Thursday, June 30, 2005


It’s no wonder U.S. citizens are so alienated and hostile to media and government: They behave so incomprehensibly.

There’s been much media coverage of the reporters threatened with jail over protecting anonymous sources on the Victoria Plame story, in which the cover of a Central Intelligence Agency operative was blown in a government leak to conservative columnist Robert Novak. Time Inc. is turning over notes today that may prevent imprisonment for its reporter and that of The New York Times (who never even wrote on the topic).

Meanwhile, Novak refuses to discuss why he was never threatened with jail time and — this is the inexplicable part — the media stays almost universally silent on the identity of the leaker.

It was I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Cheney.

Susan Stabley, a reporter for the South Florida Business Journal, makes this point in a Tuesday letter to the Romenesko media Web site and even provides a link to The Washington Post’s story providing the information. But Libby remains unmentioned even in today’s coverage of Time Inc.’s decision. As Stabley says:

Cooper was the speaker at the recent [Society of Professional Journalists] awards in South Florida. He told a room full of reporters that he revealed his source ... after Libby released him from his obligation to protect his identity. The Washington Post reported the identity ... in August 2004. Cooper told us at the SPJ event that his current legal crisis had to do with a follow-up subpoena from investigators who were fishing for all his notes.

... So, again, why why why, is not the name of the source ... in every single story about Miller-Cooper-Novak? And instead of wondering about Novak, I want to know: what will happen to Libby?

Meanwhile, topping even this, the Bush administration intends to promote the military officials overseeing Abu Ghraib, where soldiers tortured Iraqi prisoners, almost all of whom were eventually found to be innocents. This is a pattern for the White House, where the biggest failures — such as preventing 9/11 or planning well for the Iraq war and its aftermath — are rewarded while conscience and competence are punished as disloyal.

There’s only one way to make sense of this, and Joseph Heller did it in 1961 in his horrifically funny “Catch-22” when Yossarian, intent on destroying a bridge, takes a squadron of airplanes around a second time after failing to drop his bombs the first time. He gets the bridge, but another airplane is destroyed, killing all aboard.

”We’re trying to be perfectly objective about this,” Colonel Cathcart said to Yossarian with the zeal of sudden inspiration. “It’s not that I’m being sentimental or anything. I don’t give a damn about the men or the airplane. It’s just that it looks so lousy on the report. How am I going to cover up something like this in the report?”

“Why don’t you give me a medal?” Yossarian suggested timidly.

“For going around twice?”

“You gave one to Hungry Joe when he cracked up that airplane by mistake.”

Colonel Cathcart snickered ruefully. “You’ll be lucky if we don’t give you a court-martial.”

... “Why
don’t we give him a medal?” Colonel Korn proposed.

“For going around twice? What can we give him a medal for?”

“For going around twice,” Colonel Korn answered with a reflective, self-satisfied smile. “After all, I suppose it did take a lot of courage to go over that target a second time ... And he did hit the bridge. You know, that might be the answer — to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.”

“Do you think it will work?”

“I’m sure it will. And let’s promote him to captain, too, just to make certain.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2005


Waterbones is right. The Overheard Lines blog — which is just that, stuff overheard and posted for the masses — is brilliant.

The archives only go back through March, so don’t be afraid to read them all. I suspect you’ll want to, anyway.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005


Cluelessly missing the Constellation Center exhibit at the Boston Early Music Festival, I instead simply called developers to ask what was going on — meaning: When would Cambridge’s Kendall Square get the $70 million, technologically cutting-edge multitheater center promised in 2002?

Clearly not this year, which was the original plan. But probably not as late as 2010, either, as the Local Sightings Web site said in March.

“That’s pessimistic. That’s on the outside,” said Frank Cunningham, an audio consultant for the project. “If we’re really lucky, it’ll only take two years to build.”

That’s after construction starts, though, which should be next year. The Constellation Center organizers are interviewing construction companies, Cunningham said.

Even before that, though, count on the Web site being updated. “We’ve sort of been in stealth mode,” Cunningham said, noting that there’s even a fifth performance space planned for the center; the Web site lists four, going so far as to make it sort of a slogan. “Four halls ,” it says. “One roof.”

Monday, June 27, 2005


Little attention is being paid to the near-simultaneous deaths of Paul Winchell and John Fiedler. That is to say, there are obituaries around the nation for one actor or the other, but they do not acknowledge the obvious:

Winchell, 82, the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Tigger, died Friday; Fiedler, 80, the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Piglet, died Saturday. They’d made 13 films together in the roles.

The New York Times even ran Winchell and Fiedler obits side by side, certainly implying a connection, but not feeling any need to say, for instance, that the men had known each other for at least 37 years, died within a day of each other and just happened to both provide voices for Winnie-the-Pooh characters.

Friday, June 24, 2005


The latest Republican foray at Social Security privatization uses the Social Security surplus to pay for private retirement accounts. Proving up is down, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum defended the idea thusly yesterday at a Washington, D.C., news conference:

I’ve not been to one town meeting where I’ve not heard, “If you guys would just stop spending the Social Security surplus, things would be in good shape.”

The new privatization plan is, to Santorum and the GOP, an answer to this complaint. Somehow they miss the point that it is, in fact, exactly what people are complaining about.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


This is the White House that took a budget surplus and turned it into a giant budget deficit.

Its current goal is to phase out Social Security by — ultimately — replacing it with private stock market accounts. The justification, or rationalization, is that Social Security funds may run short in the future.

Since no one is buying the idea that privatizing Social Security is necessary or justified, the White House and some Republicans are casting around for new ways to sell it. Here’s the latest, courtesy of today’s New York Times:

Influential Republicans offered a sketchy proposal on Wednesday that would use the cash surplus the Social Security system is running nowadays to finance private investment accounts, in an effort to neutralize the political opposition to a fundamental change in the system.

Republicans said they hoped the plan would keep the idea of personal accounts alive, allay the fears of the public that the Social Security surplus is being spent elsewhere, and put further pressure on Democrats to engage in the legislative debate over Social Security.

They want to take a Social Security surplus and deplete it to solve a problem that otherwise might never arise by creating accounts that will kill the program they say they’re trying to save.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Sixteen DVDs for $20. Welcome to China.

The Motion Picture Association of America is freaked out about bootleg DVDs, claiming they take $3.5 billion out of Hollywood every year, mostly overseas, and the streets of China provide some justification for the panic. No shaky images here, or muddy sound from video cameras snuck into theaters; these movies are ripped from rented discs or studio code. Some even add languages while retaining features such as directors’ commentary and deleted scenes.

“Kinsey” is so complete that the disc begins with the original’s energetic anti-piracy ad. (“Buying pirated films is stealing,” the ad says to fast, grinding rock. “Stealing is against the law.”)

But there are flaws as well, including copies of “The Piano” and “Con Air” that simply don’t work on U.S. players. There’s easily a couple of bucks down the drain.

Most flaws are limited to the packaging and are just funny. The back of the case for “National Treasure,” for instance, quotes Judith Crist as saying it’s “A beautiful and startling film,” pretty high praise for a Nicolas Cage action flick, albeit one apparently released by Miramax and starring Michel Serault and Valentina Cervi. The front brags that “National Treasure” is “From the producer of ‘Pirates of the Cartoden.’”

The front of “Frank Miller’s Sin City” is all good, but the back claims the movie stars The Rock and Johnny Knoxville and is directed by Kevin Bray, indicating that lack of attention to such details is not uncommon for Chinese DVD pirates. Another pirate shortcut, apparently when lacking studio marketing to copy, is to find descriptive text where they can, probably from online reviews or message boards, and slap it on with minimal concern for meaning.

“Plot Outline: An adaptation of Frank Miller’s stories based in the fictional town of Sin City,” says the blurb, and so far so good. “Chief amongst the town’s residents is Marv, who trawls the darkest areas of town looking for the person who killed his own true love, Goldie.”

Right. Then it wanders. Remember, this is uncredited jacket copy on a DVD:

I’m only a marginal comics fan — I read a bunch of stuff over the course of a year or two in college and haven’t read much at all since. Frank Miller was my favorite writer then and the I always loved the Sin City series. [sic] I didn’t realize the movie was even being made until I saw the notice for the preview screening (if that’s an indication of how much I follow comics these days).

But this is just for show, anyway. No one’s reading the back of one-dollar bootleg DVDs in crowded Chinese alleyways trying to figure out whether to buy, just as no one’s checking the nutrition information on a bag of heroin. These are people who know — how did it go again? — stealing is against the law.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


A hairline crack has appeared in a pillar of my Porter Square/Davis Square existence. The bean and rice quesadilla at Anna’s Taqueria has risen in final cost, to $3.20 from $3.10.

This could cost me another $36.50 per year.

Monday, June 20, 2005


I fell in love with Cambridge again Saturday afternoon. This was the scene:

In the pit by the main entrance to the Harvard Square T stop, several Muslim teens are rapping serially, very serious, some quite good. (The best, for whatever reason and whatever it means, are those in modern garb, not traditional Islamic gear.) The topic is the world as seen from the perspective of urban youth and urban youth as perceived by the world. They are angry but passionate.

After a while, I must go. On my way around to the T entrance, I pass by someone in a bee costume. His back is to me, wings folded behind his yellow and black belly, as he speaks with a friend.

The killer conversationalist bee behind me, I’m about to make the tight U-turn into the T when I notice that the guy in front of me, his arms at right angles to his lean, tall body, is holding a sword. Three other youngish people behind him are holding props as well, suggesting they are on their way to a rehearsal of “A Man for All Seasons,” or perhaps a bootleg “Spamalot.” The guy with the sword looks impudent and funny, as sharp as his sword. But he is bent forward at the waist, appreciating the scents being hawked by a middle-aged Avon saleswoman.

This overlapping life is pleasant, and I leave blissed-out, feeling — despite the aggrieved rhymes of the Muslim kids — as though everything in this small part of the world is at peace, or at least on the right path, or at least fighting the good fight of understanding and civility.

There are other takes on Cambridge, but for some reason I tend to see the good.

Friday, June 17, 2005


I think it’s the artificial turf that really did him in.

Being a high school guidance counselor at my school means that I have to help 330 seniors, two hours after their last final, practice their graduation march and get ready for the main event at 5 p.m. that evening. What this also means is that I am usually running around like NASA before a big launch, trying to make sure all of my kids are going to walk in graduation that evening. I am speed-dialing mom who is waiting at home with grandma while waving furiously at the teacher for a final grade so I can clear precious to walk. Usually I have three to four seniors taking it to that last possible moment. There are years when I lose three kids, and there are years I lose none.

I was worried this year because this particular class of seniors are, by and large, fucking idiots.

There are a few bright and shining stars, a few Ivy Leaguers, a few witty, charming kids — but mostly they are dim. Which means that I thought I would be spending all of that Friday of graduation on the phone nodding sympathetically while moms cried and screamed. But I wasn’t.

Walking down to the gym where they all lined up alphabetically to march two by two to the new football field, I was feeling good that they all pulled it off.

We marched. We got there. Seniors stood on command and sat on command. The band warmed up, and the singing group (the Supertonics) practiced some James Taylor song I don’t remember (there was no fire and rain in this one). I looked for students that weren’t following directions and made sure they understood that 3,000 people were coming to see them.

Then I spotted him.

When you think a student is drunk or high, it’s hard to put your finger on it unless they are about to pass out. At first I chalked it up to the heat; though it wasn’t as hot as it has been in the past, when we’d finally marched everyone to the field, I was glad I brought a bottle of water. By the 50-yard line, it had seemed a good 15 degrees warmer than it had down on campus, heat radiating off the artificial turf.

Maybe that’s why he’s listing a bit during the pledge of allegiance, I thought.

Nope. But to be honest, I probably would have let it go. I knew he didn’t drive, and I didn’t want to deal with the consequences unless I had to.

But then, being a rocket scientist, he staggered up to the associate principal and slurred out the question, “I have to go the bathroom?” The kid reeked so much of alcohol, Paul told me later, he had to take a step back to avoid being sick.

So of course the kid was suspended and couldn’t walk in graduation or go to grad night. And I had to call his mom and tell her the horrible news. She took it well. There was a sigh and she told me she was on her way to pick him up.

It just made me sad to think that this kid would do something so stupid on such an important day. I am sure he probably did it because he wasn’t really thinking about what could happen while blowing off steam with some of the other meats from his basketball team, but I just thought it was such a shame that his family would never have this moment to remember. Never have that rite of passage in their minds when they thought of him. And though I know it’s not the biggest deal in the world, I think it’s something you take with you to wherever you go next.

Of course, at my graduation, my father videotaped the wrong girl throughout the entire ceremony. We have a lovely record of Megan McCallister’s great moment, and clearly my parents are very proud of her. We joke about it, and it’s still that thing we have as a family, all of us watching her as she walked across the stage.

As I sit here and enjoy the summer break before it all begins again, I hope next year I get them all on the stage. I love that moment when all my seniors are declared graduated, and the chaotic hugging that follows. It makes me feel like I did my job.

3Jake is a guidance counselor in California’s Bay Area. She once had a blog.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


Lesley University is on the verge of signing an 85-year lease with the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority for the air rights to the Porter Square commuter rail tracks, meaning it would deck over them and build above.

The move would expand Lesley’s presence in the area — the T stop’s name would become “Porter/Lesley” — and serve to connect Massachusetts and Somerville avenues “for a more coherent sense of neighborhood,” in the words of one attendee at a meeting of the Porter Square Neighbors Association tonight.

The $20 million project started off two years ago as including student dorms, said Marylou Batt, Lesley vice president for administration and university centers and institutes, but those have since gone elsewhere. The space above the tracks now will probably be for academics, with some retail on the ground floor. The retail would probably face Massachusetts Avenue, Batt told the association, and could include a cafe or (to the discomfort of a visiting Porter Square Books proponent) a more public Barnes & Noble university bookstore. The current Barnes & Noble is hidden inside the Porter Exchange, much of it below ground.

Nothing is set, though.

“We’ve stopped all planning, because it costs too much to keep” doing so during years of negotiations, Batt said. When the MBTA agreement is signed, “we will start that process again.”

Batt winced while discussing construction costs. Just putting the deck over the tracks will cost up to $6 million, and the university is taking over maintenance of Porter Square plaza, as well.

“It’s a pretty expensive undertaking,” she said, but one that makes sense for the school. “That’s why we never thought anyone else [would make the deal] there.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Emack & Bolio’s ice cream is coming, sending Porter Square another swift step toward destinationhood despite gigantic, and gigantically slow, construction. The opening: as soon as two weeks.

“It’s ambitious,” said Bob Rook, president of the ice cream chain, putting an opening even before July — when he hopes the city will deliver a “pedestrian park” to match. The ice cream shop will be small, taking about half the space once devoted to the arts and crafts shops attached to CVS, and provides little room for eating.

Don’t count on the July date, though. The city’s Bill Deignan expects the park to be “substantially complete by the end of this construction season,” meaning before bad weather makes work impossible. “The plaza should be recognizable by then,” but things such as tree plantings may have to wait for next year.

Porter Square has long been bedeviled by a lack of loitering appeal; it’s a place to run errands, but not a place to hang out, as Davis Square or Harvard Square are. The developer Gravestar redesigned Porter’s shopping area recently, at least placing benches along the businesses, but the spread-out nature of the square tends to overpower the improvements. The best public space in the square isn’t even public: It’s Pizzeria Uno’s outside dining area, which suddenly became attractive this summer with the addition of tablecloths and small trees.

Plans for Porter’s redesign may achieve the goal of making the entire space a piece of public art, but they will do little to address the problem. The plans offer only “boulders” and “individual seats [that] will allow people to rest on their way through the square.”

Fortunately, Gravestar asked for a slight enlargement of construction so “cafe seating” could go in, said the company’s Michael Dougherty, agreeing with Rook and Deignan that this indicates tables for group seating. Dougherty hopes Emack & Bolio’s will be selling ice cream July 1, and for the pedestrian park to follow.

“It should be a very nice spot,” he said.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


The New York Times’ work on the Downing Street memos continues to display, at best, obtuseness. Ignore the stuff about how the United States didn’t plan well for after the Iraq war; it’s almost entirely irrelevant. Pay attention only to the part where the United States misleads the world into invading Iraq.

Today’s “news analysis” by Todd S. Purdum belittles the memos as being “not the Dead Sea Scrolls” because “There has been ample evidence for many months, and even years, that top Bush administration figures saw war as inevitable by the summer of 2002.”

As to the chief of British intelligence, Sir Richard Dearlove, telling his fellow government ministers that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” well, Purdum describes this as an “impression” upon which Dearlove (or at least the memo in which he’s paraphrased) “does not elaborate” — the same bit of oddness engaged in by Michael Kinsley yesterday in which the chief of British intelligence, the nation’s top spy, tells fellow government ministers ... nothing of import, apparently. Just a guess, surely. Could be true, could not be. Who knows? Not me, I’m just chief of British intelligence.

Speaking of which, Purdum maintains his flippant take on the topic even while noting how:

Vice President Dick Cheney made a bellicose speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in which he warned that a return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq “would provide no assurance whatsoever” of Mr. Hussein’s compliance.

Look, Purdum, and Kinsley, and whoever else. Listen up:

The point is not that war was seen as inevitable. The point is that it was inevitable — considered and made so by an administration long before it went to the United Nations to flesh out a cover story about weapons of mass destruction justifying Iraqi regime change. Facts and new intelligence from weapons inspectors on the ground didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand the difference between a war that was seen as inevitable and a war that was made inevitable, and thus illegal, through deception and pressure tactics.

And that’s what makes the so-called blogosphere so suspicious of the so-called mainstream media.

Monday, June 13, 2005


There’s a backlash against the Downing Street memos emerging today, as well as more weird U.S. media decisions.

After missing out yesterday, when the Times of London and Washington Post ran stories, The New York Times put a story on page A10 about the memo revealing the lack of U.S. post-war planning for Iraq. (The online version of the story bears the somewhat nonsensical headline “Prewar British memo says war decision wasn’t made.”)

The placement is fine for such a story — in comparison with the Post, which put a similar one its front page, apparently overreacting in shame to missing the original memo months ago — but disappointing in that this is the story the Times chose to run. The Times of London, by contrast, noted that British government ministers were obliged to create a war.

“The US Government’s military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace. But, as yet, it lacks a political framework,” says the July 21, 2002, memo, actually a briefing paper to get government officials up to speed before they met to discuss Iraq.

The notes assume Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, but also that Saddam Hussein would block United Nations weapons inspectors from doing their job, providing a pretext for an invasion. Here’s some excerpts:

US military planning unambiguously takes as its objective the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by elimination if Iraqi WMD. It is however, by no means certain, in the view of UK officials, that one would necessarily follow from the other. Even if regime change is a necessary condition for controlling Iraqi WMD, it is certainly not a sufficient one.

Regime change per se is not a proper basis for military action under international law. But regime change could result from action that is otherwise lawful. We would regard the use of force against Iraq, or any other state, as lawful if exercised in the right of individual or collective self-defence, if carried out to avert an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe, or authorised by the UN Security Council.

In practice, facing pressure of military action, Saddam is likely to admit weapons inspectors as a means of forestalling it. But once admitted, he would not allow them to operate freely. UNMOVIC (the successor to UNSCOM) will take at least six months after entering Iraq to establish the monitoring and verification system under Resolution 1284 necessary to assess whether Iraq is meeting its obligations. Hence, even if UN inspectors gained access today, by January 2003 they would at best only just be completing setting up. It is possible that they will encounter Iraqi obstruction during this period, but this more likely when they are fully operational.

It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community. However, failing that (or an Iraqi attack) we would be most unlikely to achieve a legal base for military action by January 2003.

Hussein frustrated war planning by complying with weapons inspectors, of course, but the more important point is what immediately followed this memo: a meeting of those government officials for whom it was prepared. It is the minutes of that meeting, from July 23, 2002, in which intelligence chief Sir Richard Dearlove speaks of his trip to Washington, D.C., and confirms what’s implicit in the first memo: that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

This is what’s being derided by John Fund, of The Wall Street Journal, and Michael Kinsley, of the Los Angeles Times. Fund, oddly, knocks it for being “three years old,” even though the whole point of bringing the memos to light is to show the official thinking long before the invasion of Iraq — even before any data justifying an attack. Kinsley, nearly smothering under the weight of his own cleverness, dismisses the memo as being obvious and unimportant.

Even on its face, the memo is not proof that Bush had decided on war. It states that war is “now seen as inevitable” by “Washington.” That is, people other than Bush had concluded, based on observation, that he was determined to go to war. There is no claim of even fourth-hand knowledge that he had actually declared this intention. Even if “Washington” meant administration decision-makers, rather than the usual freelance chatterboxes, [Dearlove] was only saying that these people believed that war was how events would play out.

This is ridiculous. Kinsley is implying that the chief of British intelligence went to Washington, D.C., and spoke with “freelance chatterboxes” rather than the U.S. government in preparation for briefing fellow government ministers on a war they were clearly expecting to fight. This theory not only makes no sense, but is betrayed by the very context of the memos Kinsley so airily dismisses.

The entire world got to watch the U.S. arguments for invading Iraq fall apart, leaving only a bid for regime change that is, as the July 21 memo says, “not a proper basis for military action under international law.” Now we’re privy to secret memos showing how the United States, aided by the United Kingdom, conned the United Nations and the world into achieving its objectives.

“Is it the smoking gun?” Fund asks. “Don’t make me laugh.”

It’s understandable friends of the Bush administration wouldn’t be laughing; three years old and all, the memo’s pretty bloody close to a smoking gun — one shooting holes in the U.S. cover story for a war, revealing the violation of international law behind it.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


The Iraq war revelations today from The Washington Post and the U.K.’s Times couldn’t be more different, something highlighted by the play of the Post’s story. Having almost entirely blown off the Downing Street Memo of July 23, 2002, that said “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the [Iraq] policy,” the Post has given some of its front page to a story that

A briefing paper prepared for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers eight months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq concluded that the U.S. military was not preparing adequately for what the British memo predicted would be a “protracted and costly” postwar occupation of that country.

This is of little interest or surprise compared with the memo itself, which never made it to the Post’s front page, especially since even our own State Department foresaw post-war problems that the Defense Department ignored.

The real news is in the Times’ story on the same eight-page document:

Ministers were warned in July 2002 that Britain was committed to taking part in an American-led invasion of Iraq and they had no choice but to find a way of making it legal.

The warning, in a leaked Cabinet Office briefing paper, said Tony Blair had already agreed to back military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein at a summit at the Texas ranch of President George W. Bush three months earlier. ... The document said the only way the allies could justify military action was to place Saddam Hussein in a position where he ignored or rejected a United Nations ultimatum ordering him to co-operate with the weapons inspectors. But it warned this would be difficult.

Both stories cite Tuesday’s press conference with Bush and Blair, during which each denied fixing intelligence and facts and pointed out that the memo “was written before we then went to the United Nations” (Blair) and the meeting “happened before we even went to the United Nations” (Bush).

These are weak bits of obfuscation. The underlying point of the memo is not just that “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” but that this was taking place a full eight months before the March 19, 2003, invasion of Iraq. The U.S. arguments to the United Nations — that Saddam Hussein was dangerous and defying international will, including Colin Powell’s Feb. 6, 2003, shadow play of misinterpreted, flawed or cooked evidence — were a demonstration, not refutation, of policies shown in the memo.

It is also worth noting another bit of humbug.

During the Tuesday press conference, Blair talked about the

United Nations resolution to give a final change to Saddam Hussein to comply with international law. He didn’t do so. And that was the reason why we had to take military action. But, all the way through that period of time, we were trying to look for a way of managing to resolve this without conflict. As it happened, we weren’t able to do that because, as I think was very clear, there was no way that Saddam Hussein was ever going to change the way that he worked or the way that he acted.

Bush added:

Nobody wants to commit military into combat. That’s the last option. The consequences of committing the military are very difficult. You know, one of the hardest things I do as the president is to try to comfort families who’ve lost a loved one in combat. It’s the last option that the president must have, and it’s the last option I know my friend had as well. And so we worked hard to see if we could figure how to do this peacefully.

It’s not quite clear what Blair’s talking about; Hussein allowed in U.N. weapons inspectors, who found no evidence of the weapons of mass destruction providing the pretext for the invasion; and, according to The New York Times and Daily Telegraph, he essentially surrendered to the White House through secret diplomacy, even offering internationally supervised elections within two years.

Another offer Iraq made in its desperation was for “direct U.S. involvement on the ground in disarming Iraq.” And this was for weapons the country didn’t even have, as Hussein told the United Nations Dec. 7, 2002, and was being confirmed with greater and greater confidence by weapons inspectors.

Why would Iraq offer to disarm when it also claimed to have no weapons? It’s true there was confusion in the Iraqi government about whether such weapons existed, but it also seems a way to call the bluff of the United States, which had rejected the assertion and forced the weapons inspectors to leave. After all, as The Guardian reported, the United States was still insisting that Iraq, to avoid war, admit it had weapons of mass destruction.

In retrospect, this was nothing more than bullying. The United States may as well have made Hussein admit to wearing little girls’ panties and wetting the bed.

All of this must be put in the context of that last night before war, when the White House revealed that its 48-hour ultimatum aside, the invasion of Iraq would take place “no matter what.” As The New York Times and Newsday reported, even if Hussein agreed to go into exile, the United States would occupy Iraq.

Why? To ensure Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Friday, June 10, 2005


And sometimes Ted Rall can be the one cutting with it.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


The Scientologists were back today, this time in Harvard Square. Interestingly, they were getting no bites, the opposite of their foray into Porter Square a while back. Was it the rush hour? Was it that Harvard Square is so commerce driven? Was it a preponderance of smart people? Has the world gotten smarter in the past few months? Has Tom Cruise given Scientology a bad name?

Could anyone ever have expected that last question to make any sense?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


The Redondo Beach Pier is atypical. Instead of jutting out picturesquely, simply, as does its counterpart in Manhattan Beach, it makes a ragged, jagged, seemingly improvised trip back to land, forming a Waterworldesque U referred to by its Web site, curiously, as a “horseshoe.”

But this is a classic southern California place spun with surreality, contradiction and peculiarity, among them that I don’t remember visiting this place, some 10 minutes from my home, during the two decades I lived there.

The wondrous oddness settles in piece by piece, starting with it being one of the few small places on earth likely to have two toe ring shops, one even called T’s Toe Rings & Gifts (which also sells “Real Seashells” and assures you that “Yes, They’re Real!” and even “Real, Real, Real!”). The competitor, Slightly Different Collectibles & Gifts, urges people to come in for its sterling silver toe rings and ankle bracelets — no bare feet allowed.

On a warm California weekend, the pier is swarming with people buying, selling, even singing. The musicians include two young men playing Sublime tunes, one unsubtly wearing a Sublime T-shirt, and a somewhat desperate aging surfer playing the Beatles’ charmingly unsettling “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Fresh seafood is available, and rides on paddle boats, “submarines” or speedboats, which the young pitchmen pervert thoughtlessly by calling out to passers-by that it’s a “great day for a sea-boat ride.”

Families are everywhere, women stand gossiping (“If she was 18 or younger than 18 I could understand it, but at 21!”), mariachis slouch in surly fashion on fences and young Latinas wander past, lovingly hand in hand, one in a bright green T-shirt proclaiming her a “BOY MAGNET.” Two even younger Latinas in shorts and bikini tops stop to weigh themselves on the giant, old-fashioned scale gleaming in the Sunday sun. They pay 25 cents each to cover the results, giggle, blush and run off. A middle-aged father follows their example, with less giggling. Just like a roller coaster, isn’t it?

That throwback form of fun is just a hint of what crowds the nearby arcade, the Redondo Fun Factory, as loud, jangly and spangled as walking through a pinball game. It’s filled with signs, political paraphernalia and, of course, entertainments from over the decades, so “Wave Runner” games and first-person shooters are next to sideshow mirrors and a horse race game, powered by boys throwing balls below, called in classically unintelligible fashion by a man who seems to love his job. In one corner is that most bizarre of contests: Fill a balloon by spraying water into a clown’s mouth. In another corner sit two tables of Hercules, so two people can “Play the World’s LARGEST Pinball Game” side by side.

Here’s the Love Tester, so you can “Measure Your Sex Appeal on this Love Meter.” In ascending order you can be blah, clammy, harmless, mild, wild, sexy, burning, passionate, hot stuff or uncontrollable, but the pictures illustrating these are a touch recondite. Whatever’s going on when you’re uncontrollable is hidden discreetly behind an umbrella, but the woman’s legs are not on the ground; hot stuff, though, one step down, merely shows a man and woman hugging, and the image of passion is a man and woman holding hands. Sexy, interestingly enough, is a man and woman holding hands while another man watches.

Then, throwbacks from an even stranger era: Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, Exciting New Pac-Man Plus and, in a plain yellow case with two lonely looking knobs, Pong. By the Crane-Vacs, where people can pay 50 cents for a chance at a jawbreaker (the “mega” jawbreakers are oddly smaller than the “giant” jawbreakers), is a case with prizes. Giant white bears holding extravagant red hearts, hanging from the ceiling, seem to peer placidly inside: It’s 80 points for hand-held mixers or can openers, 100 for an iron. For these prizes, surely, people need not pay attention to the carnival sign urging them to “Play ’Til You Win!”

The charm of the arcade, pier and its live seafood make a meal obligatory, and we are just easing into line at “Live” Quality Seafood Inc., scanning the big menu board behind the deli cases, when I turn to my parents and tell them we can’t eat here.

My mom suspects I’ve seen a rat, but really I’ve just spotted a bit of ridiculousness lurking in plain sight: The menu lists “Freedom fries” among its side dishes.

We leave in agreement: Enough of the pier’s curiosities.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Massport took a lot of abuse after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, blamed for lax security that let hijackers get onto airplanes and fly them into buildings. This is unfair: The hijackers used box cutters, not assault rifles, and before 9/11, box cutters didn’t raise alarms or break laws.

But Logan International Airport, which Massport calls the 19th-busiest airport in the United States, was also supposed to be the one made the toughest for terrorists to crack after 9/11. “Massport has been extremely willing to make the changes necessary to make this the safest airport. There's a sensitivity here among the leadership,” said George Naccara, the federal security director at Logan, at the one-year anniversary of the attacks.

Unfortunately, at the same time, Logan was shown — by journalists sneaking box cutters and such onto airplanes — to be just as vulnerable.

Speed time to midday Friday as hundreds shuffle through metal detectors and searches on their way to JetBlue’s flight 487 to California. All metal objects in the bins. Shoes off. Laptops examined in a special device. Among the hundreds is Brian Mix, who has somehow been stuck with a ticket with the name of a friend — a Mr. Gomez. Mix doesn’t look like a Gomez, but perhaps because JetBlue deserves its reputation for pleasant and attentive service, he has been able to pick up this ticket despite having photo identification with the wrong name. Meaning his correct name.

He also makes it past the security checkpoint, again flashing a photo ID that in no way matches the name on his ticket or boarding pass. He also makes it past the gate check and onto the airplane, where he sits across the aisle from me and laughs with the flight attendants about his security breach.

I have also been treated well by JetBlue. At the gate I asked whether it served Coke or Pepsi products, as I would have bought a Coke in the terminal if I could get only Pepsi on board. After some joking around, I found out JetBlue serves Diet Coke. Dying of thirst, I asked the flight attendants immediately upon sitting how soon I could get one. They laughed and told me the gate agents had told them about me.

And a Diet Coke appeared on my tray only moments after takeoff, long before regular beverage service started.

In addition to a general pleasantness and a liberal snacks policy (making up as best an airline can for a lack of meals), this service charmed me. I would be more than happy to fly JetBlue again, especially as Northwest Airlines, for example, eliminates its magazines and considers charging for its miserable pretzels. (JetBlue doesn’t offer magazines either. But one can kill a lot of time trying each of its snacks, from Terra Blue potato chips to chocolate chip biscotti. And, in desperation, one can even read the snack labels. For free.)

My special service, however, didn’t involve — theoretically — killing some poor guy named Gomez and using his ticket to board a fully fueled, nonstop flight to California before hijacking it and flying it into a building. And even if JetBlue knew of Brian Mix’s special circumstances, the Transportation Security Administration didn’t.

The breach doesn’t worry me overmuch, and I’m not ready to blame Logan, Massport, JetBlue or even the TSA without knowing more. But there’s something peculiar about visualizing Brian Mix’s story against the backdrop of modern airline security; I know I should be either outraged or disturbed, but for some reason I’m merely amused — in a resigned sort of a way.

Monday, June 06, 2005


The signs explaining bus service at Logan International Airport show the usual care and exactitude of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

Outside terminal C, where JetBlue flies, “Commuter rail” is twice misspelled “commnuter”; MBTA police have the unique and impossible “6117” area code; riders are told “exact change [is] required” but not what the ride costs; and there’s no posted schedule.

Anyone arriving on a redeye and expecting to take the new silver line service to South Station should know they’ve got a wait ahead. The service starts at 5:35 a.m. weekdays and Saturdays and 6:17 a.m. on Sundays. Today it arrived at terminal C at 5:48 a.m. and left a minute later, meaning a half-hour wait for the several travelers disgorged from JetBlue’s flight 488 and longer for a miserable group who’d landed before.

Anyone wondering for a half-hour when they can sit down and head home shouldn’t look for guidance from the phone numbers beneath the hope-inspiring MBTA map: There’s no operator to tell them when the silver line starts running, and the only recorded information is to note that operators start working at 6:30 a.m. So much for your basic cell phone. But is up and running, the recording says, for all those wise enough to be waiting with an Internet-enabled cell phone or a laptop and portable wireless Internet connection.

On the bright side, the trip from the airport to South Station took roughly the advertised 18 minutes (at least from terminal C), despite useless stops at Silver Line Way and the courthouse and World Trade Center stations — as though anyone wanted on or off at these places at 6 a.m. — and frustrating stops in traffic necessary for a bus and unnecessary for what the silver line should have been (trains).

Perhaps the authority could add “roughly on time” to the Logan service ads plastered inanely around the buses serving Logan. (Why sell people on a service they’re already using?)

Cuurent ads say only that “Silver Line Waterfront offers speed and comfort from South Station to Logan Airport, with air conditioning, luggage storage and automated terminal announcements.”

All good points. It’s easy to scoff at speed, comfort, air conditioning and luggage space — as well as proper spelling, phone numbers that work or even the providing of reassuring and necessary information. But, as the authority knows, no one can resist automated terminal announcements.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


I’ve always resented President Reagan getting so much credit for the end of the USSR. The legend is that he cannily engaged the Soviets in a bankrupting arms buildup, but it’s also well known that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev was an unprecedented reformer; U.S. intelligence was clueless to the degree to which the Soviets were faking their economic might; and Soviet-style communism is fiscally and in all other ways untenable in the long term.

Given all these factors, which are undisputed, Reagan pretty much deserves cameo credit in the epic Fall of the Evil Empire, not the starring role he’s been granted by his cult of personality.

As Steve Coll confirms in “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001” (Penguin Books, 2004), even analyst and agency director Robert Gates says “We monitored specific events [in the Soviet Union] but too often did not draw back to get a broader perspective.”

This included the basic insight that the Soviet Union was so decayed as to be near collapse. Some of the agency’s analysts were relentlessly skeptical of Gorbachev’s sincerity as a reformer, as were Reagan, his vice president, George Bush, [Central Intelligence Agency director William] Casey, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and other key presidential advisers. All evidence that Soviet power might be weakening seemed to be systematically discounted in Washington and at [CIA headquarters in] Langley even as the data mounted in plain view. The CIA’s Soviet analysts continued to write reports suggesting that Moscow was a monolithic power advancing from strength to strength, and during Casey’s reign there seemed little penalty for tacking too far to the ideological right. CIA analysis had been at least partially politicized by Casey, in the view of some career officers. Besides, in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, especially in the Soviet/East Europe Division, all the analysts’ working lives, all their programs, budgets, and plans for the future were premised on the existence of a powerful and enduring communist enemy in Moscow. The Reagan administration was bound by a belief in Soviet power and skepticism about Gorbachev’s reforms.

Coll, citing interviews with intelligence officials, books by insiders, declassified CIA documents and Politburo transcriptions provided by the Gorbachev Foundation, makes it clear why Reagan deserves little or no credit: He stumbled into greatness, yes, but only by stumbling onto the picture just as an empire crumbled. He dared the enemy to tear down that wall, and the enemy shrugged and said, “Okay.”

U.S. intelligence, which in 1987 had just succeeded in running the Soviets out of Afghanistan, also refused to believe its own success and, incredibly, rejected Soviet overtures to help limit Islamic fundamentalism. It also refused to learn anything from any of these missed signals, even as each sunk irrevocably into history and turned into fossilized fact.

So no surprise that less than two decades later, as it fought a great war against Islamic fundamentalism, U.S. intelligence would again refuse to believe a great success — preventing Iraq from creating and storing weapons of mass destruction; again be unable to spot a nation boasting without reason of possessing great weaponry; and again be guilty of politicizing intelligence.

It not only doesn’t learn from history; it clearly doesn’t even learn from cliches.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


Every once in a while, when I want to convince myself that time doesn’t exist, I check in on local development. The bigger the project, the slower time seems to be ticking along.

Having recently stopped time over at the Museum of Fine Arts, I thought it would be nice to look at the Constellation Center, Glenn KnicKrehm’s $70 million arts project in Kendall Square. As Bill Archambeault said, breaking the news mid-2002 in the Boston Business Journal, “groundbreaking [is] planned for 2004 with an opening some time in 2005.”

As of today the center’s Web site says — and lord knows when it was last updated — about $34 million has been raised and, um, let’s see ... the developer owns the land. And has permits. And the building’s being designed. And the “design team is fully assembled.” As you can see, time is just zipping past: Surely the fully assembled design team will work so quickly, and the rest of the money will flood in so rapidly, that the four-hall, 1.3 million-square-foot project will be opening within the next seven months.

What a time that will be.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


On William Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency between 1981 and 1987, from Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001” (Penguin Books, 2004):

This was Casey, [CIA official Robert] Gates reflected. “He would demand something be done immediately which the agency no longer had the capability to do. He would fire instructions at the nearest person regardless of whether that person had anything to do with the matter at hand. And he would not wait around even for confirmation that anyone heard him.”

Perhaps that was because he was difficult to hear. Casey mumbled. In business his secretaries refused to take dictation because they couldn’t understand what he was saying. He had taken a blow to the throat while boxing as a boy and he had a thick palate; between these two impediments the words refused to flow. Ahmed Badeeb,
[Saudi Arabian Prince] Turki’s chief of staff, called him “The Mumbling Guy.” Attempting to translate during meetings with Crown Prince Fahd, Badeeb could only shrug. Even President Reagan couldn’t understand him. During an early briefing Casey delivered to the national security cabinet, Reagan slipped Vice President Bush a note: “Did you understand a word he said?” Reagan later told William F. Buckley, “My problem with Bill was that I didn’t understand him at meetings. Now, you can ask a person to repeat himself once. You can ask him twice. But you can’t ask him a third time. You start to sound rude. So I’d just nod my head, but I didn’t know what he was actually saying.” Such was the dialogue for six years between the president and his intelligence chief in a nuclear-armed nation running secret wars on four continents.