Thursday, December 30, 2004

THIS JUST IN A recent favorite out of the UK, Scary Duck, has been added to the blogroll at right.

Specializing in vividly-told anecdotes and snarky commentary, the blog is mercifully politics-free. Check it out.

Monday, December 27, 2004

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT New York Times editorial board member Brent Staples--always worth reading--has an interesting opinion piece in today's paper about the incentives some legislators face when considering prison-related issues:
Nearly all of the prisoners ended up in upstate New York, where failing farms and hollowed-out cities offered a lot of room for building. Politicians in these sparsely populated districts caught on quickly and began to lobby to have the new prisons located in their communities.

As a result, nearly 30 percent of the people who were counted as moving into upstate New York during the 1990's were prison inmates.


The inmates...helped to save political careers in areas where legislative districts were in danger of having to be merged because of shrinking populations. Inmates, as it turned out, were magically transformed into ''residents,'' thanks to a quirk in the census rules that counts them as living at their prisons.


Whether those legislators have consciously made the connection or not, it's hard to escape the fact that bulging prisons are good for their districts.

The advantages extend beyond jobs and political gerrymandering. By counting unemployed inmates as residents, the prison counties lower their per capita incomes--and increase the portion they get of federal funds for the poor. This results in a transfer of federal cash from places that can't afford to lose it to places that don't deserve it.
Did I mention that the legislators in question are Republicans?

Thursday, December 23, 2004

NEW FRONTIERS IN DEVIOUSNESS Yet another reason not to give out your e-mail address indiscriminately:
Hotels.com is one of about 70 Internet heavyweights affiliated with Webloyalty, including travel service Priceline.com, movie-ticket vendor Fandango.com and shopping site Half.com.

And here's where consumers may want to sit up and take notice.

Webloyalty is able to obtain people's credit card numbers directly from many of its partners and will charge monthly fees for a service some people might not realize they've signed up for.

Once movie tickets are purchased at Fandango.com, for example, a link is presented to a special reward. That link leads to a page on Webloyalty's site promising $10 off your next Fandango purchase plus other discounts.

All you have to do is provide your e-mail address.


People subsequently discovered that the company was deducting between $7 and $9 a month from their credit cards even though they didn't think they'd signed up for the rewards plan.


The fine print of Webloyalty's verbiage-heavy solicitation says charges "will automatically continue for just $9 a month billed by Reservation Rewards to the credit card or deducted from the debit card information you used at CLIENT today."

In slightly less awkward words, submitting your e-mail address will result in Webloyalty obtaining your credit card number from Fandango or another client and beginning the monthly billing process.
According to the article, Webloyalty has 1.3 million members and books about $100 million a year in revenue.

SICKENING Joshua Marshall catches Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers sinking to a new low:
This attack [in Mosul], of course, is the responsibility of insurgents, the same insurgents who attacked on 9/11.
If our leaders aren't willing to ease up on the misdirection and obfuscation twenty-two months before a midterm election, then when can we trust them?

Anyone else ready to vomit?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

WHAT WOULD O'REILLY DO? Congratulations are due to News Corp. and its Fox Television Entertainment Group. Just look how far they've come:

Here's Fox then (February 25, 2000):

Sandy Grushow, the chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group who canceled "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" last week after it blew up in Fox's face...said he wanted to avoid the kind of "exploitative material" that resulted in the multimillionaire show, which was transformed in a matter of days last week from a ratings phenomenon to a public relations fiasco.

He said that Fox's reliance in recent years on this kind of programs had only served as a stopgap to cover for a dwindling stream of hit series.

"They're gone; they're over," Mr. Grushow said of the "reality specials," which came under a department of Fox that has been led by Mike Darnell, an executive who gained a reputation throughout the television industry for finding subjects that proved irresistible to viewers and anathema to critics.


He said that Fox needed to undergo a "paradigm shift," adding: "That's why in a perverse way I'm glad this happened. Because it sends a loud and clear message that we've got to get away from these exploitative reality specials."

Mr. Grushow defined the specials as "anything that is exploitative, that reeks of desperation, anything that's merely out for ratings."

Still, Mr. Grushow emphasized, "It's going to be different from now on, different as originally planned."

That means, he said, dealing with prominent creators of quality programs...

"Someday people will stop talking about this," Mr. Grushow said. "I hope they'll judge us by where we are a year from now, rather than from where we are now."
Five years later, just how much progress has been made?
Plans to air a television game show in which an adopted woman picks out her father from a panel of impostors have thousands of people deluging Fox TV with letters and e-mails to get the show shelved.

The "Who's Your Daddy?" show, in which a young woman given up for adoption as a child gets a $100,000 (52,000 pound) prize for picking out her biological father from a line-up, is the latest in America's obsession with reality TV programming.

News of the show sparked both a grass-roots campaign among adoptive parents and protests from national adoption organizations who called the idea offensive, voyeuristic and exploitative. Six episodes have been filmed but so far only one has been scheduled for broadcast, on Jan. 3.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

JUNK YOUR VCR It took an awfully long time, but MIKEY & NICKY--a Movie of the Month selection back in April--is finally available on DVD.

Monday, December 20, 2004

ELBOW ROOM Last-minute shoppers take note: An inexpensive, practical gift for the passive-aggressive frequent-flyer in your life is just one click away.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

KERIK FLASHBACK How much media scrutiny did Bernard Kerik get when he was appointed police commissioner in 2000?

Probably not enough. But the press wasn't silent either:

In naming Kerik, the mayor ignored the recommendation of outgoing police commissioner Howard Safir, who had lobbied on behalf of Chief of Department Joseph Dunne, a 31-year veteran. Instead, the mayor named Dunne as Kerik's first deputy.


A former top Police Department official who works in a law enforcement capacity in another city and who asked for anonymity said of Kerik's appointment, "I'm in shock. I've been on the phone all morning. It's an embarrassment for Dunne and shows the mayor's contempt for the Police Department."

Besides not being a career cop, Kerik, a high school dropout with an equivalency diploma, lacks a college degree, a requirement for top NYPD employees above the rank of captain but not for mayoral appointees.

"We've been pushing the education issue to try and professionalize the department to change its image," the former official continued. "The fact that he Kerick [sic] lacks a college degree is extraordinary."

Giuliani, however, said Kerik's lack of a degree was not an issue.
--Newsday, August 20, 2000

And about that elusive college degree:
Kerik had been taking courses through Empire State College and needed 24 more credits for his bachelor's degree. He got a waiver from City Hall to bypass the requirement.
--Village Voice, August 7, 2001

Reporter Dan Janison sums up:
By choosing Bernard Kerik for police commissioner, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani stuck to his perennial habit of rewarding the loyal and the malleable over the experienced and the independent.

Still the insular power player with 16 months left in his final term, Giuliani ignored suggestions that he conduct at least an abbreviated nationwide search for top talent to replace the departing Howard Safir.

Against the advice of top law-enforcement aides, Giuliani picked a one-time campaign organizer and former member of his security detail, a man known in his inner circle as a congenial soldier. Kerik and Giuliani are friends.
--Newsday, August 20, 2000

Friday, December 17, 2004

RIVULETS OF REVENUE Making its debut on the blog's upper right-hand corner this week is a new advertorial element: A rotating featured book, selected by your humble narrator.

When you click through the link and then make a purchase at Amazon.com--or any of its affiliates (including Target and Lands' End among others)--CONTRAPOSITIVE will receive a small commission based on your order's size. (All applicable discounts will still apply, eligible coupons will still be honored, etc.)

So, regular readers: If you're doing any late holiday shopping online, please consider starting your search here.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

QUESTIONS FOR THE MEDIA It's not hard to read this story and come away thinking that Bernard Kerik's illegal nanny never existed--that the nanny story was invented in a desperate effort to keep his more salient flaws from coming to light.

Let's operate under the assumption, for just a moment, that this impression is correct.

Who invented the nanny story? Whose idea was it to circulate it? Was the White House involved?

Inquiring minds want to know...

UPDATE: Joshua Marshall explores another wrinkle.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

COMPANY MEN Away for a week, I'm sure I missed a lot. But this is a joke, right?
President Bush will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to L. Paul Bremer III, Tommy R. Franks, and George J. Tenet in a ceremony at the White House on December 14, 2004.
What a perfect distillation of this administration's loyalty-before-competence credo.

What's next? Wolfowitz for pope?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

YORKSHIRE POSTCARD: CLIFFORD'S TOWER It's impossible to know exactly what happened on the night of March 16, 1190 in the city of York. But this much is clear:

To avoid massacre at the hands of an angry mob, the 150+ members of York's Jewish community--after having taken refuge in the English city's royal castle--began the process of killing themselves and each other.

Those surviving through the night, promised clemency by the mob's leaders, emerged from the castle the next morning.

They were all summarily killed.

The pogrom's early stages fit neatly into the pattern for medieval anti-Semitic mob action: An audacious attack on a Jewish family and its property by a handful of armed plunderers; the rapid escalation toward a full-scale riot; Jews dying as a crowd full of their neighbors looks on approvingly.

Photos by Willow Lawson.

The medieval castle known as Clifford's Tower. Its wooden predecessor was badly burned during the massacre.

In the case of the York Massacre of 1190, though, it's difficult to locate a single precipitating cause:

Were the citizens of York stirred to action because many of them owed debts to Jewish lenders?

Had they become jealous of--or threatened by--the extensive financial ties between York Jews and the Crown?

Were latent anti-Semites emboldened by the death of King Henry II, a stalwart protector of English Jewry?

Did the preparations for the Third Crusade, and the crusading propaganda of the new king, Richard I, whip them into an anti-Semitic frenzy?

Was Pope Alexander III's Third Lateran Council--which warned Christians against contact with Jews--to blame?

R. B. Dobson, in his excellent pamphlet on the subject, concludes that each of these factors played a role. He does pay special attention, though, to the economic motive of the rioters: The debts owed by York's citizenry--and the notion that they might be wiped out through mob action--certainly figured into the thinking of the attackers, he argues.

This plaque, laid in 1978, sits at the foot of Clifford's Tower.

In the end, no one was held directly acountable for the killing and destruction. But to Richard I's credit, a royal inquiry into the incident was opened and a punitive fine was ultimately levied against the entire citizenry of York, with fees imposed in proportion to wealth.

The sheriff of Yorkshire and the constable of York castle were also both dismissed.

Today York is a small, quaint city--and a popular tourist destination. Narrow streets are packed full of shops, medieval walls surround the downtown area and a large, beautiful gothic cathedral dominates the skyline.

Looking north on Low Petergate, up toward the York Minster.

As for the site of the massacre: It sits next to a plot that--to the consternation of many York citizens--is currently slated for a large commercial development.

Information on the land use controversy can be found here and here.

DEPT. OF EXEGISIS J. Peter Scoblic takes a closer look at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's now-infamous vehicle armor comments, and he doesn't like what sees:
"[I]f you think about it," he said, "you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can [still] be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee and it can be blown up." The sheer condescension of the reply was breath-taking.

If you think about it? One imagines that Specialist Wilson has thought quite a bit about being blown up--and the other dozens of ways he might be killed in Iraq. And what exactly was Rumsfeld suggesting, anyway? That Wilson simply adopt a more philosophical attitude toward combat? That he turn to the old AA prayer and ask God for the serenity to accept the things he cannot change?

Perhaps Rumsfeld could suggest that troops begin patrolling without helmets. After all, you can wear your helmet until the end of time--and still get shot in the chest.

But more astounding was Rumsfeld's contention that "[y]ou go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." Astounding because, of course, the United States did not go to war with the army it had; it went to war with a mere fraction of the army it had.
If you're a New Republic subscriber, you can read the whole thing here.

Friday, December 10, 2004

VOTE WATCH Wired is running a story full of skepticism about the Hout report out of Berkeley--the study questioning Florida's recent election results.

Here's Bruce McCullough, a decisions science professor at Drexel University:

What they did with their model is wrong, and their results are flawed...They either overlooked or did not bother to find a much better-fitting regression model that showed that e-voting didn't account [for voting anomalies].
Here's MIT political science professor Charles Stewart:
The type of exercise that you do in a graduate data-analysis class...If I were to get this article as reviewer, I would turn it around and say they were fishing to find a result.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

TIS THE SEASON Looking for the perfect gift for that special, loathed someone? Look no further.

UPDATE: Even though the company's principal product is billed as "a freshly-squeezed, 100% natural, human-made turd," a close reading of the FAQ reveals that the turds in question are not, in fact, actual human turds.

To think: Disingenuous marketing. Even from turd-mongers.

If it's any consolation, the site does promise that, "it's hard to distinguish a Fecalgramâ„¢ from the real thing."

MUSHARRAF FLASHBACK From the Inter-Press Service, June 25, 2001:
In a statement, the U.S. State Department said it felt "very disappointed that Pakistan has taken another turn away from democracy rather than, as we had hoped, a step toward democracy."

This referred to the removal of the elected President, Muhammad Rafiq Tarar, a nominee of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Tarar's removal meant that Musharraf was now chief executive, army chief and president as well.

Additionally, Pakistan's parliament, which had remained suspended after the Oct. 12, 1999 coup, was finally dissolved as a prelude, said the government, to "holding of general elections as stipulated by the Supreme Court by October 2002."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said this action "severely undermines Pakistan's constitutional order and casts Pakistan as a country ruled by decree rather than by democratic process."

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

IS THIS MAN SERIOUS? Via Noam Scheiber, here's President Bush during his recent meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf:
One of the interesting lessons that the world can look at is Pakistan. You see, there are some in the world who do not believe that a Muslim society can self-govern.

Some believe that the only solution for government in parts of the world is for there to be tyranny or despotism. I don't believe that. The Pakistan people have proven that those cynics are wrong.
Either Bush doesn't know that Musharraf seized power in a military coup or he thinks military coups fall under the category of "self-governance."

The more charitable interpretation--I think we can all agree--is that President Bush literally does not know how Musharraf rose to power in Pakistan.

Not exactly encouraging, but that's where we are.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A QUESTION Check out this candy bar from the UK:

What is the meaning of this, exactly?

UPDATE: Okay, here's a pretty thorough discussion of the Yorkie "It's Not For Girls" marketing campaign.

Eyebrow-raising quotes about the Nestle-sponsored sales pitch can be found in this .PDF document. Among them:

The Four-page Yorkie supplement poked fun at the differences between men and women. The wrap featured a Bill of Male Rights and two definitive lists...

Top Ten Things Women Can't Do
- Make a decision.
- Watch football without talking.
- Drive in a straight line.
- Use ten words when a hundred will do.
- Open a can unaided.
- Use a urinal.
- Own a pet spider.
- Speak on the phone for less than 15 minutes.
- Understand cricket.
- Buy a Yorkie.

Top Ten Reasons To Be A Bloke
- One mood--all the time.
- You can go to the bathroom by yourself.
- You get to buy gadgets.
- You don't have to clean your flat before the cleaner comes.
- Mechanics don't lie to you.
- You can change a plug.
- Grey hair adds to your sex appeal.
- The first thing you try on in a shop fits you.
- You can read maps.
- You get to eat a Yorkie.
There's also this:
50,000 complimentary Yorkie bars were given out to male Metro [newspaper] readers, who were delighted to get a free chunky bar of Yorkie with their regular copy of Metro.

Female readers were politely refused a Yorkie bar by Metro's promotional staff, who apologised and informed them that "It's Not for Girls!"

Puzzled looks turned to genuine amusement when female Metro readers saw the ad for Yorkie on the front cover--a big No Women sign alongside Yorkie's slogan.
Yeah--I'm sure they thought it was hilarious!

Does it mean I can't take a joke if I don't find the campaign all that funny?

MEMO TO BRITISH AIRWAYS Combing through the meal selections of customers probably isn't the most sophisticated way to catch terrorists.

But if flagging "Muslim meal" ticket holders for closer scrutiny is going to be part of your security regimen, you might want to avoid sharing that fact with flagged customers.

And you probably also want to avoid apologizing to these customers for the inconvenience they endure. It doesn't make you look good--especially if the apology intimates: Sorry for the bother. I mean, you don't even look like a terrorist.

Just a thought.

Monday, December 06, 2004

MORE POFFO Can't get enough? A good Lanny Poffo inteview can be found here. His second collection of poems, LIMERICKS FROM THE HEART (AND LUNGS!) can be purchased here.

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