When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

31 December 2004

Happy New Year!

Reader, friend and poet Ben G. sends along this link, to Yugo Nakamura's "Industorious Clock" (Flash required.) Very appropriate, as we count down the waning minutes and seconds of 2004.

Well, given the link above, I'm just middlebrow enough to quote a too-obvious, apposite stanza from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Fitzgerald translation):
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Happy New Year, one and all, and here's hoping for better days in 2005.

27 December 2004

Tsunami relief information

TsunamiHelp is emerging as a central collecting point in the blogosphere for information on how to help victims of the horrible Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunamis in Asia.

Monday cynicism

"If there were a verb meaning "to believe falsely," it would not have any significant first person, present indicative." - Ludwig Wittgenstein

25 December 2004

Merry Christmas, one and all

It's Christmas morning. I hope that you are looking forward to spending some time with your loved ones today, eating a good meal together, opening presents...

I am not exactly the most conventionally religious fellow in the world, but a long-standing personal tradition that I observe on Christmas morning is to get up early, make a pot of coffee, and do a little reading.

I am in North Carolina at the moment, looking after my parents, who have been sick lately. (I was down here for a week right around Thanksgiving as well.) On this visit, things are much improved, I am pleased to report... but this morning, my family and friends in New York City are on my mind. (We'll have our Christmas celebration tomorrow, when I return.)

Wherever you are, and whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I hope that today you are with the people who matter most to you.

22 December 2004

Gmail for Christmas

I've got a few spare Gmail invitations kicking around the place. (Gmail, for the three of you who haven't heard of it yet, is Google's web-based e-mail product, still in a protracted beta-testing period. It offers a gigabyte of mailbox storage space, clever threading of e-mails and replies, powerful search, and more.)

If you'd like a (free) Gmail account, drop me a line (and be sure to specify the e-mail address you want me to send the invitation to, if it's different from the one you write from.)

I'll update this message when they're all gone. Merry Christmas, one and all!

UPDATE: Wow, that was quick. Gmail invites are gone (for now.)

Au revoir, Jon Vie Pastries

Jon Vie Pastries and Cafe, a Greenwich Village institution, is closing its doors after Christmas.

And so the Village loses another wonderful bakery in 2004, a victim of rising rents, as the boutique-ification of the neighborhood continues unabated. (Zito and Sons on Bleecker Street closed earlier this year.)

Shopping at Jon Vie was a delight. It was an old-school bakery that put your cookies and pastries into a cardboard box and artfully tied it up with string, and the counter staff always made time to chat and visit. Even the neighborhood dogs loved it:
[T]he neighborhood's dogs know the shop, because Jon Vie saves broken cookies for them. One dog that ran away from its owner a year ago was soon found inside the shop, drooling over the cookie case.
I'm in North Carolina visiting family at the moment, but I'll be back in NYC in time to make one final visit before Jon Vie closes for good, I hope.

My wife's reaction when she learned Jon Vie was closing:
OH NO!!! I feel like we should buy up all the cookies, like Larry David did with the sponge cakes in Curb Your Enthusiasm!
An excellent plan.

Bowling for Arafat

The forensic accounting details are starting to come in. It turns out that Yasser Arafat invested nearly a billion dollars of the money he raised for the Palestinian cause over the years in companies that ranged from venture capital funds to my neighborhood bowling alley.
At a time when the [Palestinian] authority was starved for funds, Arafat's money managers placed bets from Tel Aviv to Silicon Valley on venture capital funds, software startups and telecommunications companies.


Arafat made the investments abroad with tax money that he "diverted" from the Palestinian finance ministry, according to a September 2003 International Monetary Fund report on the Palestinian economy. Israel collected import taxes for goods destined for the territories and then passed the funds to the authority.

18 December 2004

Gotta get down to the (data) mine...

This morning's New York Times (free registration required) explains that the ACLU is doing a little data mining to try to improve its fund-raising success.

Some board members, correctly pointing out that this is just the sort of behavior the ACLU slags private industry for, aren't happy:
"It is part of the A.C.L.U.'s mandate, part of its mission, to protect consumer privacy," said Wendy Kaminer, a writer and A.C.L.U. board member. "It goes against A.C.L.U. values to engage in data-mining on people without informing them. It's not illegal, but it is a violation of our values. It is hypocrisy."
Now New York's publicity-loving Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer (safety tip: try never to be positioned between Mr. Spitzer and a camera) is getting into the act, questioning whether the ACLU has violated their own stated privacy policies.

As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I must admit to being a little disappointed with the organization's new data-gathering practices. When it comes to organizations using computing power to correlate publically available data, however, I'm afraid that has just become common practice, and as a practical matter the ship sailed years ago.

(See The End of Privacy, The Transparent Society, among others.)

Cornell News: American attitudes toward Muslims

According to a new study released Friday by Cornell University, almost half of all respondents favor the curtailing (in one or more areas) of civil rights for Muslim Americans.
  • 27 percent of respondents said that all Muslim Americans should be required to register their location with the federal government
  • 26 percent said they think that mosques should be closely monitored by U.S. law enforcement agencies.
  • 29 percent agreed that undercover law enforcement agents should infiltrate Muslim civic and volunteer organizations, in order to keep tabs on their activities and fund raising.
  • 22 percent said the federal government should profile citizens as potential threats based on the fact that they are Muslim or have Middle Eastern heritage.
The full reports are available in PDF format (Acrobat Reader required):

02 December 2004

The barbecue fad in New York City

I noticed tonight, on the way home from work, that a doomed restaurant site on Greenwich Avenue (three different restaurants have failed there in the last few years) is about to re-launch itself as a barbecue joint--called, in a somewhat tone-deaf stab at Red State authenticity, "Bone Lick Park Barbecue." (There is, of course, an actual Big Bone Lick Park in Kentucky--the "Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology"--but in my neighborhood, "Bone Lick" is liable to conjure up some non-vertebrate-paleontology-related images, not to put too fine a point on it.)

I don't expect much. The cutesy name screams "faux-be-cue" to me.

Interestingly, there has been a huge fad for quasi-authentic barbecue restaurants in New York City in the last several years. Now, I was born and raised in North Carolina, and my wife grew up in Kansas City. Believe me, we know from barbecue. We have sampled most of what the city has to offer, barbecue-wise, and found it wanting (though we are very eager to sample the fare at the new Harlem outpost of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which we've heard good things about from people we trust.)

Here are a few observations on the NYC barbecue fad, from a note I sent to (Raleigh, NC) News and Observer columnist Dennis Rogers after he ran a couple of columns about New Yorkers on barbecue pilgrimages to the Southeast:
I have been living and working in NYC for about ten years now, and it may interest you to learn that there has been, in the last few years, a real vogue for "authentic" barbecue in Manhattan.

Several would-be barbecue joints have opened up in town, despite logistical obstacles like emission control laws that make operating an old-school barbecue pit nearly impossible, with quality ranging from so-awful-it-will-stunt-your-growth to actually pretty good.

None of them can hold a candle to a gastronomic temple like Allen and Son, of course, but up here, barbecue-wise, you take what you can get.

In fact, at the end of June, there was a two-day Barbecue Block Party in Madison Square Park, at which pitmasters from around the country (NC, Texas, St. Louis, Kansas City) came to ply their trade and feed hungry Manhattanites. Ed Mitchell of Mitchell's Barbecue represented North Carolina, and by general consensus was the big hit of the weekend. People waited in line up to two hours for a plate of his barbecue, and despite his best planning efforts he ran out of pig early, both days.

Even though I am now surrounded by barbecue-cooking wannabees in my adopted hometown, every time I visit family and friends back in North Carolina I bring an empty Coleman cooler with me... and on the return trip, it's groaning with 'cue. My foodie friends in the city always clamor for dinner invitations when they know I'm coming back from a Carolina run...

Back in NYC

Back in the Big City after a harrowing week in North Carolina. Thanks to all who inquired and sent notes of sympathy... basically, I've got both parents in the hospital right now (for unrelated reasons) but they're both on the mend. Cautiously optimistic about the outcome.

I must say, I breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted the Manhattan skyline on our approach to JFK. The airplane's flight path took us over Canarsie at fairly low altitude, and the folks in the neighborhood are already putting their Christmas lights out. It was a very pretty sight from a few thousand feet up.

I'll be returning to NC for a little while as soon as I get some loose ends tied up here.

(I actually got back Tuesday night, but have been digging out from under at work ever since.)

24 November 2004

Away for a few days

Family emergency. Won't be blogging for a few days; travelling to Raleigh. I'll be back next week; hope everyone has a good Thanksgiving.

23 November 2004

"This used to be called loan sharking"

JPMorgan, Banks Back Lenders Luring Poor With 780 Percent Rates

Money quote (pardon the expression):
Nine out of 10 payday loans are made to repeat borrowers with more than five payday loans per year, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, a group in Durham, North Carolina, that assists consumers in financial difficulty.

The average borrower spends $600 in fees annually on a $300 loan, says a 2004 report in the Yale Journal on Regulation, a law journal published by Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Most payday lenders earn gross profit margins of 30 percent to 45 percent, the report says.

"That's the dirty little secret,'' says Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine, whose office has investigated payday lenders. "Payday lending is structured so you just pay the interest every two weeks. They never want you to pay back the principal.''
And they're backed by some of the biggest names in the banking business.

"Economic armageddon"

Stephen Roach, the chief economist for investment bank Morgan Stanley, has some bad news for us:
America has no better than a 10 percent chance of avoiding economic "armageddon." ... Roach sees a 30 percent chance of a slump soon and a 60 percent chance that "we'll muddle through for a while and delay the eventual armageddon." The chance we'll get through OK: one in 10. Maybe.
The reasons? A record trade deficit, a crushing debt load, a cratering dollar...

Check out the article (Boston Herald, Nov. 23)

SimplySwagger launches

BobLee Swagger, the Clown Prince of sports commentary, is diversifying and expanding his media empire.

I've long been a fan of the SwaggerSays site, where BobLee holds forth on current events in the world of sport. Here's BobLee on the "late unpleasantness," the big Pacers-Pistons-fans free-for-all:
Am I the only one that wondered how “Fat Idiot Fans” (FIF) ended up in those courtside VIP seats? Isn’t that where Detroit’s versions of Jack Nicholson should be sitting? Maybe the Vice Pres of Chrome Bumpers for General Motors or Berry Gordy’s 6th wife’s personal trainer? … you’d think after buying $250 replica jerseys that “FIF” would be tapped out for $500 seats.
I say that's a valid question.

Well, as I said earlier, Swagger (author, humorist, and raconteur) is spreading his wings, and has just launched a new site, SimplySwagger.com. SimplySwagger is a new sandbox to play in, a place for BobLee to express some political and social ideas:
At 6:30 AM on Nov 2 I awoke as "a greedy country club Republican with my Halliburton portfolio and my tax cut (for the wealthy dontchaknow)” … 13 hours later, as the polls closed … I had somehow morphed into [an] “Ignorant Southern Redneck Religious Zealot”.
Preach, brother. I was tempted to invite some of my Blue State colleagues to come to church with me for some snake-handling my own self.

Science textbook warning stickers

Cobb County, Georgia biology students receive their science textbooks with a disclaimer sticker prominently affixed:
This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.
Take that, you... you... godless secular rationalists!

Colin Purrington, a biology professor at Swarthmore, offers us a site with some other helpful disclaimer/warning stickers for science textbooks, e.g.:
This textbook suggests that the earth is spherical. The shape of the earth is a controversial topic, and not all people accept the theory. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

This textbook contains material on gravity. Gravity is a theory, not a fact, regarding a force that cannot be directly seen...
There are even stickers for astronomy textbooks that will help us guard against the onslaught of filthy pagan heliocentrism (the theory that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around.)

(sticker site link via Metafilter)

22 November 2004

Yad Vashem: The Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names

Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust memorial organization, goes live today with a searchable database containing over three million names of Holocaust victims.
Six million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators in the Shoah. Yad Vashem undertook to retrieve the names of the Jewish victims and to preserve their memory.This is the moral duty of the Jewish People; our last respects to the victims. The computerized database prepared by Yad Vashem, with the assistance of other institutions, now includes the names of approximately half of these victims. We make their names accessible here, in reverence and awe, determined to persevere until the last name is retrieved.

21 November 2004

Ed Cone: ACC schedule messes with success

Ed Cone has a terrific column today on the watering-down of ACC basketball with the conference's expansion:
They drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Gilded gold, fixed what wasn't broke, paved paradise and put up a parking lot. They went and changed the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball schedule.
In other distressing ACC-related news, my Tarheels took an egregious pratfall in their season-opening game, losing to noted basketball powerhouse... Santa Clara University???


It ain't me, babe... it ain't me you're looking for, babe...

While I am apparently the only Barry Campbell with a listed number in the New York City phone directory, I have known for some time that I'm not the only one in town.

For several years now, I have been getting occasional phone calls intended for a Barry Campbell who was apparently involved with Veterans Affairs in some way. These callers were generally seeking help resolving benefits issues, and I just told them, when I answered the phone, that they had the wrong guy.

About a month ago, however, I got an actual letter from a veteran in trouble. He had tracked down my mailing address from an online directory, was writing me from a VA hospital, was having a terrible time with his benefits, and had heard through the grapevine that "I" could help him.

The letter, without going into details, was absolutely heartbreaking.

This finally got me off the dime... I made a pot of strong coffee and sat down to do some serious Googling.

Before long, I found who I was looking for: Barry G. Campbell, the founder and CEO of the Veterans' Quality of Life Access Network. I made a few phone calls, talked to one of his associates, eventually got Mr. Campbell (very nice guy) on the horn, and passed along the relevant information on the troubled vet's behalf.

From now on, when somebody calls looking for Barry G. (I'm Barry T.), I can point him in the right direction.

In the process of hunting down Barry G. Campbell, however, I ran into a number of other Barry Campbells who, um, I am also not. They are a fascinating bunch:

BasketBrawl.US - The NBA Pacers/Pistons Fight

If you missed (somehow) coverage of the epic brawl between the Pacers and the Pistons, and the attendant fan riot in the stands, you can find ESPN's Sportscenter Coverage (complete with slo-mo replays and color commentary) in a RealPlayer video stream here.
  • Four players have been "indefinitely suspended" -- no word yet on the number of games. Frankly, I'd like to hear someone in authority at the NBA explain why Ron Artest shouldn't be drummed out of the league.
  • ESPN weighs in helpfully with some historical accounts of fan-player melees.

19 November 2004


Now I live in New York... but that is because when I am in the South, I wander around wondering where I can get a copy of the New York Times, and when I am in the North, I wander around wondering where I can get some okra, and I'd rather think about some okra than the New York Times. -- Roy Blount, Jr.

Project Implicit: Measuring unconscious bias

An article on the possible neurological basis of racism in this morning's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) references an online test at Harvard University designed to measure unconscious biases and prejudices.

Project Implicit
offers an online version of the Implicit Association Test, or IAT:

It is well known that people don't always 'speak their minds', and it is suspected that people don't always 'know their minds'. Understanding such divergences is important to scientific psychology.

This web site presents a method that demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences much more convincingly than has been possible with previous methods. This new method is called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT for short.

I haven't had time to take more than a cursory look at this yet, but it's certainly interesting and even provocative.

18 November 2004

Google presents... Keyhole

Keyhole (recently purchased by Google) is a subscription Internet service... an application service provider offering a 3D digital model of the entire Earth over the Net.

Download Keyhole's software, and you can "fly" to any location on the planet's surface, and zoom in to a pretty fine level of detail, thanks to Keyhole's astounding database of aerial photography and satellite imagery.

Most major metropolitan areas in the US, and some major world cities, are available as high-resolution images, as are (unsurprisingly) most of Iraq and Afghanistan. (Any country that the US has recently bombed is generally well-represented by high-res imagery.)

You'll need a 3D video card, but most modern PCs have those. A broadband connection is a pretty good idea, too.

There's a 7-day free trial, and an annual subscription to their consumer-grade software after that is $30 (reduced from $70 after Google's purchase.)

The Keyhole software reminds me of nothing so much as the fictional "Earth" application from Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash. I don't know how frequently life actually imitates art, but technology imitates science fiction all the time.

P.S. Here's a BBS with interesting locations Keyhole users have found, and cool map overlays they have developed.

The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable

Britain bans foxhunting.

17 November 2004

World Press Review

Perhaps, like me, you're a news junkie... and even if your hometown paper is the New York Times, you find that the American media's coverage of international events leaves something to be desired, and you find yourself surfing around to the BBC, the (Toronto) Globe and Mail, the Times of London, and on and on, looking for more information and different perspectives...

World Press Review is made for people like you (and me.) They run some columns and original material, but the bulk of what they provide is English-language translations of articles from the world's newspapers and other print media. They helpfully provide contextual information about the periodicals they translate (conservative or liberal, pro-government or opposition) and include a fair bit of foreign editorial content in the mix. If you're primarily an English speaker, there's no better way to get a good sample of the current political and cultural climate outside the United States.

I subscribed to the print version of World Press Review for many years. The print version of the magazine folded earlier this year, and worldpress.org (the web site) recently changed hands; the new owners are apparently struggling a bit to keep things going (though early reports are encouraging... the users are stepping up to the plate and offering support.)

If you've never visited before, do take a look at their site. Patronize their advertisers or buy one of their spiffy maps. And if the spirit moves you, throw a little cash their way.

15 November 2004

It's College Hoops time again!

Ah, the college basketball season is getting underway, with the pre-season invitationals, tournaments and "classics." My favorite time of year, and it's looking pretty good for my Tarheels this season.

In that vein, I thought you'd like to know that Yoni Cohen has a terrific college basketball blog going over at collegeball.blogspot.com.

You know, I think we need to get Yoni together with BobLee Swagger. Swagger is still mostly in football mode, but roundball time is just around the corner...

14 November 2004

Firefox: Rhymes with "rocks"

As an ecstatically happy Firefox user, I have a little advice for you -

If you're still stumbling along with bloated, buggy, slow, outdated and insecure Internet Explorer, get with the freakin' program!

Firefox is small, nimble, and standards-compliant; it offers great features like tabbed browsing and native support for RSS feeds; it's available for Windows, Mac OS X and most flavors of Linux and Unix; best of all, it's developed on the open-source model and protects your privacy and security worlds better than IE.

Get Firefox!

Secrecy News (Federation of American Scientists)

The Federation of American Scientists works to challenge excessive government secrecy and promote public oversight of government through its Project on Government Secrecy. Part of the Project is the excellent e-mail/RSS newsletter, Secrecy News.

The 11/14 issue of Secrecy News leads with a great article entitled "The Arrival of Secret Law." Excerpt (links added):

Last month, Helen Chenoweth-Hage attempted to board a United Airlines flight from Boise to Reno when she was pulled aside by airline personnel for additional screening, including a pat-down search for weapons or unauthorized materials.

Chenoweth-Hage, an ultra-conservative former Congresswoman (R-ID), requested a copy of the regulation that authorizes such pat-downs.

"She said she wanted to see the regulation that required the additional procedure for secondary screening and she was told that she couldn't see it," local TSA security director Julian Gonzales told the Idaho Statesman (10/10/04).

"She refused to go through additional screening [without seeing the regulation], and she was not allowed to fly," he said. "It's pretty simple."

Chenoweth-Hage wasn't seeking disclosure of the internal criteria used for screening passengers, only the legal authorization for passenger pat-downs. Why couldn't they at least let her see that? asked Statesman commentator Dan Popkey.

"Because we don't have to," Mr. Gonzales replied crisply.

Ah, there's an answer that would've done an old-school Soviet apparatchik proud. Fourth Amendment? What Fourth Amendment? You're acting mighty damned uppity there, citizen.

Secrecy News is well worth your time. There's something interesting and thought-provoking in almost every issue. Last week, they broke the news about, and even provided a copy of, the Army's new Interim Field Manual on counterinsurgency operations (PDF file, approximately 3 MB.)

10 November 2004

NYT: Even Digital Memories Can Fade

Interesting story in today's New York Times Technology section:
The nation's 115 million home computers are brimming over with personal treasures - millions of photographs, music of every genre, college papers, the great American novel and, of course, mountains of e-mail messages.

Yet no one has figured out how to preserve these electronic materials for the next decade, much less for the ages. Like junk e-mail, the problem of digital archiving, which seems straightforward, confounds even the experts.
Most of us who have been using personal computers for a while have already had to deal with the problem of conversion... from one platform to another, from one application to another, and so on. I've got a less-than-a-year-old Windows XP box on my desk at home, but the hard drive's document archive contains stuff that I wrote in the late 80s on a Macintosh SE... from that point forward, I have backed up and transferred my hard drive contents every time I buy a new machine.

Nonetheless, the Times article sounds a cautionary note.

For extreme cases of media obsolescence, see the Dead Media Project.

The film that got Theo van Gogh killed

Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was apparently killed because he made a film ("Submission." an 11-minute English-language short) criticizing Islamic culture, specifically the mistreatment of women.

(It's fairly safe to say that this was the reason van Gogh was murdered, because his killer, a 26 year-old fanatic of Moroccan descent, pinned a multipage typed rant to this effect to van Gogh's chest with a knife, after shooting him first, of course.)

Ifilm, bless them, has made "Submission" available for viewing over the Web.

(via Andrew Sullivan)

07 November 2004

The Monitor: Maybe a Democrat can win in the South

Unsurprisingly, the Christian Science Monitor has been running post-election coverage that is thoughtful, forward-thinking and generally just head-and-shoulders above 95% of the other national print media. I have bookmarked their Domestic Politics page and I urge you to take a look at it.

In this story (Maybe a Democrat can win in the South) the Monitor's reporter finds himself in Lizard Lick, North Carolina, a wide spot in the road a little bit east of Raleigh:
After President Bush's sweep of the South, some commentators have wondered aloud about this "uneducated" region and its propensity to vote against its own interests: After all, it sends the most soldiers to die in battle, yet exhibits the most gung-ho patriotism; it's the poorest pocket of the country, yet it voted against a candidate promising a big expansion of government health insurance.

But if intelligence is measured by capability for abstract thought and grasp of paradox, Mark Pierce, a Lizard Lick contractor, is a Rhodes scholar...

Open Letter to the Democratic Party

An Open Letter to the Democratic Party: How You Could Have Had My Vote, by "Sad American".

06 November 2004

Anarchists in Raleigh, NC

Infoshop, an anarchist web site, republishes an AP story about an anarchist group trashing Republican headquarters in downtown Raleigh, NC (my hometown), introducing it with their own gloss on events:
In a Reclaim the Streets style demonstration late last night about 100 anarchists marched down Hillsborough Street in Raleigh North Carolina, behind several anarchist, anti-capitalist, and revolutionary banners.
Anarchists on Hillsborough Street? Wow, Raleigh has changed. (There used to be some punks and wannabees over by the university, which come to think of it is on Hillsborough Street, but this is new stuff.)

Here's updated coverage of the story from the Raleigh News and Observer. A few arrests have apparently been made, thanks to some resourceful residents in a nearby neighborhood:

Hearing a commotion, John Robbins and a neighbor captured and detained three protesters until police arrived.

"I found them between the garages taking off their black clothes," Robbins said, adding that one of the female protesters bit him on the shoulder.

10 X 10

Oh, my, the coolness... (requires Flash plugin)
Every hour, 10x10 scans the RSS feeds of several leading international news sources, and performs an elaborate process of weighted linguistic analysis on the text contained in their top news stories. After this process, conclusions are automatically drawn about the hour's most important words. The top 100 words are chosen, along with 100 corresponding images, culled from the source news stories. At the end of each day, month, and year, 10x10 looks back through its archives to conclude the top 100 words for the given time period. In this way, a constantly evolving record of our world is formed, based on prominent world events, without any human input.

A modest proposal

President Bush says that he is going to spend some of the political capital he amassed in the recent campaign on, among other things, reforming Social Security (more on this in a future blog post) and the tax code.

Reforming the tax code is an excellent idea. The current tax code is riddled with loopholes and exceptions that favor a whole panoply of special interests, notably corporations; any effort at making the distribution of the tax burden more fair and equitable, and simplifying the code overall, is laudable indeed.

There is one special interest group in particular that I'd like to single out for consideration.

It is high time that we did away with tax exemptions for religious organizations and churches (and mosques, synagogues, temples, etc.)

I am not anti-religion... mine, yours, or anybody else's. In fact, I think religious faith is by and large a very fine thing.

But every dollar that a church or religious organization fails to pay in taxes--and there are billions and billions of dollars in tax-free donations flowing through the religious economy every year, and billions more in real property and investments controlled by religious organizations--must be made up for by other taxpayers, individual and corporate, rich and poor.

This amounts to an indirect but very real taxpayer subsidy of religion, and unless you are a pantheist it is dead certain that you are subsidizing groups in whose doctrines you do not believe and may in fact disagree with strenuously.

Moreover, the exemption for churches (and other houses of worship) is automatic under Federal law; it need not be applied for, and churches must make no formal disclosure of their financial records, as other exempt organizations are required by law to do. That this invites abuses and gaming of the system is self-evident.

Another issue with the tax-exempt status of religious organizations: it perpetuates an increasingly unsustainable "polite fiction," which is that churches and religious organizations do not endorse or oppose political candidates or use their resources in partisan campaigns because it's prohibited by the tax code.

Well, of course they do, from both the right and the left, and it's folly to pretend that they don't. Changing the tax code would remove the fetters on the freedom of speech of our religious leaders and let them fully speak their minds.

Abolishing religious tax exemptions will provide a powerful new revenue stream for government, allow religious institutions to take on increased financial responsibility for the services they use, and increase their freedom to maneuver within the American polity.

It's a win-win situation.

Purple Haze: Another look at red vs. blue

From the most excellent site Boing Boing, here's an electoral map that takes a fresh look at the red state vs. blue state issue.

Most states, in this view, are neither red (100% Republican) or blue (100% Democrat) but varying shades of purple, depending on the proportion of votes from each state.

Crave more detail? Of course you do. Robert Vanderbei, a professor at Princeton University, has got you covered, with a county-by-county shades-of-purple map.

Zogby analyzes the post-election landscape

John Zogby, who called the 1996 and 2000 elections with surprising accuracy, didn't do such a good job this time around; his firm predicted that Kerry would win 311 electoral votes this year.

He's trying to make up for it with an incredibly exhaustive post-election survey, which I just completed. Aside from a few bizarre non sequitur questions about Vietnam (no, not about Kerry's service there, or Bush's avoidance of service there, but about opinions of the current Vietnamese government; apparently one of Zogby's clients is planning an ad campaign for Vietnam tourism or something) the survey is a very thorough attempt to analyze the attitudes, values and beliefs of voters.

I'll link to the results when they're available.

David Brooks: The Values-Vote Myth

David Brooks, the New York Times' own domesticated in-house token conservative, hits it out of the park today. Money quote:
In the first place, there is an immense diversity of opinion within regions, towns and families. Second, the values divide is a complex layering of conflicting views about faith, leadership, individualism, American exceptionalism, suburbia, Wal-Mart, decorum, economic opportunity, natural law, manliness, bourgeois virtues and a zillion other issues.

But the same insularity that caused many liberals to lose touch with the rest of the country now causes them to simplify, misunderstand and condescend to the people who voted for Bush. If you want to understand why Democrats keep losing elections, just listen to some coastal and university town liberals talk about how conformist and intolerant people in Red America are. It makes you wonder: why is it that people who are completely closed-minded talk endlessly about how open-minded they are?
Read the whole thing.

04 November 2004

Here comes the data

USA Today ran a fascinating graphic today, showing how each county in America voted.

Okay, go take a good long look at that county voting map.

Now, take a look at a couple of US Census maps (2003 estimates) - specifically, population size and especially population density for counties.

Notice anything? The density map could almost be used as a proxy for the map of blue vs. red counties. The blue counties map pretty closely to some of the biggest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) in the country. (My wife, the Democrat, suggests that the "MSA" acronym might also be expanded as "Mostly Sophisticated Areas.")

There's a tear in my double-tall soy latte...

I was born in a red state, but live in a blue state - and I have often defended my fellow New Yorkers against charges that they are all effete latte-swilling liberal snobs (ELS2's) who are irredeemably out of touch with the American mainstream.

I am reminded of Woody Allen's great line from Annie Hall:
Don't you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way, sometimes, and I live here.
My efforts in defense of my fellow Manhattanites, however, get a lot tougher when the New York Times runs a story like this. Here's an excerpt:
"I'm saddened by what I feel is the obtuseness and shortsightedness of a good part of the country - the heartland," Dr. Joseph said. "This kind of redneck, shoot-from-the-hip mentality and a very concrete interpretation of religion is prevalent in Bush country - in the heartland."

"New Yorkers are more sophisticated and at a level of consciousness where we realize we have to think of globalization, of one mankind, that what's going to injure masses of people is not good for us," he said.

His friend, Ms. Cohn, a native of Wisconsin who deals in art, contended that New Yorkers were not as fooled by Mr. Bush's statements as other Americans might be. "New Yorkers are savvy," she said. "We have street smarts. Whereas people in the Midwest are more influenced by what their friends say."

"They're very 1950's," she said of Midwesterners. "When I go back there, I feel I'm in a time warp."

Dr. Joseph acknowledged that such attitudes could feed into the perception that New Yorkers are cultural elitists, but he didn't apologize for it.

"People who are more competitive and proficient at what they do tend to gravitate toward cities," he said.

You know, I feel pretty strongly that Dr. Joseph and his art-dealing friend have a point here.

Clearly, we are living in an era of intolerant, ignorant, self-important parochialism.

Only, um, not quite in the way they seem to think...

Thank God I was wrong...

...about the election.

I had predicted electoral chaos... weeks of divisive litigation, a repeat of the 2000 debacle, only more so.

As it turned out, the people spoke pretty decisively. And despite the dark scenarios of voter suppression painted by left-wing bloviators, or the dark scenarios of widespread voter fraud painted by right-wing bloviators, the election appears (a few isolated incidents aside) to have been clean and fair.

Whether or not you're happy with the election's outcome, I hope you agree that it's a great relief not to have to deal with the endless legal jockeying that many (me included) had feared.

02 November 2004

Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos!

"We must move forward, not backward, upward, not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!"

01 November 2004

Taking the pledge

Jeff Jarvis over at BuzzMachine, whose blog comments have been overflowing with bile of late, has a constructive suggestion: bloggers should take a pledge to behave in a civilized manner after the election.
After the election results are in, I promise to:
  • Support the President, even if I didn't vote for him.
  • Criticize the President, even if I did vote for him.
  • Uphold standards of civilized discourse in blogs and in media while pushing both to be better.
  • Unite as a nation, putting country over party, even as we work together to make America better.
Though Jeff and I are coming at this from different directions on the political axis, I think this is a fine idea.

I have a sinking feeling about the election tomorrow. The country is polarized, the election is statistically too close to call, and my gut tells me that we might have three, four, even five "Floridas" to contend with. In short, I fear that we will be ass-deep in lawyers and litigating for months, as the allegations of voter fraud, voter suppression, and general dirty tricks fly from all directions.

Carrie and I are planning to get up early and go to our polling place, cancel out each others' votes, and then adjourn to our favorite neighborhood diner for a big, satisfying breakfast.

30 October 2004

The Plain English Campaign

From an article in this week's Economist, I learned of the existence of the Plain English Campaign.

Plain English Campaign is an independent pressure group fighting for public information to be written in plain English. We have more than 7500 registered supporters in 80 countries.

'Public information' means anything people have to read to get by in their daily lives.

'Plain English' is language that the intended audience can understand and act upon from a single reading.

Please visit and consider signing up as a supporter. They're doing fine work, and as they are entirely self-financing they don't want your money, just your moral support.

Evil gingerbread men

Oh, how I love Chowhound. (I've picked up some of the best restaurant tips ever from their discussion boards, and have no doubt avoided some very expensive bad meals as well.)

The user community there really cares about good food. It is my spiritual home.

In honor of Halloween, here's a short Chowhound thread entitled, "How can I make my gingerbread men look evil?" Please note the utter concern and seriousness with which this question is asked and answered.

29 October 2004

Weapon of Mouse Destruction

According to the New York Times, on Fridays, we in the blogosphere, when not caught up in partisan political bickering or trying to take down gasbag anchormen, apparently engage in a little catblogging.

Everyone, meet Mister Gato.

Mister Gato helps me read the paper. Posted by Hello

Gato joined our household in the early spring of this year, following our horrified discovery of a massive, building-wide mouse infestation. Some construction up the block apparently left a huge clutch of mice homeless, and they moved en masse into our quaint, un-mouseproofed turn of the (20th) century apartment building.

We tried everything to get rid of the mice. We trapped them, with breakneck traps and glueboards and high-tech mousetraps of every description. (One so-called "humane, better mousetrap" wound up decapitating and crushing the mice it caught... hmm, perhaps it was adjusted incorrectly? And we abandoned the glueboard after discovering that mice can scream. Shudder.)

We blocked every opening we could find with copper wool, foam, and caulk, took up the dog food at night and stored it in metal containers, locked up the kitchen garbage can like it held plutonium...

We had the exterminator come out to our house to put down traps and poison three times (direct quote from the feckless exterminator: "It's been a bad year for mice.")

Finally, we recalled that the time-honored way to control a mouse problem is... get a cat!

We got Mister Gato from Robert Shapiro at Social Tees, a custom screenprinting business in the East Village that is really just a front for an incredibly effective animal rescue operation. Robert finds new homes for hundreds of animals every year.

After convincing Robert that we were loving and responsible pet owners, and that our fierce, scary Chow Chows were unlikely to commit cat-icide, we brought this beautiful, young, athletic cat home with us.

We had hopes that he would be a good mouser. Gato had been living on the street, so hunting should have been familiar territory to him.

We were unprepared, however, for the glee and ferocity with which he did his job. Dude, this cat was the Mouseinator. A rodent-killing machine. Not only did he catch them, he ate them, too, nose to tail.

I'd tell you just how many mice he killed over the first few months, but you wouldn't believe me. Really, you wouldn't. Nope. And then once that horrible number sank in, you'd run away from me going "Ew ew ew ew ew" at the thought of us living in this tiny apartment with all those mice.

Suffice it to say, we ran out of mouse skull stickers for the side of Gato's litterbox... we wanted to record the confirmed kills on his "fuselage" as if he were a flying ace.

Gato has secured a permanent position on our domestic payroll as Rodent Control Engineer. Plus, he's very affectionate, furry and soft, he purrs a lot, and the dogs love him almost as much as we do.

26 October 2004

Dialling for dollars

With a week to go before the election, our phone has been ringing off the hook with soft-money-seeking groups of all descriptions prospecting for a bit of the ready. For some reason--an erratic/perverse kind of ESP?--I've been picking up on all the left-wing callers.

Here's a little background:

My wife and I have a mixed marriage. She's a more or less traditional-liberal sort, a registered Democrat, while I'm a conservative (and registered Republican) with a strong libertarian streak.

This occasionally makes for interesting and intense political pillow-talk, but we're grownups about it, and we generally get along like a house afire.

Early on in our relationship we agreed to a mutual non-aggression pact on political and charitable donations: funds held jointly will not be used to back any candidate or organization that we don't both agree on.

As a practical matter, that means that our donations tend to go to civil rights groups, arts and environmental charities, groups that try to help the homeless and hungry in NYC, and so forth.

Neither Bush nor Kerry (nor, for that mattter, our financially well-endowed alma maters) got a dime out of us this year.

By now, we're old hands at blowing off callers pleading for money for one cause or another. "Our charitable giving is fully committed for the year; please take us off your list."

Tonight, though, I picked up the phone on the third ring and found myself in conversation with a smooth-talking representative of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a group I've supported in the past and in whose program I generally believe. They were raising money for a special poll-watching and vote-counting effort, and after quickly checking with Carrie I caved and forked over a modest donation.

I harbor no illusions about the political bent of most of the Legal Defense Fund folks. A friend of ours is on their board of directors, and while he's a wonderful guy you just about couldn't find someone I differ with more on most political issues.

But I back them because, on the cases and issues they choose, they're usually on the side of the angels: trying to ensure social, economic and political particiption rights for all.

McCain on the pleasures of the Vice Presidency

Arizona Senator John McCain turned down John Kerry's offer to be his Vice-Presidential candidate, and was even rumored at one point to be a possible replacement for Cheney on the GOP side...

At a recent fund-raiser in NYC, he explained why he wasn't interested:
"As a POW in Vietnam, I was kept in the dark and fed scraps. Why would I want to do that again?"

24 October 2004

"One second while we reboot your cable box..."

We've been having intermittent problems with our cable service, and Time Warner finally convinced us to convert to digital cable... for about five bucks more a month than we'd been paying, we'd get about a hundred more channels (!) and an off-brand digital video recorder (as the TWOPpers would put it, a "TiFaux") thrown into the bargain.

We bit.

Aside from the news and college basketball, we don't watch a huge amount of television... though HBO's Sunday-night series (The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and now Family Bonds) have got us pretty much hooked.

But there are some other shows we might like to watch, if they were on at more convenient times. I had visions of TiFaux-ing the BBC World News, Jon Stewart, and a handful of other shows that I'm either never at home or never awake for, so I was eager to get on with the installation. Bring on the hot-and-cold running Simpsons!

After waiting all day Saturday for the cable guy to show up during our "appointment window," he finally materialized, took our old cable box away and left a Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 Home Entertainment Server in its place. He presented me with a remote control that ought to require a pilot's license, gave me a brisk three-minute orientation to the system, and split.

It was then that the troubles began.

The admittedly crisp digital picture on the screen kept jittering and freezing. The box wouldn't accept commands from the remote control. And the Interactive Program Guide (the basis for all of the digital video recorder functionality) suddenly went blank... it read "no program data" for every slot in the guide.

After twenty minutes on hold with Time Warner customer service, I got a bright, friendly young woman on the phone who walked me through a troubleshooting session. We rebooted the cable box/DVR (it's got a hard disk in it, a couple of tuners so you can record two shows at once--it's fairly complex) three times... one "soft" reboot, two "hard" (power-cycle) reboots. She "sent signals down the line" to try to electronically bitch-slap the Home Entertainment Server back into its right mind.

Finally, she booked an appointment for a technician to visit us. Next weekend.

This morning, the box is behaving just fine.

23 October 2004

Spectacular night

Friday nights are usually quiet affairs at our place, often involving a takeout dinner, some jazz on the old streaming audio, and a nap on the couch. As a rule, Carrie and I are pretty fried at the end of a work-week. (As someone once observed, it's amazing how much "mature wisdom" resembles "being too tired.")

Last night, we shook off our usual end-of-the-week exhaustion and, after an indifferently-prepared-and-served meal at an Upper West Side joint (future blog topic: why are there no really good restaurants in this neighborhood?) we went to a concert at the Beacon Theater.

The Beacon is one of my favorite places to hear live music. It's a lovingly-restored vaudeville theater dating from the 20's; the acoustics are terrific, the seats are big and comfortable, etc. They literally don't build them like this any more.

Appearing at the Beacon last night: Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt, and Lyle Lovett.

I could probably just stop this post right here and leave the details to your imagination...

I've always been a sucker for the singer-songwriter thing, and every one of these guys was "alt.country" (a genre I particularly enjoy) long before that term was even coined--in fact, you might say that writers and performers like Guy Clark and Joe Ely (especially with his first band, The Flatlanders, recently reunited and touring again) shaped the alt.country template.

They are all very different performers, but what they've got in common is a storytelling tradition, tuneful music and a winning way with a smart lyric.

Here, for instance, is the irresistable Guy Clark, placing Doc Watson in the proper artistic and historical perspective in "Dublin Blues":
I have been to Fort Worth
I have been to Spain
I have been too proud
To come in out of the rain

I have seen the David
I've seen the Mona Lisa too
I have heard Doc Watson
Play "Columbus Stockade Blues"

Indeed, indeed.

The performers took turns playing songs, one at a time. As Lyle observed, "This is a pretty good deal... three-quarters of the time, I'm part of the audience."

What a spectacular night. Fatigue and post-meal heartburn instantly forgotten; we were walking on air on our way home.

And this morning, I surveyed my music collection and concluded that I need some more Guy Clark albums. Ordered.