ignore the founders’ intent whenever it becomes uncomfortable for them. For instance, Scalia and Thomas insist the Constitution does not give U.S. citizens the “right to privacy” that is the foundation of, among other things, legal abortion. But it doesn’t even pass the laugh test to say there was no intent for privacy among people fleeing religious persecution for the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Being present at the birth of an Iraqi constitution, especially one for which the United States is serving as midwife, is a fortuitous way to consider conditions when our own Constitution was created. Hundreds of years have passed, so constitution-writing technology, so to speak, must be vastly improved over our then primitive capabilities. There can be no questions about intent, of course, when the writers of the constitution are even now in the process of laying down their intent in crystal clear prose.


Not quite. As the Times said Wednesday,

Some secular Iraqi leaders complained Tuesday that the country’s nearly finished constitution lays the groundwork for the possible domination of the country by Shiite Islamic clerics, and that it contains specific provisions that could sharply curtail the rights of women.

The secular leaders said the draft, which was presented to the National Assembly on Monday, contains language that not only establishes the primacy of Islam as the country’s official religion, but appears to grant judges wide latitude to strike down legislation that may contravene the faith. To interpret such legislation, the constitution calls for the appointment of experts in Shariah, or Islamic law, to preside on the Supreme Federal Court.

The draft constitution, these secular Iraqis say, clears the way for religious authorities to adjudicate personal disputes like divorce and inheritance matters by allowing the establishment of religious courts, raising fears that a popularly elected Islamist-minded government could enact legislation and appoint judges who could turn the country into a theocracy.

The courts would rely on Shariah, which under most interpretations grants women substantially fewer rights than men.

Language reserving a quarter of the Assembly’s seats for women has been relegated to a section of the constitution labeled transitional, which is of uncertain legal force and duration.
[emphasis mine]

And these are just some of the issues unresolved or resolved unclearly in the document.

This constitution, which has already missed two deadlines and is almost certain to be submitted unfinished, isn’t just vague on intent. It specifically leaves massive, nation-shaping issues to be settled later by judges, many of whom will probably be religious figures keen on instituting religious law: The draft declines to say how secular Iraq will be, but will let clerical judges decide. This is somehow acceptable to our most powerful politicians, who demand our own judges not wander from the beliefs of a group whose last member died in 1836.

Perhaps these same politicians should explain how Bush became president. As American University law professor Jamin B. Raskin writes in “Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court vs. The American People” (Routledge, 2004), “Nowhere [in the Constitution] is the Supreme Court given any formal role at all in choosing the president or resolving competing interpretations of the electoral college provisions.”

Thomas and Scalia didn’t reject Bush vs. Gore. They voted with the 5-4 majority to appoint Bush to our highest office. They did, however, agree that the case should not be considered a precedent. Why should it? It was technically unconstitutional.

Bush is correct in saying “We had a little trouble with our own conventions writing a constitution,” but can’t acknowledge how this admission either weakens his stance on originalism or shows what a dangerously deformed baby it is he’s cooing over in Iraq.

More on this topic later.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


I’ve discovered a binder from my college days. The clear cover has a flier I designed for our senior-year magazine. The inside pocket has my letter of resignation from the school’s film review (several copies in sealed envelopes, never delivered and I can’t remember why), a bluebook from my propaganda class (my grade on that test: 93) and a treasured but long-lost letter-size copy of the U.S. Constitution, signed by Oliver North.

That last is a great story. A shining moment. And interesting because North and his cronies, or thugs, or whoever was watching over him at his bookstore event, knew they were being mocked and weren’t happy about it — but I sense the irony would be lost on the Oliver Norths of today. In the 1980s, when the president and his minions subverted the Constitution, there was at least a sense of shame that could be inferred from their excessive protests and smug indulgence in barely plausible deniability; these days our subverters are barely made to pause over their crime. The country’s so burned out on scandals that nothing fazes it, in much the same way Douglas Ginsberg couldn’t get on the Supreme Court in 1987 because he smoked pot, but six years later Bill Clinton could admit smoking pot and still become president.

What’s most striking about this binder, though, is the somewhat breathtaking shifts in purpose and narrative taking place not just from page to page, but from part of one page to the spot one inch to the left: class notes, personal notes, notes from interviews, commentary on how I felt about a class or what someone said during it, sketches and doodles, snippets of conversation real or imagined, reminders, puns, plots, phone numbers of forgotten people, extended bits of fiction, remembered lines from movies or songs, lists of things to do, mathematical computations ...

Even I’m dazed by it, and I’m me — essentially the same person as I was just over a decade ago, as proven by my deep if inevitable empathy with the rants I’m rediscovering. I ranted about technology then, too, and about being crammed into coach class in airplanes. I also took time off from ranting:

I must not look over there again. To look over is instant, crawling, squiggling, squirming death. Oops, I did it. But it’s okay.

And with almost no context I instantly know what was going on: I kept looking over at some female classmate. I can do the same sort of thing now with exactly the same mild panic and shooting thrill.

If anything has changed it’s that I’ve calmed torrents of thought into a linear trickle. The impatience on these blue-lined pages jumps off like sparks every time a page turns. It’s overwhelming. A little bit mystifying, too, I confess. Above sketches of magazine cover designs, which are themselves over an obscure note that on “Dec. 3 I go w/ ‘Care’ in wp481,” some class I took, which is itself next to the giant, scrawled name, “William,” is:

Ilha Mohja — you think you’ve got it tough? The headless horseman glasnost chuckles. But there’s no excuse for sloppiness. If that’s the way the cookie crumbles, we’ve got to find cookies that WILL NOT crumble. When he comes down, he comes down hard. When he thrashes around like a shark on a wounded man, a man leaking blood and a shark breathing it and the man deep inside a dangerous gullet — well, he does that hard, too. Gorgon. Gorgonzola. Soul. Solely. Solely soul. Roly-poly. Gorgonzoli. There are no bad designs. There are only bad designers. Guns don’t kill people ... guns don’t kill people ... guns don’t kill people ... I DO! The irony is — it’s unbelievable. What does wifferent about it? About wit? About ... shit.

And people wonder why I never did drugs.

I have no idea what I’m on about there, but I distinctly remember being in classrooms with lecturers speaking at length about information already known or too obvious to write down (another page reminds me that one teacher took pains to tell us “reps” was short for “representatives” in media lingo, and a different teacher taught us “grafs” was short for “paragraphs”) and feeling my mind search desperately for ideas on which to feed. It turned to free association to see if it held any surprises, an act that had the benefit of looking as though I was taking notes. I’m sure this was my inspiration and relatively sure I didn’t consciously know it at the time.

I free associate less now, since I’m less frequently in such situations, but I sense that’s the only reason.

In my free association, in other words, I sense continuity. I have no idea what I was talking about, but I know what I was saying.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Odwalla’s Summertime Lime is sublime and Harvard Square’s Darwin’s Ltd. is Exclnt. The combination leaves something to be desired, though, as a small Summertime Lime at Darwin’s Ltd. will run you $3.29.

The experience of holding one for a moment and returning it to the refrigerator is free, though, which is what I did a couple of days ago. I was suddenly far less thirsty and far more curious about the actual cost of one of these little plastic bottles — especially since C’est Bon, only a couple of blocks away, was selling the roughly eight-ounce drink for only $2.99.

That’s still expensive. The Odwalla Web site’s frequently asked questions page includes a section on “Why are your juices more expensive than others?” and the wholesale cost of the beverages is information not shared with members of the public. So it’s not as though the company isn’t sensitive to the issue. But the same size Lime drink was $2.50 at Formaggio, on Huron Avenue, and, through today (with other Odwalla flavors), $2 at the Porter Square Star Market. Although $2.99 is a standard retail cost for the small bottle, it’s hard to believe Star isn’t making money on its Odwallas even by selling it at almost a dollar less.

Rent is higher in Harvard Square, of course, than in Porter, but it’s probably not 10 percent more on Mount Auburn Street, where Darwin’s Ltd. is, than on Massachusetts Avenue, where C’est Bon is.

Don’t get me wrong. Darwin’s Ltd. is a great place. It may be 10 percent better than C’est Bon. It’s probably 64.5 percent better than Star Market.

I’m not sure if it’s 31.6 percent better than Formaggio, though.