Wednesday, June 30, 2004

DEPT. OF EXEGESIS In a piece on Attorney General John Ashcroft that ran in Wednesday editions of The New York Times, reporters David Johnston and Richard W. Stevenson deliver the following bit of wisdom:
Among well-connected Republicans in Washington, there is some private grumbling that Mr. Ashcroft too often pursues his own agenda rather than that of President Bush. Some Republicans are wondering whether Mr. Ashcroft would be asked to return for a second Bush term if the president is re-elected in November, or whether he would choose not to serve again, perhaps to pursue his own run for the presidency in 2008. (Emphasis added.)

I'm not sure which is more far-fetched--the idea that Ashcroft is actually contemplating a run for the presidency, or that "well-connected Republicans in Washington" truly believe Ashcroft's aspirations are to blame for the Justice Department's disarray.

Have these connected GOP elites forgotten Ashcroft's last campaign--the one where he lost to a dead man?

It's hard to know the agenda of the article's sources without knowing who they are. My bet, for what it's worth, is that they're trying to distance President Bush from the despicable record of his Department of Justice. And my guess is that we'll see more of this distancing in the months to come.

But whatever the case, it seems pretty clear that Johnston and Stevenson--at best--got spun.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

CONEY ISLAND POSTCARD: MOZZARELLA AND MERMAIDS A trip to Coney Island is nostalgia-inducing for a host of reasons. But one of them, surely, is that the district feels slightly dangerous.

In a metropolis where noise pollution is now seen as a leading menace, Coney Island is probably the only place where a shirtless entrepreneur with a peeling back and overlapping tattoos can legally snag $4 from children, lock them in rusty metal boxes, and subject them to extreme g-forces.

He can even smoke a cigarette while he does it.

(Photos by Willow Lawson.)

Yes, Coney Island is a living memorial to a seedy, run-down, pre-1990s New York. The area is tacky, overpriced, and short on bathrooms. The rides are second-rate and the beach isn't exactly pristine.

But Coney Island's also got history and spunk. It's got Nathan's and Totonno's.

And if nothing else, the colorful landscape offers Manhattanites in particular a welcome break from a steady diet of boxy high-rises, Citibanks and Duane Reades.


So it's no wonder that a spectacle as spirited and whimsical as the Mermaid Parade--held last Saturday--has become a Coney Island fixture.

The annual event, tinged with a nostalgia for a time that probably never was, crowns a King Neptune and a Queen Mermaid, and culminates with the throwing of fruit into the Atlantic Ocean to commemorate the beginning of summer.

Participants this year ran the gamut--from ironic hipsters to earnest old timers to exhibitionists and theater queens--all decked out in mermaid-themed regalia. Making its way down Surf Avenue, the procession was at turns elegant and raunchy, majestic and profane.

It also attracted thousands of camera-toting, Cyclone-riding spectators. A good sign, one would hope, that Coney Island will survive in all its dingy glory through another summer season.


In the middle of the parade, I slipped over to the original Totonno's pizzeria at 1524 Neptune Avenue (Large pies for $15.50. Toppings $2 each) for a brief respite from all the tridents, pasties and pirate hats.

The pizza did not disappoint.

UPDATE: Some additional--and more risqué--parade photos can be found here.

Monday, June 28, 2004

PADILLA WATCH Slate has some good first-impression analysis of the day's Supreme Court rulings. Start here. Then go here.

Friday, June 25, 2004

CAJONES Kevin Drum points to this Rolling Stone roundtable discussion on US mistakes in Iraq. The key nugget, from Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat:
Biden: I was in the Oval Office the other day, and the president asked me what I would do about resignations. I said, "Look, Mr. President, would I keep Rumsfeld? Absolutely not."

And I turned to Vice President Cheney, who was there, and I said, "Mr. Vice President, I wouldn't keep you if it weren't constitutionally required." I turned back to the president and said, "Mr. President, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are bright guys, really patriotic, but they've been dead wrong on every major piece of advice they've given you. That's why I'd get rid of them, Mr. President -- not just Abu Ghraib."

They said nothing. Just sat like big old bullfrogs on a log and looked at me.

Isn't Biden afraid someone'll come along and boil his rabbit?

NEWS YOU CAN USE NYTimes.com is serving up a list of the "1,000 Best Movies Ever Made."

Click on a title, and you're directed to a page that links to the original New York Times review. (The link is semi-hidden in the upper right quadrant, under "More On This Movie.") Think of it as a kind of NetFlix cheat sheet.

Who knew, for example, that the Times' critic panned DOUBLE INDEMNITY for its "monotonous pace and length" and its "academic...plotting." Ouch.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

GOOGLE CITY This page now sports a shiny new search window at right. Use it to track down your favorite CONTRAPOSITIVE bits from the past (a search for "Howard Dean" coughs up some especially embarrassing tidbits) or just to search the web.

Yet another reason why CONTRAPOSITIVE is the only bookmark you need.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

FOLLOWING UP The AP has sued the Pentagon and the Air Force for President Bush's Vietnam-era military service records. (Via Lambert at Corrente.) From the story:
There are questions as to whether the file provided to the news media earlier this year is complete, says the lawsuit, adding that these questions could possibly be answered by reviewing a copy of the microfilm of Bush's personnel file in the Texas archives.

The Air National Guard of the United States, a federal entity, has control of the microfilm, which should be disclosed in its entirety under the Freedom of Information Act, the lawsuit says.

Monday, June 21, 2004

PAGING HOWARD KURTZ Digby fisks Jodi Wilgoren's snarky, context-free Times article about John Kerry's vacation.

Elsewhere in Big Media Land, Lou Dobbs has been scolded by Campaign Desk for his hypocrisy.

On the air, he's made a fetish of shaming companies that send jobs overseas. But in his investing newsletter, he's been recommending the stocks of some of the very same companies.

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner has more on Dobbs.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

HOT TIP New York City-based readers--and Manhattanites in particular--ought to know about Menupages.

End of thought.

MOVIE OF THE WEEK It's rarely mentioned in the same sentence as TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, but AFTER HOURS, Martin Scorsese's 1985 madcap thriller-comedy, is well worth seeing.

The film takes Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) through a 1980s New York City nightmare: Stuck in gritty SoHo late at night without money or transportation, he struggles to hold off hoodlums and get home to the Upper East Side.

It may seem like a thin premise. But strong performances by Dunne and Rosanna Arquette, a tight script by Joseph Minion (who seems to have been relegated to relative obscurity in the years after the film's release) and a flexible approach from Scorsese prevent the movie from bogging down or the conceit from growing old.

For reasons that remain obscure, the film isn't yet available on dvd. But it hits stores on August 17. So Netflix users can go ahead right now and add it to their queues.

Friday, June 18, 2004

FREEDOM RIDERS The Billionaires for Bush will be packing their valises and heading off on a Get On The Limo campagin caravan in late July.


Kicking-off at the DNC in Boston on July 29th, we're taking our limo (yes, for real) through the crucial Midwest swing states to tell voters the good news: forget job losses, no-bid contracts and sky-rocketing healthcare costs, Dubya and Dick are the best friends Billionaires have ever had in the White House. Four more years! Four more wars!

(They're also asking for help.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

DON'T BLOCK THE EXITS Billmon has a sage piece of advice for U.S. military strategists.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

COLORADO COULD MEAN EVERYTHING Daily Kos notices a fascinating ballot initiative being pushed in Colorado. At least it's fascinating if you're interested in the nitty-gritty of the electoral college system.

Did I mention that its outcome could determine the result of November's presidential election?

Monday, June 14, 2004

CATHOLICS GONE WILD I'm not one for wading into issues of religious dogma. But isn't the political flap about abortion and communion crying out for a distinction between personal belief and advocacy on the one hand and public policy on the other?

Can't a person be morally opposed to something without thinking it should be banned? And aren't there principles we each find morally binding that we don't want federally enforced?

Discussions about what the law should be and how we should live are certainly not unrelated. But they aren't always intimately connected either. And in a pluralistic society they aren't ever exactly the same thing.

So do those who oppose communion for pro-choice Catholics have a problem with pluralism?

Am I missing something here?

DARIUS DOES IT AGAIN The New York Post has the best story about the Friday arrest of Darius McCollum, the widely-profiled serial MTA impostor. McCollum is thought--at least by his supporters--to suffer from Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism.

The twenty-time offender had been released only two months ago for another subway-related offense.

McCollum was caught with a transit worker's vest, a hard hat, and several sets of keys including engineer, universal and switch keys, said authorities.


McCollum, of the Lower East Side, was charged with attempted grand larceny, criminal impersonation, possession of stolen property, trespassing and possession of burglar tools, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

He was held in lieu of $250,000 bail after being arraigned.

Sad story. My knee-jerk reaction is to call for the MTA to just cave in and put McCollum to work--on the grounds that there has to be somewhere in the subway system where he could make a contribution that would benefit both him and the city. But obviously the situation is a lot more complicated than that.

The blog of a man who (allegedly) has Asperger's syndrome is located here.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) definition of Asperger's syndrome can be found here.

UPDATE: The New York Times has more.

Friday, June 11, 2004

ENEMY OF AN ENEMY Ralph Nader is trying to get on the ballot in Arizona. The Democratic party is challenging his petitions.

Here are a couple of unconfirmed tidbits (from a "solid source") about the petition signatures, according to Daily Kos:

42 Democratic volunteers in Phoenix are currently checking Nader's Arizona petition signatures. Nader needs a 32 percent bad signature rate to be knocked off the ballot, and so far, after 2,000 checked, the rate is 37 percent.

Of those 2,000 signatures, 5 percent have been Democrats, 3 percent "other" or independent, and 92 percent Republican. If this number is verified, and if it holds up over the full 22,000 petition signatures, it will be a clear indication from where Nader's "support" comes. (Bolded in original.)

BLANK SLATE Ryan Lizza dares to mention the obvious but disturbing implication of President Bush's non-response response to questions about the Justice Department torture memos.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

OLD MOTHER REAGAN Some liberals are grumbling, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the tone of most of the Ronald Reagan coverage.

The news channels, to be sure, have had their share of fawning packages. (Doesn't Ken Duberstein have a day job?) But by and large, the segments I've seen has been respectful without ignoring the low points. And that seems like a fair way to play the story.

If anything, it's the steady barrage of damning anecdotes that have unbalanced the coverage. But that's through no fault of the media--because the anecdotes are all being told by former Reagan staffers. And the staffers relating these bizarre, frightening stories see themselves as praising Reagan rather than defaming him.

Among the accounts open to more than one interpretation:

David Gergen on The Newshour:

One [story] that I think impressed me and helped me understand leadership a lot more fully was what came from the summit conference, the G-7 summit conference in Williamsburg that he was hosting, and he had on a Wednesday he had a massive day of meetings--one-on-one meetings with world leaders, plus a couple of plenary sessions he had to be the host for.

So there was this great big thick briefing book that was prepared by the White House staff and the State Department, and Jim Baker went to him very gingerly, chief of staff, and said Mr. President, you know, you tend to really like to read slowly at night, because you want to memorize things, but tonight can you, we're really worried you won't get enough sleep...Could you just skim over this tonight and sort of come in the next day.

And so he came in the next morning, looked like...he had been hit by a Mack truck, his eyes were all gray and everything like that and he sat down and he got about 10 or 15 minutes into the eggs and he and looked up and, "See, fellows, I've got a confession to make, last night I sat down with your briefing book around 9 and you've done a great job, and I want to thank you for it, but about 9:15 I turned on the TV, and you know the Sound of Music was on last night.

"You know the Sound of Music is one of my favorite movies, so I never had a chance to read a briefing book, but I didn't get a lot of sleep."

We thought oh, wow, he didn't read all these things we put together. And then he taught me something about leaders.

You know, he was better that day in the meetings than we'd ever seen him, and that's because he wasn't bogged down with all those facts that we on the staff in our arrogance thought we had to stuff him with.

Right. What arrogance--trying to bog down the President with all those pesky, useless facts! He certainly showed them!

FINAL NOTE: The post's title comes from the first track of the Violent Femmes less-than-seminal 1986 album THE BLIND LEADING THE NAKED. Lyrics can be found here.

MOVIE OF THE WEEK When people tick off David Mamet's literary accomplishments THINGS CHANGE, the Don Ameche vehicle he co-wrote with Shel Silverstein, is usually pretty far down on the list.

But this genre-busting 1988 mob parable deserves to be seen. Mamet and Silverstein spin a fanciful yarn while resisting the temptation to let their story devolve into farce. What emerges is a sweet movie that is smart without attempting to be clever.

Ameche is great, William H. Macy sports spiked blonde hair, and the film is entirely irony-free. Think Disney--but without the heavy-handedness or the saccharine aftertaste.

Monday, June 07, 2004

TRANSIT OF VENUS Today also marks the start of the appropriately-timed Sixth International Thomas Pynchon Conference.

The conference, being held at the St. James Cavalier Center for Creativity in Valletta, Malta, is free. "Come as you are," the website urges.

Papers being presented include Pynchon's Signifying Duck: History and Fanciful Extension in MASON & DIXON.

If anyone is in the neighborhood, please do stop by and send back a report.

A NEW LOW Billmon directs us to this Wall Street Journal article about a 2003 Justice Department memo on torture.

Among the memo's Orwellian clauses:

Authority to set aside the laws is "inherent in the president."

And just to make it clear that I haven't taken the article out of context, here's the whole sentence:
To protect subordinates should they be charged with torture, the memo advised that Mr. Bush issue a "presidential directive or other writing" that could serve as evidence, since authority to set aside the laws is "inherent in the president."

Remember, this was written, allegedly, at the Justice Department.

Anyone else speechless?

UPDATE: Joshua Marshall informs us that the entire memo is now available (as a .PDF file) here.

Friday, June 04, 2004

ZYRTEC'S SAVVY DRAMATURGY The central quandary facing prescription drug advertisers since the FDA tightened its regulation of TV spots in 1997: How to tick off a list of creepy warnings and ominous-sounding potential side-effects without frightening viewers or prompting them to burst into laughter.

While commercials have slowly grown more adept at tackling this problem, a spot that's currently running for allergy medication Zyrtec (side-effects include, "drowsiness, headaches, sore throat, and stomach pain") sets a new standard.

The commercial begins with a pair of corporate-types preparing, with their boss, for The Big Presentation. One of the presenters suffers from allergies.

After the scene has been set and the tension (such as it is) begins to mount, we move with the presenters to a long hallway sequence, and ultimately, to the moment when one of the presenters takes the podium before a packed auditorium.

What's novel about the ad? In a savvy dramaturgical gambit, the commercial delivers its litany of side-effects during the superfluous-feeling, dramatically irrelevant hallway scene in the middle of the ad, rather than tacking them on at the end.

Nothing earth-shattering, granted. But Pfizer appears to be taking a lesson of Narrative Storytelling 101--that viewers lose interest when plots lose momentum--and turning it on its head: The spot deliberately courts audience distraction before the totality of its message has been communicated.

It's a risky strategy, one banking on the assumption that viewers can be jarred back to attention once the drama resumes. But the ad's approach makes it feel a lot less awkward than the other drug commercials currently on the air...

My guess is that we'll see it emulated in the coming months.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

WAITING ON REBATES The photos in the In-N-Out Burger post below were taken with a Fuji S7000 six megapixel digital camera. CONTRAPOSITIVE is still waiting for a $100 rebate on said camera--seven weeks after the rebate was sent in to Fuji.

"Please allow up to 4-6 weeks for processing," the S7000 rebate offer had advised. But on the phone today, Denise over at Fuji informed CONTRAPOSITIVE that eight weeks from Fuji's receipt would be a more realistic expectation.

Then ensued a surreal debate about what precisely constitutes a "week."

After having mulled it over a bit, I think it's safe to say that I've never received a rebate in the time frame specified by the rebate offer. Ever.

Any thoughts?

HERSETH WATCH Here's a post-election wrap-up and some brief commentary.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

L.A. POSTCARD: VALUE MEAL Maybe it's the sight of employees furiously crunching potatoes in a giant, industrial-sized chopper. Or maybe it's the promise of flavorful, farm-fresh ingredients.

Or maybe it's just the taste of the mysterious "spread." For a New York-based carnivore, though, there's something thrilling about a trip to In-N-Out Burger.

(All photos are by the incomparable Willow Lawson.)

The Double-Double. An American classic.

I've grown fascinated, in recent months, by the popular California-based fast food chain. And while the unbeatable burgers certainly touched off my curiosity, it's In-N-Out's old fashioned values and radical corporate approach that have ultimately captured my attention.


1) In-N-Out, as it's grown from a single restaurant to a chain with 140+ locations, has added not a single food option to its five-item menu.

2) The chain's ingredients are never frozen on their way from the farm to the customer's plate; it steers clear of additives, fillers and preservatives; it has its own butchers, bakes its own buns, and uses real ice cream in its shakes.

3) Hamburgers, made-to-order, are priced at $1.50 each including all the fixings.

4) Pay packages for full time In-N-Out "associates" start at $8.25 an hour. Packages include paid vacations, a 401K plan and tuition reimbursements, as well as health and dental coverage.

It's almost as if in building the chain, the Snyder family--the folks behind the (still privately held) 56-year-old company--deliberately set out to turn every bit of conventional fast food wisdom on its head.

Prices are for In-N-Out's location on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood as of May 23, 2004.

And yet In-N-Out hasn't suspended the laws of economics. So what's the secret?

Part of the formula, certainly, has been the decision to stick stubbornly to the simple, old fashioned idea of doing a few things and doing them well: In-N-Out sells a handful of high-quality items, and then uses economies of scale to drive down prices.

And because In-N-Out's success is predicated on high volume--and because so much of the food preparation occurs on site--In-N-Out needs to seek out motivated, high quality employees and pay them accordingly.

This isn't charity. It's simply good business. But in an age of efficiency-wringing and stagnant wages for the unskilled, of Cheez Whiz and Hot Pockets, staying with this strategy took some serious corporate willpower.

And so if In-N-Out has become a model corporate citizen and a poster child for capitalism, it's gotten there by daring to be boring: Sticking with what it knows, ignoring trends and taking the long view.

My guess is that radical conservatism of this sort isn't what's being taught in business schools. But In-N-Out's success suggests that the ability to resist the lure of innovation and short term gains can be as important factors as any in building a successful, enduring business.

Eat, drink and be merry. But be quick about it.

The only dispiriting thing about In-N-Out's story, in fact, is how unusual it seems among companies its size.

So: What is it about America's business culture and economic climate that makes In-N-Out's corporate path such an anomaly? The answer is bound to be complicated. But it seems like a question worth exploring...

ANOTHER THOUGHT: It would be notable (and in some ways less impressive) if In-N-Out had achieved its market position by casting itself as the Green Mountain Coffee of hamburgers. But while the chain certainly isn't shy about its corporate values or its freshness standards, it isn't overly aggressive about trumpeting them either.

The people behind the company seem to understand that winning a large, mainstream clientele in a crowded marketplace depends first and foremost on building a better burger. And that, rather than Benetton-style social activism, is clearly where they're focusing.

HERSETH WATCH The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blog has a morning post from the frontlines in South Dakota.

UPDATE: With 52 percent reporting, Herseth leads 52% to 48%.

TIGHTENING: 51% to 49% with 74 percent reporting.

ALL OVER BUT THE CRYING: With 99.6% of precincts reporting, CONTRAPOSITIVE is ready to project that Stephanie Herseth's--with a 132,236 to 129,292 vote margin over Republican Larry Diedrich--has won the special election to fill South Dakota's vacant House seat.


CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.