G. A. Cerny
Friday, October 31, 2003
  David Cross on"Games Gone Wild!"

In Ann Coulter Stop the Presses 2004, you're the conservative pundit's editor at Megacorp Publishing. The game begins as Coulter turns in her book manuscript, Let's Necklace Dissent, which is due to the printer in less than a month. One problem: It's full of lies. You must sift through the entire thing and figure out which two pieces of information are actually true. There is a ticking clock in the screen's corner and a Morality Bar you have to keep out of the red or your career is over. This game is interesting simply because it can't be won.

(via the Muse)

  Timothy Noah pulls lint from Charles Murray's navel and makes a convincing, if unintended, argument that he should be on Blogger instead of Slate
  Chrante Deti!

Though I should point out, after the previous post, that other countries can also get a little whack about protecting kids. "Chrante Deti!" (via Votrubicon
  Happy Halloween!

In Washington yesterday, Congress was closed and its offices evacuated for 90 minutes. Staffers, more bored than anxious, to tell the truth, milled around outside the capitol office buildings. Which, in turn, caused me some fright as I was taking a break from the LOC in a Starbucks. A bit disconcerting to see the sidewalks suddenly fill up with government workers who were told without explanation to leave their offices. Firedrills and the like have taken on an edge since 9/11, but these types of things happen in Washington too often to get really nervous about.

It turns out that it was a toy pistol being brought in for a Halloween party. A guard, the WaPo reports, "spotted the image of what appeared to be a snub-nosed revolver on her X-ray machine -- after the bags' owners had passed the security area."

Halloween tends to bring out the worst in the authorities (especially when it comes to toy pistols). Every schoolchild is sternly warned of the dangers of tampered candy, and parents are encouraged to have the their kids' candy x-rayed at hospitals, despite their being little actual evidence that this practice is useful. A lot of our normal diet isn't exactly free from contamination, but we don't take Happy Meals down to radiology.

In Texas (where else?) several counties are requiring registered sex-offenders to stay off the streets tonight, despite the fact, so obvious that it cannot be beyond even a cop's grasp, that Halloween is the worst time to abduct a child. It is the one night of the year that parents are actually likely to notice if their kids are late getting home.

And, of course, there is...Satan!

It was meant to be a fun visiting a 'Haunted House' for a great scare. But an accident claims a boy's life, and his friends learn there's a real Hell waiting for all who die without Jesus.
(Though, to be fair, some Christian fundamentalists have embraced the idea of the Haunted House.)

Americans like to think that we live in the "home of the brave", but actually we have a tendency, as a nation, to panic. Americans are a jumpy people. Potentially dangerous things that Europeans take for granted, from smoking to walking at night in cities, strike fear into our hearts.
Fortunately, we calm down when the shooting starts, which might explain why we are so good at war, and, relative to Europe, so willing to engage in it. It might also explain why there are some two-hundred million fire-arms in private hands in the United States.
We're not frightened if we think that we can shoot back.  
  Petr Bokuvka, who has just welcomed Patrik into the world, has been keeping an eye on the scandal about illegal workers employed by one of Walmart's contractors, including some Czechs who were among the undocumented/exploited.

AP reports today:

"Employers don't care about what documents you have," promises a Web site operated by Tady, a recruiting firm in the Czech Republic that offers to match workers with jobs in the United States.
Another Czech site, AmericaGo.biz, greets viewers with a picture of Uncle Sam and photos of Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target stores, promising cleaning jobs at those chains in Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia.
"There is a big web of people back in Eastern Europe connected to a big web of people of mostly Eastern European origin here, and they do nothing else but try to persuade people in Eastern Europe who are not very well off to try to come to the United States," said Richard Krpac, the Czech consul in Washington. "They give them a lot of promises, and the majority of the promises are never fulfilled."

Thursday, October 30, 2003
  One more fucking story on the Atkins diet and I will climb to the top of a tower with a rifle. 
  The trifecta: Chomsky, being quoted by Al-Jazeera, in Cuba. It is possible that Chomsky has done more damage to the left in America than any other individual. 
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
  It appears that the right-wing is going to apply to the blogosphere the respect it has long shown to a free and open exchange of ideas. 
  The news that aid groups will reduce staff in Iraq is no less terrible for being predictable. A friend of mine, a Marine non-com, told me the other day that we would have been better off if we had sent the Peace Corps into Iraq for the occupation instead of the military. "Our job is to close with the enemy and destroy them," he said. "We don't win hearts and minds, we kill people." Trent Lott seems to think that indiscriminate killing is the solution, actually.

If we can't establish even the minimal level of security needed for international aid agencies to operate (and expand their operations) in Baghdad then we will lose. That we have not been able to establish that level of security means that we are losing.

As others have pointed out, the people saying "end the occupation now" are, at best, soft-brained. We made our bed, we have to sleep in it. Most of us accept that; it is telling that none of the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have endorsed a pull-out (save possibly Kucinich, who is beneath notice).

Scott MacMillan
wrote earlier this week:
What happened to the debates about American hegemony, the liberation of Iraq and the re-making of the Middle East that saturated the venues of professional (and unprofessional) tongue-wagging this past year? Wolfowitz had ambitious plans for the Middle East; still does. You can criticize neo-conservative hawkishness as misplaced or overzealous, but you could never accuse them (or Wolfowitz) of lacking vision. Or guts, for that matter.
Alas, what's happened is this: The U.S. invaded Iraq. Back when we hadn't invaded Iraq, there was plenty to get worked up about. There was passion flying in all directions. Promising friendships came to an abrupt end, fierce invective was exchanged, and spilled drinks probably stained more than a few carpets. All over a war that hadn't happened yet.
Today? Let's face it. The passion's gone.

I don't think we can afford passion; the price of optimism has also become prohibitive (hey Sullivan, isn't this a victory for the flypaper strategy that you were selling a while back?). We don't have time for illusions.

All that we have is, to quote Rumsfeld, "a long, hard slog."

  Tomas spent way too many Saturday nights at the Lucerna

Have you always wanted to translate the lyrics to Kim Wilde's 80's fave "The Kids in America" into Czech, but never had the time? Neither did I.
But someone did. And he didn't stop there! Also Cesky lyrics for "Tarzan Boy", "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and, of course, "The Final Countdown", as well as many others
  Made for each other

One of the reasons it can be difficult to take Andrew Sullivan seriously is that he takes Camille Paglia seriously:

Paglia is the only person on the planet who could go on to compare Rush Limbaugh with Judy Garland. For that alone, she deserves to be celebrated. Oh, and she's dead right about the genius of Drudge. Incomparable.

I'm pretty sure that he means it. The mind boggles... 
  The Prague Monitor has a very styling new look. And from it I got this disturbing story on child prostitution on the Czech-German border.

The Czech area bordering Bavaria has a long history of crime and smuggling. It was the easiest place to cross into West Germany. The border was porous enough that there are cases, even as late as the early-50's, of Germans unwittingly crossing while hunting for blueberries, and of Czech border guards, evidently not realizing which side they were on, detaining drinkers leaving a Bavarian pub.
After the war, cigarette papers were smuggled into Germany; supposedly they were superior to those available in Bavaria at the time. The main traffic was human. During the odsun, Sudeten-Germans were occasionally marched to the border and essentially left there while the Americans tried to decide if they should accept them or turn them back. I have read that Jewish refugees referred to it as the "Green Curtain" to the West, and, even for some time after the 1949 coup it was relatively easy to cross, and many did. It was a year or so after the Communist take-over that the Czechs became really serious about border security; they destroyed many settlements along the border, laid mines, barbed wire, etc.
The human traffic slowed considerably, and, according to U.S. government files, it had to be assumed that many who made it across to Bavaria in the 50's were spies. The US intelligence agencies, perhaps unable to read their own memos, also used to smuggle their agents over that border, with, it seems, little successs.

Otto Ulc, a writer I quoted at some length in discussing the Czech serial-killer Mrazek, claims that there were several cases of border guides who would kill their clients instead of getting them to West Germany. He cites one case in particular, a certain Pilcik, who lived in a village called Senec, who, Ulc writes, conducted "a lurid route of no return...Pointing out the danger of the venture he always advised his clients to take nothing with them but jewels and hard currency."
Pilcik, according to Ulc, was discovered when children found the bodies of his clients in a village pond.

And now, in the time of the EU and open borders, Czech children are for sale. Such, I suppose, is progress. 
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
  Timing is everything

Russia was the basket case of the 1990s, but even there, the forces of globalization are beginning to transform the corrupt entropy of post-communist life. The clearest sign is the integration of Russia's oil industry into the world economy... It seems that Russia's new oligarchs have concluded they can make more money by selling shares in global financial markets than by larceny.
--David Ignatius, writing for the Washington Post, October 24

Russian stock markets plummeted Monday in response to the weekend arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, prompting President Vladimir Putin to break his public silence on the arrest and call for an end to "hysteria" among business and political leaders.
--WaPo, October 28

  Israeli settlements in the West Bank will use pigs to guard against terrorist attacks.

Jewish settlers in the West Bank are being asked to trade in their guard dogs for pigs. The animals, considered unclean in Judaism for thousands of years, would help protect the settlements from attacks by Palestinians.
A company which supplies guard dogs to the settlements in the West Bank has asked senior rabbis for approval under Jewish law to train the pigs. The company says they are better than dogs because they have a stronger sense of smell. Because they are considered unclean by Islam as well, their presence could discourage Muslim attackers.

Metaphor alert high. Repeat, metaphor alert high. 
  Reporters Without Borders has released its second world press freedom ranking. Some interesting numbers: the worst countries for press freedom are Cuba (165) and North Korea (166). Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands, and Norway tied for first.
The Czech Republic came in at 12th, (in a tie with Switzerland, Estonia and Slovakia) and ahead of New Zealand (17), the UK (27), and Australia (50). I guess Sabina Slonkova doesn't matter that much, or maybe such things also happened in Switzerland in the last year.

The US gets two numbers: 31, for domestic press freedom, but 135 in Iraq. The same is done for Israel (44, 146).

The Israeli army's repeated abuses against journalists in the occupied territories and the US army's responsibility in the death of several reporters during the war in Iraq constitute unacceptable behaviour by two nations that never stop stressing their commitment to freedom of expression.

I have a great deal of respect for RSF, but this index is, at best, useless. Most rankings like this are nonsense; indeed, most lists and rankings are little more than gimmicks to gain attention. What does it even mean when you rank the Congo as having a freer press than that allowed by the US in Iraq, anyway? How do you judge which is worse, media concentration under Berlusconi's ownership in Italy (53) or France's "archaic defamation legislation" which gets it a "low" 26 from the RSF? These are, at best, subjective decisions.

The methodology is more than a little vague:

To compile this ranking, Reporters Without Borders asked journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists to fill out a questionnaire evaluating respect for press freedom in a particular country.

Hmmm...I want to see that survey, and find out who answered it. But the RSF should concentrate on its valuable work, and leave the lists to Letterman.

UPDATE: The Prague Post's Dinah Spritzer got some answers:
Soria Blatmann, head of Reporters Without Borders' Europe desk, acknowledged that only three surveys were filled out and returned from the Czech Republic. "They all said things were just fine," she said.  
  Masaryk, the hustler, the liberator

Palacky, one of the foremost leaders of the National Revival once wrote that if the Austrian Empire did not exist, it would be neccessary to invent it. Czechoslovakia, did not exist of course, until a decidedly small but inspired group of men defied Austrian rule and essentially willed it into being. It is worth remembering today -- the 85th anniversary of Czechoslovakia's founding -- just how unlikely the very idea of an independent Czechoslovakia must have seemed, even to nationalists like Palacky, before WWI.

Masaryk was a member of the contentious but ineffectual Austro-Hungarian parliament, Benes just an academic, and the Czech and Slovak peoples had been under the Hapsburg thumb for three centuries. The sheer audacity of the maffia in even attempting what they brought off is remarkable.

It is sad, I think, that TGM has become encased in marble, as it were, almost like the founders of the American republic, who are acknowledged to be indispensable but not allowed to be fully human. The tendency to hagiography started even in his lifetime (see Capek's Hovory s TGM); and the government attempts in the time of communism to minimize Masaryk's achievements wiped out what would have been, in a normal society, a time to critically appraise him. So, since the revolution, he has been remembred as a sort of philosopher-king, which is not without truth. But it was his guile and cunning that may have been his most important qualities. Everyone who hasn't already should make a point to read his account of the founding, The Making of a State. While it is not, in any sense, an objective history, it gives as good an account of how TGM's mind worked as there is likely to be, and is a fine introduction to the epic story of the founding.

Just off Palackeho Namesti is perhaps the ugliest and most neglected monument in all of Prague, the memorial to the Czech Legion. Like Masaryk, the Legionnaires have either been praised almost as Gods, or erased from memory when they were a threat to the Nazi and Communists. The monument to them in Prague is almost an average of the two states; admired, but it is difficult to remember what, exactly, it was that they did.

Capek is as good a start as any:

In substance, Czechoslovakia is a nation of stay-at-homes, not favored by nature with adequate opportunities to go forth as adventurers and conquerors. And yet was it not these stay-at-homes, these mild and sedentary people, who fought in the Great War for the freedom of their country on the battlefields of Serbia and the Dobrudja, in Lombardy and in the Argonnes, in the Urals, and in Siberia as far as Vladivostok? Was it not they who waged war for their native Czechoslovakia in the French, Italian, Serbian and Russian armies? Was it not they who, when taken prisoner, asked for arms to fight against the Habsburg Empire --- men condemned in advance to die as rebels on the scaffold if the Allies should not win a decisive victory? Seventy thousand ill-armed volunteer soldiers had to cut their way through the Siberian tundra in order once again to reach the battlefields of Europe, and although throughout all this more than 8,000 kilometer journey they had to make their way through an alien and hostile land with their weapons in their hands, as they went along they founded their own printing press, they printed books and newspapers, they established a bank of their own and a theater, wrote down from memory the plays and musical compositions of their faraway homeland, arranged sports and athletics, used the old linoleum which covered the floors of the cars of the Trans-Siberian Railway to make blocks for the illustrations in their comic paper, carried their workshops with them, hunted up their forage in Turkestan, in Mongolia, in China; maintained communications, order and public services over a line thousands of kilometers in length; and after two years of this self-conducted adventurous journey from West to East round the world, returned on board Japanese ships to their native country as disciplined regiments, capable of taking the field again the very next day. Those of you who know something of the War from your own experiences can judge the moral and physical achievement of these seventy thousand young men and aging fathers led by thirty-year-old generals.

The whole truth is a good deal more complex. Since some of the troops did not return until as late as 1920, it may be asked against whom were they going to take "the field the next day". It has even been suggested that Masaryk decided to delay the return of the Legion to Europe so that they could avoid combat in France.

They were noted for their vandalism, and have been described as looting their way to the East. One of the Legion's leading officers, Colonel Svec, took his own life, reportedly in despair at being unable to control his own men.

And yet they may have been, as Masaryk describes them, the most effective military force east of the Urals. The Legion fought with, or made peace with, virtually every side in the Russian Civil War, and had they stayed . There is a possibility that they may have inadvertantly caused the execution of the Tsar and his family. The Legion was approaching Ekatrinburg, and, some suggest, it was the fear that they would liberate the Romanovs that caused their deaths.

But, I cannot stress too much, it was not the actual might of the Czechoslovak Legion that mattered, it was the notion of a Czechoslovak army that Masaryk used to persuade the world that there should be a Czechoslovak state. The Anabasis made "Czechoslovakia" (a coinage of Benes) known; quite literally, it put the nation on the map. The United States embarked on its ill-advised Siberian expedition to rescue the Czechs.

None of Masaryk's Legionnaires is still alive. But, everyone in the Czech Republic, enjoy your day (or week) off, and, if you have the time, remember the brilliant gamble that produced an independent state. For myself, I will, if I get off work early enough, head to the TGM memorial in Washington, which has the good fortune to be next to one of the few places in the District where you can get more than one type of Czech beer. 
Monday, October 27, 2003

This terrible, bloody week-end continues. Someone please tell me how they are now more certain of victory than ever before.

  The state of humanity at the beginning of the 21st century: soldiers in the Congo use cannibalism to inspire terror as they fight over coltan, a mineral used to make mobiles and laptops. 
  God offers a Pole three wishes.
"For my first wish, I would like a great and terrible Mongol horde to descend on Poland, laying waste to all before them," the Pole says.
God is somewhat puzzled, but He grants the wish, and, horrible in its fury, a Mongol horde arises and marches on Poland.
"What would you like for your second wish?" God asks.
"Well, I want a Mongol horde, but a really big one, the biggest ever, to attack Poland from the East, and do even more damage to everything they see."
God grants the wish, and, again, the Mongol horde falls on Poland. When they are done, there is not one stone still atop another.
"Now for my third wish, I want a-"
"Let me guess: a Mongol horde to attack Poland."
"How did you know, God?"
"Just lucky. Look, I will grant your wish, but I need to ask you a question. You're Polish. Don't you love your country?"
"Of course!"
"Then why do you keep asking Me to create Mongol armies to attack Poland?"
The Pole smiles. "They have to go through Russia twice, coming and going."

And, in that spirit, congratulations to the World Champion Florida Marlins. Yankees suck
Friday, October 24, 2003
  A new study on American beliefs about life-after-death claims:

Belief in life after death, like the existence of God, is widely embraced: 8 out of 10 Americans (81%) believe in an afterlife of some sort. Another 9% said life after death may exist, but they were not certain. Just one out of every ten adults (10%) contend that there is no form of life after one dies on earth.
Moreover, a large majority of Americans (79%) agreed with the statement "every person has a soul that will live forever, either in God's presence or absence."

In addition to America'a striking religosity, the study also finds evidence of traditional American optimism:

Most Americans do not expect to experience Hell first-hand: just one-half of 1% expect to go to Hell upon their death. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) believe they will go to Heaven. One in 20 adults (5%) claim they will come back as another life form, while the same proportion (5%) contend they will simply cease to exist.

Further down, there is also evidence of the failings of America's education system:

Many of those who describe themselves as either atheistic or agnostic also harbor contradictions in their thinking. Half of all atheists and agnostics say that every person has a soul, that Heaven and Hell exist, and that there is life after death. One out of every eight atheists and agnostics even believe that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably makes life after death possible. These contradictions are further evidence that many Americans adopt simplistic views of life and the afterlife based upon ideas drawn from disparate sources, such as movies, music and novels, without carefully considering those beliefs. Consequently, the labels attached to people, whether it be 'born again' or 'atheist' may not give us as much insight into the person's beliefs as we might assume.�

That's a funny crop of atheists they're growing down on the farm this year.

I tend to be skeptical of these studies that show Americans to be hyper-religious. They just don't jibe with my experience. I have lived in different parts of the country, from Houston to Boston, and I don't remember meeting that many people who atended chrch regularly, or said grace over meals, much less who believed in angels or demons.

The study, done by an outfit called Barna Research ("Strategic Information You Can Trust"), may have a few flaws. The numbers are based on "national telephone surveys among random samples of 1000 or more adults (age 18 or older) living within the 48 continental states conducted in September 2003, October 2002, and October 2001."

"1000 or more"? Co? And why spread out over three years? It suggests that the final result may be cobbled together from three different surveys, which can really skew results. We also don't know what questions were asked. Were some of the "atheists" who claimed a belief in an immortal soul just trying to express their admiration for Otis Redding?

But, most important, is that the surveys (as is the case in most of these studies) were done by telephone. Most people, whatever faith they profess, have the good sense to hang up when they here the words "I'm conducting a survey..."
The survey takers keep calling until they get the sample size they're looking for; here, it's "1000 or more" (whatever that means). Obviously, those with the strongest views, in any area, have the greatest willingness to share them. In a study of religious beliefs, some Christians might even feel an obligation to bear witness. Atheists and agnostics, on the other hand, have, in most cases, little interest in the subject and less patience at being quizzed over the phone on such things. This is likely to be especially true when the questions are repetitive:

"Do you believe in Jesu-"
"Didn't I just tell you I am an atheist?"
"Uhh, yes sir. Do you think that you will go to heaven when you d-"
How did they even count people who hung up before the survey was complete?

To sum up, this "study", like most studies that show Americans to be extremely religious, is pretty much useless. The only thing that they prove are that newspaper editors are suckers for any study that demonstrates sensational numbers. 
Thursday, October 23, 2003
  Go Czeltics!

Jiri Welsch has been traded to the Boston Celtics. Welsch got very little playing time in his first NBA season, but he is still regarded as having a lot of potential. Since the Celt's don't have a lot of talent this year to back up Paul Pierce, Welsch should get minutes. The last Czech player Boston had worked out pretty well
  Great moments in science

Volunteers agreed to have sex while having their brains scanned for a Dutch scientific study. They had to keep their heads perfectly still while having sex and had to finish within seven minutes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003
  "Becher Joe"?!

At early morning hours yesterday the ill-famed gang of Don Chuan Chanceze "Coyote" Peppe alias "Shorty" assaulted the American branch of well-known producer of liqueur Becherovka.
Who will save American citizens from the lack of this excellent liqueur?

That is the english intro to the "western shoot-out" game on the Becher web-site. Y'all must try this. I'm not sure what shooting bandits (and, for bonus points, Indians) has to do with drinking Becher, or with "the new face of Becher", but it is certainly one way to kill some time-- and some dark-skinned bandits-- if you are trying to avoid work.

Note also the "Extreme Race" download, which, given recent events, might be a tad inappropriate, if not completely tasteless, for a liquour distributor.

(thanks to Prague Monitor for the link) 
  Elliott Smith, RIP

To vanish into oblivion
It's easy to do
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
  How does it profit a magazine's web site if it loses Easterbrook to gain Sullivan
  How many pairs of shoes will the first lady of Iraq need?

Bush Cites Philippines as Model in Rebuilding Iraq
In an eight-hour visit, Mr. Bush for the first time drew explicit comparisons between the transition he is seeking in Iraq and the rough road to democracy that the Philippines traveled from the time the United States seized it from Spain in 1898 to the present day

Note that the Philippines is battling terrorists linked to Al Qaeda in a war that doesn't look like it will end anytime soon. Note, as the Times-man Sanger does in his lede, the "troubled and sometimes mutinous Philippine military." You might also want to be aware of the corrupt and incompetent regime of Ferdinand Marcos, which the US helped keep in power for years. We might also want to keep in mind that the Philippines were, as Sanger correctly observes, "siezed" in what was an explicitly imperialistic enterprise, and a brutal one at that.

Actually, I think Bush's White House has finally found an applicable historical analogy.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan makes the same point, in a more rigorous way, with, like, research and stuff, over at Slate. 
  Coming to terms

The Toledo Blade reported this week on new revelations about atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam in 1967. Some excerpts:

Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers. Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings

[...]The atrocities took place over seven months, leaving an untold number dead - possibly several hundred civilians, former soldiers and villagers now say. One medic said he counted 120 unarmed villagers killed in one month.
For decades, the case has remained buried in the archives of the government - not even known to America's most recognized historians of the war.

The My Lai massacre is the best known of the atrocities in Vietnam, but it was as much of an exception-- "isolated incident" is the usual phrase-- as we would like it to be.

It is all too easy to forget the past, and it is tempting to do so when we are the ones to blame. We build monuments to our heroic actions, and ignore our national crimes. This is true of all nations with the significant exception of Germany.

Germany did not accept its guilt for the Holocaust because of the Allied occupation. When ordinary German were forced to sit through films of the death camps, they were resentful, or, at best, indifferent, to the "propoganda".

Why, after Dresden, were they being forced to witness such scenes? (An important lesson we might try to remember in Iraq.)

It was only in the 1960's that a new generation of German historians began to examine their country's terrible past that they began to come to terms with it-- in as much one can "come to terms" with the enormity of the Holocaust.

The United States has never attempted such a project with any of our national sins. Historians and journalists have written about slavery, the destruction of the American Indian, and other crimes for which this nation is responsible, but the American people, speaking very broadly, don't fully comprehend the magnitude of the crimes. We have not, in any meaningful away, internalized our responsibility, and accepted it as a part of who we are.

The Vietnam War continued this trend of denial, of "forgetting" in the Kundera sense. There were many atrocities in Vietnam, but few prosecutions of the perpetrators. In My Lai, which can fairly be compared to Lidice, as many as 400 men, women, and children were murdered. Only one man was prosecute, Lieutenant William Calley; he served three days in prison after his conviction before he was released to army quarters-- a "bachelor apartment" where he kept pets and could see his girlfriend-- pending his appeal. He was pardoned by Richard Nixon in 1974. He runs a jewelry store in Georgia.

He should have hanged. To quote from a highly regarded account of the massacre and its aftermath, "It was Calley who, seeing a baby crawling away from a ditch already filled with dead and dying villagers, siezed the child by the leg, threw it back in the pit, and shot it."

A congressional committee that probed war crimes in Vietnam observed that, "This nation will be shocked by what it hears, but America will be better for having heard it." In a similar tone, Chris Hedges, author of the wrenching War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning , recently spoke at a college commencement:

We have lost touch with the essence of war. Following our defeat in Vietnam we became a better nation. We were humbled, even humiliated. We asked questions about ourselves we had not asked before.
We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us and the sight was not always a pretty one. We were forced to confront our own capacity for a atrocity -- for evil -- and in this we understood not only war but more about ourselves. But that humility is gone.

He was booed off the stage. No doubt, the Toledo Blade is getting angry letters asking them "Why do you have to do this?" as one of the participants asked the paper. They responded:

Why would we write about war crimes committed by American soldiers during an unpopular war 36 years ago? Why would we spend eight months researching records, interviewing more than 100 people, and travel to two provinces in Vietnam, and to California, Arizona, Washington state, Indiana, Washington, and several cities in Ohio and Michigan for this story?
This was a serious topic of discussion among Blade editors and the newspaper’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block. One reason is that the public has a right to know that American soldiers committed atrocities and that our government kept them from the public. We would have been party to a cover-up if we had knowledge of these war crimes and did not publish the story.
Wrongdoing on this grand a scale is always significant. It is important to know what happened and why it happened because that’s how a democracy functions. The people need to know what is being done in their name and who is responsible.

I would add that American people have more than a "right to know"; we have a duty to remember.

Sunday, October 19, 2003
  Obligatory Easterbrook observation:

Anti-semite or bad writer? Easterbrook claims the latter in the his apology:

Looking back I did a terrible job through poor wording. It was terrible that I implied that the Jewishness of studio executives has anything whatsoever to do with awful movies like Kill Bill.

I have no problem believing him; he is, all too often, a sloppy writer and analyst. Consider the part of his critique of Kill Bill before he blames the Jews:

All of Tarantino's work is pure junk. How can you be a renowned director without ever having made a film that's even good, to say nothing of great?

For a professional writer, Easterbrook has a limited vocabulary. In the space of three paragraphs he calls Tarantino's movies "trite" three times, the last in the phrase "trite drivel"; he then repeats "drivel" in still the next graff. But whatever he may lack in polish, at least he attains some measure of clarity: he really doesn't like Tarantino.
What he doesn't do is to provide anything like an argument.

Few things are more pointless than opinion without analysis. Tarantino's movies have the support of audiences (millions of dollars in box-office), his peers (an Oscar for Pulp Fiction), and critics (too many to mention). Can they all be wrong? Of course they can, but you can't establish that by repeating "trite" and "drivel" as though saying something made it so.

"Pure junk"? Just given the soundtracks, you can't call Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction that, unless his dictionary differs from mine. The dialogue that launched a hundred imitators, the speeches that many people can recite from memory? No mention.

Tarantino was exactly the right director for the '90s. In a time of almost obsessive nostalgia for the pop-culture detrius of the past, he was the man who never threw away any of the junk that cluttered his mind. It seemed that eerything that Tarantino knew about the world came from the movies. But what made his films special was not that they were about movies, but that they were about people who had learned everything they knew from the movies (and television, music, etc.). The references might have been to the most insignificant cultural artifacts, but they had significance for the charactors. Perhaps, they were the only means the charactors, or the audience, had to communicate anything at all. Christ, hang out at the Clown and Bard some night and see how many American backpackers have observations from their travels that are less insightful than the "Royale with Cheese" speech in Pulp Fiction.

Disagree? Fine. I'm not going to go into a lengthy exegesis of Tarantino. (sighs of relief). But I have sketched a an idea, and not just made an assertion; we have an argument, a position that can be attacked and defended, and that may give the reader something to think about, even if she rejects it. I did not just give the opinion "Easterbrook sucks because Tarantino is, like, God."

The Tarantino/Jews post is not the only, perhaps not even the most, ridiculous post Easterbrook has done. Daniel Radosh, who is somewhat sympathetic to Easterbrook, cites other examples, such a this one on getting a cab in the District, and parts of this piece on snowmobiles.
Then there is this piece on date rape: "No does not always mean no."

What ends up as consensual sex, however unsatisfying, often begins with the woman saying "no." Because men know this--because in the real world "no" does not always mean no--speaking the word "no" is not the ideal way to communicate to a man that what is happening has changed from persuasion, or pressure, to compulsion. Men not only want sex, the male mindset holds that overcoming the woman's "no" is part of manliness.

Dahlia Lithwick in Slate resonded with admirable directness:

The law is perfectly clear: When a woman says "no," even—take note, Kobe's lawyers—after 5 minutes of necking, she really means no. If Kobe, or Easterbrook, or any other man chooses to hear "try more wine," then by all means, bring out the Chianti. But if a man chooses to hear it as "forge ahead, and force me, I may just be kidding," then he'd best be prepared for the consequences. The notion that men are hard-wired to dominate and overcome ambivalent women stopped being cute about 10,000 years ago.

Radosh, whose post on Easterbrook is worth reading in full, concludes that his writings for his TNR blog are "...ramblings, poorly thought out and constructed even by blog standards," though Radosh praises him as a journalist and essayist.

Perhaps it is the quick writing of short commentary. I don't mean just in blogs, but on op-ed pages as well. Think Maureen Dowd. Almost anyone who gets a newspaper or magazine column is probably a good reporter, but left to their own devices, disconnected from facts and freed from the obligation to seek out differing viewpoints, they are left with just their own opinions. Opinions, when not put through the test of careful consideration, are just prejudices.

Update: Slate's Jack Shafer takes a similar position:

My first inkling that Easterbrook didn't know much about the subject of movie violence came in the opening sentences as I realized that he was sermonizing against it rather than documenting its dangers. My second inkling came when I realized his argument was mostly emotional, something that I'd never encountered in his nonfiction work that I can remember. Relying on his limbic system instead of his cerebral cortex, Easterbrook dismisses movie violence as unimaginative, hackneyed, and trite with an argument that is as unimaginative, hackneyed, and trite as you'll ever read. I have no doubt that the Rev. Donald Wildmon could write better on the same subject.

By the time Easterbrook gets to the item's last paragraph, in which he slags Eisner and Weinstein, he's embraced so many clichés and stereotypes about movies, violence, and the people who make them that it's only a small wonder that he stoops also to pick up a few about Hollywood executives and money worship
  Disturbing, if not entirely surprising poll results:

Seventy-five percent of Palestinians support the suicide bombing at an Israeli restaurant two weeks ago in which 21 people, including four children, were killed, a Palestinian survey shows.

There is some good news: 85% support mutual cessation of violence, and 59% say they would support punishments for violating a ceasefire.

More detail is given in the press release by the polling concern. 
  Actual NY Times headline:

A Sexual Subtext to the Debate Over Breast Implants

Who knew?

To you, Whit:

Fred: Maybe you can clarify something for me. Since I've been, you know, waiting for the fleet to show up, I've read a lot, and -
Ted: Really?
Fred: And one of the things that keeps popping up is this about "subtext." Plays, novels, songs - they all have a "subtext," which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that's right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what's above the subtext?
Ted: The text.
Fred: OK, that's right, but they never talk about that.

  Shout out to KidRadical, blogging from the Cz.
Even though he is a Yankee fan.  
  Stupid Fundraising Tricks

I got this e-mail from the Clark campaign yesterday:

Dear Friend,

It's October -- fall is here, the political primary season is in full
swing, and the battle for baseball supremacy between Florida and New
York begins tonight. But the competition isn't just on the baseball
diamond. Now you can put your money where your mouth is: Make a
contribution to Clark for President on behalf of your favorite baseball team!


Over the next nine days, Clark for President will be holding an online
competition for fans of New York and Florida. Make a contribution to
the Clark campaign on behalf of your favorite baseball team, or against
your most hated rival! (An individual may contribute up to a total of
$2,000 with personal funds.) We'll keep score on the Clark04 Baseball
Challenge scoreboard, tracking the daily contributions made by fans of
each team as the number of runs scored each inning.

Make sure your team comes out on top... both on the field and in the
Clark04 Baseball Challenge. Make your contribution to Clark for
President today!

Yup, brilliant idea men they have down there at the Clark campaign. 
Thursday, October 16, 2003
  Fuck. I mean, fucking Grady, the fucking moron could have pulled Pedro-- shit, Pedro shouldn't have started the fucking seventh, he got in trouble there, no fucking way he should have come out for the eighth-- but when he gives up all those hits, he can't get anybody out, over a hundred pitches goddamnit, Grady goes to pull him, but he decides to leave him in there. Fuck.
It was over then; but no, don't say that shit, don't be a fucking defeatist, stay in there, hang tough, if we can somehow survive Rivera, the Yankees grim reaper, survive him, they got nothing, nothing to bring after him, so I'm sweating goddamn bullets and the Venezualan bastard gives up one hit in three innings, but, ok, point is we survived, we have lived to fight another day, then their defensive sub at third base, hitting below the Mendoza line, first batter, first pitch, and the little punk has a brand new name, Aaron Fucking Boone. Y'all find a place to watch the game in Prague lat night fellas? Didn't fucking need to, just get up early, set a goddamn alarm clock, no need to keep pimp's hours, just try to catch the game at 6:15 in the golden city, just in time to meet your new nightmare, Aarron Fucking Boone, Esquire, maybe have some kavu turecku to go with your bile. I am going to drink a lot, and give serious thought to taking up smoking again. Fuck
  The Fair Republic gets just a little bit more free, as the Texas Court of Appeals, 3rd District, rules that there is a right to flip someone off in traffic. Yee Haw.

As recounted in the judges' ruling, on Oct. 25, 2001, Mr. Coggin was driving his white 1994 Chevrolet Caprice, with spotlights on the side and handcuffs dangling from the rearview mirror, when he came upon Mr. Pastrano and his wife in the left lane of Highway 183 South.

Mr. Coggin "proceeded to tailgate the car, flash his headlights and motion for the car to move into the right lane so that he could pass," the judges said. Mr. Pastrano, thinking he was being pulled over by an unmarked police car, moved to the right, at which point, the judges said, Mr. Coggin "allegedly gestured with his middle finger" and drove off.

The court declared that there was no implied threat of immediate violence against the other driver, so the bird, or, as the Times puts it in its lede, digitus impudicus-- impudent finger-- is not "fighting words." 
  And he wonders why I link to him...

Bloopy, to je bomba.

and y'know what else i don't like?. . . krispy kreme donuts. . . yeah, i know some people swear by 'em but i've got news for those evian-swilling, suv-driving, teva-wearing necrophiliacs (i actually drink evian, own an suv, and wear tevas but i have to draw the line somewhere and sex with corpses seems to be a good a place as any) - that shit ain't donuts. . . if you were in high school taking the SATs, an analogy you might find in the verbal section would be krispy kremes are to donuts as pringles are to potato chips. . .

not that i'm saying that pringles suck, mind you - i get the fever for the flavor of a pringle all the time - they're just not really potato chips. . . but having said that, i must add that there *is* no substitute for the pressed form factor of a pringles chip that's not only a salty-sweet party in your mouth, but also lets you pretend you're a duck. . . nope, no substitute at all. . . especially not the god-awful abomination known as the baked lay. . . crime against humanity is what those are. . . they're like the krispy kreme of the faux-potato chip world. . . most definitely *not* what i'd refer to as sacrilicious. . . but going back to the krispy kreme thing - you can tell they suck 'cuz they can't even get the glazed donut right. . . what's up with this "only glazing the top half" shit?. . . when i shell out my hard-earned 35 cents i want that fucker to have a full coating of sugar glaze dammit!. .

  shock (therapy) and awe

Alex Zucker, ace translator, has been blogging on the economic plans for Iraq. Two words: shock therapy
  James Bond is dead. Again.

From Reuters via Yahoo

A British war hero, said to have been the inspiration behind secret agent James Bond, has died aged 90, British newspapers reported Wednesday.

Former Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Patrick Dalzel-Job carried out a series of daring exploits behind enemy lines during the Second World War including some while serving under author Ian Fleming, who created the 007 character.

Although he never claimed to be the real James Bond, Fleming had told him he was the model for the heroic spy, the Guardian newspaper said

But this isn't the first time that the "real" Bond has died.

Sidney Reilly, the "Ace of Spies" who was probably executed by the Russians in the 1920's, was, according to a recent BBC story, "the real James Bond." Reilly also gets the vote of Pravda as "the prototype of James Bond."

Well, you only live twice. Or do you?

William Stephenson, a Candian whose exploits in World War II as the "man called intrepid" were recounted, perhaps with advantage, in a once popular book of that name, is also frequently cited as Ian Fleming's inspiration. "Intrepid: Blueprint for Bond" is due out next year, fifteen years after Stephenson died.

To state the obvious: James Bond is fiction. Ian Fleming made it up. There is no source material. Anyone writing an obit for a WWII hero should keep James Bond out of his lede. Read this on Dalzel-Jobs: the man's life was fascinating and heroic, yet much of the obit is devoted to James Bond. Dalzel-Jos' accomplishments don't need the connection to spy novels to make them interesting.

There was, however, one "real" James Bond that we know with certainty inspired Fleming: James Bond, an ornithologist from Philadelphia who wrote Birds of the West Indies. Fleming had a copy, and wanted the "simplest, dullest, plainest" name he could find.

Any other "inspiration" is a crutch for the lazy or the weak-minded. 
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
  Baseball: Say "amen" somebody

This could be the end of the season for the Red Sox and the Cubs, or the next step to a World Series match-up unlike any other. People are reacting to the tension in different ways. In Prague, Steve is transfixed, as though by a frame of the Zapruder film, by an image of the infamy that befell the Cubs last night. Its Jeffrey Maier all over again. In Prague tonight, the hopeful and the obsessed will gather in Legends or some other hell-hole.
Keep the faith, dudes.

Closer to home, a man of faith has offered his own supplication:

Almighty God on High, omnipotent King, look down from Your Sanctified Abode, and bless the valiant players of the Boston Red Sox as they attempt to bring Justice and Glory to the sport of Baseball.

Benevolent God, be their shelter and fortress, and to not allow them to falter. May harmony dwell in their dugouts, victory in their clubhouse. Fill their hearts with faith and courage to thwart the evil schemes of the New York Yankees and to abolish every rule of evil (as you saw fit to do in the case of the Oakland A's).

(read, and recite, the whole thing)

Let's go Red Sox/Cubs!
  Andrew and Glenn can't carry Howell's jock

When Ed Asner, a moderately famous American actor, praised Stalin to the press, it was shocking. A man named Kevin McCullough, who writes for World Net Daily, asked Asner "if you had the chance to play the biographical story of a historical figure you respected most over your lifetime, who would it be?"

Asner's reply, according to McCullough's article:

I think Joe Stalin was a guy that was hugely misunderstood. And to this day, I don't think I have ever seen an adequate job done of telling the story of Joe Stalin, so I guess my answer would have to be Joe Stalin.

Andrew Sullivan linked to it. Glenn Reynold not only linked to it on Instapundit, but also wrote it up for MSNBC.

Just one problem. Asner didn't say that. According to a "partial retraction" that McCullough has posted after the original article, the exchange went like this:

McCullough: "If you could portray an historical biography and you had an unlimited budget, unlimited support cast and everything you could ask for, who would it be?"

Asner: "Well, you know something, they've played Hitler, nobody has ever really touched Stalin, it just occurred to me. It's not because I am a liberal or anything like that. Stalin is one big damn mystery, I wonder why nobody has tried it? Many people, you know, speak of the fact that he killed more people than Hitler – why does nobody touch him? It's strange. So, and he was about my size, my height – with a wig I probably could do it."


To be fair to Sullivan and Reynolds, they both retracted it, and did so, I am sure, as soon as they heard. But they did so in strangely dispassionate words:

ASNER UPDATE: Earlier this week I linked to a first person account by one Kevin McCullough of a conversation he had with Ed Asner. Since it was a first person account, I trusted it. McCullough has now withdrawn the gist of his claim about Asner's reverence for Stalin. It appears he distorted Asner's remarks; and has now partially retracted. He says he misquoted even himself. I apologize for linking. You can read the actual interchange here. McCullough has a radio show. Let's hope he doesn't distort things as readily on the air as he does in print.


KEVIN MCCULLOUGH HAS RETRACTED his Ed Asner interview report. Scroll to the bottom to see the new report of what Asner said, which is rather different from McCullough's original report -- no longer does the question ask Asner about portraying someone he'd respects, and Asner's answer shows his awareness of Stalin's murders. It's hard for me to understand how McCullough could have made this mistake, but I'm glad he's corrected it.

Sullivan "apologizes" presumably to his readers, "for linking." Shouldn't he apologize to Mr. Asner for passing on a slander. Reynolds also does not apologize to Asner on his blog, or at MSNBC. He does concede that the corrected version is "rather different" but he closes with a jaunty "...I'm glad he's corrected it." On MSNBC, he even pulls out one of his favorite bits, the superiority of blogs: "At least with a weblog, things like this are easy to fix."

I don't have the time right now, but anyone who cares to can go back and look at their archives and see how obsessed Sullivan and Reynolds were last summer over the NY Times and the failings of its editor, Howell Raines.

As well they should have been. The Times did an exhaustive review, an autopsy really, of Jayson Blair's work, and Raines was forced to resign as the scandals snowballed. Quite right.

The question is, fellas, what are ya'll going to do? Will there be some soul searching?
An attempt to have some fact-checking? Will you both admit that the blogsphere can't compare to the level of accuracy of a great paper like the Times?
Will there even be an apology to Asner?

We're waiting.

(see also Atrios, who expects that: "Six months from now some feces-flinging monkey will be polluting my comments section with claims that Ed Asner worships Stalin.")
  You can be a junkie and an asshole

Even more enjoyable than reveling in schadenfreude over Rush's collapse has been watching the right make excuses for him. The best defense of the junkie was by a southern blogger who wrote, in response to a devestating Newsweek cover story, that

The story contains no mention of the large sums of money that Rush has raised for charity playing numerous celebrity golf tournaments.

Truly, only the most biased of reporters would not have picked up on the celeb golf tournaments. Fucking O.J. did celebrity golf tournaments.

That blogger, and quite a few others, follow Gary Bauer's lead:

From a moral standpoint, there's a difference between people who go out and seek a high and get addicted and the millions of Americans dealing with pain who inadvertently get addicted.

There is something very grimy in the way right-wingers fervently insist that they must have moral superiority-- a trait that is not usually associated with actual morality. Bauer implies that Rush is superior to other addicts, as though it were some type of contest: Rush Limbaugh vs Robert Downey Jr. in a steel-cage grudge match.

"Inadvertently addicted"? What does that mean anyway? Does Bauer believe that there are people out there who set outto spend their days and nights looking for a fix?

All addicts deserve our sympathy and our help. But no drug induces hypocrisy. That one is on Rush alone.

Sullivan, who knows a little bit more about drugs than your average conservative, offers what I can only term the "Exile on Main Street" postulate: Rush was great because he was strung out.

Some might argue that you need to have your brain on drugs to say the things Rush said. But I'd argue the opposite. In fact, it might be true that Rush was a better broadcaster because he was high. His particular blend of self-mocking, lacerating, funny and fluent commentary reminds me in a way of people on a kind of high. Or maybe this attitude is actually hard to sustain for so long at such a pitch - and so the drugs helped him endure the slog of daily broadcasting the way drugs can enhance athletes' performance. Either way, the drugs may well have helped him do his job well.

I don't know how well that explains Limbaugh; Rush claimed he had "talent on loan from God"; perhaps any higher authority would do in a pinch. It might also explain some of Andrew's writing. I mean, he does post a lot at 4:00 a.m...

Tuesday, October 14, 2003
  And speaking of the NY Times Magazine, as I did a couple of posts ago, there might be a certain less-than-egalitarian quality to a piece with the tag-line: "I could have never done without my beloved housekeeper, but as I discovered, she could get along without me."

I understand that the rich have problems just like everyone else; it is just that I don't care about their problems. 
  Have been in a sports coma over the weekend. The Sox won last night to tie it up with the Evil Empire (best headline: "Wakefield of Dreams"). Florida is making it a race, but the Cubs still lead. How can anyone root against a Hub/Chi Series?

And, of course, there is the weekly religious festival that is NFL Sunday. The Football Gods were not kind to me; I would rather slap my mother than see the Eagles lose to Dallas, particularly in such a heart-breaking way.

Sports are like religion in that there is much suffering and not infrequent boredom, but it is all done in the hope of ecstasy and deliverance. And, like religion, it cannot be explained to the agnostic.

For that matter, another faith, or sport, seems alien, even bizarre- soccer even though I played it through high-school, seems to me as strange as Mormonism. And explaining baseball to a European is as pointless as it would be to explain the Holy Trinity to some pagan who had never encountered Catholic doctrine, even thoughtransubstantiation is no harder to understand than the infield fly rule.

For those who don't get sports, I can only ask them to pray for us sinners.
Especially the Red Sox. 
  You can have my doughnut when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers

"Let them eat cake."-- Marie Antoinette

Prince Charles, polo player, social critic, and inspiration to rich, inbred half-wits the world over, offered a variation on his relative's famous advice:

I have to say that it is utterly incredible to me that farming - the basic industry of mankind - can be in such a state of crisis as it is today. The consumer needs to be made more aware that the seemingly endless desire for convenience and the lowest price has a direct impact, like it or not, on the producer. There is a real cost involved in cheap food to the countryside, to those who live and work there and to animal welfare.

Of course, I understand only too well that price matters a great deal for many families in this country.

The Prince of Wales did not say how he aquired that information, but one doubts that it was from personal experience. It is hard to picture him staring at the menu at McDonald's trying to figure out if he could afford to Super-Size his Big Mac meal.

But the Prince is not alone. The idea is gaining ground that one of the problems in Britain and America is that food is too cheap. It has been around for some time on the left, but the "obesity epidemic" has given it some respectful attention in the mainstream media.

The NY Times Magazine has gotten into the act with a lengthy piece by Michael Pollan. In effect, the piece argues, "Don't let them eat too much cake."

Pollan attacks agricultural subsidies. Quite right. But his problem is not with the cost of subsidies, or with their ruinous effects on farmers in the third world. He doesn't object because subsidies distort free markets. Pollan only objects to overproduction, "another word for way too much food."

Farm subsidies are bad, he writes, because they reinforce the inevitable trend to lower food prices caused by the economics of farming and technological progress. Food being cheaper, we eat more, get fatter, and die younger.

He specifically divorces himself from the libertarian view that we should eliminate agricultural subsidies (a view also popular with the small-government right and the anti-corporate welfare, pro-environment left). Instead, he proposes that the government should limit agricultural production, or the amount of food that reaches the market. The US should, as it used to, buy corn and other grains at a target price pegged to the cost of production, and keep them off the market until the market price hits the target price.

There is quite a lot that is wrong with this policy, but the chief defect is best explained by looking at why itwas abandoned. Pollan writes:

...why did we ever abandon this comparatively sane sort of farm policy? Politics, in a word. The shift from an agricultural-support system designed to discourage overproduction to one that encourages it dates to the early 1970's -- to the last time food prices in America climbed high enough to generate significant political heat. That happened after news of Nixon's 1972 grain deal with the Soviet Union broke, a disclosure that coincided with a spell of bad weather in the farm belt. Commodity prices soared, and before long so did supermarket prices for meat, milk, bread and other staple foods tied to the cost of grain. Angry consumers took to the streets to protest food prices and staged a nationwide meat boycott to protest the high cost of hamburger, that American birthright. Recognizing the political peril, Nixon ordered his secretary of agriculture, Earl (Rusty) Butz, to do whatever was necessary to drive down the price of food.

Note that ensuring the prosperity of farmers, by definition, land-owners, is a "sane" policy; helping ordinary people to afford food is "politics". But note also that average Americans were having difficulty putting food on the table, and Pollan thinks that this was a good thing.

Pollan is calling for food prices to be so high that the middle-class will have to start watching the dollars that they spend on food. If that happens to the middle-class, then the poor, at least 12% of the American population, will, one can only presume, be eating dog food.

There is a problem with obesity in America, and it is particularly pronounced among the poor. There are a host of possible explanations for this, many of them cited in another story in the NYTimes mag, but the lack of alternatives to fast-food in poor neighborhoods is certainly a factor. How does making Chicken McNuggets at McD's more expensive lead organic sprouts with soy-cheese sandwiches to be more readily available in the inner-city?

"Cheap food" is not a flaw in our society; it is the main purpose of our civilization. Anyone who has ever been hungry quickly realizes that. And anyone who has ever been broke knows that a new tax on the poor- in essence, the Pollan policy- is obscene.

Thursday, October 09, 2003
  Milan Hasek and the Nobel Prize that got away

Since it is the Nobel season, and because I have not blogged on Czech history in days, let me discuss a curious episode that is almost forgotten outside of the field of immunology.

Fifty years ago this month, a paper was published in Nature by Peter Medawar, Rupert Billingham, and Leslie Brent called “’Actively Acquired Tolerance’ of Foreign Cells.� This paper would get Medawar the Nobel in 1960, and was a key discovery in immunological tolerance.

Immunological tolerance is:

An immunologic response consisting of the development of specific nonreactivity of the lymphoid tissues to a given antigen that in other circumstances can induce cell-mediated or humoral immunity; it results from previous contact with the antigen and has no effect on the response to non-cross-reacting antigens. Tolerance is readily induced by administration of antigen to immunologically immature animals (fetuses, neonates). In adults tolerance may be induced by repeated administration of very large doses of antigen, or of small doses that are below the threshold required for stimulation of an immune response. Tolerance is most readily induced by soluble antigens administered intravenously; immunosuppression also facilitates the induction of tolerance.

Everyone still with me? Probably not. Let me try to render this in more comprehensible, if possibly simplistic, terms.

Organisms respond to foreign invasion by trying to kill the alien, the thing that is non-self. Ever had a rash? That is a very common response by your body- your immune system, actually- to an "attack." The response may be strong enough, in the case of the rejection of an organ transplant, for example- to kill the body that the immune system is trying to protect. The body distinguishes between self and non-self, and the immune system responds to the presence of what is foreign.

But how does the body distinguish between self and non-self? Is there a way, other than suppressing the immune system itself (through radiation for instance) to get an organism to accept foreign cells?

Peter Medawar was not trying to answer these questions. He was, with his colleague Billingham, trying to advance British agriculture by devising a way of telling fraternal twins from identical twins in cattle. It was important to determine whether diffrences in cattle were the result of genetics or of how the animals were raised. Therefore, they needed a test to determine which twins were fraternal- genetically speaking, just litter-mates- and which were identical. The latter pairs could be used to see what differences resulted if they were reared by different techniques.

"My mind doubtless unhinged by liquor," Medawar recalled in his engaging The Limits of Science, he agreed to attempt skin grafts on the twin pairs. Identical twins, he reasoned, should accept the grafts, while fraternal twins would reject them.

This did not happen. Fraternal twins were just as willing to accept grafts from each other as identical twins. Turning back to the literature, they discovered a 1949 work by F. M. Burnett and F. Fenner, that predicted their odd results. Burnett and Fenner claimed that if material that would provoke an immune response in an adult was introduced to an organism early in its development it would not provoke that response, even if it was re-introduced after the organism had attained maturity. While they produced evidence to support their claim, no-one had done the experimental work to see if it could really be done.

Medawar, drawing on earlier work cited by Fenner and Burnett, decided that an exchange of cells in the womb gave even fraternal twins a tolerance for each other's cells even after they reached maturity. The next step, he realized, was to attempt to artificially induce this exchange that seemed to occur naturally in the womb. Medawar proceeded to do so in mice and chickens, and established, in the 1953 paper, both the principle and something of the mechanism of immunologic tolerance. Seven years later, Medawar (with Burnett, who had predicted the phenomena) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

As Medawar put it in his Nobel lecture:

The immunological defences of the body are directed against foreign matter. It is not at all common for an animal to react upon the native ingredients of its own body. Burnet was the first to realize that this is not a state of affairs to be taken for granted, but something that calls for a special explanation; and it was his attempt to explain it that led him to predict that antigens which impinged upon an animal sufficiently early in its life should come to be accepted as if they were its own.

At the same time that Medawar was making his breakthrough, a Czech scientist, Milan Hasek, published a paper that demonstrated acquired tolerance, but he would miss out on the Nobel because he misinterpeted his data.

Hasek, like Medawar, wasn't trying to demonstrate aquired tolerance; he was, in fact, trying to do the impossible. He may have known, on some level, just how impossible it was. Hasek, and virtually the whole of the scientific estalishment in the Soviet orbit in 1953, was trying to find results that were consistent with Lysenkoism.

Lysenkoism (anyone still reading? last digression, I promise, and the end of this post is near) was a doctrine propounded by an obscure agronomist from the Ukraine. Lysenko believed that organisms went through phases where development was determined by environmental factors that could be controlled. This is, in a very mundane sense, true, as anyone who forgets to water his house plants for a month or two soon realizes. What was less obvious, in fact quite false, was where Lysenko took his idea. There is a basic distinction between the genetic inheritance (the possibilities and limits in DNA) and the expression of genes (what the organism within its genetic limits turns out to be). Genotype and pheotype. Lysenko promoted the idea, to the great detriment of science in Eastern Europe, that it was the expression that counted, and that the expression was not limited by the genes, but could, through environmental changes, exceed the genetic possibilities. What is more, that expression could be inherited.

If you learn French, your children will be born knowing French. We can teach pigs to fly, and then the litters they produce will know how to fly.

Stalin bought it, and because he did, so did the great part of the world that was under his control.

A brief but informative account by Helena Sheehan gives a good account of the period:

The science of genetics was denounced as reactionary, bourgeois, idealist and formalist. It was held to be contrary to the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism. I ts stress on the relative stability of the gene was supposedly a denial of dialectical development as well as an assault on materialism. Its emphasis on internality was thought to be a rejection of the interconnectedness of every aspect of nature. Its notion of the randomness and indirectness of mutation was held to undercut both the determinism of natural processes and man's ability to shape nature in a purposeful way.

The new biology, with its emphasis on the inheritance of acquired characteristics and the consequent alterability of organisms through directed environmental change, was well suited to the extreme voluntarism that accompanied the accelerated development of the drive to industrialise and collectivise. The idea that the same sort of willfullness could be applied to nature itself was appealing to the mentality of those who wished to stress that Soviet man could transform the world in whatever way he chose to do so. Lysenko's voluntarist approach to experimental results and to the transformation of agriculture was the counterpart of Stalin's voluntarist approach to social processes, undoubtedly a factor in Lysenko's managing to capture Stalin's imagination in this period.

This was the time when Milan Hasek worked; ironically, in .the same land where Mendel had discovered the mechanism of heredity.

Using chicken embryos, he hit on the novel idea of changing the source of the blood supply to the embryos. In this way, he hoped to establish what he termed a "rapprochement" between two distinct embryos that would result in the sharing, and presumably, the inheritance of traits. The test of the genetic similarity would be the immune responses of the chicks to each other by cross-immunization. Hasek found that the paired chicks did not produce antibodies that were specific to each other after cross-immunization, but that they did produce antibodies when cross-immunized with unrelated chicks.

Hasek had just demonstrated immunologic tolerance. But, as Leslie Brent put it in a recent article looking back on the subject, "he totally misinterpreted his data." The paper he wrote, some months before Medawar's, though it was published two months after the Nature article, ignored the possibility of an immunologic possibility. And so, his work became a footnote, albeit a remarkable one, to Medawar's discovery.

Did Hasek know what he was doing? Did he succumb to the influence of the Lysenkoist doctrine that surrounded him, or did he deliberately ignore an interpretation of his data because it was outside of the prevailing ideology?
There is probably no way we can ever be certain.

Juraj Ivanyi, a student of Hasek's, wrote an account of Hasek's discovery in Nature Immunology (Vol. 3, July 2003). Ivanyi notes that Hasek's mentor was Bohumil Sekla, the head of the Department of Biology at Charles University. "I personally remember from 1953," Ivanyi writes

how Sekla bravely taught the Mendelian laws to packed lecture theaters of medical students, who were excited by the experience of publicly expressed dissident views, at a time when expression of such opinions was quite unprecedented.

He also recalls that, at least in private, Hasek expressed doubts about the Lysenkoist doctrine. It is certainly striking that the logical next step in confirming the Lysenkoist faith- to breed the chicks and see if the observed "rapprochement" was inherited- was never undertaken by Hasek. He does not, according to Ivanyi, seem to have even discussed the idea.

His failure to do so is surprising, considering that this would have been technically entirely feasible. It remains unclear whether he did not attempt this due to possible skepticism about the experimental prospects for genetic transmission.

Having speculated in this way, I should note that Hasek, after reading Medawar's paper, and meeting him at an international conference, quickly accepted the immunologic interpretation. But he still found it neccessary to defend himself as a Lysenkoist even years later. Like Stalin's monument in Prague, Lysenkoism survived in Czechoslovakia even into the 60's.

At any rate, whether he was genuinely unable to comprehend the results from his lab, or just judiciously refrained from offering a conjecture that may have occured to him, Hasek is not for us to criticize. The brilliance of his work was recognized around the world, and he provided the training for many Czech scientists that he gathered around him at the Institute at the Academy of Sciences.

My father was one of them. Had Hasek not recognized a young medical student's promise, encouraged him into science and research, who knows how his life would have been different, and, therefore, how different might my own life be.

Milan Hasek died in 1984. 
  Don't just blog on who will win the Nobel Peace Prize, put a wager on it. 
  Now we know what to get Gavin MacInnes for Christmas. Perhaps it is just a hoax on the gullible press. I hope so.  
  Them is fighting words: "Kerry accuses Dean of liking the Yankees
  Westchester County, NY has a plan to fight teen-age drinking that may, may, be even dumber than Baltimore's Believe. To paraphrase Mencken, a healthy adult requires alcohol and cynicism to be able to tolerate the people who come up with public service campaigns; of course school children develope a need for both when they are forced to endure such crap. 
Monday, October 06, 2003
  There is no defense for the "Forward Command Post" toy that Scotty quite rightly criticizes. But reading the description of the "toy"- "a lifelike replica of a real battlefield headquarters" that is aimed (so to speak) at children "ages 5 and up," I was reminded of Saki's engaging short story, "The Toys of Peace."

Worried by her children's interest in war toys (especially the "Siege of Adrianople" toy that she confiscates from them) a mother asks her brother, Harvey, to bring his nephews some "little toys and models that have special bearing on civilian life in its more peaceful aspects."

Harvey must explain to his non-plussed nephews the action figures and toys that he brings for their enjoyment:

A quantity of crinkly paper shavings was the first thing that met the view when the lid was removed; the most exiting toys always began like that. Harvey pushed back the top layer and drew forth a square, rather featureless building.

"It's a fort!" exclaimed Bertie.

"It isn't, it's the palace of the Mpret of Albania," said Eric, immensely proud of his knowledge of the exotic title; "it's got no windows, you see, so that passers-by can't fire in at the Royal Family."

"It's a municipal dust-bin," said Harvey hurriedly; "you see all the refuse and litter of a town is collected there, instead of lying about and injuring the health of the citizens."

In an awful silence he disinterred a little lead figure of a man in black clothes.

"That," he said, "is a distinguished civilian, John Stuart Mill. He was an authority on political economy."

"Why?" asked Bertie.

"Well, he wanted to be; he thought it was a useful thing to be."

Bertie gave an expressive grunt, which conveyed his opinion that there was no accounting for tastes.

The story was published in 1914, just as the Great War, in which Saki (H. H. Munro) would be killed, was about to begin.

plus ca change... 
  Interesting graf in the NY Times story on Arab reaction to Israel's attack on Syria:

One Saudi adviser to the royal court said he viewed the Israeli action as a step that would have military credibility in the region, but that at the same time avoided the risk of civilian casualties that could result from striking hard in the densely populated Palestinian territories.

An act of force that has credibility yet limits casualties. Beyond the possible diplomatic consequences, is there any downside to this attack? Any moral reason (total pacificism excepted) that would serve as a basis for criticizing the bombing raid?

On the other hand, since the training camp has been deserted for almost a year, what was the point of the exercise, save to increase diplomatic tensions?

Sunday, October 05, 2003
  Congrats to the 2003 MacArthur Fellows. Especially to Peter Sis; if you don't know his beautiful work, be sure to check him out. Not that he needs the money now.

Friday, October 03, 2003
  Amy Philips was kind enough to respond to some remarks I made (inspired by a post of hers). Since I would like to respond in some detail, I am doing it here, and not in the comments section. Amy wrote:

Have you ever actually taken OxyContin, or cocaine for that matter? Despite the scary warnings from the government, under normal use, OxyContin does not instantaneously turn a person into a raving lunatic who can't get enough. Thousands of people do take this drug safely and without incident, and they are able to stop when the pain is gone? Some people have less self-control than others, to be sure, but that doesn't make this drug the evil scourge you try to portray it as.

Without going too much into my own drug history, I have taken coke and OxyContin; the former extensively (and at some personal cost); the latter (and other oxycodone based meds) often enough to have some idea of their effects.

They did not turn me into a lunatic, raving or otherwise. I doubt that any pain-killer would "instantaneously" do that to anyone. I also will agree that they are not an evil scourge. I have taken them, and if I ever again need to, say, get three screws put in one of my fingers, I'll take them again.

We even agree when she says that thousands have taken and benefited from oxycodone-based meds, and were able to stop taking it.

But this is, alas, where I have to take issue with her. First, Amy doesn't ask how many weren't able to stop; certainly, there are some, and the number may well be very high.

More important: these people who stopped did so under the status quo, the very system that Amy wants to throw out. It is at least possible that one of the reasons some stopped using was because they could get OxyContin only with difficulty. This is like saying that because there are few accidents at a given intersection, we can take down the traffic lights there.

Now, Mr. Speaker, lets go over the things MG dropped...

The main point that I was trying to make was that people who do not have experience with what they are taking, or with strong drugs in general, are not in the best position to know when they have stopped treating their pain and begun using a drug for recreational reasons. It can be a very hard line to find.

Anyone who has had real physical pain-- the "Is it safe?", give up your own mother kind- knows how desperately one will reach for anything that will make it go away. After a few weeks of reaching for oxycodone, it may, quite literally, become a habit.
I, through hard won experience, know what drugs do, and most important, what they are doing to me. I know what I'll have a jones for later. The skier with a torn ACL who has never done anything stronger than Bud Lite may not even realize what he is doing.

Amy, in her original post, describes the effect of OxyContin as an unpleasant wooziness; I always found it to be euphoric, and I expect most would agree with me. At first, that euphoria can't be distinguished from the release from pain. After taking it for weeks, or months, as is sometimes neeed even for the relief on non-chronic pain, that euphoria becomes a part of the user, and there will be a certain, perhaps acute, melancholy when it is taken away.

This is the time when the treating physician must put the patient on less addictive, but less effective, medication. Amy's complaint is that physicians are reluctant to prescribe oxycodone because they are afraid of FDA scrutiny if they give out too much. I am very sorry for the problems it causes her, and it is possible that there is too much scrutiny on doctors. But there needs to be some scrutiny.
Otherwise we effectively encourage doctors to keep writing scrips which may be to the detriment of their patients' health. Hell, I've known docs who'll write a scrip to get you out of the office. If we make oxycodone uncontrolled, or even relatively uncontrolled, responsible doctors will be unable to perform their vital function of directing, and not just signing off on, the meds their patients take. Irresponsible MDs, and there are a few, will be happy to keep people popping pills.

Amy concedes- if that's the right word- that "some people have less self-control than others." Implied in this statement is that she should not suffer because other lack character. But the way individuals react to a drug has at least some biological basis.
To belittle others for their medical problems while she complains about her medical problems is, at best, less than consistent.

I should close by saying how sympathetic I am to Amy's condition. I had crippling head-aches through my adolescence which almost , for a time, came to rule my life.
I know all too well the seemingly endless experimenting with different drugsand treatments. I wish her the best of luck.

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