Thursday, May 17, 2007

Slow chase: The New York Police Department has just bought a fleet of ten Segways for its patrols. I have to admit that I’m skeptical: How, exactly, is this any different from walking? Even at top speed, a Segway is only a little faster than running. But apparently the NYPD thinks otherwise. Thanks to the Times for picking this up:

Ten of the two-wheeled Segways are to be deployed today as patrol vehicles on pathways and boardwalks in parks, at beaches and at stadiums, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at a news conference yesterday.

Twenty-five officers have completed training as Segway drivers, he said, enabling them to maneuver the devices safely for up to eight continuous hours.

“Their obvious advantages are visibility and mobility,” Mr. Kelly said. He was referring to the battery-charged agility of a Segway, which can roll up to 12.5 miles per hour, and to the imposing stature the devices tend to give officers, who are eight inches off the ground and ride standing up.


The potential for preventing crime, and arresting lawbreakers, remains to be seen. Mr. Kelly said that the Segways would be driven only on marked pathways or boardwalks, and that officers would be under strict orders not to venture on city streets or sidewalks.


Whitewash: After the 2004 election, the Election Assistance Commission ordered a study on vote fraud and voter intimidation throughout the country. The end result was, in a surprise for those of us who have seen no data indicating significant vote fraud, a study that said that vote fraud was a pervasive problem. Slate got their hands on a first draft, though, that says exactly the opposite — just like the chapter on global climate change in the EPA’s annual Report on the Environment, which was edited by political apparatchiks to downplay the evidence for global warming. What insight the draft of this paper on vote fraud lends us into this White House.

In their “predecisional” draft (excerpted below and on the following four pages) [Job] Serebrov and [Tova] Wang reported that “the only interviewee who believe[d] that polling place fraud is widespread” was Jason Torchinsky of the American Center for Voting Rights, a conservative organization that’s been accused of fronting for the GOP. (It’s Republicans who typically complain about voter fraud, because the allegations are usually directed at minority and low-income voters who tend to vote Democratic.) Most other interviewees, though not unanimous, showed “widespread … agreement that there is little polling place fraud” (Page 4). Nonetheless, the draft report observed, the Justice Department’s public integrity section is pursuing voter fraud cases energetically: “While the number of election fraud related complaints have not gone up since 2002 … the number of indictments the section is pursuing” against “alien voters, felon voters, and double voters” has risen substantially (Page 5).

Serebrov and Wang submitted their initial findings to be “vetted and edited” by an Election Assistance Commission working group. That’s when the hackwork began.

The final report asserts, falsely, that “there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud in elections.” Wang, the Democrat, has objected in writing that this and other revisions were made “without explanation or discussion.” A gag order in the original contract forbids her to discuss the matter. Serebrov, the Republican, isn’t happy either. The New York Times reported (subscription required) that he complained to a staffer for the Election Assistance Commission that neither consultant “was willing to conform [their] results [to] political expediency,” and that Serebrov “could care less that the results are not what the more conservative members of my party wanted.”


A train runs through it: The Times’ “The Lede” blog reports on the first trains to cross the DMZ between South Korea and North Korea, one going each way. This is the first time that a rail link — even just as a publicity stunt, like this one — has existed between the two countries since 1951. Holy cow:

Aboard each train were 100 South Koreans and 50 North Koreans, including "celebrities, politicians and a South Korean driver from one of the last trains to cross before rail links were cut in 1951," Reuters said.

After traveling about 15 miles past the zone into the other nation, both trains returned to their starting points. No plans to begin regular rail service were announced.

In South Korea, the event was covered live by all major networks. North Korea noted the event in its enigmatic way, releasing a four-paragraph report from its official news agency, according to Reuters. That report does not appear to be posted on the official site so far, but a visitor can find “Greetings to Norwegian King” and an ode to “Favorite Bean Foodstuffs.”

As the Northern train arrived in South Korea, it bore a sign on the front reading "The Train Once Boarded by Great President Kim Il-Sung," the nation’s version of "Elvis slept here."


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Now they'll really love him on the South Side: If you go back far enough, everyone has some interesting historical footnotes. Like me being very, very distantly related to Johann Strauss the composer, for instance. It doesn't say very much about you, if you ask me. Nevertheless, seems to have discovered good, solid evidence that Barack O'Bama has a little Irish brogue in him:

The junior senator from Illinois, seeking the Democratic nomination for the White House, has made much of his background as the son of a Kenyan father and American mother. Far less publicized is the European side of his family tree -- including, new research has found, a great-great-great grandfather from the heart of Ireland.

A genealogy Web site,, has spent months looking to pin down the origins of Obama's ancestors -- including Fulmouth Kearney, who immigrated to the United States at 19 and has ties to Obama's Kansas-reared mother, Ann Dunham.

Kearney is a common name in Ireland with roots in many counties. But the Utah-based organization got lucky when it made a call in March to Canon Stephen Neill, a parish priest from the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland.

Neill had just inherited rolls of baptisms, marriages and deaths dating back to the 1700s from a late parishioner, who had kept the records in her home. In the index he found Joseph Kearney, Fulmouth's father, a cobbler in the village of Moneygall, County Offaly -- which, back in those days of British rule, was known as King's County.

Neill hadn't been told by researchers why they wanted to know about the Kearneys of Moneygall. When he called them weeks later with his find, he was surprised to learn that Fulmouth was an ancestor of the Democrats' rising star.

"Everyone here says he's going to have to call himself O'Bama from now on,'' Neill said in an interview. "People are fascinated that such a remarkable man, and a potential president of the United States, could be connected to such a tiny, unremarkable place as Moneygall."

The village today is home to about 300 people, has two pubs, a Catholic church, and a Gaelic sports ground. A busy highway cuts through the middle.


Road to somewhere: Where I live in Orlando, all but one of our limited-access highways are toll roads, and the tolls are expensive enough. In China, where tolls are comparatively more expensive and where the rule of and respect for law has always been compromised by bribery and money, people are going to seemingly ridiculous lengths to avoid tolls. So some villagers are striking back:

By 2020, if all goes as planned, China will have completed almost 53,000 miles of expressways, a network roughly equivalent to the Interstate System in the United States. China considers expressways crucial to maintaining its economic growth and developing its western and interior provinces.

But the cost is so exorbitant that China is financing much of the system with tolls that are, by Chinese standards, pricey.

Two people who should know are Mr. Wang and Mr. Gu. The two men — who were nervous about divulging their first names to a snooping foreigner — are posted at a dingy intersection in this farming village in Hebei Province.

Not far away is a highway tollbooth. Every day cars and heavy trucks, as steady and determined as a trail of ants, try to skip the toll by cutting through the village on a narrow road.

Mr. Wang, 65, and Mr. Gu, 58, try to send them back. They say the tollbooth operator is paying the village a monthly fee to help crack down on toll jumpers. For its part the village is trying to stop heavy trucks from ruining its roads. The two men regulate traffic with a long, crooked stick that goes up and down like a crude crossing barrier.

Mr. Gu does the talking. Mr. Wang wields the stick.

“Can I get through?” one motorist asked on a recent afternoon as other cars waited.

“No,” Mr. Gu replied. Only local people are allowed to pass.

“Is there any other way around the toll?” the driver asked, smiling. “Come on, let me through.”


Monday, May 14, 2007

Someone needs less caffeine in her life: In Springboro, Ohio, an admitted Starbucks addict is giving up the juice after she found an anti-religious quote on her paper cup as part of the company’s program to spur discussions between their customers. The cynic in me says that, having just about killed local coffee shops like Evanston’s Unicorn Cafe, which have served as discussion-places since the 17th century, now Starbucks realizes their value. Anyway, only in America could this happen, I think:

[Michelle Incanno would] buy the company’s coffee beans every week. Whenever she’d get the chance to drop by a Starbucks, she would, placing the same order every time: a large, house brewed coffee with nonfat milk and two Splenda. When the Seattle-based chain opened a drive-through near her Springboro home, she was in java heaven.

That was until she got an unexpected jolt last week from her coffee cup.

Printed on the cup was: “Why in moments of crisis do we ask God for strength and help? As cognitive beings, why would we ask something that may well be a figment of our imaginations for guidance? Why not search inside ourselves for the power to overcome? After all, we are strong enough to cause most of the catastrophes we need to endure.”

It is attributed to Bill Schell, a Starbucks customer from London, Ontario, and was included on the cup as part of an effort by the company to collect different viewpoints and spur discussion.

“As someone who loves God, I was so offended by that. I don’t think there needs to be religious dialogue on it. I just want coffee,” said Incanno, a married mother of three who is Catholic.


P.S.: I know I’ve been away awhile. My time at work is much, much busier now than it was when I started this blog. But I’m going to try to get back into it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jesus Is Just Alright: Since the 2004 election plastered Democrats as “out of touch” with “values voters,” I’ve been keeping a little catalogue of all of the various times that I see liberal writers, bloggers and politicians pointing out that much of the political philosophy that Jesus himself argued for is fairly liberal, all things considered. Mark Kleiman wins not only this week’s prize for best reference, but vaults himself nicely into the Top 10 all-time by making it a parenthetical, for writing it from a Jewish perspective, and for getting in a knock at kashruth laws, all at once:

[I]t’s also true that the worldwide Sexual Purity League, no matter which religion it’s connected to, takes the violation of sexual taboos as more basically, more shockingly immoral than any other sort of norm violation. (Drug abuse is a close second.) Illicit sex is dirty — that is, polluting — in a way that theft, slander, and assault simply aren’t.

(Back when a certain rabbi of the School of Hillel was preaching up a storm in Galilee, food taboos had some of the same salience that sexual taboos have now. He didn’t make himself popular with the local equivalent of the Traditional Values Coalition or Moral Majority when he pointed out that it’s not what goes into your mouth that really pollutes you, since it’s all going to wind up in the same sewer, but rather what comes out of it: perjury and slander, for example.)


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Partying while Rome burns: I don't normally agree with much on Ben Stein, but he and I see eye-to-eye in his Sunday column in the Times. He asks, why are rich Americans squandering their massive Bush tax give-aways on parties while poor Americans are dying by the truck-full in Iraq? He can't believe that the $10 million b'nei mitzvah exists, and neither can I. The Republicans holler that it's wartime, that dissent is impermissible; but neither is profligacy:

I started to feel hysterical [watching Donny Deutsch's program on lavish parties]. Is this what America is all about? We're in a war and we cut taxes to stimulate the economy — and it probably did (Ed. note: Uh, not bloody likely) — and we are having million-dollar parties at home while our soldiers are paid starvation wages to offer up their lives in Iraq? We're in a war and the government cannot afford to pay for adequate training for our soldiers, but the society at home is routinely having million-dollar weddings and bar mitzvahs?

Can anyone say "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"?

We are creating a debt that is about $3 trillion greater than it was when Bill Clinton left office, and one sequel is $10 million birthday parties? Is this what supply-side is all about? To obligate future generations so our generation can have $10 million parties for teenagers?


In the Happiest City on Earth: This month, National Geographic makes the point that I’ve made since I arrived here, that there would be nothing in Orlando if not for Disney World. But writer T.D. Allman sees beyond that. As Allman sees it, Disney not only made Orlando, it made it what it is, and made it the model for the new suburbs sprouting up all around America. Where the old-line suburbs in older cities — I lived in Evanston, Ill., a classic example — are much more mixed-use, much denser, much more gridded, it was Disney’s influence that made suburban Phoenix, Chicago, Seattle and Atlanta more alike than different. It’s a brilliant article, in other words:

In this place of exurban, postmodern pioneers, the range of choices is vast even when the choices themselves are illusory. Here life is truly a style: You don’t want to live in a mass-produced, instant “community”? No problem. Orlando’s developers, like the producers of instant coffee, offer you a variety of flavors, including one called Tradition. Structurally it may seem identical to all the others. Only instead of vaguely Mediterranean ornamental details, the condos at Tradition have old colonial finishes. In Orlando’s lively downtown, it’s possible to live in a loft just as you would in Chicago or New York. But these lofts are brand-new buildings constructed for those who want the postindustrial lifestyle in a place that never was industrial.

Orlando’s bright lights are not the garish displays of Las Vegas or the proud power logos of New York. Instead, Orlando glimmers with the familiar signage of franchise America: Denny’s, Burger King, Quality Inn, Hampton Inn, Hertz. Orlando also leads in the culinary transformation of the exotic into the familiar. From its Orlando headquarters, the Darden Corporation, the city’s first Fortune 500 company, mass-markets theme foods. It standardizes the output of Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens everywhere.

All over Orlando you see forces at work that are changing America from Fairbanks to Little Rock. This, truly, is a 21st-century paradigm: It is growth built on consumption, not production; a society founded not on natural resources, but upon the dissipation of capital accumulated elsewhere; a place of infinite possibilities, somehow held together, to the extent it is held together at all, by a shared recognition of highway signs, brand names, TV shows, and personalities, rather than any shared history. Nowhere else is the juxtaposition of what America actually is and the conventional idea of what America should be more vivid and revealing.

Welcome to the theme-park nation.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

But how many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a CFL lightbulb? Australia is making moves to become the first country to phase out the use of incandescent light bulbs, in exchange for compact fluorescent bulbs, which use much less electricity. These aren’t your grandparents’ Carter-era sickly white fluorescent bulbs, either: The only incandescent bulb I use is on a dimmer switch, with which ordinary CFL bulbs are incompatible, and the lighting’s better as well as cheaper in my apartment. Between Australia, California and Wal-Mart, we might just change the world. From the Times:

“The most effective and immediate way we can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is by using energy more efficiently,” Mr. Turnbull said. “Electric lighting is a vital part of our lives; globally, it generates emissions equal to 70 percent of those from all the world’s passenger vehicles.”

He pointed to International Energy Agency data showing that a worldwide switch to compact fluorescent lights could result in energy savings equivalent to five years of Australia’s present electricity use by 2030.

Australia already has minimum energy performance standards that apply to appliances, and a similar system will be put into effect for light bulbs. The standards would ultimately make it impossible to sell incandescent bulbs. Mr. Turnbull said the government would consider some exceptions, like medical lighting and low-power oven lights.


But it never tastes that way when I make it: My mother has a recipe that she often makes when I come home, a chicken dish that she’s been making for years. I cannot replicate it. Don’t we all have a recipe that way? Kim Severson, of the Times, put this to the test, attempting to trace her mother’s pasta sauce all the way back to Italy in the hopes of understanding it. She failed gloriously:

Among my four siblings, how mom makes her sauce has been a constant source of discussion. We’re all decent cooks, but none of us can get it just right. When does she put in the paste? Is a little bit of roasted pepper essential? Do you need to use oregano in the meatballs?

This is a problem my cousins have, too. Sharon Herman still lives in Cumberland [Wisc.], not far from the Zappa family dairy farm. Her mother (my aunt and godmother, the late Philomena DeGidio) was one of the oldest of the Zappa girls and was considered the best sauce maker. My cousin has lived for years under the cloud of never having mastered the master’s sauce.


I use fresh basil and fresh bread crumbs instead of Progresso in my meatballs, but I still stick to dried basil and oregano in the sauce. My canned tomatoes come from Italy, even though my mother thinks Contadina or Hunt’s is just fine.

It never tastes just like hers, but I keep trying. And maybe that’s the problem. Perhaps I’m too fixated on my fancy-pants ingredients. Or perhaps it’s just a psychological quirk of the kitchen. The one that makes you think nothing ever tastes as good as your mother’s


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You've got to make your free throws: In electronics as in sports, sometimes, it's the little but dependable things that count. Free throws are free points. And remembering to back up your hard drive means never losing data. It's how I survived with the same computer, through three hard drives, for five years (and before that, for six years with four different hard drives, on the same desktop). But I didn't remember to back up my iTunes library, and I lost several hundred dollars worth of paid music. Bandwagon is a service that aims to fix that... and I'm going to give it a whirl. I want to get back to some of my distant tech-blogging roots, from the early days of the Idea Salon. It sounds like it uses Amazon's S3 service, or at least the idea behind it, which I find fairly impressive -- the tech details will be disclosed along with the review.

Anyway, Bandwagon's introductory, pre-launch offer is $69 per year for regular storage -- I'll let you know how it goes. (Fair disclosure: They're bribing us bloggers with a year of free access. But you know I'm impartial.) From their site:

What we are
  • Bandwagon is for music geeks that use Macs.
  • Bandwagon is for people that use rsync, ftp or cds + dvds to backup their iTunes and want to find a better way.
  • Bandwagon is for smart people that have a huge music library that has never been backed up.
  • Why is this distinction of what Bandwagon can (and cannot) do important?
  • [Link]

    But he never got the Mount Hood Freeway: Robert Moses is the Antichrist to a certain generation of urbanist thinkers, and to those of us who grew up in places where his influence was at its lowest. He was the urban planner who gave New York City the BQE, the LIE, the West Side Highway, the FDR, the Van Wyck, the Cross-Bronx, et cetera. He was the urban planner who nearly destroyed America’s great cities to make more room for cars and sprawl. I was fortunate to grow up in Portland, Oregon, one of the least Moses-friendly places on Earth, which memorably rejected one of his pet projects and became the first city in America to tear out a freeway. But three new exhibits in New York are trying to reclaim Moses’ legacy. I’m not buying it, but the Daily News is:

    Finkelpearl says that while there is a desire to look at Moses’ achievements more evenhandedly, the estimation of the man himself is unchanged. His racism, for example, is well-documented, but it was standard for the time. It did not prevent him from building a swimming pool in Harlem. He also built Lenox Terrace, the first building in Harlem that had 24-hour doorman service and upscale amenities.

    As for his destroying the South Bronx, Ballon points to an overhead view that shows the George Washington Bridge shortly after its completion in 1929.

    “It was like a cannon pointed at the South Bronx,” she says. “You had all this traffic coming over needing to go North and East - where was the logical place to sort it out?”

    An interesting part of the third Moses exhibit, “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution” at the Wallach Art Galleries at Columbia University, is the unused designs for Lincoln Center, one of his grandest projects.

    Coming back from Columbia on the M11 bus, however, passing blocks and blocks of high-rise apartments, reinforces Jacobs’ objections to Moses’ plans: The buildings are drab, the grounds lifeless, a stark contrast to the streets just south, where tenements have been renovated, new businesses seem to be thriving and the streets themselves are inviting.


    Monday, February 19, 2007

    Whitewashed: A New York man who was a major Republican campaign contributor was indicted on charges of financing terror on Friday. Abdul Tawala ibn Ali Alishtari, a.k.a. Michael Mixen, contributed $15,000 to the RNCC in 2002 and 2004. That’s right, a major Republican financier is also literally a supporter of terrorism. Bet you won’t hear about that on Fox News, hmm? From CBS News:

    The indictment said Alishtari tried to support terrorists between June and December by accepting an unspecified amount of money to transfer $152,000 that he believed was being sent to Pakistan and Afghanistan to support an Afghanistan terrorist training camp.

    He believed the money would be used to fund the purchase of night vision goggles and other equipment, the indictment said.

    He was also charged with money laundering for allegedly causing the transfer on Aug. 17 of about $25,000 from a bank account in New York to a bank account in Montreal, Canada. The money was to be used to provide material support to terrorist, prosecutors said.


    CBS News has confirmed that Alishtari is a donor to the Republican Party, as he claims on his curriculum vitae. Alishtari gave $15,500 to the National Republican Campaign Committee between 2002 and 2004, according to Federal Election Commission records. That amount includes $13,000 in 2003, a year when he claims to have been named NRCC New York State Businessman of the Year.

    Alishtari also claims to be a lifetime member of the National Republican Senate Committee’s Inner Circle, which the NRCC describes as “an impressive cross-section of American society – community leaders, business executives, entrepreneurs, retirees, and sports and entertainment celebrities – all of whom hold a deep interest in our nation’s prosperity and security.”

    Update: Chris notes in the comments that Fox News did, in fact, post this story on their Web site, and I'm man enough to note that. But I have yet to hear any word that they've put it on TV, or that, for instance, the usual suspects -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, et al. -- have so much as mentioned this story. Imagine if he'd been a Democrat, what an uproar it would've caused.


    Pharoah, let my people donate blood: Since 1985, the Red Cross has disallowed blood donation from any man who has had sex with another man since 1977. At the time, this made sense, given the limited reliability and high rate of false negatives of the AIDS testing regime. But, Bill Hooker at 3 Quarks Daily argues, today, the logic behind this ban no longer applies, so we are excluding a critical supply of blood donors for purely non-scientific reasons. I once had administered a lunchtime debate about this, in college, and I made almost the same argument, and was told by a Coulter acolyte, “Gay sex is inherently risky and immoral behavior. We should not reward it.” The opposition is not logical any longer. From 3QD:

    A variety of expert presentations at a March, 2006 FDA workshop on behaviour based donor deferrals indicated that, with the advent of [nucleic acid testing], the window period for HIV infection is less than 12 days. In the US, the residual risk of transmission of HIV or HCV by blood transfusion is estimated, by a variety of models, to be around 1 in 2,000,000 donations. This is clearly a very conservative estimate, since there are around 15 million donations every year and I could only find mention of four authenticated transfusion-related transmissions of HIV since NAT was implemented in 1999 (none of which involved [men who have sex with other men]). At the same FDA workshop, Celso Bianco re-ran an earlier prediction using risk and other estimates that were getting general agreement at the workshop and came up with a figure, which he called conservative, of one infected unit per 32 years.

    So, while it seems intuitively likely that including a high-risk group (as judged by increased prevalence) in the donor pool would increase overall risk, calculating — or rather, estimating — that increase is far from straightforward. The only numbers I could find were presented by Andrew Dayton to the same FDA workshop:

    The 5-year [deferral, instead of a lifetime ban] would result in possibly a 25 percent increase in the current residual risk, and the 1-year would be 40 percent.

    So, worst case scenario: 1.4 transmissions per 2 million donations, instead of 1.0 — or about three extra cases per year (and remember that, to date, the observed level of transmission is much lower than the estimate). I’m not familiar with what sorts of risks are considered acceptable in public policy formation, but I can say outright that I would be prepared to accept that risk to my own person as the cost of allowing MSM to participate on a more equal footing in a profound act of community altruism. (To say nothing of a 1% increase in a critical health resource that is often in short supply.)

    Furthermore, given that the window period is less than two weeks and you can only donate every eight weeks, there is an obvious method for reducing the risk even further. According to the AABB, red blood cells can be stored cold for 42 days or frozen for ten years, and plasmaand cryoprecipitated antihemophilic factor can be frozen for at least a year; of the fractions into which whole blood is routinely divided, only platelets have a shorter effective storage life, about five days. It is clearly possible to hold (at least most of the fractions of) any first-time donation until the donor returns and can be re-tested; two clear tests eight weeks apart are definitive proof of HIV-negative status.


    Thursday, February 15, 2007

    COINTELPRO, revisited: I just picked up my paper today, and holy cow is the front page of the Sentinel a stunner. Apparently the man who organized a neo-Nazi rally through the heavily African-American Parramore neighborhood, last year, was a paid informant for the FBI who infiltrated the National Socialist Movement. Damn. From the Sentinel:

    The FBI would not comment on what it knew about the involvement of its informant, 39-year-old David Gletty of Orlando, in the neo-Nazi event. In court Wednesday, an FBI agent said the bureau has paid its informant at least $20,000 during the past two years.


    Orlando drew national attention when the city granted a permit to Gletty so a minimum of 100 white supremacists and National Socialist Movement members could march Feb. 25 through the historically black Parramore neighborhood.

    Wearing swastikas and holding signs declaring "White Pride," the 22 neo-Nazis who turned out were protected from 500 counterprotesters by about 300 police officers.

    Gletty's secret life became public Wednesday in a federal court hearing resulting from the arrest last week of two suspected white supremacists on charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.

    Last Thursday, the FBI arrested Tom Martin, 23, and John Rock, 35, after Gletty wore a wire to a meeting and agreed to help them rob a drug dealer in Casselberry, according to testimony.

    Rock told Gletty in a tape-recorded conversation that he and Martin had robbed seven drug dealers by posing as law-enforcement officers, according to testimony. Martin and Rock remain held without bail in the Seminole County Jail.


    The proof of the cake is in the eating: At one time or another, we've all relied on Betty Crocker's lemon chiffon cake. It's delicious, and, as long as you have a stand mixer, pretty easy. It's also a delicious slice of '50s nostalgia. But I didn't know that, until 1948, the recipe was a complete secret, invented by Harry Baker, a mostly closeted gay man living in Los Angeles, who sold his cakes to the Brown Derby. Holy cow. From Minneapolis' The Rake magazine, the (slightly over-written) account of the cake:

    Harry [Baker] also began to tinker with cake recipes, and he would have put Cook’s Illustrated’s Stephen Schmidt to shame. He devised more than four hundred different recipes in his quest to bake a sweeter, moister angel food cake. He varied ingredients, measurements, and the baking time and temperature. Nothing satisfied. In later years, he described the eureka moment that led him to salad oil in almost mystical terms: It was, he told a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, a “sixth sense—something cosmic” that revealed his secret ingredient. And it worked.

    During the time that Harry Baker was handing out experimental cakes to his neighbors, a handful of entrepreneurs pooled resources to launch a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. The Brown Derby opened for business in 1926, in a building shaped to match its name. Two years later—call it another cosmic twist—Harry Baker walked in with a sample of his unbelievable cake. It became one of the Derby’s signature dishes.


    Wednesday, February 14, 2007

    And now the other shoe drops: I blogged in August about Gannett buying the FSView and Florida Flambeau, the Florida State weekly student newspaper. Turns out that wasn’t a one-off deal, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is the newspaper they bought: UCF’s Central Florida Future, which isn’t exactly in a position to be a sister newspaper the way the FSView was. The Sentinel has the scoop:

    The company’s Central Florida unit, Florida Today/Cape Publishing, paid an undisclosed amount for the Future, a free paper published three times a week during the academic year. It also bought the Seminole Chronicle, a weekly circulated in Oviedo and Winter Springs, and Sales, a coupon book distributed at UCF.

    “It is a good fit for them,” said Heissam Jebailey, who was co-owner of the three publications. “It has become a great publication.”

    The Future, with a circulation of 15,000, was once the university’s official newspaper. Jebailey said it moved off campus in 1992 and eventually became a for-profit business. Jebailey and a partner, Brian Linden, bought the Future in 2001.


    But [newspaper analyst John] Morton said corporate ownership could bring unforeseen change to student newspapers, which are often freewheeling operations.

    “They will be answering to a different master,” Morton said. “And it will be a more strenuous master.”


    Thursday, February 8, 2007

    Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure: My ninth-grade world history teacher used to say that everything comes down to infrastructure in the end. Turns out she was right. The Times is on top of the aging of our urban water infrastructure, which, in Portland, meant raising sewer rates to pay for massive redevelopment projects -- and a swallowed sewage truck:

    Local and state officials across the country say thousands of miles of century-old underground water and sewer lines are springing leaks, eroding and — in extreme cases — causing the ground above them to collapse. Though there is no master tally of sinkholes, there is consensus among civil engineers and water experts that things are getting worse.

    The Environmental Protection Agency has projected that unless cities invest more to repair and replace their water and sewer systems, nearly half of the water system pipes in the United States will be in poor, very poor or “life elapsed” status by 2020.


    [Portland] is in the 16th year of a 20-year, $1.4 billion, federally mandated project to reduce sewage overflows into the Willamette River from about 100 days a year to 4 days or less. Signs in the city promote two enormous sewer and storm water lines being dug as part of the project, one on the west bank of the Willamette that is 14 feet in diameter and another on the east side that is 22 feet in diameter.


    Overflows are a problem in many cities, and fixing them is not cheap; Portland has some of the highest water and sewer rates in the country. Mr. Marriott said the average residential sewer bill in Portland has risen to about $45 a month from about $14 in the early 1990s, when the city began the mandated improvements.

    Once the project is completed, he said, rates will probably stay high so that the city can fix other problems, like the sewer pipe decay that officials believe most likely helped cause the sinkhole in December, the one that swallowed the sewer truck.

    Mack McEachern was there on that chilly morning. First the water in his apartment on Southeast Oak Street stopped running. Then the boiler in the basement began to fade. Water-utility workers came to check an exterior main. The city inspected a clogged sewer line. Something was wrong with the system, but what?

    Mr. McEachern recalled how he stood outside and watched the big sewer truck start to pull away, supposedly without having pinpointed the problem.

    Then, he said, “The ground shook.”


    A fan by any other name: A Bears fan in Decatur, Ill., made a pledge that if Da Bears didn’t win the Super Bowl, he would legally change his name to Peyton Manning. Well, the game is history — Bears 17, Colts 29 — and if all goes smoothly, Scott Wiese’s name isn’t much longer for this world. CNN had some real gems for this story:

    Wiese, a die-hard Chicago Bears fan, will legally change his name to that of the Indiana Colts quarterback. He signed a pledge in front of a crowd at a Decatur bar last Friday night, vowing to adopt Manning’s name if the Bears lost Sunday’s Super Bowl.


    Wiese will now have to advertise his intention in the local newspaper — the Herald & Review — for several weeks and then have a judge give him the OK to become, legally anyway, Peyton Manning.

    The men have little in common, Wiese acknowledges.

    Manning the quarterback is 30 years old, stands 6-foot-5 and has a contract with the Colts worth more than $100 million.

    Wiese is 5-foot-11 and works at a Staples office-supply store for somewhat less.

    [Link] (Thanks, Phil!)

    Tuesday, February 6, 2007

    Korean Fried Chicken?: I’m a devotee of Southern-style fried chicken, with crispy, thick, uneven breaded skin peeling away from the meat. But in Korea, they’ve turned this into a whole separate bird, a microscopic layer of flour and batter finely crisped over chicken. It sounds delicious, even though I’d want it with biscuits rather than pickled radish. The Times has the bird:

    Platters of fried chicken are a hugely popular bar food in South Korea — like chicken wings in the United States, they are downed with beer or soju, after work or after dinner, rarely eaten as a meal.

    “Some places have a very thin, crisp skin; some places have more garlicky, sticky sauces; some advertise that they are healthy because they fry in 100 percent olive oil,” said Mr. McPherson, an English teacher, who writes a food blog called


    Korean-style fried chicken is radically different, reflecting an Asian frying technique that renders out the fat in the skin, transforming it into a thin, crackly and almost transparent crust. (Chinese cooks call this “paper fried chicken.”) The chicken is unseasoned, barely dredged in very fine flour and then dipped into a thin batter before going into the fryer. The oil temperature is a relatively low 350 degrees, and the chicken is cooked in two separate stages.

    After 10 minutes, the chicken is removed from the oil, shaken vigorously in a wire strainer and allowed to cool for two minutes. This slows the cooking process, preventing the crust from getting too brown before the meat cooks through. It also shaves off all those crusty nubs and crags that American cooks strive for.

    After 10 more minutes in the fryer, the chicken is smooth, compact, golden-brown, and done. Then, it’s served plain (with a small dish of salt and pepper for seasoning) or lightly painted with sauce. When it’s done correctly, the sauce is absorbed into the crust, adding savor without making it soggy.


    In space, your brain has no weight: We already have a winner for February’s You Can’t Make This Up category, and it’s only Feb. 6. What could possibly top this? A female astronaut drove all the way from Houston, wearing diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop, to assault and probably murder a fellow female astronaut who was involved with a male astronaut. The Sentinel has the preposterous scoop:

    Lisa Marie Nowak drove more than 12 hours from Texas to meet the 1 a.m. flight of a woman who had also been seeing the astronaut Nowak pined for, according to Orlando police.

    Nowak — who was a mission specialist on a space shuttle Discovery flight last summer — was wearing a trench coat and wig and had a knife, BB pistol and latex gloves in her car, reports show. They also found diapers, which Nowak told police she used so she wouldn’t have to stop on the 1,000-mile drive. Reports show that after U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman’s flight arrived, Nowak followed her to the airport’s Blue Lot for long-term parking, tried to get into Shipman’s car and then doused her with pepper spray.

    Nowak, 43, is charged with attempted kidnapping, battery, attempted vehicle burglary with battery and destruction of evidence. Police considered her such a danger that they requested she be held without bail in the Orange County Jail, reports show.


    Shipman told police that after waiting two hours to get her luggage, she noticed a woman in a trench coat waiting near the airport taxi stand. When Shipman boarded a shuttle bus to long-term parking, the woman followed, according to police.

    When Shipman got into her car in the Blue Lot on Cargo Road, reports show, she heard “running footsteps” coming toward her. Nowak tried to open the car door, then claimed she needed a ride, or use of a cell phone.


    Saturday, February 3, 2007

    “An improbable object of desire”: The Oregonian had an amazing two-part feature in December (which somehow I missed and discovered this morning) about Ron Tonkin’s attempt to sell Smart cars in the U.S. Tonkin, who is a car dealer and a household name in the Portland area, became one of the first American dealers to sell Ferraris in 1966, after he fell in love with one on a trip to Italy. He saw the same magic in the tiny little Smart cars, which he believed could sell even better than the Mini Cooper. And they broke his heart. From the Big O:

    After his 2001 visit to Italy [when he first saw the Smart car], Tonkin’s mind often wandered to the little car, even as Mercedes Car Group’s Smart GmbH division suffered bleak sales. Mercedes’ parent, DaimlerChrysler AG, decided Americans were too keen on sport-utility vehicles and by 2003 shelved plans to export stateside.

    Then one August day in 2005, two Florida salesmen showed up at Tonkin’s dealership office on Southeast 122nd Avenue. He usually didn’t see people without an appointment, but this call piqued his interest. Mike Mervish, a burly 48-year-old with a tan, introduced himself as a salesman for Smartz U.S.A. and proceeded to do all the talking.

    Mervish told Tonkin that his Fort Lauderdale firm was the only U.S. company with federal approval to sell Smartz cars — the name twist on Smart that the company gave its version of the impish imports. In an appeal refined over years as a car salesman, Mervish told Tonkin he could be Smartz’s exclusive dealer in Oregon.

    Tonkin remembers a pitch heavy on showmanship. The cars were “on the high seas” bound for a port in Brunswick, Ga., Tonkin recalls Mervish saying. Cars would be in Portland by fall, he promised, and Smartz President Tim Davis would keep lining up a dealer network. With Tonkin’s price at $21,000 and retail around $23,000, each Smartz would earn about $2,000 in profit, Mervish said. Not the juiciest margin, but, for a car whose futuristic looks stopped passers-by in their tracks, sales could add up.

    Smart cars, designed by edgy Swiss watchmaker Swatch, would zip off lots in the earth-friendly Pacific Northwest, the salesman continued. He had lived in Oregon a while, he told Tonkin, and knew it was full of tree-huggers.

    Tonkin contained a good-natured eye-roll. Flashy guys from Florida didn’t need to tell him what his customers liked, he remembers thinking. He was a fourth-generation Oregonian and a second-generation car dealer.

    But the prospect reignited the spark he’d felt four years earlier in Italy. Here was a shot to sell the flirty little car that no other local dealer had — before Daimler-Chrysler changed its mind.

    [Links to parts one and two]

    You are what you eat: In this week’s Times Magazine, Michael Pollan explores the relationship between the way that we eat and the disastrous state of our health. In short, he says, today we are so focused on the individual components of nutrition that we’ve lost sight of the gestalt. It’s a terrific article. (Which I meant to post on Sunday… and forgot about. Sorry, guys.) Somehow, we are less healthy today than we were thirty years ago, when people were still eating eggs fried in bacon grease; and the answer, Pollan believes, is our inability to say, "Eat less meat and dairy."

    [I]n retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.

    Naïvely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually “reduce consumption of meat” — was replaced by artful compromise: “Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”

    A subtle change in emphasis, you might say, but a world of difference just the same. First, the stark message to “eat less” of a particular food has been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. dietary pronouncement. Second, notice how distinctions between entities as different as fish and beef and chicken have collapsed; those three venerable foods, each representing an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves; now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless — and politically unconnected — substance that may or may not lurk in them called “saturated fat.”


    Roll up your sleeve: Today, the people who run around claiming various deleterious effects of vaccination are mostly fringe elements, you know: granola-crunchers who believe the government is poisoning us, or Christian Scientists who won’t take medicine. But before World War II, anti-vaccine sentiment was widespread in the United States. The Times Book Review looks at Arthur Allen’s new book, Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver, and wonders just how this happened:

    Allen sees two events in these years as crucial to the growing public acceptance of vaccines. When America went to war in 1941 following Pearl Harbor, the health of the troops became a primary concern. Determined to prevent the medical casualties of World War I, where the number of American soldiers killed by influenza (44,000) almost matched the number lost in battle (50,000), military officials made vaccination mandatory. “Yes, the shots hurt and even caused illness sometimes, but the soldier survived,” Allen writes. “Returning from the war he wanted his children to have the same protection.”

    World War II made vaccination fashionable. Polio turned it into a national crusade. No disease drew as much attention in postwar America, or created as much fear. Primarily striking children, polio killed some of its victims and paralyzed others, leaving behind vivid reminders for all to see: wheelchairs, leg braces, iron lungs, deformed limbs. The quest for a means of prevention led to the largest public health experiment in American history, involving nearly two million school-age volunteers. When Jonas Salk’s killed-virus polio vaccine was declared “safe, effective and potent” in 1955, the nation celebrated as if a war had ended — and, indeed, one had. At a White House ceremony, President Eisenhower choked back tears as he told the young researcher: “I have no words to thank you. I am very, very happy.”

    The polio vaccines of Salk and Albert Sabin marked a special moment in medical history. As late as the 1950s, parents had been encouraged to expose their children to diseases like measles, mumps and chicken pox in order to get them over with before adulthood, when the dangers increased. Now, there were vaccines for all these illnesses, and more were on the way. Some researchers spoke openly of a future without infectious disease. “Will such a world exist?” a scientist asked. “We believe so.”


    Friday, February 2, 2007

    Massive, widespread destruction: I will not have very much to post today. This morning, at around 6 a.m., several very powerful tornadoes wrought enormous damage in many of the counties surrounding Orlando: Lake, Sumter, Volusia and Marion counties. The Sentinel has been covering it like there is no tomorrow, and it's been great. But we'll be silent tonight, in memoriam. From the Sentinel:
    Gov. Charlie Crist has declared a State of Emergency for Lake, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties after severe thunderstorms and tornadoes slammed through the areas overnight in the communities north and east of Orlando. [...] Thirteen deaths were reported in Paisley/Lake Mack area of Lake and six in Lady Lake near The Villages. The dead include Carla and Donald Downing of Lake Mack as well as their 15-year-old son, David. He was one of three triplets who was killed while his two triplet sisters, Heather and Kayla, survived the storms, said Umatilla High principal June Dalton. Another Lake County high school student also perished, officials there said this afternoon. About 15 to 20 percent of Umatilla High's students were absent Friday, Dalton said. Buses and cars could not pass on some roads. Many kids lost their homes. "Most have been devastated," Dalton said. "We have counselors working with the students."
    There is also on-going coverage on the Sentinel's website. [Link]

    Thursday, February 1, 2007

    He put the surprise in Surprise, Ariz.: The Times had a fantastic story today about the 29-year-old pedophile who spent the last four months posing as a 14-year-old boy in a suburb in Phoenix. Turns out that not only was he living with three other male "relatives," who were also pedophiles, but they believed he was a 14-year-old and had regular sexual relations with him. What a tangled web humanity weaves. From the story:

    A retracing of Mr. Rodreick's tracks over the past several years shows that he is under investigation in three states. The authorities in four jurisdictions say he repeatedly failed to register as a sex offender, housed a large cache of child pornography in his computer and, based on videos found by the police, had sex with at least one boy.

    "Obviously there are a lot of emotions to work through," said Mindy Newlin, the mother of a kindergartener at Imagine Charter School, the school in Surprise where Mr. Rodreick posed as Casey. "We are just shocked."

    Robin Kaiser's daughter Kaitlin shared a class with "Casey," but he failed to make an impression, Ms. Kaiser said. "She remembers him, that he was quiet and sat in the back of the classroom," she said. "She said he looked like he had been held back."

    Janet R. Lincoln, the public defender for Yavapai County, who represents Mr. Rodreick and the other three men, did not return multiple phone calls. A receptionist in her office said Ms. Lincoln would have no comment. The men have been indicted on numerous counts and are scheduled to appear in court in late February; they have already pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud and failing to register as sex offenders.


    "With boys it is a really tough deal," said Lt. Van Gillock of the Police Department in El Reno, Okla., where Mr. Rodreick is believed to have posed as a 12-year-old to ingratiate himself with boys at church. "If they did it voluntarily, they have the stigma of homosexuality, and if it is forced, well, boys are supposed to be tough and the things the boys have on them gives them an embarrassment factor."


    Tuesday, January 30, 2007

    Escape from Mexico: Joseph Pearson went to Mexico City to see what makes Mexico different from the U.S. We have the Protestants’ vision of progress, in the U.S., which says that we have simply progressed past the point of Mexico; but in a lot of ways, Pearson finds, it is more a vision of what we could become than of what we once were. It’s a travelogue, but implicit in it is the suggestion that the more we pursue our current path, the more we risk dragging ourselves down rather than elevating them. In Boston University’s AGNI:

    Isn’t [Rivera’s triptych of murals at the Palacio Nacional] a similar idyll to that romanced in demonstrations by the disenfranchised indigenous just outside in the Zócalo? They propagandize the agenda of the Chiapas Zapatistas led by the former “subcommandante” turned “delegate” Marcos in his black ski-mask and rifle. The mass of demonstrators cannot easily enter the building, built by Cortéz and now a seat of government, that houses the murals of Marx positioned as God the Father in a great last judgment of capitalism.

    On the square, I pass an upscale hotel bar where, untouchable through the glass, middle-aged gentlemen in three-piece suits watch American football and smoke. I saw flâneurs in the same anachronistic dress window-shopping at stationers that sell leather desk pads and fancy fountain pens — the tools of the gentleman to place conspicuously in a study to gain the esteem of the rank and file of the establishment. Around the doors of the Hotel Gran Ciudad de México, with its wondrous Art-Nouveau dome, are younger men in the casual uniform of Lacoste gold shirts tucked into khaki pants. They sport expensive watches in a city where wearing a plastic one is the only sure method to prevent being mugged. They pile into a taxi, and a tickle of fear rises up my neck. Disparities of wealth exist everywhere, but they are rarely so visible as in a city without a real middle class. I am afraid not because Mexico is unique in its share of misery. It’s not. I am afraid because Mexico is the future.

    From the Zócalo with its enormous flag (never trust big flags) and its great square (which dubiously claims to be the second biggest in the world), and the nearby Latin American tower (again, called the tallest in the Latin world, when there are higher ones right in Mexico City, and certainly dozens in São Paolo), I walk from mighty claims through streets of vendors—shabby shops of taffeta dresses and yet more ubiquitous pen shops—to the metro which carries the people of the city. A boy in bare feet stands next to a gendarme with white gloves. I see an entire family squatting on a platform, together and destitute, all showing great hunger. I pass by their unified squalor and in my unease I neither stop nor give them a cent. They are like a fading constellation, the two adults behind, at different heights, then children before them — still — as if posed for a daguerreotype.

    I get off at Insurgentes where on one corner are men windswept in stained clothes waiting for the bus, and on another is an elegant restaurant with a fortified entrance. I walk through the Zona Rosa, with its gay shops and cafes like a throwback from an era still wrapped in rainbow flags and bumper-stickers—another form of resistance or of conformity? A merry bubble of conversation, music and good living emerges from the open thresholds, and for a moment, the question does not really matter.


    Monday, January 29, 2007

    Rocket man: On Saturday, the Portland Aerial Tram opened for business, running from South Waterfront to Oregon Health Sciences University. It was a source of much contention six years ago, when they first announced the project, but in the intervening time a lot of the controversy has gone away. Now it's winning over riders with its incredible view of downtown, the East Side and the mountains on the way down from Marquam Hill, even at $4 a round-trip ticket. In a city with an unusual and sometimes uneven mix of mass transit -- buses, trains, a streetcar, and a fareless zone encompassing downtown, the Pearl District and the Convention Center -- this is just one more smart innovation, a way of turning a 15-minute zig-zag drive or bus ride up a hill into the triangle's hypotenuse. From the Oregonian:

    People started talking openly about a $3 million tram as far as back as 1998. One neighborhood activist considered it crazy talk. As in, you'd be crazy to build a car hanging from wires to leap over Interstate 5 so it could connect a rusted industrial yard to OHSU's main campus.

    Yet the idea kept climbing.


    The silver, bubblelike tram cars, still wrapped in clear plastic, made their first flight on an unusually sunny November afternoon. The new transit option opened for OHSU employees in mid-December. [Saturday, January 27 was] the public opening, but when Portland got hit [in early January] by a snowstorm, the tram opened early to ferry people up and off the hill.

    For the white-collar set, the tram is a sign of progress with billions of dollars spent on OHSU's expansion and the 130-acre South Waterfront revival.

    For the skeptical, the tram is a reminder of lax government management. Quoted at $15.5 million in 2002, the tram today will land at $57 million. (The city says this time that it's not a penny more.)

    For nonbelievers, the tram is a symbol of the growing separation between the wealth of downtown and the poverty of far North and East Portland.

    [Link, and to the Times' coverage]

    Sunday, January 28, 2007

    Dancing's not the devil's work anymore: John Brown University, in Arkansas, is finally allowing dancing after 90 years. Apparently, they don't believe it's sin anymore. I never understood that curious attitude -- but it's fairly prevalent. So, here's to "Footloose" no more:

    The school's "community covenant" had prohibited, in addition to smoking, sex outside of marriage, drinking and gambling, all on-campus dancing except "folk or square dancing and choreography as part of a dramatic production." Distinctions were not made -- the Viennese waltz was as forbidden as the electric slide, the achy-breaky as taboo as the lambada. The week before J.B.U.'s first dance, Tracie Faust, a senior, told me about one night her sophomore year when a popular song came on the radio. "And before you knew it," she said, "there were 10 of us dancing, and the R.A. came out of her room and told us to stop." The offending song? "Breakaway," by the adult-lite American Idol Kelly Clarkson.

    J.B.U.'s about-face, while abrupt, was not totally unexpected. In the past 10 years, several of America’s most established evangelical schools, including Baylor University in Texas, Wheaton College in Illinois and Cornerstone University in Michigan, have lifted restrictions on dancing, even as they have kept various rules against activities like drinking, gambling, smoking and, of course, premarital sex. They are opting to allow formal dances, like swing or ballroom. Of course, it's unlikely there will be hip-hop or bump-and-grind at J.B.U. They will not be krumping. But for millions of evangelical Protestants, dancing has become increasingly acceptable. There are still conservative Christians, particularly in Baptist, Pentecostal and independent Bible-church traditions, who don't dance, but they are growing scarce. The old joke about why Baptists won't have sex standing up -- because people might think they’re dancing -- has become antiquated.

    "I was part of a group of girls who would put on music in our rooms and dance, and were asked to stop," Jennifer Paulsen told me. Paulsen is the student-government president who helped persuade the trustees to overturn the ban. It was three days before the dance, and we were talking in the Walker Student Center, J.B.U.'s main hub. "We knew there was 'no social dancing,' but what did that mean? We knew folk and square dancing was allowed, and people will always move a little if a good song comes on, but how many people makes a dance?"

    In my week at J.B.U., I met students who had never had a drink, had never kissed a boy or a girl and had no doubt that dinosaurs and men walked the earth at the same time. But I didn't meet a soul who thought dancing was sinful. And nearly all the students I spoke to danced in high school.


    The American face of Islam: The moment a lot of multiculturalism-minded Americans are waiting for is the deradicalization, liberalization of Western Islam — for what happened to American Catholics and Jews to happen in the Muslim community. It may be, if the story of one imam who moved from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to suburban Jersey is any indication. Remember that this man ministers to the middle class and to the poor immigrants. In the Times today:

    To be a successful suburban imam, he found, meant persuading doctors and lawyers not to rush from prayers to beat traffic. It meant connecting with teenagers who drove new cars, and who peppered their Arabic with “like” and “yeah.” It meant helping his daughter cope with mockery at school, in a predominantly white town that lost dozens of people on Sept. 11.

    Mr. Shata knew from his years in Brooklyn that the job demanded more than preaching and leading prayers, the things for which he was trained in Egypt. In America, he helped to arrange marriages. He mediated between the F.B.I. and his people. He set up a makeshift Islamic court to resolve disputes among hot dog vendors.


    Many Muslims were shocked to read [in a previous article in the Times] that the imam thought oral sex was permissible for married couples (even though respected Islamic scholars in the Middle East concurred with his opinion, he said). Others objected to his view that Muslims could sell liquor or pork if they could find no other work.

    One critique of Mr. Shata on a jihadist Web site in England singled out his hometown, Kafr al Battikh, which is known for its watermelons. “Oh, Allah,” it read, “preserve Islam and Muslims from the evil people of watermelons.”

    In Bay Ridge, the articles prompted a fistfight outside a Dunkin’ Donuts. Fliers warned in Arabic that the imam was “a devil.”


    Saturday, January 27, 2007

    A tremendous failure (TimesSelect): Since I’ve already mentioned it, I unearthed Nicholas Kristof’s column about the failure of the development of the Great Plains, from September 2002. For those of you without TimesSelect access, I’m going to excerpt as much as I can and try to unearth the full text somewhere else for you. The lesson to take from this and from the story of Yubari, it seems to me, is that the government largesse that keeps Hokkaido, as well as the Great Plains, ticking is only an invitation for greater trouble later. It may be heartless, but someone has to say it: If you can innovate and make a future for yourself in small-town or rural Upper Midwest, go to it — but don’t ask me to pay for you to have the unsustainable life you have there now.

    It’s time for us to acknowledge one of America’s greatest mistakes, a 140-year-old scheme that has failed at a cost of trillions of dollars, countless lives and immeasurable heartbreak: the settlement of the Great Plains.

    The plains, which have overtaken places like Appalachia to become by far the poorest part of the country, represent a monumental failure in American history. To understand more I came here to Loup County, officially the poorest county in the United States, with a per capita income of $6,600 (New York County, or Manhattan, is the nation’s richest, at $90,900).

    In fairness, Loup doesn’t look poor, and it’s so rich in warmth, community spirit and old-fashioned friendliness that it’s just about impossible for a stranger to pay for a meal here. The tiny school, the only one in the county, has student lockers with no locks; and outside, students’ cars are not only unlocked, but the keys are left in the ignition.


    This vast region in the middle of America, more than five times the size of California, now meets the 19th-century definition of frontier, with six or fewer people per square mile. Instead of the frontier closing, as Frederick Jackson Turner declared a century ago, it is expanding, and we may look back on large-scale settlement of the Plains as a fluke, a temporary domination now receding again.

    The aridity of the Great Plains is partly to blame for the failed land development here, but fault also lies in the vapidity of American farm programs — which President Bush and Congress are now expanding. It was, after all, a web of subsidies and government land promotion schemes that lured people to the Great Plains in the first place.

    President Bush signed a $180 billion farm bill this year, with the backing of many Democrats as well as Republicans, after a gutless surrender to lobbyists for wealthy farmers. But the program will actually aggravate rural distress.

    Subsidies do nothing to help hard-working ranchers here, because the money overwhelmingly goes to crop farmers rather than livestock owners. Worse, much of the money goes to the most prosperous families (47 percent of commodity payments go to farmers whose household income is more than $135,000), who use the cash to buy up more land. Subsidies thus accelerate the consolidation of farms that is already depopulating rural areas.


    Forget but don’t forgive… their debt: The days of plenty in Japan are past, and with them trillions of yen in government largesse to outlying regions. The result is that towns like Yubari, on Hokkaido, are buried as much in debt as in snow. It’s the predictable consequence of meaningless government-works projects being showered on a town whose main economic source is dying; and it lends far more credence to the Nicholas Kristof view of redevelopment (TimesSelect) than to David Brooks’, to make a Times analogy. It’s an important lesson, too, for the Ohios and West Virginias. The Times says:

    During Japan’s economic boom, Tokyo showered enormous subsidies on Yubari to build these huge though poorly thought-out tourist attractions, which drew few visitors, ran large deficits and saddled this city of 12,828 inhabitants with more than $500 million in debt.

    At first it was a convenient arrangement: the hinterlands prospered, politically connected contractors had plenty of work and the government cemented the loyalty of rural voters. But the good times ended in the 1990s, and the government slowly closed the financial spigots, leaving Yubari and other rural cities increasingly desperate.


    As part of its plan to file for bankruptcy, place itself in the hands of Tokyo and repay its debts over 20 years, Yubari has put History Village and about 20 other tourist attractions up for sale. About half of the 300 city workers are leaving, and those who stay face salary cuts ranging from 30 percent to 70 percent.

    The city’s 11 schools will be consolidated into three or four; its hospital will become a clinic; its library, city hall branches and public baths will be shuttered. City bus discounts for the elderly will be reduced. Local taxes will rise. Already, snowfalls now have to total six inches, rather than four, before they are cleared.

    No cost-cutting measure has been deemed too small. The toilet at the Yubari train station has been closed, forcing travelers to sneak into the adjoining hotel.


    Friday, January 26, 2007

    Fighting crime, a dollar at a time: When the state of Arizona noticed that more than $90,000 a month was changing hands at a Western Union in Douglas, Ariz., they got suspicious. After all, Douglas is a small city with an almost pathetically poor population. It is, however, near the Arizona-Sonora border, and it turns out that Douglas was the lynchpin of a huge immigrant-smuggling ring. The Washington Post reports:

    People across the country, prosecutors said, were sending money to the little Western Union shop in Douglas — and scores others like it in Arizona — to pay smugglers to sneak illegal immigrants into the United States.

    To fight back, Attorney General Terry Goddard employed a controversial technique known as a damming warrant to seize $17 million in money transfers into hundreds of Western Union locations in Arizona, prosecute scores of immigrant smugglers and deport hundreds of people in a program he marvels at because of its “elegant simplicity.”


    So on Sept. 21, Goddard expanded the program, issuing a warrant blocking all Western Union money transfers of $500 and above from 26 states with a significant population of illegal immigrants to a group of Western Union outlets in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. He also planned on issuing warrants blocking money transfers through Western Union to nearby states such as Nevada.


    Thursday, January 25, 2007

    Burning down the house: A wealthy Palm Beach homeowner rented his $8.5 million, 9,000-square-foot house out to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers club vice president and his wife, and found it trashed to the tune of $100,000 after only six weeks. Apparently having money doesn’t make you a good tenant. I give you the Palm Beach Post:

    “Mr. Henderson still has a hard time believing the extent of the damage done in such a short period of time,” said Mike Powers, Henderson’s spokesman. “At first, he didn’t want to rent the place out. He’s upset he let himself be talked into it.”

    Through his lawyer, Justus Reid, Henderson is now suing the Glazers in a Palm Beach County court. He wants the $300,000 back rent plus damages. Those also included: the removal and improper storage of 14 rare Oriental rugs and wall-to-wall carpeting; breaking of every window screen on the first floor; permanent opening of windows for two weeks at a time during the rainy season; removal of $30,000, 14-foot draperies and storage in cardboard boxes; drilling of holes throughout the home for DIRECTV installation; removal of landscaping; and repainting of walls in colors that didn’t match.


    Powers said Henderson received several complaints from Angela concerning air quality. She claimed there was mold throughout the house and dog hair in the rugs, even though Henderson spent $8,000 on sanitizing before the Glazers moved in.

    “She complained a lot about the Henderson dog because she spotted it while touring the house,” Powers said. “But we’re talking about a 6-pound Maltese named Bling-Bling, and he’s hypoallergenic.”


    Houston, we have a problem: Apparently, none of the posts I have been making in the last four days have shown up in Blogger’s database. In addition, none of them are stored on my computer anywhere. So. They are gone… Damn. I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t even think to check if they were showing up. Hopefully today we’ll be back on our regular schedule, without glitches, if I can figure out what was causing the posts to disappear.

    Sunday, January 21, 2007

    Lies and the lying liars who tell them: A reader writes Andrew Sullivan to tell him Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ conceit that habeas corpus may be denied to certain prisoners literally ignores the whole history of the United States:

    [G]o back and look at Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address: [Jefferson] says very clearly that habeas is one of the basic premises of our entire system of government; that it’s a fundamental right that shores up all the others. Elsewhere he identifies habeas as one of the “four pillars” of our constitutional system. You’re not going to convince me that the Founding Fathers didn’t view habeas as “grandfathered” into the US system — that’s simply obvious. So why are we now being subjected to this Stalinist historical revisionism? Why does the Attorney General of the United States make comments like this in such a public forum? He would only make them because he needs them for cover, i.e., because he has advocated and implemented a consistent policy of violating habeas corpus rights that rests on each of these niggling distinctions. Which is why one should stop scrutinizing the footnotes of law review articles and be worried.


    Once more into the breach: As I alluded to yesterday, Bill Richardson’s been mulling running for president. For as long as I can remember, honestly: He was rumored as a Gore running mate in 2000, before Gore chose disastrous Joe Lieberman; and he seriously considered a 2004 run. Now he’s throwing his hat into the ‘08 ring. It’s gonna be one doozy of a primary season:

    In his statement, Richardson stressed his foreign affairs experience, said he wanted U.S. troops to return quickly from Iraq and urged a change of leadership in Washington that would work to bridge a wide partisan divide.

    “The next president of the United States must get our troops out of Iraq without delay,” Richardson said. “I know the Middle East well and it’s clear that our presence in Iraq isn’t helping any longer.”

    He added that the next president “must be able to bring a country together that is divided and partisan. It is clear that Washington is broken and it’s going to take a return to bipartisanship and simple respect for each other’s views to get it fixed.”

    Most policy innovations are coming these days from governors, Richardson said. “On issues like the environment, jobs, and health care, state governments are leading the way. And that’s because we can’t be partisan or we won’t get our jobs done. That’s a lesson I’ve learned as governor and that’s what I’ll do as president.”


    Saturday, January 20, 2007

    Movin’ on up: This week, CNN reported that Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) will be running for president. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is expected to announce tomorrow. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: a Democratic primary between a Clinton, a Clintonite and a New New Democrat. A Democratic primary between a woman, an African American and a Latino. It’s almost as good as the Saints playing for the chance to go to the Super Bowl tomorrow! (Almost.) On Clinton:

    Bringing “the right end” to the war in Iraq, reducing the deficit, making the country energy independent and health care affordable were issues Clinton touted in her announcement, speaking on a video posted on her site.

    “After six years of George Bush, it is time to renew the promise of America,” she said.

    “I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America, and we believed in that promise,” the 59-year-old Chicago native said.

    “I still do. I’ve spent my entire life trying to make good on it, whether it was fighting for women’s basic rights or children’s basic health care, protecting our social security or protecting our soldiers.”

    On Sunday she’ll appear at the Ryan Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center to discuss legislation that would expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. The center bears the names of the two Manhattan neighborhoods it serves — Chelsea and Clinton — coincidentally, Chelsea Clinton is the senator’s daughter’s name.

    And on Obama:

    “The decisions that have been made in Washington over the past six years and the problems that have been ignored have put our country in a precarious place,” he said in the video.

    In addition to citing “the tragic and costly war that should never have been waged,” Obama mentioned health care, pensions, college tuition and “our continued dependence on oil” as issues that need work.

    But he said it is the “smallness of our politics” that most bothers him. (Watch Obama try to turn a potential negative into a positive )

    “Today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan and gummed up by money and influence that we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions, and that’s what we have to change.”

    Obama said his final decision will be made based on what he learns over the next several weeks as he travels the country “listening and learning about the challenges we face as a nation.”

    [Links to the Obama story and the Clinton story]

    Friday, January 19, 2007

    The Saints are coming…: As a lifelong New Orleans Saints fan, I’ve known my share of misery and disappointment. There’s a thread right now, on Saints Report, called “Win It For,” and one poor guy laid out the whole chronology of misery. The Saints have been bad his entire life. Now, they’re 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. All I have to say: Geaux Saints!

    Win it for the sixteen year old who cried when Hank Stram became the head coach, because that sixteen year old knew beyond all doubt that his Saints would finally become the winners he always believed they could be.

    Win it for the seventeen year old who took the jeers of all of his classmates as he continued to cheer for “Thunder and Lightning” despite a futile record.

    Win it for the eighteen year old who finally saw his hero get the recognition he deserved, as Archie won NFC MVP honors, despite playing for a losing team.

    Win it for the nineteen year old, for whom Archie signed a football to be auctioned off in a benefit to raise money to care for the nineteen year old’s dying grandmother.

    Win it for the twenty year old, who refused to wear a bag and held his head high as he fervently believed in his team.


    Thursday, January 18, 2007

    Life is fragile: Alejandro Iñárritu makes movies that are seemingly about how miserable and dark life is. But, he says, they’re all about hope. Alice O’Keefe, in The New Statesman, asks what exactly he means by that:

    The new film returns to a question raised in 21 Grams: how do you measure the value of a human life? “The New York Times says that 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq, and 600,000 Iraqis. Imagine if that number of Americans had died. It is inconceivable. The value of American lives is [high], but in Africa, a million people can die and there’s no reaction.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this message has had a mixed reception in the States, where the film premièred in October. One critic objected to “Iñárritu and [his screenwriter Guillermo] Arriaga’s aggressive suggestion that we Americans and white Europeans are something less than exemplary citizens of the world, particularly in times of crisis”. It was a response that came as little surprise to the director. “Unfortunately, there is a certain type of American who thinks that this film is a criticism, when it’s not. It is simply a commentary on the reality,” he says. “It is a very American sentiment, which interprets any kind of criticism as an attack. It’s like the position of Bush: you’re either with me or against me; there’s no dialogue. Many people have felt attacked — sadly, because it was never intended to be an attack.”

    As the title suggests, one of Babel’s central conceits is the difficulty of cross-cultural communication. But although the encounters between cultures in it are characterised by fear and mistrust, all the characters have the same fundamental priorities: family and the search for love. Like Iñárritu’s previous two films, it is fundamentally about “parents and children, that is the nucleus. And through this microcosm you can observe the macrocosm; you do a biopsy on the cell to see how the body is working.”

    It is, perhaps, a simplistic vision that steers well clear of areas of deep inter-cultural conflict such as religion. But it is one that Iñárritu insists cinema can and should articulate. “The beauty of cinema is that it is the universal language,” he says. “I decided to make this film using very few words, as I was striving for a very pure kind of film. The visual language takes audiences, without words or translations, into places they could never reach in reality.”


    Tuesday, January 16, 2007

    Who says ‘authoritative touch’ anyway? Ashley Cross, a Columbia student, wrote Saturday in the Times’ “Modern Love” column about the experience of dating a fellow student who had been accused of rape at Harvard. She seems to have no sense of the rape at all, only anger at boyfriend who had been somehow ‘neutered’ by the rehabilitative process. This is the world’s worst relationship writing I have ever read. Why do women always defend men like this?

    The larger point, it seems to me, is that what she wanted was sex a little more aggressive than a boyfriend who had just been accused of rape and felt remorse for it, and now she’s kvetching about it in a national newspaper, but I’ll let you all judge:

    One evening, as we were sharing coffee and cigarettes at a local diner while trading quips from “Casablanca,” he subtly blew smoke in my face. For all I knew it was unintentional, but I smiled at the gesture.

    “If you were Humphrey Bogart,” I said, “then you’d know that blowing smoke in a woman’s face is an invitation for sex.”

    Rather than smile back, he blanched. “I didn’t know that,” he said, then changed the subject.


    Almost all of his close friends were girls. From what I knew, he had a strong relationship with his parents, who were progressive and intelligent and nurturing. He was a rule follower, a brilliant and dedicated student, a chronic people pleaser. He had a history of serial monogamy. I simply couldn’t reconcile the smart, gentle guy I knew with this startling revelation.

    As I peppered him with questions, he talked me through the fateful night of only a few months before, when he and the girl, who’d been a friend, had mingled at a party and drifted off drunk together before winding up back in her room, where, several hours later, they had sex. She became hysterical, claiming he forced himself on her. He left, bewildered and distraught. That night he wrote her a letter apologizing for upsetting her and left it at her door. He told me the letter was an attempt to salvage the friendship.

    “Did you rape her?” I asked.

    “We had sex,” he said. “But I didn’t mean to hurt her, no.”

    Nothing he had done that summer made me disbelieve him. Later, as events unfolded, I would learn everything I could about the case, not only from all the news media coverage but also from visiting Harvard and talking to mutual friends and co-workers of theirs. At the urging of his parole officer, I read the accuser’s statement of what had happened. Still, I believed him and supported him. (Ed. note: The complaint was summarized by the Harvard Crimson is still in the Crimson’s online archive. It seems pretty clearly rape.)


    Already he felt the shame of the charge and conviction. With the sexual evaluations, he was forced to question the normalcy of his impulses. Now the rehabilitation extinguished the remaining spark he had left, the irreverence I’d originally fallen in love with, replacing it with a generic “respect” for others that in reality was a kind of bland and suffocating politeness.


    Desire, once joyful, became a source of stress, something dangerous and potentially ugly that needed to be suppressed, and an awkward civility overtook our love life. Anything sexual between us became for him an urge not of primitive pleasure but of apologetic shame.

    Regardless of how much I reassured him that everything was fine, he grew increasingly afraid of touching me in an authoritative way. In public, we stopped kissing or even holding hands. And during sex, any sound I made alarmed him, and he’d recoil, so I learned to stay silent.

    Even so, he began asking, constantly, if I was O.K. But I didn’t want to be O.K. — I wanted to have bold, carefree, shameless sex with the man I wanted. One night I grew so tired of him asking me if I was all right that I snapped: “Don’t ask me that ever again! I’m fine. Don’t ask me that.” Which, of course, only led him to apologize about asking me, and then to apologize about apologizing — “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

    [Link], and hat-tips to Shakespeare’s Sister’s and Adam B.’s analyses