Saturday, December 31, 2005

Damn the Torpedoes...

Courtesy of Erik Spanberg via the Christian Science Monitor:
Former Green Bay Packers center Bill Curry recalls just one halftime speech during his entire 10-year playing career. He was a rookie when the Packers, coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi, were getting drubbed by the Detroit Lions. The Lions had just returned an interception for a touchdown, adding to the Packers' misery.

Both teams shared the same sideline, and as Lions lineman Alex Karras was exiting the field, he turned to Lombardi and screamed, "How'd you like that, you fat bleeping bleep?!" Curry expected Lombardi would excoriate his underachieving club at halftime. Instead, the coach stood alone through most of the intermission and said nothing. Just before the Packers returned to the field, Lombardi told his team, "Men, we're the Green Bay Packers," and walked out. Green Bay won the game, crushing Detroit in the second half.
In a few hours, it'll be 2006. I'm gearing up for the LSAT in February and, God willing, law school in September. But I'm nearly 30; and for a variety of reasons, I find myself in need of a halftime speech.

This year broke a stalemate. I finished school and got engaged, putting two considerable milestones in my rearview. I also flubbed two chances to impress people who could have helped me, and I learned exactly how much damage can be caused by perfectionism — which, it turns out, is a fancy name and flimsy rationale for procrastination. Henceforth, it is my sworn enemy.

Kerrie and I have amassed [REDACTED] in joint savings over the past two years. It's a decent start, and will probably serve as a down payment for our first house. I can't help wondering how many of our present goals will be derailed by kids, but we'll see what happens; if we don't hit the lottery, her MBA and my JD should keep food on the table.

She's intently focused on where she wants to be. I'm focused on what I want to do. My hope is that between the two of us, we've got the outfield covered. Life favors curve balls; but we're sufficiently different to complement each other well, so we've got a fighting chance at keeping our heads above water. And if not, we'll sprout gills. We're both fighters.

I still have trouble seeing the glass half-full some days. I probably always will. In lieu of a rousing halftime speech, since those appear to be eschewed by the pros, I'll lean on a chestnut from an old friend:
What one man can do, another can do.
If ever there were a mantra. Every time I read about a guy discovering plutonium or inventing the airplane, every picture I see of a submarine or a skyscraper, that's something I could do. There was a time, I couldn't imagine myself putting pen to paper and composing a symphony; but I've got a box of music and a few dozen recordings as proof that you can't know what lies around the next bend.

Friday, December 30, 2005

I've taken a hiatus this week, writing less often than usual. If you noticed, you may have chalked it up to the holiday break; and while that's true, I'm also engaged in a bit of HTML renovation. I've been plotting some changes to the format of this page for awhile, and the new year gives me a good opportunity to roll them out.

I chose this layout because reading off a computer screen hurts my eyes, and I thought this color scheme might help. Just a few days into the project, however, WBZ radio aired a segment where a professional web designer explained that visitors were only half as likely to read inverse text; standard black-on-white was invariably more comfortable and appealing. I tend to favor expert advice, so I resigned to change my format once I had established enough content.

The other major change is that I'm going back to using titles. I've missed them. One of my first milestones as a writer, before high school, was the sudden ability to conceive titles. It always felt pretentious; it was hard enough coming up with something to say, now I had to call it something? I can't explain how or why; but one day, suddenly, I could do it. It was easy. I've never stumbled since; in fact, today, I use titles as reliable tinder to burn through writer's block.

I have a few other alterations in mind. I've been eyeing a change for awhile, but I wanted to focus on substance before style; and now that I've established a body of work through consistency, I'll tinker a bit with the presentation. It's not a primary concern, because this is ultimately little more than scratch paper for practice work; but obviously, I wouldn't put it online if I didn't intend it to be read.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Last week, I commented on a story published in a New Bedford newspaper about a UMass Dartmouth student who was interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security after filing an interlibrary request for a book on Communism. This weekend, the Boston Globe reported that story was a hoax.

Two professors were interviewed for the original story. One of them, Brian Glyn Williams has now confirmed to the Globe that the student admitted making up the story. "I made it up," the student apparently confessed. "I'm sorry... I'm so relieved that it's over."

UMass Dartmouth said it had no record of any student requesting the book via an interlibrary loan. A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security said there was no record of any interview with a UMass Dartmouth student. It turns out that Homeland Security doesn't even have its own agents; so the Globe spoke with an FBI spokeswoman, who "expressed doubt" about the story's veracity.

Here's the paragraph that bugs me:
The student was not identified in any reports. The Globe interviewed him Thursday but decided not to write a story about his assertion, because of doubts about its veracity. The student could not be reached yesterday.
We're talking about a 22-year-old man with a college-education who lied to his professors and at least two newspapers. Why hasn't he been identified?

Newspapers regularly publish police blotters including the names and addresses of neighborhood vandals and teenaged trespassers. This guy tricked reporters and watched his story get picked up by national media outlets. Senator Kennedy even referenced the anecdote in an Op-Ed column for the Globe. By what deranged logic is the Globe protecting his identity?

When 19-year-old Katelyn Faber accused Kobe Bryant of raping her in 2003, her name was withheld by most media outlets. Every newspaper across the country printed Bryant's name beside the word "rape" for the better part of a year; and they protected Faber's identity, because she was a "victim." So much for the presumption of innocence. I have no idea whether Bryant raped her or not, but it's certainly getting easier to smear a man's good name, to spread vicious rumor and innuendo; and journalists are letting it be done anonymously.

Two independent newspapers claim to have identified this student, so there can be no argument about protecting an exclusive while they convince him to interview for the record. He's past the age of majority, and he deliberately fabricated a lie to attract attention and impress his professors -- a lie that was picked up by the national media and reported repeatedly without correction. His full name should be plastered on every correction notice. He's old enough to know that actions have consequences.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

My neighbors in Medway, Massachusetts made headlines this week for banning Christmas from their public schools. School administrators designated a "magical tree" and ordered a sixth-grade class to replace red and green elf hats with white to avoid using Christmas colors. The middle school principal sent a letter to parents announcing that selections from Jesus Christ Superstar would be removed from a musical in January. Last Friday, a concert program was edited to remove the song, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." That same concert included a performance of "O Hanukkah."

It's been described as political correctness run amok. It's been described as a war on Christmas. It's neither. It's a war on Christianity.

If I objected to an elementary school displaying a menorah and singing "O Hanukkah," I would be condemned as an anti-Semite. If I questioned the validity of Kwanzaa, I would be called a racist. But society contorts itself to avoid confronting anyone with Christian imagery; it embraces Jewish and Muslim traditions to demonstrate its tolerance, and it viciously expels any echo of Christianity to prove its integrity.

They're not saying, "Government must not endorse religion." They're saying, "Government cannot acknowledge Christianity." This is more than a double standard. It's blatant, unapologetic bigotry.

The popular lampoon this year has been "intelligent design" -- the notion that human beings constitute such complex structures, they must have been architected. But proponents of intelligent design are being cast as dolts less for their beliefs than for one they reject: the notion of evolution as settled law. The irony is that like global warming, this discussion is avoided by serious scientists because the truth is that we don't know. Evolution is a theory; we have evidence, but we also have holes. We don't yet understand how life works, and we can't yet trace its origin.

I don't believe Adam was fashioned from mud, and I don't believe a wife sprang from his rib. I don't believe in fairy tales. But I also understand the scientific method, and I've read enough history to know that the world is flat until one day, it's not. No rational scientist would be caught promenading evolutionism as anything more than a work in progress, yet these fools recite Darwin like it's Gospel. Congratulations, halfwits: You've failed to learn the lesson of Galileo.

Atheism has become an active sport. It's not enough for these people to reject the idea of God; they've become evangelists, eager for an opportunity to embarrass people of faith. They behave as middle school girls: They flaunt their disbelief like fashion and they mock anyone who doesn't conform. They've made the term atheism synonymous with immaturity.

But if you've followed the news this past month, you know their crusade has become farce and the tide has begun to turn. Wal-Mart and other retail giants have deliberately leaned on the word "Christmas" this year, and stories like the Medway fiasco have been reported with a decidedly sardonic tone. People are fed up. We're a country born from retaliation against a bully, after all; and the mean girls might consider that before coming back from holiday break. Schoolyard rules: If you keep shooting off your mouth, eventually someone's going to knock out your teeth.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Tonight is Christmas Eve, 2005.

The last six days of December always feel like limbo. We spend a month working toward Christmas, and then the day arrives like a steam valve -- and we sit empty for a week, waiting for the New Year to begin. If we accomplish anything during the interim, it's usually either retrospective on the previous year or conceiving resolutions for the next.

We should designate it National Decompression Week.

I remember as a kid, lying in bed, trying to stay awake to hear the reindeer landing on my roof. And of course, when you're three years old, you hear the wind or the house settling and you immediately tense, wondering if that was the sleigh. Maybe it seems silly years later...but it was exciting, as a kid. It was fun.

As an adult, the tension has more to do with coordinating Christmas: buying presents for everyone, planning where you'll meet family, making sure everything is wrapped. It's mundane, and far less pleasurable than chewing a candy cane while wondering about the logistics of Santa's journey -- but the level of emotion is the same. The days leading into the 25th are a held breath, and the aftermath is a sigh of relief.

That's not to say Christmas isn't fun. But it's an emotional apex, and we all need the following week to drift back down. And then we launch into another year, resetting our collective odometer and marking another notch.

These experiences tend to be communal; and this year, the Christmas spirit has been elusive. Everyone has been overwhelmed; and everyone seems to agree that, just as some Sundays don't feel like Sunday, the past month hasn't felt like Christmas. But it's arrived nonetheless, and it's going to pass like any other.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Colleen Nestler is a 56-year-old woman from New Mexico who blames her bankruptcy and psychological problems on David Letterman. She claims that for the past 12 years, Letterman has been sending her coded messages during his broadcasts. She claims he has promised to marry her and train her as his co-host, but that he has refused to fulfill those commitments. This week, she finally insisted that a judge issue a restraining order barring Letterman from harassing her through these coded messages.

Amazingly, she found a judge to agree.

It's best to start directly from the source. The following is quoted from a letter Nestler filed with the First Judicial District Court of New Mexico:
[My story] involves primarily, David Letterman as the root cause to my bankruptcy, but also involves Regis Philbin, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Kelsey Grammer. Reason being the latter three: they were entirely aware of the reality of me being the person Mr. Letterman wanted to marry, and at the same time, was the person, through my willingness to learn, who wanted to train me via intense observation, to be his co-host on the Late Show with David Letterman. In reality, I was opening myself to years of mis-leading intentions and excuses in order for Mr. Letterman to effectually suppress, dis-arm, in order to use me as his puppet and more as this story unfolds. It involves every taped Late Show when Dave functioned as the host, at CBS, since the beginning.

To begin, to explain how Dave "operates in order to conceal, and keep private what he wants to keep private, Dave talks in a"code" is common in the television industry and is also how Kelsey "communicated" to me, as well as to Dave, as while in the process, using the plot of his tv show Frasier, a vehicle of total communication. I had to learn this he "had me" up in the early hours, watching, of course his show, but as well, World News Now...on ABC, as well as Good Morning America, which eventually extended to The Today Show, and of course, Live, with Regis and Kathie Lee.
Her six-page story is sad. Obviously, her claims are ludicrous and she's clearly quite ill; but the next paragraph is the most poignant in her letter.
In the summer of 1993, I was married to Frank Nestler. We lived in the Carson Valley, Nevada, and had a small art gallery of our work. It was not your conventional marriage, for it was more like a brother-sister arrangement. He was 26 years older, and although I had great respect for him, it was a marriage without passion. In actuality, I was very unhappy and privately wanted to divorce, but had no reason to. Plus, I tried to honor the marriage commmittment. But wehn Dave walked out onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre for the first time under his new CBS contract, something happened inside me. My entire being "alit" so to say. It was as if I had dis-engaged from gravity and was no longer aware of anything but his eyes and voice. Yet, even at that time in August and September, with nightly, devotional watchings, I didn't truly REALIZE what had happened to me. All I remember was saying to myself : "Well, I'm going to have to stay up and watch him." And I did, from that moment on-every Show until 1998.
She says it herself: She was an empty woman living a passionless life, and she needed something to fill the void. She found it in Letterman.

According to Nestler, the courtship began when she "sent supportive thoughts of love to him." (Not letters, mind you. Just thoughts. Nestler believes that "thoughts are things.") She claims that Letterman "responded to my thoughts of love, and, on his show, in code words & obvious indications through jestures and eye expressions, he asked me to come east." His advances intensified, alternatively wooing her and apologizing when he failed to make promised rendezvous. He chose her as his co-host, and insisted that she follow a rigorous schedule of study watching various shows to prepare. Eventually, Nestler claims, she couldn't take any more. She refused to meet his demands. When Letterman had surgery in 2000, Nestler realized that she no longer loved him.

She doesn't explain what has transpired between 2000 and today; but apparently, she felt compelled to apply for a restraining order. Obviously, the judge should have dismissed Nestler's application and referred her to a psychiatrist; but instead, incredibly, District Judge Daniel Sanchez signed an order instructing Letterman to refrain from threatening, harming, or contacting Nestler, and prohibiting him from coming within 100 yards of her.

Colleen Nestler lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You might say there's little chance that David Letterman will ring her doorbell -- and therefore, little harm in telling him not to. That's irrelevant. A restraining order isn't a cuddly blanket to make people feel warm and safe; it's a weapon of last resort, when people prove themselves absolutely incapable of existing civilly. Moreover, it carries tremendous stigma. There's a pervasive "guilty until proven innocent" attitude in our society, a perception that, "If she got a restraining order, you must have done something..."

This case proves that false.

Judge Sanchez should be impeached. His job is to help people, not to rubber stamp whatever vague legal forms cross his desk. Ideally, he should have recognized that this woman was a step removed from schizophrenia and arranged for her to receive help. But he was unforgivably wrong to indulge her fantasy at the expense of another man's reputation.

We live in a free society. Outside preexisting statutes, the law shall restrict me from nothing -- nothing -- until I am proven guilty. Yet every day in America, any woman can walk into a courthouse and obtain an automatic restraining order against any man based on zero evidence, zero testimony, zero facts of any kind beyond her polite request. I have pity for Colleen Nestler, a woman who clearly needs our help and patience rather than mockery; but this judge's action brings a shameful state of affairs into extreme relief.

The next time you hear the phrase, "restraining order," remember Colleen Nestler. Remember that no piece of paper, no legal decree can deter a violent psychotic; and consider that these orders simply give misguided people an opportunity to tarnish a good man's reputation without any burden of proof.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Apparently Joss Whedon is putting Firefly in his rearview mirror. The 2002 television series gained a cult following before being cancelled early; and its 2005 box office resurrection, Serenity, earned a disappointing $25 million. Whedon says he's done. Let me be the first to say: Good riddance.

I never knew Firefly was on FOX, and I never watched it on the Sci Fi Channel. But I had read its fanmail on Slashdot, and eventually I became inundated with testimonials from friends whose taste I trust. Everyone insisted: This is the best show you're not watching. So I bought the DVD set, and I sat through the first few episodes.

The emperor has no clothes.

It wasn't the worst thing I ever watched. I once sat through an episode of The Bachelor during its first season, and I usually catch the tail end of Wife Swap leading into Monday Night Football. Kerrie and I even once saw about three minutes of The Osbournes, to which I could only react by saying, "That's what comes of prolonged heroin abuse." Yes, those were all worse than Firefly. But none of those had my friends drooling over Joss Whedon's jockstrap. Pardon the unfortunate pun, but: Where's the beef?

As I understand it, fans loved the idea of reinterpreting Star Wars through the lens of a Western. And apparently Whedon intentionally avoided any mention of warp drives or travel at the speed of light; I'm not sure exactly what he intended to achieve by that, but his fans seem to think it was a brilliant stroke of nonconformity. Whatever. Aristotle said the two most important elements of story were plot and character, in that order. I watched Firefly; and I didn't care about the characters, and I don't remember the plots.

After staring at the screen like a Magic Eye, waiting to see whatever buried treasure everyone else seemed to find in this show, I gave up and sold my DVDs to Newbury Comics. A few weeks later, I stumbled across a revelation: Joss Whedon had written the screenplay for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and he had created the TV series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. I promise you: If I had known Whedon was this sort of teen-targetting tripester before I had bought the DVDs, I never would have wasted those hours discovering the obvious.

So Firefly is dead. Its cult will live on, but Whedon is making the right decision choosing to put it behind him. Firefly wasn't killed by network conspiracy; it wasn't stifled because it was too smart for its audience, and it wasn't the victim of bad luck. It had three chances at success, and it failed every time -- because it sucks.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I'm wrapping Christmas presents, writing Christmas cards, and assembling a database and studying for the LSAT, all at the same time. So it's been a busy week.

I don't know why, it seems like everyone is running short this year. It's like how, some days you'll hit the highway and everyone will seem to be driving faster, or there will be an inordinate number of accidents, or everyone will be in a generally bad mood. It's like the full moon effect, except it's apparently independent of any cause. Everyone just seems to be in the same boat.

There's plenty to write about. I'll get to it. My next priority, after holiday duties, is a letter to our congressmen about Cape Wind, following Robert F. Kennedy's editorial for the New York Times. I've got plenty on my offline schedule in the next few weeks (including an ill-advised casino jaunt), but I have a few early-draft entries penciled in my cache. I'm hoping to start picking up the slack tomorrow.

In the meantime, here's pulling for the seven million New Yorkers who spent their morning crossing the East River in sub-freezing temperature. There was a time, labor unions fought the good fight for safe working conditions and a living wage. Those days are long past, and the Transport Workers Union officials should (and may) be thrown in jail for precipitating this strike. Negotiation talks weren't sufficiently far apart to cause anyone ruin or hardship; this strike, however, will endanger businesses run by good people during a week that can make the difference between another tight year and boarding up the windows.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Yesterday's New York Times revealed that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans inside the United States without applying for warrants. The president confirmed this in his weekly radio address this morning. This afternoon, that revelation was joined by another headline: A senior at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth was interrogated by two agents from the Department of Homeland Security after he used the college's interlibrary loan program to request a copy of Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.

From the article:
The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.
Maybe federal agents had good reason to focus on the student. Maybe his time abroad included visits to questionable locales, and maybe he had been consorting overseas with suspicious characters. I'm willing to grant that where there's smoke, there's often fire. But in this case, I don't care. No risk justifies the existence of a library watch list. If this country cannot survive without monitoring what its citizens read, it's already dead.

A better writer than I said that America is an idea, one that has lit the world for two centuries. To think that today, that idea has been infected by a mob of Cassandras who fear thought itself, is tragic.

Nikita Khrushchev famously promised to bury the United States. He bragged that Soviet missiles could strike a fly in our airspace. But he was a brilliant man who understood politics; and in a lucid moment, he predicted that Communism would overturn capitalism not with weapons or warfare, but insidiously, from the inside out. During the Cold War, rumors persisted of remote Russian villages where everyone spoke fluent English and children were raised by the GRU, indoctrinated in Communist principles and then sent to blend into American society.

I promise you, those stories were true. And days like this, I wonder whether they didn't succeed.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A friend, an associate professor in Berklee's harmony department, told me about a student who submitted a "project" copied right off a Richard Smallwood album. The kid obviously didn't think that his teachers were hip enough to listen to gospel music; and in this case, he was dead wrong. His punishment was to go home and write a real project.

I was stunned. How could he not have been expelled?

The internet spurred plagiarism, and in turn, plagiarism detection. It's become a high-profile crime at most universities. The question is, What's the punishment? Maybe failing to cite a source doesn't rise to the level of pasting your name onto the title page of someone else's term paper -- but doesn't the latter deserve zero tolerance?

My friend consulted with his department chair, who expressed "ambivalence"; and ultimately, they decided not to take any action. In cases like this, the student isn't merely forgiven; the entire incident is erased. The faculty may not have given him an A+ and two gold stars, but they looked the other way. The kid's record won't reflect that he broke the rules and was forgiven; according to his record, this incident never happened.

Now, I think plagiarism is a thousand times worse when you're talking about a musician at a conservatory passing off someone else's recording as his own. I have a room filled with obscure jazz CDs, and none of my friends listen to jazz; if I wanted, I could easily impress them by claiming some Jim McNeely chart was my own composition. But you just don't do that. Some rules are unwritten simply because they're so basic, so fundamental that to write them down would almost cheapen them. You don't have to be told that it's wrong. You know.

Colleges tolerate these transgressions because of greed. Nearly every college in America is staffed with competent, well-intentioned teachers; but it's run by bean-counting bureaucrats who have little contact with students and whose primary mission is to make money. There's almost no academic crime that will get you expelled from college today; in fact, if administrators weren't worried about lawsuits, they would probably reward sexual harassment and violence with a slap on the wrist. This dollar-sign attitude has cheapened the value of a college degree; today, both employers and graduates realize that many degrees simply denote an investment of four years and $100,000.

But isn't there an abdication of responsibility when schools stop demanding academic excellence, honesty, and integrity? When a CEO blows town with a pension fund and sentences six hundred employees to spend their golden years tossing French fries for health insurance, certainly, we blame him; we hold each adult responsible for his actions. But shouldn't we also look backward and ask, "What if his parents had punished him for shoplifting at age 10, instead of embarrassingly pretending it never happened? What if his college had expelled him for handing in someone else's paper, instead of brushing it under the rug and allowing him to resubmit? What if someone had stopped and, instead of letting it be the next guy's job, instead of hoping fate would deliver his comeuppance, what if someone had held him responsible?"

Yes, a college has a fiscal responsibility to its customers. But education isn't purely a service industry; and a school also has a responsibility to society, just like any other person, entity, or business. And willfully turning a blind eye to blatant fraud constitutes neglect.

Fisher College expelled a sophomore in October for allegedly plotting to frame a campus police officer. Hoping to get the officer fired, the student began posting on an internet bulletin board, "Either we get a petition going [we need at least 500 signatures] or we try and set him up." The college's decision was met with condemnation by so-called free speech advocates; but really, isn't this a step in the right direction? Isn't it an application of precisely the sort of standard that restores dignity and value to a school's reputation -- that if you lie, if you steal, if you conspire to harm someone, then you lose the privilege of joining the alumni.

It's worth adding: I'm not a rat. I'm not a tattletale. If a fellow Berklee student confessed to me that he had received credit for someone else's work, I honestly don't know what I'd do. But the flip side to that is, if you get caught, you have to pay the price. This wasn't an instance of ghostwriting, where one student hired another to do his homework; this is theft, pure and simple. This is scrawling your name on a Picasso. And when a couple of professors turn the other way while this kid graduates, every Berklee degree loses a bit of its value.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Today's Boston Globe explained why Superior Court Judge Raymond J. Brassard instructs his male jurors to wear neckties.
''I think jury service is a serious occasion," he said during a break in his chambers, where he had removed his robe to reveal a silk maroon tie, a gift from his wife. ''And I think the whole system of law benefits when people walking into a courtroom -- witnesses, spectators, defendants -- look at the jury box and see that it's not just the lawyers who are formally dressed."

Formal occasions deserve formal attire. Every civilization, every civilization has respected the power of costume. Whether couched in mythical imagery or subliminal terms, the fact is that people think differently, react differently, behave differently when dressed to suit specific intent; and if there's even a chance that wearing a jacket and tie will unconsciously affect your sobriety as you consider whether to suspend another man's freedom, you owe that gesture.

The article quotes a Dorchester defense attorney, described as "a distinctive figure with his long mane of white hair and trademark bow tie," who takes issue with Judge Brassard's instruction. "I remember when we were a free country," the attorney said. "There might be people on the jury who don't know how to do a Windsor knot or a four-in-hand."

Then they can learn.

Perhaps that attorney also remembers a time when we valued our standards. Judge Brassard took his cue from former Superior Court Judge Robert Barton, a Marine veteran who started asking male jurors to dress appropriately in 1978. If jurors didn't own a tie, Judge Barton recommended that they borrow one from a father or older brother. He said, "I was very proud of the fact that till the day I stepped off the bench, my jurors were the best attired in the Commonwealth."

Most agree willingly. Some, the article concedes, fold under peer pressure. So what? Peer pressure is a perfectly appropriate social mechanism. The term was co-opted by after-school specials condemning smoking and drug use; but just like criminal profiling, peer pressure is a neutral tactic that can just as easily be used for good. In fact, peer pressure is exactly the point of the adage, "It takes a village to raise a child." The law and criminal penalty should be our tool of last resort in shaping the conduct of our citizens. Our primary mechanisms should be social.

Kudos to Judges Brassard and Barton. Jury duty is not a vacation. It's not a day off. On the contrary: It's a promotion, in responsibility if not salary. Yesterday, your job involved stocking shelves or tallying numbers or assigning homework; and today, you're deciding whether a man can go home to his wife. Dress the part -- and pray that a dozen of your peers will return the favor when it's your turn.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

CBS4 News is reporting that charges will likely be filed this week against three Kingston teenagers for building a bomb over the weekend.
Kingston Police say a resident called them at 10 a.m. Sunday to report that a plastic bottle exploded on the front lawn of their home on Snapping Turtle Lane. The resident told police their dog had just dragged the bottle in from the woods, but dropped it on the lawn when he was called into the house. A minute later it blew up.
When I was a kid, we called this a Hindenburg bomb. You fill about two-thirds of a plastic bottle with Liquid Plumr, then drop in a strip of aluminum foil and screw on the cap. The resulting chemical reaction produces hydrogen; and as the pressure builds, eventually the bottle bursts.

So first of all, it's not a bomb. There's no fire, no explosion. It's not incendiary. High school chemistry teachers set off more dangerous "bombs" when they toss sodium into water, which produces a similar reaction (but also produces heat which can ignite the hydrogen). This is a step beyond shaking a bottle of soda and unscrewing the cap.

Second, this is what kids are supposed to do. What happened to, "Boys will be boys"? For every few hundred kids who experiment with chemical reactions, a few will become seriously interested in science. That's a good thing. It's absolutely ridiculous that kids are discouraged -- in some jurisdictions, they're prohibited -- from launching model rockets. It doesn't ensure safety. It just discourages science.

Third, no one got hurt. The only near miss was a dog who dragged the bottle home -- and that wouldn't have happened if the animal had been on a leash. Don't get me started on dog owners who refuse to control their pets.

But the larger point is this: Stop worrying about bombs. There are far simpler ways to dismantle American society if terrorists are inclined. I've said it before: Our entire transportation system depends on blind faith. If Al Qaeda could recruit two dozen drivers across different cities and towns and coordinate them, at a specified time, to accelerate their SUVs and cross the yellow line, our entire society would be crippled in an instant. We would spend weeks locked in our homes, while politicians debated installing K-rails on every city street and automakers rushed to develop automated guidance systems.

Nothing good will come of our obsession with preventing terrorism at a retail level. It isn't a question of pitting safety against liberty; it's a matter of sacrificing liberty for inflated bureaucracy. It achieves nothing, absolutely nothing. And in this case, the only result will be opening criminal records on three kids who were just being kids.

Monday, December 12, 2005

I'm not crazy about using this space to air gossip, but I found this story in yesterday's New York Times. I'm applying to law school as a musician concerned with intellectual property, after all, and this is right up that alley; plus, as the article points out, a story like this doesn't come along every day from the world of classical music. So here's a chance to practice rhetoric for my application essay.

Here's the nutshell: Three members of the Audubon String Quartet decided their first violinist was obstinate, domineering, and generally damaging to the direction of the group. So they fired him. He sued them for wrongful termination; and a judge decided the quartet constituted a corporation, and that the violinist was entitled to $132,844 in lawyer's fees, $78,275 in quartet funds, and 25% of the quartet's value of the business, which was determined to be $400,000.

Obviously, three classical musicians don't have that kind of cash on hand. They declared bankruptcy -- and the first violinist promptly placed liens on their property. Now they face involuntary liquidation, meaning their homes, cars, bank accounts, and even their violins may be sold to pay their debt. Just the other day I wrote about rightful debt, so the question arises: Is this right?

The details of the squabble are petty. You can read them for yourself; but if the writer reported them accurately, I think it's safe to say they had little effect on the judge's application of the law. He could easily have decided in favor of Ehrlich (the first violinist) and awarded him two nickels and a pat on the back. But by deciding that the quartet constituted a business whose "product was their musical performances," and by assigning each member the status of owner and director, the judge drew artistic conclusions about the nature of the ensemble.

As I understand business, it exists to make a profit. If classical musicians wanted to make money, they'd sell real estate; and string quartets aren't exactly the top of the classical pyramid. Reviewing the Audobon's discography, they've covered music by Donald Erb, Ezra Laderman, and Ernest von Dohnanyi -- and if you've never heard of those people, you've got that in common with every other human being on the entire planet. This isn't a pursuit that leads to fame, and it certainly won't yield earth-shattering sales that will pay your great-grandchildren's tuition. You do it because you love it or you don't do it at all.

Moreover: What is the dollar value of a quartet? And when you've figured that out, riddle me this: What is the dollar value of a quartet whose three-fourths feel incapable of working with the remaining member? Ehrlich claims he was the victim of a conspiracy; I don't know the backstory, but let's assume he's right. Does that matter? If a quartet is fractured along those lines, does it matter whether the operative word is "can't" or "won't"? The bottom line is, the quartet is only productive if all four members can work together in harmony (pardon the pun). Without that element, it seems to me the group's value is nil.

Even if you decide the quartet is a business, a necessary component of its function is the exercise of artistic judgment; and the decision to play with one person over another is every bit as vital as the decision to play one piece over another. The violist commented, "The very essence of this whole case is, how is it possible for three people who dismiss one person and end up like that?" In defense of Ehrlich, a fellow musician quipped, "You get two weeks notice at McDonald's."

Is our legal system such a blunt tool that we must consider this scenario in terms we would apply to a job flipping burgers? Is the distinction too subtle for the perception of our jurists? A musical ensemble is a balancing act between taste, talent, skill, personality, and old-fashioned luck and circumstance; and one loose stone can topple the tower. Is it reasonable to apply a standard designed for one model onto a totally different scenario? And if not, what was the alternative? Is there an arrow in the quiver that would have suited this case?

Rhetoric off. My two cents? This case should have been tossed. Judicial activism isn't simply carving new definitions to suit personal grievances; sometimes, activism is stretching old principles into territory where they never belonged. I suppose there's something admirable about a judge who takes his job seriously and tries to help; but on occasion, the appropriate response is to tell the parties, "Your story is unfortunate, and you seem like nice people -- but no legal remedy exists for your situation. Dismissed. Next case."

Sunday, December 11, 2005

I started playing guitar as a freshman in high school. I played the usual pop/rock fare; a couple of friends formed a band, and we played covers off the radio. My heroes were guys like Joe Satriani and Stevie Ray Vaughan -- and, of course, B.B. King. That was my concept of music: I was a lead guitarist. Sure, I covered rhythm parts so we could play school dances, and because that's what you do as part of a band; but it was a means to an end. I wanted to play solos.

There were two guys a couple of years older than me, Ross Stafford and Pete Swanson. Pete played bass, and he was the envy of everyone else because he had a six-string bass and he played just like Les Claypool. He was a monster; he would sit on the edge of the stage playing the riff from "My Name Is Mud," and we all thought it was just the coolest thing we'd ever heard. And that was important, because it established his cred for what happened next.

Pete got an upright bass; and along with Ross, who played piano, he started playing jazz. I don't know which of them caught the bug first, or how it happened; but they started playing together in Frothingham Hall after school every day, working out changes on a few simple tunes. To be honest, I didn't understand most of what they were doing -- but these were the most serious musicians I knew, and they had clearly graduated into something that fascinated them. So I was mesmerized.

My friend Tony and I walked in one afternoon, and Pete was visibly excited. He said, "Listen to this!" and he began playing a line. When he was finished, he looked up at us and asked, "Do you recognize it?" We shook our heads, and he seemed surprised we didn't. "It's 'Autumn Leaves.'"

I didn't know what "Autumn Leaves" was. But I knew I was missing out on something, and I knew I had to catch up. So that afternoon, I walked down to Newbury Comics and sifted through the jazz section. I found a CD with a picture of a bass, piano, and drums on the cover; that seemed like what I had been hearing, so I flipped it over and I was ecstatic to see "Autumn Leaves" among the songs listed. That was Chick Corea's Akoustic Band, and it was the first jazz CD I bought.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Today's New York Times published a front-page story about credit card companies (banks) aggressively soliciting the newly bankrupt. Obviously, these people represent a potential gold mine: They're proven spenders, and revised laws prevent them from escaping debt for at least eight years. Now, I'm more than happy to castigate the banks for behaving like vultures; but there's another dimension here, evidenced by the following excerpt:
Ms. Fogle would seem to be a perfect candidate for long-term debt to credit cards. Though she works regularly as a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital here, earning $16 an hour, and has health insurance, she said a health emergency pushed her into debt. Last year, she needed surgery for uterine cancer, which caused her to lose days of work and income. Credit cards made up the difference, and soon she was $15,000 in debt.

She filed for protection of the courts in late August, and her debts are now removed.
I sympathize with anyone stricken by illness, and I certainly don't believe a health emergency should cripple a mother's ability to feed her children. But why does Laura Fogle believe that Citibank should pay her rent? The Times portrays her as a single mother of two, caught between a rock and a hard place, bled by vicious banks that charge exorbitant interest; but it seems to me that, however she incurred $15,000 worth of debt, it was her responsibility to pay. If she objected to her interest rate or late fees, certainly she could have negotiated the terms with her bank; instead, she basically ran inside a courtroom and called, "Base!"

If a liberal newspaper wants to spin tougher bankruptcy regulations as a sinister plot to strangle the lower middle class, that's fine; but the truth is, the banks petitioned for these unfair laws because people abused the system in order to escape rightful debts. When you strip away the rhetoric and sob stories, basically these people were committing theft. They bought thousands of dollars worth of electronics, or furniture, or food or rent or whatever; and then they ducked under the wing of bankruptcy law, leaving the banks holding the bag.

There's a concept in law called "clean hands," which essentially says that a drug user can't sue his dealer for theft. That's what we have here. Yes, the banks are absolutely charging unreasonable fees, and they're employing unconscionable methods to wring dry every customer they can find. But in the weeks before new bankruptcy laws took effect in October, more than 600,000 people swamped courthouses with petitions for protection under Chapter 7. The vast majority of these people were exactly like Laura Fogle. Whether her debt was incurred by lack of discipline, a tragic setback, or a likely combination of the two, the fact is that cancer doesn't absolve her of a duty to repay her debt to Citibank.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Yesterday, Krispy Kreme closed three New England stores, including the company's first Massachusetts store in Medford. When I bought Krispy Kreme stock in 2001, I paid $30 per share. I sold when it hit $50. Today, each share is worth about $6.

In simple terms, greed made Krispy Kreme sloppy. A series of mistakes led to its fall, but the common theme was inconsistency and the root cause was greed. The bottom line is that its executives caught the scent of the leading edge of a fad, and they thought to ride the wave into uberwealth. The problem was, they had never been that far away from shore; they didn't know the currents, and they drowned.

Their first mistake was aiming for the Northeastern market. Krispy Kreme was built in North Carolina; those doughnuts are a Southern treat tailored for Southern folks. You can't hold the attention of Yankee cynics with a HOT DOUGHNUTS NOW sign; they might buy its initial charm, but ultimately Yankees are skeptical of anything that smells like a marketing gimmick. Besides which, fresh doughnuts are warm and tasty, but they're not convenient -- and city folks live and die on convenience.

The company's second mistake was trying to fight an elephant on its home ground. Rather than build a solid foundation, rather than placing satellites to establish credibility and explore the market, they just charged in and aimed to drop the bull (Dunkin Donuts) with a single shot. Ambitious, maybe -- but stupid.

That said: The truth is, they conceived an interesting plan. When Krispy Kreme first announced its plan to expand into New England several years ago, its executives detailed a specific plan of attack. Instead of opening in urban locations and challenging Dunkin Donuts head on, they would begin by opening a few stores near suburban office parks. They would focus on their coffee, thinking that those specific commuters would favor quality doughnuts over familiar coffee; and if they could serve decent brew, they reasoned, they would certainly capture a respectable share.

That was a clever plan, and it was just narrow enough that it might have worked, if they had stuck with it. Abandoning it was their final mistake. I don't know what made them second-guess themselves; but someone decided to cover the bases, and in addition to locations in Cranston, Rhode Island and Newington, Connecticut, they also opened in Medford and Dedham, Massachusetts, and even smack in the middle of Prudential Center in downtown Boston. Now, not only had they broken the consistency of their 60-year-old corporate vision; they had deviated from their own 5-year strategy. They were skipping all over the map, with their eyes locked on stock dividends rather than stability or success. It's a workable plan if you're looking to go supernova, I suppose; but you can't achieve longevity with an open throttle.

Hopefully, Krispy Kreme's new executives (the old ones have all been fired) will realize that only the strategy was flawed; the business model has served them well for 60 years, and one slipped grasp off the brass ring doesn't mean they need to reinvent the entire company. They make a good product; they just couldn't hang with major league ball. I hope they'll go back to the minors to lick their wounds and learn their lessons. And someday, I sincerely hope they'll try again.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Schadenfreude is a German word for pleasure derived from someone else's misfortune. It's a terrible thing to admit; but we're all human, and I suppose there's no point in pretending otherwise. So I'll tell you about my eBay confession.

EBay uses automated proxy bidding. Despite sounding complicated, it's actually quite simple: You tell the computer how much you're willing to spend for an item, and the computer will try to buy the item for as little as possible. As other bidders join, the computer will raise your bid incrementally -- if necessary, up to your maximum bid. It's entirely possible that you can place a bid of $40 for a CD; and, if no one else tries to outbid, you can win the auction for a nickel. EBay will only raise your bid when necessary, and never higher than you permit.

If people simply used this system as intended, eBay would be simple. Instead, people place lowball bids, hoping they'll win cheap without having to commit to a higher cost. John Doe will bid $3 for a CD; but when he returns the next day to discover that someone else was willing to pay $5, John will reconsider and decide to bid $10. This goes back and forth, and results in a bidding war that drives the price up. Sellers love bidding wars.

The only way to avoid a bidding war is by placing your bid at the last possible second, leaving no chance for someone to change his mind and outbid you. It's impossible to predict whether your last-second bid will be below some previous bid, in which case you'll still lose; but at least you can prevent the artificial price inflation that results from bidding wars.

This last-second bidding is called "sniping." I'm a sniper. First, I decide how much I'm willing to spend; it's usually an exorbitant amount, because I don't buy on eBay often and I aim only for rare CDs. Now, if I place that high bid early, one of two things will certainly happen: either someone will outbid me and I'll lose, or someone will challenge my bid and I'll pay more. Either way, perceived demand will drive the price up -- great for the seller, bad for me. So I keep my hand hidden until the last possible second.

If this sounds competitive, it is. It's a game; and it's dangerous, because it pits testosterone in direct conflict with my wallet. I begin and end by wanting a specific item; but in the interim, the process is an adrenaline charge. There are automated programs available for eBay sniping, but that drains the sport out of it. I sit patiently by my computer during the last few minutes, preparing my bid; I synchronize my computer's clock to eBay's, and I watch the seconds tick down. Then I wait for the last possible moment -- and I click CONFIRM BID.

Then I refresh the page to see the result. If I was the only last-minute bidder, then I win the item for much less than I was prepared to spend. But truthfully, I'm always disappointed to see that. Sure, it means I got a great deal; but I didn't win. I didn't beat anyone. The real glee is in seeing that a couple of other would-be snipers jumped in during those last ten seconds, and that I came out on top.

Last weekend, I won an auction with a bid placed two seconds before the auction closed. I beat another bidder whose bid was placed two seconds before mine. Now, I won because my bid was higher, not because it came later; eBay actually gives priority to earlier bids, so if we had bid the same amount then I would have lost. He bid $22.05, and I bid considerably more. But here's the catch: If his bid had followed mine, I would still have won the auction for exactly the same dollar amount. The sole difference would be that his bid would have raised mine, rather than my bid trumping his. It's purely cosmetic. It's ego.

What's worse, though, is that I thought about him sitting by his computer after placing his bid. His screen would have said, "You are the current high bidder!"; and he must have felt secure that with only two seconds to go, the CD would belong to him. Then he would refresh the page, and suddenly he would sit up in his chair and shout, "WHO THE FUCK IS CRIBCAGE?!?"

I smiled at that thought. And that's a rotten thing to admit; because besides being poor sportsmanship, this guy and I have something in common. We both wanted a great, rare, out of print jazz CD, which frankly separates us from most of the people on eBay, let alone the planet Earth. My first instinct should have been to email him and offer to share the disc when I received it, not to pat myself on the back.

I don't intend this journal to become a confessional; but if I'm going to develop voice as a writer, I have to also find depth in both action and emotion. To be honest, it's not about being kind or charitable or well-liked; those things are well enough I suppose, but as I've said, it's the craft that matters. No, it's about depth -- moving beyond selfish, immature reactions and being able to forge real character. Any teenager with a typewriter can be clever; but to have something to say, and to make that insight resound through successive generations, is another goal entirely. For that, you've got to reach far; and sometimes it's as much about what you don't put on the page as the words you choose.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I attended a dance recital tonight at my old high school. Despite a few cute numbers, most of the program consisted of indecent choreography performed by teenagers wearing miniskirts and halter tops. One piece was an "intimate" duet of the jungle fever persuasion -- proving that either the dance teacher doesn't value job security, or else the school has changed dramatically since my days as a student.

But here's the kicker. Amidst the Combat Zone-meets-MTV ambience, the teacher chose to fill intermission by leading the audience in a sing-a-long to the tune of "The 12 Days of Christmas". And instead of leading each verse with the lyric, "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me," she introduced this clever replacement: "For the holiday season, my true love gave to me..."

So let's review. A dozen 14-year-old girls dressed like streetwalkers, spreading and prostrating themselves to cheap music? No problem. Pairing a white girl with a black boy -- dressing her in a tutu and him in baggy denim, just in case anyone missed your subtle motif -- for a slow, sexual grind? Apparently that's appropriate for a holiday-themed high school recital, too. But God forbid the audience endure a relatively neutral Christmas carol. Nope, we've got to cut the word "Christmas" and revise. We wouldn't want anyone to feel offended.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

This marks the 50th entry I've written in this journal. I wanted to write more often, in small pieces, and so far I've succeeded.

I've been reading Alice Flaherty's The Midnight Disease. It's filled with factoids and anecdotes, and one of my favorites is about a ceramics class whose teacher divided them into two groups. The first group was graded on quantity -- fifty pounds of pots earned an A, forty pounds earned a B, etc. The second group was graded on quality; each student only had to fashion one perfect pot, and they could take as long as they needed. At the end of the semester, it turned out that the best pots had been produced by the quantity group. They weren't aiming for perfection, but accumulated practice inevitably got them there.

That anecdote reminded me of a similar story I'd heard about a basketball team whose coach split them into two groups. He assigned the first group to spend ten minutes every night with their eyes closed, visualizing themselves shooting free throws; and as the season progressed, that first group's free throw percentages increased dramatically compared to their teammates.

Obviously the story was meant to illustrate the power of mind over body; but I couldn't help thinking, "Why didn't the coach assign a third group to spend an extra ten minutes practicing for real?" Sure, visualizing yourself playing basketball might be more productive than playing Nintendo; but stack it against the real thing, and the coach would learn quick what that ceramics class proved: There's no substitute for experience.

Chuck Jones wrote that his first instructor at the Chouinard Art Institute began every semester with this declaration: "All of you here have one hundred thousand bad drawings in you. The sooner you get rid of them, the better it will be for everyone." So I keep writing. I like some entries better than others; the last few, in particular, have dragged. But the only question is whether actually writing something every day is more productive than daydreaming about becoming a great author; and so long as I'm convinced that it is, I'll keep hacking away.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

You can't understand addiction unless you've experienced it. But I can tell you this much: The aphorism about acknowledging the problem being a first step...? It's true, but it's not nearly as poignant as people insist. In reality, that acknowledgment doesn't usually come as an earth-shattering revelation, for two reasons: Most addictions are corrosive, but few are actually destructive; and most addicts aren't blind.

The truth is, most addicts know damn well what they're doing. Sure, they flash through various stages of apathy and guilt, and depending on the moment they may grin or want to quit. But on the whole, most addicts aren't stupid. They realize their lives would be more productive if they quit their vice. They don't persist because they're ignorant, or even because they're self-destructive; they persist because there's a payoff. They don't want to quit.

It's ironic. There are a dozen so-called diseases that are excessively diagnosed and medicated in our society. Every fifth kid is labeled with Asperger's or ADD, and every middle-aged male is being encouraged to pop blue pills by the dozen. But between the spread of casinos, the rise of the internet, and the return of widespread advertisements for hard liquor, I wonder if addiction isn't hitting record levels. And of course, all those addictions cost a lot of money. No one ever seems to get addicted to leisurely walks and origami.

Friday, December 02, 2005

In reading various articles about Christmas shopping, I've stumbled across these three statistics:
  1. Most Americans plan to spend an average of $780 on presents.
  2. Most Americans are still paying off Christmas debt in July.
  3. The average American income is around $44,000.
Now, I've read How To Lie With Statistics, and I know to raise an eyebrow when numbers conflict with common sense. But if you read between the lines, you'll see the reflection of a major problem facing American finance: most people don't even realize how much they spend, and they end up living hip-deep in credit card debt.

If you want an idea how ubiquitous credit cards have become, consider that it has become cliché for child psychologists to advise parents that using cash in front of their children will teach kids about the value of money. A child doesn't understand the significance of a credit card, but he can watch Mommy counting bills from her wallet and handing them to a cashier. It's hardly paranoid to speculate that, today, that's something many children may not see.

We live in a society littered with credit cards and mortgages, where large fractions of every paycheck go toward things that have already been bought. House and car loans have been around forever; but today people are buying clothes, computers, purses, televisions, jewelry that they can't afford until next week. Perpetual debt has become the de facto standard; and as a result, personal savings have hit their lowest levels since the Great Depression.

Congress recently tightened the reins on bankruptcy filings, which is rather like throwing out the medication without curing the disease. The problem is now going to get worse, a lot worse, before it gets better. It may not be cheery, but it's something worth considering during this holiday season. You can put yourself on your Christmas list with three important gifts:
  1. Destroy your credit cards.
  2. Pay attention to what you spend.
  3. Save a little every week.
I've said before, and I'll say again now: I firmly believe that every American can become a millionaire. All it takes is discipline over time. That's not to say we can all become Donald Trump; the fact is, a million dollars doesn't stretch as far as it used to. As a nest egg broken over thirty years of retirement, it barely yields $30,000 annually, and that value shrinks with each passing year of inflation. But the point is, a dollar invested while you're 21 will be worth plenty more when you're 65; and frankly, even if you just stick the money inside your mattress, it's easier to push a broom or flip hamburgers to earn a buck at 21 than it is at 65.

I don't claim to be able to predict the future, but I can definitely read a forecast -- and it is going to get worse, a lot worse, before it gets better. Take my advice. Inoculate yourself.