Wednesday, November 27, 2002

History&Today: Thanksgiving edition
• The menu for the first Thanksgiving dinner included fish, venison, corn, squash, berries, and corn bread. There's no record that turkey was on the table.

Benjamin Franklin, advocating the turkey as the national bird:
The Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

From this morning's Chicago Tribune: the disappearance of the true turkey:
Glenn Drowns and other preservationist farmers fear the old-fashioned gobblers will vanish forever--unless more people can be persuaded to eat them. The factory birds are engineered to grow up fast and with lots of white meat. They spend their entire lives inside, being conceived, hatched, reared, slaughtered and packaged without spending a single moment in sunlight.All white and with short legs, they little resemble the darker, colorful, fan-tailed turkeys of the past. And according to Drowns, they aren't nearly as flavorful.

But a handful of giant turkey processors so dominates the market with cheap, conveniently packaged birds that most farmers quit raising traditional farmyard turkeys decades ago. Varieties that once strutted and preened by the millions--black Spanish, slate, buff, chocolate, auburn, white Holland and royal palm turkeys--now are almost gone. ...

If the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621 served turkey, it would have been wild ones they hunted. A few years later, however, an English domestic variety, the Norfolk black, returned to the New World with 17th Century British settlers, and all present-day varieties probably trace back to those settlers' flocks and the wild turkeys they mingled with. ...

The dire straits of the old-fashioned turkeys became apparent in 1998 when the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, a national group working to conserve genetic diversity in farm animals, conducted a national turkey census.

• But of course, you can't really understand Thanksgiving's place in American lore without understanding the antithetical day that follows it: the king of all shopping days, The Day After Thanksgiving. Lest there be any doubt about which is the more American day, remember Thanksgiving 1939, which was officially moved up one week by President Franklin Roosevelt in order to lengthen the shopping season. Ever since, we've been similarly hurrying our gratitude and hastening our gratification, as I pondered in this post-Thanksgiving walk around the mall I took a few years ago:

Related: What if Friday were Buy Nothing Day? and Anna Quindlen on the problem with patriotic consumption

Previous History&Today
Etymology Today from M-W: benison \BEH-nuh-sun or BEH-nuh-zun\
: blessing, benediction

"Benison" and its synonym "benediction" share more than a common meaning; the two words come from the same root, the
Latin "benedicere," meaning "to speak well of, bless." But which of the two words do you think has a longer history in English? If you guessed "benison," give yourself a pat on the back. Records show that "benison" has been used in our language since the 14th century, but "benediction" didn't appear in print until nearly a century later.

Previous E.T.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Seen at the Globe&Mail's Social Studies, clipped from the LA Times:

Refrigerator rights: A degree of intimacy that permits some people to freely help themselves to anything at your house without scorn. "[Y]our best friend from second grade, the woman you've talked with every Sunday evening for 25 years, would have instant refrigerator rights even if you hadn't actually seen her for months or years," writes Joy Dickinson in The Dallas Morning News. Dr. Will Miller, a U.S. therapist, ordained minister and corporate speaker has recently published Refrigerator Rights: Creating Connections and Restoring Relationships (Perigee).
Earlier in Slate, Virginia Heffernan wrote that "Everybody Loves Raymond" seems benign, but it is actually a very dark world:

The Barones' horizons seem awfully close, the ceilings very, very low. In these cramped quarters, Robert, the gloomy cop, cycles through obsessive rituals—chin-tapping, most obviously—to placate himself. Marie and Frank openly wish for each other's deaths. Debra periodically makes efforts to get a job, but she's foiled by Ray, who once botched her effort to write a children's book and more recently voted against her in an election for school board president. When asked to list his own goals, the sportswriter Ray can't come up with any. As he puts it, "I got nothing; I got no dreams." No problem, says Debra—that means you're happy. That, in short, is the insistent moral of Everybody Loves Raymond. The studio audience, composed of maniacal laughers, heaves a long "Awww" every time it's revealed. Of course, no sitcom can exist without a major chord to which to return—a status quo—but this one is unnaturally enervating. I guess it's supposed to keep a person on the couch, remind him or her of home—no progress, no forward motion, no dreams. "We've never had arcs or yearlong plots," Ray Romano has explained about the show. "It's the usual crap that drives you crazy about your family."

This isn't just a matter of being "about nothing" as Seinfeld famously was--Seinfeld at least had recurring moments of delight, bright humor, and illuminating irony to give tension to its playful nihilism; ELR's nihilism is more sincere and unbroken.
I'm getting the Wall Street Journal on a trial subscription, and although I'm enjoying the fine feature writing, editorials like last Wednesday's "The Non-Taxpaying Class" are enough to lead me to cancel happily. The WSJ editorial board, which last had an independent thought and orginal insight years ago, complained that the poor don't pay enough in taxes. In other words, says Slate's Timothy Noah, "cleaning ladies [should] fork more over to Uncle Sam."

As Noah points out, the WSJ's beef is that making someone pay "only" 4 percent in income taxes on a $12,000 salary is not "enough to get his or her blood boiling with tax rage." So if the poor don't pay high taxes, they'll never know the rich's unique agony of high taxes. It seems to me that this is the logical equivalent of saying you should light a fire in your living room so you know what it's like to complain about heat.

I'm just fooling around with some math here, but 4 percent of $12,000 is $480. Now, I need to find out what the annual income of someone in the top 1 percent would be, but let's say, oh, $10 million--28 percent of that is $2.8M. I've never known what it's like to be rich, but it's not a stretch to say it's less of a trial for a multi-millionaire to part with a couple million than a "cleaning lady" living paycheck-to-paycheck to lose two weeks' pay. Plus, what the market-worshiping WSJ-ers won't factor in: the multi-millionaire probably got to where he or she is mostly via inheritance and education, while the poor get to where they are largely because of lack of inheritance and education. I'm not a pure socialist, but in that light, sharing the wealth and improving education is the best thing to do for the sake of equality, and last time I checked this country was founded on equality.

Back to Noah's column; he brings in Robert McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice to do this math:

In 2001, the top 1 percent earned 19 percent of the nation's income and paid 26 percent of the nation's federal taxes. (The Bush tax cuts will drop the latter to 24 percent.) Everyone else earned 81 percent of the nation's income and paid 74 percent of the nation's federal taxes. "The rich are paying an amount roughly comparable to their share of their income if you do it right," McIntryre told Chatterbox. "That's not exactly socialism."

That "if you do it right" is a little unsettling, but overall, point taken.
This is an interesting spin on the Augusta National debate and the blame of Tiger Woods--Anna Quindlen suggests it's almost racist to expect Woods to do something because of his color more than we expect powerful white men to do something. To me, though, the point is not that Woods should do something because he is black (he's only partially black, actually)--he should speak up because he's the most visible golf star ever, and being a star means being a leader, like it or not. Plus, he's made loads of money off Nike commercials that criticized discrimination among golf clubs ("there are still courses in this country where I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin"). It's crassly commercial and most distasteful to make social statements like these only when you get a Nike check for doing so.
Etymology Today from M-W: lacuna \lu-KOO-nuh or luh-KYOO-nuh\
*1 : a blank space or a missing part : gap
2 : a small cavity, pit, or discontinuity in an anatomical structure

Exploring the etymology of "lacuna" involves taking a plunge into the pit -- or maybe a leap into the "lacus" (that's the Latin word for "lake"). Latin speakers modified "lacus" into "lacuna," and used it to mean "pit," "cleft," or "pool." English speakers borrowed the term in the 17th century. Another English word that traces its origin to "lacuna" is "lagoon," which came to us by way of Italian and French.

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Saturday, November 23, 2002

Weekend Reading
Previous Reading

"An Animal's Place" by Michael Pollan, New York Times Magazine
This is a fascinatingly well-written and well-argued response to animal rights ideology. It stands apart as a thoughtful, informative analysis in the bilious and polarized animal rights debate because Pollan takes such care to interact with and voice the points of argument of the animal rights movement. He even agrees that the most common practices in raising meat and poultry for sale are primitive at best and barbaric at worst.

["Dominion" author Matthew] Scully calls the contemporary factory farm ''our own worst nightmare'' and, to his credit, doesn't shrink from naming the root cause of this evil: unfettered capitalism. (Perhaps this explains why he resigned from the Bush administration just before his book's publication.) A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency and the moral imperatives of religion or community, which have historically served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market. This is one of ''the cultural contradictions of capitalism'' -- the tendency of the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society. Mercy toward animals is one such casualty. More than any other institution, the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint.

But Pollan moves convincingly keeps going and deconstructs the problem with the animal rights line of thinking: it seeks to transfer the idea of individual rights to animal species, which is in fact a most unnatural transaction. In doing so, he illustrates the highest form of persuasion--not to convince the opponent that the good they seek is invalid, but to convince them that the good they seek is best brought about by your opposing view. I'm a liberal, but/and I'm convinced. Here are excerpts, but Pollan's piece is so nuanced and descriptive it bears a full reading.

However it may appear to us, predation is not a matter of morality or politics; it, also, is a matter of symbiosis. Hard as the wolf may be on the deer he eats, the herd depends on him for its well-being; without predators to cull the herd, deer overrun their habitat and starve. In many places, human hunters have taken over the predator's ecological role. Chickens also depend for their continued well-being on their human predators -- not individual chickens, but chickens as a species. The surest way to achieve the extinction of the chicken would be to grant chickens a ''right to life.''

Yet here's the rub: the animal rightist is not concerned with species, only individuals.... But surely a species can have interests -- in its survival, say -- just as a nation or community or a corporation can. The animal rights movement's exclusive concern with individual animals makes perfect sense given its roots in a culture of liberal individualism, but does it make any sense in nature? ...

The story of Wrightson Island (recounted by the biologist David Ehrenfeld in ''Beginning Again'') suggests at the very least that a human morality based on individual rights makes for an awkward fit when applied to the natural world. This should come as no surprise: morality is an artifact of human culture, devised to help us negotiate social relations. It's very good for that. But just as we recognize that nature doesn't provide an adequate guide for human social conduct, isn't it anthropocentric to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for nature? ...

To contemplate such questions from the vantage of a farm is to appreciate just how parochial and urban an ideology animals rights really is. It could thrive only in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world, where animals no longer pose a threat to us and human mastery of nature seems absolute....

The vegetarian utopia would make us even more dependent than we already are on an industrialized national food chain. That food chain would in turn be even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, since food would need to travel farther and manure would be in short supply. Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build a more sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature -- rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls -- then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do.

Digging through my's an informative article on false confessions from the NY Times.

So far, the polarities of [the false confession] debate can be roughly summarized in two words: Coercion. Impossible.... In place of the rubber hose, the law grants wide latitude in the use of psychological pressures -- the kind of cajoling good-cop-bad-cop routines seen on "NYPD Blue" that are part of standard police training manuals. That these techniques produce thousands of authentic confessions from criminals every year is beyond dispute. That these same techniques also produce a number of false confessions is also beyond dispute.

I usually don't think much of Paul Harvey's hyper-nostalgic populist act, in which the Everyday American is angelic, but this is a great story about the man behind the name of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. (How is it that a nation rewards a hero by making his namesake one of the most disdained locations on the continent, so that his name is muttered bitterly with every delayed flight?)

Previous Reading
On Writing: One of my favorite columnists, Anna Quindlen, last month in the NY Times.

The connection between the two incarnations, between the newspaper and the novel, is clear to me but confusing to readers. Here is the question they ask most often, the one that underlines the covertly snobbish way in which we delineate the professions from the so-called arts: How did you manage to make the leap from journalism to fiction? I used to answer flatly that there's not much difference between the two, that good writing is good writing wherever you find it. But that answer really threw people into a swivet, speaking to their deepest suspicions about both lines of work. It turned out that when I was writing about the people I actually met and the places I actually went, the enterprise was enshadowed by reader suspicion that we reporters made everything up. But when I made things up as a novelist, readers always suspected I was presenting a thinly disguised version of the facts of my own life. So the facts were assumed to be fiction, and the fiction fact. The truth is that the best preparation I could have had for a life as a novelist was life as a reporter. At a time when more impressionistic renderings of events were beginning to creep into the news pages, I learned to look always for the telling detail: the Yankees cap, the neon sign in the club window, the striped towel on the deserted beach. Those things that, taken incrementally, make a convincing picture of real life, and maybe get you onto Page 1, too.

More On Writing
American politics is nearly a tie ball game, says Juan Andrade in the Chicago Sun-Times, and the numbers prove it:

Conservatives and conservative-leaning moderates now own 49 percent of the political landscape. Liberals and liberal-leaning moderates own 49 percent. Whoever wins most of the other two yards rules.... In the latest issue of The Almanac of American Politics, Michael Barone, arguably the foremost authority on modern political history, notes that Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996 with 49.2 percent of the vote. That same year, Republicans retained control of the House by a vote margin of 48.9 to 48.5 percent over the Democrats. And while House Republicans held their vote margin in 1998 at 48.9 percent to the Democrats' 47.8 percent, they actually lost seats and forced Gingrich to resign as speaker. In 2000, Al Gore's vote margin over George W. Bush was 48.4 percent to 47.9, while the vote margin favored House Republicans over Democrats 49.2 to 47.9 percent. As Barone concluded, Americans have not witnessed ''such stasis in successive elections since the 1880s.''
Rick Telander says there's more than meets the eye with the Augusta controversy. For one thing, 56 percent of college students are female; women have made so much progress in society that now boys are lagging behind. For another, the two focal points of the story, Hootie Johnson and Martha Burk, come across as caricatures rather than people.

In fact, Johnson is actually an intelligent, fairly progressive, thoughtful person who has helped women's sports in many ways and even invited the University of South Carolina women's golf team to play at Augusta. But you never would know any of this from his statements in this debate. And Burk no doubt feels she is pursuing the right thing--fairness, equity, opportunity--as she hammers away at Augusta's men-only membership. But you don't sense that as much as you sense her relentlessness.
Places&Culture from
NY Times

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Nearly 300 years ago, this city began to rise from the Neva's boggy delta. Thousands of workers labored in a monumental effort against time and the elements to satisfy the autocratic will of one man: Peter the Great. Today, thousands of workers are involved in an endeavor nearly as monumental: to restore the city's elegance and Baroque grandeur. Once again, they are laboring against time, as well as a bureaucracy and corruption. Once again, they are doing so largely to satisfy the will of one man: President Vladimir V. Putin. In time for the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg's founding next May, the city has embarked on its largest reconstruction and restoration project since the German siege of Leningrad — as it was known during Soviet times — was broken near the end of World War II.

DALTON, Ga. — This sturdy town in the Appalachian foothills likes to call itself "the carpet capital of the world," and its industry has thrived over the last decade as thousands of Mexican immigrants have flocked to jobs in the mills. More recently, though, federal and local law enforcement officials say the same pipeline of immigration and trade has been exploited by Mexican drug traffickers, who have helped turn this corner of northwestern Georgia into a busy distribution center for methamphetamine and other drugs.... From Alaska to South Carolina, law enforcement officials said, Mexican traffickers have taken advantage of spreading Mexican immigration and freer North American trade to establish themselves as the dominant wholesale suppliers of illegal drugs across much of the United States.

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Friday, November 22, 2002

Number of the Day: 1.7
Unemployment rate, in percent, in Fargo, North Dakota, the lowest rate of any American metropolitan area. Fargo's job growth has been 5% this year, while the national rate is 2%, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Quote of the Day:
"He is a friend of mine, he is not a moron at all."
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, about President Bush, responding to several reports that his communications director, Francoise Ducros, called Bush "a moron."

Previous Quote and Number
First of all, just because I have one of the longest-running Keith Olbermann fan pages ( doesn't mean anyone cares what I think or that I have any special insight into his stunning "ESPN: Mea Culpa" column in Salon this week. But being something of a student of his career and his journalistic voice, it's hard to leave the column alone. Because it rambles, wanders, and raises almost as many questions as it answers, it will take some time, follow-up columns from him, and feedback to put it into context. But here's my initial thoughts.

1) Olbermann gave too much ground. Whereas he simplistically saw ESPN management as too evil and himself as too righteous while working there (as he now admits), now he simplistically sees management as too righteous and himself too culpable. Granted, he stands by everything he says in Michael Freeman's scathing book, but says it must now be taken with this grain of salt: he was so insecure about his personality and his career that he impulsively blamed everyone else and was blind to his own problems--his conversations with Freeman were, Olbermann says, "the ultimate act of somebody who lived in terror of being blamed." This may obscure the fact that Olbermann was a moral fixture in a 90s environment at ESPN where rapid expansion into a multimedia corporate empire and residual sexism and rampant sexual harassment in the Bristol subculture seemed to sway the broadcasting colossus to the point where few within it seemed to be guided by much of an independent moral compass. Olbermann's presence was in part a redeeming one--or at least an aggravating one, sometimes nobly so and sometimes not. In his column, he sells himself short.

2) The column confirms what many at ESPN, according to Freeman's book, believed: that Olbermann was a tortured genius, with psychological issues in addition to award-winning talent. But what they assumed to be a matter of insatiable ego may simply have been a case of massive insecurity. I'll leave it to Dr. Phil to do the pop psych--actually, you have to wonder about the appropriateness of publishing this kind of intimate introspection in a forum like Salon--it really sounds like he's on a therapist's couch (and a direct letter to friends and enemies at ESPN would have seemed more sincere). But it is a lesson in how the broadcasting world is a jungle of titanic egos, dizzying stress, complex office politics, all magnified by the lens of the camera.

3) Some are tempted to see the column as an indirect (or direct; Olbermann says he'd like to host a show once or twice a week) plea for a job at ESPN. It probably isn't that simple, and Olbermann has never been that tacky. Still, one can imagine cooler heads prevailing in the next few months or years, given that there's been this much time to cool and that Olbermann for the first time is offering an olive branch. Sentimentality aside, the two parties need each other--ESPN needs more distinctive anchoring after several years of so-what cookie-cutter youngsters and a proliferation of studio shows that has diluted its flagship product. And Olbermann seems ready for a return to visibility. But his letter seems to illustrate just how oblivious outside observers are to the dynamics of broadcasting politics.

Well, this is just the first draft of history. It will be interesting to see how ESPN, particularly ex-partner Dan Patrick, responds to the column, and if ESPN and Olbermann are able to mend fences, or even find, under the rubble, the moorings those fences were in before their, um, intense 1997 parting.
Halls of Fame aren't what they used to be. To evoke the proper tone, these hubs of nostalgia should feel old, should smell like a basement and be just as poorly lit. If we want glitz we can go to one of today's games. Alas, the new Basketball Hall of Fame doesn't seem to get it:

The new building, nearly double the size of its predecessor, sits between Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River, immediately recognizable by a 93-foot sphere at its entrance. The sphere has hundreds of colored lights that can display millions of sequences, even giving the appearance that it is spinning.
Love the mitten state: Says a friend on a group e-mail list, responding to the assertion that Michigan governor and Canada native Jennifer Granholm had the "sense" to move from her homeland:

Yeah. Real common sense, moving from the land of friendliness, free health care (Frith, how I long for it!) and sexy women who swear a lot, to a frigid, gas-smelling outpost of a war-hungry union. The only cultural advantage Michigan offers over Canada is Motown Records, and that stopped being an advantage about the time Boyz II Men released "Motownphilly." Ick. (Actually, I dearly love this state. It's a sort of geographical discount store, offering the best of many climes: in West Michigan in the summer you can pretend you're in Dutch California, then drive down to Detroit and pretend you're in Pittsburgh; head to the UP and pretend you're Ernest Hemingway ...) Says another friend: Michigan isn't so bad. Compared to Ohio, it's Canada.
History&Today File
Lewis and Clark were all the rage this year, on the eve of the bicentennial of their continental exploration (see links to Time cover story and Chicago Tribune travel piece below). But Slate's David Plotz says all the attention is overinflated. "If Lewis and Clark had died on the trail, it wouldn't have mattered a bit," says one author.,0,7659279.story

Previous H.T.
Etymology Today from M-W: flagrant \FLAY-grunt\
: conspicuously offensive; especially : so obviously inconsistent with what is right or proper as to appear to be a flouting of law or morality

In Latin, "flagrare" means "to burn," and "flagrans" means "burning" or "fiery hot" (both literally and figuratively). When it was first used in the 16th century, "flagrant" had the same meaning as "flagrans," but by the 18th century it had acquired its current meaning of "conspicuously bad." Some usage commentators warn against using "flagrant" and "blatant" interchangeably. While both words denote conspicuousness, they are not exact synonyms. "Blatant" is usually used of some person, action, or thing that attracts
disapproving attention (e.g., "a blatant grammatical error"). "Flagrant" is used similarly, but usually carries a heavier weight of violated morality (e.g., "flagrant abuse of public office").

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Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Quote of the Day
"A football is a prolate spheroid having cylindrical symmetry with tapered points,"
University of Nebraska physics professor Timothy Gay, who has produced a a program for NFL Films called "The Physics of Football. Quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

Number of the Day: 20 billion
Disposable diapers dumped in American landfills each year.

Previous Quote and Number
Faith&Culture: Today's NY Times ridicules Alabama evangelicals for putting up a fascimile of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse as a monument, and rightly so. But listen to yet another example an East Coast media elite reporter regarding a Southern fundamentalist as, well, a lower species (people talk of media bias, but it's cultural bias more than anything): "Evangelical Christians still set the agenda here. This is the state, after all, where high school science books have stickers on them saying evolution is just a theory." For the record, while small-"E" evolution--the biological change of species over time--is a fact, as Christian scientists will attest, big-"E" Evolution as the authoritative explanation of how life began is most dubious (though I like this version I saw on a cartoon once: "And God said, 'Let there be evolution.'")

Then the Times redeems itself with this fascinating example of Christians working for social justice in fuel economy standards (noting small-minded pietists and their holy huffing that fuel economy isn't in the Bible). The slogan is almost a satire of the sentimental wristband craze of a few years ago that evoked pious contemplation but didn't have the social bite of this campaign: "What Would Jesus Drive?"

(It's like an answer to my cry for social justice as a form of end-times living, and it's music to my ears.)
Thought of the day: ambitious service: an oxymoron or a duty?
I've been talking with various mentors lately about the fine line between a healthy ambition for positions of influence and a humble rejection of corporate culture's norms of ego and success. On the one hand, the defining narrative of our hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumptive society is to work hard, get ahead, get rich, and then enjoy the high life, and all the power and luxuries that come with it. (How we get off calling ourselves a Christian nation with these kind of national values will forever elude me.) On the other hand, I'm a believer in Christians being broad-minded and socially engaged--not reducing the gospel to a matter of "having Christ in your heart" and keeping a Bible by your bedside, but embodying Christ's transforming power in every area of life--including business and politics. Here's the rub: How is a Christian to go into politics, or business, or in my case, the establishment media--as good people must do if these structures are to ever get any better--and nurture a healthy desire to attain a position of influence to work for justice and goodness rather than prideful folly? And since we are all broken creatures, how is it possible to enter such contexts and defy all the elements that feed the ego--the power, the money, the recognition? In the case of journalism, I imagine someone rising to the stature and influential voice of a Bob Greene at the Tribune--only having something useful to say. (And not being hypocritical about it, as Greene was by romanticizing so-called traditional values and but actually living at a certain distance from them.) But look at how large Bob Greene's perception of himself and his place in the universe grew to be on his way to where he was. One of my mentors advises me to look for opportunities to rise within the structures of the media and work for change. But in just three months at the Tribune Tower this summer I sensed what a numbing, corporate, ego-engined place it is, and I wonder how I would reach the point where I was altering the subculture more than the subculture was altering me.

And yet, small-mindedness is not an option for the Christian servant. It's hard for me to see classmates who have interesting potential for kingdom service lackadaisically settle for less. Some people could actually use an infusion of ambition. To whom much has been given, the biblical adage goes, much will be required. (Or was that a line from Spiderman? "With great power comes great responsibility.") I remember the parable of the person by the river who sees someone drowning and wades in to save them. Five minutes later, another drowning person comes by and is rescued, and then another. Finally the person walks away from the riverbank. Where are you going? someone asks. Are you turning your back on these drowning people? No, the person says, I'm going to go upstream to see who's pushing them in. That's exactly it: going upstream to work for a larger good. I'm advised that this all boils down to how you define success: in American terms, in which success is how much money and power you can hoarde, and how quickly? Or is success a question of how much redemptive good you can bring about while embodying the person of Christ--his humility, love, and wisdom--and how faithful you are to Christ's lordship wherever life takes you? This idea is so familiar and almost trite that it is easy to forget how radical a vision it is for serving in God's world (heck, Ken Lay, a Southern evangelical, did and still would agree with this, before and after the evil he enacted at Enron). To try to balance humility with courage, to retain an bold imagination for a just society in a broken world where our ambitions are loftier than sobering reality, to fulfill our duty to rescue the drowning and the need to change the structure upstream--is to understand how complicated it is to be a human being.

Footnote: By all accounts (including this one) the late Congressman Paul Henry, from my hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., was someone who was respected for having a feel for this balance of humility and boldness in the corridors of power better than most. Meanwhile, this Fortune article tackles the question of the dueling motives of faith and fortune in the corporate world.

Related earlier thought: Save the world? Start by making up your mind
Previous thought: God's will and self-amplification
History&Today: Only now are we learning how frail the young, animated John F. Kennedy really was:

Previous H&T
Places&Culture from
Wall Street Journal

IRBID, JORDAN -- If you ask a Jordanian about the Internet, he'll invariably tell you how this college town in the country's north holds the Guinness world record for "the most Internet cafes in a single kilometer." In fact, the Guinness folks in London say there's no such record. Too bad, because Irbid deserves it. Irbid, with its three big universities, is a busy, vigorous, but frankly, not very pretty small city. Plain brick buildings dominate, their facades usually plastered with billboards, most in Arabic but many in mercantile English, like the "Big Taste of America" Viceroy cigarette ads. Internet cafes are everywhere, like pay phones, with names like Apollo and StarGate. One two-story minimal had five. The cafes are an easy way for someone to have a small business. It helps that Jordan's young, Western-educated King Abdullah II is a big techno-buff.

DUBAI -- There's a buildup going on in the Persian Gulf these days, but this one has nothing to do with a possible war with Iraq. A mile off the coast of this thriving emirate, huge dredges are sucking sand off the bottom of the sea and spraying it along the edges of one of the world's most unusual construction projects -- a giant, artificial island in the shape of a palm tree. Due to open in 2006, the Palm Island resort will stretch roughly three miles from base to tip and is expected to include 49 hotels and nearly 4,500 luxury villas and apartments, with a total price tag of about $5.5 billion.

Previous P&C
Etymology Today from M-W: garner
1 a : granary b : a grain bin
*2 : something that is collected : accumulation

Many English speakers are familiar with the verb "garner," meaning "to acquire by effort" or "to collect," but not everyone knows the verb's older meaning, "to gather into a granary." Fewer still know the noun "garner," which is less common in contemporary use (even though it dates from the 12th century and is older than the verb). The original "granary" sense of the noun "garner" is found mainly in older literary contexts, such as these lines of verse from Sir Walter Scott's "The Bride of Lammermoor": "Or, from the garner-door, on ether borne, / The chaff flies devious from the winnow'd corn."

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Saturday, November 16, 2002

Get this: My Big Fat Greek Wedding is now the highest grossing film to never be number 1 on any weekend. Made for $5 million, it has now grossed $193 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Mitch Albom questions the idea that we need the 2012 Olympics in New York to show the terrorists they didn't win: "Right. Im sure whatever cave they're hiding in come 2012, when the platform diving event begins, those terrorists will really be ticked."
Urban Issues Watch: The Democratic party may be gaining inroads in the suburbs, says David Brooks, but the exurbs are the new frontier:

The problem for Ms. Townsend was that ... she lost the rural areas and was crushed in the fast-growing exurban counties, beyond the metropolitan areas, like Frederick County, north of Washington, and Harford County, north of Baltimore. Her loss to the Republican, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., illustrated an important feature of the political landscape: Democrats stink in the exurbs. Look at the states where Democrats lost important races: Georgia, with its sprawling megalopolis stretching out from Atlanta; Minnesota, with its growing office parks and monster malls; Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush triumphed in the strip mall zones around Orlando. ... Colorado is something of a microcosm of how voting patterns are shaking out around the country. In the race for Senate, Tom Strickland, the defeated Democrat, easily carried Denver as well the university-centered Boulder County, with its highly educated, affluent voters. But in the Colorado where the sprawl people live, it's an entirely different story. In Douglas County, the fastest-growing county in the country, which stretches from Denver almost down to Colorado Springs, the Republican incumbent, Senator Wayne A. Allard, dominated, as he did in all the other fast-growing exurban corridors. ... These exurbs are booming. Before 1980, says Robert Lang, a demographer at Virginia Tech, only a quarter of all office space was in the suburbs. But about 70 percent of the office space created in the 1990's was in suburbia, and now 42 percent of all offices are located there. You have a tribe of people who don't live in cities, or commute to cities, or have any contact with urban life. Mesa, Ariz., another quintessential exurb east of Phoenix, already has more people than St. Louis. Extrapolate out a few years, and some of these sprawling suburbs will have political clout equal to Chicago's.
Previous U.I.W.
When Halloween goes fundamentalist, in a new documentary:

When the Trinity Church of Cedar Hill, Tex., wants to scare the pants off you around Halloween, it doesn't do it with a typical haunted house featuring ghosts, goblins and ghouls. Instead, it erects a Hell House in which congregants act out Grand Guignolesque scenes warning of the dangers of sinful behavior. At Hell House — actually a series of house trailers — the church stages one scene in which a gay man dying of AIDS is mocked by a grinning demon who welcomes him into Hell. Another vignette warns you to watch out what drugs you consume, because you might overdose, and then that friend of the Evil One will drag you into purgatory.... But as far as the Texas-born, New York-based filmmaker George Ratliff was concerned, most of its critics missed the point. "I was curious about the theology that allowed this behavior," said Mr. Ratliff. "I don't think this culture has ever been accurately portrayed in a documentary or film. They're really easy to poke fun at, because these guys are so over the top." The outcome of Mr. Ratliff's curiosity is "Hell House," a documentary opening on Friday at Cinema Village in New York.
Etymology Today from M-W: kaput
1 : utterly finished, defeated, or destroyed
*2 : unable to function : useless
3 : hopelessly outmoded

"Kaput" originated with a card game called "piquet" that has been popular in France for centuries. French players originally used the term "capot" to describe both big winners and big losers. To win all twelve tricks in a hand was called "faire capot" ("to make capot"), but to lose them all was known as "etre capot" ("to be capot"). German speakers adopted "capot," but respelled it "kaputt," and used it only for losers. When English speakers borrowed the word from German, they started using "kaput" for things that were broken, useless, or destroyed.

Previous E.T.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Number of the Day: 2
Percent of cable viewers who drop their service each year--many, presumably, for satellite TV. The percentage of American households who get cable is down to 63%, while the number of dish owners has risen from 5 million to 17 million since 1996. (The total number of American households is 106 million.),8816,366327,00.html
Quote of the Day
"She suffered for her art."
James Bond screenwriter Robert Wade on a bikini-clad Halle Berry recreating, in icy water, Ursula Andress' famous emergence-from-the-sea Bond scene from 1962. Quoted in Time magazine.

Previous Quote and Number
Latest Tribune article: On restaurants and terrorism. Thank goodness for editors who salvaged my lumbering lead:,0,3273309.story

Previous Tribune articles
That ringing in your ears? It’s from watching prime time TV shows jam-packed with dialogue, says Emily Nelson in today’s Wall Street Journal.
Speaking of imagination, a letter writer to MediaNews confirms my suspicion about RedEye: that selling out isn't the way to engage youth--doing better, more innovative work is:
Instead of lightening the editorial load, editorial directors would be wise to pick entirely different ways of looking at the same old stuff. Twentysomethings don't want less -- we want something different.
It's the imagination, stupid. Imagination is the problem ...
...with President Bush, writes Arianna Huffington:
The president has been asking very little of us. At one stop he recommended we "be a Boy Scout leader or a Girl Scout leader." At another he suggested that Americans "put their arm around somebody who hurts and say, 'I love you. What can I do to help you? How can I make your life better?'" Unfortunately, he failed to mention what to do when the answer to that question is: "Take you damn arm off of me and get me some affordable health insurance!" ... I'm all in favor of these things. But there is a world of difference between urging mild, spare-time charity and championing a cause that will transform our society. It's the difference between flaccid, patronizing stump-speech rhetoric and invoking patriotism to rally us as a nation to a common mission.

...and with the Democrats, writes Joe Klein:
Some say move left. Some say move right. Both are right and both are wrong. If we're to have a vaguely interesting national debate, the Democrats have to move forward—away from the boring, tiny, and tactical issues, and language, and interest groups that the party has championed in recent years. This will mean a change in style as well as content. ... The Democrats need to embrace complexity. This is anathema, I know. Politicians hate compound sentences. But let's face it, most of the best Democratic ideas are complicated. They usually involve this formulation: We should make [name your sacrifice] in order to gain [name your long-term benefit]. The Republicans, by contrast, tend to be the party of the sentence fragment: Cut taxes. Wave the flag. Family values. (Although thoughtful Republicans are uncomfortable with such empty, short-term blather.) My sense is that civilians are uncomfortable with it, too.

Earlier: Election morning after
This term is so overused by sportscasters who don't even know what it means. I was surprised to learn myself:
Etymology Today from M-W: swan song
1 : a song of great sweetness said to be sung by a dying swan
*2 : a farewell appearance or final act or pronouncement

Swans don't sing. They whistle or trumpet, or in the case of the swan most common in ponds, the mute swan, they only hiss and snort. But according to ancient legend, the swan does sing one beautiful song in its life -- just before it dies. References in English to the dying swan's lovely singing go back as far as Chaucer, but the term "swan song" itself didn't appear in the language until the 1830s, when Thomas Carlyle used it in _Sartor Resartus_. Carlyle probably based his "swan song" on the German version of the term, which is "Schwanengesang" or "Schwanenlied."

Previous E.T.

Monday, November 11, 2002

Says Catholic blogger Peter Nixon:

"Pro-life activists are about to learn the same lesson that the health care reformers of the Clinton Administration learned almost a decade ago: the Framers designed the federal system to frustrate political change rather than enable it."
The Chicago globalization protesters marched peacefully in town last week, but there was no deterring most of the major media from framing the story as crazed-youth-threaten-civilization-with-mayhem. Media coverage was all about the police presence, how many police are there, how are the police handling it, what do the police expect to happen, where are the police stationed, have the police seen any violence yet. I'm thinking of this as I write for RedEye, the Tribune's attempt to be more relevant to youth, and I'm thinking: to be more relevant to youth, how about not reflexively taking the point of view of institutional law enforcement? How about bothering to ask who these young people are and what they have to say, rather than reacting like hypersensitive old fogeys?
Thought of the Day: God's will and self-amplification
What is God's will for your life? The question is usually asked and considered with the earnest of a meditating monk. I have charismatic friends who believe God guides them directly in the daily decisions and details of their lives. My uncle, for instance, heard God's call to start a painting business. A roommate heard God calling him to teach English in China; he had hardly been there a few months and he heard God calling him to come back to the States. The most extreme cases drivie around parking lots praying for God for a space. And I'm thinking, I dunno, in Bible times, God called Moses to split the seas, today, he calls my uncle to paint. Is that how it works? The question is particularly poignant for me right now. After a series of unlikely circumstances, I received an incredible opportunity to be an intern at the Chicago Tribune this summer (and to continue as a regular contributor). I took it as God hitting me over the head with a two-by-four and telling me and my wife to move to Chicago. Well, we're here now, and we're awfully confused about what the next step is. Neither of us has solid job prospects, neither is sure where to go with our careers, and we each want to live in different places. What's God's will now? Are we missing something, or are we supposed to wait for another cloud-parting revelation? I'm starting to return not only to my more cynical pre-Chicago state, but also to my hunch that God's will is less a Where's-Waldo-type scavenger hunt and more of a general (but no less important) call to live faithfully in whatever context we find ourselves through our choices and our chances.

The problem with seeing God's will as a crystal ball to peer into when we face decisions is, for one thing, it inflates your life with a false sense of importance--God will alter the course of the heavens and speak in whispers over little old me, at every turn of my life. Ironically, though trawling for God's will is supposedly an act of humility--I'm not living for myself, I'm accountable to a higher power--it can actually be a very pious act that pumps up our perception of our place in the universe. It injects the thunder of God's voice into relatively trivial personal matters--whether you go here or there, take a certain job and buy a certain house, when in fact it may not make a hoot of difference. I'm not saying these are always small potatoes--indeed, little else occupies my mind right now than the next jobs and move for my wife and me--just that they're not the sort of thing over which we can be sure God, who minds the galaxies, deliberates. We can be sure that his will is nonetheless crystal clear in every situation. "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). We American Christians, trained to see religion in the evangelical terms of personal piety, would do well to take a new look at Micah 6:8 when pondering God's will and realize this may be the extent of it--to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly wherever we go and whatever we do in life.

I don't mean to get too generic--God does not give individual people the talents to do 100 or 200 things equally well, but my sense is he gives us the talents and opportunities to do 7 or 8, or 3 or 4, things well in service of his kingdom, and it's up to us to try, to learn, and to try again as life brings us choices. Besides, as Frederick Buechner writes, when you look at your life God's fingerprints in it are most visible in retrospect, not beforehand. The point is to keep the proper focus--God is not just my "co-pilot"; he made the skies. The focus is on God, who is the sovereign creator, not just a human resource director or parking space locator. I'm using an article by Robert M. Price in some writing I'm doing on piety, the gospel, and service. Price says the problem is when we “look through the wrong end of the [telescope] and reduce Christ, the object of [our] gaze, to tiny size, rather than using it properly to bring a distant reality into manageable view." Price continues:

Suppose one turned the telescope back around? A Christian might stop making herself the focus of all heavenly and earthly events (an amazingly egocentric posture, really). Instead she might realize, so to speak, that her small planet is only one of many orbiting a greater sun. She might begin to see the same light that illuminates her shining on other people, other areas of life and culture. Instead of grabbing all the grace for her own selfish sanctification, she might try to apply the gospel to the larger issues of the world around her.

The typical "God's will" model, Price says, "is rather like giving someone else the keys to your car; you won't be driving it any more." Instead, “what if 'giving your life to Christ' were more like writing a book or a song and then like dedicating it to someone else?
'I will live my life in all its fullness, enjoying my interests, and making my decisions responsibly. And the whole resulting tapestry I present to Jesus as a gift, which I hope he will enjoy as I have.” May that be the will of God we seek to follow.

Previous thought
Revisited: The problem with polls. In September I did a story for the Tribune on the peril of polls in the age of caller ID. Last Friday the Wall Street Journal ran a similar story on its front page about polls gone wrong from the past week's election. The NY Times' Adam Nagourney took on the topic on Election Day.

I got the idea from this William Safire column, but the authoritative article on the topic was penned by the Boston Globe in 2000.

The point is becoming clear: be very wary of what pollsters claim is the conventional wisdom, and don't let them drag down the democratic process--go vote no matter what the spread is.
Etymology Today from M-W: voluble \VAHL-yuh-bul\
1 : easily rolling or turning : rotating
*2 : characterized by ready or rapid speech : glib, fluent

English has many terms for gabby types, but it's important to choose the right word to get across what kind of chatterbox you mean. "Talkative" usually implies a readiness to engage in talk or a disposition to enjoy conversation." "Loquacious" generally suggests the power to express oneself fluently, articulately, or glibly, but it can also mean "talking excesively." "Garrulous" is even stronger in its suggestion of excessive talkativeness; it is most often used for tedious, rambling talkers. "Voluble" describes an individual who speaks easily and often.

Previous E.T.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

NFL parity vs NFL mediocrity. Only one game this week matched two teams with winning records. (It ended in a tie).
Sunday Clippings from my e-mail files, including this from a friend of mine on her impressions of Jerusalem, where she spent a semester in early 2001.
Previous Sunday Clippings

>First of all, about young people's misconceptions...actually, both young and old
people have misconceptions of the area. I will tell you some of mine before I
arrived in Israel. I did not have much understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict before I went there, but most of the news that I had heard was very
pro-Israel, so I didn't have a good impression of Palestinians. Yet, I learned
much of the conflict while I was there and my heart really went out to the
Palestinian people. Don't get me wrong, neither side is innocent in this
conflict- both sides do horrible things. But the thing with the Palestinian
people is that they have almost nothing while Israel is the #1 country in the
world that receives the most aid from the US, so they are much much more stable.
I went into the West Bank while I was there, to Bethlehem, a few days after
Israeli tanks had pulled out after occupying the city for 10 days. I was
appalled at the damage they had done to innocent Palestinian homes. Jerusalem
lies a mere 3 miles to the north of Bethlehem and we could here the shelling
during those ten just knew people were getting killed. But what can
you do?

At the same time, there are crazy young Palestinians who blow themselves up and
kill innocent Israeli citizens. We had a window of time during our semester
that not much happened in Jerusalem, but about 2 weeks before we left there was
a round of suicide bombs in Jerusalem and Haifa (which is on the coast). I was
at the same spot where the suicide bomber detonated himself a mere 24 hours
before it happened...praise God for his protection.
Yet, you have to ask, why do these people blow themselves up? Is it because of
their religion, or is it because it is the only way they have a voice- the only
way they can fight back since they have been stripped of everything. I believe
it is a combination of both.

Another misconception that I had was that all Palestinians were Muslim, yet this
is not true either. Although they are only a minority of the Palestinian
population, there are Palestinian Christians! I had several Palestinian
Christian friends and they are wonderful people. It saddens me to know that
they have to continue to daily live with this conflict. It is very difficult
for Palestinians to travel in Israel...they must go through check points to go
from the West Bank or Gaza Strip into Israel and this can sometimes take hours
when it usually takes 10-20 minutes to get from point A to point B. Yet these
precautions are sometimes necessary to keep terrorists out. The thing that is
so sad is that the majority of the Palestinian people must suffer for what the
minority does. This is another misconception that people have- that
Palestinians are all crazy suicide bombers that just want to kill all Israelis.
This is not true- the extremists are only a minority of the population.

Another misconception about the Middle East in general is that everyone is Arab
and everyone is Muslim. This is not true. I took a class called
"Christian Communities in the Middle East" and learned much about the
Eastern Church. I was so surprised because I had only ever learned about the
Western Church (protestants and catholics) and had never learned anything about
this whole other part of the body of Christ. The Christian communities of the
middle east are the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Byzantine Orthodox Church,
Catholics and Protestants. The Oriental Orthodox Church consists of Coptic
(these are Egyptian Christians), Armenian, Ethiopian, Chaldean and Syrian
Churches. It really angered me that I had never learned about these brothers
and sisters in Christ and that the west does not pay much attention to these
Christians in the other half of the world!

I think it is extremely important to keep these Christians in our prayers
because the eastern church is very persecuted. In general, Christians in the
Middle East are often persecuted because people associate Christianity with the
west- even if these eastern Christians have nothing to do with the west. Thus,
depending on western politics, they are persecuted. And you can imagine that
life is not easy for Christians right now in the middle east since the Sept. 11

So, there are a few things for you to chew on! The Israeli- Palestinian
conflict is a very complex one and I still have much to grasp about it. Right
now I am trying to understand what the Bible says about the Jewish people and
how God's plan for them fits into this whole thing because it is incredibly
important to the story. If there is one thing that I could tell people it is
that we MUST pray for the situation in the middle east and the people that have
to live with this horrible conflict- ESPECIALLY our brothers and sisters in
Christ there.

Psalm 122:6-9
"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: 'May those who love you be secure. May
there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.' For the
sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, 'Peace be within you.' For the
sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity."
From my file, this e-mail exchange with Virginia Postrel:

Some of the rhetoric from the early 90s about the promise of the Internet borders on the utopian. What were these promises of digital technology, and what were the flaws of the rhetoric?

At its most extreme, the rhetoric promised a complete transformation of the
relation between citizens and government, businesses and customers, media
and readers, and so on. The general idea was that somehow intermediate
institutions would melt away and everyone would use the Internet to be

As I discussed in this 1994 speech on media (with some reference to
government),, these proclamations
tended to misunderstand why we have such intermediate institutions in the
first place. Time and knowledge are limited.

Intellectuals hate specialization, but it is--as Adam Smith observed in the
economic sphere--the key to progress.

We then went through a period when just the opposite idea became prominent,
particularly in discussions of media: A few large entities like AOL-Time
Warner were going to control everything. Both of these fallacies were
informed by a sort of naïve 19th-century leftism (with dollops of
anti-authority libertarianism and plenty of hippie inclinations) that
assumed that big is both bad and profitable.

Throughout all this period, there were always voices of moderation,
including people who were building businesses and other institutions

A number of my Forbes ASAP columns,, tried
to offer a more sensible alternative to the all-or-nothing approach to
thinking about how the Internet changes the relation between large
institutions (including commercial websites) and individuals or small
entities. See, for instance,,,,

How much more reserved now is futuristictalk about the Internet, and should it be? What is the greatest promise of the Internet in a supposedly wiser age?

The promise of the Internet is what it has always been. It lowers the cost
of information. It lowers the cost of any venture that primarily deals in
bits--from producing music to producing political commentary. (Witness all
the recent attention to blogs and, notably, Glenn Reynolds's Instapundit
site ability to become a major information hub in a matter of months.) It
makes it possible for people with specialized tastes or interests to find
each other. It reduces the disadvantages of geographical distance. It saves
research time.

I'm also interested in the political element of the Internet in the early 90s. Early on, the Wired culture seemed to be libertarian and yet socially progressive. Is that right, if so why was that, and has it changed?

Wired specifically reflected its founders and their friends, who could be
rightly characterized as libertarian and socially progressive. That culture
still exists, but the Internet is like the telephone now. It doesn¹t belong
to any particular group. Everybody uses it.

I'll note, however, that even back in 1996, Pat Buchanan had by far the best
website of any presidential candidate, apparently because there was some
Buchanan enthusiast who set it up and knew what she (I think it was a woman)
was doing. it wasn't slick and commercial the way political sites are today,
but it was right for the times and right for Buchanan's grassroots appeal.

Finally, how can the digital technology build community/communities now and in the future, and how does it fall short of facilitating true community and relationships?

First of all, the Internet duplicates some of the advantages of a large
(very large) city, by making it possible for people to find others who share
their narrower interests. These may be hobbies, political interests, pop
culture enthusiasms, or medical problems. In some cases, these relationships
are very casual. In others, such as struggling with particular medical
problems, they may be quite close.

Along similar lines, the Internet reduces some of the barriers of geography.
If you're the only geeky kids in some tiny town in Idaho (or wherever Jon
Katz wrote GEEKS about), you can find people elsewhere who don't think
you're incredibly weird, and your horizons may widen. The kids in GEEKS
decided to go to college in, I believe, Chicago.

By reducing the barriers of geography, the Internet changes the relative
costs of living in the place that's best for your family and the place
that's best for your career. As editor of Reason, I had several employees
living in remote locations because of a spouse's job or other familial
obligations. In some cases, those places were good for editorial work--for
instance, Washington--but distant from our headquarters in L.A. In others,
such as Huntsville, Texas, or Oxford, Ohio, they weren't particularly good
for the magazine, but keeping a valuable employee was worth it. For that
matter, I now live in Dallas because my husband teaches at SMU. Dallas is a
large city, which helps, but I would certainly never live here for my career
(or, off the record, pretty much any other reason). I find the Internet
essential to my work in all its dimensions.

The Internet isn't a substitute for face-to-face friendships, but neither is
the phone. But by making communication at a distance easier, the Internet
allows people to maintain and develop relationships that wouldn't be
otherwise possible.

My experience around September 11 illustrates some of the power of the
Internet. My website became a hub for all sorts of people to communicate
with a virtual community. Email allowed me to communicate easily with
friends and family even in the New York area. The most unusual interactions
were those I had with a guy in Pakistan who knows my brother in Portland,
Oregon, via an email list for Jeep enthusiasts. The Jeep club members had
many frank exchanges with their fellow enthusiast in Pakistan. I got
involved to bring my expertise to bear on the rumors about CNN's supposedly
old tape of Palestinians celebrating the attacks and about 4,000 Jews being
warned not to show up at the WTC. The Internet helped spread those rumors,
but without it I certainly wouldn't have been debunking the Pakistani rumor
Virginia Postrel (
Author, The Future and Its Enemies
"Economic Scene" columnist, The New York Times
Contributing editor and "Spaces" columnist, D Magazine | (The Scene)

Friday, November 08, 2002

After interviewing him earlier this week, I was given a business card by a specialist in pest control in restaurants. His slogan? Some guests never pay for their dinner.
Dispatch from the North: My friend Nathan VanderKlippe analyzes the metaphors, mixed and otherwise, thrown around by politicians at his post in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories:

Previous Dispatch from the North
Urban Issues Watch from the NY Times:
Seattle Monorail

It was a cabdriver's dream, five years ago, that led this city into a flight of fancy that it could build the country's biggest monorail system to ease its ever-worsening traffic problems. Despite two citywide votes favoring such a plan, the monorail was scorned by much of the political establishment and relegated to civic limbo. It appeared to be headed down the process-driven lane that has killed many other plans — death by a thousand studies.

Seattle Times: Monorail proposal seems to have won
Seattle Times

Previous U.I.W.
Architecture Watch
The downside of magnificent architecture--when form leaves function in its dust--in this letter to the editor in response to a Sept. article on Frank Gehry and "The Bilbao Effect" in the Atlantic:

Bilbao GuggenheimMuseums in particular are subject to egregious silliness when it comes to the design of new buildings, additions, alterations, and so forth. This is true for two reasons: architects are usually given carte blanche to do what they want, regardless of what is needed, and people who know absolutely nothing about museums think these unique institutions can serve purposes for which they are totally unsuited. ... The East Wing of the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C., provides an excellent example. It is a cold, banal waste of space, with exhibits relegated to obscure corners. ... For many current architects of museums, the buildings are more important than what will be seen in them. To make matters worse, the public is given an even lower priority than the contents. Visitors are made to trudge though empty and unattractive spaces, up and down stairs and ramps, while seeking exhibitions, bathrooms, elevators, and exits.
-Steven H. Miller, Morris Museum, Morristown, N. J.

Previous A.W
Places&Culture File from ABC

In the high mountains and plains of northern Iraq, a region above which U.S jets enforce the Kurdish "no-fly" zone, an ancient, minority Christian community still speaks the language once spoken by Jesus Christ. Called the Assyrians, they are one of the world's oldest Christian communities, and scholars believe the Aramaic language they speak today is a dialect of the language Jesus of Nazareth and his early disciples spoke. In the Christian villages and hamlets dotting the northern enclave, historic churches and monasteries today conduct their services in classical Aramaic, presenting a picture of a people and their culture untouched by time. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Previous P&C
Etymology Today from M-W: debacle \dee-BAH-kul or dee-BACK-ul\
1 : a tumultuous breakup of ice in a river
2 : a violent disruption (as of an army) : rout
3 a : a great disaster *b : a complete failure : fiasco

"Debacle" comes from the French "debacle," which comes from the verb "debacler," meaning "to clear," "to unbolt," or "to unbar." The word comes from the Middle French "desbacler," which joined the prefix "des-" (equivalent to our "de-," meaning "to do the opposite of") with the verb "bacler" ("to block"). In its original uses, "debacle" meant a breaking up of ice, or the rush of ice or water that follows such an occurrence. Eventually, "debacle" was used also to mean "a violent, destructive flood." Naturally, such uses led to meanings such as "a breaking up," "collapse," and finally "disaster" or "fiasco."

Fun Words: adjunct, ebb, perforate
Previous E.T.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Please, please, no Contract With America II !

The latest installment of the Republican Revolution has me shuddering (I'm a conservative liberal), and I'm not alone. 5 people I wouldn't want to be this morning:

ANWAR caribou. Your days are numbered.

Walter Mondale. Tragedy enables him to campaign for the Senate without appearing ambitious or getting exhausted by a full-time campaign. But he dusts off his dreams just in time to have them shattered again.

Political pundits. Fail to see Democratic wave cresting in '98, blind to Republican one in '02. If your bosses had any credibility, you'd be out of a job.

Richard Gephardt. Could your party, and your leadership of it, be any more incoherent and pathetic?

Al Gore. Big Republican sweep figures to rile up the dormant Democrat, zapping the possibility that he'll yield to a more capable and visionary opponent to the Bush regime in '04.
Media&Culture File from Slate
Bias or laziness? Seems to be a bit of the first and a lot of the second, mixed in with some sleepiness, says Mickey Kaus. To read the analysis of the major newspapers this morning you might have to do some digging to find out the GOP has taken unchecked command of two of the three branches of government. The Washington Post's David von Drehle, "Designated Overwriter," says that "the story of Election 2002, ultimately, seemed to be the continuing inability of either party to form a strong governing majority in a country almost perfectly divided between the two." And USA Today's Susan Page, Kaus says, "also keeps her seemingly pre-written 50-50 nut graf," which reads, "After an election season marked by billion-dollar spending and a barrage of TV ads, the nation remained almost evenly divided. Not even the threat of war or fears of a faltering economy could decisively break the deadlock in American politics." Says Kaus: "I guess nobody want to write a new nut graf at 2:00 in the morning. But that one doesn't seem to reflect what actually happened yesterday."

And today's discussion question: "Would 'deadlock' have been the theme if Democrats had gained four seats in the Senate?"
Previous M&C
ACROSS THE board, this has been a dismal campaign, highlighted mostly by impotent candidates, a disaffected electorate and a media that don’t know what to do with either, writes Gersh Kuntzman for NWeek

Such a boring, issueless campaign is an amazing thing considering how many important issues are in play right now. Should we go to war with Iraq? What should we do about the economy? How can we improve public schools? What can we do to develop new sources of energy so that we don’t have to be in hypocritical alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia?

Kuntzman's campaign solutions:

More Dan Rather. ... This ornery Texan has become the highest-paid loose cannon in television. ...
Eliminate political advertising: It’s never informative and it’s never fair.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Less democracy, please. I'm looking up endorsements from the Chicago papers online, desperately trying to form an opinion on whom I want to vote for in unknown races for offices I've never heard of. What, exactly, is the point? I'm reminded of Steve Chapman's column on Sunday:

Letting ordinary people choose their government officials is a good idea in principle. But we don't really need to elect the person who does the state's banking, any more than we need to elect the custodians who mop the floors of the capitol. Here in Illinois, the formula seems to be: When in doubt, put it to the voters--even if they couldn't possibly be competent to decide.,0,2997286.column
Continuing today's Election Day theme, this patriotic inspiration from our president:
Quote of the Day:
"This is a nation that loves our freedom, loves our country."
George W. Bush, May 17, 2002
Number of the Day: 32
Percent drop, between 1964 and 2000, in the number of Americans who say they generally trust their government, from 76 to 44
Source: Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, cited in The Atlantic
Previous Quote and Number
A fitting entry for Election Day, given my cynical rant yesterday about politicians and special interests:
Eytmology Today from M-W: quid pro quo \kwid-proh-KWOH\
: something given or received for something else

In the 1560s, a quid pro quo was something obtained from an apothecary. That's because when "quid pro quo" (New Latin
for "something for something") was first used in English, it referred to the process of substituting one medicine for another -- intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally. The meaning of the phrase was quickly extended, however, and by 1591 it was being used for more general equivalent exchanges. These days, it often occurs in legal contexts.

Previous E.T.

Monday, November 04, 2002

Mailbox: Dan Johnson-Weinberger of the Chicago office of the Center for Voting and Democracy e-mails this response to my RedEye column this morning:

Thanks for citing the Center for Voting and Democracy in your column. I'm the Chicago-based staffer. I liked the point about candidates not engaging voters. But, we can change the electoral system so that those candidates that *do* appeal to young voters (and we remain a minority) can still get elected. Good things to do (and something worth following, as we'll be lobbying for
these changes in Illinois) include:

same-day voter registration (how do you think Ventura won?)
instant runoff voting (get a first choice and a second choice when you vote)
make it legal for young people to run for Congress or the Presidency (why should you have to wait until you are 35 to be eligible to run?)

Dan's e-mail signature includes a Chinese proverb:
Those who are saying it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are
doing it.
Thought of the day: when is cynicism too much of a good thing?
Tomorrow is Election Day, when Americans from coast to coast remember our country's democratic ideals, consider their chance to choose our next batch of leaders, and cannot help but observe that the word "citizen" sounds a lot like "cynicism." How useful is cynicism? To me, a Nader voter, it's merely being realistic: politics is a game in which the agenda of the powerful is to maintain their power--repay donors with favors, avoid originality just enough to appear generically pleasing to an independent-leaning voting public. In that sense, politicians are among the few people whose sole job duties are to keep their jobs--who exist for the purpose of continuing to exist--and whose job performance is so hindered by their job duties (intriguing P.J. O'Rourke essay on this in the latest Atlantic, preview only available free online). You call it cynicism, I call it refusing to be sentimental and naive. As I wrote in RedEye this morning, it would take some authentic, passionate, relevant rhetoric (did you see West Wing last week?) to re-capture the hearts and minds of the public. Until then, politicians don't deserve any higher turnout than they get.

How useful is cynicism? Part of me wants more people to be more cynical, so that they wouldn't be so swayed by the televisual brainwashing of commercials, or so Lemming-like follow social myths about wealth, sex, religion, and patriotism. But how much is too much? Why does no buzzer go off when you step on the tissue-thin line between healthy skepticism and dysfunctional cynicism? A truly unpleasant world would be populated by everyone always walking around questioning everything, always rejecting social assumptions. Again, to quote Nicholas-Sebastien Chamfort: "The contemplative life is often miserable. You should do more, think less and not watch yourself living." And worse, consistent cynicism is an act of self-absorption--you say, OK, social mythology cannot be trusted...but I can. What sense does that make? If societies are capable of collective error, naivete and delusion, then so are individuals.

Besides, there is, to both our moral peril and mental health, a functionality to some level of cultural conformity. It is difficult, if not downright depressing, to endure the cognitive dissonance that comes from a continuous rejection of the values of one's cultural context. There is a function to people walking into voting booths tomorrow and voting, even if the people they're choosing are petty, their proposed policies inconsequential, and the likelihood of getting them passed next to nil. There's a function to it even if it's an empty ritual--to perpetuate a social system. So I'll vote. Still, we're left to search for the reality that lies between the possibility that society is deluding itself and I know better, and the possibility that I am deluding myself and society knows better. Feeble humans cannot consistently tell the difference, which makes life such a mystery.

Footnote one: I dig into the thick of these themes in a Books&Culture review of David Dark's Everyday Apocalypse.

Footnote two: Ryan, a good and sharp-witted friend of mine from WBBL Radio in Grand Rapids, once spouted this piece of passionate political rhetoric in response to a column I wrote. I disagree with over half of it, but Ryan is so authentic and intelligent in his rhetoric (as with West Wing as I mentioned above) that I'd be inclined to vote for him if he ever runs for office).

Footnote three: William Safire says today that the electoral problem is mechanical and logistical, not cynicism. The Atlantic breaks down the numbers to back him up (preview only available free online).

Earlier thought: Would we be better off with lower voter turnout?
Previous thought: What is truth?
Money&Culture File from
NY Times

McDonald'sMcDONALD'S may serve Happy Meals at its 30,000 sites around the globe, but it's a pretty safe bet that meal times -- and the hours in between -- are less than joyful at the company's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. Customers are defecting, franchisees are complaining, and shareholders are fleeing. Mention the Golden Arches on Wall Street, and be prepared for a bunch of "fallen arches" jokes. ... Money & Business asked seven restaurant and management experts what McDonald's should do now. Following are their often-contradictory takes.

Previous M&C
Places&Culture from the
Chicago Tribune

Since 1914, the year the gray, ornately columned hospital that caters to Chicago's poor and uninsured was built on the city's West Side, Cook County Hospital has been famous and infamous, educational and unforgettable for the generations of doctors and patients who have passed through its grimy, historic halls. Its notoriously outrageous cases and environs have been the inspiration for the television drama "ER." And everyone who has spent any time in the place has a story about the ramshackle hospital that has long been dubbed the "Old Lady on Harrison Street." But now the storied Chicago institution is on the verge of being demolished, to be replaced by a state-of-the-art $623 million hospital expected to open within weeks.

MANITOWOC, Wis. -- Roadside sweet corn stands have given way to roadside pumpkin stands. Packer baseball caps are being replaced by warmer Packer stocking caps. Along the Lake Michigan shore here, 80 miles north of Milwaukee, the air is chilled and the maple, oak and sumac leaves blush with color. It's undeniable. Summer is over. ... Like most port cities on Lake Michigan, Manitowoc has a history of commercial fishing; and, again like most, that industry has played out. Another industry that has mostly moved on is shipbuilding. In the latter half of the 19th Century, there were 10 shipbuilders here. Now there's one, the Burger Boat Co. which custom-makes yachts for customers such as Scottie Pippen (the Lady Larsa, named for the basketball star's wife ).
In the 1940s, shipyards in Manitowoc built 28 submarines as well as landing craft, minesweepers and subchasers. In recognition of that service to the war effort, the U.S. Navy donated a submarine of the same class as those made here to the Wisconsin Marine Museum. The U.S.S. Cobia is now moored downtown in the Manitowoc River next to the museum.

Previous P&C
Urban Issues Watch from
NY Times

The Anaheim Angels' success in the American League playoffs is not just a victory for a long-suffering baseball franchise. It is a vindication for the strip malls, the used-car lots, the smog-shrouded freeways, the housing tracts and the past-their-prime downtowns throughout Southern California. "This is a victory for the new suburbia, what could be called a post-suburban suburbia," said Joel Kotkin, a scholar of American urban life at Pepperdine University. "The success of the Angels represents a kind of coming of age for Orange County.


Previous U.I.W.: Experiment on the prairie, Chicago Tribune; Sep 29, 2002; pg. 1