Set Up

So it seems the Governor  has gone and appointed former A.G. and primary rival Ronald Burris to fill Obama's seat in the US Senate.  The sheer audacity of it makes me wish I'd gotten that prescription for anti-seizure medication. Or at least anti-nausea.   

If the Elvis-impersonator-slash-governor isn't totaly insane, than he's a very clever bastard.  What a perfectly Machiavellian way to poison your political rival!  Burris ran against the governer when he was up for his second term, and was endorsed by, you guessed it, Obama. Now Blagojevich has made it impossible for Burris to become senator -- by nominating him as senator!  Governor Pilate would be proud...

What bugs me most of all, though, is the racism inherent in the nomination. It's becoming clear that Governor Elvis chose Burris because of his race.  He's banking on the Senate (and the Illinois Secretary of State) being uncomfortable with refusing to seat Burris, as he would be the only African American senator now that Obama has been elected president.    (A future entry coming, on how there isn't really a strong legal option to refuse to seat Burris). 

I'm willing to bet by the time I get back from dinner, the news and blogosphere will be filled with exactly this conversation about race. It's exactly the kind of dysfunctional manipulation that has given affirmative-action the poisoned taint of tokenism.   

The answer isn't having a corrupt governor appoint an African American candidate who has lost almost every race he's run in.  The answer might be Illinois electing or appointing a competent candidate -- there are a lot to chose from in Illinois (my home state). And the question isn't just "Will Illinois appoint an African American senator"  but "Why are the other 99 senators white?"

OK, dinner calls...

In other news, cats prefer all-fish diet

Oh, readers. Weep with me for our shattered illusions.

First we learn that the GOP maybe has some work to do on race relations. Then, in a move sure to send palms smacking foreheads across the nation, political super-genius Rod "The Clod" Blagojevich decides to go ahead and name a replacement for Obama anyhow, despite the possibility that the choice might face one or two challenges down the road. (And here I was, thinking he was a misunderstood public servant that would never do anything to create undue drama for its own sake. My heart, it breaks.) But nothing prepared me for this:

IT must stink to be one of the people actually working for Diane von Furstenberg. Though reality starlet Whitney Port will be seen toiling for the designer on her new MTV spin-off series, "The City," which premieres tonight, [Read: Whitney Hits 'The City' For Next 15 Mins of Reality Fame] one source tells us, "She doesn't really work. She is hardly ever in the office." Those who do work for von Furstenberg, however, are in the office daily and "can't get their work done because MTV tells them they can't move any thing at their work stations. They do so many reshoots that everything has to look exactly the same every day."
What??!? Can it be? The "star" of an MTV "reality" series may not, in fact, be the hard-working fashionista we all honestly, truly believe her to be? We, the credulous public, are being duped?

Look. I don't know anything about the average MTV viewer. All I really know about MTV these days is that it produces the worst TV show I have ever seen. The few times I have watched it at all have been the intellectual equivalent of quaffing a Drano margarita. But, in all seriousness, if you're watching MTV under the assumption that a single moment of anything you see is anything but 100% pure, unalloyed crapola, then you should probably have your medication titrated.

Apparently, Saltsman missed nursery school

Sometimes, I really have a hard time believing what I read. People continue to pay Scarlett Johansson to "act" in their movies. Paula Abdul apparently dresses in the dark. Jamie Kirchick is still writing like an eighth grader with a good thesaurus and a chip on his shoulder. While I have a hard time understanding why phenomena such as these occur, I have come to accept that they do.

On a whole other level, however, is this:

The controversy surrounding a comedy CD distributed by Republican National Committee chairman candidate Chip Saltsman has not torpedoed his bid and might have inadvertently helped it.

Four days after news broke that the former Tennessee GOP chairman had sent a CD including a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro” to the RNC members he is courting, some of those officials are rallying around the embattled Saltsman, with a few questioning whether the national media and his opponents are piling on.


“Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C.” the opening of the song goes. “The L.A. Times, they called him that ‘cause he’s not authentic like me. Yeah, the guy from the L.A. paper said he makes guilty whites feel good. They’ll vote for him, and not for me, ‘cause he’s not from the 'hood.”
Lest you think that I am a humorless jack-ass, I will allow that people can use racial humor from time to time. Lord knows black comedians riff on race to great effect, often at the expense of other black people. Certain white performers are also known to use racial humor, though sometimes with more controversy. (I, for one, find Ms. Silverman distasteful, but then I'm secretly a 72-year-old woman in my heart of hearts.)

The trouble is, the folks to whom Mr. Saltsman sent the CD are not likely to be part of some audience wanting to get a frisson from dangerous comedy. They are a bunch of GOP bigwigs. The song was originally played on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and it's not like Rush is known to walk the fine line on race with much grace. And unless Saltsman would use the word "negro" and defend himself for doing so (and, for the love of all that is sane, I certainly hope he wouldn't), he doesn't get to skirt the issue because he was "just" distributing the CD.

But you know what really gets me? That people are rallying around this guy. Check these quotes:

“When I heard about the story, I had to figure out what was going on for myself,” said Mark Ellis, the chairman of the Maine Republican Party. “When I found out what this was about I had to ask, ‘Boy, what’s the big deal here?’ because there wasn’t any.”


“I don’t think he intended it as any kind of racial slur. I think he intended it as a humor gift,” Oklahoma GOP Committeewoman Carolyn McClarty added. “I think it was innocently done by Chip.”
Because, if there are two people to whom one could reliably turn for informed and thoughtful comments on racial sensitivity, it's the heads of the GOP in Maine and Oklahoma. I can't speak with much authority on the latter, but I'm willing to bet cash money that the outreach efforts toward blacks in Maine on the part of the GOP has been... limited.

I guess this needs to be said, but making jokes that offend people simply because you can and then expecting them to "take a joke" makes one less admirable, not more. It doesn't make you courageous. It makes you a schmuck.

Additional thought: As I mentioned over at Ta-Nehisi's blog, this isn't even funny satire. The word "negro" is far more inflammatory than "black man," but if you're parodying "Puff the Magic Dragon" then "Barack the Magic Black Man" works better. Have these people never listened to Weird Al?


Gott in himmel!

First, it was the supermodels.

Then, in a serious blow to the dollar, the rappers.

But today I think I saw the most serious blow to the status of US currency yet. The Hanukkah gelt that someone brought into the office is marked with euros.

Update: Crisis averted. A few pieces appear to be in euros, but most are the (traditional?) faux 50-cent pieces.

Oh, goodie. An excuse to pontificate

I am entirely of two minds about Disney's decision to keel-haul the latest Narnia adaptation for the big screen. Via The Plank:

While declining to elaborate, Disney and Walden Media confirmed Tuesday that for budgetary and logistical reasons the Burbank-based studio is not exercising its option to co-produce and co-finance the next "Narnia" movie with Walden.
I feel about The Chronicles of Narnia roughly the same way that Elizabeth feels about Jane Austen. Since there have been a great many more stabs at Austen adaptations than Narnia adaptions, she has had to put up with more literary blasphemy than I have. And I have mixed emotions knowing that Voyage of the Dawn Treader may not make it to the a theater near me.

On the one hand, there is disappointment. Dawn Treader is one of my favorites, for a variety of reasons. There was potential for some amazing cinematography, considering how magical some of the islands the travelers encounter on their voyage. Plus, the allegory isn't so heavy-handed, the theology is more expansive, and there are no big battle scenes. The transformation of Eustace from an insufferable prat to a noble young man is very moving, and provides a wonderful depiction of God's reconciling love for humanity and the difficulty of transcending sin. I could go on and on, but I'll stop here.

On the other hand, Walden did a fair job of lousing up the first two adaptations. They were particularly bad at handling Peter, who they portray as being far more of a jerk than he's meant to be. (Fist fights in underground stations? No. And he would never, ever, ever even begin to think of making a deal with the White Witch. Ever.) They also totally glossed over the redemption of Edmund, making his reunion with his siblings more awkward than solemn. While they didn't totally mess up Prince Caspian the way they came close to with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, neither did they really make the most of it.

So, while I'm sorry that I won't get to see Ramandu's Island or Coriakin's house realized on the big screen, neither will I see them ruined.

Was it all bad?

So with 22 days left of George Walker Bush's presidency, I thought I'd invite you to comment on some of the positive points, the highlights and successes, of his 8 years in office...


OK, come on. In over 2900 days as President, there must have been some good points.  There was that  major funding initiative to stop AIDS in Africa. Of course, much of that focused on an abstinence policy that doesn't work -- doesn't work in the US, either, where a new study shows that those who take 'virginity pledges' are MORE likely to engage in unsafe sex when they break that pledge. Even Sec. Rice has a hard time defending #43 with any concrete examples. But there must be some -- I invite your suggestions!

In which I validate Megan McArdle

So, the parents have been in town for the holidays. Having tapped out the entertainment options for our local municipality, we decided to head to Portland for the day yesterday. After a couple of hours of wandering through the Old Port and watching the shops close, we decided to trek to the Maine Mall. Fun.

First of all, everything was on sale. Really on sale. And it took an act of Herculean strength to resist buying a bunch of cheap fashion knock-offs at the new H&M. Because I really, really love H&M, but I really, really don't need any more t-shirts or sweaters. But if I had had an eye toward bargains, I would have been set.

The other thing I noted was that the mall felt pretty empty. Admittedly, it was the end of the day on a Sunday, but it was also the week between Christmas and New Year's, and things were massively marked down. But it looks like I'm not the only one who is deciding not to splurge in these bleak intra-holiday doldrums.

Megan seems pretty sanguine about all this, and to the extent that I think it's a good thing to live within one's means, so do I. If people can stop their habit of buying everything in sight just because they have functioning credit, then more's the better. But it doesn't bode well for the retail sector, which isn't too great for the job market. Maine certainly isn't immune to that latter effect:

Hit hard by the recession, L.L. Bean is considering company restructuring, cost cutting and even layoffs to deal with weak sales.


L.L. Bean plans to offer voluntary retirement incentives and to open only two of eight previously planned new stores in the new year. But those steps alone probably won't be enough to stave off layoffs, he wrote in the memo, first obtained by the Times Record newspaper.

"Even with these options on the table, it is now unlikely that we will be able to avoid some level of involuntary position elimination both to support our multichannel transformation, and to resize ourselves for a smaller revenue base," McCormick wrote.

Maine's economy was no great shakes to begin with. It looks to get worse before it gets better.


Hello, again, everyone. Did you miss me?

Don't all yell at once.

Anyhow, I hope those of you who observe it are having a blessed Christmas season. (Because, as the Better Half would insist, it's a season, not just a day.) Getting back into the swing of things, it looks like another headache for Oprah. Appears that another memoir she has hawked has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. From The New Republic, which broke the story:

In the winter of 1945, Herman meets a nine-year-old girl--herself a Jew masquerading as a Christian at a nearby farm--when she shows up one day outside the camp and tosses him an apple over the barbed-wire fence. For the next seven months, the girl at the fence delivers Herman food each day, until he is suddenly transferred to another camp. Fast forward to Coney Island, 1957: Herman, now in his 20s and settled in New York, reluctantly agrees to a blind date with a young Polish immigrant named Roma Radzicki. They speak of their time during the war. Roma mentions a boy she had helped to survive in a camp. She said she fed him apples. A flash of recognition. Months later, Herman marries Roma, his angel at the fence.

Since going public with his story a decade ago, Herman appeared twice on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", who called it "the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we've ever told on the air," and has been featured on the Hallmark Channel, Lifetime Television, and CBS News.
Sadly, all it was was a story. No apples. No barbed-wire fence. No angel.

The day after Sherman’s second article appeared, Rosenblat confessed to his agent, Andrea Hurst, that he had fabricated the love story, and Berkley announced that they are canceling the publication of the book.
Admittedly, this book wasn't part of Oprah's book club, unlike A Million Self-Aggrandizing Fabrications. And she hasn't been publicly dissed, as she was when Franzen said "thanks, but no thanks." (For the record, I hated The Corrections.) But this certainly can't make her feel particularly good about things.

I actually feel bad for her about this. While I'm no great fan of hers, particularly when she has one of those "favorite things" consumption orgies, I think she has done a lot to promote reading as a pass-time. (I couldn't find any readily-available information on what effect, if anything, her book club has had on literacy rates. We all know what it does for book sales.) Sticking with classics was probably a good idea, though.


Up with dissent!

Hopelessly naive as it may be, I entertain the hope that sooner or later people might find this blog interesting, insightful or entertaining enough that it will garner a regular readership.  Part of the reason that I remain cautiously optimistic is that my dad co-founded a blog about his area of expertise, namely energy policy, and it eventually became very successfully and heavily trafficked.  It's called The Oil Drum, has been linked to by such luminaries of the Blogosphere as Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum, and can be found here.    

Unfortunately for my plot to milk my father's success for links, his opinions tended toward the controversial with regard to global warming.  Whether or not you agree with the premise that global warming is a man-made phenomenon (a subject about which I will admit to being agnostic), there is enough information available to make a certain degree of skepticism warranted, particularly when one considers how profoundly a carbon-neutral economy will differ from our current one.  Sadly, there is enough consensus now in the public opinion that to dissent is to find one's self taken for a fool, Bush apologist, or something similarly unpleasant.  In my father's case, and in a stunning display of chutzpah, his unpopular opinions got him canned from his own blog.

Thankfully, he has started his own Shiny New Blog, Bit Tooth Energy (a mining term, I believe).  He can make his own case for the science behind his skepticism there, and I invite you to head over.  Science, as he likes to point out, is not an article of faith, but should be subject to scrutiny, and revision is in order when evidence is available to justify it.  Agree or disagree, healthy debate is good for society, and for the creation of policy.  In that light, I wish my father, and his new enterprise, well.

The price of beauty

William Saletan, who I think is one of the most sophisticated popular writers on medical ethics, wrote a piece earlier this week criticizing the decision to give a face transplant to a woman whose face had been severely damaged. At issue is whether we can justify risking a life in order to achieve a merely aesthetic/cosmetic benefit. Society is wrong for judging people according to appearance, goes the argument. We shouldn't participate in an immoral system.

First of all, this is related to a line of argument frequently made in bioethics that medical procedures should have only medical benefits (this is one of the charges made against male circumcision). But why on earth should that be? As long as benefits and harms are up for consideration, why not a non-medical benefit? Why should benefits be restricted to a relation to the ostensible process? I take my child to Gymboree. I do so not because I believe their claims that it will help his cognitive development. I do it so he can play in a room with lots of mats and I can chat with moms. Is there anything wrong with that?

Also, it seems extremely tough to ask this woman without much of a face to sacrifice a semblance of normalcy in order to prove a point about how society should be more tolerant. People tend to think that our culture is unique in the value it places on human beauty. Multiple studies show, hwoever, that every culture so values it. What is considered beautiful varies, the fact that beauty is valued is not. Wishing away such a strong and universal drive will be difficult, if not impossible.

Define "nice"

So, what with it being Christmas, considered a religious holiday once upon a time, it seems to be apropos to discuss religion a bit.  And lo, what greater gift hath teh Internets rendered than this brief post, which I came upon via Andrew.  I have some trouble with this:

What always fascinates me about [arguments for inter-religious dialogue and tolerance] is that, in their focus on how proponents of different religions can get along, they invariably forget to raise the issue that for most religious believers is the central one: truth. If “intolerance” of other religions means denying that they are equally valid means of accessing the divine, that’s only a bad thing if all religions are equally valid means of accessing the divine — but that is just the point at issue. The constant and never-questioned assumption of people like Jenkins is that, if there is a God, that God will be tolerant and open-minded and accepting of a great variety of ways of trying to get to Him or Her or It. But as far as I can tell, the only reason for believing in so all-embracing a God is that we’d prefer to. Looking around at the world — the natural world as well as the human world — I do see some reasons (none of them definitive, of course) for believing in a God, but I don't see much warrant for believing in a God who is nice.
So many quibbles, so little time.

First off, I don't know Philip Jenkins, and so I can't speak for his religious beliefs.  However, assuming that Alan Jacobs would lump me in with him as the sort of person that supports inter-religious dialogue and considers the belief in exclusive salvation poisonous and ignorant, allow me to clarify that the "assumption" that God is tolerant and "open-minded" is not something that I never questioned.  I was raised in a very conservative church that wasn't too sure about the salvation of Christians that belonged to other denominations, to say nothing about non-Christians.  I came to reject that belief through a lengthy process of spiritual and intellectual questioning.  It doesn't hurt that I can quite easily name several Jews, Muslims and Hindus that I truly love like brothers and sisters, and reject outright the worship of a God that would condemn them to hell for not believing in the "right" manner; "heaven" without their company would be no such thing, regardless.

Secondly, perhaps we should turn away from hackneyed words like "tolerance" and "open-mindedness" and substitute in words like "mercy."  Christians believe (or purport to) in a merciful God (it's there in Matthew... I checked).  Now, perhaps I am atypical with regard to Christianity as a whole, but it strikes me as something rather less than merciful to condemn anyone to an eternity of material torment, period.  Rather, would not a merciful God contrive to receive as many souls as possible?  Is this not consistent with the loving and merciful God common to most world religions?  Or am I not meant to take words like "God is love" seriously?

Finally, I'm not quite sure why Jacobs thinks his particular interpretation of the world is dispositive of anything.  He may find evidence of the existence of God in the natural world and human society, but I am quite certain that a great many people do not.  I have no idea what he believes about God, but as he quotes Chesterton in another post, let's assume he's Catholic.  Perhaps the natural world leads one to believe in God (from my perspective it does), but I am hard pressed to see how a call to such evidence leads to one particular religion or another.  People choose their religions based on a variety of other factors, including (but not limited to) their upbringing and their reason.  The natural and human worlds may yield no "evidence" that God is "nice" (a glib word choice if ever I saw one), but neither do they yield evidence for a God that parted the Red Sea, fed the 5,000 or sported with milkmaids.  That they do not has little or no bearing on the beliefs of Jews, Christians or Hindus, and has no bearing on my belief that God expects us to live in harmony and look past our religious divisions.  Jacobs may play that his beliefs are informed by evidence from the world at large, but really they are as much a product of his preference as are anyone else's.


One last thought on Warren

To borrow a term from Ta-Nehisi, it's probably weak-sauce to snag a comment someone else made somewhere else, and use it as the body of a blog post.  But it's my party, and I still have cleaning to do, so I'm gonna go with it.

I'm a (pathologically) frequent commenter over at The Plank, and I came across the following comment by fellow frequent commenter jhildner in one of their frequent threads about Obama and Warren:
Hmm, in my view, the true cause of the controversy is that Warren is anti-gay (homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle choice disqualifying you from Saddleback memebrship), anti-science (rejects evolution), adheres to conservative evangelical priorities (in 04, he provided a checklist of non-negotiable issue items for the election that consisted of abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, cloning, and euthanasia; helping the sick and needy was apparently negotiable), adheres to the belief that the Bible is the literal, inerrant word of God, which leads to division and irrationality, is on the wrong side of church-state matters (eg., Prop. 8 and Terri Schaivo), and still buys hell and end times.  He is not the best of America or the best of Christianity, and providing this general honor -- holding him out as a figure of reverence -- suggests that he is.  His ministry is, at best, insipid and vulgar, and, at worst, insidious.  Obama didn't need to do this, and I wish he hadn't.  I don't hate him for it, and I'm not generally disillusioned or anything like that.  Indeed, I heartily endorse his instincts in favor of reaching out to traditional opponents to find common ground.  But this wasn't the right way to do that.  [Apologies for any errors; had some trouble importing this text.]

I think this is just about right.  Warren hawks a particular kind of Christianity that, while perhaps in keeping with what a large number of people believe, is not in keeping with the kind of administration that (dare I say?) Obama was elected to create.  We supported him precisely because he didn't seem to believe this kind of thing.  And, while I understand the importance of bridge-building and haven't changed my mind from before, I continue to feel let down by this choice.  

Season's Greetings

To our loyal cadre of readers, thank you for actually stopping by to see what we have to say.  This is a lot of fun.  Apologies for light posting during the holidays.  The Better Half will deck our halls with my hindquarters if the house isn't clean for pending celebrations, so I am likely to be otherwise occupied.  Similarly, I suspect Devin may also been preoccupied a bit during this particular week.

Elizabeth, as our resident Zoroastrian, I expect you to post like mad in the meantime.


On mandatory sentencing

On a short jaunt from the hospital back to the office this evening, I heard a report on NPR about Stevan Dozier. He is currently serving a mandatory life sentence under Washington state's "three strikes" law. A recovering crack addict, he had a pattern of assaulting women and stealing from them to feed his addiction. By all accounts, he has made a serious effort to reform, and has been a model prisoner. (Request for clemency can be found here; it's a PDF, and it's long.) What's remarkable about his hearing is that, among those petitioning the board for clemency are the prosecutor for the case that put him away, the judge that sentenced him, and a conservative radio talk show host that helped to craft the original law. The board voted unanimously to recommend clemency, and it is now going to the governor. Here's hoping she releases him.

Regardless of the outcome for Mr. Dozier, I happen to think mandatory sentencing laws are a terrible idea. A brief glance in Wikipedia turns up a variety of problem cases. I tend to dislike any kind of blanket law or policy that excludes the possibility of a nuanced, contextually-appropriate response to crime. California's mandatory sentencing law hasn't done its overcrowded prisons any favors. It also seems to undermine checks and balances a bit, with the legislature binding the hands of the judiciary when the latter should have discretion. Writing for the plurality when such laws were challenged as "cruel and unusual," Sandra Day O'Connor essentially deferred to the legislature in upholding them. While I agree (and who am I to argue with the Supreme Court?) that legislatures should have power to write laws of this kind, I still think they're a bad idea.

In which I channel Kent Brockman

You have got to be kidding me. Seriously. I must totally be misreading this article. Because it is inconceivable that this is legal. Or rather, I can conceive that this is legal, and that makes me despair for our system of government.

In short, it appears that the soon-to-be-former senior Senator from Alaska was the spigot from which a whole slew of lobbyists filled their glasses. The only spigot. There was a lobbying industry that generated tens of millions of dollars in fees dedicated solely, 100% to lobbying him. Staffed largely by former members of his staff. One of them apparently wrote this charming thought:

“They [voters] don’t understand the connection between Ted and the way of life they have come to take for granted,” read one e-mail message circulating among former Stevens staff members on K Street. “For those of us long on the dole, the coming reality will take some getting used to.”
Oh, those wretched, ungrateful voters. Of all the unmitigated gall. To kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, just because he's flagrantly corrupt.

I find it simply astounding that, not only is this all (apparently) totally legal, but that the people involved have the stones to complain that it's over. That they apparently never accounted for the fact that their venal and unapologetic cash cow might finally get voted out (or, let's face it, die...dude is old). I fear that we're only going to see K Street go from faux conservative posturing to faux liberal posturing, with an accompanying change of hue from red to blue, but I have hopes that Obama meant what he said about lobbying reform. Because the hubris on display in the article is just revolting.

(By the bye, for those who don't get the subject header, check quote #4.)

Stop Scaring Parents

Dan, I agree totally with the madness of buying fad toys. We have a one-toy-out-for-every-one-in policy in this house, and I vow never to wait on line or elbow someone out of the way for a toy.

But another thing pissed me off about the article, which is something you get at in your own post. That was the so-called child development experts saying that realistic toys stifle the imagination. As it happens, I've read a lot of the scholarly literature on children and imagination. Yes, pretend play is good for children. But there has never been a study that examined the long-term effects of realistic toys v. less realistic toys showing that children who play with more realistic toys are permanently disadvantaged in some way. We are not entitled to conclude this, either, from the simple fact that pretend play is helpful to development. So can we please stop with the parenting recommendations based on no evidence? Just because you think something should be a certain way, or is most likely a certain way, doesn't mean that it is!

It is practically impossible to test certain aspects of child rearing in isolation and get really good evidence. We really don't know which of, say, crying it out or attachment parenting is demonstrably better. Yet I will read items that say things like, "Your child will learn to trust you if you respond immediately to his cries." Oh yeah? Did you do a study where you compared the trust levels of children who cried it out v. those whom were immediately tended to? How, exactly, would that be measured? Obviously not, so if you're going to make a statement like that, make it clear that it's just a guess.

Children can most likely still use their imaginations with realistic toys. Kids will probably pretend that their doll is pooping on the moon, or whatever. A realistic toy might well stimulate their imagination about certain facets of an object that would not have occurred to them to dream up. A realistic toy might inspire a mechanically inclined child to think about how things are put together. Who knows? I don't. And neither do they.

With so many strictures given to parents, a certain self-consciousness and nervousness is settled on the parenting process. It makes parents uneasy, and makes them afraid to rely on their instincts (is my guess -- that's my experience, anyway). Such strictures intended to override a parent's instincts (which, when you think about it, is a pretty special thing to interfere with) should be given only when there is evidence.


One of the joys of having a blog is that a person can write whatever the heck he or she wants. Rant ad nauseum about the prospect of another Kennedy in the Senate? Why not? (And, with all due respect to John Judis, yes... it would be.) Pontificate about the man Obama picks to lead the opening prayer at his inauguration? Bring it. Think those lousy kids should stay the hell off your lawn? Sure.

So I am going to do myself a solid, and write about this. Yes, if there's one thing at America has been crying out for, it's a baby doll that soils itself. I was prompted to post by two things. One was this:

"For us, the peeing and pooping is pretty magical," said Kathleen Harrington, senior brand manager for Hasbro's Baby Alive dolls. "As adults, we might be a little grossed out. But it's so magical and so funny and so silly for these girls. This little doll is coming to life, so the little girl doesn't believe it's just a doll. It's her baby." Harrington calls it part of the doll's "Wow!" factor.
Magical pooping. [Since it would be frankly creepy to Google Ms. Harrington for the purpose of a frivolous posting, I will make up a backstory for her.] Imagine a young Kathleen, sitting in a coffee shop between classes at...let's say, Bennington. She dreams of a future with purpose. With meaning. That will somehow make use of her "Gender Issues in Contemporary Toy Design" class. I wonder, did she ever see her career leading to the discussion of the magic of fake pooping?

Still, this is not to crux of my concern about this. I don't know, or care, if this is developmentally appropriate. Children have survived all manner of crack-pot toys since Cro-magnon kids took to pelting each other with stones. What prompted me to reveal my cranky side is this:

The buzz is on parent online discussion groups across the country. As with the Tickle Me Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids crazes of Christmases past, one mother was so distraught that the pooping dolls were sold out online just after Thanksgiving that she prepared to rise at 5 a.m. to scour stores in a 100-mile radius of her house.
Ladies and gentlemen, this mother is crazy. Admittedly, she is not alone. There is nothing, with the possible exception of such things as insulin, that justifies this kind of devoted searching. It is far more developmentally harmful for a child to indoctrinate her with the idea that the most important thing in Mommy's world is for her to have this year's must-have toy, than to have her play with (what I admittedly consider revolting) a pooping doll. Get her something else. Give her the pooping doll for another gift-giving occasion. Let her learn all manner of character-building lessons about something other than consuming.

Thank you. I feel better now.


So, 27 hours ago my family (sister, brother-in-law, 3-year-old nephew) left Texas for Boston. What was supposed to be the smaller storm, what was supposed to be rain, turned into a mess and 10 minutes before they landed... hold on... 10 minutes before they landed!...Logan Airport closed its runways and the plane was diverted to:


Yes, because northern Maine is a great place to go in the midst of a winter storm.

At the same time, a good friend's parents, trying to fly to Bangor, got re-routed from Bangor to...
you guessed it: Boston.

We considered swapping families for the holidays. Instead, my family is still on the runway in Bangor, having gotten up at 3am for a flight leaving before dawn down to Boston. E
xcept the crew didn't show up.

My question is: Where the hell is my transporter?

Seriously, Mr. President. Set aside the demands for universal health care, green jobs, solving climate change and getting out of Iraq. What we need to do in this country is to say "Beam me up, Mr. Obama."

Think about it -- we'd dramatically reduce our climate footprint (goodbye, 747's), we'd hav
e new jobs creating and installing transporters, we could evacuate from Iraq instantaneously. Heck, we could accidentally beam Dick Cheney into the vacuum of outer space. Our economy would be more efficient because we wouldn't be wasting time commuting and we wouldn't have to worry about our crumbling bridge infrastructure because we'd be beaming ourselves everywhere. And having so much fun that we wouldn't notice that the health care system is falling apart.

But it's all a pipe dream, isn't it? If our transporters were anything like our airlines, I'd have to wait 3 hours in line and then my luggage would get beamed to Vladivostok and my left arm would get beamed into the sun.

Update: Delayed in de-icing, it's going to be at least noon before they can take off. 30 hours from Texas to Boston?

How Judge Judy is Like Jane Austen

I am a fan of Judge Judy, and have been so for at least a decade. I am also a fan (an uncharitable sort might suggest the phrase "obsessed lunatic") of Jane Austen. I don't think my admiration of the two springs from two different sources. It's not that one is a guilty pleasure and the other a highbrow appreciation.

There have been many Judge Judy imitators. I agree with Andrew Sullivan on this: none compare to her. What the imitators get wrong is that they think the appeal of Judge Judy lies in yelling at or humiliating people. That's not the essence of Judge Judy - that's a side effect.

Austen and Sheindlin have in common a very fine-grained moral sense and an uncanny ability to spot and expose the obfuscations people use to hide their petty and selfish motives. Austen can recreate them like no one else, and Sheindlin can pick out a liar and get him to recant in a matter of minutes. Each are better than just about anyone to look past what people are ostensibly saying and doing to uncover their true motivations. They each attend to the small moral situations at play in everyday life: when people use others, how people deny responsibility for uncharitable acts, etc.

Both are, unfairly I think, labeled as cold-hearted or unsympathetic. (Austen is also inaccurately pegged as a prude, but that's a topic for another time). What appears as disdain for the vast majority of people is the result of a very strong, clear sense of right and wrong. Both hope for the best and expect the worst. Austen writes very affectionately of her heroines and their more good-hearted, good-natured relatives and friends. It is only for the selfish and the cruel that she reserves her most derisive irony. Sheindlin relentlessly debunks the jerks on her show, but shows relief and kindness when presented with children, or with someone who tries to do the right thing. (I saw her on Larry King recently; she spoke movingly about how unfair the law in Arkansas is that demands that children be taken away from gay adoptive parents). She wants to see a world in which people take responsibility for themselves and their children, and treat each other with kindness and respect. She wants to reveal those who purport to do those things, but don't. Contrary to what some think, both hold out much hope.

There are obvious differences between the two, besides the fact that one is an artist and the other is a TV judge. Austen has the lightest of touches, Sheindlin has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Sheindlin seems to revel in her ability to spot moral deficiencies. Austen is clearly much more ambivalent about her own ability -- she values those characters who simply see the best in everyone (Jane Bennet, Charles Bingley), and expresses some reservation about the more morally perceptive (but consequently less generous) characters. She seems to express through her fiction, and also in her letters, two incompatible wishes: 1) that she could be more generous and open to the best in everyone, and 2) that everyone else could also see what she sees about what people are really like.

Both have taught me about human nature. And both satisfy a sense of justice by calling out even the minor wrongs, and pointing out how these are camouflaged.


For your consideration

So, it's that season again. No, no, not that season when the choice between "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" is fraught with political or social import. Like the first bluebird of spring or the first circa-Halloween warbling of "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas" at the department store, the announcement of this year's Golden Globe nominees heralds the arrival of Movie Awards Season. Oh, joy.

As I have alluded before, the Golden Globes aren't particularly prestigious. Bragging about winning one is like listing being elected "Most Likely to Succeed" on your CV. But they are a harbinger of the Real Awards to come. Maybe it will be Kate Winslet's year. I certainly hope so.

Back in the day, the Oscars were my Superbowl. When I lived in Kansas City, I considered it a point of pride to have seen a large number of the major category (Picture, Director, and all the acting awards) nominees before they were announced, and I would make a point of seeing as many of the rest of them as I could. (Living in a large metro area and having a lot of time on my hands, this was possible then. Not so much, these days, with the job in mid-Maine.)

Now? I won't lie that I don't care at all, because that would...be a lie. But I can't pretend that I am as filled with gleeful anticipation as I used to be. This is partly because the winners feel predictable, though there are often delightful surprises. (If you watch the video on that last link, you will also see why I think Cate Blanchett rocks. Anyone who is clearly delighted when someone else wins deserves her own round of applause.)

No, the major reason the bloom has gone off my Oscar rose is that I can no longer pretend that they are truly awards for the "best" of anything. This has been somewhat obvious for as long as they've held the awards, and certainly for as long as I've been watching. "Forrest Gump" over both "Pulp Fiction" and "The Shawshank Redemption"? No. Gwyneth Paltrow over Ms. Blanchett? Ha! And I'm sorry Hilary Swank, but there is just no way you were better than Imelda Staunton in "Vera Drake." (Your Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry," on the other hand, you can keep with my blessing.) Sometimes the Academy louses things up one year, and makes up for it another. The world would be a happier place if Helen Hunt handed her Oscar over to Judi Dench, who deserved it for "Mrs. Brown," and then Dame Judi could give her consolation Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love" to Lynn Redgrave. Perfect.

The real deal-breaker for me, for which it will take a whole pile of Swintons and Cotillards to make up, was "Crash" winning Best Picture. It is not merely that it beat the incomparable, heart-wrenching "Brokeback Mountain" (the last line of which still makes my throat close up) for the win. No, "Crash" is a genuinely terrible movie. As my friend and fellow poster Elizabeth commented when we chatted this morning, it is a movie that Hollywood made to show stupid people that Racism is Bad. Every single person is as overtly racist as they can possibly be in every single situation, with the exception of "I'm-not-racist-oh-crap-I-am" Ryan Phillipe. I will pay cash money to anyone that can plausibly explain to me Sandra Bullock's character. And don't get me started on the entire Thandie Newton story arc. "Crash"'s raft of awards does not serve to demonstrate its quality, but does show that sometimes cliches about the entertainment industry are true.

So, of course I will watch. And I will root for Kate, because she is awesome. Who knows? Last year was a good year, and maybe the Academy will surprise me. I hope so. Because heaven help me if I have to start caring about the real Superbowl.



Story today on NPR's Weekend Edition about bartering. Unsurprisingly, bartering is becoming more and more popular: As credit stays tight and cash continues not to flood the market (thanks to fears of devaluation), businesses are turning to barter.

I'm thinking, "I can't pay my utility bill with cash, so here, take this goat." Of course that would (a) be silly, (b) be expensive since I'd lose the future production of that goat, (c)be bad for the goat, (d) be bad for NSTAR, which has no need for a goat, and (e) um, I don't have a goat?

Seems, though, there are more sophisticated models, companies such as Barter Business Unlimited, working out not just a for b trades, but a barter credit system -- you build up barter credits, which they trade to folks who need them -- constantly moving goods and services around so that everyone ends up happy and they turn a profit. At least, ideally. So I may pay my dental bill by granting my dentist absolution, but perhaps instead I do a funeral for free for someone who owns a landscaping company who shovels the driveway of a lawyer who then provides free legal services for my dentist in his malpractice suit. It turns out there's an even an International Reciprocal Trade Association, which has quite the mission statement:
The International Reciprocal Trade Association, IRTA, is a non-profit organization committed to promoting just and equitable standards of practice and operation within the modern trade and barter and alternative capital systems Industry and raising the awareness and value of these processes to the entire Worldwide Community.

The mission of IRTA is to provide to all Industry Members with an ethically based global organization dedicated to the advancement of Modern Trade and Barter and other alternative capital systems, through the use of education, self regulation, high standards and government relations.

Sounds suspiciously left wing to me . I'd love to imagine this is an opening to a post-capitalist world, but there are two other possibilities: it's an opening to a pre-capitalist feudal world, or it's all a pipe dream that will evaporate in the dawn of a credit revival, and disappear the way of fuel efficient cars and alternative energy once gas drops in price (speaking of which, notice how the Cape Wind project off Nantucket hasn't been approved yet , which will put the Obama administration in the unenviable position of choosing between environmentalists and the Kennedys).

So, the quesiton of the day: What would you use to barter with?


Sitting Down (Or Praying) with Enemies

Let's be clear: Warren's views on gays are wrong. Indefensibly wrong, as a matter of fact. I'm as sure of that as I am of any moral claim. But I think Obama's reaching out to him by having him at the inauguration is defensible.

Plenty of people think abortion is wrong. Plenty are quite certain it isn't. Plenty on each side think it is immoral to hold the other side's view. (For my part, I think it should be legal, and is probably immoral, so I'm sympathetic to both sides). No argument in our lifetime is going to convince the entirety of one of these groups that the other side has been right all along. We are not going to achieve unity on the issue of abortion. If we refuse to stand with, talk with, try to understand everyone with whose moral views we disagree with, we will have (in the case of abortion) two permanently irreconcilable sides. And we will get nowhere.

Let's ask another quesiton: should Rick Warren appear with Obama? Let's say that Rich Warren's denigration of gays is wrong. Let's say, too, that abortion is wrong -- that it's murder, as Warren believes it to be (and this is by no means an indefensible view). If both of those are right, then Obama's endorsement of abortion is worse than Warren's endorsement of Prop 8. While both are wrong, murder is surely worse than preventing marriages. Warren has more reason not to stand with Obama than Obama has not to stand with Warren. Warren is reaching out. So should we.

It may well be true that abortion is not immoral, in which case Obama has more reason to refuse to stand with Warren. By refusing though to reach out, though, he loses a chance to find any common ground and to work together to bring about common goals (and they do have some common goals).

Obama was elected on the premise that he would reach out to red states, and that he'd negotiate with our enemies abroad. We have tried not speaking to those whom we find morally in error, and we have ended up with a divided country and angry world. Granted, Obama probably should not have Ahmadinejad pray with him at his inaugural. But I think we can safely say that most of us in the U.S. have a lot more moral common ground with Warren and his followers than with Ahmedinejad. (Warren, presumably, has never suggested a country be wiped off the map, for one.) But by reaching out in different ways to those with whom he (and we) disagree, we're at least trying something new.

Abortion, as I said, will likely remain a divisive issue. I don't think gay marriage will. It is my hope and expectation that in 20 years, opposition to gay marriage will be as marginal as opposition to interracial marriage is today. We might be able to speed that process if our opponents at least feel as if they are being listened to, even if not agreed with.

The Golden Age and Its Discontents

Getting an MA in Cinema Studies, which I did before switching to philosophy, was an exercise in shoddy methodology and intellectual bankruptcy. I would chalk it up as a waste of time, but I got three things out of it: 1) I met some pretty cool people, most of whom seemed to be named Katie, 2) saw some movies that I may not have otherwise, and 3) a certain credibility (albeit undeserved) in social situations when stating my opinions on moving image media. It's sort of like that scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen pulls Marshall McLuhan out to respond to the bloviating idiot on his movie line. I can stand up confidently to those who would sneer!

So I feel more comfortable than do most people in urging everyone (including my students) to watch TV. There is still a "Kill Your Television" mentality which equates TV watching with idiocy and film with sophistication. Of course one should not watch unlimited amounts of TV, and there is plenty of bad TV out there. But we are living in a golden age of television. It has never been so good. It's the equivalent of living from 1935-1950 for movies (or 1965-1975, depending on your aesthetic cup of tea). Nothing in film and not much in literature recently has been nearly as good as The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, etc. There are also top notch non-scripted shows, such as the Daily Show. Innovations such as multiplying cable channels, the relaxation of decency standards that cable allows, and making television shows available for rental have all contributed to a burst of creativity in that medium. It's an exciting time to let your eyes glaze over!

In today's Times, Alan Sepinwall (who wrote a terrific critical series on The Sopranos some time back in the Star-Ledger) writes an op-ed about the demise of broadcast television. He gets at the downside of all the changes in television, which is simply this: the balkanization of television viewers. We no longer have a national conversation about culture (I think, too, that this is an underestimated problem with the proliferation of news sources). Most of my friends and I have all seen one or another of the HBO and Showtime shows, and maybe some Project Runway thrown in for good measure. But I'm pretty sure few of my neighbors have. It's one more conversation people of different socio-economic groups can't have with one another.


Equivalent? Yes, no? Who cares?

The kerfuffle around Obama's choice of Rick Warren has drawn a lot of ire from members and supporters of the GLBTQ community. I've written about it already, and I don't really have more to say about the issue per se. However, in the comments over at The Plank, people have said that gay marriage is the civil rights issue of the day, equivalent to the Civil Rights movement for African-Americans in the 60s. Well, is it? Is Obama's invitation somehow equivalent to Kennedy hypothetically having asked an openly pro-segregation minister to pray for him?

Yes, and no. But who cares?

In some ways, of course they are equivalent. Have people died for being gay? Of course they have. People have died for simply being perceived as being gay. (I realize that Sucuzhanay was the recipient of anti-hispanic violence, but just because they hate you for being one thing doesn't mean that they can't hate you for something else.) Are our family lives disrupted because we are gay or lesbian? Of course they are. (I am heartened by how things are going in Florida.) Is there job discrimination for being gay? Of course there is. Personally, I had to turn down a good job prospect because the Powers that Be let the Better Half know that there would be no work for him in that particular area of the country. When I got my current job, there were people who let the administration know that they were not comfortable working with a gay man. (The administration, to their credit, didn't care.) And let's be honest -- civil unions are the very definition of "separate but equal."

On the other hand, I have no idea what it is to be black in America. I have never been followed through a store while shopping. It is highly unlikely that any gesture I would make would ever be described as a "terrorist fist bump." On that note, anyone who compares the response to the Obama/Wright relationship and the McCain/Hagee endorsement will notice the marked discrepancy in criticism and attention. To say that gay marriage is the civil rights struggle of our day is to imply that the "old" civil rights struggle is over. Not hardly.

And this is where I would caution my friends in the LGBTQ community. When we frame the conversation, we had best remember our humility. Lawrence v. Texas was not Brown v. Board of Education. Both were important, landmark cases, and both are cause for rejoicing. But we have not known what it is to be oppressed and undermined the same way that black people have. We have, by and large, been able to "pass," and while I am sure that straight people throughout the ages would have kept us out of the polls and jobs we sought if they had been able to do so, often times we learned to hide it to they couldn't tell. Oppressive? Sure. But not the same.

A lot of hot air has been blasted about the black vote in favor of Proposition 8 in California, and I don't think I need to add any. But it doesn't help our cause when we assume that black people will automatically relate to our struggle because they had their own. They have theirs and we have ours. Hopefully we can use our experiences to relate to each other, but it doesn't help when we conflate and confuse what are separate, not necessary equal, histories.


Primary care is for chumps

So, I see via Megan (OK, so I don't actually know her or anything, but we both have blogs. That makes us colleagues, right? Right?!) that there is some discussion about primary care. Or rather, the shortage thereof.

First was this op-ed, by Dr. Jonathan Glauser, an emergency medicine physician somewhere. He considers primary care medicine a failure. I do not know Dr. Glauser, but I am not impressed by the nuanced workings of his mind. Let's read a bit, shall we?

I cannot be the only emergency physician who has treated patients referred by primary care doctors for such non-emergencies as:

▪ Asymptomatic hypertension of 190/115 mm Hg picked up in the office or at health fairs. If you told me 25 years ago that some guy out on the town for the evening would be referred to the ED by an internist to manage high blood pressure, I would have thought you were crazy.

▪ Asymptomatic hyperglycemia of 350-500 mg/dL in patients already managed by these doctors on oral agents.

▪ An asymptomatic patient with an INR of 5.

▪ An entire family of eight referred for screening for pertussis exposure, all asymptomatic.

Um, no. You're probably not the only ED physician who has had experiences like those. There are, sadly, bad primary care physicians out there. Likewise, there are some really terrible, stupid ED physicians out there. Shall I share some poor decisions I have seen ED physicians make? No, because it proves no point to share unflattering anecdotes. I won't draw broad conclusions about your field from my experience if you won't draw similar conclusions about mine, 'kay? 'Kay. (This is why we don't call anecdotes "evidence.")

Then he gives us this gem:

I have never encountered a plea for health care reform that did not extol the benefits of detection and treatment before some disastrous outcome ensues. In the long run, of course, preventive care does not save society money; we all get some terminal illness eventually

I don't want to overstate things, but this may possibly be the most addle-brained thing I have ever read. There is a difference between saving money and preventing death forever. If preventive care can keep you from keeling over with a massive coronary at 47, and you live another 30 years because your cholesterol levels and blood pressure are kept normal, then you have contributed income to society for an additional couple of decades, and your spouse doesn't have to rely on the state to help support your kids on half the money. Preventive care includes such wonders as vaccinations, which I can't imagine anyone would argue haven't saved society money. (Or perhaps we'd all like to have another crack at polio?) Preventive care of asthma dramatically improves both quality of life and productivity. Honestly, this piece is so poorly written I am amazed it was published.

Ezra Klein also has some things to say. He comes out in favor of nurse practitioners as a solution to the crisis in primary care. While I think this is a good solution in part, I think that it underestimates the difference in physician and NP training. I completed three years of an incredibly intense training residency, and had to pass a very stringent board certification exam. Having helped teach a good friend of mine who is in training for his NP, there is simply no comparison between his training and mine. This is not to say that NPs do not do excellent work; I am lucky to work with two who are superb. But doctors and NPs are not interchangeable.

I will say that primary care is no walk in the park. We have to spend lots of precious time documenting scrupulously in order to get paid, using a system so arbitrary it hurts. (One example -- you don't get any "credit" for documenting if there are normal bowel sounds [a very important finding, in some cases] but you get one point for simply touching the abdomen, and another for documenting if the liver is normal sized. One step, two points.) We have to fight with insurance companies to get paid for services rendered. Add in the joy of waking in the night for admissions, dealing with frustrated parents, explaining for the millionth time that vaccines don't cause autism, and it's not hard to see why people opt for radiology.

Undergraduate musings

Dan, you asked about David Foster Wallace's undergraduate philosophical work. I don't have time to read the whole article, as I'm currently dealing with the end-of-semester crush of papers and excuses of my undergraduates. Who, I am sure, are less philosophically inclined than Wallace (whose father was a phil prof, and who started the PhD program at Harvard).

However, a bit of the article was posted on The Plank. Here it is:

Sometime in his later college years, Wallace became troubled by a paper called “Fatalism,” first published in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. The fatalist contends, quite radically, that human actions and decisions have no influence on the future. Your behavior today no more shapes events tomorrow than it shapes events yesterday. Instead, in a seemingly backward way, the fatalist says it is how things are in the future that uniquely constrains what happens right now. What might seem like an open possibility subject to human choice — say, whether you fire your handgun — is already either impossible or absolutely necessary. You are merely going with some cosmic flow.


Wallace proposed that there was a flaw in Taylor’s argument, a hidden defect. In essence, Taylor was treating two types of propositions as if they were the same, when in fact they needed to be distinguished and treated differently. Consider the sentences “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” and “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun.” At first they may sound similar, but Wallace argued that they involve quite different notions of impossibility. “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun” refers to a present situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.”

As for the philosophical merits, I obviously can't evaluate. It's certainly not a stupid argument. It seems sophisticated for an undergraduate. However, the fact that words such as "can," "cannot," "possible," "impossible," or "necessary" have multiple meanings has been used as an argument against fatalism or determinism since Hume put it forth in his argument for compatibilism (with contributions by A.J. Ayer and David Lewis, among many others). So it's not like Wallace is the first person to notice something like that, as this bit seems to imply (although he may well have an original take on the matter or a specific response to Taylor that's not evident in the snippet above). It's a common, although controversial, move in philosophy to draw metaphysical conclusions from linguistic concepts, which is what Wallace seems to be doing. Such a move is one with which I'm not particularly sympathetic, for reasons far too boring to go into here.

But whatever. I haven't read it. What strikes me as hilarious, however, is just how overwritten this thing is. It takes something we (i.e., philosophers) do every day and makes it sound extremely dramatic. One does not write a philosophy paper without pointing out flaws in previous works, implicitly or explicitly. I suppose it's possible not to do so, but it is a part of every paper I've written and every presentation I've made, and I think almost every paper that I've read. Starts with Socrates, after all.

So it's just taking this quotidian action and making it seem brilliant. I think the equivalent for Dan's job would be reading something like, "Summers proposed that there was a flaw in the patient's ear, an infection that was the hidden defect... An extremely sensitive observer of ear canals, Summers noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our ears: the fine differentiation in fluid levels between infected ears and healthy ears."

Make that "a deep shade of green"

I have had to accept many hard truths about my life. There are some things I am unlikely to win. I will probably have to give up my dreams of being a male model at some point. (I still think there is a value in appealing to the goofy-looking gentleman.) No matter how many phone calls I make to Gov. Paterson's office, it looks increasingly likely that the open Senate seat is going to go to someone else. And I try not to think about how Zadie Smith and I are almost exactly the same age, and only one of us has won the Whitbread Prize.

But you wanna know whose life and career totally makes me crazy? This guy.

Color me "meh"

So, I just learned via Ta-Nehisi that Obama has invited Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Warren, famous author of the Purpose Driven Life books, is supposedly getting the nod largely because of his HIV-AIDS work. I had incorrectly associated him with the so-called "prosperity gospel," which teaches that God wants His children to prosper and that following Biblical teaching will yield material rewards. (It appears that he is a critic, which I respect.) I am not thrilled with some of his social stances, but apparently neither are some of the crazies.

All in all, not my first choice. But, as far as gestures of reconciliation are concerned, I appreciate the bridge-building. And Joe Lowery, the man delivering the benediction, appears to be cut from truly progressive cloth, so I don't think I need to go DEFCON-1 over this one. Plus, it's not like Obama called Warren an "agent of intolerance" and then showed up in a cap and gown at his university or anything.

An interesting side note -- the man in charge of the inauguration is Emmett Beliveau, son of local Democratic pooh-bah Severin Beliveau. The Better Half and I are passing acquaintences with the latter, which (sadly) is not likely to score us platform seats for the big day.

Update: I agree with Ambinder's typically intelligent take.

Update #2: Obama's comments here.

"I can knock $100 off that Trucoat"

Since we moved to Maine, we have been a two-Prius family. (Mine has an NPR sticker, so as to better verify my liberal bona fides.) The fuel efficiency was, of course, great. But in the snow? Not so great, the Prius. Since we live in a state not known for mild winters, and now live on a hill, the Better Half recently declared that we were getting a proper Maine car. We now we have a Suburu. (Suburus are quintessential Maine cars. Except for the whole "made on the other side of the world" thing.)

During the whole dealership kabuki, wherein the Better Half and the salesman discuss trade-in value, and the manager comes to chat with us, and I sit quietly and wonder whatever happened to Colin Farrell, I kept replaying that scene with Jerry Lundegaard and the Trucoat. (This is no reflection on the lovely people at the dealership, who treated us very well.) But I did find part of the conversation interesting.

The Better Half has been wanting to get a new car since last year, when we had some very unpleasant evenings trying to get up some (relatively small) snow-covered hills in the Prius. He looked into a trade-in over the summer, and got an offer for the car. Yesterday the offer was notably less than before. Why? The price of gas has fallen dramatically, and thus the demand for hybrids has fallen. The Better Half thought this was all gamesmanship, but I recall having read about this in recent weeks.

We were going to get another car, regardless of the price of gas. (For the record, I'm keeping my Prius. I can't have people thinking I might have voted for McCain.) But, as someone I know keeps mentioning, oil is in limited supply. Eventually the economy will recover, and with it the demand for oil will rise. And let's not fool ourselves that OPEC plans to take its lumps with the rest of us. I think not.

Still, it was nice to drive around various snow drifts while the Better Half declared, "See! I could never have done this in the old car!" So everyone's a winner. For now.


The limits of bleakness

In a Times magazine article this past weekend, the philosophy background of one of my favorite authors, the recently and prematurely deceased David Foster Wallace, was discussed. And it gives me an excuse to write about him. (The philosophy per se I will leave to Elizabeth, as it soars right over my head.)

I loved DFW's writing for a variety of reasons. It was unapologetically intelligent, if sometimes maddeningly so. He gloried in language, and I had to keep a running list of words he'd used that I didn't know. (Some of them, such as "ascapartic," I could find in no extant dictionary, and have since come to understand as simply having been made up.) He was famous for his lengthy end-notes, which required the use of at least two bookmarks. His writing was wildly funny, and deeply insightful.

However, beyond the simple intelligence of his writing, it was also genuinely humane. He wrote idiosyncratic but believable characters (by and large), and he obviously had affection for them, despite their myriad flaws. While his fiction was often dark, at its best it glimmered with a distant but reachable hope that happiness, though elusive, is attainable. In Infinite Jest, his magnum opus, when one character recognizes another character as being happy, it is a moment of heartbreaking poignancy, particularly since the character in question is a recovering alcoholic in charge of a motley band of addicts in a halfway house.

Part of the reason I didn't care for Oblivion, his most recent (and, thus, last) collection of short fiction, is that the glimmer has faded to a pinpoint. I agree with Jason Zengerle that it will be all too easy to find "clues" into his depressive state of mind in DFW's fiction, Oblivion in particular, and that it would be a regrettable oversimplification to focus on that one aspect alone. Ironically, it is "Good Old Neon," which is narrated in a quasi-third-person during a suicide, that has some of the more heartening passages.

I am glad, in a very melancholy way, that his last published work was the clear-eyed, tender-hearted story "Good People." It feels like a restoration in his faith that courage, that simply doing the right thing, can result in genuine grace. It is sad that the truth he seemed able to write didn't hold for him as a person in the end.

Which brings me to the end of my post, and my question to ponder on my weekly break from blogging tomorrow (Wednesday being my day of rest, if you will): what does one do when one grieves for the death of a person one never truly knew? I had hoped to meet him one day, and pepper him with questions about Infinite Jest, which doubtless he wouldn't have answered. I didn't know how he took his coffee, or which radio stations he listened to in his car, or any other banal details that accrue with "knowing" someone. All I know are his words, which remain in the same state as before he died. I haven't even read all of his available books, so in that sense he is still "alive" to me. And yet, I am left with the loss, all the same. It seems silly and presumptuous to mourn for someone I didn't know (and I'm not wailing or covering the mirrors), but the feeling remains.

A bright spot in the bleak economy

Bargains are everywhere! The misery of everyone has resulted in this one happy circumstance. I've managed to do all my clothes shopping for the next year for half the price by taking advantage of holiday bargains.

I just returned two sweaters that I got for my birthday. Due to absolutely everything going at such cut-rate prices since November (when the sweaters were bought), I managed to trade those two sweaters for a Burberry coat, SK-II facial essence, and a host of Estee Lauder and Clinique make-up (did I mention I'm from Long Island and that I remain not entirely sure that luxury brand-name items can't buy happiness?). A Burberry coat! We got holiday gifts this year for a fraction of the cost.

Madoff woes

One is perhaps not inclined to feel very sorry for the clients of Bernard Madoff. Surely there are people worse off in the bleak, bleak economy. They were, after all, wealthy enough to invest.

But the havoc he has wrought among certain communities of (especially) Jews is hard to overstate. He lived in a town that bordered on my hometown (well, one of his three homes was there) on Long Island. And he finagled the local community, especially the Jewish community, into investing with him. As my mother breathed on the phone to me this morning, "It's everyone." Not my parents (phew!), but so many people my parents knew had something invested with him. One friend lost three quarters of his wealth. College funds for children - gone. Retirement accounts - vanished. And so many charities, again particularly Jewish charities, have lost so much. It's really unbelievable how the greed of one man, a man with no real political power, can cause such grief.

Lessons to be learned:

  1. Investments should perhaps not be outsourced. This guy actually falsified statements, so even clients following their money carefully were duped. Investing requires know-how, and if one wants to do it, one should learn about it.
  2. That the SEC is so useless that even receiving multiple letters over the course of nine years tht claimed that Madoff's investment firm is a giant multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme is not enough to motivate the SEC to even begin to check out whether Madoff's investment firm is a giant multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme.
  3. That something is terribly wrong with a culture of philanthropy that relies so much on the naming and honoring of large benefactors. Madoff played himself up to be quite the philanthropist, and was actually stealing from some charities to give to others. I'm not sure if anonymous donations are the answer - surely charitable donations would drop, and those things have a way of leaking out anyway (as per Curb Your Enthusiasm!). But it does point to a special kind of sickness in the charitable world.

Lady Kennedy

Dan, I could not be more with you on Caroline Kennedy. Some of the "arguments" in favor of her accession (what else should we call it now?) are so unbelievably, laughably, cluelessly puffed up. My particular favorite of the ones you point out is that it is now considered a qualification to pull strings to get friends admitted to institutions of learning. Funny, I used to think that kind of patronage was actually a disqualification.

That particular bit just brought to mind the kind of person who says things like, "I mean, absolutely no one stays in New York during August." Such a person just might find the writing of one letter of recommendation to be a history of public service.

The most infuriating defense of raising Kennedy to the peerage is that she is qualified. Frankly, I don't care if she's qualified. I'm sure she's not Sarah Palin-unqualified. What Kennedy clearly isn't, however, is the most qualified person. That's what matters.

I would like the record to reflect that I have written some pretty snazzy letters of recommendation over the years, if anyone knows of any open political office. My family is also in danger of remaining unrepresented in the Senate.

When is a press conference like a plane ride?

Following up on Elizabeth's post yesterday, looks like the Secret Service has been feeling some heat about the flying Iraqi footwear.

"They are already so protected as it is that it's hard to imagine how they could guard against something like this," said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank on defense and security issues. "It just comes with the territory."

Zahren said that those at the news conference at the prime minister's palace were screened with magnetometers and were given additional pat-downs to ensure that no weapons were brought into the room. U.S. officials also conducted background and identity checks on all participants ahead of time as usual, he said.

I agree that it's probably impossible to anticipate everything, and shoe-throwing probably didn't occur to anyone. I don't know if this means future press conferences will be sock hops, but at least the TSA has already broken us in a bit. However, you'd think that maybe the men in dark glasses could have gotten to him between shoe number one and shoe number two.

As for the calls for Zaidi's release, I have a hard time with the idea of letting him walk. I don't like Bush...at all. I imagine that, were I an Iraqi, I would like him even less. And if Zaidi had merely yelled and made obscene gestures, I'd say that he should be a free man. But he threw two shoes at the face of the President of the United States. Hard. And that crosses the line between free speech and assault. So, while I hope his sentence is not unduly harsh, I don't think the man should get off scott free.

Tearing out my hair

I seriously wasn't going to post on the Caroline Kennedy story any longer. For a shiny, new blog with a small (but dedicated!) readership, it probably doesn't pay to beat things relentlessly into the ground. One day, I hope to be famous enough that people will put up with my being a crank, and will take the time to read my rantings even if I tend to perseverate a bit. (See Sullivan, Andrew, Sarah Palin and)

However, this article was the top story on the Times website when I checked this morning, and I think I am going to completely lose what remains of my sanity. I don't know if someone at the Times hates her and is trying to subtly scuttle her chances, but this article totally doesn't help. Let's read some of the more infuriating bits.

In addition, a person with direct knowledge of the conversations said that Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Paterson had spoken several times in recent days and that the governor had grown increasingly fond of her. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the governor, said that Mr. Paterson also had come to see Ms. Kennedy as a strong potential candidate whose appointment would keep a woman in the seat and whose personal connections would allow her to raise the roughly $70 million required to hold on to the seat in the coming years.

Fond of her? Fond of her?!? This is a meaningful criterion for selecting a Senator? Why not a cherished family pet? After all, there's precedent.

And that last sentence translates roughly to "Money, money, money, money. Money."

But, unfortunately for my blood pressure, the article doesn't end there. No, no.

Her uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, is struggling with terminal brain cancer, and his illness has forced members of his extended family to contemplate the possibility that the Senate could be left without a Kennedy for the first time in a half century.
Merciful heavens! The Senate, without a Kennedy? Have you fools not read the prophecy? Do you not know that a plague of boils will descend upon you, the pathetic mortal throng, if a Kennedy is not in the Senate? True, the family should probably have gotten its act together and bothered to field a member that had gone to the trouble of getting elected to something, but that's not really their problem. For lo, unless you wish for pestilence and famine to spread across the land, a Kennedy Must Be Named!! Bwaaaaaaaaah, ha, ha, ha!! *thunderclap*

Pardon me as a bang my head against the wall. *thud, thud, thud, thud* Ahhhh. Much better.

Then there's this article. Apparently, Kennedy's "credentials" are "debated." What credentials might those be?

Last spring, she joined the search committee for a new director of the Harvard University Institute of Politics, where she and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, her uncle, are members of an advisory panel.


As one might expect, she is also the consummate insider: When Rupert Murdoch’s young daughter was applying to the Brearley School, Ms. Kennedy, a board member who had attended the school and sent her two daughters there, wrote a letter of recommendation, a News Corporation spokeswoman confirmed.


True to form, Ms. Kennedy declined to be interviewed for this article. But she did cooperate indirectly, freeing a few friends and associates, through an intermediary, to discuss her.
In addition to the above qualifications, Kennedy also raised $70 million for an NYC education program, which is admirable. It's also the kind of thing that rich people spend their time doing, as opposed to working for a living.

So, she's served on a search committee. And wrote a letter for the daughter of a mega-wealthy media tyrant. And she won't talk to the press.

No. No, no, no. If this woman was named something, ANYTHING else, she would be no more in the running for a Senate seat than the corner coffee vendor. Her candidacy is an insult to the (patently naive, I know) idea that our country is a meritocracy. Her claim to the seat is laughable. And, finally, I didn't like it when this one ducked the media, and I certainly don't like it any more when the person in question is a Democrat.

Hmmmm. Maybe I'm more like Sully than I thought.

Update: Or maybe I'm more like Ross Douthat.