Wednesday, March 30, 2005


By the way, I’m on vacation.

Friday, March 25, 2005


It may be gone by the time you read this, but look carefully at this page from’s English-language Web site. In the story about the “Three Sudan resolutions to be discussed by [Security Council],” the picture of the council in action includes a diplomat with his laptop open ... and a picture of breasts displayed on the screen. Quite obviously fake. But quite obvious.

So how did it make it through? Why is it still up? What are we to conclude?

The blogosphere and wider Internet are silent on the topic so far, although the site itself has several people commenting on the picture, most without much insight. (Sample: “Hooray for knockers.”)

Thursday, March 24, 2005


It’s either not big news or Lesley University has an ineffective public relations department, but the local press seems not to have noticed there’s a new school in town: Lesley’s School of Integrative and Experiential Studies.

It merges Lesley’s Adult Baccalaureate College and Audubon Expedition Institute, proving that combining two things that are vaguely named merely results in more vagueness, although not twice as much — in fact, the name of the new school sheds more light on its parts than did their own, old names. “Integrative and Experiential Studies” is at least suggestive: it is meant to be diverse, in whatever way, and use life experience, somehow. If you work at Red Lobster for a year with a senior citizen of another race and little person of another gender, is that good for course credit?

The official description of the school is little more illuminating. It’s made up of pearly phrases looping back on themselves with languid earnestness, if such a thing is imaginable, obscuring as they assure, and a quote from the school’s dean has exactly the same dreamily oblique manner. When he’s done talking, you shake yourself awake and wonder what just happened:

“Graduates from this school have an expanded capacity to transform knowledge into action,” Terrence Keeney says. “By designing and directing their own integrative programs of study, students develop the skills to think creatively and act with agency in the world.”

At least the formation of the school looks to have incurred the cost of a few trays of sandwiches (for meetings) and some replacement stationery. The last new school in the area cost $10 million, that being the Tufts University College of Citizenship and Public Service launched in 2000. Alums and eBay Inc. founders Pierre and Pam Omidyar wanted to make being “involved in public service ... not something you put on your resume (but) something you should think about throughout every day,” as Pierre Omidyar said that April.

Cambridge and its surrounding communities being renowned for their education, these new schools can be taken as a sign of what the future will be like: soft, fuzzy, articulate without being meaningful, and possibly meaningful without being articulate.

So be it, class of 2005. Let’s get out there and transform knowledge into action. Act with agency in the world. And help each other.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Credit is due New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose column yesterday raged with quiet but impressive power against Republicans — and, significantly, only against Republicans. Usually Brooks takes swipes at the left that are underhanded while pretending to take swipes at everyone that are evenhanded.

That he resisted what seemed to be a compulsion, or perhaps a reflex like closing your eyes when sneezing, is more than commendable. It’s nearly astonishing.

Especially as the rest of the national-level representatives of conservative America engage in that structural sabotage they call, oh, what was it? Their efforts toward the “culture of doing whatever the hell we want”?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


The Terri Schiavo situation dominating Florida, Washington, D.C., and front pages everywhere is oddly reminiscent of a crisis that riveted the world’s attention back in October 1988: the rescue of three whales, Siku, K’nik and Putu, trapped in Arctic ice.

Uncountable whales had died this way in the past, and hundreds since, but in this particular case the world decided to go quite mad:

Eskimos that normally hunted and killed the unendangered whale species instead, urged by environmentalists, let them live and even named them as though they were pets (the names, respectively, meant Ice, Snowflake and Hole in the Ice).

Hundreds of millions of people paid rapt attention to coverage over more than two weeks, during which the media — represented in Alaska by more than 150 journalists from around the world — spent upward of $5.8 million on the story.

The Soviets got much credit for saving the three whales, even if it responded to requests to send an icebreaking vessel just at the end of a whaling season that killed more than 150 of the creatures.

President Reagan, whose environmental high points included appointing the satanic James Watt secretary of the interior and blaming trees for pollution, called the rescue team to let them know that “Our hearts are with you.” The governor of Alaska exerted himself on the rescue, despite or because of the apathy he displayed a few weeks before toward saving seven Eskimos who floated out to sea on an ice floe. The government wound up getting much of the credit for saving the whales, although it was mainly the result of Greenpeace efforts.

And the oil industry, mainly the companies Arco and Veco, scored major points by contributing to rescue efforts, although their usual role in Alaska was cluttering the land with pumping and drilling equipment and befouling water and animals with oil spills. Within six months, the Exxon Valdez would dump 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska, causing what many still consider to be the No. 1 spill worldwide in terms of damage to the environment.

People lapse into persistent vegetative states all the time, just as whales get trapped in ice. In both cases, it is our reaction that is remarkable, not the situation itself. And when Terri Schiavo has faded into history with Siku, K’nik and Putu, people will still lapse into persistent vegetative states, families will still face decisions over whether to let them die and there will still be arguments and anguish, and little or no moral clarity, over those decisions.

What the world will never know is how much Terri Schiavo, or the whales, appreciate the efforts on their behalf or attention to their plight.

Tom Rose’s “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event” (1989, Birch Lane Press) added to my recollections of the whale crisis.

Monday, March 21, 2005


Oh my god. I was wrong.

The federal bill is solely about Terri Schiavo, just as the Florida bill was, according to this Associated Press story quoting White House officials.

Here’s the text:

White House: Schiavo bill not a precedent

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The White House said Monday that an extraordinary law allowing a federal court to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case was narrowly tailored and not intended as a precedent for Congress to step into battles over the fate of seriously disabled or terminally ill patients.

President Bush, who rushed back to the White House from Texas, was awakened to sign the bill shortly after it was approved by the House at 12:42 a.m. Monday and then rushed to him by staff secretary Brett Kavanaugh. Bush stepped outside his bedroom and signed it at 1:11 a.m., standing in the hall of his private residence.

Senior White House aides had been consulting with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the case for several days, and the Justice Department had provided “technical support” to congressional lawyers, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said as Bush flew to Tucson, Ariz., for a speech.

Bush, in a written statement, promised to “stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans, including those with disabilities.”

“In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life,” he said.

The law gave Schiavo’s parents the right to file suit in federal court over the withdrawal of nourishment and medical treatment needed to sustain their daughter, who suffered severe brain damage 15 years ago.

“Tonight we have given Terri Schiavo all we could — a chance to live,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. “After four days of words, the best of them uttered in prayer, Congress has acted and a life may have been saved.”

The bill passed the House after an often wrenching debate. It won the backing of virtually all the Republicans and almost half the Democrats who sprinted back to the Capitol for the debate, while 174 of the House's 435 elected members did not vote.

House Republicans scrambled to yank lawmakers back from a two-week Easter recess and amass the 218 votes necessary to bring the bill to a vote. The Senate approved the measure on Sunday by voice vote in a nearly empty chamber.

Several lawmakers recounted their families’ struggles with decisions about caring for incapacitated relatives in an often emotional debate over who should decide life and death.

Many Republicans said Terri Schiavo isn’t in the hopeless state that her husband portrays.

“We have heard very moving accounts of people close to Terri that she is, indeed, very much alive,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “She laughs, she cries and she smiles with those around her.”

Some Democrats countered that elected lawmakers weren’t qualified to make a medical diagnosis or second-guess the decisions made by Florida courts.

“I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, but that’s the point. Neither do my colleagues,” said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.

A few Republicans questioned the motives of Terri Schiavo’s husband, Michael, suggesting he doesn't have his wife’s best interest at heart.

“Now, he has had her feeding tube removed and sentenced her to a most excruciating death, citing Terri’s own wishes as the rationale ...” said Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan. “Michael did not remember this supposed request until years after Terri's initial injuries when a cash settlement was awarded to her, a settlement he would stand to inherit.”

And a few Democrats lobbed accusations at Republicans that political motives drove their passion for Schiavo and her parents.

“If you don't want a decision to be made politically, why in the world do you ask 535 politicians to make it? Does anyone think that this decision will be made without consideration of electoral support or party or ideology? Of course not,” said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Republican supporters said the “Palm Sunday Compromise” seeks to protect the rights of a disabled person. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the law would not affect state assisted suicide laws nor serve as a precedent for future legislation.

McClellan said he was unaware of any discussions in the White House for Congress to take broader action covering other patients like Schiavo.

“This is an extraordinary case,” he said. “It is a complex case where serious questions and signficant doubts have been raised.” He said it was unclear what Schiavo’s wishes were, and he noted that her parents had offered to care for her.

Asked if Bush would sign a broader bill, McClellan said, “That's speculative at this point.”

He also would not say what action the White House would support if the federal district court upholds the state court decision to permit the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube, hinting only that alternatives have already been discussed.

“We’ve looked at options that were available previously,” McClellan said. “We'll see what happens with the court now.”

Bush is adamantly opposed to legalizing physician assisted-suicide, as in an Oregon law. “The president believes that a culture of life is built on valuing life at all stages,” McClellan said.


Congress is in emergency session to delay the death of Florida’s Terri Schiavo, somehow trumping the efforts of Florida’s Legislature to make the personal political.

Usually a law inspired by an individual has wider meaning. “Megan’s law,” for instance, was named after a victim of a sex offender but compelled sex offenders around the country to announce their presence to neighbors. “Terri’s law,” passed Oct. 21, 2003, had no public benefit. It authorized

the Governor to issue a one-time stay in certain cases where, as of October 15, 2003, the action of withholding or withdrawing nutrition or hydration from a patient in a permanent vegetative state has already occurred and there is no written advance directive and a family member has challenged the withholding or withdrawing of nutrition and hydration.

It was struck down as unconstitutional Sept. 23 of last year, because the Schiavo feeding-tube decision was judicial, not executive or legislative. Gov. Jeb Bush accepted the decision, even though he’d pushed for and signed the law, saying through a spokeswoman that he “respects the role of the judicial branch on issues such as this and the rule of law. And he recognizes the Florida Supreme Court is the final arbiter on state laws, and as such recognizes that the options before us are limited.”

Apparently, one of the options was to go federal. The U.S. Congress is trying to get the case moved to federal court (they’d have to; such courts have resisted getting involved because they too lack jurisdiction) and, in a dire abuse of power, is issuing a subpoena to appear before them for testimony to Terri Schiavo, who has no mental capacity and cannot talk. Despite what Bush said less than six months ago, he is urging his state’s senators to match legislation by the Florida House for a broader Terri’s law, compelling doctors to give food and water to people, such as Terri Schiavo, in persistent vegetative states, unless there’s a living will or specific instructions saying otherwise.

This, at least, is a bill with a wider meaning, more a Megan’s law than a Terri’s law. But once again the conservative mantra of less government interference in people’s private lives is replaced by conservative babble about morality and “the culture of life,” and this only highlights another conservative hypocrisy:

In a culture of life, why not such concern for proving guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt for those on death row? Conservatives want to ensure that hopelessly brain-damaged people stay alive (at whose expense?) but reject the notion that felons can be rehabilitated or exonerated. There have been 119 death row inmates spared since 1973 — with an average 9.2 years spent there by people eventually acquitted or pardoned because of evidence of innocence — and, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, at least five executed despite strong indications they were innocent.

It’s worth remembering the words of another Bush, our president, on Karla Faye Tucker in January 1998. She was convicted of two murders and sentenced to death, but became a devoted Christian in prison. Even televangelist Pat Robertson was lobbying Bush, then governor of Texas, for mercy.

His reply?

“I feel my job is to uphold the law of the state of Texas, and we should treat this case like any other case.”

His take on Terri Schiavo?

He’s rushed back to Washington from a Texas vacation to sign whatever Schiavo-protection bill the U.S. Congress can cobble together.

Friday, March 18, 2005


Top Speed Pizzeria, according to menus delivered to doorsteps recently, no longer has “The Best Pizzas, Pastas and Subs Around.” The new menus promise instead — get ready — “Pies with bling.”

It’s unclear what this means in the context of pizza. The menu offers no clues beyond three new sandwiches: a veggie wrap; balsamic glazed chicken; and chicken bomb. And, in a move that indicates that the 300 Beacon St., Somerville, eatery had bloody well better deliver at top speed, frozen yogurt is also on the menu, including small sizes for $2 or $3 (for a blend).

All I can say is that this “Top Speed” pizzeria better not be frontin’. Yo.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


Here’s a great resource for anyone who happens to eat and wants to do it in Cambridge’s Central Square: a guide to “the restaurants, pubs and coffeehouses” there, courtesy of a Wisconsin lad named J. Leistikow who’s now a local.

He also blogs, nice and regular, on an impressively wide array of topics. Worth a look, at the very least.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


Sometimes I say “Howdy.”

It slips out. And I’m always astonished, and a bit embarrassed. I wince. I suspect I use it unthinkingly because I once adopted it purposefully, thinking it a very disarming way to say hello — that you can’t be hostile or perceived as hostile when you say “Howdy,” just as you can’t be sad playing the banjo. But now “Howdy” comes out even when I don’t intend it to, and the uncontrollable nature of it is a bit embarrassing.

The same thing happened to me several years ago when I started saying either “Golly,” “Gosh” or both with ironic intent. The words quickly ran away from me or, more accurately, started forcing me to run with them. And when something momentous would occur, or I was told or overheard something striking or important, I would find myself murmuring, against my will, long after the abandonment of the irony, “Golly.” Or “Gosh.”

I can’t remember which. But I distinctly recall the same wince that “Howdy” brings, as though my pants had fallen to my ankles and I was revealed to be wearing Underoos — that I’d accidentally given people a glimpse not of my dark side, but of the moronically innocent side that has no idea what’s going on, isn’t worth listening to and possibly still wets the bed.

In context: Fine. But on me: Wrong, awkward, disturbing. And somehow, ultimately, hostile, because the irony has become impossible to gauge.

In terms of my other linguistic experiments gone awry, or unconscious adoptions over the years, the “Y’all” that I incongruously picked up in Europe seems to have faded well, but I still let the modifier “bloody” seep into conversation.

God forbid they all become unleashed at once here in New England into a monstrous, “Howdy, y’all. Golly, it’s a bloody nice day.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


Reading Republicans and conservatives has become the new Encyclopedia Brown-style thrill for me, in which I get to match wits with the bad guys, spotting clues and avoiding traps, and I’m sorry if it bores others.

But I think it’s grimly funny to read our secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, write in yesterday’s New York Times about how technology has made oil drilling so less damaging to the environment — but doing so by describing oil exploration.

A lone man drives across a vast frozen plain on a road made of ice. He sits atop a large, bug-like machine with enormous wheels. He is heading for a spot on the tundra pinpointed by satellite imagery to explore for oil. When the spring thaw comes and the road melts, any evidence that a man or a machine ever crossed there will be gone ... Today, oil exploration in the Arctic occurs only in the frozen winter. Workers build roads and platforms of ice to protect the soil and vegetation. Trucks with huge tires called rolligons distribute load weights over large areas of snow to minimize the impact on the tundra below.

When she talks about actual oil drilling, though, meaning taking oil out of the ground and putting it where it can be refined and used, this picturesque specificity vanishes. In the passage below, notice how discussion of drilling reverts to talk of exploration. It’s marvelous sleight of hand:

Meanwhile, innovations in platform development and directional drilling mean that we need fewer and smaller pads to tap into oil and gas reserves. From a single platform, we can explore an underground area nearly the size of the District of Columbia.

What size are these fewer and smaller pads, anyway? And when she talks about satellite imaging techniques that improve “the chances of drilling a successful well by 50 percent, meaning fewer wells,” isn’t it still important to know how many wells we’re talking about? If there are 2,000 acres on which wells will sit in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, what about pipelines and roads connecting them? It’s entirely possible they would sprawl over the 1.5 million acres to be opened to development, but, not surprisingly, Norton’s article was vague on that point.

Today’s hoot was provided by David Brooks, who made a typical show of blaming Republicans as well as Democrats for being unwilling to budge on “Social Security reform” but dodged the fact that the Bush administration has been trying to kill Social Security, and that’s an awfully strange way to “reform” something. When our prison system kills people via injection or electric chair, its officials do not claim to be “reforming” the prisoner.

When Bush talks about Social Security reform, surely Democrats will have a dialogue with him. Until then, Brooks’ seeming evenhandedness is just more cheap razzle-dazzle.

Norton used misdirection to distract from serious issues; Brooks phrased the argument to avoid them.

Here’s one from the 2000 Republican Party platform, a passage so laden with flaws, fallacies and ironies that I shall leave it largely without comment, free for readers to relish and dissect:

The federal government has operated in the black for the last two years and is now projected to run a surplus of nearly $5 trillion over ten years. That wasn’t magic. It took honesty and guts from a Congress that managed the nation’s purse strings. Over a five year period, as surpluses continue to grow, we will return half a trillion dollars to the taxpayers who really own it, without touching the Social Security surplus. That’s what we mean by our Lock-Box: The Social Security surplus is off-limits, off budget, and will not be touched. We will not stop there, for we are also determined to protect Medicare and to pay down the national debt. Reducing that debt is both a sound policy goal and a moral imperative. Our families and most states are required to balance their budgets; it is reasonable to assume the federal government should do the same. Therefore, we reaffirm our support for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.

Delicious, isn’t it? I count at least five major mind-bogglers.

I’d love to give a link to the 2004 platform at (also known as, for the purposes of comparison, but it doesn’t seem to be working right now. For the truly curious, go here.

Monday, March 14, 2005


America Online has been scrambling for years to keep users, but it must be feeling better if it’s posting a policy as offensive as this one on instant messaging:

By posting Content on an [AOL Instant Messenger] Product, you grant AOL, its parent, affiliates, subsidiaries, assigns, agents and licensees the irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to reproduce, display, perform, distribute, adapt and promote this Content in any medium. You waive any right to privacy. You waive any right to inspect or approve uses of the Content or to be compensated for any such uses.

A spokesman for the company, Andrew Weinstein, says the warning was intended to be only about content AIM users post for all to see, such as a “Hot or Not” photo on which others vote, not conversation between two people. But it’s specious for a company to create and stick with a legal policy that allows such a thing while insisting the company would never use it. This is like when U.S. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld downplayed invasive elements of the USA Patriot Act because they hadn’t been used.

In both cases, if the offensive abilities are worth so little, they shouldn’t be codified.

The publication eWeek, which broke the story, confirms with lawyers that AOL’s defense is weak. Just like its service. And that’s what makes this invitation to paranoia, and the risk of alienating users or scaring off new ones, so bizarre.

Thanks to Carl for pointing out the issue.

Thursday, March 10, 2005


If you don’t own a car, you don’t realize the extent of the damage done to Interstate 93 by construction. Until that is, you have to be at the airport.

A major highway has been turned into a backwoods dirt road, a major artery into something more like an intestine with major blockage. In the race to Logan International Airport, you find yourself instead on an impromptu tour of Boston with uncountable others, all surely horrified at enforced glimpses of the North End, the financial district, Chinatown and the traffic lights arrayed like hiccups to keep drivers from speeding, even if those drivers left their homes thinking they’d be cruising down a multilane stretch of asphalt upon which adhering to the speed limit is considered a cry for help.

And the detour signs, oh, the detour signs. Like mischievous imps they leaped from nooks and crannies along the tortured roads, always gesturing vaguely toward at least two options, one to actually take you to Interstate 93, the other likely to bring you to hell. Or Winchester. Or Gardner. Or Easton. Somewhere far from where you have to be as the minutes run circles around you, screaming with urgent reminders that the flight you were meeting is landing in five, four, three, now two minutes.

Actually arriving at 93, you surge onto it in relief, celebrating freedom, until suddenly you find yourself in South Boston with off-ramps stretching out in selfish languor. Next exit, 76 miles. And it brings you to Neponset.

You overshot the exit. Or you finally got on 93 with the airport exit behind you. Never mind. Turn around. But can you get to the airport on 93 north? You must be able to. But this is Massachusetts. Roads laid out over cow paths, revised by that great civil engineer, M.C. Escher. You can take Route 16 north to Interstate 93, but you can’t come back. You can get lost forever in the loop of 95, 128 and 93 south of Boston, coming back to Boston when you think you’re off to Rhode Island and finding yourself in Mansfield when you were shooting for Andover.

So when you see a state trooper pulled off to the side of the road, you pull in behind, leave your hazard lights blinking, your car door open. You run up with caution, knowing troopers live on the edge, ready to shoot when a situation seems threatening or uncertain.

Except this one, who’s absorbed in poking at the keypad on his cell phone.

You stand next to him for several seconds, waiting for him to look up, but he doesn’t see you. So you call out “Excuse me!” but he doesn’t hear you, and when you do it again, he looks up — away from you, gazing out at passing traffic.

Finally he looks in your direction, rolls down the window and, in response to your request for help in getting to Logan, threatens you with a $100 fine for pulling into a construction zone.

You apologize and ask your question again, and he repeats the warning. Because it’s dangerous to pull out, see.

Time has slowed down.

You want to scream.

There’s not even much traffic.

He repeats his warning.

You repeat your question.

He finally answers.

And you get in your car and drive off, finding signs for the airport almost immediately, marveling as you accelerate past that the “construction zone” is merely the interior lane of Interstate 93 north endlessly blocked off by orange cones with a state trooper cruiser sitting every half-mile or so, troopers inside probably all diddling with cell phones and Game Boys. No construction at all.

The construction is to come.

Great fearsome God almighty, the construction is to come.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Lisa and fellow contributors to “Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America” will be at the Center for New Words in Cambridge tomorrow for a reading from the anthology, described as exploring “through a child’s lens the sometimes savage, sometimes innocent, and always complex ways in which race shapes American lives and families.”

This is a free event, held at 7 p.m. at the center, which is at 186 Hampshire St., Inman Square, meaning it’s frustratingly difficult to get to without a car, especially in the cold. It’s a haul from Porter or Harvard. But worthwhile, given the evidence of Lisa’s passionate writing and reviews of the book. The event is even to be recorded for the WGBH Forum Network.

The center alone is worth the visit, if only as a beacon for what a bookstore can be when it can be a bookstore no longer. That is, the center is a bookstore without books — a possibly increasingly important model in a world in which WordsWorth gives way to Amazon and iPods and laptops make even the T and coffee shops an isolating experience.

Finally, although there’s no live music planned for Thursday night, consider visiting the Ryles jazz club just down the street. My sister went to an event at the center one rainy night, only to find the building locked. The gaggle of drenched attendees were not only granted sanctuary by Ryles managers, but invited to use part of the club for their event.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


America’s foreign policy bumbles along in a darkly funny vein, a bit of Evelyn Waugh poking through the Franz Kafka.

It’s funny, for instance, that its primary successes are the product of inactivity, such as Israel and Palestine (where the policy could best be summed up as “Waiting for Arafat to die”), Libya and Lebanon. It’s funny to see President Bush lecturing Russia’s Vladimir Putin on democracy and the State Department denouncing torture in such nations as Saudi Arabia and Syria. Certainly Russia, Saudi Arabia and Syria would have a hard time taking this seriously.

It’s funny also to see the United States trying to get China to pay attention to North Korea’s nuclear program, and that China’s response to reporters Sunday, courtesy of foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, was an arch “I think that here you may know more than I do. Or to put it another way, I definitely don’t know any more than you do.”

This is mainly funny because, as The New York Times said yesterday:

President Bush last month sent a high-level envoy to Beijing to present fresh intelligence data that the Bush administration contends shows that North Korea’s nuclear program is more advanced than previously thought and that it has been selling nuclear materials around the world.

North Korea has been stomping around in short pants screaming as loud as it can that, in fact, it does have nuclear weapons. The United States is drawing attention to it, presumably with satellite imagery and transcripts from electronic eavesdropping, and China’s taking it no more seriously than, well, as if it had already sat through Colin Powell speaking to the United Nations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction with satellite imagery and transcripts from electronic eavesdropping.

China’s amused ignorance, though, is no stranger than the reaction of the United States, top officials of which routinely sound the alarm about North Korean weaponry and simultaneously shrug off its importance. They were doing so even before Feb. 10, when North Korea officially started its screaming, and even during Bush’s election debates with John Kerry last year, probably the best articulation of the intriguing tactic that “Now that we’ve beaten Iraq, North Korea should be really scared ... of China.”

“China’s a got a lot of influence over North Korea, some ways more than we do ... And so if Kim Jong-il decides again to not honor an agreement, he’s not only doing injustice to America, he’d be doing injustice to China, as well,” Bush said Sept. 30, during the first debate, seemingly unable to fathom China’s complete lack of interest or motivation in backing him up. China: an economy growing at 8 percent a year, likely to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest by mid-century, and North Korea’s best friend.

“I can’t tell you how big a mistake I think that is, to have bilateral talks with North Korea. It’s precisely what Kim Jong-il wants. It will cause the six-party talks to evaporate. It will mean that China no longer is involved in convincing, along with us, for Kim Jong-il to get rid of his weapons. It’s a big mistake to do that,” Bush said.

And what did China say on Sunday?

That the United States and North Korea should have bilateral talks.

“These are both sovereign countries,” Li told the Times. “They are the two major parties concerned. So it is for those two countries to increase trust and build mutual understanding.”

Funny, funny stuff.

Monday, March 07, 2005


Here’s my review of the movie “Be Cool,” starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Cadillac, Ferrari, the Honda Insight hybrid, Maker’s Mark, Ketel One, Beefeater, Budweiser, Stolichnaya and Skyy vodkas and several other alcoholic beverages, Domino’s Pizza, Alienware, Dairy Queen, Mountain Dew, Wurlitzer, the Staples Center, Aerosmith, Hummer, Re/Max, The Los Angeles Times, Jamba Juice, Apple, the Black Eyed Peas, Snap-On Tools, Fila, the Ford Motor Co., the Los Angeles Lakers, Porsche, the T-Mobile Sidekick, Bentley, Diet Pepsi, Doritos, MTV and Yahoo! Inc.:

It’s a little heavy on product placement.

Friday, March 04, 2005


At worst, hypocrisy. At best, political paradox like the conservatives who want small government — except when it comes to people’s sexuality and private lives, when they instead want Big Brother.

This one is revealed by U.S. Food and Drug Administration efforts to get heart-risk warnings on Vioxx pain pills. From The New York Times on Wednesday:

One witness argued that the agency did not need more power. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former top official at the agency who is now at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group, said the agency “doesn’t use its existing authority very well.”

Similar arguments are heard when gun control legislation is proposed. If laws already on the books were enforced, conservatives say, new laws wouldn’t be needed.

Mysteriously, the argument evaporates on such topics as terrorism. Conservatives insist that the USA Patriot Act must be kept, if not expanded, to give the government more powers to catch terrorists. Others insist there were plenty of clues, warnings and methods that could have prevented the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, meaning the Patriot Act wasn’t, and isn’t, needed. If techniques already allowed were used, they say, new laws wouldn’t be needed.

It makes a little more sense from the liberal side because liberals, despite what conservatives say, are not soft on crime or terrorism or weak on disbursing money for law enforcement or defense.

So it would be fun to sit down with a prototypical Republican — perhaps President Bush himself or the head of the Republican National Committee — to ask what justifies their inconsistency.

It’s likely the conversation would produce either empty slogans (“Nine-eleven changed everything!”) or plain gibberish (“But not gun laws!”).

That’s because conservatives can’t even be relied upon to enforce existing gun laws. They embrace them publicly, but awkwardly, eyes on the clock and then the door. Never mind those that allow one “collector” to buy hundreds of guns in a year; consider how former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft applied gun laws in direct and immediate response to the terrorist threats that somehow simultaneously demanded the Patriot Act’s secret access to library, medical and student and other records:

Immediately after 9/11, Ashcroft and the Justice Department blocked the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s attempts to see if people suspected of terrorism had bought guns. Department officials claimed the FBI’s search of the records was against the law, even though the law allowed for checks to see if the system was working correctly — and even though the FBI had already found two likely instances of gun purchases by the suspects.

In 2003, Ashcroft’s department decided counterterrorism agents could be informed when people suspected of being terrorists tried to buy guns but failed, but not when they succeeded. And being a suspect doesn’t mean you can’t buy a gun. “Being a suspected member of a terrorist organization doesn’t disqualify a person from owning a gun any more than being under investigation for a non-terrorism felony would,” according to a Justice Department statement. There must be another reason for denial, such as a criminal conviction.

Liberals might be conflicted about how much power to give U.S. law enforcement to look through what should be private records. But it’s disturbing to find conservatives are also conflicted ... on this one matter.

It makes the “enforce existing laws” rhetoric a little hard to swallow. And there’s not even a warning label.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


That toadying hack Alan Greenspan was sounding the alarm yesterday to Congress on Social Security and Medicare — fellow Federal Reserve officials Janet Yellen and Edward Gramlich were saying similar things elsewhere — but the truth is that Medicare, like all health care, is by far the more urgent problem for the U.S. economy.

Health care costs are, sorry, growing like a cancer. Part of that is because drugs are expensive. Drugs are expensive, we’re told, because biotechnology companies must spend big to develop and advertise them.


But since this is all necessary and yet all leading to an immense crisis in monetary and actual health, why not knock off the frivolous spending?

DTC Perspectives magazine (“The source for direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing leaders”) hosted its DTC National Awards show in Boston last night at the Boston Marriott Copley Place Hotel, giving warm fuzzies in such categories as best direct-mail, print and broadcast advertising campaigns for drugs such as Avonex and Femara.

“It drew some 500 attendees,” writes John Strahinich in today’s Boston Herald, “most from out of town.”

Biotech folks from Cambridge are welcome to drive over to collect a few awards, running the cost of a T token or time in a parking garage. But hundreds of drug company employees flying in — how many in first- or business-class seats? — to stay at least one night in a Boston area hotel — the DTC room rate at the Copley Marriott was $189 a night, but rooms there can run as much as $1,800 — doesn’t sound like a good way to spend consumer dollars.

It sounds suspiciously, in fact, like an obscene waste of money. If only 400 of the attendees were from out of town, and each got a coach airplane ticket for $300 and took the cheapest room rate at the Copley for $200, then spent an expensed $100 for meals and taxis, never mind how much it cost to attend the DTC event itself, the consumer is looking at a minimum of $240,000 spent by the industry, or passed on to it by advertising execs who attended, on what are undeniably bullshit awards.

It’s doubtful anyone would want to spend a penny more on even the most vital drug knowing it’s going toward flying some biotech middle manager to Boston for an awards show, especially when the best judge of a drug ad is whether it sells the drug in the first place.

Having the drug work is a plus.

After cutting out empty awards shows for the ads, it’s time to cut out advertising altogether for prescription-only drugs and let doctors be responsible (in both senses of the word) for counseling patients on what’s best for them. The ad industry will survive. The DTC awards might not.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


It’s become a cinematic cliche that serial killers send taunting notes to the police as a tortured plea to be caught — a cliche that’s forgivable because it happens in real life, too. BTK is only the latest in a long line of killers to do so.

In fact, “BTK” (for his tendency to “bind, torture, kill”) was chosen by the killer himself in two letters. After a series of poems, notes and packages since he started killing in 1974, he expressed frustration when, with seven victims under his belt (“and many more to go,” he said), the media still didn’t have a cute name for him.

In addition to the BTK Strangler, he proposed the Wichita Strangler, the Poetic Strangler, the Bondage Stranger (probably intended to be Strangler), Psycho (probably intended to be the Bondage Psycho), the Wichita Hangman, the Wichita Executioner, the Garote Phathom (pathetically, this was intended to be the Garrote Phantom) or the Asphyxiater (which should really have been the Asphyxiator).

This is all reminiscent of that grandaddy of serial killers, Jack the Ripper — the signature on a series of letters during murders in London’s East End in late 1888.

The letters provided all sorts of clues to the identity of the killer, including the very first words used — “Dear Boss” — an Americanism uncommon in Britain at the time — and such things as “They say I am a doctor now ha. ha.”

What’s wrong with all this is that no one investigating or reporting on the crimes, or those who study them now, believe that the killer wrote, sent or had anything to do with these letters. Universally, it was believed that the author was a journalist trying to keep the story alive, writes Paul Begg in “Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History” (Pearson Longman, 2004).

“But the chilling sobriquet was a fortuitous stroke of genius and bestowed upon the unknown murderer an immortality among the greatest villains of fact or fiction,” Begg writes. From an 1889 book called “Police!” by Charles Tempest Clarkson and J. Hall Richardson, Begg quotes:

The fame of “Jack the Ripper” spread far and wide. It is probable that nothing would have been heard of this cognomen had it not been for the indiscretion of Scotland Yard in publishing a facsimile of sensational letters sent to a news agency, which thereby gave to these interesting documents the stamp of official authority.

Too late. Although some killer would eventually have written such letters and similarly named himself, it was Jack the Ripper that set the tone into the next two centuries — and he was never even Jack the Ripper. Now we’ve madmen emulating someone that essentially never existed, trying in a bizarrely cutesy manner to live up to a pattern created out of nothing.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005


The Weekly Standard’s Web site has an odd bit of invective directed at Hunter S. Thompson that, in a good indication of its quality, begins by saying his suicide “may definitively mark the conclusion of the chaotic ‘baby-boomer’ rebellion.” May definitively, indeed, and definitively may not. It’s the very definition of something that’s possible.

The writer, Stephen Schwartz, writes mainly for conservative publications, and “The End of the Counter-Culture: Hunter S. Thompson: 1939-2005” shows it.

It’s an insulting piece — calling Thompson’s writing “mainly noise” and “incoherent scribblings” — riddled with logical dead-ends, nonsequiturs, inaccuracies and pettiness. Nearly every sentence contains a clunker. Many have more than one, and the cumulative effect is impressive, especially because where Schwartz is not simply wrong, he is frequently incoherent.

The key passage, which found its way into The New York Times’ Week in Review section, runs as follows:

Thompson had much in common with Burroughs and Ginsberg. First, their products were mainly noise. Their books were reissued but now sit inertly on bookstore shelves, incapable of inspiring younger readers, or even nostalgic baby boomers, to purchase them. Thompson claimed credit for the invention of “gonzo journalism,” epitomized by his great success, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” published in 1972. He will inevitably be hailed by newswriters as the creator of a genre. But if his work is taught to the young, it is as an exemplar of the madness of the ’60s, not as literature or journalism. Aside from his own later works, including such trivia, bearing his signature, as “The Great Shark Hunt,” “Generation of Swine,” and “Songs of the Doomed,” of what did “gonzo” journalism consist? Thompson left no authorial legacy.

It has long been argued that lasting literature is an impossibility without imitation and emulation, and that although young authors often produce works ridiculously imitative of their idols, real writers grow out of such mimesis to gain recognition for their own, individual abilities. But who can imagine a youthful talent beginning with an exercise in the gonzo style? Thompson produced no others like him, for the same reason Burroughs and Ginsberg generated no schools of novel-writing or verse. One may go further and say they had nothing to teach the young, except to emit a cacophony.

Schwartz’s piece is a prime example of “consider the source” criticism that fails even the most cursory test of common sense: The written media have been overwhelming in their acknowledgment and adulation of Thompson and his writings, with many such appreciations written by people who began their careers inspired by Thompson, if not outright imitating him.

This points to the primary problem of Schwartz’s complaint: To prove that Thompson, William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg and their ilk left an “authorial legacy,” Schwartz seems to insist there be equally famous writers and poets who are indistinguishable from the countercultural icons. Where else does this test apply? Must there be painters whose works are indistinguishable from Picasso’s to prove Picasso was great? Are there works that echo Proust so well they prove Proust deserving of legend? Where are the clones of Sylvia Plath toasted for their works?

In fact, real writers — whatever that means — do grow out of imitation to “gain recognition for their own, individual abilities,” making it nearly impossible to track, without their own testimony, talents sparked by Thompson. (Real bad writers keep imitating Thompson and deservedly fade into obscurity.) This doesn’t lessen the greatness of Thompson in the slightest; it’s the impossibility of copying him, especially in light of his immense personal and professional success, that proves his greatness. The same goes for Burroughs, Ginsberg and many others.

Schwartz’s standard of success is a paradox, and impossible to reach. Consider the source, though: Schwartz has written for a few newspapers, preaches to the converted in conservative publications and has produced a couple of books, one on “The Two Faces of Islam,” the other a “Balkan Jewish Notebook.” Chances that his work has inspired youth, meeting his standard as lasting literature, are slim. This is a flea vengefully biting the corpse of Lassie.

Nowhere is this more clear than the passage in which Schwartz gratuitously snipes that Thompson’s “enablers included ... pop huckster Jann S. Wenner, the grand ayatollah of Rolling Stone, a tabloid which began as a pop music paper, then tried to make itself over as a serious journal, and is now read by ... who?”

In addition to this being irrelevant, Rolling Stone has a steady, audited circulation of 1.27 million throughout North America and Europe. The Weekly Standard boasts of having a circulation of “more than 60,000.”


I am, by the way, perfectly aware my own criticisms of Schwartz’s criticism can be used against me, including the comparative size of my audience and that I’m preaching to the converted. The difference, of course, is the quality of the criticism. Fans of Schwartz are invited to consider the source — and then try to knock my arguments down as easily as I can knock down his.