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September 2007
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Letters: Forbes on Surveyors, Lasusa Links, Dan Grobstein File

Bush Quips He Might Stay in Power (Threat Level Plays Along)

The news item last week about surveyors and engineers having the lowest suicide rate among employment groups caught my ear. I asked Jim Forbes, descended from and related to a long line of surveyors, why that might be. He responded:

That's because they work out doors, are pretty smart and know it.

Tom Lasusa surfs the web so you don't have to: Man's body found in avocado tree... 450 pound Black Marlin eaten by shark... Report: Bloggers now threatened as much as "traditional" journalists... Dobbs: Beware the lame duck... Embarrassing Movie Posters... Study: Early humans threw clambakes... Doctor Who Fans Can now Defeat The Daleks Deliciously (whew)... Assholes of the Week Award: The right-wing's smear of S-chip 'poster-boy' Graeme Frost... Voters unhappy with Bush and Congress (Trivia time: Which President finished his tenure with a 23% approval rating (Bonus: Who wants to bet that record will be beaten?)..Debbie Harry: Still Punk, Still Proud, Still Breaking the Rules... Chocolatier resigns after "act of truffle-squishing" in a rival store...

Dan Grobstein File

  • Eric Alterman linked to this Chicago Tribune op-ed by one of his regular commentators.


    Every time one of those Blackwater convoys drives an Iraqi civilian off the road because the most important thing in the world is the protection of their "principal," they make a new enemy for the United States.


    What employees of the private security firm care about, and I have heard this from the Blackwaters with whom I interacted in Iraq, is their paycheck. They care about their huge compensation packages, and about getting home alive to spend them.


    and interestingly he says:


    All in all, that's not a bad take for Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a Naval Academy dropout who served less time under the colors of the nation, in uniform, than my most recent pair of boots.


    I keep reading that he's a former Navy Seal. What's up with that?
  • A slap on the back for Al Gore
  • OPINION | October 12, 2007
    Op-Ed Columnist: Sliming Graeme Frost
    The Graeme Frost case is a perfect illustration of the right-wing political machine at work and its reliance on character assassination.
  • Economics 101


    So if over a period of 6 months or more food and energy costs consistently rise it isn't because they're volatile, it's because they're rising.


[Dan's been to a couple of talks in NYC. His report]

Last Sunday I went to see Dan Rather interview James Carville at the 92nd St. Y. Before the start, there were some announcements. Tickets for the Clarence Thomas interview on Tuesday were still available (laughter). And a few tickets for the Paul Krugman interview (applause) on Wednesday were still available. (Luckily I had tickets already).

James Carville said that we should watch the state races because the party that controls the state legislatures will control the reapportionment after the 2010 census. (Even though the Supreme Court let Delay redistrict Texas and wipe out 5 Democratic seats mid- decade). He also said that it was strange that between Giuliani, Thompson, McCain and Romney the one with only one wife is the Mormon. He didn't have any ideas for getting the Democrat's message out like the Republican noise machine.

Clarence Thomas said that people have been mean to him his entire life. He likes to think problems through from the beginning without having a conclusion in mind. At a reunion of his seminary class (he had dropped out) one of the members came up to him to thank him for showing that you can judge a person without regard to race. Also people have been mean to him his entire life. He first met John Bolton when he was at Yale when Bolton convinced him that passive restraint seatbelts and helmet laws were too much government interference in personal liberty. He was interviewed by Jan Crawford Greenberg of ABC News.

Paul Krugman was interviewed by Leonard Lopate of WNYC public radio in New York. He said that the deficit isn't as great as the one after World War II. By percentage of national income kept by the upper 5% we're back in 1920s territory. Social Security is in good shape. It's medicare and medicaid that need assistance and he supports national health care. We have a deal with China: they send us poisonous toys and we send them fraudulent securities. The yuan could be devalued by 25% without damage. One good thing about the Bush tax cuts is that they have expiration dates to hide the true cost. They expire in 2010. Most of what he said is familiar if you've been reading his columns or his blog on

Neither Krugman nor Carville spoke about the Republican insistence on a cloture vote before voting on legislation without actually resorting to a filibuster. I don't understand why this isn't shouted from the rooftops. And I don't understand why the Democrats go along with this. You can't compromise with somebody who won't compromise with you.

Nine Years Later

(A reprint of my annual anniversary item, with small adjustments).

As of Oct. 16, it's been nine years since fury at the Clinton impeachment drove me to write this weekly blog--an impeachment, we now discover, that even Republicans didn't want. It was forced on the nation by Dick "The Hammer" Armey--with whom karma caught up. There is, sometimes, justice in the universe.

[As a U.S. history teacher, I am forced to note that Andrew Johnson's impeachment was a rabid partisan witch hunt, as was Clinton's. Only Nixon's was bipartisan--and only Nixon resigned.]

Anyway, I either had to start a column or check into a mental institution. PSACOT gave me a forum in which to express, to an audience (no matter how small) my feelings about that political circus. It has since evolved into a combination of diary for my family and me and bulletin board for my clever friends--in short, a personal column. Like, but not as good as, former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Adair Lara or ongoing columnist Jon Carroll. Or, to take a national example, former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, considered the mother of the personal column concept (even that Stanton Delaplane and Charles McCabe of the San Francisco Chronicle actually beat her to it--but of course, if it hasn't happened in New York, it hasn't happened).

PSACOT is also a revival of sorts. I don't believe anyone who reads this column except Daniel Dern and Peter Peckarsky would remember the original P.S. A Column On Things, which ran in ERGO, MIT's objectivist newspaper from September 1970 to March 1971, and The Tech, MIT's semi-official student newspaper, from March 1971 to May 1971. Those were among my happiest days as a journalist. If I had truly understood the fulfillment a personal column gave me, perhaps I would have fought harder to keep it when Bob Fourer killed it, or revived it when I became editor-in-chief two years later, or tried to practice the craft (and become the father of the personal column).

Ironically, this column, born in a political circus, celebrates its ninth anniversary during another political circus. I am as passionate about this one as I was the impeachment.

Bush's dubious 2004 re-elevation (he didn't win the first time either) and disastrous second term, including his war of choice, stand as a monument. Not to courage, or "staying the course," but to the right-wing Republican conspiracy to overturn elections they cannot win fair and square, or to change the rules in the middle of the game. That conspiracy now includes:

  • the 2000 election (fraud and illicit Supreme Court chicanery--federalism HAH!)
  • redistricting in Texas and Colorado without a new census (not the way the game has been played for 230 or so years)
  • the California Gubernatorial recall
  • the 2004 election, with its accurate exit polls and inaccurate vote counts (viz. Ohio)
  • the effort to rewrite California election law to throw an extra 20 electoral college votes to Bush.

The list just gets longer. Don't expect things to change in 2008.

Still, I expect you'll read as much or more about Marlow and Rae and their doings, and my classroom, as you will about politics in this forum this year. It is increasingly apparent I am mellowing with age.

Letters: Dern on Ethics, X-Men and Australian Bookstores, Dan Grobstein File

Several notes from Daniel Dern this week:

Dan Grobstein File

  • Stupid right-wing bloggers on s-CHIP. More on s-CHIP. The family that gave the Democrats response can't get insurance [Ed note: I know this is true; I have two pre-existing conditions. I am uninsurable, except as a member of a group. Same for my younger daughter. That is uninsurable--at ANY price]
  • quote:

    I'll say this for the White House and its spinoffs. When they need REAL attorneys, they'll never hire one with a Regent University sheepskin on their walls.

  • | October 10, 2007
    Picky Eaters? They Get It From You
    A new study offers some relief to parents of picky eaters: It’s not your cooking, it’s your genes.

[Ed: Another example of America's stupid shortsigtedness]

  • | October 3, 2007
    Unlike U.S., Japanese Push Fiber Over Profit
    Japan is a broadband paradise with the world’s fastest and cheapest Internet connections, but some analysts wonder if the country’s push to install fiber is worth the effort.

[Ed. note: it is great having Krugman available again…]

  • | October 8, 2007
    Op-Ed Columnist: Same Old Party
    President Bush hasn’t strayed from the path of conservatism. On the contrary, he’s the very model of a modern movement conservative.

  • quote:

    Oh my God. The Bush administration sent these guys to fight for 729 days instead of 730 days, because had they been sent for 730 days they'd have gotten education benefits.


This Year's Hot Gifts

Bob Nilsson assures me these will be the hot gifts this year ;-)

Temperature Controlled Faucet Light




Hillary Nutcracker






USB Missile Launcher – there are actually a surprising number of varieties of this concept, here’s one:



Bugatti Veyron $1,700,000

Advertised as 1001 horsepower.



Smart Find Remote Control Key Locator

(Not sure what happens if you lose the locator. Maybe you can use a back up locator to find the main locator.)





Handset for the cell phone $14.99



1600rpm Internet Enabled Washing Machine 7kg (15lbs) with Direct Drive Motor

(In addition to Internet-based control and monitoring, future clothing smart tags will automatically set this machine for proper washing.)




Six Degrees

I went to see Six Degrees of Separation with the family in SF last week. You may recall that the play is based on a real incident, in which wealthy and intelligent New Yorkers were taken in completely by a young black man pretending to be Sydney Poitier's son. Will Smith starred in the movie version. It is all about trust. Our society is based on trust. Our money is based on trust. My relationship with my students is based on trust. When our trust is damaged, we feel violated. Luckily, that doesn't happen to me very often. Great play; see it if you get a chance.


by Craig Reynolds

Copywronged: the first verdict was reached in the RIAA's nonsensical scheme to prop up their outmoded business model by suing their customers: RIAA Jury Finds Minnesota Woman Liable for Piracy, Awards $222,000 and Woman Ordered to Pay $222,000 in File-Sharing Case. The guilty verdict came despite weak evidence, with the help of recent RIAA funded changes to copyright law and surprisingly pro-RIAA jury instructions from the judge. All that was actually proved that someone using the defendant's computer downloaded some music using Kazaa. By default that application then offers to share the content to other users. No evidence was offered that anyone actually downloaded music from the defendants computer, but the judge told the jury that it didn't matter, since actual harm to the RIAA was irrelevant. Declan McCullagh cites Four reasons why the RIAA won a jury verdict of $220,000 and complains about the ludicrously high penalty. See also Despite Lawsuits, P-to-P Use Still Growing and Analysis from EFF.

Apple and friends: some iPhone related news: Apple's Not 'Bricking' Hacked IPhones for Revenge, Application blocking diminishes iPhone, Samsung takes wraps off its iPhone rival Serenata and Verizon unveils iPhone rival. A review from The Register: Apple TV 160GB media player. iTunes: Big online music stores provide one stop shopping for consumers, for musicians they provide a web store framework.  But these days a web store is within the means of any successful musician: Radiohead shuns iTunes, sells new album online direct and Radiohead's bid to revive music industry: pay what you like to download albums. It annoyed the WSJ that Radiohead fans failed to bid down the price of the music they love: What Price a Download? ("Given the Option to Name Their Own Price for Album, Radiohead Fans Overspend").

Web 2.0 and trust: new rules to upgrade the quality and stability of information at Wikipedia, essentially requiring review of public edits by trusted editors: Wikipedia 2.0 - now with added trust. The idea of academic rigor in online encyclopedia has previously been explored by Scholarpedia.  I hope these two efforts can cooperate and not compete for qualified contributors.

Phighting phire with phire: a very clever white-hat use of phishing to educate web users about the dangers of phishing: Carnegie Mellon Researchers Fight Phishing Attacks with Phishing Tactics. Their research paper is online: Getting Users to Pay Attention to Anti-Phishing Education: Evaluation of Retention and Transfer.

Old bio: yet another feathered dino: Big Waddling Dinosaur Discovered and an interesting take on the issue of evolutionary specialists versus generalists: Sabretooth's surprising weak bite.

Technobits: Backpacker turns Myanmar activist via Facebook and Satellite images show Burma's plight --- UC Berkeley's YouTube channel: 300 hours of videotaped courses and events (press release) --- One laptop per child: Laptop With a Mission Widens Its Audience --- Sony to launch world's first OLED ultra-thin TV --- Nanotube forests grown on silicon chips for future computers, electronics (a similar concept was mentioned here last December: Pitch black metal) --- Hany Farid on digital forensics: Proving That Seeing Shouldn’t Always Be Believing --- Fifty Years After Sputnik and Oct. 4, 1957: Russ Puts Man-Made Moon in Orbit! --- Robotic Therapy Tiles: Playing Your Way to Health --- Intelligent playgrounds --- one-off customizable consumer product manufactured by 3d printing: Freedom of Creation: Downloading Clothes (this is so proto-Diamond Age!).

Neal Vitale Reviews: A Place To Be - A Celebration Of Nick Drake

3 stars out of 5 (overall)

An irony of modern popular culture is that unique talent can often take years, or even decades, to find an audience beyond the cognoscenti - if it ever does. British singer/songwriter Nick Drake released three critically-revered records of fragile, melancholic music - Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon - between 1969 and 1972, to extremely limited commercial success. Drake died in 1974, at the age of 26, from an overdose of antidepressants. In the spring of 2000, Volkswagen used a portion of the song "Pink Moon" in a television ad. Within three weeks, as many copies of Pink Moon were sold as the album had sold in its original release.

"A Place To Be: A Celebration Of Nick Drake" was part of American Cinematheque's 2007 Mods & Rockers Festival in Los Angeles. While one could easily cite suicide and premature death as the festival's overarching themes (Ian Curtis, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, et al.), celebration was more the point on this recent Friday evening (despite a surfeit of colons). "A Place To Be" began with A Skin Too Few: The Days Of Nick Drake, a brief (48 minute) documentary on Drake's life. While additional audio recordings of his have been released since his death, there is no known performance footage, and few still photographs beyond family scrapbooks - a daunting challenge for a filmmaker. A Skin Too Few creates a sympathetic and affecting, though vague, outline of the enigmatic Drake, mostly through the words of his late parents, his sister Gabrielle, and musical collaborators.

A live question-and-answer session with Gabrielle Drake, famed record producer Joe Boyd (Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, Maria Muldaur, Richard Thompson, Incredible String Band), and friend/singer/writer Robyn Frederick (who did a nice job of deconstructing the lyrical and musical complexity in Drake's songs) was followed by the premiere of Their Place: Reflections On Nick Drake. This piece is actually a collection of seven short films ("homages") by different directors, each focusing on a Drake song in either the original or a new cover version. The directors include Australian heartthrob actor Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain, The Patriot), Lithuanian art filmmaker/poet/critic Jonas Mekas, and music video maker Tim Pope. But Their Place was - as you'd expect - uneven, with only a few flashes of brilliance.

The evening apparently continued at the bar next to the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard (the home of the Cinematheque), but I passed on the revelry. "A Place To Be" was really an excuse for fans of Nick Drake to come together for a few hours in celebration of their muse. I wanted to be sure to draw the line before any unfortunate early morning karaoke of "Black Eyed Dog."

Neal Vitale Reviews: Michael Clayton

4.5 out of 5 stars

Writer Tony Gilroy (the Bourne trilogy, Dolores Claiborne, Extreme Measures) has made an outstanding directorial debut with Michael Clayton, his story of corporate malfeasance and its legal defense. What distinguishes this screenplay from myriad conventional legal/courtroom thrillers is excellent character development, particularly of the secondary players, and tantalizing hints of mysticism, addiction, and family dysfunction. Much psychological terrain is covered effectively and efficiently with deft, minimalist touches. The cast is headed by George Clooney (Oceans 11-13, Syriana) in the title role and Tom Wilkinson (last seen in a terrific turn in Dedication) as his apparently unraveling colleague. Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia, Orlando) is miscast as an venal executive, but that is a tiny blot on an excellent (likely Oscar-contending) film.