Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: December 2006

Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's Eve Blogging from the Road

We'd intended to leave Toronto early enough today to get back soon enough to see in the new year in Chicago, but the best-laid plans, and all that. We stopped to get a bite to eat in an Abblebee's in Flint, Michigan, where our main criteria was that we could get seated quickly, It must still be early enough in the evening that that isn't a problem because we had no wait at all.

Although we've had a good time in Toronto, the travel parts of the trip have a bit iffy. On the way up, a screw found its way into our tire and caused enough of a mess that we couldn't fix it by filling it with foam, so we had to unpack the trunk to get at the spare. On the way back, we were going through a particularly sparse area of Ontario when our gas light went on. We drove through a couple of gas stations that were closed for New Year's Eve before we were able to fill our tank. I'm not sure how many miles I've got left when that warning light goes on, but today the car went nine miles further in that circumstance than it ever had before. I'm leary of trusting that result too much, though, because I don't want to be in a position where I'm depending on it only to discover that this was our own metaphorical Chanukah.

I suspect we'll still be on the road when midnight roles around, so we'll give a little cheer for both Eastern and Central time. I noticed before I started writing that this was my 1000th post. I'm somewhat disappointed that it's not something more propitious--I can't even quote Frank Rich for a nice Sunday post, since his column is on vacation for the holidays. Perhaps this is just a reminder that we should find profundity in the mundane.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Warming to the World

The holiday week that functions pretty effectively as a news blackout is just about over. Saddam is no longer the Number 1 story on the front page at CNN (at least at this writing), but he's still right there near the top. I don't know what kind of play this got in the States, but leading one of the national news broadcasts here in Canada earlier this week was a story about the U.S. Department of the Interior proposing to add polar bears to its list of "threatened" species. According to the Endangered Species Act, the government is prevented from making any decision that can add an additional threat to the species or its habitat. This would be a big deal for a couple of reasons--for instance, it would bar the government from developing particular areas of the Arctic. But perhaps more significantly, because the threat to polar bears is pretty much attributed to be global warming, declaring them a threatened species would be a backdoor acknowledgment by the U.S. government that global warming exists.

It's hardly news that as ice in the Arctic is becoming more and more scarce. Polar bears have normally used ice floes to go and find seals to eat during the summer months, but as those floes have been melting, the bears have been increasingly bound to whatever land is available. Seals, you may have noticed, tend to stay away from the land, so there’s less for bears to eat and more starvation. Also, since polar bears have an instinct to float on these chunks of ice, they set out on them as always, but the ice melts when they are too far from land, and more and more bears are drowning. Unfortunately, sometimes it's easy to get the idea in the United States that the U.S. government is behind on global warming but that the rest of the world is more open to the idea. The CTV report that I saw, however, expressed hope that if the U.S. decided to declare polar bears a threatened species that the Canadians would quickly follow suit.

Another distressing news item that almost certainly didn't get the attention it deserved (I'm checking Google News for mentions now and only get 9) is the fact that another of the warning signs for global warming has come to pass, as well. As the oceans have been rising, a few low altitude islands have gone under the waves. Up until now, these islands have been uninhabited, but this week, the first inhabited island, Lohachara, formerly home to 10,000 people, was lost to the sea. It is in the Bay of Bengal near where the Ganges empties into the Indian Ocean. If you saw Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, you know that the area around Calcutta and the mouth of the Ganges is greatly at risk. More than 100,000,000 people live in the area, and even if flooding due to global warming displaces a small percentage of them (and the loss of Lohachara is another step in that direction), that's still a vast number of climate refugees.

I'm not sure how many canaries in the coalmine we need. Global warming doesn't just stop after it gets the polar bears or Lohachara. Other species and low-lying areas are certain to follow. And if that happens, we're all at risk. Oh well, in one more night, we'll all be wishing each other "Happy New Year" and talking about how bright to future is going to be.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Life Goes On

Even being out of the media loop, it's been hard to avoid the macabre fascination of the Saddam Hussein execution watch. The deed was finally done, of course, so it'll be interesting to see how much coverage it gets tomorrow. Will this finally be the last corner we need to turn in Iraq? Can we come home yet? All I know, at least, is that I definitely feel safer with one less imprisoned and crushed dictator in the world. I wish I had more to say about it, but the whole thing is just one huge anticlimax.

But in the meantime, I'm still in Toronto. I usually make a fair bit of effort to check out bookstores and CD stores for titles that are more difficult to find in the states. A few years ago, when the U.S. dollar was strong and the Canadian dollar wasn't, you could find some real bargains after factoring in the exchange rate. Nowadays, that's not so true--after you take Canadian federal and provincial sales tax into account, you're only saving about 5 percent over prices in Chicago. And I'm also finding that I still haven't gotten over my Tower Records liquidation sale overdose from earlier this month. I walked into Sam the Record Man and HMV and couldn't think of anything I was particularly looking for. I browsed the new titles, but nothing caught my attention beyond the new Bob Dylan for $10.00 ($9.50 after the exchange rate), which was close enough to used prices for me. I also bought a copy of Layer Cake as a late Christmas present for my sister-in-law (who doesn't read this blog, so shhhhh, it's still a secret). Since it was $26.00 alone or two for $30.00 with another title, I also picked up the two-disk Monty Python and the Holy Grail for Mrs. Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk and myself.

Back to the subject of the opening paragraph, how long will Saddam's hanging last into New Year's weekend? Make your bets in the comments.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Nothing Much Today

I'd intended to write a quick post tonight about coming into Toronto and going to look for CDs and DVDs at Sam the Record Man and HMV, Mrs. Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk performing at the prime Toronto comedy emporium, Yuk Yuks, and maybe a couple of other things, but a slight mishap has prevented that from happening. I'll try to get something up sometime in the morning.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Hardest-Working Man at Rest

The Godfather of Soul, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother No. 1, and holder of probably an infinite number of other nicknames passed away early Christmas morning. You've probably already seen this, but I've been completely out of the news cycle, myself, but I can't let this go by without a comment. Brown has just about been pushed him off the CNN title page by the even more recent death of former President Ford (which I have less to say about, so I may get to him later, but I'll offer condolences now in case I don't), but their obituary is obviously still available in the back pages. They've also got a video montage of performances (I tried to link, but it seems you can only access it through the CNN page)--none are more than about ten years old, unfortunately, so you don't see vintage James Brown, but there's enough there to get an idea. It's also unfortunate that this montage didn't include his classic routine of falling to exhaustion on stage, being wrapped in a cape for warmth and helped offstage by an aide, but then fighting him off to return to the spotlight--the man couldn't stop performing. You may have seen the homage version Paul Schaffer did for a while on Letterman, in which a different celebrity carried the cape each night. The climax (although for some reason not the final time they did the bit, because where else was there to go with it) was when James Brown himself came out with the cape, and not even he could keep Schaffer from the microphone. Ken Tucker has a very nice appreciation in Entertainment Weekly that reminds us Brown was far more of an innovator than we often remember.

Brown was an inexhaustible source of music and ideas. In his last years, his voice became ragged, but in his 1960s and 1970s prime, Brown was a vocalist of extraordinary range, able to lift that gruff tenor into a falsetto that could pierce with impeccable control. He was a brilliant improviser, with an array of grunts, moans, shrieks, and croons that as pure sounds were as expressive as any lyrics he ever enunciated. Brown, overseeing bands that at various times included guitarist Jimmy Nolan, Pee Wee Ellis on keyboards and saxophone, trombonist Fred Wesley, saxophonist Maceo Parker, and future George Clinton bassist Bootsy Collins, placed the beat in front of the melody, devised intricate beats that shifted in intensity and rapidity within a single composition. Ignorant listeners thought many of his songs ''sounded the same''; in fact, one reason his album cuts (as opposed to songs pared down for radio airplay) could last for nine or ten minutes or more was because every verse, every chorus, contained tiny, constant changes in rhythm and emphasis.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect it's still true that James Brown and George Clinton are the two most-sampled recording artists (a two-year-old news story from claims that "Funky Drummer" is the most-sampled song of all time), and not to take anything away from Clinton, but much of what he did was building on ground broken by James Brown years earlier. Even setting aside the samples, Brown is easily one of the most influential musicians of the last hundred years--don't let his skills as an entertainer dazzle you so much you don't take notice. He's got a deep, deep catalog, and this week when many of us may be off work (and even those who go into work usually don't have that much to do in the week before the new year) would be the perfect time to explore it.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Boxing Day

We're visiting relatives in Canada for the holidays, and today, of course, is Boxing Day. If you follow the Catholic calendar, you may also know that it's St. Stephen's Day, in honor of the first Christian martyr, but I suspect the Boxing Day alias is better known. As far as anyone seems to know, it was an old English holiday, and it's now officially recognized in various parts of the former British empire--the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and possibly more.

Inevitably, whenever the subject of Boxing Day comes up, the question arises of where it got its name. The truth is, no one quite knows for sure. There are a few guesses, but that's all they are. Even the Boxing Day page on the Canadian government's heritage site is inconclusive:

The day after Christmas, the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is better known as Boxing Day. The term may come from the opening of church poor boxes that day; maybe from the earthenware boxes with which boy apprentices collected money at the doors of their masters' clients.

Yes, the best they can do is the term may come from. Snopes, the site that sets us straight on rumors and urban legends, declares that the day is not named for the action of clearing away all the Christmas boxes. They pass along a few unconfirmed origins for the name, most of which have something to do with the act of giving to those more unfortunate than you after Christmas. Though we can't conclusively confirm how the day's observance and name came to be, that's probably not a bad concept for us to hang onto while the Christmas season lingers.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Twas the Night Before Christmas

I'm not sure what's possessing me to post this, but maybe we can start a new tradition. Gather the kids around the computer screen and read Clement Clarke Moore's "Twas the Night Before Christmas," also known as "A Visit from St. Nicholas," aloud. I had this poem memorized when I was six or seven, but I suspect I couldn't get through more than a couple of stanzas today. For a fully illustrated version (with lovely display initials opening each stanza--which is the reason I got this version somewhere else), check it out at Project Gutenberg.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes--how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Who? You!

Just because it's Christmas Eve is no reason to pass Frank Rich's regular Sunday column by. He also starts off riffing on Time magazine's lame year-end stunt, entitling this week's essay, "Yes, You Are the Person of the Year!" But after a few shots at the idea, he comes around to realizing that maybe Time was right.

So in Time's defense, let me say that the more I reflected on its 2006 Person of the Year — or perhaps the more that Mylar cover reflected back at me — the more I realized that the magazine wasn't as out of touch as it first seemed. Time made the right choice, albeit for the wrong reasons.

As our country sinks deeper into a quagmire — and even a conclusive Election Day repudiation of the war proves powerless to stop it — we the people, and that includes, yes, you, will seek out any escape hatch we can find. In the Iraq era, the dropout nostrums of choice are not the drugs and drug culture of Vietnam but the equally masturbatory and narcissistic (if less psychedelic) pastimes of the Internet. Why not spend hour upon hour passionately venting in the blogosphere, as Time suggests, about our "state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street"? Or an afternoon surfing from video to video on YouTube, where short-attention-span fluff is infinite? It's more fun than the nightly news, which, as Laura Bush reminded us this month, has been criminally lax in unearthing all those "good things that are happening" in Baghdad.

As of Friday morning, "Britney Spears Nude on Beach" had been viewed 1,041,776 times by YouTube's visitors. The count for YouTube video clips tagged with "Iraq" was 22,783. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But compulsive blogging and free soft-core porn are not, as Time would have it, indications of how much you, I and that glassy-eyed teenage boy hiding in his bedroom are in control of the Information Age. They are indicators instead of how eager we are to flee from brutal real-world information that makes us depressed and angry.

From there, he moves over to what our escapist tendencies have produced this year: Borat, Casino Royale, and schadenfreude over the plights of Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, James Frey, and Judith Regan.

FAR be it for me to defend any of them; Mr. Gibson once threatened to have my "intestines on a stick" after I raised the notion that the author of "The Passion of the Christ" might be an anti-Semite. But our over-the-top pleasure in their comeuppance still seems like escapist fare. It may be satisfying to see "Apocalypto" fade fast after its opening weekend or watch Ms. Regan lose her job after enriching O. J. Simpson for a sleazy book project. Yet something is out of whack when these relatively minor miscreants are publicly stoned and the architects of a needless catastrophe that has cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives escape scot-free. On the same day that Ms. Regan was canned, the fired Donald Rumsfeld was given a 19-gun salute and showered with presidential praise in a farewell ceremony at the Pentagon.

Yes, something is out of balance. But maybe we (unlike Time, I'm willing to be inclusive) can live up to the magazine's faith in us and do something about it.

[A holiday hat tip to Wealthy Frenchman for once again making the Rich column available.]

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Quick Hits

We're almost off for our holiday travels. As always, I still intend to drop by at least enough to get some sort of new post up every day, but I'll admit right now that their substance might be lighter than normal. It's possible that even that lighter blogging might get sidetracked, as the Blackberry doesn't seem to be working at the moment. It was fine this afternoon, so it may just be a temporary problem with the network--perhaps it's being overwhelmed with last-minute shoppers searching desperately for some consumer information. If this is actually a longer-term problem, I'll have to make more of an effort to get online, but I'll tackle that if I have to. For now, here are a couple of items to feed the beast.

Via AMERICAblog, here's a column from Dan Radmacher, the editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times, entitled, "Christian Bullies Manufactured This 'War on Christmas.'"

But what's so wrong with "Happy Holidays" as a season greeting? The word holiday, after all, is derived from holy day.

More to the point, what is un-Christian about taking a little extra care not to make a non-Christian feel excluded this time of year? You don't love your neighbors by rubbing their faces in beliefs they do not share.

But the biggest reason many Christians like me can't get agitated about the so-called "War on Christmas" is that there is so little evidence that such a war is happening.

Christmas decorations started going up in the malls before Halloween, for heaven's sake.

Last I looked, Christmas retained its status as a federal holiday. Christmas specials still fill the airwaves

And in a nation where, as O'Reilly likes to point out, something like 90 percent of the population celebrates Christmas in one fashion or another, I don't believe a war on Christmas is even possible.

Other than a pathetic attempt to boost O'Reilly's ratings, I think the whole brouhaha is little more than an excuse for the Christian majority to excuse holiday excesses that only recently were cause for guilt.

There's an unattractive undercurrent of intimidation in all of this.

As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote last year during a similar outbreak of Yuletide battle fever, "There is an ugly, bullying aspect to this dispute, in which the pro-Christmas forces are not only asking, reasonably, that their religion be treated with equal status and respect but in which they are attacking legitimate efforts at inclusivity."

O'Reilly is not the first to allege a war on Christmas. An article last year on the anti-Fox News Web site News Hounds recalled that Henry Ford made the same allegation in his anti-Semitic tract, "The International Jew."

It was also a favorite refrain of the John Birch Society in the late 1950s.

What happened to the days when the main concern of Christians at Christmas was that the true meaning of the season would be lost amidst all the hoopla over Santa Claus, Rudolph and the unrelenting pressure to spend, spend, spend?

In a report on Christmas specials on TV from NPR's On the Media, Ron Simon, curator of the Museum of Television and Radio, makes in intriguing point:

That Charlie Brown can understand the meaning, that the misfit toys of Rudolph can be part of an entire Christmas, and that somehow even the sourpuss of sourpusses, the Grinch, can be part of a harmony, of a more perfect union, and, uh, that type of feeling, that idealism, is not part of our culture today, but it is a postcard from America's past [transcript mine--you can listen to it yourself if you want to]

Is that correct? Is this not really a part of our society anymore? What happened? Is it gone forever?

I'm obviously not the first person to comment on Time magazine's choice of person of the year this year. If you haven't heard, it's you, or me, or that guy you bumped into getting on the train, or whoever. The magazine cover is supposed to have some sort of reflective substance on it so you can see yourself , but the couple of copies I looked at had a less-than-ideal reflection. The person I saw when I looked was an imperfect duplicate. Has Time actually named Bizarro versions of the American public (what about the international editions--are the people reading those people of the year, too?) as the person(s) of the year?

This is the time of year that we talk about the birth of Christ, but I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone make any reference to Christ's bris. He was a Jewish baby, so he must've had one. I'm not sure I've got anything to say about this, but I received this article from Slate. Apparently, Jesus' foreskin is missing. It's a mystery what happened (and it seems to have happened over twenty years ago, so it's not exactly a pressing issue), but author David Farley thinks there's a strong circumstantial case that the Vatican's got it. Speaking of circumcision and Slate, male readers with a good dose of masochism, may want to take a look at another article from last week, which explains the process used to perform an adult circumcision. No, I didn't read the whole thing.

Fight for Your Right to Party

There's a bit of a hubbub over Nancy Pelosi's plan to commemorate her inauguration as the first woman Speaker of the House. I'm not sure if it started with this story in yesterday's Washington Post, but it paints the occasion in a pretty bad light, talking about "four days of celebration." When I first heard about it, I thought it sounded a bit excessive, but I then I went to the trouble of finding out exactly what was scheduled.

The inauguration itself is on Thursday, January 4. So is that when the partying starts? Uh, no. Things get going for Nancy on Tuesday, January 2, when she returns to the Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up, goes to church, and has dinner with her family. Party on, Nancy! So the real fun starts on Wednesday, right? If going to Mass is you idea of fun, then I guess so. She does become a bit more social as the day progresses, with a scheduled tea for 400 political women. In the evening, there's dinner at the Italian embassy, with entertainment provided by Tony Bennett. (We can only guess what he might perform. "I left my heart--thanks for remembering! --'cisco.") That brings us to Thursday, when she will actually be inaugurated into office. But that's preceded by church once again (nondenominational, this time), and then a brunch (with hundreds in attendance). The big event follows next, and that will be followed by an honest-to-god fund-raiser party. The week of events culminates on Friday, with an open house (by invitation) in a Senate office building.

In hearing it described as "four days of celebration," it does sound like it's a bit much. But when we find out precisely what's planned, it doesn't seem quite so unreasonable. Even Republican consultant reveals his hand when he tries to insult Pelosi. "'What? No fireworks?' he said. 'I'm glad they canceled the tickertape parade. They probably couldn't find biodegradable tickertape and a hybrid convertible.'" In pointing out the festivities that are not being planned, he tacitly admits that what is planned isn't so extreme.

Jonathan Singer at MyDD argues that Pelosi is doing precisely what she should be. So far, Nancy Pelosi isn't a household name, and many voters are not overly familiar with her. By putting herself into the spotlight, she defines herself before her opponents get a chance to define her themselves. This allows her to introduce herself to the American people on her own terms rather than waiting for those terms to be dictated by the Republicans.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Are the Old Ways the Best Ways?

A couple of days ago, I noted the fact that the FCC was dropping a requirement for ham operators to pass a proficiency test in Morse code. It looked like a classic case of technology becoming outmoded. But maybe we're ushering in this demise a bit too quickly. When I was looking up something totally unrelated to that for a work project, I came across an interesting story from The Times of London last year.

The Powerhouse Museum of Sidney, Australia, decided to see how Morse code stood up to the latest technology. They put a 93-year-old telegrapher who used to work for the Australian post office against a 13-year-old girl with a cellphone and a texting thumb at the ready. They raced to transmit a random sentence taken from an ad in a teen magazine: "Hey, girlfriend, you can text all your best pals to tell them where you are going and what you are wearing." Apparently it wasn't even close. Gordon Hill sent the message, which was received and transcribed in full by 82-year-old Jack Gibson, in 90 seconds. It took Brittany Devlin another 18 seconds to transmit, "hey gf u can txt ur best pals 2 tel them wot u r doing, where ur going and wot u r wearing." Hill repeated the feat three more times against three more texting teens just for good measure.

We shouldn't put Morse code out to pasture prematurely. We should at least keep it around long enough for somebody to tell me whether there's some sort of Morse code message at the end of "London Calling." The common idea is that it's SOS, which makes sense thematically, but it doesn't sound to me like you get three dashes together for the O. Someone commenting at a ham radio message board writes that it's "a series of SK's," which seems like the proper pattern of dots and dashes, but what would it mean? Anybody who can shine any light on the question would be greatly appreciated.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Polling in the Darkness

I've written before about the futility of presidential polls this far out from an election, but I'm awfully intrigued by this Newsweek poll that came out a couple of days ago. It's not just the poll results--among registered voters, Hillary is preferred over McCain, Giuliani, and Romney, while Obama goes down to McCain and Giuliani but defeats Romney--but the fact that nobody (not even Newsweek) is much talking about it. Newsweek even had a cover story on the subject and didn't see fit to mention it. The cover itself states: "Obama and Hillary are already squaring off over 2008. But is America ready for either one?" They mull the question over for a while, mentioning relevant poll findings from time to time, but they never quite get around to bringing up their own poll that says, "Yes, America seems to be ready." Atrios links to a Newsday article that gets a reaction from the horse's mouth: "A Newsweek editor said the poll matchups were not pertinent to the cover story." I don't see how they could be more relevant to the question, let alone not relevant at all, but maybe that's just me.

Chris Bowers looks at the situation, as well, and he's got some questions:

Why does a trusted, established news organization that probably prides itself on adhering to various journalistic standards act as though it does not need to test its questions with actual data that is readily available? Surely, being a responsible journalist means more than just engaging in rhetorical questions, an endless stream of subjectivity, and giving equal time to spin from both sides. I, at least, like to believe that an institution trusted with presenting the public information actually values research and, well, actual information. We haven't sunk into an era where the way to be balanced is to give credence to any take on a political situation, no matter how absurd and in contradiction with actual evidence, have we? We do share a common reality, right?

Well, most of us are unashamed members of the reality-based community. I can't speak for the people at Newsweek, though.

Happy Chanukah!

Despite the preponderance of great Jewish comics creators, this is the only comic book cover I could find that even hints at Chanukah. Props to Howard Chaykin.

This is a late Chanukah greeting, and I'm particularly late in passing on a radio show, Chanukah: A Time for Super-Heroes. I was out of town when it aired in Chicago last weekend, but if you check your own local Public Radio International station (which is often your local NPR station, too), you might find it broadcast before Friday night. If you can't find it, Comics Should Be Good reports that you can stream it here from WGBH in Boston throughout Chanukah (which isn't much longer at this point). The show is said to feature some of those great Jewish comics creators I alluded to above, such as Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Jerry Robertson, and Art Spiegelman, along with author Michael Chabon, directors Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer, and others. I haven't heard it yet, but I'm planning on streaming it tonight.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Coast Guard Retreat

It looks like the Coast Guard has come to their senses. We wrote a couple of months ago about the Coast Guard decision to raise the caliber of weapons they allow in their ships on the Great Lakes. They were starting to have target practice with live rounds on the lakes (although they did promise to let everybody know where and when so that no one would inadvertently sail into the line of fire), and actually held 24 machine-gun exercises. But after quite a bit of public outcry on both sides of the border, along with official government protest from Canada, the Coast Guard put those exercises on hold and agreed to convene public meetings so people could come out and express their concerns about the whole thing. One of the main complaints was the environmental cost of shooting 430,000 lead bullets into the Great Lakes. It turns out that the Coast Guard actually listened. They've announced that they'll put a permanent end to the tests. Rear Admiral John E. Crowley, Jr., commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District, called the current plan "unsatisfactory." He didn't rule out a better plan in the future, but he did say he was committed to finding an environmentally friendly solution. For the full Coast Guard press release, click here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Quick Hits

Because I'm too busy and too tired to write a proper post.

Sometime Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk commenter Chuck G fell back on 20th-century methods of expressing his opinion and wrote a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times (scroll all the way to the bottom) to disagree with this column by John O'Sullivan, in which O'Sullivan called Augusto Pinochet "the most successful dictator of the 20th century." Summing up O'Sullivan's argument, Chuck wrote, "Apparently, economic success trumps all other deeds." Unfortunately, as we've been discussing, John O'Sullivan isn't the only one who seems to think so. Way to go, Chuck!

Speaking of the 20th century (and the 19th before it), digital ones and zeros did not make up the first binary communication language. Samuel Morse devised his eponymous code to send messages along the telegraph wires, and it was quickly adopted by that newfangled wireless contraption. For years, knowledge of Morse code was necessary to get a ham radio license in the United States, but the FCC has announced that it is rescinding the requirement. With the variety of communication options, Morse code is not as necessary as it once was, and the FCC wants to make ham broadcasting viable for those who don't know it. My grandfather was a railroad man in Western Canada, and for some part of his career he was a telegrapher. My father fondly remembers that he could receive a message by telegraph and carry on a conversation at the same time. Although my grandfather would no doubt recognize that technology moves inevitably forward, I can't help but imagine he'd be a bit wistful to see the decline of Morse code.

I was going to make some cheap comment about the metaphorical appropriateness of Miss USA going to rehab, but then I read David Segal's write-up of the Donald Trump/Miss USA press conference, and I had to share it with you.

Conner listened in a seat next to Trump, fighting tears, then losing that fight, then fighting some more. The day after her 21st birthday, she looked chastened and grateful and primped to a fare-thee-well in a navy pinstriped suit as Trump called her a woman who'd "made some very very bad choices, some very foolish choices." He had expected, he went on, to terminate Conner's reign when the two met in the morning, but she impressed him with her sincerity and contriteness and the story of her humble origins in Kentucky and the way that New York City had swept her into its vortex of wickedness and sin.

"She was telling me that she got caught up in the whirlwind of New York. It's a story that has happened many times to many women and men that came to the Big Apple," Trump intoned. "They wanted their slice of the Big Apple and they found out it wasn't so easy."

Ah, the Manhattan defense. It wasn't me. It was the Meatpacking District!

Conner, he went on, agreed to go into rehab and knows that if she slips up even once, she's toast. Or words to that effect.

"I believe that she can set a great example for troubled people -- and she's troubled -- throughout the country, throughout lots of countries, that have problems with alcohol, that have problems with life. I believe she will be an amazing, amazing example."

Then Trump stepped aside and introduced Conner, which is when this event went from superb publicity stunt with cleavage and pathos to sublime publicity stunt with cleavage and pathos. Conner inched to the microphone and praised her benefactor, describing him not with words befitting the leering, profit-motivated owner of a televised boobiefest, but with words befitting a saint.

"I've had a very big blessing bestowed upon me," she said moistly. "And you'll never know how much I appreciate Mr. Trump for saving me on this one. It truly takes someone with a heart of gold and blessed soul."

Yeah, that or a man with a genius for self-deification. Who but Trump could have orchestrated this? There we are, sitting near a bar that bears his name (Trump Bar), beside a buffet that bears his name (Trump Buffet) and an ice cream parlor that bears his name (Trump's Ice Cream Parlor), amid Trump-branded chocolate bars, jelly beans, ties, cuff links, shirts and sweaters and somehow the subject is what a selfless sweetie Trump is.

Segal regrets that the meeting between Trump, Miss USA Tara Conner, and the unnamed president of the Miss USA pageant, which he calls a "yahoo Yalta," weren't televised--or at least recorded in some way. Maybe we'll get a transcript, or at least a description from one of the participants, before it's all over. It would be a true shame if the details of such a momentous event were lost to posterity.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Home Again, Home Again

Yeah, I've probably used that title before, but we're back in town after a long weekend in Kentucky horse country, where the stables are sometimes fancier than the houses to which they're attached. We were visiting relatives who have nothing whatsoever to do with horses. There's been a general realization that the United States is becoming more and more homogenized, but you can still often tell various parts of the country from other parts by the geography and the architecture. Certainly that stable (and racecourse) architecture doesn't really appear much outside of northeastern Kentucky. Although we only went two states away from Chicago, it did feel like we were somewhere else. Of course, there's no denying that pretty much everywhere has the same fast food restaurants and the same chain stores, but despite how it sometimes feels, there's more to a geographic area than its consumer outlets.

While I was at my mother's house, I came across some older papers and materials that I thought had long since been cleared out. My Orange Juice seven-inch of "What Presence?" was there, when I thought it was already in my singles collection. There were also a few stray comics that had gotten separated from the others some years ago. Tragically, I found one of my favorite Neal Adams covers, Batman #227 (which was itself an homage to Detective Comics #31), separated from the rest of the comic book. Oh, well. Live fast, die young. Now maybe I can frame it without putting a whole comic out of reach.

So what happened while I was gone? I haven't had a chance yet to check the news pages or other blogs to see if there have been any significant happenings in the last few days.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Refocusing the Religious Right

In today's New York Times, Frank Rich takes a look at the declining political influence of the religious right. Is this a short-term trend or a new reality? He hits a fair amount of territory, but his frame of reference is a story I don't think I've mentioned: Mary Cheney's pregnancy. As you've no doubt seen if you've been following the story, there are plenty of opportunities for hypocrisy in the reactions to this development. Rich takes a look at a few of them in "Mary Cheney's Bundle of Joy." After scrolling through a series of hurdles over which the anti-gay movement has stumbled lately, he moved to consider new developments among the religious right.

For those who are cheered by seeing the Rovian politics of wedge issues start to fade, the good news does not end with the growing evidence that gay-baiting may do candidates who traffic in it more harm than good. It's not only centrist American voters of both parties who reject divisive demagoguery but also conservative evangelicals themselves. Some of them are at last standing up to the extremists in their own camp.

No one more dramatically so, perhaps, than Rick Warren, the Orange County, Calif., megachurch leader and best-selling author of "The Purpose Driven Life." He has adopted AIDS in Africa as a signature crusade, and invited Barack Obama to join the usual suspects, including Senator Brownback, to address his World AIDS Day conference on the issue. This prompted predictable outrage from the right because of Mr. Obama's liberal politics, especially on abortion. One radio host, Kevin McCullough, demonized the Democrat for pursuing "inhumane, sick and sinister evil" as a legislator. An open letter sponsored by 18 "pro-life" groups protested the invitation, also citing Mr. Obama's "evil." But Mr. Warren didn't blink.

Among those defending the invitation was David Kuo, the former deputy director of the Bush White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In a book, "Tempting Faith," as well as in interviews and on his blog, the heretical Mr. Kuo has become a tough conservative critic of the corruption of religion by politicians and religious-right leaders who are guilty of "taking Jesus and reducing him to some precinct captain, to some get-out-the-vote guy." Of those "family" groups who criticized Mr. Obama's appearance at the AIDS conference, Mr. Kuo wrote, "Are they so blind and possessed with such a narrow definition of life that they can think of life only in utero?" The answer, of course, is yes. The Christian Coalition parted ways with its new president-elect, a Florida megachurch pastor, Joel Hunter, after he announced that he would take on bigger issues like poverty and global warming.

But it is leaders like Mr. Hunter and Mr. Warren who are in ascendance. Even the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at Mr. Haggar's former perch, the National Association of Evangelicals, has joined a number of his peers in taking up the cause of the environment, putting him at odds with the Bush administration. Such religious leaders may not have given up their opposition to abortion or gay marriage, but they have more pressing priorities. They seem to have figured out, as Mr. Kuo has said, that "politicians use Christian voters for their money and for their votes" and give them little in return except a reputation for bigotry and heartless opposition to the lifesaving potential of stem-cell research.

It does seem as though we're in a new day as far as religious influence in politics, but I'm not sure that the pendulum is swinging back just yet. But if nothing else, let's enjoy it while it lasts.

And a hat tip once again to Wealthy Frenchman for the non-embargoed access to this week's Rich column.

Child's Play

With Christmas coming up, it's probably not too early to start taking a look at some toys. (Not too early? With eight shopping days left, I'd say no, it's not.) I just saw a commercial for Itsy-Bitsy Spider-Man, a plush toy that sings and dances to "Itsy-Bitsy Spider." Here's the sell copy:

He talks, dances, even sings! This friendly plush, electronic Spider-Man figure is ready to boogie! Press his left foot and he sings and dances to the "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" song! Press his right foot and he moves and grooves while singing the Spider-Man & Friends theme song! He even says fun phrases like, "Would you like to have some fun?" and "C'mon, let's do it again!" A convenient volume-control switch lets you decide just how loud Spidey sings!

Thank god, we wouldn't want to wake up the neighbors. So, is the slogan, "With great power comes great boogying ability?"

Over at The Beat, Heidi notes a rundown at Radar of the 10 most dangerous toys of all time. Child safety hasn't always been a top priority of toy manufacturers--Irving Mainway often wasn't that much of a stretch. I've got direct experience with only two of the toys on this list. We didn't actually have Jarts, which are the top dangerous toys on this list (and probably on any other such list, as well), but plenty of other families in the neighborhood did, so we had lots of time to play with them. Obviously, you were never actually supposed to throw them at anybody, but it's not too hard to figure out how you could have an accident.

Another toy I had a lot of fun with when I was six or seven was the Thingmaker. You poured various colors of plastigoop into molds, cooked them, and then had rubbery, plasticy spiders, lizards, evil eyes, scars, and various other fun shapes. I guess the main problem with this toy was the cooking part. The molds were heated on an open hot plate that, according to Radar, could heat to 310 degrees. I'm really not sure what the problem was--the toy had a warning not to touch it. And you could certainly tell it was hot. It only takes a six-year-old a couple of burned fingers to realize they need to be careful.

Although Jarts are certainly the most dangerous, the most dangerous and unlikely toy on the list is the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. According to the box, it included "safe radioactive materials--Alpha source in handy container and Uranium Ore." And in addition to the radioactivity, it also promised the "Spinthariscope," which "shows exploding atoms." At $49.50 in 1951, this seems immensely expensive, so it's not a huge surprise that it was only on the market for one year. But maybe if they could have just found a different way to market it--get Irving Mainway on the phone!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

On the Road

Holiday travel is starting a little bit early for us this year. I'm taking a long weekend to visit friends, and then back to work next week, before the actual holiday time off begins. I thought about posting a traffic report today--we traveled for a while behind an oversize load that for some reason had an official escort that would sometimes block the freeway while the oversize load took up part of two lanes. We were experiencing traffic jams in the middle of nowhere for about fifty miles before we discovered what was causing it. There was nothing particularly distinctive about the truck with the wide load, so I don't know if it had something to do with the military or other national security matter, but that would be my only guess for why it had the extra-special attention.

Anyway, all that to say, I'll be checking in from time to time over the weekend, but I may not have the chance to spend a lot of time in front of the screen. There are a couple of posts I've been working on that I might try to polish up a bit, but it may end up being a slower blogging period.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Ha, Ha! It Was All a Joke

That Jeff Greenfield, what a kidder. A couple of days ago, he led a laugh riot on CNN, comparing Barack Obama's wardrobe to that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There weren't a lot of laughs, and some people, such as Bob Somerby at Daily Howler, Kevin Drum, and Digby even compared Greenfield's observations to the attention given Al Gore's earth tones, Bill Clinton's "$300 haircut" from Christophe, and Nancy Pelosi's attraction to Armani.

This wasn't the response Greenfield expected obviously, and maybe feeling like Kramer surrounded by hecklers, he may have panicked for a moment. His panic wasn't quite as damaging as Kramer's, fortunately, but it certainly didn't do much to underline his comedy bone fides. Like all comic geniuses faced with a joke falling flat, Greenfield thought that he could make it all better by--wait for it--explaining the joke. Greenfield did admit that he might not have told it as effectively as he might have, but the real problem was that bloggers jump to conclusions.

Yep, it was all the bloggers' fault. Why couldn't the silly bloggers realize that, unlike the election 2000 attacks on the color of Gore's clothes, unlike the recent use of Obama's middle name to undermine him as a serious candidate, unlike whatever the next frivolous nonissue intended to knock a Democrat off his or her game, comparing Obama's open collar to Ahmadinejad's open collar was all just one big laugh. Maybe bloggers will develop a sense of humor next time.

And as for Jeff Greenfield? He's booking a weekend set at Hollywood's Laugh Factory even as we speak.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Quick Hits

I haven't been looking in on James Walcott's blog enough lately. Always interesting and well-written, the site seldom fails to make itself worth your time. And Wolcott often surprises with his mix of high and low references. Last week, in a post about the treatment of American terror suspect Jose Padilla, who was recently outfitted with sensory-deprivation goggles and earphones to visit the dentist, he borrowed a title from Harlen Ellison and made a reference to The Haunted Tank.

He also provided a link to Ken Levine's blog. Levine is a TV writer, but last week while traveling, he lent his blog to Peter Casey, one of the co-creators of Frasier. In three installments, Casey reveals the creation process of that series. If you like to see behind the scenes, this is worth a look (one, two, three).

(I've been neglecting Mark Evanier's news from me, lately, as well. He provided the same links to Ken Levine here.)

Here's a chain of links that starts with The Beat, who links to Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil blog, which links to this story at the Discovery Channel. It appears that people who love the late night (lovingly refered to as "night owls" in the article, which still beats "nite owls") may just be more creative. I'm sure not going to argue against that point. Maybe it finally provides some sort of excuse I can hide behind for the crazy time stamps you'll find on these posts of mine.

On Monday in The Washington Post, Paul Farhi said his own good-bye to Tower Records.

There will never be the same sense of wonder on iTunes, the same joy of discovery and intoxicating power of musical abundance that hit you every time you walked into even the dinkiest Tower or any comparable record store. There it lay before you -- unheard! unseen! unfondled! -- potential treasures beckoning from row upon row of wooden bins.

Clicking a mouse cannot replace the singular ritual act of pawing through those big bins to find . . . well, you never knew what. And that was the point. Skilled veterans could flip through dozens of records -- "records"? Ha-ha, Grandpa! -- with knowing hands and studious concentration while the rest of us dawdled over a particularly alluring piece of cover art. Working your way down the alphabet (Abba, the Beatles, the Cure, etc.) could take the better part of an afternoon.

. . .

There's no doubt the Internet is a superior transactional medium for getting music. But saying so assumes that the transaction is all there is. It values ends over means, destinations over journeys.

For a long time, Tower was a great journey.

I think those last two paragraphs echo my position. I won't claim that the Internet have a lot of advantages in buying CDs or music in general, but we have to remember that we're losing something, as well, when the well-stocked local record store disappears.

South Dakota Senator Hospitalized and Undergoing Surgery

[UPDATES below]

My time has been squeezed more than I've been expecting lately, so I'm going to set aside my previously intended subject in favor of something that requires less research. Unfortunately, there's a breaking story in Washington that may shake up everything that we've come to expect about the incoming Senate. Senator Tim Johnson of North Dakota was taken ill this afternoon with symptoms that looked very much like a stroke, but a statement from the senator's office later ruled out a stroke. Here's how The Washington Post describes the illness:

Johnson spokesman Noah Pinegar said the senator "became disoriented" during a late-morning conference call with reporters, placed from the Capitol's Senate recording studio. "He had difficulty completing a response to a question," Pinegar said, so aides ended the call and walked with him back to Hart Senate Office Building.

When they arrived, Pinegar said, Johnson "wasn't himself." A team from the Capitol physician's office quickly arrived and sent the senator to the hospital by ambulance. Johnson's wife, Barbara, was with him at the hospital as tests were being conducted last night, Pinegar said.

As of this writing, it's being reported that he's gone into surgery and is still there. CNN is reporting that it's brain surgery.

Aside from the trauma to Senator Johnson and his family, the reason this is national news is that, you'll remember, the new Senate will effectively have a 51-49 Democratic majority. If Johnson is unable to serve, his replacement will be appointed by South Dakota's Republican governor. Although South Dakota Governor Michael Rounds can appoint anyone he wants to, it's a safe assumption that he'd appoint a Republican. That would move the Repubs back to a 50-50 split, with Dick Cheney required to break any ties. This would effectively result in a continued Republican majority and a new, unexpected round of the Do-Nothing Senate.

Via Christina Larson in Political Animal, Steve Benen's Carpetbagger Report explores what South Dakota might mean by Senator Johnson's "being able to serve." If Johnson dies, Rounds would appoint a successor, but if he's alive but incapacitated, South Dakota officials might not make a move. Apparently there's no real precedent for that.

The situation will perhaps be clearer in the morning (when all but one or two die-hard readers will be perusing it anyway). In the meantime, we give Senator Johnson all of our concern and best wishes.

UPDATE--There's not a lot of new information this morning. A recent report in The Washington Post reveals that Johnson is out of surgery but still in critical condition. George Washington University Hospital promises an official statement later today. On NPR's Morning Edition, Nina Totenberg discussed the likelihood of Johnson keeping his seat even if he has some level of incapacitation. She had a number of examples, but the most recent was Strom Thurmond, who, although he was physically present in the Senate for his last couple of years, wasn't really there mentally. As I recall, there was no discussion of his fitness to serve. The Chicago Tribune also mentions Lane Evans of Illinois, a current Congressman who suffers from Parkinson's and did not vote for quite some time this year. He'll leave office when his term expires in January.

UPDATE #2--We got a few answers today. The Washington Post is reporting that Johnson has a congenital problem with blood vessels in his brain, and it started to bleed yesterday. (Red Girl, Blue State has a more detailed explanation.) His physician said that the surgery was successful and the senator "has continued to have an uncomplicated post-operative course. Specifically, he has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch. No further surgical intervention has been required." His family is optimistic. It looks like the speculation of what happens next in the Senate has calmed down for the time being.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Separated at Birth?

As Barack Obama may (or may not) be preparing to run for president, he can't avoid coming under increased scrutiny. And via Josh Marshall, CNN's Jeff Greenfield may be on to something:

The senator was in New Hampshire over the weekend, sporting what's getting to be the classic Obama look. Call it business casual, a jacket, a collared shirt, but no tie.

It is a look the senator seems to favor. And why not? It is dressy enough to suggest seriousness of purpose, but without the stuffiness of a tie, much less a suit. There is a comfort level here that reflects one of Obama's strongest political assets, a sense that he is comfortable in his own skin, that he knows who he is.

. . .

But, in the case of Obama, he may be walking around with a sartorial time bomb. Ask yourself, is there any other major public figure who dresses the way he does? Why, yes. It is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, unlike most of his predecessors, seems to have skipped through enough copies of "GQ" to find the jacket-and-no-tie look agreeable.

Maybe a turtleneck might work better . . .

Mourning Some More for Pinochet

Add The Washington Post editorial page to those like Maggie Thatcher who were a bit blue at the passing of the former Chilean dictator. Subscribing fully to the omelets and broken eggs school of foreign policy, Tuesday's editorial acknowledged a split of opinion in regard to Pinochet but quickly got around to talking up the positives.

Augusto Pinochet, who died Sunday at the age of 91, has been vilified for three decades in and outside of Chile, the South American country he ruled for 17 years. For some he was the epitome of an evil dictator. That was partly because he helped to overthrow, with U.S. support, an elected president considered saintly by the international left: socialist Salvador Allende, whose responsibility for creating the conditions for the 1973 coup is usually overlooked. Mr. Pinochet was brutal: More than 3,000 people were killed by his government and tens of thousands tortured, mostly in his first three years. Thousands of others spent years in exile.

Yeah, that might have something to do with his vilification.

It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. In the past 15 years, Chile's economy has grown at twice the regional average, and its poverty rate has been halved.

This blog has smart readers (it always pays to flatter one's audience), but it probably bears pointing out that the past 15 years have all been since Pinochet relinquished control of the country.

The contrast between Cuba and Chile more than 30 years after Mr. Pinochet's coup is a reminder of a famous essay written by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the provocative and energetic scholar and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who died Thursday. In "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a work that caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right.

It's pretty easy to see the flaw in this argument, but I'm not sure I could put it any more pithily than Spencer Ackerman over at TAPPED, The American Prospect blog:

Wow, what might be a counterexample to this. Oh, I don't know -- maybe all of formerly-communist-and-now-NATO'd-up Eastern Europe?

It's amazing how grief can cloud one's judgment.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tower Records Update

If you've got a Tower Records nearby (for the next few days, anyway), check to see what they're doing. In the Chicago area, different Towers are giving different discounts. Last night I went out to the Tower in Bloomingdale, and they were offering 70 percent off of all CDs, with 60 percent off all DVDs. I tell you, 70 percent is pretty darn seductive. At that point, pretty much if you ever thought about getting a CD, it's worth it at that price. And there was still a surprising amount of material I'd at one point thought about picking up. So I did. But I stopped by the Lincoln Park Tower to see if a couple of things I'd considered but passed on at only 40 percent off were still available. But when I got there, this location was still holding out for 60 percent off (50 percent for DVDs). It was amazing, but that extra 10 percent at Bloomingdale was like a high or something. Having tasted that, I had no interest in buying for only 60 percent off. The CDs I was looking for, which I would've bought at that discount, were already gone and nothing else came close to capturing my interest. I may have sated my desire for new CDS, at least for a little while, if I can't keep buying them at 70 percent off.

By the way, the Bloomingdale store had a sign Monday night that said there were only eight days left. I haven't seen that in any other Towers in the area, so I don't know if that's a store-by-store decision or if that deadline is good for the entire chain.

Is It Easier in a Dictatorship?

Our Internet is out at the moment, so I'm Blackberrying it tonight. This will probably be shorter than it would've been otherwise, but we must acknowledge the passing of Augusto Pinochet. He manhandled Chile in the 1970s, usurping control from the democratically elected socialist Salvadore Allende and thrilling the hearts of rightwingers everywhere. Pinochet was a classic strongman. He set up a by-the-numbers authoritarian regime and turning his back on human rights. Thousands of Chileans were killed or disappeared. Disappear became an active verb under Pinochet. Dissidents were kidnapped and never heard from again.

Free elections were ultimately held again, and Pinochet stepped down. In 1998, he was arrested in the U.K for some of the murders carried out during his regime. Many of his international supporters came to his defense, most prominantly, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Thatcher was saddened at the news of the dictator's passing). The Clash song "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" rails against a number of things, but one of its targets is the growing conservatism of the U.K. at the time of the song's writing. Here's a representative verse:

All over, people are changing their vote
Along with their overcoat.
If Adolph Hitler flew in today,
They'd send a limousine anyway.

The Clash wrote this some time before there was an Internet, Usenet, or Godwin's Law. So I don't have a problem with the Hitler namecheck. But twenty years later, the reaction given to Pinochet proves the group's point. Ever since Thatcher came to the defese of Pinochet, every time I hear his name, I drop it into that Clash verse to replace Hitler. Not only would they send a metaphorical limousine to pick him up, they did, Pinochet provides the example of truth to that line. He also reminds us that we haven't moved that far in the last sixty-one years.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Which Way Is Forward in Iraq?

I've been putting off commenting on the report of the Iraq Study Group because I've wondered if it would really amount to much. Sure, it's good to have the recognition (shared for quite some time by the majority of the American public) that the Iraqi occupation has long reached a dead end. But the Decider doesn't have to listen to anyone, and he's still enamored of the decisions he's made up to this point. There was no mistaking how the Prez basked in the praise from Tony Blair earlier this week:

Thank you also for the clarity of your vision about the mission that we're engaged in at the moment, which is a struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and terrorism and sectarianism on the other.

A few people have already pointed out the failings of the Iraq Study Group report. Russ Feingold wrote a response for the Huffington Post:

When the Iraq Study Group's report was unveiled this week, it was like the opening of a blockbuster movie, with reporters counting down the minutes until it was released. But now that all the hoopla has subsided, all we are left with is a Washington inside job: a report written by Washington insiders, for Washington insiders, who share the same mindset that led us into the misguided war in Iraq.

. . .

Unfortunately, while the Iraq Study Group's report recognizes that the Administration's policy is not working, it doesn't correct the myopic focus on Iraq that has so dangerously weakened our national security. In the end, this report is a regrettable example of 'official Washington' missing the point.

AJ, AMERICAblog's resident intelligence expert, called the report a dud.

It's difficult to tell whether the ISG report ultimately represents a failure of brainpower or a failure of nerve. The point of the group's report was to explain the current situation in Iraq and how to best move forward, but instead it ultimately (if unsurprisingly) became a political entity. They took into account political positions in an attempt to craft solutions that would be politically palatable, rather than stating their unvarnished findings. In other words, either all these smart people took eight months to tell us what we all already knew, or they watered down their opinion for the sake of not making waves. Neither option is especially heartening.

And now, unsurprisingly, here comes Frank Rich with his own assessment of the report. This week's column, "The Sunshine Boys Can't Save Iraq," is getting quite a bit of exposure. Drudge quoted selectively from it today (I'm not linking to Drudge--you can find the link yourself if you want to), noting that Rich called the Iraq occupation a failure without noting that he was agreeing with Donald Rumsfeld's assessment from his now famous memo the day before the election. Here's more than Drudge is willing to quote:

In the early 1990's [Daniel Patrick Moynihan] famously coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" to describe the erosion of civic standards for what constitutes criminal behavior. In 2006, our governmental ailment is defining reality down. "The Way Forward" is its apotheosis.

This syndrome begins at the top, with the president, who has cut and run from reality in Iraq for nearly four years. His case is extreme but hardly unique. Take Robert Gates, the next defense secretary, who was hailed as a paragon of realism by Washington last week simply for agreeing with his Senate questioners that we're "not winning" in Iraq. While that may be a step closer to candor than Mr. Bush's "absolutely, we’re winning" of late October, it's hardly the whole truth and nothing but. The actual reality is that we have lost in Iraq.

That's what Donald Rumsfeld at long last acknowledged, between the lines, as he fled the Pentagon to make way for Mr. Gates. The most revealing passage in his parting memo listing possible options for the war was his suggestion that public expectations for success be downsized so we would "therefore not 'lose.' " By putting the word lose in quotes, Mr. Rumsfeld revealed his hand: the administration must not utter that L word even though lose is exactly what we've done. The illusion of not losing must be preserved no matter what the price in blood.

The Iraq Study Group takes a similarly disingenuous tack.

. . .

Its recommendations are bogus because the few that have any teeth are completely unattainable. Of course, it would be fantastic if additional Iraqi troops would stand up en masse after an infusion of new American military advisers. And if reconciliation among the country's warring ethnicities could be mandated on a tight schedule. And if the Bush White House could be persuaded to persuade Iran and Syria to "influence events" for America’s benefit. It would also be nice if we could all break the bank in Vegas.

The group's coulda-woulda recommendations are either nonstarters, equivocations (it endorses withdrawal of combat troops by 2008 but is averse to timelines) or contradictions of its own findings of fact.

. . .

By prescribing such placebos, the Iraq Study Group isn't plotting a way forward but delaying the recognition of our defeat. Its real aim is to enact a charade of progress to pacify the public while Washington waits, no doubt in vain, for Mr. Bush to return to the real world.

He follows this with some distressing comparisons to Lyndon Johnson's reaction to Vietnam at a similar point in the war. Johnson seemed willing to alter the mission in Vietnam, something the current Prez seems entirely unprepared to do. Will anything change during this administration? Not when the vision is as "clear" as what Tony Blair celebrates.

(Thanks to Welcome to Pottersville for bringing Frank Rich out from behind the subscription curtain this week.)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Public Service Announcement (Chicago-Area Only)

We already talked about hi def Rudolph the other night, and Thursday saw an article in The Washington Post examining the phenomenon of watching TV Christmas specials (that have long been available on video or DVD) on commercial TV.

It's about the shared experience, the childhood memories that powerfully linger and the new memories adults are so desperate to create with their kids. For overscheduled kids and overworked parents, eating microwaved meals and playing with individualized electronic gadgets, Rudolph, it appears, is an oasis of old-fashioned holiday feeling.

"It's about the holidays and children, and how really important it is for families to have a sense of tradition," says Linda Gulyn, a professor of psychology at Marymount University who specializes in child development. "Most of us parents grew up with this experience, especially around the holidays, and we have a strong need to pass on tradition."

Shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas have been around for about four decades and have become a part of the Christmas experience. But there's one special that hasn't had that opportunity. The Star Wars Holiday Special may be more of a Thanksgiving special--its one-and-only airing was November 17, 1978, and it featured Chewbacca racing home to be with his family for a holiday. Although it included the cast of the original movies, it also featured guest stars Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Diahann Carroll, and Jefferson Starship. Why has it aired only once? Because George Lucas has publicly admitted to being embarrassed by it, and it's widely considered to be one of the worst TV shows of all time. Do a Google search, and you'll find a variety of sites about it.

But why am I telling you about it now? Well, for one thing, I happened to be discussing it this afternoon, and we wondered if Lucas would ever get over his mortification about the matter and just allow it to come out on DVD. But that's not happening anytime soon, so if you're in the Chicago area, you can catch a showing on Sunday night at Delilah's, 2771 N. Lincoln. Whether the original creators of the show realized it or not, a bar is the perfect environment to view this. Plentiful drinks will make it progressively better or worse, I'm not sure. The Delilah's site says the show starts at 6:00, so don't be late!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Hard Times for Rock Icons

It hasn't been easy for some of the big names in rock'n'roll recently. Tower Records is liquidating (at the stores I visited recently, CDs are all 60 percent off and DVDs are 50 percent off--they're pretty picked over at this point, but there are still a few things of interest left). Dick Clark auctioned off a vast amount of the memorabilia he's picked up over the years, although a bass ostensibly owned by Paul McCartney and played in the Beatles may not be authentic. Punk rock may be in the process of being elbowed out of the way by childrens' music. And the Hard Rock Cafe, formally owned by the Rank Group of the U.K., has just been purchased by the Florida Seminole tribe (no, not these guys) for just under a billion dollars. They had already opened Hard Rock casinos and hotels in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida, and have done very well for themselves, so in a way, they're just expanding their holdings. Still, there's some concern that Rank sold the franchise for less than it was worth, but that's just an indication that the perceived value of the brand name and its rock memorabilia had been shrinking. Maybe the Seminoles can infuse new life into the company. According to The Saigon Times Daily, the company is getting ready to move into Vietnam. What looks like it may have been a shrewd business deal may be little more than poetic justice. Max B. Osceola, Jr., a Seminole council representative, was quote in The New York Times as saying, "Our ancestors sold Manhattan for trinkets. We're going to buy Manhattan back, one burger at a time."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Hi Tech Rudolph

It's that time of year again, and CBS is advertising a new remastered, high-definition version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Just what we've been waiting for: ultra-clear stop-motion puppets. You'll be able to see every ice crystal in Sam the Snowman and each strand of Yukon Cornelius's beard. Wikipedia says that CBS already aired this version last year, but if that's true, I missed it. Who has a high def TV and can tell us if Santa and his elves and reindeer seem like they're right in the room with you?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The New Punk Rock?

When punk first came to rock and pop music in the mid-'70s, it shook up the landscape, more than it even appeared to at the time. Now we have Ramones music scoring commercials, Iggy Pop selling cruise lines, and everybody and his brother claiming to be influenced by the Clash. Ever since that time, various musical genres--dance, rap, and electronica immediately come to mind--have called themselves the "new punk." Yesterday on All Things Considered, a new claim was made: Children's music is the new punk.

Stefan Shepherd, who blogs about kids music at Zooglobble, put forth the argument:

When [punk] started, it had an energy, and it had this sense of "We're just going to do it ourselves." I think a lot of the kids' music we're seeing now is artists saying "I just want to put out a kids' album, and I'm going to record it on my own time, I'm going to record it on my own dime."

Does he have a point? Well, DIY was an important part of punk, and the ATC story included Wee Hairy Beasties, a band that features Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons, and that's a pretty nice punk pedigree. But it seems to me that the punk I remember has a fair bit of anger associated. Are there a bunch of seething little kids that this music is serving? And what's the hierarchy of children's music? Does this make The Wiggles the Sex Pistols or the Clash? Or maybe they're the Knack.

The link above was to read the story, but from there you can also click through to hear the radio report or listen to some samples of the music itself.

A Little Bit More Information

[UPDATED below]

There's a new twist to the little dust up between Senator-elect Jim Webb and the Prez. We already know that at a White House function Bush sought out Webb to ask him about his "boy." Jimmy Webb is a marine currently serving in Iraq, and it turns out he recently had an extremely close call. Three marines were killed when a vehicle next to the younger Webb was blown up. So it's not surprising that his father was a shade touchy in discussing the son's well-being. But it may be surprising (or it may not, depending on your opinion of the Commander in Chief) that the Prez was well aware of this himself. A diary at Daily Kos first reported that Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, claimed:

Not only did Bush know about it, he was specifically briefed on the incident before meeting with Webb, and was cautioned to be extra sensitive in speaking with Webb about his son.

And Think Progress confirmed the quote with the congressman. So what are we to conclude but that the Prez sought Webb out to exacerbate his concern about his son? I suppose there is another option, though. Maybe "That's not what I asked you, how's your boy?" is Bush being extra sensitive.

UPDATE--In comments, Dirk recommends reading Michael Kinsley in Monday's Slate, which is a good idea. Kinsley discusses the misadventures of the Bush twins and their reaction (or lack of same) to the whole situation in Iraq, comparing that to the Webb family's response to the war. Truth to tell, I'd intended to mention Barb and Jenna myself and link back to Kinsley, but when I sat down to write last night, that part of my plan slipped my mind entirely. Thanks to Dirk for returning it to my attention.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Have Yourself a Moral Little Christmas

Just in time for Christmas, a loyal reader sent me a list of ethically challenged products. This was inspired to some extent by the new Leo DiCaprio movie, Blood Diamond, which dramatizes the issue of "blood" or "conflict diamonds," those diamonds that are sold to fund armed conflict and civil war in Africa. (If you're looking to buy diamonds, Amnesty International has a Buyers' Guide (PDF) on blood diamonds, how to avoid them, and what to do about their continued sale.)

The list of other morally problematic items is a Web exclusive from Foreign Policy. The five products, gold, candy bars (because of cocoa powder), teak furniture, shower curtains (polyvinyl chloride), and cell phones (coltan and tin ore), help support more armed conflict, child labor, and environmental damage. Foreign Policy does provide a few alternatives to some of these immoral products, so they don't all need to be stricken from the Christmas list. Because after all, if you can't make positive moral choices at Christmas, when should you do it?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Buy in the Place That You Live (Now Face North)

Back at Thanksgiving, I pushed Buy Nothing Day, so I guess it's only fair to switch gears and point out Buy Local First Week, which started on Sunday. It's sponsored by the local chapter of the Business Alliance for Local, Living Economies, or BALLE for short. If the name of the event isn't explanation enough, they promote the patronage of local businesses over large national or multinational chains. Local business is part of what gives an area its character, and without them we start to turn into a homogenized mass of nothing. We recently were visiting with an out-of-town friend who'd never been to Chicago before, and he was very enamored with the different neighborhoods and variety of flavors in the city. At one point, though, we went to the movies in an outdoor mall type of area, and he commented (correctly, by the way), that we could be absolutely anywhere in the country. I don't go so far as to say that you should boycott all national chains (though there's that one that I refuse to patronize), but what does it hurt to do buy local first? And you just need to look around your own community to see what it will help.

For a list of events and activities, check out this PDF list. And for readers outside of Chicago, you can read about the larger organization in the United States and Canada, or browse the list of local networks to see if there's one near you.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Is Bush the Worst?

The Opinion section of today's Washington Post is a veritable smorgasbord of Bush bashing today. I'm just reading all of this online, of course, but I'd be very curious to see if the actual hard copy of the paper is as overwhelming as it seems. There are five op/ed pieces under the heading of "What Will History Say," each by a noted historian, and four of them on the section's front page. Not all of the historians place Bush in the very bottom of presidential quality, but even the most ardent defenses add up to little more than, "He's not that bad."

I'm guessing that the whole thing leads off with Douglas Brinkley's "Move Over, Hoover." He's given prominence on the main Opinions page and on the Post's main page itself. He starts wit a caveat, but it doesn't take him long to get down to business.

Clearly it's dangerous for historians to wield the "worst president" label like a scalp-hungry tomahawk simply because they object to Bush's record. But we live in speedy times and, the truth is, after six years in power and barring a couple of miracles, it's safe to bet that Bush will be forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder. The reason: Iraq.

. . .

There isn't much that Bush can do now to salvage his reputation. His presidential library will someday be built around two accomplishments: that after 9/11, the U.S. homeland wasn't again attacked by terrorists (knock on wood) and that he won two presidential elections, allowing him to appoint conservatives to key judicial posts. I also believe that he is an honest man and that his administration has been largely void of widespread corruption. This will help him from being portrayed as a true villain.

This last point is crucial. Though Bush may be viewed as a laughingstock, he won't have the zero-integrity factors that have kept Nixon and Harding at the bottom in the presidential sweepstakes. Oddly, the president whom Bush most reminds me of is Herbert Hoover, whose name is synonymous with failure to respond to the Great Depression. When the stock market collapsed, Hoover, for ideological reasons, did too little. When 9/11 happened, Bush did too much, attacking the wrong country at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. He has joined Hoover as a case study on how not to be president.

Brinkley doesn't offer anything more than his personal hunch that the Prez is an honest man, and if that's the only thing that's keeping him from the bottom rung, we'll have to wait for history's verdict (or a Democratic Congress's investigations).

Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University, has no hesitation in offering his opinion: "He's the Worst Ever." He takes a look at those presidents who usually inhabit the bottom of presidential rankings, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Richard M. Nixon, and demonstrates how Bush compares unfavorably to each. He also shows how he comes up short of James K. Polk, the president who manufactured the Mexican-American War but, as he greatly expanded the territory of the United States as a result, is often considered a better-than-average president. You can find the details in the column itself, but here's how he closes his essay:

Historians are loath to predict the future. It is impossible to say with certainty how Bush will be ranked in, say, 2050. But somehow, in his first six years in office he has managed to combine the lapses of leadership, misguided policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors. I think there is no alternative but to rank him as the worst president in U.S. history.

A dissenting opinion, such as it is, comes from Vincent J. Cannato of U Mass in Boston. Cannato mainly argues against premature judgment, entitling his column "Time's On His Side." After a couple of examples of historians naming Bush among the worst presidents, Cannato responds:

So, case closed? Not yet. I long ago learned to look with suspicion when members of the left-leaning historical profession delve into contemporary politics or profess near unanimity. Today's pronouncements that Bush is the "worst president ever" are too often ideology masquerading as history.

Historical and popular judgments about presidents are always in flux.

. . .

Most clearly, the Iraq war colors every judgment about Bush these days -- and increasingly, that color is dark. Weakened by the conflict, the administration is now stymied on challenges such as North Korea and Iran. And while focusing most of its energies on terrorism and Iraq, the Bush administration -- for which I worked briefly as a speechwriter in 2001 -- has been less energetic on the domestic front. Attempts at entitlement reform and tax reform have stalled, as has immigration reform. But there have been domestic policy successes: tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind Act, the prescription drug plan and housing policies that have expanded home ownership. All have their critics, but they represent some semblance of a domestic policy.

Any appraisal of Bush's record must consider that he took over in difficult times. By most objective measures, the economy is doing well: Inflation, interest rates and unemployment are low, economic growth is steady, and the stock market is climbing. Complaints about income inequality are legitimate, but the issue has long-term structural roots, and neither party has done much to address it.

Fair enough. We should look at both pros and cons when assessing the success or failure of a presidency. The pros seem light, the cons seem serious, and I'm not sure why we should consider 2000-2001 difficult times, but I guess we should take all of it into account. Still, he makes a reasonable point that just because we think poorly of Bush right now doesn't mean that opinions won't change in the future. But I'm not holding my breath.

Still on the first page of the opinion section, David Greenberg of Rutgers points out that "At Least He's Not Nixon." After providing a litany of presidents that someone called "the worst," he points out that Nixon was bad enough to be threatened with impeachment, and there's not a significant groundswell for Bush's impeachment at this point.

While Nixon had his diehard defenders, something close to a national consensus emerged over the idea that his crimes were unprecedented and required his removal from office. Barry Goldwater conservatives and Lowell Weicker Republicans, libertarians and liberals, Main Streeters and Wall Streeters all agreed that Nixon was, if not necessarily the worst president in U.S. history, deserving of the most extreme reprimand ever visited on a commander in chief. Instead of being impeached and removed from office, Nixon resigned.

No such consensus exists for a Bush impeachment. On the contrary, in this fall's election campaign, Democrats pointedly quashed any talk of seeking his ouster if they were to win control of Congress. One can argue that Bush's sanctioning of illegal wiretapping by the National Security Agency constitutes an impeachable offense. His policy of depriving suspected terrorists and POWs of Geneva Convention protections may also strike some people as grounds for removal -- although Congress, by acquiescing in Bush's military detention policy last fall, made the latter argument a tougher sell.

By impeaching Clinton for his personal failings rather than high crimes and misdemeanors committed carried out as part of his official duties, the Repubs have made sure that a similar step will not be taken against presidents any time soon unless there's absolutely no choice (and having Dick Cheney in at number two is fairly effective anti-impeachment insurance, too). Still, Greenberg does allow that anything is possible:

Bush has two years left in his presidency and we don't know what they'll hold. They may be as dismal as the first six. Future investigations may bear out many people's worst fears about this administration's violations of civil liberties. And it's conceivable that the consequences of the invasion of Iraq may prove more destructive than those of Nixon's stubborn continuation of the Vietnam War. Should those things happen, Bush will be able to lay a claim to the mantle of U.S. history's worst president. For now, though, I'm sticking with Dick.

Finally, if we move on to page 3, we get to the end of our little series. Michael Lind, the Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation, comes up with a compromise of sorts: "He's Only Fifth Worst."

What makes a president horribly, immortally bad? Poor luck is not enough. Some of the greatest presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, have inherited crises and risen to the occasion. The damage must be largely self-inflicted. And there's another test: The damage to the nation must be substantial. Minor blunders and petty crimes do not land a president in the rogues' gallery.

Lind names four other presidents who he believes fall below Bush's placement in the rogues' gallery, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and James Madison. He provides a good argument for each, but you'll have to come to your own conclusions about how they each relate to Bush.

These essays will provide plenty of fodder for discussion, but it's a welcome surprise to see them placed in such a prominent location to begin with. Like Frank Rich's column I linked to below, it's just more evidence that the press (and the country with it) is returning to a more reality-based conversation.