Sunday, December 31, 2006

God Save the Queen: Scotland is a country which, at one time, was a proud and independent little sliver of land; but since the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland's been little more than a hand-puppet of England. But unlike Wales, which has been all but part and parcel with England for seven centuries, the Act of Union has long stuck in the craw of the Scots. Some ten years ago, Scotland voted in a national referendum for what the British call 'devolution,' which gave Scotland a parliament with about as much power as the state government of Florida. My brother was an intern in the Scottish Parliament last year, while he was doing the usual collegiate junior year abroad, and he worked for an MP in the Scottish National Party, which believes that Scotland ought to be separate from the Union.

It seems that the SNP aren't the only ones who believe that Scotland should stand alone, now; some 51% of Scots support a referendum that would remove Scotland from the Union (and which would, I guess, dissolve the Union outright, since there would be no more Great Britain in "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"). Matthew Parris, writing in the Times of London, sees the parallels between Catalunya and Scotland, both proud would-be nations whose contributions to the larger country are vastly beyond their population impact -- though I should note that Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city and that Catalunya makes up 15 percent of Spain's population, versus Scotland's 6 percent. I've always thought that independence for Scotland was a monumentally wrong-headed idea, that Catalunya represents such a huge chunk of the Spanish national economy that it might well have a higher per-capita GDP, independent, than the rest of Spain; but that Scotland's is an economy overwhelmingly dependent on banking, services and tourism, and that does not a successful First World country make. It would be like Delaware seceding from the United States. But I'm not the one voting on the referendum.

Anyway, Parris wonders that, given their history, neither Catalunya nor Scotland has any conservatives. He argues that the problem is that, for so long, conservatives have viewed devolutionist movements as dangerous and radical, and that this is not only silly but condemns them to marginalization:

So why, by persistently (and unsuccessfully) pouring cold water on the nationalisms of small nations, should conservative politics lose the affections of millions of inherently conservative people? Why hand the initiative to opportunistic single-cause nationalistic movements? When, as a conservative party, you have so few votes to lose in a devolved part of the kingdom, why not surrender to reality and embrace what no conservative should have difficulty in embracing: a people’s sense of nationhood? I have slipped unintentionally into talking about Scotland and the Tories. Good. Other columnists, too, have been writing about the apparent rise in separatist sentiment there. They rage entertainingly against Alex Salmond and the SNP. It is not difficult to rage against Mr Salmond but it is not enough and it will not do.

Among English commentators the default position (never quite stated but never far beneath the surface) is that separatist politicians are dishonest opportunists and it is about time the Scots grew up and realised which side their bread is buttered on. Among Scottish commentators in our national British media the view tends to be that separatist politicians are dishonest opportunists and it is really rather sad that they want Scotland to turn its back on so much that we in the United Kingdom can share.

The Conservative Party should arm itself against both approaches. We should ask why, if the Scots Nationalists are such transparently dishonest opportunists, they are doing so well. Naturally a separatist party will pick up what grievances it can find lying around and make hay with them. Naturally it will sow mischief and trade on resentment. Naturally it will gloss over inconsistencies in its vision for the future, fudge logic, shun hard choices and play to emotion. That is what independence movements do. If Mr Salmond is to be indicted for rabble-rousing, playing up the promise and playing down the difficulty, he must share the dock with George Washington, Jomo Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela.

If a people are treated like children, we must not be surprised if their politicians do not always play politics like grown-ups. Until a people start visualising themselves as a country — not just in the realms of the patriotic imagination, but at the practical level of tax, law and administration — there will of course be a romantic unrealism, and a negativism too, in the attitudes they strike.


The death of a language: There is an interesting strain of study right now in linguistics, of attempting to preserve in some way the languages that are dying before our very eyes, constantly. There are estimated to be some 6,000 languages today, which is a reduced number, but globalization means that there will be vastly fewer in the future. I read a magnificent New Yorker profile in springtime lasty ear (not online, but see the June 6, 2005 issue), about the last speaker of a particular Native American language, Eyak. It was a poignant illustration of the homogenization of language. But there always one astonishing counterexample: Hebrew. From the New York Sun, as unlikely a source as any:

Yet the extinctions cannot be stopped, for the most part. Trying to teach people to speak their ancestral languages, for example, will almost never get far beyond the starting gate. Some years ago, I spent some weeks teaching Native Americans their ancestral language. To the extent that the exercise helped give them a feeling of connection to their ancestors, it was time well spent.

However, it was clear that there was no way that they would learn more than some words and expressions. Languages are hard to learn for adults, especially ones as different from English as Native American ones. In Pomo, the verb goes at the end of the sentence. There are sounds it’s hard to make when you’re not born to them. For busy people with jobs and families, how far were they ever going to be able to get mastering a language whose word for eye is ‘uyqh abe?

Yes, there was Hebrew. But that was because of an unusual combination: religion, a new nation, and the superhuman dedication of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who settled in Palestine and insisted on speaking only Hebrew to all Jews, including his infant son. But this extended to reducing his wife to tears when he caught her singing a lullaby to the child in her native Russian. Clearly Ben-Yehuda’s was one of those once-in-a-lifetime personalities.


Thinking about the broad heterogeneity of people using this language, it is obvious that the answer [to the question of what cultural outlook English offers] is none, and the academic literature on the topic yields little but queer little shards of faint support for the “language is culture” idea. Which brings us back to languages as, simply, languages.


Friday, December 29, 2006

Hanged: Saddam Hussein, formerly one of the most powerful men in the Middle East, was hanged today for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during his rule in Iraq. What a stunning fall for a man who, three years ago, was surviving quite fine in spite of American sanctions:

“Saddam Hussein was hanged until death ensued. A black page in the history of Iraq has been turned,” it added in a second news flash, as joyful popular music filled the airwaves.

Even as the execution appeared inevitable, many were skeptical or disbelieving that the noose could drop around Mr. Hussein’s neck so soon. One Western official said that some of the American legal advisers working on the case appeared stunned at the hasty pace of events late Friday as they walked through the corridors of the Republican Palace, once Mr. Hussein’s grandiose center of power.

Nixon, Nixon, pants on fire: Christopher Hitchens is positively scathing of this week's bumper crop of obituaries for the late Gerald Ford. In Slate, he writes what might be the most condemning indictment of the Ford administration's pardon of Richard Nixon, that White House's original sin:

You may choose, if you wish, to parrot the line that Watergate was a "long national nightmare," but some of us found it rather exhilarating to see a criminal president successfully investigated and exposed and discredited. And we do not think it in the least bit nightmarish that the Constitution says that such a man is not above the law. Ford's ignominious pardon of this felonious thug meant, first, that only the lesser fry had to go to jail. It meant, second, that we still do not even know why the burglars were originally sent into the offices of the Democratic National Committee.

City of zombies: In the Times of London today, a kind of retrospective-cum-review on 19th-century Belgian novelist Georges Rodenbach, one of the great ‘dead-city’ novelists of his era. For some reason, it was fashionable in those days to see cities as in decay, like a lot of literature in the U.S. in the late ’70s. So far, there has always been a resurgence; but that didn’t change Rodenbach’s outlook. After all, he had at hand the example of Bruges, a once-great port ruined by the fates of nature, like New Orleans, and what had been left might as well have been dead:

[Rodenbach] has also been at the fin-de-siècle medicine cabinet for his metaphors of the city’s economic decline: Bruges is “consumptive”, “spits out her stones as from her lungs” and has the “pallor” and “lethargy” of the terminally sick. For all this dramatic imagery, Rodenbach had a point: Bruges had once been a great port connected to the sea by the Zwijn. One day in 1475, the North Sea retreated, and the Zwijn dried up, cutting the city off from the water that had sustained it. In the words of Ernest Reynaud, one of many who tried their hands at writing a Bruges poem, the place became an “estuaire inutile oublié par la mer”, a useless estuary abandoned by the sea. Baudelaire’s ports are buzzing with colours, smells and sounds, they are gateways to other worlds; Rodenbach’s Bruges is both relic and reliquary, tomb and stricken corpse. In his last novel, Le Carillonneur (1897), the hero wants to preserve the old Bruges, Bruges as museum-cum-mausoleum, against the civic authorities’ hope to bring the water back to the city and create a new port. Today’s Zeebrugge, a complex of duty-free hangars and late-night bars, is the result of their wishes, and in Le Carillonneur Rodenbach allows himself a degree of attention to contemporary social reality that is almost absent from Bruges-la-Morte.

Falsetto: A friend of mine, in college, had the world’s most hilariously artificial-sounding deep voice. Now, it turns out that that really is his natural voice, but I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t asked a mutual acquaintance who knew him in high school. It should come as no surprise that male humans do that kind of thing all the time, to reassert their alpha-male status and to pick up chicks, as it were. But the Times science section reminds us that, in this, humans are all just apples falling not very far from the tree:

A croak is how male green frogs tell other frogs how big they are. The bigger the male, the deeper the croak. The sound of a big male is enough to scare off other males from challenging him for his territory.

While most croaks are honest, some are not. Some small males lower their voices to make themselves sound bigger. Their big-bodied croaks intimidate frogs that would beat them in a fair fight.

Green frogs are only one deceptive species among many. Dishonesty has been documented in creatures ranging from birds to crustaceans to primates, including, of course, Homo sapiens. “When you think of human communication, it’s rife with deception,” said Stephen Nowicki, a biologist at Duke University and the co-author of the 2005 book “The Evolution of Animal Communication.” “You just need to read a Shakespeare play or two to see that.”

Sunday, December 24, 2006

I'll be home for Christmas: OK, so I'm Jewish. I'm still taking a break for Christmas Eve Day and Christmas Day. There's nothing actually in the news, so rather than gin up something meaningless to post, I am taking what I believe to be a much-deserved break. See you all on Dec. 26!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Hedwig and the Angry Picometer: The Times reported today that Nature had published a study that found very, very, very small microbes, smaller than anyone ever found before, living in highly acidic drainage water in a mine in northern California. There's hope for extraterrestrial life yet, it seems:

The microbes, members of an ancient family of organisms known as archaea, formed a pink scum on green pools of hot mine water laden with toxic metals, including arsenic.

"It was amazing,” said Jillian F. Banfield of the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the discovery team. "These were totally new." In their paper, the scientists call the microbes "smaller than any other known cellular life form."

Scientists say the discovery could bear on estimates of the pervasiveness of exotic microbial life, which some experts suspect forms a hidden biosphere extending down miles whose total mass may exceed that of all surface life.

It may also influence the search for microscopic life forms elsewhere in the solar system, a discovery that would prove that life in the universe is not unique to Earth but an inherent property of matter.

The quick brown clerk jumped over the lazy one: Productive workers tend to spur their colleagues to be more productive, too, or at least so says an interesting survey reported in Slate. This suggests to me that hyperproductive workers are really labor-breaking scabs, moles planted by Corporate HR to get more out of the same employees. (OK, so I kid.) It’s fascinating research. Consider finding the fastest checker in the entire supermarket, and then go shopping at that time of day, when you can:

Since shoppers can and do move to fast-moving lines, a quick worker will tend to lighten the burden on their colleagues. That might encourage them to slack off, or it might encourage them to work harder. The positive effect dominates, according to Mas and Moretti: They find that a shop assistant sitting near someone who is 10 percent quicker than average will raise her own game by 1.7 percent.

This might be an illusory effect. Perhaps at busy times, all workers increase their speed and managers also throw on the fastest workers. What looks like a peer effect would be the coordination of two different responses to a rush of shoppers. But Mas and Moretti can tell which times are busy and which times are not; they also know that checkout staff, not managers, choose their hours (one of the few benefits of the job); and they are measuring productivity changes every 10 minutes, not over the course of an entire shift. They are convinced that the positive peer effect is real.

But why? There are, broadly, two explanations. One is that workers are spurred to greater efforts when contemplating the superior speed of their colleague. This is psychologically plausible but economically irrational. A more cynical explanation is that workers do not like it when faster colleagues are looking at them, because they fear being accused of slacking off.

Lord, I’m too tall to live in a FEMA trailer: Apparently, it’s only taken more than a year for FEMA to get its act together and start finding ways to replace the trailers that will for generations be synonymous with hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The new housing will be, to say the least, housing, although it will still be disaster-relief housing, i.e., easy to assemble and prefabricated. Unstated in the article is that the trailers should probably be incinerated after the hurricane, as a symbol of disastrous federal incompetence. But somebody still doesn’t get it in Washington: Louisiana is only getting $75 million, versus $280 million for Mississippi. From the Times:

The program will offer new housing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to thousands of families, among the 100,000 still living in trailers across the Gulf Coast, by placing them over the coming year in these studier, roomier, better ventilated homes, many of which have front porches, large windows and even small attics.

Mississippi came out on top in the contest for the grants, receiving $280.8 million, compared with $74.5 million for Louisiana, $16.5 million for Texas and $15.7 million for Alabama.

Officials in Louisiana were furious, saying their state, which suffered the greatest losses in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year, had been shortchanged.


The grants come from an appropriation in which Congress directed FEMA to take an alternative approach to the customary trailers. The biggest single grant will finance the construction of units in Mississippi that look like A-roofed cottages, featuring a compact front porch, windows on three sides, more storage space and better ventilation. Like the existing trailers, they will be set up on wheels, so they can be driven into a disaster zone.

Louisiana officials, meanwhile, intend to use their grant to build what they are calling Katrina Cottages — compact single-family homes made of prefabricated panels, with a porch and up to three bedrooms — in heavily hit areas of New Orleans like Jackson Barracks.

Unregulated predators: Payday loans are a controversial subject in much of the West, where the lack of financial infrastructure and vast, nearly invisible rural poverty condemns many workers to massive interest. The typical interest paid on such a loan is $15 for every $100, which, the Times says in a report today, works out to 520 percent per annum, if the loan is rolled over. (Federally licensed long-term lenders may only lend at 17 percent or less.)

In Oregon, my home state, a law this year capped interest on short-term loans at 36 percent per annum, or 10 cents per diem on a two-week loan, and the Pentagon recently issued the same regulation for lenders to military employees. Eleven states ban payday loans outright, under usury laws. But the Times is reporting from New Mexico, which has no laws regulating this vulture-like behavior:

[Earl] Milford is chronically broke because each month, in what he calls “my ritual,” he travels 30 miles to Gallup and visits 16 storefront money-lending shops. Mr. Milford, who is 59 and receives a civil service pension and veteran’s disability benefits, doles out some $1,500 monthly to the lenders just to cover the interest on what he had intended several years ago to be short-term “payday loans.”

Mr. Milford said he had stopped taking out new loans, but many other residents of the Gallup area and countless more people across the country are visiting payday lenders this month, places with names like Cash Cow, Payday Plus and Fast Buck, to get advances of a few hundred dollars to help with holiday expenses.


The loans are quick and easy. Customers are usually required to leave a predated personal check that the lender can cash on the next payday, two or four weeks later. They must show a pay stub or proof of regular income, like Social Security, but there is no credit check, which leads to some defaults but, more often, continued extension of the loan, with repeated fees.

In many states, including New Mexico, lenders also make no effort to see if customers have borrowed elsewhere, which is how Mr. Milford could take out so many loans at once. If they repay on time, borrowers pay fees ranging from $15 per $100 borrowed in some states to, in New Mexico, often $20 or more per $100, which translates into an annualized interest rate, for a two-week loan, of 520 percent or more.

Friday, December 22, 2006

What about Lawrence v. Texas? The San Francisco Chronicle’s Web operation,, has a fantastic column called “Open Source Sex.” Today’s is about the wild tales surrounding the domain, which apparently has everything but a partridge and a pear tree. Another submission for the News That Is Simply Not Believable category:

The only thing missing from the story is a dead stripper found with a rubber alligator lodged in her throat — though, by all estimates, to add this to the URL’s outrageous legacy wouldn’t be a huge shocker. It would only be adding some sex to the mix — especially considering the story includes a fugitive seized by U.S. marshals, hard-luck convicted felons hiding millions in Mexican shrimp farms and strip clubs, the fugitive’s daughter caught smuggling over 200 pounds of pot, one multimillionaire dot-com scammer speed fiend with a Stanford MBA, a bizarre bid to buy Caesars Palace and a recent Tijuana gangland-style assassination attempt on a lawyer (nicknamed “The Toad”) that left a Mexican cabbie and a 4-year-old boy wounded.

Like mobile-home scammers in Florida and billboard plastic surgeons in Los Angeles, URL grifters are part of the sleazy yet entertaining Bay Area tech-industry zoo. And so when a guy like Gary Kremen snags URLs like and and dabbles in brokering far-reaching Web page patents and “Internet consulting” while (according to a 2005 CNN interview) working on a nice speed habit, he just sort of blends in with the rest of the money-grubbing, VC-chasing dot-com herd. Like most startup cowboys, Kremen sat on the URL as an undeveloped property — until a con man named Stephen M. Cohen came along and swindled VeriSign/Network Solutions out of with fast talk and forgeries.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Anti-immigration today, anti-immigration tomorrow, anti-immigration forever! Apparently, Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) doesn't think that Muslims can be Americans. He sent out a letter to his constituents informing them that we will be getting many more Muslims, and that they threaten 'Americans,' in reference to freshman Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim:

In [Goode's] letter, which was dated Dec. 5, Mr. Goode said that Americans needed to “wake up” or else there would “likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”

“I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped,” said Mr. Goode, who vowed to use the Bible when taking his own oath of office.

Mr. Goode declined Wednesday to comment on his letter, which quickly stirred a furor among some Congressional Democrats and Muslim Americans, who accused him of bigotry and intolerance.

They noted that the Constitution specifically bars any religious screening of members of Congress and that the actual swearing in of those lawmakers occurs without any religious texts. The use of the Bible or Koran occurs only in private ceremonial events that take place after lawmakers have officially sworn to uphold the Constitution.

Mr. Ellison dismissed Mr. Goode’s comments, saying they seemed ill informed about his personal origins as well as about Constitutional protections of religious freedom. “I’m not an immigrant,” added Mr. Ellison, who traces his American ancestors back to 1742. “I’m an African-American.”

Storm the Bastille!: When Augusto Pinochet died the week before last, a lot of the lunatic fringe of the right wing in America celebrated his free-market reforms in Chile. In a nice touch, some generous Americans can’t understand why he’s vilified. Having said that, at least the Weekly Standard gets it:

His embrace of economic reform seems unlikely to have sprung from a commitment to freedom, given the overarching contempt for liberty that characterized the rest of his government. Rather, in order to insulate himself from the consequences of his murderous seizure of power, Pinochet sought out political allies, and his free market reforms helped him to garner support domestically on the right, and also among members of the international community. One must be careful not to fall into Pinochet’s trap—accepting his brutal seizure of power and tyrannical rule as a natural accompaniment of free market reforms. Propagandists on the left lost no time in seeking to discredit economic freedom by associating it with Pinochet. To this day, we hear from Moscow that it takes a Pinochet to implement economic reforms successfully; Vladimir Putin seems all too willing to have Pinochet’s uniform taken in a few sizes so he can try it on.

Pinochet and his apologists argue thus: “Castro and the far left are worse than Pinochet, they kill more people and deliver fewer benefits than did the military government of Chile.” Are we to admire Pinochet because his murderous regime was more efficient than tyrants on the left at producing higher GDP? Without the torture, rape, and killing, would economic and political freedom have been impossible in Chile? Hardly! But this is the argument insinuated by Pinochet. He successfully appropriated the utilitarian fallacy to which many on the left fall prey: that murder and torture are acceptable if they hasten the advent of the utopia implied by one’s ideological model. That fallacy probably killed more people during the 20th century than typhus, and it stands to do so again in this century if we do not inoculate ourselves against it.

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”: In another follow-up, the Times editorializes about the Genarlow Wilson case. They call it “an obvious miscarriage of justice.” I am inclined to agree:

The sexual act took place during a party involving sex, marijuana and alcohol, all captured on a graphic videotape. But that does not make Mr. Wilson a child molester. When high school students engage in consensual sexual activity, that is not the same as an adult molesting a teenager or a teenager molesting a child.

What makes this case more absurd is that if Mr. Wilson and the young woman had sexual intercourse, he would have been guilty only of a misdemeanor and not required to register as a sex offender, thanks to a provision in the law meant to avoid just this type of draconian punishment for consensual youthful indiscretions, the “Romeo and Juliet” exception. And since Mr. Wilson’s conviction, the law has been changed to exempt oral sex as well. But the courts say that can’t help Mr. Wilson retroactively.

His lawyer is planning to file a habeas petition seeking his release. The courts need to grant it and expunge his record so that Mr. Wilson can return to his family and his once promising academic career. Legislators in other states should take notice and make sure that their own laws do not catch children in dragnets designed for predatory adults.

Maybe AT&T will get their way: A few days ago, I posted about AT&T’s decision to try and move in on the markets in suburban Chicago. It hasn’t been going very well. But there’s something to the idea that there’s no competition in the cable market. The Times reports today that the FCC is insisting that municipalities give phone companies like AT&T a swift hearing at a minimum:

Arguing that cable television rates have surged in the absence of robust competition, federal regulators moved to speed up the local approval process for phone companies seeking to compete.

The action came in a 3-to-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission. The ruling does not force municipalities to grant phone companies a video franchise, but it does require a decision within 90 days.

Phone carriers, notably Verizon, have asserted that some municipalities are slow to grant approvals, often in the face of cable industry lobbying.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

This town don’t look good in snow: The National Arbor Day Foundation’s national map is still more evidence that global warming is creeping up on us. In 1990, Washington, D.C., was essentially at the climactic Mason-Dixon Line, separating South from North. No longer. You might say that the South has its final revenge, between stealing Americans away from Northern cities to live in the eerie eternal paradise of the Sunbelt, and then foisting its climate on the rest of us. Global warming means we’re losing the remnants of the ancient price Persephone paid. I kid you not, you can now grow southern magnolias in parts of Michigan, and it looks like Chicago jumped up a zone, and Minneapolis two (viz., the change map):

In a revised map of “hardiness zones” — bands of similar temperatures where similar trees are likely to grow in winter — the foundation reclassified the entire Washington area in the same zone as parts of North Carolina and Texas. In 1990, the region was on the border of northern and southern growing zones, but a foundation official said that has changed after 15 years of balmy winter weather.

The foundation’s findings provide a window into the local effects of climate change, scaled down to lawn level. Colorado blue spruce and hemlock, at home in the cold, might have a harder time. Crape myrtles and camellias will have it easier.


But at the Botanic Garden, [U.S. Botanic Garden curator Bill] McLaughlin had mixed feelings. He was glad to find that such species as the needle palm or the yaupon, a holly native to areas farther south, could be raised more easily. But then, he said, he thought of the impact on the species that belong here: native plants that might find their growing seasons shifted, their life cycles out of sync with pollinating insects, if warming trends continued to affect them.

Nibble, nibble: The Village Voice takes a long, hard look at the latest bedbug infestation in New York City this week. It turns out that their numbers are vastly overstated; but, like an act of terrorism, bedbugs don’t discriminate in their attacks. I’m grateful not to have to worry about this:

In a city where people already depend on Ambien for a good night’s sleep, the thought of bedbugs has wreaked havoc on circadian rhythms from homeless shelters to $2 million loft apartments. The thought of them is making people itch—not the bedbugs themselves, whose numbers don’t even quite live up to the media hype. What has yet to be quantified—but what has become an urban infestation of its own—is the paranoia that the bedbug craze has produced. It turns out, perhaps no surprise in a city as neurotically obsessed as New York, that something as small as a bedbug can grow colossal in the minds of millions.

The stigma alone is enough to make hardened city dwellers cringe and cry on Eisenberg’s shoulder. He begins each office visit by walking new clients over to a sliver of mirror around the corner from his desk. “Repeat after me,” he says as he forces the victims to study their reflection. “I’m not a dirty person.” Then he offers them a shot of scotch from a bottle he keeps in his filing cabinet. It’s an equal-opportunity bug, he explains. The bugs find a 40-year-old pediatric neurosurgeon on the Lower East Side equally appetizing as a 27-year-old comedian in midtown. In the world of bedbugs, a big-time entrepreneur on the Upper East Side has nothing on a twentysomething unemployed actor. A successful movie director on the Upper West Side shares equal ground with a 22-year-old starving grad student. All the bugs are looking for is a drop of blood, and each of us has about five liters. In a city of 8 million, that’s 10,566,882 gallons of bedbug food. Is it any wonder we’re terrified?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I feel the Earth move under my feet: About half an hour ago, an Orange Line train in Chicago derailed in the South Loop. Not many details are available, but the Tribune reports:

Six ambulances were sent to the scene of a derailed northbound CTA Orange Line train along elevated tracks in the South Loop, officials said.

The derailment was reported around 11:40 a.m. near Roosevelt Road and Wabash Avenue, but there have been no reports of injuries, fire department spokesman Kevin MacGregor said.

Power was temporarily shut off along the tracks, and the CTA was providing a shuttle bus for stranded commuters, said Chicago Transit Authority spokeswoman Wanda Taylor. She said service along the Orange and Green Lines would be affected by the derailment, but could not elaborate.

‘Cause I was gooooooooood: The alma mater announced their commencement speaker for the Class of 2007 today. I’m jealous: It’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus! (Though not too jealous, since my class had senator and future president Barack Obama.) The press release is surprisingly dry: Update: Turns out they made this announcement a month ago. I just got an alumni update email today.

Louis-Dreyfus, who attended the School of Communication, went on to earn critical acclaim and recognition for her portrayal of Elaine Benes in the hit television series “Seinfeld.” She received an Emmy award in 1996 as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. During the show’s nine-year run, she also received a Golden Globe award, five Screen Actors Guild awards and four American Comedy Awards. Most recently, she won an Emmy Award as Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series for her lead role in “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”

Prior to moving to Los Angeles, Louis-Dreyfus studied theater at Northwestern. As a student, she performed twice in the Mee-Ow Show, Northwestern’s satirical comedy theater group. She was a member of the Practical Theater Company and subsequently joined Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe.

Focus on the homework: The L.A. Times interviews the first generation of kids diagnosed with ADD to come of adulthood about the role of medication in treating the disorder. Unsurprisingly, their feelings are mixed. It’s a powerful read, for someone who does not suffer from ADD:

“It was kind of like weirdly amazing… You get excited about monotonous work, honestly. Like, translating Spanish becomes totally fun…. The thing is, it works. But why are we forcing people to be in the position that they should like something that they wouldn’t ordinarily? … But kids just aren’t going to be equally good at all [subjects], and I think Ritalin is a way of trying to get kids to be good at everything.”


“I told myself, ‘I don’t need to be on a medication, I can do this myself.’ I did that for years… I just wanted to be normal, and normal people don’t need this… Now, being able to look back on it, seeing the difference between the two [being on medication and being off], I would never get off my medication … I’m much more productive and much better for society” on Adderall. … Two-thirds of the equation is the medicine … I have a motor that goes 24/7. I get up at 6, leave at 7 and come home at 10 … That’s by choice. I have a schedule. I have every hour, every 15 minutes planned out. I take notes on who I have to call… That’s my life. When I’m not on my meds, I won’t even do that.”

Monday, December 18, 2006

I hope her milkshake brings all the boys: I need a special category, on this site — if I had categories — for “news that is simply not believable.” (Although we here at Particle and Parcel believe that all our news is surprising, or riveting, it need not be unbelievable.)

As a high school student, I sometimes worried about prosecution under statutory rape laws, but it certainly was a low-level fear. But not so, for a 17-year-old Georgian boy who is going to spend the next 10 years of his life in prison for getting what I sincerely hope was the best hummer of his short life, from a 15-year-old. He was convicted of aggravated child molestation for, I kid you not, oral sodomy. (?!) The case was just upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court, after he appealed. The great irony is that at the time underage genital sex would have been a misdemeanor, but underage oral sex was a felony; and the Legislature changed the law, after the sexcapade, but neglected to make the law apply retroactively. Via the Volokh Conspiracy, the Georgia Court’s opinion:

[Genarlow] Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation based upon an act of oral sodomy performed on him by victim T.C., which was documented on videotape and seems to show that the victim’s participation in the act was voluntary. Wilson was 17 years old at the time of the act; the victim was 15 years old. Pursuant to the version of the aggravated child molestation statute then in effect, Wilson was sentenced to ten years imprisonment without possibility of parole…

In 2006, the Legislature amended [the relevant Georgia law] to provide, inter alia, that aggravated child molestation involving an act of sodomy is only a misdemeanor when the victim is between 13 and 16 years of age and the convicted person is 18 years of age or younger and is no more than four years older than the victim. … [T]he Legislature expressly chose not to allow the provisions of the new amendments to affect persons convicted under the previous version of the statute… Accordingly, while I am very sympathetic to Wilson’s argument regarding the injustice of sentencing this promising young man with good grades and no criminal history to ten years in prison without parole and a lifetime registration as a sexual offender because he engaged in consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old victim only two years his junior, this Court is bound by the Legislature’s determination that young persons in Wilson’s situation are not entitled to the misdemeanor treatment now accorded to identical behavior under [the relevant Georgia law]. (Emph. mine.)

P.S.: Read the comments on Volokh’s blog entry. Some are well worth reading, if you ask me.

Now that takes talent: Dick Armey, former House Majority Leader and never one to mince words, gave an interview to Texas Monthly in which he really tears apart the new Republican minority. (An aside: They are now in the minority in the House by exactly the same number that they were in the majority on Nov. 6.) Among other things, he is both mesmerized and repulsed by the way in which the Republicans guaranteed that they would lose:

One of the arguments that I always made was, “The idea is bigger than the man, the idea is bigger than the party, the idea is bigger than the moment, and the idea is bigger than me.” If we’re not serving ideas, we’re missing the point of our being here in the first place. … That’s exactly what they have been failing to do. They have served themselves through a partisan orientation. Basically the governing question from which they define their behavior has been, What can I do in this job for myself and my political future and my future in public office? What does it mean to my desire to be the next chairman? What does it mean to my desire to be the next Speaker or the next majority leader or the next whatever?

Left out of the equation are the constituents they’re supposed to be serving. In fact, in many of the races in which incumbent Republicans just lost, they were shocked to discover very late in the election that their constituents had turned against them.

Right. Take a look, for example, at [Arizona congressman] J. D. Hayworth, a long-term incumbent who lost his seat in the House. I think just about everybody who has examined that race has concluded that his very harsh rhetoric on immigration was instrumental to his loss.

And here he is in a state that’s enormously affected by that issue.

Who is the genius that said, “Now that we’ve identified that [the Hispanic community] is the fastest-growing demographic in America, let’s do everything we can to make sure we offend them”? Who is the genius that came up with that bright idea?

Let me ask you about some of the geniuses who are at least partly responsible for allowing the House to get to a point where that’s one of the operating principles. Start with your old friend Denny Hastert. You still support the outgoing Speaker personally?

Denny Hastert is an excellent person. He’s a real decent human being, a man with no secret, selfish agenda. But the fact is, he didn’t do his job very well.

What did he do wrong?

He didn’t take ownership of the responsibilities of the House. Long before it happened—for the good of the institution, for the good of the party, for the good of governance—there was a time when somebody needed to tell Tom DeLay, “Tom, it’s time for you to leave.” People came to me, but particularly with my personal history with Tom it was very difficult for me to say anything critical of him, because it would be so easily misconstrued as a personal vendetta.

Off the clock: The Washington Post took a long, hard look (in Friday’s paper) at the timeshare market, by coming to the timeshares capital of America, Orlando. Local color does not, somewhat surprisingly, include writer Carol Sottili stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-Drive at 3 a.m. Sottili tries out six different sales pitches, and finds them to be hopelessly complex — not to mention probably a waste of your money:

Disney, like many timeshare companies, uses a point system. Audrey says I’d need to buy at least 242 points for my family of four, which would cost about $24,442 ($101 a point), plus about $963 a year in maintenance fees. She whips out a calculator and shows me how this is quite clearly the deal of the century: Divide the $101 cost per point by 48 (the number of years of the timeshare deed), which works out to $2.10; add the annual dues of $3.98 per point and, voila, each point actually costs $6.08 a year. Multiply that by the number of points you spend to stay in a studio in the lowest season — 11 points — and you’re spending just $66.88 per night to stay at an upscale Disney property.


Intrigued by the ubiquitous billboards offering timeshare resales, I stop at International Properties/GMAC Real Estate on International Drive, one of the many companies in Orlando that specialize in reselling timeshares. The timeshare agents I’ve talked to have all emphasized that buying a timeshare should not be viewed as a monetary investment, but rather as an investment in family and quality of life. And they’ve all carefully sidestepped my questions about resale values, probably because reselling a timeshare is not easy.

The Federal Trade Commission states, “Don’t assume you’ll recoup your purchase price for your timeshare, especially if you’ve owned it for less than five years and the location is less than well-known.” Bill Rogers, founder of the Timeshare User’s Group, an organization composed of timeshare owners, is even more blunt: “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but selling a timeshare is very, very difficult and in some cases almost impossible,” he states on his Web site, “The main reason is supply and demand. The supply of timeshare resales greatly exceeds the demand for resales.”

Give me a schtickle of fluoride: The relevance of Zionism is a debate that has a lot of currency in the Jewish community, since the collapse of the peace program in 2001 and the second intifada. Jewcy, a forthcoming magazine for intellectually minded young American Jews, posts a surprisingly intelligent dialogue between David Shneer and Stefan Kanfer. Shneer is of the belief that Zionism and the notion of Israel as the epicenter of Judaism doesn’t make any sense in an era when New York is as hospitable to and less dangerous for Jews than the Holy Land is:

Then why are [your French-Jewish friends] thinking about going to Canada and the United States? I presume you think that those two countries will soon be conquered by antisemitic Muslims running amok (they’ve already managed to manipulate Congressional representatives from Michigan [in not condemning Hezbollah for its attacks on Israel], or so you suggest), and then your French friends will have to leave for Israel anyway, no?

The actions of French Jews, many of whom feel more embattled now than they have in many years, show that, as I said in my opening letter, Israel is one part of a complicated Jewish map. It is a unique place with a unique culture that makes some Jews feel at home and drives other Jews up a wall. Some French Jews choose Israel, while others choose New York, Montreal, or other places. You would presumably tell those who don’t choose Israel that they should “wake up” (as you told me, again sounding like a turn-of-the-century Jewish ideologue).

I choose not to judge people’s decisions about where to call home. I choose to describe, rather than prescribe, and your French Jewish friends show that the world is much more complicated than you, or your hundred-year-old Zionism, would have it.

But Kanfer makes the point, worth noting even though I disagree, that the only way to guarantee safety for the Jews is for them to have their own country. He’s very concerned about the Muslim population in America and Europe, though he insists on describing it in the most xenophobic terms. For Kanfer, assimilation into American society is no guarantee at all.

But enough history lessons. Let’s concentrate on today, and the greatest danger to Jews, and eventually to the Western world itself, radical Islam. I realize that “diversity” is a favored term in academia, but that word has its limits, and those limits are growing more pronounced by the day.

Not to recognize that the U.S. is a safer haven to Jews today because it has only a small percentage of Muslims, and that most (though by no means all) of those Muslims are absorbed into American society, is to wear blinders.

In August, Britain reported the foiling of a plot to send planes to the U.S. where they would be blown up, either in mid-air or on the ground. Who do you suppose was involved in the plot? Ubangis?

Right now the world is at war. Israel is on the front lines. There is no more relevant group of Jews in the world than those in the Jewish State, and deriding the sentiments of the early Zionists, and failing to see the parallel with today’s events is a strange way to teach.

In any case, welcome home. Perhaps when you are settled in, back in Denver, you can look across the sea and realize that the enemy is as close as the officers who stripped Alfred Dreyfus of his medals in a public ceremony, while through the fence at the Hotel de Ville, a bearded Jew made notes…

No more no-fly lists: Writing in the Times, Randall Stross pillories the “security theater” of the Transportation Security Administration’s hilarious security procedures. If we just make everyone empty their pockets, maybe we can catch the next al Qaeda hijackers, the idea goes. And this idea has some credence, that if we only screen dark-skinned single men with beards, the next bomber will be someone’s grandmother. But there’s no reason to believe that making them empty their pockets and walk through a metal detector will do the trick. El Al and MI5 do not necessarily rely on racial profiling, but they use standard counterterrorism police profiling, and they seem to do a good job of it. (Yes, I know. John Kerry, that cheese-eating surrender monkey, thought we should treat counterterrorism as a police operation. And since he lost, clearly he was wrong.) All the TSA’s wasted energy and money strips us of the investigative capacity to detect and deter real terrorism, or so Stross and security guru Bruce Schneier say:

As passengers, we tender our boarding passes and IDs when asked. We stand in lines. We empty pockets. We take off shoes. We do whatever is asked of us in these mass rites of purification. We play our assigned parts, comforted in the belief that only those whose motives are good and true will be permitted to pass through.

Of course, we never see the actual heart of the security system: the government’s computerized no-fly list, to which our names are compared when we check in for departure. The T.S.A. is much more talented, however, in the theater arts than in the design of secure systems. This becomes all too clear when we see that the agency’s security procedures are unable to withstand the playful testing of a bored computer-science student [who built a boarding-pass generator].


Richard L. Adams, the T.S.A.’s acting federal security director, said [the student Christopher Soghoian’s] generator “could pose a threat to aviation security.”

But Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at BT Counterpane, a security consulting firm in Mountain View, Calif., emphatically disagreed. Anybody with Photoshop could create a fake boarding pass, he said. Mr. Soghoian’s Web site simply eliminated the need to use Photoshop. The T.S.A.’s profession of outrage is nothing but “security theater,” Mr. Schneier said, using the phrase he coined in 2003 to describe some of the agency’s procedures.


The root problem, as some experts see it, is the T.S.A.’s reliance on IDs that are so easily obtained under false pretenses. “It would be wonderful if Osama bin Laden carried a photo ID that listed his occupation of ‘Evildoer,’ ” permitting the authorities to pluck him from a line, Mr. Schneier said. “The problem is, we try to pretend that identity maps to intentionality. But it doesn’t.”


WHEN I asked Mr. Schneier of BT Counterpane what he would do if he were appointed leader of the T.S.A., he said he would return to the basic procedures for passenger screening used before the 2001 terrorist attacks, which was designed to do nothing more ambitious than “catch the sloppy and the stupid.”

He said he would also ensure that passengers’ bags fly only if the passenger does, improve emergency response capabilities and do away entirely with ID checks and secret databases and no-fly and selectee lists. He added that he would shift funds into basic investigation and intelligence work, which he believes produces results like the arrests of the London bomb suspects. “Put smart, trained officers in plainclothes, wandering in airports — that is by far the best thing the T.S.A. could do,” he said.

Trader Mohammed’s: In the last few years, Dubai has built a reputation as an international playground. That’s all very fine and well, but in addition, it’s setting up the infrastructure to be a major financial center, a sort of Geneva with warm weather, or Hong Kong without an autocratic, communist national government. This is not without precedent, says The Economist, but you have to look back in history:

Dubai’s third advantage is a history of pulling off grand schemes. Blessed with fewer oil or gas deposits than its neighbours, the emirate has long sought other ways to make a living and has thrived as a trading entrepot living off its wits. “When I look at Dubai, I think of Amsterdam in the 16th century,” says Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who studies global cities. “Dubai is not a six-month miracle.”

Dubai’s big successes include the Jebel Ali container port; a world-class airport; a leading airline in Emirates; duty-free stores that would exhaust the most indefatigable shopper; the world’s first seven-star hotel; luxury beach resorts; regional centres for media and health care; as well as more unusual projects, including man-made islands in fantastic shapes. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai, is also under construction. All this helps to attract celebrities, from Saudi princes to Russian plutocrats and professional footballers, who often buy homes. Although some find it all a bit tacky, Dubai has shown imagination, a knack for getting things done, and an ability to harness capital and use top international talent.

An inconvenient joke: The guys at The Onion are pretty sharp. So sharp, they concocted this gem, which I won’t even bother to paraphrase. I’m still laughing:

Dozens of eyewitness reports indicated that former vice president Al Gore deliberately attempted to raise the earth’s temperature in order to boost box office receipts for “An Inconvenient Truth,” his documentary film about global warming that was released in May.

“We have accounts from concerned citizens that Mr. Gore purchased a Cadillac Escalade SUV several months before [his film] opened in theaters,” said Kimberly Blume, spokeswoman for the California-based environmental group Friends Of The Earth. “Not only did Mr. Gore use his new gas-guzzler to make short trips to the grocery store, he also left the vehicle running 24 hours a day in the driveway of his Tennessee home with the air-conditioning on full-blast.”

In the weeks following the film’s release, witnesses reported additional sightings of Gore engaging in activities such as discharging can after can of 1980s-era, CFC-laden aerosol into the air, and single-handedly clear-cutting over 6,000 acres of Amazon rain forest.

Universal disaster: Over the last year, AT&T has been fighting Chicago-area suburbs over the right to install an IPTV-based television, telecommunications and networking system. The dispute is over whether AT&T can do these upgrades without violating Illinois law; but it involves the usual players, and the obscene profits that Comcast makes by jacking up their service charges and not improving service. Ars Technica (!) reports:

One of the oddities about the current standoff is that everyone involved wants more competition (except, perhaps, Comcast). AT&T wants the chance to compete, local residents want more choices and lower prices, and the government officials I spoke would love to be the ones who can deliver for their citizens. Gary White in Wheaton fields the stream of local complaints about Comcast and the lack of alternatives, and he would be thrilled to have more providers in town. What he, along with most others, won’t do is allow that competition to use a public asset (the rights-of-way) for private gain without serving the entire area.

AT&T has attempted to capitalize on the widespread loathing felt for cable monopolies by pointing out that rates have risen dramatically in the last decade. In Wheaton, for instance, the price for standard cable increased from $23.61 in 1996 to $46.99 in 2006, and local provider Comcast has been hauling the dollars in by the bucketful. Comcast had a net income of $928 million for all of 2005, but has done so well this year that it racked up $1.2 billion in net income in the third quarter of 2006 alone.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Subliminable advertising; or, "RATS": Those of us who made it through the 2000 campaign would remember the infamous subliminal-advertising spot the Bush campaign ran. I never put much credence in the claim. But someone resurrected the idea for use with TiVo. Kentucky Fried Chicken ran a spot where the "hidden" message wasn't visible to the naked eye, and which wasn't subliminal, but which could be viewed if the commercial were viewed frame-by-frame, with a TiVo. It was a code for a free sandwich:

In February, Kentucky Fried Chicken showed on prime-time and cable networks an unusual television commercial. To the naked eye, it didn’t look terribly radical: a few firefighters sitting around the station cracking wise about dinner. But if you’d received one of KFC’s viral e-mail messages or read any of the 21 newspaper articles that ran the first day of the promotion, you knew the spot contained a hidden message. To access it, you could use your TiVo or any other DVR device to scroll through the ad frame by frame, eventually finding the one bearing the secret code that, when entered into KFC’s Web site, earned you a coupon for a free Buffalo Snacker — the crispy chicken sandwich that inspired the whole game.

A lot of bother, perhaps, if you’re a busy person without much time. But KFC had someone else in mind: 18-to-34-year-old males with tight budgets and a marked devotion to electronics. “In the tech-savvy world of fast communication and blogging, word spread quickly,” says Tom O’Keefe, chief creative officer at the ad agency DraftFCB in Chicago, who made the spot. “It was the cool club to be in.”

Everyone must get laid: Apparently, Europeans don’t put much emphasis on remaining virgins. Imagine that. They needed a survey to find this out? From Der Spiegel:

A newly-released World Health Organization (WHO) report on sexual habits among teenagers in 26 European countries reveals that German teens are quick off the mark when it comes to losing their cherry; the average age at which Germans — both boys and girls — first have sex is 16.2.

Only teenagers in Iceland lose their virginity earlier, at an average age of 15.7. Of the countries surveyed, Slovakia had the tardiest teens, who were on average a mature 18 when they first got it on.

Of course, health professionals tend to play down the significance of comparisons when it comes to sexual activity. In remarks reminiscent of the famous quality-over-quantity take on male endowment, the WHO’s Gunta Lazdane commented, “It’s not the age that counts, it’s when young people are ready for it.”

Friday, December 15, 2006

An aftertaste of muscle-stretching: For days when news is slow, there's always diamonds in the rough like today's Times story about "yoga-and-wine retreats." Because nothing says "I am in touch with my inner self" than drinking a glass of Cabernet. (Actually, I would say that in earnest, but I am a wine fanatic, and don't do yoga.) From the Times story:

"Yoga can be very serious, sure, but why not have it be really fun?" [yoga instructor Angela Gargano] said, shrugging off concerns that yoga purists might raise an eyebrow at her latest venture — yoga-and-wine retreats.

On the other hand, there are those like Nancy Elkes, a New York-based yoga trainer and instructor who doesn't necessarily condemn drinking—she just isn't so sure it goes with yoga.

"After a yoga class," she said, "the last thing you're thinking about getting is a drink."

Crescent City connection: Chalk this up as one of the weird minutiae that I didn’t know. Sean Payton, the new head coach of the Saints, was previously an assistant coach to Randy Walker at University of Miami (Ohio). Payton would go on to coach one of my teams; and Walker the other, being the Wildcats. I can only imagine how proud Walker would have been watching the Saints do what the ‘Cats can’t, with his reputation for playing father figure to his assistants. The Sun-Times profiled Payton, who is from Illinois:

Walker hired him after the 1993 season at Miami of Ohio, where he served as quarterbacks coach and later offensive coordinator.

“I remember asking Randy if he could pay for my move,” Payton said. “He said he didn’t think so, but he gave me a gas card. I was thrilled to have that gas card until I realized there were no BP stations [along the route]. When I found one, I was buying Slim Jims and Pringles and everything I could think of.”

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A rose by any other name: So New Jersey's legislature did, after all, approve its gay civil unions law today. That was a nice surprise -- it passed handily. But there are some gems from the law's opponents, as always:

Few legislators have said explicitly that they oppose civil unions. In the floor debate Thursday, several Republicans raised other objections (no Democrat voted against the measure).

Assemblyman Richard A. Merkt of Morris County contended that the Supreme Court had overreached, saying, "I expect once again this Legislature will surrender its authority as it has many times in the last 40 years."

Social conservatives had focused their efforts on retaining the traditional definition of marriage. Len Deo, the president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said at a news conference Thursday with Senator Singer that the civil union bill "moves us toward same-sex marriage."

"People have a right to rights," Mr. Deo said, "but they don't have a right to redefine an institution that’s served us well for 2,000 years."

[Ed. note: The Constitution is not predicated on biblical underpinnings. They said the same thing about slavery, too. And Brown v. the Board. And Loving. Oops. Oh, well.]

Love is not a battlefield: New Jersey is already most of the way to becoming the union's third state to recognize gay marriages (or an equivalent institution), after the state Assembly today passed a civil unions law 56-19. Currently, the only states with such institutions are Massachusetts, where, since May 17, 2004, gay couples have been eligible for marriage plain and simple; Connecticut, which in 2005 passed a civil unions law signed by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell; and Vermont, where the state Supreme Court mandated civil unions in 2000. The AP says:

The measure passed 56-19. The state Senate was expected to take up the bill later in the day.

The legislation -- which would extend to gay couples all the rights and privileges available under state law to married people -- would make New Jersey the third state with civil unions.

"Love counts," Democratic Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, a chief sponsor of the bill, said as the debate opened. "The gender of whom one loves should not matter to the state."

But Republican Asseblyman Ronald S. Dancer said: "It's my personal belief, faith and religious practice that marriage has been defined in the Bible. And this is one time that I cannot compromise my personal beliefs and faiths."

Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine said he would sign the measure into law if it passed.

Thank you for flying the friendly skies: The Times asks today whether, in light of the sheer volume of proposed airline mergers, consumers are really benefiting from the consolidation of the airline industry. Turns out that the answer is, like the old joke about the rabbi, both no and yes:

But whether consumers are always harmed by mergers is debatable. If a high-cost airline is acquired by another carrier, travelers may benefit.

A study conducted by Clifford Winston, an economist at the Brookings Institution, found that travelers would suffer, not surprisingly, if a number of airlines left the business. For example, in the year 2000, travelers would have lost $19.6 billion, attributable to higher air fares and less-frequent service, if Southwest Airlines did not exist.

But he also found that customers would have benefited over all that year, by about $3.6 billion, if US Airways had stopped operating, because its service probably would have been replaced by lower-fare airlines with more-frequent service.

He also found that travelers would have benefited by $3.7 billion if American had left the business, and $2.4 billion if Continental had left.

Laughing all the way to the bank: The Morning News wants to know why Jews are funny -- and why they're mostly funny in America. Adam Gopnik had a good answer, from Through the Children's Gate:

What was left [in my family] of overt, nameable Jewishness was the most elemental Jewish thing, and that was a style of joking. My grandfather, who ran a small grocery store in a black neighborhood, lives in my memory, apart from Sunday-morning fish, mostly in his jokes, a round of one-liners as predictable as the hands on a clock, and yet, weirdly, getting funnier by the year: "Joe Banana and his bunch? The music with appeal." and "I used to be a boxer. In a shoe store." And "I used to sing tenor, but then they traded me in for two fives." And "Feel stiff in the joints? Then stay out of the joints."


But the unstated condition [of Seinfeld, et al.] is that there be absolutely no mention of the "J" word, while the most Jewish character, George, is given an Italian last name, Costanza. This is not because Jewishness is forbidden but because it is so obvious. Jewishness is to Seinfeld what the volin was to Henny Youngman: the prop you used between jokes, as much for continuity as for comedy. The Jewish situations are mimed by rote, while the real energy of the jokes lies in the observation of secular middle-class manners. In the old Jewish comedies, it had been just the opposite: The manners of the middle class were mimed by rote -- the suits and ties, the altered names, Jack Benny's wife called Mary -- while the energy of the jokes lay in the hidden Jewishness. (The comedy of Phil Silvers's great Sergeant Bilko almost scandalously derives from the one thing that no one on the show is allowed to mention, which is that Bilko is a clever New York Jew dominating a kind of all-star collection of dim Gentiles.) New York Jewishness was now the conscious setup rather than the hidden punchline.

Yet Wayne Gladstone, writing in The Morning News, thinks that Jewish humor derives from the ... tense status of Jews as white minorities. In the same class as Italians or Poles, you might say. Gladstone says:

So I decided to give my friend [who asked why Jews are funny] the politically correct answer: that the Jews had been forced into comedy by the downsizing of the Zionist government and continued outsourcing of baptized-baby blood-drinking jobs.


In America, Jews are a white minority. Think about that: We can live comfortably, practice freely, and bowl adequately. But being a Jew in America is like using left-handed scissors: You can make it work, but it just doesn’t feel right. This is Jesusland. Always has been, always will be. So perhaps what makes Jews so funny is not Judaism, but Christianity—and the American Jew’s constant immersion in it. Don’t believe me? Who could blame you? It’s easy to accept that Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, and walked on water, but believing he begat the funniest fuckers on the planet would take a true leap of faith.


But sometimes Christianity’s über-majority status becomes empowering to the point of perversion. Either that or they must be handing out testicles at Mass, because some Christians actually have the balls to complain about “Jewish paranoia”—as if six million Jewish men, women, and children weren’t rounded up, shipped out, tortured, and killed in the middle of the 20th century. Calling Jews “paranoid” is like giving shit to Christians in Ancient Rome for acting “kinda jumpy” around lions.

So, yeah, that’s being a Jew in America. It’s not heartbreaking, it’s not debilitating, and it’s clearly not as difficult as being a non-white minority—though it’s had its moments. And while 2,000 years ago we might have gotten all Judah Maccabee on your ass, now all we have is Jon Stewart (and he’s not as good with a hammer as we hoped). So what else can we do except joke about it? Besides, comedy can be powerful; humor can undo some deeply held beliefs. Just look at Jerry Lewis. How else, but through comedy, could the French be fooled into loving such a greasy Jew?

But is that all Jewish comedy really is? A way of complaining? A subtler form of throwing a punch? A cry for acceptance? For some, sure, but those guys never seem to make it past a couple of Letterman appearances. There’s more to it than that because the truth is, we’re not sore losers. We haven’t even lost. Look it up. There’s never been a race between Judaism and Christianity to see who could amass the greatest numbers of souls. Judaism has always been an invitation-only affair, a reward that’s unsettlingly similar to a punishment. Like when the schoolteacher picks the good kid to help clean the erasers after class, Judaism is something of a burden. And that accounts for a need for humor as much as anything else.

Man and God in the Academy: Since at least World War II, conservatives in America have howled that there are no conservatives in academia, outside of economics departments and business schools. I can safely say that this isn’t true, since I recently matriculated from one of the more eminent institutions in America. But that didn’t stop William F. Buckley from writing God and Man at Yale, nor has it stopped the regular crusades from would-be Buckleys on campuses everywhere. Mark Bauerlein, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, says that this is to be expected:

How, then, has it prospered? That leads Sullivan to another fundamentalist weakness. Liberals tend to link conservatism to political and economic interests. Surprisingly, Sullivan does the same. The alignment shows up in his references to “the new conservatism,” “theoconservatives,” and “big-government conservatives.” In his view, “conservatism as a political movement has become, in many ways, a somewhat strained version of a religious revival.” That should disqualify the movement as a species of conservatism, but Sullivan nonetheless grants it the label. A big-government conservative is a contradiction in terms, but Sullivan lets it stand, presumably because big-government conservatives are in the Republican Party. So, instead of stating that a religious movement with conservative elements has emerged in American politics, Sullivan announces that conservatism itself has “lost its soul.” Apparently the conservative tradition can’t withstand the predations of contemporary pseudoconservatives. It, too, has become connected to political circumstance.

In [Michael Bérubé’s book] What’s Liberal … ?, conservatism suffers similarly from stigmatizing references. Bérubé focuses on the anti-academic conservatives and fills his descriptions with diagnostic asides. Gay-rights debates “transform otherwise reasonable cultural conservatives into fumbling, conspiracy-mongering fanatics.” The columnist George Will is “furious,” and the columnist Michelle Malkin writes “shameful” books pressing “‘interpretations’ that no sane person countenances,” while Horowitz exaggerates “hysterically.” Such psychic wants explain why, according to Bérubé, “we just don’t trust cultural conservatives’ track record over the long term, to be honest. We think they’re the heirs of the people who spent decades dehumanizing African-Americans and immigrants, arguing chapter and verse that the Bible endorses slavery and the subjection of women.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

And he's got huge fangs! Those of you who know me will recognize this phrase: You can't make this up. Sometimes, the real news is even more ridiculous than the fake news, which I believe is a Jon Stewart aphorism. This time, in eastern Russia, a pack of squirrels killed a villager's dog. Excuse me? From the BBC:

A "big" stray dog was nosing about the trees and barking at squirrels hiding in branches overhead when a number of them suddenly descended and attacked, reports say.

"They literally gutted the dog," local journalist Anastasia Trubitsina told Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

"When they saw the men, they scattered in different directions, taking pieces of their kill away with them."

Mikhail Tiyunov, a scientist in the region, said it was the first he had ever heard of such an attack.

While squirrels without sources of protein might attack birds' nests, he said, the idea of them chewing a dog to death was "absurd".

"If it really happened, things must be pretty bad in our forests," he added.

Give me an O!: Last night on Monday Night Football, Barack Obama made a very special appearance. He made an announcement. And, without giving away its contents, it went over pretty well. Read the article linked above if you want a spoiler -- or watch the YouTube video embedded below:

Monday, December 11, 2006

Hanukkah O Hanukkah: In Seattle, Sea-Tac Airport is now bereft of all its holiday decorations after airport administration decided to remove all decorations rather than add a chanukkiah to its display. This, I find remarkable. A local Orthodox rabbi requested the addition of a Hanukkah symbol, but apparently that was too objectionable for Sea-Tac. How fascinating, and disappointing. Somehow, I have a hard time believing the airport did it to foster inclusiveness. From the wire:

All nine Christmas trees have been removed from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport instead of adding a giant Jewish menorah to the holiday display as a rabbi had requested.

Maintenance workers boxed up the trees during the graveyard shift early Saturday, when airport bosses believed few people would notice.

"We decided to take the trees down because we didn't want to be exclusive," said airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt. "We're trying to be thoughtful and respectful, and will review policies after the first of the year."

No, really? A new British documentary quotes Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) as saying that she wants Fidel Castro assassinated. Ros-Lehtinen insists she never said any such thing -- but adds she wouldn't be upset if someone did assassinate Fidel. You can't make this stuff up. The AP says:

Still, [Ros-Lehtinen] said it was possible she has, at some point, mentioned Castro's potential assassination.

"If someone were to do it, I wouldn't be crying," she said.


The congresswoman said she's not shy about wanting Castro dead.

"No one advocates assassination," she said. "What we are advocating for is free elections, freedom for political prisoners, free expression of ideas and respect for human rights. That's how you get change in Cuba. Not assassination."

Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints (Part II): Tonight, my Saints ran right over the Cowboys en route to a 42-17 victory. Everyone thought it would be close and that it would end with Dallas winning, but it was not to be so. ("America's team," eh? Not so fast, Big D.) It was a fantastic game to watch — even though I was at work. ESPN says:

Having spent the last three years on Parcells' staff, Payton knew exactly how to attack the Cowboys — and Drew Brees pulled it off perfectly, tying his career high with five touchdown passes, all before the third quarter ended. New Orleans finally showed mercy in the fourth period, even taking a knee from inside the 5 well before the two-minute warning.

The Saints (9-4) grabbed sole possession of the second-best record in the NFC, putting them in position for a luxury the franchise has never enjoyed: a first-round playoff bye. That's getting a little ahead of things considering New Orleans hasn't won the division yet, but the rookie coach has guided his club to a two-game lead with three games left.

Parcells absorbed most of this one with his lips pinched and his arms crossed. Not even Tony Romo could save the Tuna from this embarrassment.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What, like that's saying anything: Not much is happening on the news wires, but Nicholas Kristof's Times column today is about the moderation of Islam in Asia. He points out, rightly so, that the vast majority of Muslims actually live in southeast Asia and share power and geography with non-Muslims. Oh, and that their democratic elections are less rough than the U.S.'s. From the column (TimesSelect required):

At the moment I'm in Brunei, a Muslim country nestled in Southeast Asia. At the University of Brunei, women outnumber men. Women here drive, fill senior offices in government and the private sector, serve as ambassadors and are pilots for the national airline. "Young women have equal opportunities now — it's up to your capability," said Lisa Ibrahim, president of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Brunei.

Brunei has gold-domed mosques in its skyline, and the sultan has two wives. But Brunei is also home to churches and Hindu temples serving a multiethnic society. Young people flirt together in the cafes, and non-Muslims are allowed to drink alcohol.

Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister, says he reminds Americans that the most populous Muslim country (Indonesia) is a democracy whose elections run more smoothly than Florida's.

P.S.: How about a shout-out for a fellow Oregonian?

And then the hen said, 'Who will I share Iraq with?' David Brooks, in his column today, forecasts the future of Iraq if we withdraw our troops in 2007. It's not clear to me (or Andrew Sullivan) that he thinks we should stay there, but Brooks is surprisingly lucid and probably right about what is in store for that broken country. From today's Times (TimesSelect only):

Westerners had a great deal of trouble understanding the ever-shifting conflicts among sects they didn’t understand and tribes they'd never heard of. Early in the war, Americans engaged in a moronic debate about whether Iraq was in civil war, which illustrated that American vocabularies were trapped in the nation-state paradigm, and how unprepared Americans were to understand the non-nation-state world.

Parallels were made, some apt, some inapt, to the first Thirty Years' War, which decimated Europe in the 17th century. That, too, was a spasmodic constellation of conflicts not among nation-states, but among faiths, tribes and local groupings.

This second version of that war produced a Middle East that looked medieval and postmodern at the same time. The core weakness of Middle Eastern nations was that over centuries Arab society had developed intricate social organizations based on family, tribe and faith. Loyalty to these superseded national bonds. Notions of federalism, subsidiarity and impersonal administration — the underpinnings of the nation-state — had trouble flourishing in these sands.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

So long and thanks for all the fish: Conrad Burns does not and never has had a way with language. But, Language Log points us to a real gem from the good ex-senator, from his farewell speech. My goodness. This man makes George W. Bush look like a genius! From the official Congressional record:

We have new opportunities now, and they have opened. I am proud to say that it was me and my office that led the way on most of those changes. It is said that it is not bragging if you have done it. I was fortunate enough to attract a staff that shared the same vision of change, and change we did. Montana is not short of visionaries. It was my privilege to know them, work with them, and to move our State forward.

We have lift-off: I got to watch my first shuttle launch tonight. That, I would like to state for the record, was awesome. I can only speculate as to what it would have looked like up close. But this launch seemed like it wasn't ever going to go up -- it was scrubbed Thursday night, and was never really in play for Friday night. From the Sentinel's space blog:

Shuttle Discovery just launched from Kennedy Space Center on a 12-day mission to the international space station. The shuttle's boosters are to be jettisoned at 2 minutes, 5 seconds into flight. Discovery should reach orbit in 8 minutes, 29 seconds. Seven astronauts are on board.

One prison under God: In Iowa, a state court recently struck down a prison's program offering better housing conditions and better food to members of a religious quasi-congregation which proselytized to inmates. The specific debate was on First Amendment grounds; but, to be perfectly clear, it seems to me that religious conversion isn't part of the penal code and shouldn't be. (There was a "Law Order" episode about that.) The Times says:

Not all programs in prisons are so narrowly focused. Florida now has three prisons that offer inmates, who must ask to be housed there, more than two dozen offerings ranging from various Christian denominations to Orthodox Judaism to Scientology. But at Newton, Judge Pratt found, there were few options — and no equivalent programs — without religious indoctrination.

"The state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates," Judge Pratt wrote. "There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates."

Who dat say dey gonna beat…: Bill Simmons rounded up the NFL's 32 teams by strength today. He puts my Saints at No. 7. But, as with all Page 2 columns, it's more worth reading for the hilarious reinterpretations that Simmons engages in. For instance, the Bears:

I had a conversation with someone Sunday night when we wondered if the Vikes would have had a better chance in Chicago had they simply kept kneeling three consecutive times, punting, then relying on Rex [Grossman] to be their offense. We both decided, "yes." This actually happened.

The Bizarro City: In the Bizarro World, the poor live in the suburbs, not the city... According to "All Things Considered," yesterday, this is the first time that more poor people have lived outside cities. It's a strange thought, really -- that somehow cities are reverting to the 19th century city in their development. I think what we're seeing is a return to the Industrial Revolution-era doughnut topography of a city, where the poor and lower middle class residents of a city live in a ring between the neighborhoods immediately surrounding commercial districts (the inner hole), where wealthy urbanites live and do commerce, and the outer reaches of the city, where wealthy suburbanites live on sprawling estates.

"If you look at what's happening to housing size, and where people who are moving who are middle- and upper-income families, that's not the homes they want," says [Rebecca Blank, dean of the School of Social Policy at the University of Michigan].

But [Alan] Berube [of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute] estimates that 60 percent of the suburban poor live beyond that inner ring of suburbs. They're the ones cleaning those gleaming office towers near freeways, he says. Wherever low-income workers migrate, Berube says, it's ultimately the "wrong side of the tracks."

Monoculture: It's funny, how so many of us have a love-hate relationship with chains. I live in a neighborhood here called College Park, whose only real chains are a Quizno's, a Haircuttery and a Papa John's; it's great, especially since the food is so good, until I need a pair of jeans or a new towel. Then I have to drive all the way to the Millenia mall, or, worse still, to that gigantic big-box complex at Colonial and Hiawassee. The Atlantic picks up on this weird dichotomy:

Chains do more than bargain down prices from suppliers or divide fixed costs across a lot of units. They rapidly spread economic discovery—the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work. That knowledge can be gained only through the expensive and time-consuming process of trial and error. Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals. Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain. When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler—or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles—didn’t have much in the way of bookstores. Back in 1986, when California Pizza Kitchen was an innovative local restaurant about to open its second location, food writers at the L.A. Daily News declared it “the kind of place every neighborhood should have.” So what’s wrong if the country has 158 neighborhood CPKs instead of one or two?

Friday, December 8, 2006

Oh, my heart bleeds: The outgoing Congress is not going to get its full annual pay raise until such time as they agree to raise the minimum wage, incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi says. Good for her! Somehow, I have a hard time feeling sorry for current members, who make $165,000-plus without raises:

In one sign of the approaching Democratic rise to power, future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., succeeded in attaching to the funding bill language stopping until Feb. 16 an automatic pay raise members of Congress were to receive on Jan. 1.

They said no pay raise should be enacted until Congress approves an increase in the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $5.15 an hour for the past 10 years. If the pay raise goes into effect Feb. 16, members would lose some $320 of their anticipated $2,800 annual increase. That raise would be $3,300 if Congress acts to boost the cost-of-living allowances for all federal employees in 2007. Currently, rank-and-file members get $165,200.

Cold as ice: It's been cold all over the country, even in the South. Here in Orlando, people are wearing jackets and sweaters and scarves. I can't even fathom how miserable it must be up North, if it's in the low 50s in central Florida. Oof. But here, everyone's spent all day moaning about the cold:

"Friday will be the coldest night of the season for all the areas from Alabama through Arkansas down into Florida and as far north as Virginia," Myers said.

"The wind-chill effect won't be as cold as Thursday, but the air temperature will be colder because the air is drier," Myers said. "It'll be like living in a cold desert."

Thursday, December 7, 2006

They really are taking over! Google is going to begin offering ads on the radio to some of its AdWords customers; they will be targeted very specifically for customers. Is there anything left this company doesn't do? From Information Week:

Google has completed the integration of the online radio advertising platform it bought when it acquired dMarc Broadcasting for $102 million earlier this year and has begun testing Google Audio Ads for a select group of its AdWords advertisers.

Google aims to bring "efficiency, accountability, and enhanced ROI to radio advertising by providing advertisers with an online interface for creating and launching radio campaigns," according to a blog post attributed to "Josh M., a member of the Google Audio Ads team."

A date which will live in infamy: Today is the 65th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. That's what started World War II. My grandfather, who is 82, served in the Pacific Theater in the Corps of Engineers -- zero wave. Our freedom today is owed to their sacrifices; December 7 will be forever dedicated in their memory. Tom Brokaw said it best... from the AP:

''America in an instant became the land of the indivisible,'' said former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, the author of ''The Greatest Generation,'' who spoke at the shoreside ceremonies. ''There are so many lessons from that time for our time, none greater than the idea of one nation greater than the sum of its parts.''