January 31, 2004

What are we to think of Websites that hide their religious mission behind home pages full of pop culture, sports, and mundane advice?
To illustrate how beauty tips might be used to spread the gospel, Mrs. Schenk noted that the most popular article on Women Today Online has been an advice column about frizzy hair. Before reading advertisements for L'Oreal, readers see a link that reads, "Are you happy with your body?" If they click on that, they get the life story of a model who battled bulimia but then found success after becoming a born-again Christian. "You can receive Christ right now by faith through prayer," she writes.
Anything wrong with that?
"We're just being sensitive to where people are at and inviting them in. We don't have spinning crosses on Women Today."
Thanks for eschewing the spinning crosses, but isn't trying to get someone to click on "Are you happy with your body?" to put over a religion message awfully similar to an email message line saying that says "Hi" to get me to open a sales pitch?

Not really. At least you had to actively go to the website, and there is a complete disjunct between "Hi" and the product, whereas the connection between feeling unhappy with your body and needing spiritual help has real substance. Clicking on that question and getting the surprising answer is a communicative event in itself: the process of being misdirected from beauty tips to religion is a message with some bite.

UPDATE: I'd say the same thing if the link from the beauty tips page took you to an article about feminism.
We really should scrutinize John Edwards’ great success as a trial lawyer in medical malpractice cases, while the decision whether he will be the nominee is being made. As Adam Liptak and Michael Moss describe in today's NYT, Edwards was especially successful suing obstetricians; he faulted them for failing to perform Caesareans when the fetal heart monitor showed signs of distress. His lawsuits, and the lawsuits they inspired, have led doctors to respond to signs of distress more quickly, and there is a debate now about whether this change is good, whether lawyers like Edwards rely on “questionable science,” and whether there should be new laws to make it harder for plaintiffs’ lawyers to win these cases.

Based on this article, it appears that Edwards will do quite well standing up to criticisms about his past. First, he attributes his high level of success to his skill and effort selecting the cases that deserved to win:
"I took very seriously our responsibility to determine if our cases were merited," Mr. Edwards said. "Before I ever accepted a brain-injured child case, we would spend months investigating it."
This is the negative side of the same point:
"He took only those cases that were catastrophic, that would really capture a jury's imagination," Mr. Wells, a defense lawyer, said. "He paints himself as a person who was serving the interests of the downtrodden, the widows and the little children. Actually, he was after the cases with the highest verdict potential. John would probably admit that on cross-examination." ….

"For the one or two who got a substantial jury verdict," said George W. Miller Jr., a former state representative in North Carolina who practices law in Durham, "there were 99 that did not get anything, either because they were not able to finance litigation or their claim was questionable."
Second, he easily makes the charge of unnecessary Caesareans seem weak:
"The question is, would you rather have cases where that happens instead of having cases where you don't intervene and a child either becomes disabled for life or dies in utero?"
What odds would you accept for your child before you would decline the Caesarean? Would you have the Caesarean if there was one chance in 100 that the baby would be brain damaged without it? There are people on the other side of the debate:
Dr. Karin B. Nelson, a child neurologist with the National Institutes of Health, says the notion that paying greater heed to electronic monitoring will prevent brain injuries remains just that, a notion. "Evidence of high medical quality contradicts the assumption that the use of electronic fetal monitoring during labor can prevent brain damage," Dr. Nelson said.
The medical debate ought to take place, but I can’t see how doubts about Caesareans will play well served up as an attack on Edwards in the political arena:
Mr. Edwards's colleagues in the plaintiffs' bar do not accept that analysis. "You find me a low C-section rate," said Daniel B. Cullan, a doctor, lawyer and co-chairman of the trial lawyer association's birth trauma group, "and I'll show you children in wheelchairs."
What does seem to have some power as a political weapon is the charge that “[h]is campaign is disproportionately financed by lawyers and people associated with them.” This article about Edwards runs on the front page of today’s NYT, right under an article headlined “Democrats Assail, and Tap, ‘Special Interests.’” (That sounds like an Onion headline!) Here’s the key paragraph about Edwards in that article (written by Glenn Justice and John Tierney):
Mr. Edwards tells audiences, "I've never taken a dime from a Washington lobbyist and I never will." That might be literally true — not many lobbyists give dimes these days — but Mr. Edwards has accepted at least a few contributions from current and former lobbyists, and his campaign manager was a registered Washington lobbyist in 2002. Mr. Edwards has also accepted millions of dollars from lawyers, including members of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, a trade group that wields enormous influence on tort reform. An ex-president of the group, Fred Baron, is a financial co-chairman for Mr. Edwards's campaign. The new president of the group and all four executive officers, have each given $2,000.
So look for generalized carping about personal injury lawyers. But I think Edwards will brilliantly and elegantly come back with vivid details about real cases that will make him look good and his critics uncaring.
Speaking of Google, I got all excited the other day when I discovered that this blog came up first when the word "Althouse" alone was Googled. I sent my sons an email message with the subject "Goal reached today!"

John emailed me back, saying no, some outfit called "Art-N-Glass" is coming up first. They don't even have the word "Althouse" on their page! They're using some scheme, some Google-fraud, to claim words as if they were on their page. Responding to my outrage, here's John Althouse Cohen:
They are practicing Googlefraud, and in doing so they're preventing you from maintaining the feeling you had earlier today: what the Germans call Googlefreude (joy derived from Google).
Since beginning this blog on January 14th, I have dropped a lot of names. Whatever names I dropped, I dropped because I was thinking about the person already or because I saw them in a news article or on TV and they appealed to me personally in some way that made me want to take note of them here. I was not at all considering that people put names into Google and will therefore come visit your blog if you've dropped the name that they've gone searching for. I figured out how to use Sitemeter to get a list of "referral" pages, to see where my visitors come from. That means I can see what the Google search was if people come here from Google.

I have dropped a lot of names in my seventeen days of blogging--movie stars, artists, political figures. But there is one name that leaves them all in the dust, that leaves Tom Cruise and Andy Warhol and John Kerry behind. There is one name that caused the visitation rate here to spike in the last two days. I am writing about law and politics and culture and a wide range of topics that I would be happy to think people are enjoying reading about. But I must face the strange reality that most people are coming here because they want to read about one person.

That person is William Hung.

Here's Pop Life on the subject:
My students have seen him around campus at Berkeley since he's an engineering student here. I'm sure a William Hung Fan Club is just moments away from being created with people wearing T-shirts that read "He Bangs!: I Hang With Hung."
So William, if you're out there, Googling your own name and arriving here, you should know, you've got a lot of fans. You're the Frenchie Davis of American Idol 3, but you've outdone Frenchie, because you've done it without having to go to the trouble of being a good singer. You've accomplished it all with one magnificant, comic performance, and the world loves you!

UPDATE: I see from Metafilter that there is now a William Hung website. The Metafilter discussion includes a comment by someone who knows someone who knows him and who says Hung was deliberately doing a comic performance and some back and forth about whether knowing it was an act makes us like him more or less than if we thought he was clueless.

January 30, 2004

"And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank," by Steve Oney is reviewed by Marshall Frady in the New York Review of Books. Federal courts professors like me often talk about the United States Supreme Court opinion about the scope of habeas corpus that arose out of Frank’s case, but here are the stark details of Frank’s horrific ordeal. In 1913, Frank, the Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory, was accused of murdering a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan, who worked in the factory and had gone in to pick up her $1.20 paycheck. You’ll have to find the paper copy of the NYRB to see the heart-wrenching photographs of Frank—“a slight, bespectacled figure, … endowed with an unremittingly shy and self-contained reserve”— at his trial and Frank, lynched, hanging from a tree.
... Mary Phagan ... had been strangled to death, the twine still wound around her neck, her face battered, and her underdrawers ripped and bloody. Soon discovered in the debris beside her were two curious notes, scrawled on company paper, that seemed a crude, barely intelligible effort at pretending to have been written by the victim herself:

he said he wood love me land down play like the night witch did it.... he push me down that hole ...i wright this while play with me.

...[P]olice suspicions quickly settled on Leo Frank, principally owing to his behavior when they arrived at his house early Sunday morning to notify him of Mary Phagan's murder. It was a time when much melodramatic import was placed on particulars of manner, and police would later testify that Frank paced about his front parlor "nervous" and "excited," blurting questions as he twisted his hands, his voice "hoarse and trembling."…

The murder notes, though, remained something of a puzzle until the factory's twenty-nine-year-old black sweeper, James Conley, was also arrested when seen at the factory's water cooler trying to wash out red stains from a work shirt. ... Conley ... finally professed that Frank, after killing the girl on the factory's second floor in a ravishment attempt gone awry, had enlisted his aid in transporting her body in the elevator down to the basement, and then dictated to him the murder notes, with the rather improbable remark to him, Conley claimed, "Why should I hang, I have wealthy people in Brooklyn."
Read of the trial and the press hysteria. The case became "a tournament of competing racisms":
... Conley was characterized by the defense, "a plain, beastly, drunken, filthy, lying [epithet] ...fired with lust...." In fact, the racial derision of Conley was heartily participated in by all parties, including the press, one reporter pointing out, "Conley isn't a cornfield negro. He's more of the present-day type of city darkey," and even The New York Times would eventually describe him as a "drunken, lowlived, utterly worthless...black human animal." But the prosecution as well concurred in the racist caricaturing of its central witness, Dorsey declaring, about Frank's reluctance to directly confront Conley before the trial, "never in the history of the Anglo-Saxon race...did an ignorant, filthy negro accuse a white man of a crime and that man decline to face him."

The telling difference in that formulation, of course, was that Frank didn't happen to be of the Anglo-Saxon race. And as if in acknowledgment of that liability, a defense lawyer insisted, "Frank's race don't kill. They are not a violent race," and later, the defense felt it had to stipulate that one of its witnesses was, "it's true, a Jew, but she was telling the truth." The defense finally risked arousing exactly what it was protesting by claiming that Frank had only invited prosecution because he "comes from a race of people that have made money." To counter that suggestion, Dorsey intoned that while "this great people rise to heights sublime...they sink to the depths of degradation, too," mentioning among a list of Jewish malefactors Judas Iscariot, "a good character and one of the Twelve" who nevertheless "took the thirty pieces of silver and betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ."
Here is Frady's description of the lynching:
[Frank] sat between two men in the back seat of a car, his nightshirt "luminous among the galluses and wool hats," mutely resigned now to his doom, as the caravan took back roads through moonlit cottonfields, coming into the outskirts of the town just at dawn, where it stopped at a stand of woods by a cotton gin. Frank was hauled out, blindfolded, tied at his hands and feet, lifted up on a table; the rope was slung over the limb of an oak tree and the noose dropped around his neck. The circuit judge then kicked the table from under Frank's feet. It was not from a snapped neck, though, that Frank died, but a slow strangulation, as he twisted about desperately.
There is much more here to read. Read of William Smith, the lawyer, "driven by an idealism to protect [Conley,] the 'penniless and friendless' black man caught up in the coils of the case." Smith eventually realized that Conley must have written the notes alone. In an oxygen tent, dying of "Lou Gehrig's disease, on his last day of life he slipped a note to his son through the plastic sheeting: 'IN ARTICLES OF DEATH, I BELIEVE IN THE INNOCENCE AND GOOD CHARACTER OF LEO M. FRANK. W.M. SMITH.'"
I see Prof. Yin is blogging last night's "The Apprentice." Ah, big surprise, the women win again by what the New York Times once referred to as "using their gender." My conspiracy theory is still in play.

I have this episode TiVo'd, and I can't be positive I won't give in and finish watching it, but I can tell you exactly where I hit the pause button, and where, if I know what's good for me, I will leave it.

It was right when Trump dangled the big prize for winning the new challenge in front of the contestant/sycophants: a visit to "the best golf course in New York State"--Trump National Golf Club. Is this show not the most revolting, grandiose infomercial ever?
Is this a picture of John Kerry or Donald Sutherland at the end of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"? (Thanks, Chris.)

Hey, isn't it way past time to remake "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" again?
The Dean-o-Phobe retires:
... Dean is finished as a potential nominee. He's blown all his money, his campaign is in disarray, and he's turned to an inside-the-Beltway Democrat to run his campaign. ...

... Deanism is dead as well. By "Deanism" ... I mean ... the belief that some combination of technology and Dean's charisma can somehow suspend all the known laws of politics ... It's apparent to just about everybody--except, perhaps, the die-hards on the left who always believed it--that neither Dean nor anybody else has the ability to conjure millions of new voters out of thin air merely by making the differences between Republicans and Democrats sufficiently stark. ...

... John Kerry takes all the fun out of Dean-o-phobia. Indeed, if there's anybody who could make Dean attractive, it's Kerry. Kerry is a miserable candidate, bereft of political skills, and possessing of a record and a persona tailor-made for Karl Rove. The Republicans will merely have to say about Kerry what they said about Gore--that he wants to be on every side of every issue, that he's culturally out of touch with mainstream America, that he's a pompous bore--and this time the sale will be easier, because all these things are far more true of Kerry than of Gore. ....
Is Kerry like Gore? Chris Suellentrop has this:
I don't want to overstate Kerry's flaws. He's not Al Gore. He comes across as good-humored, decent, and likable rather than phony. And he doesn't pander mindlessly on every subject.
Yes, why not kick around Al Gore a little more, as we struggle to avoid dying of boredom trying to find a way to talk about Kerry for the next nine months?
Guy Coq has an op-ed in today’s NYT defending the proposed French law banning Muslim schoolgirls from wearing head scarves in class. He cites the long French history of religious strife to justify the ban, as if the historical problem of religious strife did not underlie American ideas about religious freedom.
By separating church and state — instituting a republic that was neutral toward all religions, and without a national religion — France finally realized the aims of the Revolution. This is laïcité, and it has worked well.

But the laïcité of schools has been eroded by the intrusion of religious symbols, prompted by an excess of individualism, that philosophy so revered by Americans. … More than ever, in this time of political-religious tensions, school secularism is for us the foundation for civil peace, and for the integration of people of all beliefs into the Republic. If the French hold laïcité so dearly, it is because that principle, as much as the republic and democracy, is essential for a cohesive society. ... They no longer have a base of common religious tradition. Instead, they are constructing social guidelines built around ethical, universal values like justice and liberty of conscience.

The question that France is posing to the world is this: Can one progress toward true respect of these universal values without relying on some sort of "laicity"? To disarm fundamentalism, notably Islamic fundamentalism, can we give up laïcité, which builds a neutral space for all of us?
It isn't a lack of understanding of history that makes the French head scarf ban seem wrong to Americans, it is respect for individual freedom. Coq's "neutral space for all" benefits those whose religion imposes no clothing requirements, just as enforced silence benefits those with nothing to say. Bans on articles of clothing might still be justifiable, but this attempt to convince us by insulting our knowledge of history and invoking superficial neutrality is quite feeble.
So Nina got Tonya and me to start blogging, and Tonya thinks she was blog-empted by my post about bad eBay spelling, and Nina's blogging about the NYT article about the horrible germ infestation of the common kitchen sponge, which I was this close to blogging about. But dialogue--diablog--is possible. Just as the internet teems with misspellings and the kitchen teems with bacteria, so there is room for all to blog all they want about about spelling and sponges.

Read Tonya's discussion of the NAACP's giving an "Image Award" to the Dave Matthew's Band for its "dignified representation of people of color"--including lots of comments gleaned from fan sites ("DMB has the most obsessed, devoted, protective, over-analytical and hyper-critical fanbase in the music industry").

Check out Nina's blog too: she neatly connects the horrible sponge to the Oscar race, which is the kind of connection blogs live for.
Has there ever been a more beautiful movie poster than the one for "Big Fish"?
Wow! Visual Thesaurus! Language will never be the same.
Janet Frame, 1924-2004, "spells history hiss-tree to make an unsettling connection to Eden's serpent."
After a suicide attempt she spent eight years in mental hospitals in New Zealand, receiving 200 electroshock treatments. She was about to have a lobotomy when a hospital official read that she had won a literary prize. She was released.
See her story in the brilliantly acted film, "An Angel At My Table." Click on this link to see how to express interest in its release in DVD format.
My car's thermometer reading this morning as I drove to work: - 8 degrees.

Here's a new entry for my modern Dictionary of Received Ideas:
Weather. When cold, make wry comment about global warming.

January 29, 2004

The John Kerry and Botox issue.

Wonkette quips:
Our politicians owe it to us to be hot. We're the ones who have look at them all the time. So, from us to you, John Kerry: Thank you. You once risked your life for your fellow Americans, and now you've risked your nerve endings. There is no greater price -- and no greater reward.
I'd say, if people are talking about your face too much, they're distracted from talking about something else about you. If there's something you can do to remove the distraction, go ahead and do it! You will be helping us turn our thoughts to substantive things.

This is especially important for the candidates because they are coming at us in our TV rooms, where we are relaxed and talking to close friends and family. Everyone in that setting feels free to just call out "Look at his face" or "He looks like [whatever]." That is basic, casual, I'm-just-watching-TV humor. Jon Stewart feels free to use that kind of humor on "The Daily Show" all the time, because he's decided to become our TV-watching pal, showing us clips and helping us laugh, pretty much the way we could do on our own, if we were just a tad more motivated and had someone isolating the most ridiculous TV-clips for us.

Obviously, there's also the fear of getting caught and then being called vain or metrosexual or effeminate. People were talking about the cragginess of Kerry's face way too much, and now maybe they'll switch not to substantive matters but to talking about the Botox issue instead. But the wiser course is to do what you can to make yourself telegenic. It's the Nixon lesson--described here by Richard Rodriguez:
Nearly forty years ago, the debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon became -- as the television lens saw it -- a debate between earnestness and sophistication, between pale skin and a tan. Kennedy wore the tan. He looked easy, cosmopolitan.

Poor Richard Nixon, in a manly burst, refused makeup before the debate; he looked sickly. Then, to make matters worse, he started to sweat. You're not supposed to sweat on television. It means that you're guilty. It means that you are a liar. It means that we can't trust you to become President.
All the political candidates wear makeup on TV now. Presumably, before long, they will all use Botox too. The problem is not using such things, it is using them badly. A political candidate that Botoxed his face into an inhuman mask would run into problems similar to those Al Gore had when he wore too much makeup in one of the debates four years ago.
Here's a nice account of working for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show by Dick Cavett. Interesting revelation: Paar was very intelligent, but not well schooled, and he was especially conscious of his lack of schooling and envious of people who had what he lacked.

That was true of two other great comedians: Groucho Marx and Woody Allen. I wonder if that quality--self-conscious, unschooled intelligence--is the best source of humor.
Did you ever just "Create a New Post" in Blogger, not meaning to hit the "Publish" button, then later, maybe the next day, notice that you must have hit the button at some point, because there it is on your blog? I did that here.

It's pretty hypocritical of me to complain about too much filler verbiage on TV while simulblogging that verbiage.

January 28, 2004

I love Jeremy Freese's cool, colorful pie charts depicting what he should be doing instead of blogging and what he actually would be doing instead of blogging.

By the way, if anyone ever feels inclined to think I'm spending too much time blogging, I'd like to assure them that I'd be watching TV passively, instead of watching it and writing about it, and reading things passively, instead of reading and writing about it. Well, maybe not entirely passively, in that I would entertain a few thoughts about what I was taking in, hazard a comment if anyone is around, and occasionally email a link to someone with a comment. Hence, the exciting transition to blogging.

One thing about blogging, though, is that you do think of a lot of things in terms of blogging. You scan the paper looking for the bloggable. You hear a snippet of conversation or see a stray sign and think of blogging it. I seriously considered blogging the topic of email spam that uses the word "hi" as the subject line and what that is doing to my sense of trust in humanity. But I do exercise some restraint.

Go read Jeremy's blog.
So we did finally get around to watching "American Idol" last night? I see Prof. Yin did a simulblog of the event, or at least of his tape of it. (No TiVo?!)
how would you like to be Rodrigo, the guy who was told he did "all right" but who lost out when Simon didn't like his answer to the question, "What would you do with the $1 million if you won?" He babbled about giving some to charity, investing some, donating more to charity, and something else.
Yeah, poor Rodrigo, doomed to feeling bad about charity for the rest of his life! The people who go on the show famously resist interpreting their rejection as any kind of information about deficiencies of theirs. But the problem with the answer was that it was boring, conventional, and lamely babbled. We saw a woman succeed with an answer to the question: she wanted to buy a classic Thunderbird to go with her retro style. That was clear and specific. Given a chance to speak, she instantly set to work on constructing her public persona. The success of her answer wasn't that she was more honest than Rodrigo, but that she had aptitude for being a TV personality. The show isn't really about picking the best singer, or even the best overall singer-product, but to entertain us one way or another. The contestants have to engage us somehow: they cannot be boring!
How much imagination did it take for the producers to find a nerdy looking engineering major from Cal-Berkeley to humiliate?
If he's smart enough to go to Berkeley, he's smart enough to know how the show works and to know what he's risking by not asking a friend for a brutally honest assessment of his singing before he set out to get on TV. Maybe he had a great time. I'd like to think the wonderful William Hung was sitting home with his (nerdy-looking) friends last night, watching the show and laughing hysterically.

I note that the other conspicuously smart contestant--a Harvard student--was also one of the most ridiculously bad singers. I think one reason that happens on the show is that it seems less meanspirited to make sport of a person who we don't have any reason to feel sorry for. Conversely, we would not have seen Jasmine Arteaga, a young woman with dwarfism, if she hadn't done an excellent audition.

UPDATE: Another theory on why the Thunderbird answer worked, from the astute and funny Shack at Television Without Pity, is that Ford is a sponsor!
Draeh can sing fairly well, and she's willing to shill spontaneously for [product-placed car company] with her imaginary American Idol winnings, so she's invited on. Rodrigo is really hot and ... nearly gets through to Hollywood, but then he gives some stupid Miss America speech about using his money to heal the world and gets rejected for being too lame for words.
I can remember the elementary school teacher, one who pursued the “whole language” approach to learning to write, who scoffed at a child’s interest in spelling. The kids would always have computers to spellcheck for them. The poetic justice is that the very computers that lured people into thinking they didn’t need to bother to learn to spell anymore are now taking their revenge. Diana Jean Schemo writes on the front page of today’s NYT of the hapless bad spellers who end up selling their goods for next to nothing on eBay. Most buyers never find these folks, but there are people trolling eBay for “bycicles, telefones, dimonds, mother of perl, cuttlery, bedroom suits and loads of antiks.”
David Scroggins … operates his entire business by laptop computers, having bought three Compaqs for a pittance simply by asking for Compacts instead.
Why don't people selling on eBay use the computer spellcheck? They are obviously on the computer when they make their mistakes. Consider the woman who wanted to sell a pair of chandelier earrings:
[S]he knew she was on shaky ground when she set out to spell chandelier. But instead of flipping through a dictionary, she did an Internet search for chandaleer and came up with 85 or so listings.

She never guessed, she said, that results like that meant she was groping in the spelling wilderness. Chandelier, spelled right, turns up 715,000 times.
According to Schemo--I love that name--people are getting used to seeing misspellings, because of the Internet:
[E]xperts say the Internet — with its discussion boards, blogs and self-published articles — is a treasure trove of bad spelling.
(Thanks, experts!)

How do we learn how to spell right? Mostly by seeing words spelled right as we read. Some words we make a point of learning, and some we look up, but our sense of what looks right is created by looking at things--in the case of words, by reading. But if you're reading that chaotic mass of words that is the Internet--and you are--you are getting a distorted sense of what is right. And Scroggins is waiting for you to trip up.
Did you know that Jack Paar came up with the idea of the sofa and desk furniture arrangement for a TV talk show? Here are a few more things about Jack, who seems to have had a talk show that was much more about great talk than today’s talk shows, from the NYT obituary:
• [U]nknowns who [got] national exposure on his show[:] ... Bill Cosby, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen, the Smothers Brothers and Godfrey Cambridge.

• "Everyone thinks Ed Sullivan discovered the Beatles," [Paar] once complained. "That's not true. I had them on before he did. I did it because I thought they were funny, not because I liked the music. I'm a Muzak kind of guy — my home's like living in an elevator."

• There always seemed to be a neurotic edge to Mr. Paar and his pals. [NYT critic John J.] O'Connor once said people watched to see if anyone would have a nervous breakdown on camera. Mr. Downs once explained affectionately, "Jack's not mentally ill; he's a carrier of mental illness." [Regular guest Oscar] Levant, asked what he did for exercise, mumbled, "I stumble and then I fall into a coma."

• "I hate my emotion," Mr. Paar said of all his tearful controversies. "Knock it off, I tell myself, but I just can't help it."
He had a catchphrase, “I kid you not.” I can remember my parents saying that and understanding that it was amusing in a way I couldn’t understand because I was too young to stay up and watch late night TV.

January 27, 2004

I'm itching to watch "American Idol" and the first episode of the new season of "The Osbournes," but the TV with the TiVo (and with a sightline from the computer) is currently being shared with a family member who is interested in the coverage of the New Hampshire primary. I'm interested in the primary, but don't really need to witness nonstop journalistic yammering all evening. Breaking news! Kerry is the predicted winner! Okay, he was 35 points behind in December. That is really something. Boy, can they crank out analysis of how the heck that happened.

"The economy was a big issue"... blah blah blah.

"Single digit loss" = new momentum for the Dean campaign. Let's watch his concession speech and talk about all the dimensions of its difference from his notorious Iowa concession.

Edwards: "What I wanted to do is come from the mid- to upper-single digits into the teens."

Now Carville is going with the theory that it's all about 5: if Kerry wins by more than five, he's in a good position; if he wins by less than five, that will demand some explaining.

The show is all about characterizing the numbers, because that is all the material we have, a handful of percentages. And they must talk, talk, talk about them.

Hmmm.... 101 votes for Al Sharpton....
What's the deal with Technorati? It purports to know when blogs are updated, and I see that if my blog address is put in right now, it says "Blog last updated 12 days 2 hours 8 minutes ago." Thanks for being so specific, Technorati. Isn't it weird how really specific things seem true?
Jack Paar has died. Look for obituaries attempting to explain that shrouded-in-the-mists-of-time W.C. incident:
A man of boundless curiosity and interests, he was charming, gracious and famously sentimental: He could shed tears, as he put it, just from "taking the Coca-Cola bottles back to the A&P."

He could also be volatile, pettish and confounding. And never so much as in February 1960, when, making headlines, he emotionally told his thunderstruck audience that he was leaving his show. It was the night after a skittish NBC executive had judged obscene, and edited out, a story by Paar where the initials "W.C." were mistaken for "wayside chapel" instead of "water closet."

A month later, the network managed to lure Paar back. Returning on the night of March 7, he was greeted with generous applause as he stepped before the cameras. Then he began his monologue on a typically cheeky note: "As I was saying, before I was interrupted ... "

The late-night shows of that era are outside of my memory range. Johnny Carson succeeded Jack Paar on The Tonight Show in 1962, and I can clearly remember Carson's earlier daytime quiz show, "Who Do You Trust?" I even remember discussions of the grammar of that show title. I wish I had seen the Jack Paar Tonight Shows. How about a DVD?
"I'm against psychiatry -- for me, anyway," he told viewers. "I haven't got any troubles I can't tell standing up."
I vaguely remember adults being very interested in the subject of psychiatry in those days. Didn't Jack Paar fit into that theme for a lot of people? Or am I only remembering the mysterious sophistication that adults seemed to have to me when I was a child?
“I keep getting these phone calls from fans saying, ‘I’m sure he’s just gathering material.’ I wish that were true.” A New York Magazine cover story on Spalding Gray.
He was spooked by the fact the driver of the minivan in Ireland had the same name as the real-estate broker who had sold them the North Haven house and he started wondering aloud if another broker, who had once approached Gray about selling the Sag Harbor house, had put an evil spell on him.

At first glance, Gray’s assertions seemed alarming. “The problem was, it was a little hard to tell what was ‘delusional’ with Spalding,” says Stein, “because those were also the elements upon which he always built his monologues in the past. I mean, talking onstage about going to the Philippines and having a psychic surgeon pull porcupine needles out of your eyes? It’s not that far-fetched from saying a real-estate agent cast a spell.”
This is an excellent article, worth reading in full. It reveals that Oliver Sacks was one of Gray's doctors, and that Gray had suffered some brain damage in the car accident.
Three Martha Stewart things:

1. The Martha Stewart trial: sketchbook version.

2. Challenging Juror #1, the dithering housewife, former corporate lawyer, whom the defense loves.

3. A sober analysis of the jury ("Working Women Dominate the Jury For Stewart's Trial"). Leslie Eaton writes in the NYT:
[S]ome trial watchers said the jury's composition could tilt in favor of Ms. Stewart, whose lawyers, according to experts, hoped to seat a jury that would not be put off by Ms. Stewart's business success, stock market experience, or by the exacting Stewart persona itself.

While the jury members may not be as successful as Ms. Stewart, said Robert B. Hirschhorn, a jury consultant based in Dallas, "they may feel they have kind of walked in Martha Stewart's shoes."

Usually, he said, women jurors tend to be more judgmental of women defendants than men are, which suggests that the jury might favor the prosecution. But, he added, "an educated jury, virtually all employed, a lot in positions where they are required to make quick and important decisions — that all bodes well for Martha Stewart." ...

How much such details matter is always guesswork in court cases, where juries are supposed to base their decisions on the evidence and the law. But everyone involved in this case has paid careful attention to the atmospherics, and to the sexual politics of putting a powerful woman on trial for a corporate crime.
I see we're still saying "sexual politics." The female contestants on "The Apprentice" use their sexuality as much as possible, and the Times calls it "us[ing] their gender," but the way people think about a powerful, exacting woman is "sexual politics."
Here's an article in the NYT about the DVD for "Capturing the Friedmans":
We heard from theater managers that there was a problem," [the director] Jarecki said. "People weren't leaving after the film. They were sitting in their seats, arguing about things, so they couldn't clean the theater."

Mr. Jarecki and his fellow filmmakers began interviewing those who lingered. "People had strong reactions, they wanted to know more, talk more, and we realized this could be a starting point for the DVD," he said. One segment on the second disc answers frequently asked questions about the case and the members of the Friedman family. What are their relationships today? Why did they record their lives and troubles in such detail on videotape, an extraordinary part of the movie?
This film should be added to those lists of movies about law.

The person I saw this movie with and I left the theater, both sure we knew the truth about the events represented in the film. But we had opposite positions. I've ordered the DVD--so I'm going to need to plunge back into the argument.
Ah, a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Shohreh Aghdashloo! Go Shohreh!

Actually, I haven't seen the movies the other nominees in that category were in. I haven't seen too many movies at all this year. But Aghdashloo was terrific in "House of Sand and Fog," which I talked about here. I think the only other fiction film I saw in the theater of the films in the running for Oscars is "Kill Bill," which got no nominations. (Wait 'til next year.)

I did see "Capturing the Friedmans," which got a documentary nomination. I saw "Spellbound," which didn't get a nomination, even though lots of people loved it, even though it was not as good as the annual ESPN live and lengthy coverage of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee.

I haven't seen "Osama," which did not get an Oscar nomination, even though it just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. When I watched the Globes live I found the acceptance speech by the director Siddiq Barmak incredibly strange: if you want people to be interested in seeing your film called "Osama," you might want to say something clear about what it's about!

"I would like to dedicate this prize to the people who lost their trust in too much promises, to the people who lost the meaning of 'luck' and to the people who gave me a wonderful film, 'Osama'..."
Andrea Boyle reports for RFE/RL:
"Osama" is the story of an Afghan family of nearly all females who are left to fend for themselves during the Taliban era after the death of the father and an uncle. The mother and grandmother of the clan force the main character, a 12-year-old girl, to dress as a boy in order to get a job and make money for the family.

The title comes from the name the girl uses in her double life as a boy. The child is the only person addressed in the film by name. Barmak says this loss of identity is symbolic of Afghans losing their personal identities as well as their cultural and national ones under the repressive rule of the Taliban. ...

"Osama" is Barmak's first feature-length film. He gained experience directing short films and from 1992-96 headed the government agency in charge of cinema. With the arrival of the Taliban, Barmak lost his job and fled the country in 1998, seeking asylum in Pakistan. He returned home in 2002, assuming his old job and beginning work on "Osama."

For the film, Barmak cast non-professional actors from orphanages and refugee camps. Such people, he says, are better able to portray the feelings of the average Afghan. "They were very natural," he says. "They left me with a lot of impressions during the shooting and they made a lot of improvisation because they were real people that could feel this situation. Especially the little girl who played the main character -- she saw a lot of suffering, and she was a witness to a lot of tragedies."

For crying out loud! You make a film called "Osama" and it's not about Osama bin Laden, and you win a big award in front of an audience of millions, but you don't give us a clue what it's about, and, in fact, you say things that make it sound like it might be a sympathetic portrait of the guy? What a colossal missed opportunity!

I rewatched that segment of the awards show. The shots of the actors in the audience reacting to Barmak were hilarious (though I feel really sorry for him now that I know what his film is!). The camera shows one close-up after another of movie stars looking confused and trying to figure out whether to be upset. The extreme closeup of open-mouthed, gaping Nicole Kidman was especially funny. But it's not really funny. What a shame!

Anyway, Rotten Tomatoes shows a 91% "Fresh" rating for "Osama."

UPDATE: My colleague, Nina Camic--whose blog is excellent by the way!--tells me "Spellbound" was nominated last year, when "Bowling for Columbine" won for Best Documentary. "Spellbound" played in Madison last summer though, I believe. It takes small movies a long time to get to Madison in most cases. Sorry for the misinformation.
"[A]ll one needs to do is separate politics from law. Emotion from precedent."

As Steve Martin would say, "First, get a million dollars..."

May I recommend this book: "Descartes's Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain."

Oh, am I perseverating? Sorry, it was the first critic of my blog! I'll go read the New York Times now.
Professor Yin linked to my Bush v. Gore post and--his blog takes comments (you have to email me)--fended off a critic. Hmm... is that a critic of me or, technically, him? Thanks Prof. Yin! I agree with his response to the critic: the time needed to comprehend the underlying legal texts is truly unreal. (I accidentally wrote "techs" for "texts"--because they're so technical!)

I know of no other important case that is like that. I have taught a course where we spend hours doing that background and spoken in public a couple of times trying to explain each statute and constitutional provision systematically. That was extremely hard to do even in early 2001, when people were quite fired up and had a fresh memory of some of the information. I doubt whether the details were absorbed even then.

People have had their minds made up for a long time. With respect to some things, many things, taught in law school, you can open minds and bring in fresh perspectives, and I love to do that and am not generally cynical about law. It is the combination of the complexity of the legal texts and the firmness of the audience's conviction that makes for the impossibility of studying Bush v. Gore.

When the litigation was unfolding, many of us had plenty of incentive to learn--and be amazed by--the legalistic particulars of election law. Now, knowing how it ends, a student asked to engage with this complexity has got to have the normal, human reaction of impatience, irritation, and annoyance, if not outrage.

Still, it is important, and it was for most of the students in the class a major, formative experience with the law and the Supreme Court. You've got to engage with that. But it's an absurd business!

January 26, 2004

So how was Dennis Miller in his first effort?

The "monkey," actually a chimpanzee, really was meant as a tribute to J. Fred Muggs, of the original Today Show (as discussed below). The creature seemed depressed (or drugged), and didn't hop away or jump back up on cue with the speed that must have been intended. This is no cute baby chimp, but a relatively full-sized one (to my eye, at least). I'm not sure what that added, other than dead weight, but Miller led off with a few jabs at animal rights types who might object, out of concern for the chimp--which he referred to as "the simian," in a typical effort to help us expand our vocabulary.

Some of these efforts are off the mark. For example, it's not right to say "We're not going to waste time pretending to adhere to the McGuffin of 'fair and balanced.'" A McGuffin is not a slogan or a canard, but a meaningless plot device, like the uranium in "Notorious." Is he just trying to impress people who don't get the references? But even they can pause the Tivo and Google.

His intro didn't make the idea for the show very clear--other than the "one unalterable rule: no Ed Asner." He said he was going to change from his usual "milieu" and "evolve" (a possible reference to the chimp). He claimed to be liberal, but changed since 9/11. He did that gay wedding/terrorist joke quoted below. Expressing disdain for the overprotection of the rights of the accused, he said "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown." I don't know how in control of that reference he was, but as I remember "Chinatown," that line means the law has no application here. So did he mean, after 9/11, the government can fight terrorism any way it wants? I doubt it, because he went on to talk about the need for "pragmatism," which can be a vision of the rule of law.

After the intro, he brought on his pal Arnold Schwarzenegger, who proceeded to talk policy, blabbing about Proposition 57 and 58, which Miller had to prod him to explain. Did you know that people need to work together to solve problems? At least Miller made fun of himself afterwards for being so bad.

Some "Weekend Update" type clutter in the middle, then out come David Horowitz, Naomi Wolf, and David Frum. Okay...

After the break, there's Dennis hiding behind an O'Reilly Factor mug. He says, "All Right! First show! Broke some adhesions. Gotta figure out a way to break into people. Don't wanna be rude."

Unfortunately, the show seemed to justify the O'Reilly approach of cutting in all the time. I hope he figures out a solution. He obviously knows he's got a problem.
My first year Constitutional Law class will be dealing with Bush v. Gore today, specifically the Article II question the Rehnquist concurring opinion relied on. This raises complicated questions about state court and U.S. Supreme Court lawsaying authority.

(I'm still working on my project of coining the word "lawsaying." It's like "soothsaying," and it's based on the famous Marbury quotation, "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." I've got a couple law review citations giving me credit for coining the term, but the word only gets 16 hits in the LEXIS Law Reviews file, and 5 of them are from me. So, please, go ahead, use the word.)

Bush v. Gore is important, but I find it hard to believe that people are willing to invest the time to understand the federal and state statutes and the federal and state constitutional law provisions needed to grasp the legal issues in the case. Even if they do spend the time, I think their intake of information is affected at every step by their preexisting mindset about what the Supreme Court did (e.g., stole the election, saved us from an overreaching state court). But most likely, they won't spend the time, because they know very well what happened. Where did that knowledge come from?

I remember the night the decision came down, watching reporters on TV trying to read and understand the opinion in front of live cameras. That seemed at the time to be antithetical to a real process of understanding a piece of writing, but in retrospect I think nearly everyone reached their understanding at that point. Perhaps that is what human understanding is, and the rest is filling in the details.

It is hopeless and crucial and absurd to teach Bush v. Gore.
The headline for the James Risen piece quoted in the previous post is: "Ex-Inspector Says C.I.A. Missed Disarray in Iraqi Arms Program."

True, the C.I.A. "missed" something, but some respect is owed to the scientists who were fighting for their lives in a "vortex of corruption," "a fevered police state," "a death spiral."

An added word: I don't mean to say the scientists weren't also components of the corruption vortex, or to imply that they were heroes, but they certainly seemed to have been quite clever, and what they did was probably less bad than what they deviously pretended they did.
The Dictator’s New Weapons. James Risen of the NYT reports on an interview with David A. Kay, the former C.I.A. chief weapons inspector:
[S]ometime around 1997 and 1998, Iraq plunged into what [Kay] called a "vortex of corruption," when government activities began to spin out of control because an increasingly isolated and fantasy-riven Saddam Hussein had insisted on personally authorizing major projects without input from others.

After the onset of this "dark ages," Dr. Kay said, Iraqi scientists realized they could go directly to Mr. Hussein and present fanciful plans for weapons programs, and receive approval and large amounts of money. Whatever was left of an effective weapons capability, he said, was largely subsumed into corrupt money-raising schemes by scientists skilled in the arts of lying and surviving in a fevered police state.

"The whole thing shifted from directed programs to a corrupted process," Dr. Kay said. "The regime was no longer in control; it was like a death spiral. Saddam was self-directing projects that were not vetted by anyone else. The scientists were able to fake programs."

…. Dr. Kay said analysts had come to him, "almost in tears, saying they felt so badly that we weren't finding what they had thought we were going to find — I have had analysts apologizing for reaching the conclusions that they did."
Mystery solved?
Democracy in Iraq, the Kurdish view. Brwa Abdulrahman, 26, "nattily turned out in an ivory parka, leather pants and well-applied hair gel," says:
Joining with Iraq ... "is like putting a sixth grader in a class with first graders."
Chope Hamed, a 20-year old Kurdish woman, who, along with her friends, likes to walk around with her "thick, dark hair tumbling over [her] shoulders," looks askance at southern Iraq:
"In the south, you see demonstrations for gasoline, for jobs, and they always hold up signs that say, 'There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet' ... What's the connection between that and jobs or gasoline? We're all Muslims, but their thinking is old."

January 25, 2004

Things to write in an obituary for a Hobo King:
• "For every mile of beautiful scenery and warm sunshine, there are hundreds of miles of cold, dark nights, no food and no one to care whether I live or die," he wrote in his 1988 book, "Hobo King."

• He learned to drink coffee from rusty lard cans and did jobs from picking fruit to "pearl-diving," the hobos' term for washing dishes.

• In his later life, he passed out cards defining a hobo as a man who travels to work; a tramp as a man who travels and won't work, and a bum as a man who won't work.

• "He once told me that he went to the bank in Shawneetown and told the banker he needed $4,000 to pay off wife No. 3, divorce wife No. 4 and marry wife No. 5," his son said.

• "It was a great life ... I'd do it all over again."
Rambling Rudy Phillips, who was 92 when he caught "the westbound to heaven," appears in the documentary "Riding the Rails." It's worth buying: the story of hundreds of thousands of teenagers who left home--some thrown out by families who couldn't feed them--during the Depression. Filmed in the 1990s, the old men remember how they felt. I wonder which one was Rudy? Was he the man who cried remembering receiving a mailed birthday cake and eating it alone on a cold night?
Ah, friendship! Dennis Miller is giving Bush a free pass and Al Franken is giving Dennis Miller a free pass. The AP reports:
Dennis Miller has usually been happy to spray his acerbic wit across the political spectrum, but things will be different on his new CNBC talk program. President Bush is in a mock-free zone.

"I like him," Miller explained. "I'm going to give him a pass. I take care of my friends."

.... "People have said to me, 'What happened to Dennis?'" [his former "Saturday Night Live" colleague Al] Franken said.

"Nothing happened to Dennis. He's the same Dennis. He's always had a conservative streak on certain issues. ... It makes what you do different when you say, 'I don't have a dog in this fight,'" Franken said. "It's a big choice to make. I made it. I made the same choice on the opposite side."
Personally, I adore Miller. He says things like this:
"If two gay guys want to get married, I couldn't care less," he said. "It's their business. If some foreigner wants to blow their wedding up, I want my government to eliminate him."

The United States right now is simultaneously the world's most loved, hated, feared and admired nation, he said.

"In short," he said, "we're Frank Sinatra."
Plus, according to the AP, the show will have a monkey:
You read that right. Miller wanted a simian presence, believing a monkey occasionally scampering across the studio floor will keep both guests and viewers on their toes, he said.
Hey, it worked for The Today Show.
So can "a single bisexual woman who works for a university with excellent spousal benefits" marry her gay male roommate, who is her good friend, in order to provide him with free health insurance? The NYT ethicist Randy Cohen says yes:
People have married for many reasons -- to gain a fortune, accumulate land, forge an international alliance, secure a dynasty, raise children -- and even on account of affection, a marital motive that became widespread rather late in human history with the rise of bourgeois society. ... Marrying to obtain health insurance does not seem, historically at least, the most ignoble reason, particularly where same-sex folks are forbidden to marry for love....

We live in a country where more than 40 million people lack health insurance and thus reliable access to medical care. ... If marriage is his best means to decent medical care, I see no ethical objections to you two kids' tying the knot. Nor would you be deceiving the university if you did.

It requires only marriage, not love. ...
I'm not sure why it matters that these two persons are gay, or why it matters that it is hard to get health insurance and good health care. We wouldn't justify shoplifting based on the discriminatory practices of the store or because the thing stolen was very expensive and necessary. Cohen's point must be that marrying to share spousal benefits is perfectly legitimate whenever two persons go through the legally required steps needed to get married.

If that's okay, unmarried persons with good benefits could charitably find an uninsured cancer patient or other seriously needy person--of the opposite sex, of course--and marry them as a good deed. Or, if economic benefit is acceptable, offer to marry the highest opposite-sex bidder. On Ebay!

If that sounds terrible, consider Shari Motro's op-ed, also in today's Times:
Amid all the heated discussion on both sides of the gay marriage debate, a broader point has somehow gotten lost: why should formally committed couples, straight or gay, enjoy special privileges in the first place?

Married couples can receive thousands of dollars in benefits and discounts unavailable to single Americans, including extra tax breaks, bankruptcy protections and better insurance rates. ...

Research consistently shows that unmarried Americans are on average poorer, sicker and sadder than their married counterparts. Yet they are denied perks given to married couples who, in many cases, neither need nor deserve them. Though gay couples certainly lose out as well, singles of any preference pay a triple price for not finding love: they don't enjoy the solace and support of a life partner; they don't profit from the economies of scale that come from pooling resources with a mate; and they effectively subsidize spousal benefits that they themselves can't take advantage of.
Ending discrimination based on marital status is one way to resolve the current quandry over gay marriage, and it has the added benefit of extricating government (and employers) from a matter many people see as fundamentally religious.
Bryan Keefer at the CJR Campaign Desk collects the evidence that reporters in the room with Howard Dean perceived his fateful scream speech much differently from the way it played on television:
Dean's "gravelly voice [was] barely audible over the din of applause inside the '70s-style disco hall."
There should be a specialty field of audio technology aimed at matching the audio produced for TV and radio to the amplification in the room with the monitor amp for the speaker. For all the money that is spent repeating the same ads on TV--Wesley Clark, I'm looking at you, with rarely blinking eyes--it can all be swamped by the repetition of a horrible news clip. Spend more of your money making sure you don't make another clip like that.
Brilliant interplay between photography and painting by Eric Fischl. It's not enough to take a photograph. You have to elaborately stage the photograph. It's not enough to Photoshop the photograph. You then make a painting of the Photoshopped photograph. And then you publish a book with images of both the photographs and the paintings so people can become absorbed in discovering the differences between the two. The NYT writes:
These paintings depict scenes that the artist orchestrated in the museum, formerly a residence, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1928. Mr. Fischl brought in modernist furniture, hired two actors and photographed them over four days in 2002 as they staged unscripted domestic scenarios throughout the house. With more than 2,000 pictures, he moved the figures from one image to another in Photoshop, reimagining the domestic tableaus in a set of final constructed photographs from which he made this series of paintings. The paintings were exhibited last fall in the rooms in which the fictional scenes took place, and the photographs were shown at the Mary Boone gallery in New York last month. The catalog is just now being distributed in this country by D.A.P.
Look at the enlargements of the two images here. At first, they appear identical. Why bother to paint when you can photograph? If you want painterly effects, you can Photoshop. Fischl shows why there is still reason to paint photographable images. You don't need to move very far from what is photographic: in the small moves away from photographic accuracy, we find the value of the hand on the paintbrush.
How much of "The Apprentice" is a set up? Consider this description of the first three installments, described by the NYT:
In the three episodes of "The Apprentice" that have been broadcast, the women's team has beat out the men's three times. And each time, the women have used their gender and good looks to get ahead. In order to sell lemonade, the women — all attractive and trim, and some scantily clad — rewarded customers with kisses. Their winning advertising campaign pitch for the jet company invoked phallic double entendres about nose cones and fan tails, which the women delivered wearing adorable flight attendant uniforms. In the most recent challenge, the women shamelessly flirted with a gold merchant in order to win a key discount.
I don't think the women are actually actresses, in on a joke, like the housemates on "The Joe Schmo Show," because you can find an old article verifying that Omarosa really did have a job of some kind in the Clinton White House, and because it seems unlikely that they wouldn't clue in the audience that the guys were being scammed, since knowing that would probably be thought to help us enjoy things. But I do suspect that the women, chosen in part for good looks, were encouraged to go all out using sexuality to win every contest, to produce a show where the men would lose again and again, challenging them to break down and begin complaining in amusing and politically incorrect ways.

Speaking of political correctness, what's with the locution "the women have used their gender"? The word "sexuality" is not fit to print?
Oh, the horror of late-stage fame! Gennifer Flowers is starring in a musical revue called "Boobs." She has lips painted on her fingernails. And she's married to a man named Finis D. Shelnutt--which sounds like a Groucho Marx character.
Nice forehead indentations, Neil!

The NYT in a bid to pick up male readers for the Sunday Styles section.