Sunday, January 29, 2006

Viva Los Mets

Because it's a slow sports week, the New York Times has two columns today about the radio-talk-show debate over whether Mets general manager Omar Minaya is "Latinizing" the Mets by dumping talented non-Hispanic players in favor of Latinos. The debate is spurred mainly by two recent trades, which sent starting pitchers Jae Seo and Kris Benson to the Dodgers and Orioles for a total of four relief pitchers: Duaner Sanchez and Steve Schmoll from the Dodgers and Jorge Julio and John Maine from the Orioles. Ever since these trades were made, I've been hearing fans on WFAN complaining that the only reason for them was Omar's desire to pack the roster with Spanish-speaking players.

I don't know where this leaves Steve Schmoll and John Maine, by the way. I guess they're supposed to be taking Spanish lessons. I also wonder a little about the fans who call to complain about the Mets having "too many" Hispanics. They sound suspiciously like the fans who get very upset whenever anyone else complains about color or ethnicity patterns that run in the opposite direction--for example, the paucity of Black managers and executives in baseball: "Why do these people have to drag race into everything? It doesn't matter if someone is white or purple or polka-dotted--is there supposed to be some kind of quota system?" etc. etc.

So my immediate instinct is to scoff at the complaints. I'm okay with the specific trades that have been questioned. I like Jae Seo, and he pitched well the second half of last season. But the Mets bullpen has needed help desperately, and starting pitching is the one area in which we arguably have a tradeable surplus of talent. (And the trade gives Aaron Heilman a spot in the rotation, which I like.) Then there's Kris Benson, a lifetime below-500 pitcher who shows no signs of breaking out as a big winner. I'm happy to see him go--along with his ditzy wife, who helped start the controversy on her way out the door by complaining about the trade and intimating that Omar's motives were ethnic.

In the Times, Murray Chass does a good job of demolishing most of the anti-Omar arguments. He points out, for example, that Omar's transactions this season have also included signing relief ace Billy Wagner (rather than Latino alternatives Jose Mesa or Octavio Dotel) and trading for catcher Paul Lo Duca (rather than Ramon Hernandez or Bengie Molina). Those moves sure don't support the notion that Omar's goal is an all-Latin Mets.

I've been wondering why no one has gone back to look at Omar's track record in his previous GM job with the Montreal Expos to see whether his supposed "Latin bias" existed then. After all, it doesn't seem like something that would just come and go, does it? So I looked up the major league transactions made by the Expos on Omar's watch, from February, 2002, through September, 2004.

What I found was interesting. During that time, the Expos made deals (free-agent signings, releases, and trades) that involved 93 players from their major league roster. In the process, they acquired a total of 43 Hispanic players and 50 non-Hispanic players. They also gave up 36 Hispanic players and 57 non-Hispanic players. So when Omar left the Expos, their major league roster (40 players deep) included seven more Latinos than when Omar arrived.

To me, these numbers do suggest a pattern, though not a very strong one. The majority of players Omar added to the roster during his years in Montreal were not Hispanic, so it's obviously excessive to claim that "Omar was trying to build an all-Latin team" (which is the substance of Anna Benson's charge). But Montreal did become slightly "Latinized" while Omar was there.

Now the $64 question: What does it mean, if anything? I can see several alternatives:

1. It's sheer coincidence. If the best players available to Omar had happened to be Black or Italian or Asian, he would have acquired them.

2. Omar got a lot of publicity for being baseball's first Latino GM. Maybe Latino free agents (or their representatives) or other GMs looking to trade Latino players had a tendency to think of Omar first for that reason.

3. Omar's knowledge of and closeness to the market for Latino players enabled him to identify talented Latino players that Anglo executives might not be aware of or might undervalue.

4. Omar was biased and tended to acquire Latino players despite the fact that he was hurting his club in the process.

The fourth possibility, of course, is the one raised by Anna Benson and the one that is stirring up controversy in New York today. Does it seem plausible?

The test here, of course, would be whether or not Omar's teams improve or decline under his aegis. His track record isn't long, but so far it's pretty positive. In 2002, he took over an Expos team that had gone 68-94 the season before and took them to back-t0-back seasons of 83-79. A fifteen-game improvement is fairly unusual and impressive. They declined to 67-95 in 2004, a year when most commentators pointed to the uncertainty over the team's future (the franchise moved to Washington D.C., after the season), shrinking fan support (attendance fell by almost 30%), and the difficulty of managing a team with no real owner (the Expos were controlled by Major League Baseball) as factors that made Omar's job especially difficult. All in all, one would have to rate this as a good job under trying circumstances.

As for the Mets, under Omar's leadership the team went from 71-91 in 2004 to 83-79 in 2005, a strong twelve-game improvement. One year doesn't make a career, but Omar has at least earned the benefit of the doubt in my book.

It may be that Omar is indeed using his Latino background as leverage to find and sign good Latino ballplayers. (He has implied as much.) Given how much great talent is coming out of Latin America these days, that would be a shrewd move. Again, the only meaningful measuring stick is success. If the Mets improve again in 2006--as I think they will--and get into the playoff hunt, Omar will undoubtedly be appearing on magazine covers as baseball's latest "genius of the year"--deservedly so.

Meanwhile, everybody should chill out about Omar's signing an extra Latin player or two. Sometimes those ethnic ties can be very useful. Remember when Tommy Lasorda went out of his way to get the Dodgers to sign a low-rated prospect strictly as a favor to one of his Italian buddies? Mike Piazza turned out to be a pretty good ballplayer.

Tags: , ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Garrison Keillor for President

A very funny and accurate review by Garrison Keillor of Bernard Henri-Levy's American Vertigo, his tendentious, cliched, hot-air-filled travelogue ("in the footsteps of Toqueville") from which I (mostly) averted my eyes when it was serialized in The Atlantic. (An aside: How is it that The Atlantic manages to be, alternately, so very bad and so very good?) Sample graf:

Levy is quite comfortable with phrases like "as always in America." Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Levy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, Levy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. ("I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region"), and suddenly sees that the young man has "all the reflexes of Southern culture" and the "studied nonchalance . . . so characteristic of the region." With his X-ray vision, Levy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.

To my mind, this review shows why Keillor is exactly the kind of person the Democrats should be nominating at all levels. He is liberal in all senses of the word but also patriotic, funny, down-to-earth, perceptive, honest, and open-spirited. He is at home among East Coast literary types but also among the "real folk" of the heartland--and enjoys deflating silly people like Levy who deploy dubious symbolism, untethered generalizations, and rhetorical questions to mock the latter.

Run, Garrison, run! I'd vote for you in a heartbeat.

Tags: ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

The Frey Sublimation

Thought I was finished commenting on James Frey, but yesterday over lunch with my friend Alvin Hall and his literary agent Robert Allen, Allen made an interesting observation. He and Alvin had (separately) watched Oprah's recantation and take-down of Frey, which Allen said was so harsh and vindictive that it left him feeling sorry for the guy for the first time. It also prompted him to wonder why we (meaning the media and the commentariat) have been so fixated on this admittedly minor scandal.

His answer, which is obvious as soon as you think about it, is that as a nation we are hurt and angry about having been lied to and manipulated in regard to big, important things that we feel helpless to do anything about. So we are finding relief in ganging up on a little squirt who lied to us and manipulated us over small, unimportant things as a kind of subliminal act of cultural revenge on dishonesty.

The longer I live the more I believe that America is fundamentally a dysfunctional family, acting out its neuroses through symbolic (and ultimately ineffectual) gestures.

Tags: ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Junior High School Sarcasm Masquerading as Political Analysis

Not to be missed: this dead-on, well-deserved evisceration of Maureen Dowd by Reed Hundt on TPMCafe.

Tags: ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Put Larry King in Charge of Intelligence

Flipping through the new March/April issue of the AARP magazine (yes I am that old) I spot a photo of Larry King interviewing George and Laura Bush over the caption, "'If your aim is to get people to talk, you don't want to antagonize them,' says King."

I guess this means that people are more likely to open up if you treat them humanely rather than if you tie them up with electrical cord, stick them in a sleeping bag, and suffocate them. Maybe someone ought to tell the Army and the CIA.

Oh, and one other question for the tactical geniuses in charge of our advanced interrogation techniques: How exactly is someone who is being strangled to death supposed to talk?

Tags: , ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Praying for George

At our church (Saint Mary the Virgin in Chappaqua--Episcopal), we change our liturgy with the seasons. And since the start of Epiphany a few Sundays ago, our weekly "prayers of the people" have included a prayer for "George, our president." Which I'm embarrassed to say has caused me some emotional disturbance.

I'm fully on board with the concept of praying for people we are in conflict with. Jesus of course is on record as saying we must pray for our enemies, and I suppose that at least from a political standpoint I would put George Bush in that category.

In the past, I've found it personally very helpful to pray for my enemies. In the case that hit closest to home with me, I spent some time many years ago praying for a boss I once worked for who was pretty abusive, not just to me but to other employees. I was so angry at him that I actually visualized bad things happening to him--a fatal car accident for example.

When I started praying for this man, I found, after a while, that my attitude toward him was changing. I still hated the things he had done to me. But I began to picture him a little less as a larger-than-life ogre who had once held the power of the purse over me and used it to make me miserable, and a little more the way God perhaps saw him--as a petty tyrant, universally disliked and lonely--reprehensible but also somewhat pitiable. Gradually my anger subsided and I found it harder and harder to hate him (as well as easier to pray for him).

Ultimately I was able to forgive him, at least mostly. (Maybe you can tell I still have some work to do on that front.)

So I recognize the value of praying for people I am angry with, hurt by, and even hate. Such prayer is totally counter-intuitive and goes against every instinct, yet it benefits me in the long run. So why am I having so much trouble praying for George Bush?

Having reflected on the question, I've discovered this dirty little secret about myself: That I don't want to forgive Bush for what I believe are all the evil things he has done to our country and to the world. That some part of me enjoys hating him, relishes deploring his influence, and takes delight in sharing snarky attacks on him with other like-minded people.

This part of me doesn't want to pray for Bush because I'm afraid I'll lose the edge of anger and hatred that I enjoy experiencing when I watch the news every day.

This is a dilemma for me because I don't actually believe that hating my enemies (even with good reason) is healthy or beneficial for me. I think in fact it's a bad habit that clouds my judgment and sours my disposition. And of course it goes against the very explicit Biblical injunction to "love our enemies."

Please don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying that a Christian ought to support Bush or even that being a Christian means you shouldn't feel righteous indignation over his evil policies. It's even fine to enjoy that feeling of righteous indignation, the way we enjoy experiencing any intense emotion. (That's why we like the movies--they let us drench our systems in the chemicals that generate powerful feelings without the physical dangers and other consequences that usually accompany them.)

But somehow I have to separate that moral fervor from the temptation to relish my dislike for the man (his stupid smirk! his macho posturing! his arrogant frat-boy humor! his blatant hypocrisies! etc. etc.). Not because it's bad for him, but because it's bad for me.

Easy for me to say--hard for me to do. Like laying off the midnight noshes and other guilty pleasures I can't seem to consistently avoid. Hating Bush is my spiritual junk food. Far from nourishing but oh so tempting.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Saturday, January 21, 2006

One More Word About James Frey

One of the more tiresome journalistic forms is the diatribe that uses some current controversy as "proof" that the world is going to hell in a you-know-what. (By the way, what exactly is a "handbasket"? Is the word ever used in any other context? And why is it considered the ideal conveyance in which to transport a world to the nether regions? Just asking.)

The biggest problem I have with this type of story is that it seems to require practitioners to pretend that whatever is annoying them was invented at most fifteen minutes ago. The implication is that, when "we" were young (whenever that was) everything was just fine and the evils that beset us today were unheard-of. This is almost always false.

In connection with the James Frey mini-scandal, this piece from the Times illustrates the genre perfectly. Michiku Kakutani blames Frey's factual misstatements on Oprah Winfrey, reality television, the Me Generation, the culture of narcissism, deconstructionism, the New Journalism, Bill Clinton, and about a dozen other trends of the last twenty years. As a result of the undermining of objectivity by all of these deplorable cultural forces, the lines between fiction and non-fiction and between reality and unreality have been blurred as never before.

This kind of thing is so darned easy to write. But its logic falls apart as soon as you raise your eyes beyond the narrowest of time horizons. Is it really true that writers prior to 1980 were scrupulous about distinguishing fact from fiction? What about Daniel Defoe, whose Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was a fictional account published in the guise of an actual diary? What about Henry D. Thoreau, whose masterpiece Walden (1854) takes events that actually occurred over two years, conflates them into a single year, and introduces all sorts of factual distortions (such as pretending that the author was a solitary hermit when in fact he spent much of his time socializing with friends like Hawthone and the Alcotts)? What about practically any of the authors of classic autobiographies, from Henry Adams to Malcolm X, all of whom have kept generations of scholars hard at work trying to sort out historical fact from (often self-serving) fiction?

You can go back through the history of literature as far as you like without finding any starting point for the phenomenon of authors promiscuously mingling reality with fantasy. I don't recommend you try to learn Greek history from Homer or English history from Shakespeare--not if you care about factual accuracy. Throughout history authors have happily intermixed fact and fiction without ever having heard of postmodernism or seeing a single Oliver Stone movie.

(I was about to add, "If there is anything distinctive about the contemporary moment, it may be the opposite of Kakutani's point: We are obsessed with authenticity, which is what pushes a writer like Frey to sell his book on the basis of its factual accuracy rather than its literary qualities." But a fascination with the allegedly authentic isn't unique to our era, either. After all, Defoe dressed up his fictions--not only A Journal of the Plague Year but also Robinson Crusoe--in the appearance of non-fiction precisely because he figured it would boost sales. So even in that respect there are plenty of precedents for the Frey phenomenon.)

I suppose people generally write these hell-in-a-handbasket diatribes out of mental laziness. (I've probably done it myself.) But a funny sort of vanity is also a factor. As Robert Frost remarked, "It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God." The fact is that, ninety-eight percent of the time, the problems of today are far from unique--and far from unprecedented.

Tags: ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Everybody Needs Adult Supervision

Yesterday on Hardball, Chris Matthews interviewed a former Army interrogator named Tony Lagouranis (transcript here). Lagouranis asserted that ninety percent of the prisoners he questioned at Abu Ghraib were guilty of nothing ("that may be a conservative number," he added). Far from being terrorists or even mere supporters of the insurgency, they were simply Iraqi citizens who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and therefore got caught up in street sweeps by the US occupying forces. (He also said that, even when prisoners were involved in attacks on Americans, he never got any useful information through torture or abuse, whereas patient trust-building often worked.)

Now, in today's Times, we learn that the vast majority of supposed terrorist leads generated by the National Security Agency through spying on Americans were "dead ends," forcing the FBI to spend time and resources investigating "suspects" who turned out to be totally innocent or even non-existent:

"We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism - case closed," said one former F.B.I. official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration."

These two stories, taken together, illustrate why neither the Bush administration nor any other government can be trusted with unchecked, unaccountable police power. When the president and his defenders say that torturing prisoners or wiretapping Americans is okay because only "people with known terrorist connections" are being targeted, the implicit premise is that those doing the targeting are infallible--that they are never going to torture, bug, or smear the reputation of anyone who doesn't deserve it.

It's implausible on its face. Now actual participants in the programs are stepping forward to explain exactly how ludicrous it is. And their criticisms are so sweeping that even if the precise details don't hold up, the problems remain obvious. Maybe ninety percent of the prisoners being abused at Abu Gharib weren't innocent; maybe it was only seventy percent or even fifty percent. Is that comforting? Would you be okay with that if one of the innocent victims was you or your son or your next-door neighbor?

Adding to the irony is the fact that the so-called conservatives who support Bush's seizure of unconstitutional powers are normally eager to rant about the fallibility of government. When it comes to welfare, the EPA, or the IRS, they collect, burnish, share, and treasure anecdotes about bureaucratic blunders and snafus to "prove" that government officials are arrogant stumblebums who can't be trusted to intervene in people's lives.

Of course, in those instances, the victims of government mistakes are either business people or, more broadly, American taxpayers--in other words, people that the conservatives identify with. So those mistakes are unforgiveable. But when it comes to brown-skinned people with Arab names who get tortured by mistake--hey, lighten up! Nobody's perfect! And don't you know there's a war on?

Would legal oversight--such as the free-and-easy oversight provided by the highly accommodating FISA court--eliminate abuse of people's rights? Of course not. But everyone is more careful about how they do their jobs when they know that someone might be looking over their shoulder. (That's why "calls may be monitored for training purposes.")

Even President Bush might think twice about some of his choices if he knew there was a chance he could face adult supervision. It's time Congress tried to provide some.

Tags: , , , ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Sunday, January 15, 2006

James Frey, the Tip of the Iceberg

The mini-scandal around James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces reveals again the general confusion over how fact-checking is done in the various media. The more you know about it the more you realize that caveat emptor is an especially sound rule for consumers of information . . . which means all of us.

Twenty-seven years in and around non-fiction book publishing have made me very aware of practices in that industry in particular. Here's what readers of books need to know.

To begin with, there is no such thing as fact-checking in trade book publishing. ("Trade publishing," by the way, means the opposite of what you probably think; it refers not to specialized publishing for a particular profession or industry but rather to general-interest commercial publishing, the category in which books like James Frey's would fall.)

Trade publishers rely on authors to get their facts straight. This applies to all kinds of trade books, from histories, biographies, and political exposes to cookbooks, travel guides, and, of course, memoirs. If an editor finds some of the contents of a book questionable, he or she may ask the author to double-check or provide documentation, but that is strictly based on the inclinations and interests of an individual editor, and it happens rarely.

This reality of book publishing surprises many people. We are raised to think of books as somehow authoritative. Books have a longer shelf life than newspapers or magazines and are far more prestigious; if you tell people that you have authored a book on a particular topic, they will probably assume you are an expert until you demonstrate otherwise. So without thinking about it, most people assume that books get some kind of careful vetting process before they are released. Not so.

The reasons for this are primarily ecoomic. Tens of thousands of new books are published every year. (No one knows the exact number, but last year over 86,000 ISBNs--International Standard Book Numbers--were issued in the US alone, which is a pretty good proxy for publications.) The large publishers (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, etc.) publish thousands of these titles, and a given imprint (i.e., brand name) with a handful of editors may publish several hundred books all by itself.

Any serious effort at fact-checking would take many, many hours per book--think about having to somehow track down and confirm the spelling of every name, the accuracy of every date, the currency of every statistic, the truthfulness of every anecdote. With most publishers so understaffed that many books are scarcely edited, it would be absurd to expect publishers to somehow find the time to make fact-checking part of their routine practice.

Furthermore, most editors of non-fiction books publish works on a wide range of topics. It wouldn't be odd for a single editor to publish, in a given year, biographies and memoirs by politicians and entertainers, books on American and world history, and books on other fields such as architecture, science, and popular culture. There's no way any one person could be sufficiently expert in all these areas to detect subtle or obscure factual mistakes or even out-and-out lies in all of these books.

In that case, you might ask, why not hire one or more experts to vet the manuscript and highlight possible factual errors? This process of so-called peer review is actually used in textbook publishing, as well as in the worlds of university press and scholarly publishing. There are a few trade houses that publish scholarly or semi-scholarly books (companies or imprints like W.W. Norton, Basic Books, and the Free Press) which also use peer review.

But most trade publishers don't engage in this practice. Why not? Three reasons, I think. It's partly to save money--one would have to pay the experts anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to review the manuscript and write up their notes, and most books aren't felt to warrant such an expense. It's partly to keep relationships with authors trouble-free--it's easier and less painful to simply accept the author's ideas and words on faith rather than to challenge them. And it's partly to save time--peer review would probably add anywhere from six weeks to six months to the publishing process. Since most trade books already take a frustratingly slow five to nine months to get from manuscript to bound book, publishers are loath to protract the process still further.

Unimpressed by these reasons (excuses, you might call them), you might ask: Wouldn't the expense in money and time be offset by the avoidance of legal and PR problems caused by factual gaffes in books (as exemplifed by the Frey mini-scandal)? Maybe so. But risk avoidance is where the concept of the "legal read" steps in.

As an editor and publisher, I participated in many legal reads of books. These are quite a different matter from fact-checking. First of all, at most publishers only a fraction of the books get a legal read (again, there simply aren't the necessary staff resources to do more than this). I doubt that Frey's memoir got a legal read--it's not the sort of book that normally raises red flags in the eyes of a publisher. Legal reads are normally reserved for the Kitty Kelleys of the world--authors who take pot shots at people with the intention of creating a storm of negative publicity.

The legal read involves a careful review of the manuscript by a lawyer with training and experience in intellectual property law, especially the laws related to libel, invasion of privacy, trademark violation, and other possible legal problems. (For example, you don't want the recipes in a cookbook to include potentially lethal ingredients.) The purpose of the review is simply to make the book as proof against a lawsuit as possible.

This means that the questions raised by the lawyer are generally as follows:

1. Is there anything in the contents of the book that could get us (the author and the publisher) sued? In other words, does any part of the book libel someone; violate someone's privacy; violate a copyright, trademark, or other intellectual property right held by someone; or expose us to some other kind of legal hazard?

2. Who, specifically, is likely to sue us? What are the odds they'll actually do it? (Public figures like politicians and CEOs have to overcome relatively high legal hurdles before they can sue for libel, especially in the US; some people and companies are known to be more litigious than others; those with deep pockets are more likely to sue than those without, etc. etc.).

3. What can we do to reduce the risk of a suit, or, failing that, to improve our chances of winning in court? If libel is the chief concern, one way to improve the legal case is to bolster the evidence supporting the allegedly libelous statements, since you can't be sued if what you say is demonstrably true. So getting documentation or testimony from a second or third witness is important.

So is examining and fine-tuning the exact wording of written statements that put another party in a negative light. You can't be sued for statements of pure opinion. For example, writing that "Russell Crowe is a lousy actor" would be legally protected and practically lawsuit-proof. But if you write, "Russell Crowe is a drunk" or "Russell Crowe slept with the producer to get his last role," and can't prove your assertions, you could be sued for libel.

A writer also needs to be quite precise about making sure that the scope of his evidence matches the breadth of his assertion--especially where a possible lawsuit is at issue. If you have evidence (a bar tab, for example) that Russell Crowe had twelve shots of tequila on a particular night in Guadalajara, you would be well advised to write exactly that. This is not equivalent, either factually or legally, to writing "Russell Crowe is a drunk."

(Note to Russell Crowe's lawyers: The above examples are fictional and illustrative only. I'm sure Mr. Crowe is very good at holding his tequila and I thought he was excellent in A Beautiful Mind even if he did sleep with the producer.)

The lawyer who conducts a legal read highlights portions of the book that seem legally problematic and walks the author (and sometimes the editor) through the relevant rules and distinctions. Publishing lawyers differ in their attitudes and methods. Some get very nervous about any passage that could arouse the ire of a potential litigant and will try to convince authors and editors to drop or rewrite such passages. (If the nervous lawyers had their way, every book would be turned into pabulum.) Other lawyers are more aggressive about defending freedom of speech and will work carefully with authors to help them exert their rights as far as possible.

The legal read sometimes devolves into a long, tedious in-house debate over just how far the book ought to go. On the one hand, editors, authors, and publishers know that edgy and controversial assertions fuel controversy and book sales; other the other hand, they also know that lawsuits are expensive and can destroy reputations. Hence the debate. Close calls are ultimately refereed by someone with executive responsibilities--the publisher or even the company CEO.

But notice that all of this does not amount to fact-checking. It's an exercise in lawsuit-anticipation-and-avoidance, which may use fact-checking as one of its tools, but only one.

As you can see, the process whereby the accuracy of trade books is monitored is pretty sketchy. It's filled with holes, and publishers generally do a lot of hoping-for-the-best. And yet, every year, the number of books that end up involved in Frey-type factual controversies (or for that matter lawsuits) is very slim. How many can you recall from recent years? Probably not more than three or four (unless you're an intellectual property lawyer yourself). And remember, that's out of 80,000 new books published every year. So most publishers take the attitude, "Hey, we're doing all right this way. Why rock the boat?"

Which explains not only how A Million Little Pieces got published, but also how every year new books that recount alien abductions, psychic encounters with the dead, incredible methods for easily making millions in real estate risk-free, and the real story behind the Kennedy assassination are published--many of them by large, prestigious, mainstream publishers.

Tags: , ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Why Mary-Jo Stopped Reading at Page 19

Mary-Jo has really gotten into reading catalogs for European cruises lately--"Wonders of Burgundy and Provence," "Treasures of the Baltic," "Sicily and the Dalmatian Coast" etc. etc. Not that we've ever gone on a cruise, but you never know what the future may hold.

I love reading catalogs myself and admire the prose stylings in many of them. But check out this bizarre use of language, which Mary-Jo pointed out to me on page 19 of the current catalog for "Viking River Cruises--Exploring Europe in Comfort":

ROUNDTRIP AIR & TRANSFERS FROM $399. Upgrade to Business Class air for only $2900 per person.

"Only"?! Mary-Jo proposes what strikes me as a reasonable rule of thumb: When the upgrade costs more than seven times the base price, you simply can't get away with using the word "only" to describe it.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Alito, Conservative? Where Did You Get That Idea?

As the weird ritual of Supreme Court nominee hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee proceeds, I'm struck by how much of Samuel Alito's time and energy is being devoted to proving that he is a liberal, or at least not terribly conservative. We've heard him protest that he would respect the precedential power of Roe rather than seek ways of overturning it, we've heard him disavow with horror the Concerned Alumni of Princeton's revulsion against women students and affirmative action, we've heard him rapidly backpedaling from the theory of the "unitary executive" and his expressed doubts about the doctrine of one man/one vote, and we've heard his Republican Senate supporters reading a litany of cases in which Alito ruled in favor of minority group members claiming discrimination.

Obviously we know better than to take these protestations of Alito's moderation at face value. If conservatives really believed that Alito was a staunch supporter of the rights of women, minority groups, immigrants, and the poor, they wouldn't be lining up to vote for him. But in a funny way this odd, dissembling dance is a tribute to the appeal of liberalism. After all, if the Republicans really believed what they claim to believe--that their anti-choice, anti-diversity, pro-corporate agenda represents the values of most Americans--wouldn't they be proudly proclaiming it from the rooftops?

But when the TV cameras are turned on, they suddenly shift leftward, if only rhetorically. Knowing that the doctrines of the hard right won't fly in most of the country--including vast swaths of the red states--they are busily dressing Alito up in his sheep's clothing.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Fund Raisers With Clipboards: Be Wary

Every day for the past five years I have walked (weather permitting) from one job to another. It's about two miles. And every day I have been approached by at least two or three street fund raisers asking me if I "have a minute." For the longest time, they represented the environmental organization Greenpeace. Lately it's been Children International. I am usually walking quickly, since I'm busy at both jobs and leave the first one with little time to spare. Without fail, these Stepford-type solicitors always respond to my negative grunt with a huge smile and a friendly "Have a nice day!" which just makes me feel worse.

I have thought about these people a lot, trying to figure out why they make me so angry, and I think I have figured some of it out. First of all, I resent that they force me into a position to say No--No to starving children and No to the environment. I don't want children to starve and I want our planet to flourish but, hey, I'm trying to get to work here--don't make me say No to you. I want to choose who I give to in a leisurely, thoughtful way--not as I rush from job to job.

The other thing is that I've always suspected are that these people are too darn organized to be a bunch of volunteers. They all wear the same spiffy jackets and hold the same logo-strewn clipboard and they are all equally good-looking. I've volunteered for charities plenty of times, and we all dress in sweats and wear the one organization shirt we have (which is usually dirty and ill-fitting). Organizations that depend on volunteers don't have a lot of cute uniforms to hand out.

Well, it turns out that they aren't volunteers but hired guns paid for by a for-profit corporation who get paid an hourly rate. See this article in the Christian Science Monitor for the details.

Now it all makes sense. Your charity dollar is now getting divvied up twice before it ever hits the charity. And, according to this article, lack of disclosure is a concern when it comes to these charities. These street fund raisers are definitely not encouraged to reveal that they are getting paid for talking to you and that they don't actually work for the charity.

And that makes me really mad! They don't so much care about the children as want to pay their rent (paying my own rent is what's on my mind as I walk past them).

At least I know that if I give the panhandler on the subway a dollar bill it wont go further than him (or her) or get split with his representative. Now, where that money goes is another story.

Tags: , , ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Bush 2005: Still the Loyalty Enforcer

Ran into my friend Jerry (not his real name) at a funeral yesterday. He was sitting in a corner by himself looking exhausted.

I wasn't surprised. I'd heard through his wife that he'd been doing a lot of foreign travel. Jerry is a political consultant specializing in polling. He used to make a good living working for moderate Republicans. But since the advent of the "new" Republican party of Karl Rove, George W. Bush, and company, Jerry has been blackballed along with other consultants who refuse to kowtow to the extreme right. So now he does most of his work with candidates and parties in the former Soviet bloc who are learning about electoral politics for the first time.

Me (sympathetic): How are you, Jerry? You look tired.

Jerry: Exhausted. I just got back from Europe and I'm going again tomorrow. Six days in Romania, five in Hungary, four in Ukraine. I don't like it but it pays the bills.

Me: I hear you.

Jerry: But do you know what these guys in the administration are doing now? They're trying to keep me from working over there, too.

Me: You're kidding.

Jerry: One of my clients is an Eastern European president. He told me he was talking with President Bush--President Bush himself--and Bush said, "You know, you don't want to be working with this guy Jerry Schuster. He's not our sort." (Shaking his head) Can you believe the pettiness?

Unfortunately we can. Bush's fans like to excuse his frequent factual misstatements by saying, "He's a CEO, a delegator--he doesn't sweat the details." But apparently no detail is too small when it comes to punishing his perceived enemies. Evidently Bush hasn't changed much from the man who chose the role of "loyalty enforcer" in his father's 1988 presidential campaign and became known for his ruthless avenging of petty slights.

It's amazing that the one remaining bulwark of Bush's image still unchallenged by the mainstream media is that Bush is "a nice guy," the kind of person anyone would want to have a beer with. This in the face of mounting evidence that Bush presides over and is responsible for one of the most dishonest, callous, power-hungry, and manipulative administrations in American history. Whatever else you want to say about George W. Bush, he is emphatically not a nice man.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Protect the Bubble at All Costs

Isn't it astounding that, as described in this story by David Sanger in the New York Times, Bush's phony bipartisan "consultation" with the wise men (and one woman) from the last forty years of the State Department actually consisted of a forty-minute, upbeat "briefing" about Iraq, followed by no more than ten minutes for comments and questions from the assembled oracles?

Don't get me wrong, it's not astounding that Bush didn't actually want to hear any advice from outside the bubble. That fits everything we know about his personality. What's astounding is that his handlers didn't look at the schedule and say, "Whoa, even we can't get away with something this transparent. We gotta leave at least half an hour for discussion." (That would have permitted about two minutes per guest, which doesn't seem excessive.)

What it says to me is that Bush is even more testy and temperamental than we already knew. Those closest to him obviously realize that, if he were made to listen to dissenting views for longer than ten minutes (much less than that, actually, since some of the visitors would be supportive of the administration), he would be apt to fly off the handle--to start cursing, yelling, making sarcastic remarks, invoking divine authority, or otherwise embarrassing himself in front of a crowd of people whose discretion with the media couldn't necessarily be counted on.

So the plan was, "Let's limit the conversation to ten minutes and maybe we can get him out of the room before he blows up."

Pathetic? Yes. Scary? More than a little.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Let's Remember Whose Scandal This Is

Here's a link (via Andrew Sullivan) to pass along to your friends who say that the Jack Abramoff scandal is bipartisan and that "they're all involved." It's the complete list of Abramoff's campaign contributions compiled by the Federal Election Commission--some 200-odd donations totalling $261,918--and not a single Democratic recipient among 'em.

Caveat: Don't be confused by the fact that some clients of Abramoff's lobbying firm (including the famous Indian tribes) gave donations to some Democrats. As this article from The Washington Post explains,

Most lobbying firms here are bipartisan, to give their clients access to key lawmakers of both major parties. Abramoff's group was no exception. Although he was recognized as a Republican lobbyist who was close to DeLay and other party leaders, Abramoff was careful to add at least two Democratic lobbyists to his group during his five years at Greenberg Traurig. By the end, seven of his lobbyists were Democrats.

So some Democrats (including Harry Reid and Hilary Clinton) received campaign donations from the same Indian tribes that hired Abramoff. This is a far cry from beind part of the money-laundering system that Abramoff set up to benefit the Republican national machine and in particular his close friend Tom DeLay or the fraud and influence-peddling charges to which Abramoff has pleaded guilty.

But typically enough networks like MSNBC are lumping it all together under the heading of "Abramoff-related giving," leaving the impression that Democrats and Republicans are equally involved. It's just not so.

Tags: ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

All Those Advantages and a Candy Store Is the Best Thing She Can Think Of?

Admitting that it's "hardly the most earth shaking issue to write about," Kevin Drum on the Washington Monthly website links to this New York Times story about a Manhattan candy store run, almost as a hobby, by Dylan Lauren and funded by her father Ralph. (Yes, of course, that Ralph Lauren.)

Drum's question: Who pays taxes on the money Daddy ponied up to build the store? And the comments that follow Drum's article duly tackle the issue from various legal and accounting perspectives. But my question would be: When will the Times stop publishing puff pieces about the undistinguished relatives of famous people?

It's getting to the point now where, whenever I'm reading a Times profile of someone who strikes me as surprisingly unimpressive, I start looking for the family connection. Sure enough, around the tenth or twelfth paragraph we inevitably learn that our hero (or heroine) is married to or is the child of a media mogul, movie producer, real-estate magnate, or someone else with beachfront property in the Hamptons.

I'm old enough to remember a time when people were a little embarrassed about trading off family connections, and when journalists were also embarrassed to be seen as sucking up to the rich and famous. Sigh. Am I the only person who wishes those days might come back?

Tags: , ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Monday, January 02, 2006

My 4's

Four jobs you've had in your life: Costume Designer, photography stylist, poker room manager, research associate

Four places you've lived: Brooklyn, New York (3 neighborhoods so that's 4 right?) & New York, New York

Four TV shows you love to watch: Animal Precinct, The Office, The Simpsons, The World Poker Tour

Four places you've been on vacation: Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, Mexico

Four websites you visit daily:,,,

Four of your favorite foods: My sister-in-law Mary-Jo's paella, steak at Peter Lugers, chicken and rice, soon-tofu

Four places you'd rather be: In bed (good one Brian), playing in the World Series of Poker, lying on the beach with a good book, on a movie set

Four movies you never get sick of watching: Spinal Tap, Diner, A Hard Day's Night, Some Like It Hot
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

"Infused with entrepreneurial spirit and the excitement of a worthy challenge."--Publishers Weekly

Read more . . .


What do GE, Pepsi, and Toyota know that Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Hershey don't?  It's sustainability . . . the business secret of the twenty-first century.

Read more . . .