Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: October 2006

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Playing into the Terrorists' Hands

Well, it's official. The Prez said on Monday that if the Democrats are successful next week, the terrorists win:

"However they put it, the Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses," Bush told a raucous crowd of about 5,000 GOP partisans packed in an arena at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, one of his stops Monday.

Be sure you're wearing your seatbelts as we hit the gas for the last week of the campaign.

Gas Prices Still Headed Down

Back at work today, I couldn't help but notice that gas prices were down just a little bit more from the end of last week. I can't tell you just how low they're going to go, but I've got a pretty good idea of when the slide will end. Does anybody want to put any money down that this will last any longer than November 8? I pretty much see prices continuing to drop until the election and then quickly leveling off and turning back around. I'm sure we've still got a couple of people who claim normal market forces are responsible, but I'm not going to take the time to google them tonight. I'd imagine that most everybody by this point realizes that it's all a big manipulation to keep Republicans in office. Too bad it doesn't seem to be working.

The traditional view of such things is that there are many more factors involved in setting prices than mere political calculations. Unfortunately, the timing was just a bit too suspicious, and as far back as a month ago, USA Today reported on a poll that found 42 percent--almost half--believed that prices have been artificially raised. I can't imagine that the number has done anything but go up in the interim. It doesn't help that during the last election cycle, according to Bob Woodward on 60 Minutes a couple of years ago, the Saudis had promised the Prez that they'd keep oil prices low to help the U.S. economy. If they did it before, there's certainly no reason they wouldn't do it again. So you have to be a bit suspicious this time around when a number of OPEC countries keep insisting that they're intending to cut production, but although crude prices went up last week on that assumption, it sure wasn't reflected in the gas station prices I've seen. Instead, crude dipped again today because no one really believes any of the OPEC nations will actually cut back their pumps at all--not yet, anyway. We've still got a few days before election day, so we know nothing will be happening before then. But don't forget to fill up on November 7. Who knows how quickly prices will rise starting on the 8th.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Iraq Again [UPDATED]

I'm very late getting to Frank Rich's Sunday column today--it's already early Monday morning, for God's sake, but my offline life has just been too busy lately. Damn you, offline life! But regardless of the things I do when I'm not blogging, here we are, with this week's installment of Frank Rich, "Dying to Save the G.O.P. Congress."

This time around, Mr. Rich goes back to our misbegotten situation in Iraq. He shows that the Bushies are basically going back on most everything they claimed they would never do. American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and General George W. Casey Jr., were this week talking about timetables (Rich points out that it's been timelines the Bushies have been against, not necessarily timetables), giving Iraq a good twelve months. But then he points why that doesn't quite work:

If there really is light at the end of the tunnel, why after three and a half years can't we yet guarantee light in Baghdad? Symbolically enough, television transmission of the Khalilzad-Casey press conference was interrupted by another of the city's daily power failures. If Iraq's leaders had signed on to the 12-month plan of "benchmarks" the Americans advertised, why were those leaders nowhere in sight? We found out one day later, when the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, mocked the very idea of an America-imposed timetable. "I am positive that this is not the official policy of the American government, but rather a result of the ongoing election campaign," he said, adding dismissively, "And that does not concern us much."

Give the Iraqi leader credit for a Borat-like candor that almost every American in this sorry tale lacks. Of course all the White House's latest jabberwocky about "benchmarks" and "milestones" and "timetables" (never to be confused with those Defeatocrats' "timelines") is nothing more than an election-year P.R. strategy, as is the laughable banishment of "stay the course." There is no new American plan to counter the apocalypse now playing out in Iraq, only new packaging to pacify American voters between now and Nov. 7. And recycled packaging at that: President Bush had last announced that he and Mr. Maliki were developing "benchmarks" to "measure progress" in Iraq back in June.

The Prez is downplaying the situation for nothing more than to hold on to as much power for his party as possible. He's got nothing to offer, but he has to look like everything's actually under control.

Our troops are held hostage by the White House's political imperatives as much as they are by the violence. Desperate to maintain the election-year P.R. ruse that an undefined "victory" is still within reach, Mr. Bush went so far at Wednesday's press conference as to say that "absolutely, we're winning" in Iraq. He explained his rationale to George Stephanopoulos last weekend, when he asserted that the number of casualties was the enemy's definition of success or failure, not his.
"I define success or failure as to whether or not the Iraqis will be able to defend themselves," the president said, and "as to whether the unity government" is making the "difficult decisions necessary to unite the country."

Unfortunately, the war is a calamity by both of those definitions as well. The American command's call for a mere 3,000 more Iraqi troops to help defend Baghdad has gone unanswered. As we’ve learned from Operation Together Forward, when Iraqis do stand up, violence goes up. And when American and British troops stand down, murderous sectarian militias, some of them allied with that "unity" government, fill the vacuum, taking over entire cities like Amara and Balad in broad daylight. As for those "difficult decisions" Mr. Bush regards as so essential, the Iraqi government's policy is cut and run. Mr. Maliki is not cracking down on rampaging militias but running interference for their kingpin, Moktada al-Sadr. Mr. Maliki treats this radical anti-American Shiite cleric, his political ally, with far more deference than he shows the American president.

The ultimate chutzpah is that Mr. Bush, the man who sold us Saddam's imminent mushroom clouds and "Mission Accomplished," is trivializing the chaos in Iraq as propaganda. The enemy's "sophisticated" strategy, he said in last weekend’s radio address, is to distribute "images of violence" to television networks, Web sites and journalists to "demoralize our country."

This is a morally repugnant argument. The "images of violence" from Iraq are not fake — like, say, the fiction our government manufactured about the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman or the upbeat news stories the Pentagon spends millions of dollars planting in Iraqi newspapers today. These images of violence are real. Americans really are dying at the fastest pace in at least a year, and Iraqis in the greatest numbers to date. To imply that this carnage is magnified by the news media, whether the American press or Al Jazeera, is to belittle the gravity of the escalated bloodshed and to duck accountability for the mismanagement of the war.

As always, he's got much more than I'm quoting here. The whole thing's worth your time. And this week, you can see it outside the NYTimes subscription curtain courtesy of Wealthy Frenchman.

UPDATE--It was so late last night when I was writing this that I forgot to remind Chicago-area readers that Frank Rich will be at the Harold Washington Library Center tonight (Monday) at 6:00 for a free lecture. Click for details, but be prepared to scroll down.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

You'll Find Comics in the Most Unusual Places

Via The Beat (who got it from this Live Journal), we discover that Margaret Atwood, author of the uncomfortably prescient A Handmaid's Tale, The Robber Bride, and The Blind Assassin, among many other novels, short stories, and essays, makes comics. They seem to be done mostly for her own amusement, but you can find a few of them at her Website. What do you think?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

David Letterman--Culture Warrior?

Letterman brought Bill O'Reilly back onto his show last night, because O'Reilly's got a new book to push and the rest of us need a little entertainment. Last time, remember, Letterman told O'Reilly that 60 percent of what he says is crap. This time, they taped the Friday show before this week's Thursday show, and Letterman spent a few minutes of Thursday's show venting about O'Reilly, so we knew Friday would be worth tuning in.

Although both men were tense, they each spent a fair amount of effort trying to defuse the tension. Regardless, it made for great TV. If you missed it, thanks to the good folks at Crooks and Liars, you can see the video, read a partial transcript (they also link to a full transcript at Far Left), and review some fact-checking inspired by O'Reilly's misinformation.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Word Games

There's a new record for high score in a game of Scrabble. Michael Cresta cobbled together 830 points and in the process broke three records: highest score in a game, highest combined score (1,320 points for two players), and highest score for one word (365 for quixotry). Stefan Fatsis, who wrote Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players about his own experiences in the world of Scrabble, describes the record-breaking game in Slate (via Mike at Howling Curmudgeons):

In the community of competitive Scrabble, of which I am a tile-carrying member, the game has been heralded as the anagrammatic equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962 or Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series: a remarkable, wildly aberrational event with potential staying power. Cresta's 830 shattered a 13-year-old record, 770 points, which had been threatened only infrequently.

Since virtually all sports involve variable conditions, comparing one performance to another is technically imperfect. Consider the absence of black players in Babe Ruth's day, or the presence of steroids in the Barry Bonds era. On its face, the new Scrabble records seem to avoid such problems. No one's juicing in Scrabble. Points in a game are just points in a game, and Michael Cresta scored 830 of them. On Scrabble's members-only list-serve, Crossword Games-Pro, most players have hailed this harmonic convergence of vowels and consonants as a triumphal moment. But the record-worthiness of the shot heard 'round the Scrabble world is more complicated than it might look.

Fatsis goes on to give us a partial play-by-play, but the last sentence in that quote suggests that there's more to it than the game itself. Cresta and his opponent, Wayne Yorra, are not apparently "serious" Scrabble players. They each tend to make unusual plays designed to gamble for higher scores, and this time those gambles paid off. Fatsis describes an instance in which Cresta used his turn to exchange two tiles in a 532-1 chance to get the two correct letters that would allow him to play a Q across two triple-word scores. He hit the correct letters, T and Y, and went on to his record-breaking 365 points on the single word. The "serious" strategic play at that point, according to Fatsis, would've been to play the Q and get it on the board and out of Cresta's rack.

Should Cresta and Yorra's game be given a sort of mental asterisk, as Fatsis seems to suggest? The previous high score, 770, was set by an expert in a tournament, and Fatsis wants that one to be remembered, too. Here's how he poses the question:

The difficulty posed by this game, and by games in general, is judging the role of circumstances in the commission of records. In this case, the sensible moves would have been just another set of moves in just another game. The wrong moves produced history. But is that enough? If 830—or any record—happens as a result of boneheaded play, tactical ignorance, or the pursuit of a good time, should it count? Or should records be reserved for those who have earned the right to set them, and who set them in expert fashion?

So do we judge a performance after the fact by how serious it was? In any activity, if a record is broken, does that record have to clear another hurdle of intent before we can embrace it?

What We Say Versus What We Mean

I'm cribbing from myself on this post. I wrote a comment at Article 19 about Don's response to a post by Kevin Drum, which in turn was commenting on a piece in today's Wall Street Journal. The Journal was taking a look at the racial overtones of Tennessee's senatorial race for Majority Leader Bill Frist's seat. If Dem Harold Ford, Jr., wins, he'll be the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction.

The specific point that spurred all this discussion was the phenomenon of African-Americans doing better in pre-election polls than they do in the final vote count. The first time that I'm aware this situation was identified was in the 1982 California governor's race. In pre-election polls, Tom Bradley, the African-American mayor of LA, had a nice lead over state Attorney General George Deukmejian (numbers are hard to come by 24 years later, but the final Field poll gave him an 8-point lead, 54-46), but somewhere between the poll and the ballot box, enough people changed their minds that Bradley lost 51-49. (Interestingly, that same year the final Field poll for the California senate race between two white guys nailed the final numbers exactly.) No one had an explanation for Bradley's loss except that voters were claiming to support him while voting against him.

In Douglas Wilder's 1989 Virginia gubernatorial race, pre-election polls put him up by an average of 7 points, yet the final vote was close enough that, although he won, it was only confirmed after a recount. That same year, David Dinkins, predicted to beat Rudy Giuliani for New York mayor by 14 points ended up winning by only 2. Harvey Gantt, who ran against Jesse Helms for a North Carolina senate seat in 1990, is sometimes cited as another example of the phenomenon, but I'd like to see the specific numbers on that one. Gantt was leading at some points of the campaign, but Helms pulled out a raft of racist ads and clawed his way back into the race. I'd be curious to see whether the final polls reflected his comeback and predicted a close race or if they still gave it to Gantt.

One potential explanation for the discrepancy was offered by Time magazine in the aftermath of the Wilder and Dinkins contests. One pollster looked at some of his numbers from the Wilder race in an unexpected way and discovered that when white respondents were questioned by what they believed were white interviewers, they would break toward Wilder's white opponent by 16 points. If the interviewers were perceived to be African-American, they supported Wilder by 10.

Of course, this was seventeen years ago. Have we changed during the interim, or does the same situation still apply? The Ford-Corker race might give us some clue, but Corker and the Repubs are digging deep into their past and pulling out some racist tricks so that they win the old-fashioned Southern strategy way. Time ended its article by suggesting, "Pollsters in black-white contests should learn to take the discrepancy into account -- at least until such racial match-ups cease to be novelties." Maybe the novelty hasn't warn off yet.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Brief Encounters--[UPDATED]

Tonight was a later evening than I'd expected or intended, so I've just got a quick entry this time. It's appropriate that I don't have much time, because this post is all about brevity. Take a look at Wired this month for a collection of short fiction. Ernest Hemingway reportedly claimed his best work was a short story consisting of six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." In the spirit of that conciseness, Wired has collected stories just as short from thirty-three writers (and five designers). They discovered that some writers just couldn't be brief enough--Arthur C. Clarke's entry for a six-word story came in at ten. The included writers range from Margaret Atwood and Gregory Maguire to Stan Lee, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller, to William Shatner. Don't read anything about my personal life into this, but my favorite (at least on the first read through) was Margaret Atwood's. I'm not going to repeat any of them here, because at just six words, it doesn't take too many letters before you cross over into copyright infringement territory. Just click the link, and you can read the stories to your heart's content--it'll take at least a couple minutes to burn your way through.

UPDATE--I was moving so quickly last night that, although I noted that there were five designers involved in the project, I hadn't looked around enough to actually find their contributions. It turns out that they're in the Wired blogs.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Militarizing the Great Lakes

I was alerted to this last week by e-mail, but when I didn't write about it immediately, I kept forgetting to. It appears that the Coast Guard doesn't believe there's enough weapons activity on the Great Lakes. Don't worry, though--they've got a plan to remedy that.

After September 11, 2001, the Coast Guard decided that it needed to expand its armaments on its Great Lakes vessels to keep the nation safe against terrorists sailing against the upper Midwest from the north. Three years ago, the United States and Canada reinterpreted the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817, which had banned heavy cannons on vessels in the Great Lakes, to clarify that heavy machine guns weren't quite the same and would be allowed. The Coast Guard lost no time in arming their vessels, but then they realized that if they wanted to be prepared to use those armaments, they'd better be able to practice with them. So they did just that starting in January, in what they called "temporary safety zones." But in August, the Coast Guard felt it needed to establish 34 permanent safety zones where they could safely train as necessary.

That decision didn't go over quite as well. The announcement received more attention than had the previous reinterpretation of the Rush-Bagot Agreement, and it didn't go quite as smoothly on this side of the border or the other. When people on both sides of the border rose up in arms, the Coast Guard realized it had a PR issue on its hands.

Aside from the issues surrounding the militarization of the Great Lakes, one of the main arguments against the free-fire zones is an environmental one. If all went according to plan, the live fire zones might see 430,000 bullets fired each year, which would result in more lead being introduced into the lakes than what's released throughout the entire state of Michigan.

The Coast Guard knows it's got a problem. It's set up a Website to address the issue, and it's begun to hold public meetings on the issue. Public opposition has been strong enough that the Coast Guard has suspended the practice for the time being. There are still some more public meetings to come. If you're in the Chicago or Milwaukee area, you can attend a meeting on November 1. Unfortunately, the location of that meeting has alternately been identified as Gurnee or Waukegan. This press release, dated October 24, locates the meeting at The Genesee Theater at 203 North Genesee Street in Waukegan at 5:30 in the evening (with an open house beginning at 4:00). If you're interested in attending, you might call ahead, just to be sure.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

More Music Stuff--[UPDATED]

Speaking of music, it appears the Killers' second album is doing better than I expected. I'm still not convinced, though. But I only bring this up, though, to mention that we can add Bauhaus to their (rather long) list of influences. I was in a bar the other night and could only hear the music somewhat faintly. I thought I heard "Bela Lugosi's Dead" starting up, which seemed appropriate given the time of year, but it turned out to be "Mr. Brightside."

UPDATE--The Killers were on Letterman on Tuesday night. Speaking of expanding their list of influences, I noticed that Brandon Flowers seems to very much be channeling the vocals of TV Smith (which is a bit premature, as TV Smith is still out there recording). I'd noticed that before, but it's been a while since I've last heard the latest single, "When You Were Young," on the radio, so I forgot to mention it.

I saw Marie Antoinette, and it was pretty much what I expected it to be. Sofia Coppola certainly loves her some long, languid takes. But there's a joke in which a particular scene (and suggested activity) is juxtaposed with a song by the Strokes that made me laugh. It's a cheap laugh, to be sure, but I enjoyed it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Watch Out All You Rock'n'Rollers

I was surfing around looking for something else entirely, and I came across this entry from a blog somehow associated with the Austin American-Statesman. It cites an Oregon story about a restaurant being sued by ASCAP because it didn't pay royalties for cover songs played by a band on its premises. I don't know how it will all turn out, but there's real concern that the restaurant, Imbibe in Portland, may have to close down to pay the legal bills. If you google Imbibe and ASCAP, you'll find a lot of angry responses, but search around a bit more, and you'll find that ASCAP does this kind of thing every couple of years to provide some sort of cautionary tale for other places that host public performances of cover songs. Imbibe is hardly the first venue to come under fire, and I doubt it will be the last. I suspect that ASCAP may be trying to get a higher profile because of all the file-sharing going on these days, as well, so we may see even more instances of them protecting their turf. The lesson here, I guess, is if you play in a cover band, make sure you're covered yourselves.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Obama Possibly Thinking He Might Run for President, Maybe

Barack Obama made it official today. It's seemed obvious since his book came out (was it a book tour or a presidential campaign?), but he told Russert on Meet the Press this morning that the door was open to his running. What does it mean? Well, he won't be quite as coy (though there's still a whole lot of coy between now and an actual announcement), and other potential candidates will have to take his potential candidacy into account in making their own decisions (although that's not to say they weren't already).

My opinion hasn't really changed. There's no denying that he's very charismatic, but that seems to be about all anybody's got to say about him. Joe Klein wrote a huge Time cover story last week under the tag "Why Barack Obama Could Be The Next President," but all he really offered was that Obama attracts huge, enthusiastic crowds and seems to be a pretty middle-of-the-road guy.

Maureen Dowd also wrote about the current wave of Obamamania yesterday, criticizing his high profile and low content, closing her column with the question: "Does Barack Obama want to be a celebrity or a man of history — or is there no longer any difference?"

Frank Rich, who we usually quote at length on Sundays, examines Obama, as well, using his headline to offer a warning: "Obama Is Not a Miracle Elixir." But despite that title, Rich seems like he's already on the bandwagon:

Enter Barack Obama. To understand the hysteria about a Democratic senator who has not yet served two years and is mainly known for a single speech at the 2004 convention, you have to appreciate just how desperate the Democrats are for a panacea for all their ills. In the many glossy cover articles about Obamamania, the only real suspense is whether a Jack or Bobby Kennedy analogy will be made in the second paragraph or the fifth. Men's Vogue (cover by Annie Leibovitz) went so far as to say that the Illinois senator "alone has the potential to one day be mentioned in the same breath" as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Why not throw in Mark Twain and Sammy Davis Jr.?

This is a lot to put on the shoulders of anyone, even someone as impressive as Mr. Obama. Though he remains a modest and self-effacing guy from all appearances, he is encouraging the speculation about seeking higher office — and not as a coy Colin Powell-style maneuver to sell his new book, "The Audacity of Hope." Mr. Obama hasn't been turning up in Iowa for the corn dogs. He consistently concedes he’s entertaining the prospect of a presidential run.

There's no reason to rush that decision now, but it's a no-brainer. Of course he should run, assuming his family is on the same page. He's 45, not 30, and his slender résumé in public office (which also includes seven years as a state senator) should be no more of an impediment to him than it was to the White House's current occupant. As his Illinois colleague Dick Durbin told The Chicago Tribune last week, "I said to him, 'Do you really think sticking around the Senate for four more years and casting a thousand more votes will make you more qualified for president?'" Instead, such added experience is more likely to transform an unusually eloquent writer, speaker and public servant into another windbag like Joe Biden.

Rich gives lip service to one of Obama's shortcomings--his perceived overly cautious nature--but then points out that Obama has been against the Iraq War from the beginning. Apparently that's enough win him over. Here's his final paragraph:

The Democrats may well win on Election Day this year. But one of their best hopes for long-term viability in the post-Bush era is that Barack Obama steps up and changes the party before the party of terminal timidity and equivocation changes him.

Since we're already behind The New York Times's subscription curtain anyway (thanks to donkey o.d.), why don't we take a look at Frank Herbert's Monday column. Herbert interviewed Obama at the John F. Kennedy Library on Friday night, and he reports the same enthusiastic crowds.

It's a measure of how starved the country is for a sensible, appealing, intelligent, trustworthy leader that a man who until just a couple of years ago was an obscure state senator in Illinois is now suddenly, in the view of an awful lot of voters, the person we should install in the White House.

But Herbert, clearly impressed with Obama, adds a word of caution, as well.

With all due respect to Senator Obama, this is disturbing. He may be capable of being a great president. Someday. But one quick look around at the state of the nation and the world tells us that we need to be more careful than we have been in selecting our leaders. There shouldn’t be anything precipitous about the way we pick our presidents.

. . .

The giddiness surrounding the Obama phenomenon seems to be an old-fashioned mixture of fun, excitement and a great deal of hope. His smile is electric, and when he laughs people tend to laugh with him. He's the kind of politician who makes people feel good.

But the giddiness is crying out for a reality check. There's a reason why so many Republicans are saying nice things about Mr. Obama, and urging him to run. They would like nothing more than for the Democrats to nominate a candidate in 2008 who has a very slender résumé, very little experience in national politics, hardly any in foreign policy — and who also happens to be black.

The Republicans may be in deep trouble, but they believe they could pretty easily put together a ticket that would chew up Barack Obama in 2008.

If Herbert's right and Repubs believe Obama would be easy to beat in a presidential bid, that's not enough reason to stop him from running. They can easily be wrong--just look at their ostensible confidence this time around as we're approaching November. But it is a good warning that we should be more sure of what we're going to get before we all wholeheartedly throw our support behind Obama.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Quick Hits Politics

We're just a bit over two weeks before the elections, and tensions are rising. Have Democrats peaked just a bit too early? Have Republicans finished licking their wounds and started to rise again?

Don at Article 19 is concerned that Harold Ford is acting a bit flaky in the Tennessee senate race. He confronted opponent Bob Corker at an airstrip in Memphis where Corker was conducting a press conference. On the other hand, Josh Marshall admired the fact that Ford was "gettin' in his face." However, Don also points to an article detailing other problems that have cropped up in the Ford campaign. Ford is currently a Congressman from Memphis. His brother Jake is running as an independent in that seat against Democratic nominee Steve Cohen and Republican Mark White. Harold Ford has tied Cohen to Repub Senate nom Corker in attacking his family. Ford has a decent chance, but he doesn't have any margin to cause Tennessee voters second thoughts.

Speaking of well-connected independents running against Democratic nominees, Matt Stoller writes at MyDD about the Connecticut senate race. According to him, Tuesday's five-way senate debate (including candidates from the Green and Concerned Citizens parties) was explosive, with Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger showing up the Connecticut for Lieberman candidate Joe Lieberman. Here's how Stoller describes the election as a whole:

It's not your normal white picket fence suburban election, with attack ad facing attack ad. No, this is more like a white picket fence election that suddenly gets bored with life and decides to live in the forest, take a bunch of LSD, trout-fish naked, and taunt a bear cub before ending its life suddenly and with total and inexplicable resolution on November 7.

Unfortunately, he follows that with, "Well not really, but there's no analogy that I can think of summarizing what's going on." Read the entire post for some fascinating insight.

John McCain isn't running for anything this time around (except he's already running for president for next time), but as Andy Towle points out (via Aravosis), he's again doling out some of that straight talk he's so famous for. Trying to somehow split the difference on the issue and keep everybody happy (because that's what "straight talk" is for), McCain declares that he supports gay weddings, but he's against gay marriage. Which is perfectly reasonable, because everybody knows the ceremony is the most important part.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Sport Your College Colors

How do you choose which bar to frequent (for those of you who do frequent bars). Do you choose the bar that plays your college football team on Saturday afternoons? We've become such a mobile society that more and more bars seem to be choosing some out-of-town team to champion, and I guess it pays off or not so many bars would adopt the strategy.

If you've ever looked up at the top corner, you've noticed that I live in Chicago. Tonight I was at a bar that, if the sun is just right, is very likely in the shadow of Wrigley field. Yet on the walls were Terrible Towels in support of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They also had memorabilia for Penn State, and the condiment caddies at each table were Iron City Beer six-packs. Across the street is another bar that features the Dallas Cowboys and the University of Alabama (I'm not sure quite what Cowboys silver and blue has in common with the Crimson Tide, but there you go). There are a number of bars nearby that spotlight the University of Wisconsin, but at least the Wisconsin border's only forty or fifty miles distant. But Penn State and Alabama? The Steelers and the Cowboys? What's the deal? What out-of-town teams are championed by bars near you? (And by the way, does anybody in Chicago know where the local Habs bar is so I can go and watch hockey?)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Last-Minute Weekend Plans

It's a good thing that Mrs. Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk doesn't frequent this blog too often, or she'd notice that I was inexcusably late in recommending the latest Stockyards production for viewing pleasure of readers in the Chicago area. The 7th Annual Women's Performance Art Festival is on tap for this weekend, with shows on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. There will be one-acts, dance pieces, improv comedy, musical performances, and stand-up comedy. The theme this year is "Stay Centered, See the Humor, and Carry on Regardless."

Here's the rundown for each night.

Friday: My Little Traveler, a dance piece performed by Masha Core for Ellephant Foot Co.; No Time Too Loose, a theater piece performed in three parts, written by Francesca Peppiatt and choreographed and directed by Lydia Milman; Voices In My Head, Louise Cloutier's performance piece with original music; Conduit, a play by Angela Hanks; Loop Detail, a solo dance by Erin Carlisle Norton; and Choice, a one-woman play by Courtney Berne.

Saturday: No Time Too Loose; Cooking With the Composters: A Casserole Revolution, a performance art and comedy piece by the Composters (aka Glenda Greenhouse and Mary Mercury); a selection of pieces by RTG Dance, choreographed and performed by Rachel Thorne Germond; Scent of a Yenta, stand-up comedy by Hollie Himmelman; I Desire You; You Are Worth Knowing, a dance piece by Sara Smithback and Jessica Strathe; and ". . . And Her Mother Before," a play by Jennifer Mickelson.

Sunday: BADAGADAGADAGA, a dance piece by Matrix Dance Improv; Conduit, Choice, stand-up comedy by Linda Sweig; ". . . And Her Mother Before"; and Voices In My Head.

It's at Links Hall, which is in Chicago at the corner of Clark, Sheffield, and Newport, just a couple of blocks south of Wrigley Field. Friday and Saturday will start at 8:00, and Sunday starts off at 7:00. Check out the Stockyards Theatre Project Web site for reservations.

In the Ether

I'm back from a hockey game tonight, and although the Canadiens lost, both they and the Blackhawks demonstrated the kind of feistiness that we need to see from Democrats in order to make some real progress in a couple of weeks. I've said this before, but they can't just assume that people will vote for them because voters are fed up with the Bush administration and the do-nothing Congress. Democrats need to give us something to vote for, not just vote against. Voters will need a reason to stay with them in 2008 and possibly bring a Democrat into the White House. Voting for Democrats as a way to vote against the Bushies is enough of a reason for me, but I don't know how many other people fall into the category, and if they do, I'm not sure how many will stay in that category for more than one election cycle. They need to build a strategy for growth in the future, not just getting by for now.

Speaking of getting by for now, here's a story that got some passing notice last week and the beginning part of this week. Air America radio filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy on Friday the 13th. Here's their press release. It looks poor management is largely to blame, and although I've been critical of Air America before, I certainly don't wish financial failure on them. You can read some pretty decent commentary on the situation at The Huffington Post: Taylor Marsh wonders if Dem insiders would be just as happy to see it end. Steve Young says, "I told you so." And Brent Budowsky offers some suggestions for the future. Meanwhile, one of the main forces behind the launching of Air America, Sheldon Drobny, hasn't given up on liberal radio. He's just launched a new network, Nova M Radio (even if it's only on two stations at this point). Stay tuned to find out what all this will lead up to.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Is Duckworth Ready to Fight Back?

I never commented again on the big Bush/Denny Hastert lovefest in Chicago last week. The Prez stood up and basically said he supports Denny in the House speakership today, tomorrow, and forever:

I am proud to be standing with the current Speaker of the House who is going to be the future Speaker Speaker Denny Hastert has a long record of accomplishment. You know, he's not one of these Washington politicians who spews a lot of hot air. He just gets the job done. . . . . He has delivered results for the people; this country is better off with Denny Hastert as the Speaker, and it will be better off when he's the Speaker in the next legislative session.

It was almost heartwarming to see two of the most unpopular Republicans today huddling with each other for warmth and comfort.

But let's don't forget the ostensible reason for the event, raising over a million dollars for congressional candidates Peter Roskam and David McSweeney. Roskam realized he was there for the cash rather than the camaraderie and made quick appearance and left to a debate Dem candidate Tammy Duckworth in their district. I'm reliably told that Duckworth took the fight straight to Roskam and displayed the feistiness necessary for Dems not only to win but to govern effectively in whatever house they recapture.

Unfortunately, Duckworth is running low on campaign cash at the moment. Although she's raised a lot, she spent a lot on TV last month to maker her competitive in this race. That did the trick, but her TV advertising has dried up lately. At the end of last month, she had $200,000, compared to $1.5 million for Roskam, and that was before the Bush/Hastert fundraising windfall. If you're in the Chicago market, you've no doubt seen see the Roskam ads misrepresenting Duckworth's position on illegal aliens. Duckworth's defense has so far been very noticeable by its absence. But the situation might not be quite as dire as it seems. According to the Chicago Tribune, things may be looking up. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is "committed to spending $2.3 million in the race, and Democratic committee ads were expected to begin Tuesday." Further, the Trib reports that Bill Clinton will drop by for a fundraiser with Duckworth next week. And it's only a fitting match to the former president to have, according to ABC7's Andy Shaw, Time magazine's potential next president, as well. Shaw reports that Barak Obama has completed an ad that takes direct aim at the Roskam immigration spots. Those are due to start airing tomorrow (actually, it will be today by the time I post this).

From what I've seen, Duckworth supporters have been feeling somewhat dejected lately, but is there reason for them to start looking up again? Let's all hope so. Of course, no matter what kind of star power comes out to shine for Duckworth, it never hurts to keep the grassroots going. Jump in by making your own donation, either at her own contribution site or at her page at ActBlue. And to keep up with this race more closely, you could do worse than checking out Mark Garritys Subdomain at TPMCafe.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Goodbye, CBGB

Can you say that it's the end of an era when the era was actually over quite some time ago? Punk rock shrine CBGB, the jewel of the Bowery, has lost its lease. The last show was Sunday night, with the Patti Smith Group (plus Flea and Richard Lloyd) bidding the place goodbye. Earlier in the week, the stage had seen returns from Bad Brains, the Dictators, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. But it's been a very long time since the club was an active launching pad for groups, sounds, or scenes.

But that doesn't matter, because CBGB was what it was, and at its prime, it was the focal point of New York punk, which reached its feelers into the world and influenced rock music forever. Yet in another sense, it still is what it was: a dive bar in a seedy part of the city that welcomed bands that didn't always have other places to play. If the cutting edge has moved on to other sites, that's hardly CBGB's fault. Hilly Kristal opened the club not quite thirty-three years ago. It was in its infancy when Television, the Ramones, the pre-Blondie Stilettos, and Talking Heads (among very many others) started to play. Kristal was open to the new sounds, but they didn't seem to be what he had in mind when he started up: the club's full name is CBGB & OMFUG, which stands for Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers. Punk would fit firmly in the "Other Music" category. Rock archivist and producer (as well as guitarist for Patti Smith) Lenny Kaye had a nice remembrance last month in the Village Voice, but Smith herself may have provided the most appropriate eulogy from the stage during the going away party, as quoted by Jon Pareles:

"Kids, they’ll find some other club," Ms. Smith insisted during her set. They’ll find a place, she continued, "that nobody wants, and you got one guy who believes in you, and you just do your thing. And anybody can do that, anywhere in the world, any time."

But don't be too sad. The CBGB Website is still a going concern, and it promises that the club will reopen soon (the odds-on money says Kristal will soon be relocating it to Las Vegas). The CBGB store remains open in the Bowery and will soon move to Broadway and Bond to become CBGB Fashion (it goes without saying that the online store remains available. And as of this writing, CBGB has 53,448 friends at MySpace.

When it comes down to it, CBGB isn't really going anywhere. Like all of us, Hilly Kristal needs to evolve to move forward. Perhaps Legs McNeil had the most prescient view of the future:

I always said Hilly should go to Vegas. Girls with augmented breasts playing Joey Ramone slot machines. It would become an institution.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Gay Republicans

I had much more difficulty getting myself organized today than I ever expected, and although I've got a couple of other posts somewhat in the works, I'm not going to overlook our weekly visit with Frank Rich. He's back this week, and he's focusing his attention on the gay underpinnings of the Republican party (you never would've guessed with a title like "The Gay Old Party Comes Out," would you?). They say that the Internet speeds up our reaction times, and I'm believing more and more that it's true. Rich seems to be coming quite late to these developments, but in fact, it's only been a bit more than two weeks since Mark Foley's "overly friendly" instant messages first saw the public glare of day. It feels as if the scandal's been with us for ages already. Here, Rich looks at the larger issue.

If anything good has come out of the Foley scandal, it is surely this: The revelation that the political party fond of demonizing homosexuals each election year is as well-stocked with trusted and accomplished gay leaders as virtually every other power center in America. "What you're really seeing is the Republican Party on the Hill," says Rich Tafel, the former leader of the gay Log Cabin Republicans whom George W. Bush refused to meet with during the 2000 campaign. "Across the board gay people are in leadership positions." Yet it is this same party's Congressional leadership that in 2006 did almost nothing about government spending, Iraq, immigration or ethics reform, but did drop everything to focus on a doomed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

. . .

As for Mr. Foley, he is no more representative of gay men, whatever their political orientation, than Joey Buttafuoco is of straight men. Yet he's a useful creep at this historical juncture because his behavior has exposed and will continue to expose a larger dynamic on the right. The longer the aftermath of this scandal continues, with its maniacal finger-pointing and relentless spotlight on the Republican closet, the harder it will be for his party to return to the double-dealing that has made gay Americans election-year bogeymen (and women) for so long.

The moment Mr. Foley's e-mails became known, we saw that brand of fearmongering and bigotry at full tilt: Bush administration allies exploited the former Congressman's predatory history to spread the grotesque canard that homosexuality is a direct path to pedophilia. It's the kind of blood libel that in another era was spread about Jews.

The Family Research Council’s Mr. [Tony] Perkins, a frequent White House ally and visitor, led the way. "When we elevate tolerance and diversity to the guidepost of public life," he said on Fox News Channel, "this is what we get — men chasing 16-year-old boys around the halls of Congress." A related note was struck by The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, which asked, "Could a gay Congressman be quarantined?" The answer was no because "today's politically correct culture" — tolerance of "private lifestyle choices" — gives predatory gay men a free pass. Newt Gingrich made the same point when he announced on TV that Mr. Foley had not been policed because Republicans "would have been accused of gay bashing." Translation: Those in favor of gay civil rights would countenance and protect sex offenders.

This line of attack was soon followed by another classic from the annals of anti-Semitism: the shadowy conspiracy. "The secret Capitol Hill homosexual network must be exposed and dismantled," said Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, another right-wing outfit that serves as a grass-roots auxiliary to the Bush administration. This network, he claims, was allowed "to infiltrate and manipulate the party apparatus" and worked "behind the scenes to sabotage a conservative pro-family agenda in Congress."

There are two problems with this theory. First, gay people did not "infiltrate" the party apparatus — they are the party apparatus. Rare is the conservative Republican Congressional leader who does not have a gay staffer wielding clout in a major position. Second, any inference that gay Republicans on the Hill conspired to cover up Mr. Foley’s behavior is preposterous. Mr. Fordham, the gay former Foley aide who spent Thursday testifying under oath about his warnings to Denny Hastert's staff, is to date the closest this sordid mess has to a whistle-blower, however tardy. So far, the slackers in curbing Mr. Foley over the past three years seem more straight than gay, led by the Buffalo Congressman Tom Reynolds, who is now running a guilt-ridden campaign commercial desperately apologizing to voters.

Will all this bring about a change in Repub gay-bashing? Somehow, I doubt it. The strategy has proven to effective in the past. While it may lose its usefulness for this election cycle, I'm afraid that the well will have to remain dry through at least a few more before the haters finally stop dipping their buckets in search of more.

Thanks once again to donkey o.d. for access to the full Rich column.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Who Put Beer in My Ice Cream?

Over the summer, I wrote about an article in the Chicago Reader talking up beer floats (the Reader only keeps its articles online for two weeks, so it's no longer available). The idea of dropping a couple of scoops of ice cream into a mug of beer (but the right beer!) was intriguing, but I have to admit that I haven't actually given it a try. Fortunately, however, now I can get an idea of what it would be like without mixing the two myself. Ben & Jerry's has introduced a new flavor, Black & Tan. It's a mix of cream stout ice cream and chocolate ice creams. The beery taste is not overpowering by any means, but the cream stout is definitely present, and it mixes well with the chocolate. Is this the same thing we'd get if we added chocolate ice cream to a glass of Samuel Adams cream stout? I'm not so sure, actually, but it's certainly a flavor of Ben & Jerry's that I'll pick up again.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

How Did You Celebrate Diddy Day?

Rap mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs was in Chicago today, and to commemmorate that fact, Mayor Richie Daley proclaimed it Diddy Day. Why? Because he's a rap mogul. And he's promoting a new album. And he was actually in Chicago. The mayor cited Diddy's philanthropic work with , but it was really because he has a new album. For his part, according to the Sun-Times, Diddy appeared to be "genuinely moved" by the ceremony. He said:

I truly appreciate it. I don't take it for granted. It's not every day that somebody young and African-American gets to have their own day in the great city of Chicago…This is definitely an honor — especially coming from New York — for y'all to …show me such hospitality and recognize that, what I do, I…do to inspire and to motivate. I'm not motivated by money. What I do, I do to entertain people and to show kids that, if you close your eyes and dream and you open your eyes and see the realities it's going to take you to achieve your dreams — that anything is possible. I come from the same communities as most of the kids in the inner city communities. And if I did it, they can do it.

I'm not sure if there might have been some intention to counteract the effects of Friday the 13th, but I'm not aware of any particular powers Diddy has to undermine the influence of superstition and ignorance. But that may be precisely what Diddy had in mind when he told the gathered crowd:

For you all to call this day Diddy Day, I will assure you that today's going to be a great day. Y'all are going to have a good time today. I don't know what's going to happen to you, but you're going to have a good time today.

So was he right? How great a day was it for you? Did its sheer Diddyness overwhelm the influence of Friday the 13th?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Quick Show Wrap Up

I'm back home, and once again, Art Brut gave an exciting, high-energy show. Eddie's shaved off his moustache, so the Bryan Ferry "Let's Stick Together" vibe is not as strong as it had been, but he's still got something of the low-rent lothario about him. He hit many of the familiar notes--everybody should start a band, stay off the crack--and he still hasn't seen his new girlfriend naked for a third time. There were a couple of new songs and, as Eddie called them, "unrecorded songs," which he can't call new to this audience because the band has been visiting Chicago too often and we've already heard them. The new material sounds good on the surface, but we'll have to see how they sound in the studio. I was a bit worried because after the first album but before the band arrived in the States, guitarist (and sometimes described as "songwriter") Chris Chinchilla left the band. Eddie Argos has also been referred to as a songwriter, so it's never been clear quite how the songs were created. Did Chinchilla provide some and Argos others? Were the songs developed by the entire band? We'll only get a real suggestion of that when the new material is laid down in ones and zeros, but the hints we got of the new material tonight make me quite optimistic.

By the way, after the show was over, I noticed a number of people who could well have bought Marquee Moon and Rattus Norvegicus as new releases.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Between Sets Again

If I was concerned that blogging during the show would make me the nerdiest person in the room, those fears have been completely dispelled. We Are Scientists covered Art Brut's "Bang Bang Rock'n'Roll," and the Spinto Band came out and danced to it. They had a full routine worked out and everything. This tour seems to be something of a lovefest. Art Brut guitarist Ian Catskillin came out to accompany the final song. Eddie Argos and the rest of the band gazed on from the gallery.

We'll see what my impressions are from the performace itself, but Eddie ssems more and more to be taking on the persona of a cut-rate vacation-resort Bryan Ferry. Which I suppose is appropriate. The inbetween set music has included Television and Stranglers. Is it intended ironically? Eddie insists that he has no irony. It does make me wonder, though, how many other people in the audience are old enough to have bought these songs when they were new. (Maybe a few, actually. Chicago does seem to have a tradition of bringing older fans out to shows.)

We just got a thumbs up. I'm posting this and putting my Blackberry away.

Live from the Metro

I'm live blogging the Art Brut show, though I'm not sure whwether it's a good idea or not. I'm not going to blog during the performances, of course, because that would take too much attention. But during the boring set-up, why not? I've found a nice place between two tall people, but others are encroaching.

The Spinto Band just finished an energfetic set. I hadn't heard of them, but I wish I'd arrived earlier to catch more of them. I think I'll seek out a CD. We Are Scientists are setting up, and they're playing Hank Williams while we wait, which is an intereting choice. The set lists are being taped down, so they're just about ready to go. The official clock reads 9:58, so I imagine they're shooting for 10:00. I'll put this away and check for spelling errors later.

And Now, the Weather

It's only October 12, and I drove to work through snow flurries this morning. It's been flurrying on and off since--sometimes hard at times, but it's supposed to warm up enough that tomorrow it'll be like nothing happened. The temperature went into the 70s on Sunday, so this has been a quick drop. At least I can expect my allergies to lighten up a little.

Tower Records, R.I.P.

I knew of this a few days ago, but I wanted to wait until I went down to the store to see for myself. Sure enough, the Tower Records on Clark Street had its "Going Out of Business" signs in the windows, and everything in the store is marked down. At this point, CDs and DVDs are selling for 10 percent off, with books going for 20 percent off (one sign said that there were 30 percent reductions somewhere in the store, but I never saw them). I suppose prices will drop as the sale goes on.

Tower had filed for bankruptcy in August, but a court-supervised auction sold off the business itself on Friday. After 29 hours, Great American Group, a liquidator, emerged triumphant with a bid if $134.3 million dollars. They immediately went to work doing what they do--liquidating--and started the Going Out of Business sales the next day. Tower has 89 stores in the U.S. that will close, with about 3,000 employees losing their jobs.

Most, if not all, of those stores provided music information and gathering centers in their communities. A Hollywood Reporter story that went out over the wires suggested that the closing will have a ripple effect through the music business. Only Virgin Records, with 20 U.S. stores, is left to provide a "deep-catalog" outlet for music buyers. Some indie or niche labels, according to an industry observer, may have seen 40 or 50 percent of their sales come through Tower. Other music companies could take major hits when Tower warehouse inventory is returned.

The biggest change that this will cause, it seems to me, is a huge move over to Internet sales for obscure titles and artists. There are fewer and fewer places to go to browse anything other than the Top 20 new releases. I like to go into a CD store, look around, and soak up the new material that's available. Sometimes I'll see something that I've heard of but know nothing about. Other times I'll just look for whatever seems interesting and take a chance. I'll miss the tactile experience of poring through the bins in search of what's new and interesting. We still have a Virgin Megastore in town, so that opportunity isn't gone entirely, but we had four Towers in the area, and different stores would have different merchandise, so the stores would provide four different experiences.

I've also noticed that a number of used CD stores I've frequented are disappearing, as well. I blame the Internet. The availability of pretty much everything online makes it harder to sustain a CD resale business in bricks and mortar. That's a shame, too, because when I go to browse in a used CD store, I never know what I'll walk out with. I may hope to find something in particular, but if I find something I've been looking for at a reasonable price, I'll pick it up. You lose that opportunity when buying online. When I buy online, I'm looking for something particular, and when I find it, I buy it, and I go offline. No impulse buys. No walking away with an armload of CDs. (Not to mention how passionless it is to buy online. When I buy music, I want to take it home and listen to it immediately. I don't want to wait for a few days until it arrives in the mail.)

It's sad that Tower Records is going away, and it's sad that CD retailing is hitting such hard times. But I'll just have to get comfortable with a new way of discovering and buying music.

By the way, the bidding for Tower came down to Great American and Trans World Entertainment Corp., a company based in Albany, New York, that operates the Coconuts, Suncoast, and FYE chains. They planned to keep some of the Tower stores open. For a vaguely inside look at the auction from their point of view, check out the coverage in the Albany Times Union.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Just How Powerful Is Bill Clinton?

It must be amazing to have the power former President Bill Clinton is reputed to have. According to the Repubs, he's responsible for just about everything that happens in American political life. There was the mini-series last month that put the blame for September 11 on Clinton. Denny Hastert suggested that he was really behind the Foley page scandal. And now John McCain is leading the charge to blame Bill Clinton for the failed North Korean nuclear test (although I don't think he gets credit for the failed part). Seeing as how he hasn't actually been president for nearly six years, it's not clear if there was anything he possibly could have done since early 2001 to fend this development off. Perhaps he could've just made a quick call to Kim Jong-il and told him to lay off. Maybe he could've enlisted his huge network of secret operatives to do whatever it is that they do to make sure the test was avoided. I don't know, but clearly he should've done something.

Unfortunately, in blaming Clinton, McCain gives away the basic impotence of the Bush administration. They've had almost six years to affect the nuclear situation in North Korea, and apparently they couldn't quite bring themselves to do anything. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered. Maybe Bush, Cheney, Condi, and McCain have known for six years that they had no choice but to sit and wait for North Korea to develop a weapon and test it. So if all this really was the all-powerful Bill Clinton's fault, what do the Bushies even bring to the party?

Political Quick Hits

In case anybody hasn't seen this, a New York Times/CBS News poll in Monday's Times found that 83 percent of respondents feel the Prez is mostly lying or hiding something or another when he talks about the current situation in Iraq. If you click through to the poll's details, you'll find that after filtering out the people who don't know or have an opinion, only 14 percent of respondents believe he's being straightforward in describing what's going on. To put it another, six out of seven people don't entirely trust the story on Iraq that's coming out of this administration.

If you're in downtown Chicago on Thursday, be sure to wear your protective covering--it's going to be radioactive. The Prez is teaming up with Denny Hastert for a fund-raiser in support of Peter Roskam and David McSweeney (who are running for Congress against Tammy Duckworth and incumbent Melissa Bean, respectively). Mark Garrity at TPMCafe tells us that it's a $1,000 a plate affair and that the two candidates are expected to clear half a million apiece. I'll be curious to see how whether this plays out to a high or low profile. Although Denny has been quietly withdrawing from some scheduled campaign appearances, he's set to host this one right in his own backyard. Curiously, though, I couldn't any mention of the event on either Roskam's or McSweeney's campaign sites. (No, I'm not providing links to Repub campaign sites--they're right there in Google if you want to search them yourself. I will, however, offer links to the Duckworth and Bean sites.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hastert's Speakership: One Step Closer to the Grave

Is Denny Hastert at war with his own staff? It certainly seems that way. Hastert held a makeshift press conference in Aurora, Illinois, today, in which he placed any potential blame in the handling of the Foley affair squarely on his staff.

I understood what my staff told me, and I think from that response, they’ve handled it as well as they should. However, in 20/20 hindsight, probably you could do everything a little bit better. . . . If they did cover something up, they should not continue to have their jobs.

His claim is that he knew nothing, and if anybody on his staff knew anything, they sure didn't tell him. He doesn't get into the fact that it's his responsibility to know what his staff knows and to find out if he doesn't know. He's now on record as willing to sacrifice his staff because he didn't live up to his own responsibility.

And as to the staff? Just Hastert's attitude alone suggests that there's no love lost, but at least somebody's passive-aggressively fighting back. The on-camera presser was held with a lovely graveyard as the backdrop. Think Progress has the video (as well as the transcript that I quoted above). It's a good thing today's Republican party doesn't believe in symbols and metaphors. I just hope Scott Palmer has been polishing his resume. (By the way, I stumbled on this profile of Parker from Sunday's edition of his hometown paper, the Aurora Beacon News.)

Monday, October 09, 2006

Did the World Dodge a Bullet?

Back when he was just coining the phrase, the Prez assigned three countries to the Axis of Evil. It was all very frightening at the time, and the Prez and his boys did what they could to convince us that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was our most immediate threat. Now that we've found Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, no ongoing nuclear program, and no real tie to al Queda, perhaps we put our energy in the wrong place.

The Bushies have refused to engage North Korea at all. They ridiculed the Clinton administration policy toward North Korea (which would be the one that successfully persuaded the North Koreans to stop or at least slow its pursuit of nukes) in favor of their own program to petulantly ignore North Korea unless it promised not to go after nukes. Anyone who's spent any time at all with little children will know that paying them no attention until they do what you want seldom produces that desired behavior. Talking to other parties, whether on an individual level or on the world diplomatic stage, does not mean they have to be your best friend. If you don't engage your enemies at the discussion table, there's a good chance that you'll meet them in the battlefield.

After an initial flurry of concern about the test, reports started to trickle in questioning what actually happened. I first saw an update to this post by AJ, AMERICAblog's intelligence and defense writer, which linked to a post at Arms Control questioning the power of the blast. This appears to have the power of a kiloton or less, which is far lower than an expected nuclear test would be. Kevin Drum added to the discussion with a Yale geology professor discussing the size of the seismic incident in comparison to the size of the explosion. Josh Marshall then quoted Jane's Defence Weekly, which explained the possibility that the test could have failed. The speculation went mainstream with a story in tomorrow's New York Times:

The North Korean test appears to have been a nuclear detonation but was fairly small by traditional standards, and possibly a failure or a partial success, federal and private analysts said yesterday.

So it seems that this smoking gun may well not be a mushroom cloud, but it could've been, and that fact reveals a complete failure by the Bush administration. The Bushies are getting ready to politicize this and start spreading fear through the electorate again. Why should we believe Bush and the Republican party can protect us from nuclear proliferation when this happened not just on their watch, but due to their negligence. How much will we allow them to put national security at risk before we finally put a stop to it?

Quick Hits

There's no Frank Rich column to link to today, presumably because he's out promoting his new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold. I can't find a list of his dates, but he was at the New York Public Library last week, he'll be at John Hancock Hall in Boston on Sunday, October 22, and he'll be at the Chicago Public Library on Monday, October 30.

I mentioned The Best American Comics 2006 a couple of weeks ago, and apparently that was good enough for Houghton Mifflin to notify me that they've added a new animation/audio element to the Website in which guest editor Harvey Pekar and series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore provide a little come on for the book. It's probably only about 30 seconds or so, but I learned one thing I didn't know: Houghton Mifflin published the first Best American book 91 years ago. Check it out if you're curious.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Hastert Resignation Watch--Special Extended Edition

When I wrote a post about Denny Hastert early on Friday morning, I assumed that I wouldn't get another opportunity before what seemed like his imminent resignation. Well, that didn't happen on Friday, but resignation seems even more inevitable now that it did then. In yesterday morning's Washington Post, a front-page story revealed a current Congressional staffer's assertion that Denny's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, confronted Foley about his conduct way back in 2003. Mark Fordham, who resigned as Representative Tom Reynolds's chief of staff earlier this week, had already made the same claim, so this is just further confirmation. If Palmer didn't tell Hastert about such a meeting, then he's completely incompetent (and there's no reason to believe that's the case). Palmer and Hastert are unusually close, as they share a Washington townhouse when they're in the nation's capitol.

That's bad enough, but in tomorrow's Post, Representative Jim Kolbe states through his staff that he was aware of Foley's e-mails to pages as far back as 2000. Although this doesn't provide a direct line to Hastert, just expanding the pool of Republican Congressmen who were aware of the problem makes it harder to limit Hastert's reputed lack of knowledge and proven lack of response. I don't know if he might get some sort of reprieve for Columbus Day tomorrow, but I don't see how he can possibly survive through the end of the week. Although Hastert will almost certainly resign from the speakership, I doubt that he'll resign from Congress altogether. I don't know what the scandal is doing for his own reelection chances, but any readers we might have in the 14th District of Illinois should probably avail themselves of a look at the Website of John Laesch, the Dem nominee running for Hastert's seat.

I can't help but think that Hastert's mentor (and reputed patron and puppet master) Tom DeLay would've handled all this much differently. He may well have tossed Denny to the wolves, but he would've fought much harder to keep the Republican majority in line and keep a lid on this dribbling out of information. I never had any regard for DeLay and his vision of Congress, but you had to respect the fact that he came by his nickname, "The Hammer," honestly.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

New Trends in Questionable Interrogation Techniques

I haven't had as much time to blog over the past couple of days as I'd expected to, so I'm running a bit behind. I'd meant to be more timely in linking to this historical overview of waterboarding in Thursday's Washington Post. It had a nicely understated headline ("Waterboarding Historically Controversial"--I guess), but it's filled with informative little tidbits about the torture technique.

The Senate insists that its recent torture bill outlaws waterboarding, but the Bush administration won't comment on that one way or another. It's not particularly a secret that waterboarding was used to get information out of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, although as the article points out, a former senior intelligence official reveals that not everything he said proved reliable. There's little or no reason to expect that the Bushies would refuse to use the technique now.

What it doesn't do is give a really good explanation about what it is and how it works. Fortunately, about a year ago, Brian Ross and Richard Esposito of ABC News reported on it as one of six "enhanced interrogation techniques" currently being used by the CIA.

The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

But the Post article does give us a lot of other useful facts. A Japanese officer served fifteen years of hard labor for waterboarding during World War II. The Post printed >this photo of U.S. soldiers using a similar technique in Vietnam. Another ABC story reported that the soldier performing the act was court-martialed within a month of the photo's publications.

Waterboarding can likely credit its newfound popularity to its overwhelming effectiveness in getting the victim to talk. The Post wrote:

In the post-Vietnam period, the Navy SEALs and some Army Special Forces used a form of waterboarding with trainees to prepare them to resist interrogation if captured. The waterboarding proved so successful in breaking their will, says one former Navy captain familiar with the practice, "they stopped using it because it hurt morale."

Aside from the moral complications of the U.S. using this technique at all, David Corn described another problem the technique presents. He quoted Jonah Blank, currently a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. (Also at the link are photos Blank privides of a waterboarding device used by the Khymer Rouge on display at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which now serves as a museum. He reproduces a painting by a former prisoner showing a victim being tortured, as well.)

As has been amply documented ("The New Yorker" had an excellent piece, and there have been others), many of the "enhanced techniques" came to the CIA and military interrogators via the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] schools, where US military personnel are trained to resist torture if they are captured by the enemy. The specific types of abuse they're taught to withstand are those that were used by our Cold War adversaries. Why is this relevant to the current debate? Because the torture techniques of North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and its proxies--the states where US military personnel might have faced torture--were NOT designed to elicit truthful information. These techniques were designed to elicit CONFESSIONS. That's what the Khymer Rouge et al were after with their waterboarding, not truthful information.

Waterboarding makes the victim say something that will make the torture stop. As Blank points out, it doesn't matter whether confessions coerced by a dictatorial regime is accurate or not. Presumably most are not--that's why they have to torture people to make them admit to it.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Art Brut Watch

I've been remiss in announcing that Art Brut is once again on tour in the U.S. They've already ripped through the South, stopped in on the West Coast, and now they're working their way east, passing through Chicago at the Metro next Thursday. The tour also includes We Are Scientists, who've been receiving their own share of buzz over the past year.

Jim DeRogatis gives us yet another profile of Eddie Argos in today's Sun-Times (thanks to Chuck to the tip). Apparently there are new songs in the works, and the band is due to go into the studio for album number two in December. Argos and DeRogatis also talk up Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, who seem to be on the receiving end of a sales spike due to Argos's championing of the band and Richman's solo work.

It's very surprising that it hasn't even been a year since I first saw the band and picked up the album. They've become very familiar--almost a part of my personal landscape--and it can't be only ten-and-a-half months since I was introduced to their live show. But boy, do they tour. By my count, this is the fourth time they've been to Chicago since last November. It almost seems like they're trying to make a career out of this or something.

Hastert Resignation Watch

O.K., I have to admit it. There's a certain level of fun in watching Denny Hastert and the Republican House leadership squirm over all the new revelations in the Foley matter and its cover-up. In an interview published on Wednesday in the Chicago Tribune, Hastert insists that he's holding on to the speakership for all the wrong reasons.

"No. Look, I've talked to our members," Hastert said. "Our members are supportive. I think that [resignation] is exactly what our opponents would like to have happen--that I'd fold my tent and others would fold our tent and they would sweep the House."

That's an interesting interpretation, to say the least. What I'd like to see, and this is what I assume to be true of most Democrats, is Hastert to hold onto the speakership as long as he possibly can. That keeps his ineptness front and center for the foreseeable future. If he resigned (or even worse, was forced to resign), it would look like the Repubs were taking responsibility for their leadership and might even stop the hemorrhaging. Even worse, we wouldn't have Denny to kick around any more. Why would Democrats support, let alone promote, that kind of solution that would leave them worse off?

I'm afraid it's far, far too late tonight for me to continue making any sense (which assumes that I'm continuing to make sense). I'm too tired to be of any use, so I'm going to go to bed and take another look at all of this tomorrow.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Watch What You Say, Part #379

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words might get you arrested. That's what Steven Howards discovered over the summer. According to a story in The Denver Post, Howards was in a shopping area in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and saw the Vice Prez "shaking hands and posing for photos." Seeing an opportunity he couldn't pass up, Howards approached Cheney and offered a few choice words: "I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible." Having said his piece, he walked on. A few minutes later, he returned to the area, this time with his 8-year-old son, and was confronted by Secret Service Agent Virgil Reichle, Jr.

"He came out of the shadows," Howards said. "He didn't accuse me but asked me if I had assaulted Cheney. I said no, he grabbed me and handcuffed me behind my back in front of my son. As he led me away, I told him I can't abandon my son. He said he'd call social services."

Howards said Reichle told him he was being charged with the felony crime of assaulting the vice president.

Howards was taken to jail, where his wife bailed him out three hours later.

But a funny thing happened to those charges. The felony assault charge was downgraded to a misdemeanor harassment and then was dropped altogether.

"We filed a motion to dismiss the charge because we didn't think we could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt because we had gotten word that the vice president did not wish to prosecute Howards," [District Attorney Mark] Hurlbert said Monday. "Originally, he was going to be charged with assault because the information we got from Secret Service was that he had pushed the vice president. We learned later that it had been only verbal."

Howards filed suit against Secret Service Agent Reichle for violating his civil rights. According to The New York Times, Howards is not seeking specific damages, so it'll be hard to entice him to settle. If the Secret Service arrested Howards for no other reason than to make a point, it seems like Howards has a point to make of his own.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Quick Hits

Here's something from last week that I keep putting off, and if I don't post about it quickly it'll soon be too dated. (I'm shamelessly stealing it from The Beat, by the way). Film director Uwe Boll got tired of taking criticism for misguided masterpieces such as BloodRayne (2.5 stars on IMDB, 5 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 18 on Since he was having trouble besting the critics with his work on the screen, he turned his attention to where he might have a chance: in the boxing ring.

Boll took on four Internet critics in a Vancouver and won with a knockout over each one. Boll claimed he had a new respect for the critics, who at least showed up to take him on. Rue Morgue's Chris Alexander had a good response by filling his mouth with fake blood to spew after Boll hit him.

"I spat it out. I freaked him out exactly like I wanted to do, it was poetry. It was my Jedi mind trick to try and disorient him."

He said he got in a punch for each of Boll's bad films. "I think I got him once in the face for 'Alone in the Dark' and I got maybe one or two for 'BloodRayne.' " he said. " I have absolutely no ... regrets. ... This is the weirdest pop culture bizarre journalism stunt I've ever been involved in."

But he still went down in a knockout. Some of the other participants weren't quite so enthusiastic.

Jeff Sneider of Los Angeles, a journalist with Ain't It Cool News, went down in a technical knockout in the first round after his trainer threw in the towel.

He said Boll, 41, had told him it was just a joke, a public relations stunt.

"Then he started beating the crap out of my head," he said. "I think he's a jerk. This might be PR but I don't want to keep getting punched in the head."

I noticed an odd statement at the end of commercials for Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. It claims that the movie is "based on a true story." Does this mean that there really was a queen named Marie Antoinette in a country called . . . what was it, again . . . France, or something?

I guess the famous names of the historical figures weren't enough to clue us in that this story actually happened. I wonder if Pearl Harbor and The Alamo might've done better if they'd added the line to their publicity. Maybe it's not too late for The Queen or Flags of Our Fathers to do the same.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Don't Forget Frist!

I don't know whether he was jealous that everybody was watching the self-destruction of the House Republican leadership and the dissembling secretary of state or whether it was a selfless, if desperate, attempt to divert attention from those travesties by sacrificing himself, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist very effectively shot himself in the foot yesterday. On a trip to Afghanistan, Frist took note of the resurgence of the Taliban and suggested that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

[Frist] said the only way to win was to "assimilate people who call themselves Taliban into a larger, more representative government."

"Approaching counterinsurgency by winning hearts and minds will ultimately be the answer," Frist said. "Military versus insurgency one-to-one doesn't sound like it can be won. It sounds to me … that the Taliban is everywhere."

Of course, pretty much as soon as the story broke, Frist insisted that his statement had been taken out of context. That's quite an interesting concept, because I'm not sure in precisely what context such a statement would be acceptable. I suppose you could preface it with, "Here's something I don't believe that would be really stupid for me to say . . ." But after reassuring us that the Taliban is "a murderous band of terrorists" that we should have nothing whatsoever to do with, here's what he wrote on his VOLPAC blog:

Having discussed the situation with commanders on the ground, I believe that we cannot stabilize Afghanistan purely through military means. Our counter-insurgency strategy must win hearts and minds and persuade moderate Islamists potentially sympathetic to the Taliban to accept the legitimacy of the Afghan national government and democratic political processes.

So it's not the Taliban themselves, but just their sympathizers that we want to team up with. Thanks for the clarification, Bill!

Condi's at It Again

Last week, when Bill Clinton called out the Bushies on their total disinterest in addressing terrorism during the first eight months of their term, Condi got all high and mighty and complained to the New York Post that they had done at least as much as the Clinton administration had (which, don't forget, included thwarting a terrorist plot during the millennium) and that this was backed up by the 9/11 commission report. Of course, they didn't, and it wasn't.

Although that might've been a learning opportunity for her, she clearly didn't take it. Bob Woodward's book describes a meeting Condi had on July 10, in which CIA director George Tenet provided a grave warning (via PowerPoint) about al-Queda. Because this meeting somehow slipped past the 9/11 commission report, Condi was right back in this morning's Washington Post insisting not only that it never happened but it could never have happened without her remembering it.

Rice angrily rejected those assertions yesterday, saying that it was "incomprehensible" that she would have ignored such explicit intelligence from senior CIA officials and that she received no warning at the meeting of an attack within the United States.

Rice acknowledged that the White House was receiving a "steady stream of quite alarmist reports of potential attacks" during that period, but said the targets were assumed to be in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel and Jordan.

"What I am quite certain of, however, is that I would remember if I was told -- as this account apparently says -- that there was about to be an attack in the United States," Rice said. "The idea that I would somehow have ignored that I find incomprehensible."

Incomprehensibility must be going around, though, because a search of White House records confirms that the meeting did take place. From Tuesday's New York Times:

Officials now agree that on July 10, 2001, Mr. Tenet and his counterterrorism deputy, J. Cofer Black, were so alarmed about an impending Al Qaeda attack that they demanded an emergency meeting at the White House with Ms. Rice and her National Security Council staff.

According to two former intelligence officials, Mr. Tenet told those assembled at the White House about the growing body of intelligence the Central Intelligence Agency had collected pointing to an impending Al Qaeda attack.

Aside from Condi's faulty memory, how did the 9/11 commission miss that? In Sunday's Times, Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the commission, claimed that they were never told about any such meeting.

"This is certainly something we would have wanted to know about," he said, referring to the July 10, 2001, meeting.

He said he had attended the commission's private interviews with both Mr. Tenet and Ms. Rice and had pressed "very hard for them to provide us with everything they had regarding conversations with the executive branch" about terrorist threats before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Unfortunately, the McClatchy Washington Bureau is reporting today that Ben-Veniste did know. In fact, according to three former CIA senior officials, Tenet gave the same PowerPoint presentation to him and Philip Zelikow, the commission's executive director. Yet more evidence that the commission was so busy playing CYA that they didn't bother to find out exactly what led up to the September 11 attack.

Monday, October 02, 2006

It's All About the Politics

Not that we really expected anything else, but it turns out the Repub House leadership was concerned about the Foley situation as a political matter. Denny Hastert (unintentionally?) gave the game away this afternoon in an interview with CNN. You can see the interview or read the transcript at Think Progress.

As a quick recap, Tom Reynolds, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, says he told Denny about the Foley e-mails, and while Denny doesn't take issue with that, he claims he doesn't remember anything about it. Expanding on why he wouldn't recall such a thing in his CNN interview, he explained that Reynolds would've presented it to him with a number of other items.

HASTERT: If he would have told me that, he would have told me that in the context of maybe a half a dozen or a dozen other things. I don’t remember that.

REPORTER: Other allegations of improper e-mails?

HASTERT: No, just other things that might have affected campaigns.

There's your context, folks. Not worried about criminal wrongdoing. Not worried about the well-being of the page. Just concerned about how it's going to affect the perpetual campaign.

According to Howie Kurtz this morning (scroll past the FOX News story) and John Aravosis this evening, Reynolds's chief of staff (who was also once Foley's chief of staff) tried to make a deal with ABC's Brian Ross to keep the story from blowing wide open. Once again, sweeping it under the rug in service of the perpetual campaign.

Meanwhile, in an unlikely tip from Drudge, the Moonie-owned Washington Times calls for Denny's immediate resignation as speaker.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert must do the only right thing, and resign his speakership at once. Either he was grossly negligent for not taking the red flags fully into account and ordering a swift investigation, for not even remembering the order of events leading up to last week's revelations -- or he deliberately looked the other way in hopes that a brewing scandal would simply blow away. He gave phony answers Friday to the old and ever-relevant questions of what did he know and when did he know it? Mr. Hastert has forfeited the confidence of the public and his party, and he cannot preside over the necessary coming investigation, an investigation that must examine his own inept performance.

They suggest that Henry Hyde replace him, but I guess you can't have everything.

This whole matter has gotten more out of hand than I ever could've expected, and it doesn't look like it's finished escalating yet. Via Think Progress, Brian Ross had this to say on ABC News tonight: "We’re hearing quite a bit from former pages. They’re sending us all sorts of messages about possible other members." Stay tuned.