Saturday, January 28, 2006

Light on Two Sides

There's a basic architectural principle that says every room should have light on two sides. Quoting Christopher Alexander:
The importance of this pattern lies partly in the social atmosphere it creates in the room. Rooms lit on two sides, with natural light, create less glare around people and objects; this lets us see things more intricately; and most important, it allows us to read in detail the minute expressions that flash across people's faces, the motion of their hands...and thereby understand, more clearly, the meaning they are after. The light on two sides allows people to understand each other.
Plenty has already been written about Google's decision to filter search results inside China. I'm not interested in criticizing Google, and others have articulated the defense for me. But it's not every day that you can see censorship clearly illustrated from both sides; in most cases, something is either censored or it isn't and the best you can do is to imagine the alternative. This time, we can see both clearly.

These are the results from two identical Google searches for a single word — the first as it appears to a person in the US and the second as it appears to a person in China.

Friday, January 27, 2006


When the Newton TAB reported this week that a librarian had defied the FBI, the blogosphere promptly erupted into a liberal's wet dream. Since everyone has already made up their minds that this was a Constitutional victory against a totalitarian regime, I thought we could review the facts as a fun little exercise.

Around 11 a.m. last Wednesday morning, Brandeis University received a terrorist threat via email. Police and FBI were notified, and the threat was deemed credible. Authorities evacuated 12 buildings on the Brandeis campus and one nearby elementary school.

Within three hours, the FBI had traced the email to the Newton Free Library. Two agents, accompanied by two Newton police officers, drove to the library. They identified themselves and requested the librarians' assistance accessing the computers. Kathy Glick-Weil, the library's director, refused and demanded they produce a warrant. When the FBI agents explained the circumstances, Ms. Glick-Weil identified herself as a member of the ACLU and repeated her demand for a warrant.

Rather than escalate the situation, the agents tried a different tack. The FBI contacted the mayor, who met the agents at the library. After a discussion, Ms. Glick-Weil agreed to allow one of her employees to examine the computers. She confirmed that the FBI's information was accurate and she identified which of the room's 21 computers had sent the email. She refused to cooperate further, and the mayor agreed. A warrant arrived ten hours later, at which point the agents removed the computer from the building.

Those are the facts as reported by the Newton TAB and WTKK. In a follow-up article, the newspaper reported that Ms. Glick-Weil now disputes that FBI agents told her they needed the information to prevent a terrorist attack. You can decide for yourself whether that sounds credible, that four law enforcement officers would have abided this mess for ten hours without thinking to mention the reason for their visit.

(For anyone unfamiliar with Brandeis University, it's the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college in the United States. Its motto is the Hebrew word for truth, and its students and faculty are overwhelmingly comprised of Jews. I don't mean to imply that Ms. Glick-Weil's motives were anti-Semitic, but the school's Jewish profile is certainly a factor when considering the credibility of threats made against it.)

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures. There have been entire books written on the subject; but for the sake of keeping this discussion simple, I'll simply explain that our law recognizes certain necessary exceptions to the warrant requirement, some of which involve phrases like "imminent danger" and "hot pursuit."

To the liberals who are condemning the FBI agents for requesting information without a warrant, I would submit that they could have simply handcuffed Ms. Glick-Weil and helped themselves to the computer. I might have. I can only assume they had other avenues of investigation and were trying to avoid making a bad situation worse in terms of public relations; and rather than condemn them, liberals might consider praising their restraint. The FBI is often accused of overzealousness; and in this case, it seems that two agents managed to keep their cool in the presence of a woman determined to thwart their authority.

According to WTKK, Ms. Glick-Weil gave a speech several years ago in which she condemned the Patriot Act for its legislation regarding privacy in libraries. This week, she cited privacy laws and defended her actions by saying, "I feel I did everything I needed to do to protect the privacy of the people I need to protect, and to obey the law." Indeed, privacy was clearly her main concern. The library's computer room is equipped with surveillance cameras which would identify whomever sent the email — but those cameras had been turned off.

The TAB quoted David Gray, spokesman for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, who insisted that state law prohibits the release of any potentially identifying records without a warrant. Mayor David Cohen described this incident as one of Newton's "finest hours."

The paper also spoke with the ACLU.
Nancy Murray, director of education for the Boston branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she was surprised the FBI asked for information without a warrant.

"They couldn’t possibly expect to get [the computer] without a warrant," she said. "Good for the library for knowing more about warrants than the police."
There you have it. Kathy Glick-Weil, David Gray, and ACLU director Nancy Murray honestly believe the law protects the privacy of criminals before the lives of innocents. Hundreds of bloggers agree. That's frightening. I'm glad they're wrong, and I'm thankful no one was hurt.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Under New Ownership

Today's front page story in every paper across the civilized world is the news that Palestinians have overwhelmingly elected a terrorist organization to lead their country's government. Tomorrow will surely bring a slew of editorials from writers better suited to commenting on matters of foreign policy; but since law school is about hypotheticals and analogies, permit me a short exercise.

Let's go back to 1991. Jeffrey Dahmer is still alive, and has just been arrested and charged with 15 counts of murder, following acts including kidnapping, sexual assault, and cannibalism. For the sake of this hypothetical, let's say that a mistake by police has rendered the prosecution's entire case inadmissible. Dahmer is set free.

Three months later, Wisconsin voters elect Jeffrey Dahmer to serve as US senator.

How do we react? Should his Senate colleagues agree to work with him? Should the president? If not, what do we do? Evict Wisconsin from the Union?

It's not a perfect analogy, but it's a lot closer than we'd like. The Middle East just took a big step, either toward reconciliation or nuclear war.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

More Chocolate, Please.

Dunkin' Brands, Inc.
ATTN: Stan Frankenthaler
Executive Chef
130 Royall Street
Canton, MA 02021

Dear Chef Frankenthaler —

More chocolate, please.

I love your Chocolate Frosted Donuts, and I love your Boston Kreme Donuts. I know each has about 200 calories, but what the hell; I'm a slender twentysomething, and I can get away with it. I don't feel guilty when I order them.

I do, however, feel disappointed when I see a rack of Boston Kreme donuts topped with bare little chocolate splotches. Why do you skimp? Is it laziness? I know it isn't cost. Your website says you sell 4 million donuts every day. You're one of the five largest quick-service restaurants in the world. Come on. You can afford a little extra chocolate.

The best donut I ever had was at Krispy Kreme. (Bear with me, here.) The chocolate icing had been mixed so thick that it solidified as a pristine sheet, with a "roof" across the donut hole. I get sentimental just thinking about it. Now that was a donut!

When I was hired by Newbury Comics, my manager told me that no one would ever be fired for being too lenient with a customer. That set the tone for how we did our job: The customer was always right. It seems to me that you have a similar situation. Everyone likes chocolate. Can you imagine some customer storming back into the store and demanding that you wipe off some of his frosting? Of course not. So err on the side of excess. Give us more chocolate.

And while you're at it, please tell your clerks not to smush two frosted donuts together. When you peel them apart, one always comes away with all the chocolate. Thanks.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Umbrella Days

My aunt and uncle gave me a $25 gift certificate to Musicland for Christmas, so I ordered the fourth season of The Shield on DVD. I figured I'd drop $17 from my own pocket on the set, watch it once, then turn around to recover the cash on eBay. I sold it last week; and after seven bids, the auction closed at $40.

You can buy it brand-new from Amazon for $38.99 (free shipping).

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: EBay can be dangerous. Supply and demand is inherently competitive, but auctions pour gasoline on the fire — and eBay allows people to bid on any item they can imagine while wearing their pajamas, using a credit card. That's a catwalk. It's retail suicide.

It's a testosterone problem. Buying takes a back seat to winning — which is fine, as long as you don't mind paying for the experience.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Free Speech Zone

Last week, I wrote, "The CIA is lying. Osama bin Laden is dead."

Now, I'm happy to say that StatCounter hasn't registered any strange hits from McLean, Virginia. But a friend remarked on my guts for posting that online, and I appreciate that he noticed. I did indeed think twice before publishing.

I worked part-time for Barnes & Noble for about five minutes during the ramp-up to the 2004 election. It was just before the Swift Boat Veterans' book was released, and dozens of people came in every day asking about it. Most were old men who wanted to vent about Kerry; they kept asking whether I knew the Swift Boat stories, and if I appeared ignorant they would happily explain. One of them got into a brief conversation with a young cashier who replied that he planned to vote for Kerry anyway — and a few days later, two federal agents showed up to interview that cashier.

It happens. I'm a college-educated white male with pocket change and political connections, so I can't honestly say I'm worried about being railroaded into a detention cell; but I'd just as soon avoid hearing the knock at my door. I thought twice before posting that column, and almost didn't. I decided that it needed to be said; and although I can't prevent the FBI from wasting my time, there's a world of difference between inconvenience and censorship — and the latter requires my consent.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


I spotted a list online titled Ten Reasons Why You Should Never Accept a Diamond Ring. In the ensuing discussion, I was amazed how many people replied that they had never heard any of these things. Every few years, some news magazine prints an exposé about the DeBeers monopoly over the diamond industry, so I thought this had become common knowledge. Apparently not — and since some folks found the list persuasive, I thought I'd take a quick crack at explaining why I think it's stupid.
  • You've been psychologically conditioned to want a diamond.
I hate to begin with an obscure intellectual argument, but..."duh." You've been psychologically conditioned to wear clothes and close your mouth when you chew. Society is a series of standards imposed by psychological conditioning and peer pressure. It's not a bad thing. I've been psychologically conditioned to wear a tie on formal occasions, and I look great. Presenting this fact as if it were an argument is like saying, "You should rebel, just for the sake of rebelling."
  • Diamonds are priced well above their value.
According to whom? Define "value." It's an abstract term that doesn't exist in a vacuum. Diamonds have no monetary value outside the marketplace. Nothing does. Sure, $15,000 is a lot of money to spend on a diamond or a watch or a Fabergé egg. Newsflash: $15,000 is a lot of money to spend on something that isn't necessary to life.

The value of a Rolex is precisely that you spent thousands of dollars to buy it. It's a status symbol, a mark of success. You look down at your wrist, and it reminds you that you accomplished something. The value of a diamond is the same. Unless you can eat it, drink it, or live inside it, its strict value is absolutely nil. For everything else, value is a function of convention, perception, and the marketplace. So this is a ridiculous statement.
  • Diamonds have no resale or investment value.
Have we sunk so far, that this should be a real consideration for aspiring brides? The vows read, "Until death do us part." Exactly what is the relevance of a diamond's resale value?

I once read a wedding anecdote which began, "The last time I got married..." The way people talk amazes me. It's like marriage is just another state of existence, interchangeable with being "single" or "dating" or "divorced." Maybe this attitude is the logical result of government-sanctioned marriage; maybe we'd be better off with civil unions where two people promise to remain committed "indefinitely." Maybe marriage should be left to the church.

But for the time being, this remains a stupid comment. Notwithstanding the divorce rate, most people intend their marriages to last. It's a real challenge, and it won't work if you keep one foot out the door. If you're worried about the resale value of your engagement ring, do everyone a favor and don't get married.

The rest of the list concerned the working and living conditions of African diamond miners. They're fair points. I'm a Massachusetts Republican, however, so I've got to say: Sometimes "one man, one vote" is an empty platitude. The diamond industry isn't going to crash if twelve guys take a moral stand, and you're not going to convince 12,000 guys to stand alongside you. So in the end, maybe you'll feel better about not contributing to oppression — but the oppression's going to continue anyway, and you're left trying to explain why you won't buy your girlfriend a diamond ring.

You can say that's morally reprehensible — that just because you can't do everything doesn't mean you should do nothing. I agree. I don't shop at Wal-Mart. But in this case, you can't do anything. And I'd add that it's an odd concern to pick. There are plenty of sources of food and clothing that involve abuse and mistreatment of people and animals. It's a bit conspicuous when you refuse to buy a $3,000 diamond while wearing $120 sneakers sewn by some 10-year-old in China. Your girlfriend might suspect you're using a moral stance to disguise the fact that you're a cheapskate.

Ultimately, I'd argue it's selfish. DeBeers won't know that you refused to buy their diamonds. The Africans slaving away in diamond mines won't appreciate your gesture. (Moreover, I'm not sure that's the kindest way to help a starved region, by revoking its only source of income.) The only two people who will know the difference are you and your girlfriend — and you're the only person who will feel good about it. The gesture is supposed to be about her.

And that's why I didn't mind breaking my bank (which I did). It's possibly the only purchase in life where money shouldn't be a concern. It's not supposed to be reasonable. It's supposed to make her happy. Every time she looks at it for the next 70+ years, she's supposed to be amazed by how beautiful it looks and how much you love her. I've got the rest of my life to show her that I don't support monopolies or fascism, but I don't want that entering into our discussion of marriage. And if she's the type who can't look at a diamond without imagining African kids holding pickaxes, then she's probably the type who can't look at anything without envisioning its horrible backstory — and I like salt way too much to live with that kind of blood pressure.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Naming Rights

Imagine you're the parent of an 11-year-old girl. She comes home from school and asks to host a sleepover. You ask how many friends she wants to invite, and she begins to list them. "Well, there's Cameron, Taylor, Jayden..." And now you're scratching your head, because you don't know whether your daughter is planning a girls-only slumber party or a coed makeout.

The most popular baby names are still Christian, but more parents are taking creative license. Setting aside the psychopaths who abuse their children by naming them Espn or Google, parents are taking cues from popular culture with names like Paris, Trinity, and Ashton. And as proper names stray from convention, more are becoming gender-ambiguous.

Worse (maybe) are the names that are creative for the sake of being creative. There's a great website listing some gems from Utah; my favorites include Laalaa, Shimber, and Jennyfivetina. I don't even know what to think about these people — stupid, psychotic, deluded...none of these words seem to capture the psychology of a parent who would send a child into the world with a name like Aquanetta. Call me old fashioned, but Joseph, Sarah, Mary...these are names. Qedrin sounds like cough syrup.

I suppose a unique name could have some advantage in the computer age. It's become a smaller world; and while you might be the only "Jack" at the neighborhood bar, it's nearly impossible to find most people by name on the internet. Google thinks my sister-in-law is a Stanford geophysicist. My ex-girlfriend shows up as a children's author. I'm an NFL wide receiver, a writer for the Boston Globe, a Philadelphia sportscaster, and about a dozen different musicians.

Personally, I like the anonymity. But someone with a different temperament might appreciate being easily identified online — and a name like Jennyfivetina will probably accomplish that. (Until some website posts your name as a joke.)

I can't even imagine naming my kid Tristan or Madison or Sierra. I certainly can't see myself holding a birth certificate with the name Leviathan. But hey, maybe that's East Coast superiority. I've been surprised how many people ask how to pronounce "Stephen." Maybe it's all relative. But I doubt it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Tomorrow's front-page story in every newspaper across America will be a new audio recording attributed to Osama bin Laden. The tape was broadcast by Al Jazeera this afternoon, and every 24-hour news channel spent the next three hours speculating about its authenticity before the CIA confirmed it.

The CIA is lying.

OK, so posting that last line on the internet will probably add a half-page to my FBI file. But someone needs to say it, and for this particular moment it's going to have to be me.

Osama bin Laden is dead.

Sure, he's recorded a dozen threats in the past five years. Every one was verified by the CIA. He's the most wanted man in the world. It would obviously constitute an enormous defeat for the Bush administration to admit they failed to catch him, that he escaped their massive charge to bring him to justice. And no one can produce his body — so for all anyone knows, he's alive and they can keep pursuing him. Politics is about polarization, and nothing polarizes a group more effectively than a common enemy.

Here's the problem. Exactly four years ago, Jane's Information Group quoted an Israeli intelligence report that Osama bin Laden died of kidney failure in December 2001.

Jane's is a solid news source, the industry leader in the field of military intelligence. They know what they're doing; they don't alternate between publicity and retractions like the Associated Press. And absolutely no one, no agency in the world knows that region better than Israeli intelligence. It's not hubris; it's necessity. They're a nation of six million Jews surrounded by 220 million Arabs who want to kill them. They're the best because they have to be. And if they say Osama bin Laden is dead, then Osama bin Laden is dead.

That report was short-lived. Obviously, the United States and Israel are close allies, and the United States has a grave stake in maintaining the perception that Osama bin Laden is alive. If you choose to believe that Mossad made a mistake, that's your prerogative. But me, I don't find it far-fetched to believe that the truth fell prey to diplomacy. I don't find it insignificant that, after years of flagrantly starring in videotapes alongside hooded Arabs and AK-47s, Osama bin Laden has only spoken via muffled audio recording since 2001. And I'm tired of dignifying the charade.

The CIA is lying. Osama bin Laden is dead. Hallelujah.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Barnes & Noble Sucks

[Updated January 17, 2012.]

Spending the various gift certificates I received for Christmas, I ran into a string of bad luck. Across four different shipments, two CDs arrived defective and two books were damaged in transit.

Neither is common. After spending a few years working in a record store, I can tell you that manufacturing defects are rare. Ninety percent of the time, when someone claims their CD is defective, it's not; either the CD or their player needs to be cleaned, or they're lying because they want a refund. Most people buy CDs from major labels; and obviously, when Sony manufactures 200,000 Dave Matthews CDs, they avoid making mistakes. Defects tend to happen to independent labels, because they seek cheap reproduction.

The first defect was a simple pressing error. The plastic coating on top of the disc was warped; it played fine, but I returned it anyway. You never know how those things will degrade. The second defect was more costly: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, a six-disc boxed set, arrived with a duplicate Disc 5 in place of Disc 6. Sony will have to eat about $100 on that.

Now the two books, they came one apiece from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And here's where it gets interesting. In both cases, the boxes hadn't been packaged properly and the books arrived crumpled and torn. But let's compare the process of returning them.
  • Amazon: I completed the return online. I printed out a postage-paid return label from the website, and my replacement arrived before I had even mailed the damaged copy.

  • Barnes & Noble: You can't process returns on their website. I had to begin by calling 1-800-THE-BOOK. They mailed me a postage-paid return label for the damaged book, and they refused to ship a replacement until I had first sent back the damaged copy.

    But it gets worse. The operator explained that they couldn't automatically ship the replacement. They had to issue a refund onto a new gift card and mail that to me. If I wanted a replacement, I would have to return to the website and order the book all over again.
For two comparably-sized companies that are in direct competition with each other, that's a stark difference. You'd expect them to be indistinguishable — hell, Amazon even sued Barnes & Noble because their interfaces were nearly identical. It's amazing to me that, while Amazon leads the market by prioritizing customer satisfaction, Barnes & Noble basically says, "Go fuck yourself."

Note: Refusing Delivery—Several people have commented below that Barnes & Noble has refused to cancel their orders, and they have been stuck paying for items they no longer want or return-shipping charges. You should be aware that you always have the option to refuse delivery of unopened packages, whether from the postal service or UPS/FedEx. Just because Barnes & Noble ships something to you doesn't mean you need to pay for it, or that you need to pay to return it: Refuse delivery, and the package will be returned to its sender (Barnes & Noble) with no questions asked. And your payment will be refunded in full.

January 2012: I've been reworking my website this month, and something occurred to me. This six-year-old page gets a lot of hits. It's the top result on Google for the phrase "Barnes & Noble sucks," and apparently people type that phrase often. But nobody from Barnes & Noble has ever contacted me about it. No apology or clarification. No promise that they would reconsider their return policy and ask me to update this page accordingly. This is the #1-ranked criticism of Barnes & Noble on the Internet, and I've never heard a word from the company. That's pretty bad customer awareness.

Monday, January 16, 2006


When I began selling regularly on eBay, I assembled a list of Frequently Asked Questions for buyers. That list has since become outdated; some of eBay's software has changed, and in other cases I've modified my own policies and practices. Here's an update.

[Please note: This was drafted as a personal FAQ and is separate from my article, How to Sell on EBay.]

Q: Will you discount shipping if I buy multiple items?

A: Probably not. Most of my auctions tend to be the "1 CENT CD" variety. Without explaining why or providing a cost structure analysis, let me answer this way: I'm selling on eBay because I'm trying to make money, and I didn't get these compact discs from the CD fairy. If I'm selling them for a penny apiece, it's because I can afford to (barely). If I discount them further, I lose money. That's not going to happen.

If you think that's unreasonable, I'd politely remind you that you're buying a mint condition CD delivered to your door for $3.01. That's damn cheap — and I often swap out a used jewel case for a brand-new one, free of charge. Also, please notice that my competition charges $3.95 for shipping and handling. I charge only $3.00.

Q: Why do you only accept PayPal?

A: Because it's easy. Frankly, I think the PayPal executives are a bunch of crooks who should be thrown in jail. But I've been selling on eBay for nearly seven years, and I've tried a lot of methods. The fact is, when you allow checks and money orders, many people don't pay. It's not malice; they intend to pay, but they never do. They click an auction as a whim, an impulse purchase; but they procrastinate and they never actually mail the check. They're used to buying everything with credit cards, and they expect online transactions to be completed online. By making it easier for them, I've nearly eliminated that problem.

Q: When will you ship my item?

A: As soon as I receive payment. If your payment clears in the morning, I might even ship your item that afternoon. I collect mail from a PO box, which means I visit the post office almost every day. And I don't like clutter — which means I'm as eager to ship your item as you are to receive it.

Q: Will you leave me Positive Feedback?

A: Yes. Check my profile and click "Left for Others". You'll see that I've actually left more feedback for other people than I've received myself. I always reciprocate feedback.

I understand the importance of building your feedback profile, particularly as a new user. I know there are sellers who collect hundreds of positive feedback entries without ever leaving one for anyone else; frankly, that's a pet peeve of mine. In fact, if you've left more than you've received, I probably won't leave feedback until I receive one from you. But I always reciprocate feedback.

Q: Will you leave me Negative Feedback?

A: I hate leaving negative feedback. I believe most problems can be worked out and tarnishing a person's business reputation should never be a first response. But there are situations where it's appropriate — so yes, I might.

Many users are afraid to leave negative feedback. Check my profile. I'm not afraid of retaliation. I think my customers are smart enough to recognize retaliation for what it is, and my record speaks for itself. You can't threaten me. I don't like to use negative feedback — but if you don't pay, I will.

Q: What happens if the winning bidder doesn't pay?

A: See above. After that, I'll offer the item to the second-highest bidder at one dollar above the third-highest bid. In other words, you'll get a chance to buy the item at the price you would have paid if the deadbeat bidder had never existed. This ensures that no one will "shill" my auctions (artificially inflating the price for other bidders).

Q: Why do you charge so much for international shipping?

A: Because I don't like to do it. International shipping is much more complicated than domestic shipping. You need to consider the item and design the package so that (1) the item gets from point A to point B intact, and (2) customs agents are able to easily inspect the contents without disturbing the package for the remainder of its trip. You need to receive precise address information from the buyer, who often doesn't understand much English. You need to fill out paperwork. You also need to coordinate payment, which can be difficult with overseas bidders. Generally speaking, international transactions are more trouble than they're worth.

I've tried restricting international buyers from bidding on my auctions. It doesn't work. There are no adequate software restrictions, and people ignore warnings. So I've changed my strategy. Since I can't prevent international buyers from bidding on my auctions, I discourage them by inflating my shipping fee. This is perfectly legal, and I am completely forthright about it. My auctions terms clearly state these charges, and nothing is hidden or added after purchase.

Q: Will you make an exception for my international shipment?

A: Maybe. If you ask before placing your bid, I'll consider your request. If you're Canadian, for instance, your shipment should be relatively painless and I'll probably agree to reduce the fee.

However, I will not make any exceptions for bidders who dispute charges after the auction's close. My terms are always clearly stated, and I keep them short and simple. You are required (and reminded) to read all auction terms before placing your bid:
You are agreeing to a contract -- You will enter into a legally binding contract to purchase the item from the seller if you're the winning bidder. You are responsible for reading the full item listing, including the seller's instructions and accepted payment methods. Seller assumes all responsibility for listing this item.
All questions should be resolved before placing your bid.

I understand that mistakes happen. I've made them myself, neglecting to read the terms carefully and missing something important. But I accepted the consequences, and I expect the same from you. If you wish, I'll gladly acknowledge your mistake when leaving your Positive Feedback ("Bid by mistake, but still paid in full!! Very honest and trustworthy!!!").

Q: I saw an item listed in one of your auctions that I want, but I didn't win the auction. Do you have any others like it?

A: Probably not. I'm a private individual, not a company. But feel free to email me and ask. At the least, I may be able to tell you where you can get it.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Restaurant Review: Cassarino's

Cassarino's Ristorante
177 Atwells Avenue
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 751-3333

I'm a simple guy, and I tend to distill my restaurant opinions to my favorite dish. In this case, that's easy. Bruschetta is a great Italian appetizer exactly because every chef has his own vision: sometimes the bread's thick, sometimes the garlic is heavy, sometimes the tomatoes are dried. I love the variety; I love ordering it at different restaurants and always being surprised by the presentation — yet by virtue of consistent ingredients, knowing that I'll enjoy whatever I'm served. Cassarino's might have ruined that for me, with hearty piles of freshly diced tomatoes on each piece of grilled bread. It's the closest I've seen bruschetta come to impersonating salad.

Both the appetizers and entrées (and drinks, for that matter) were served in generous portions. It's one of those restaurants where they offer dessert — but if you've done your job through dinner, you won't have any room. I had trouble saving room for the entrée through the appetizer; although I'm glad I did, because the bolognese was a nice mix of sweet tomatoes and chunks of meat with plump cavatelli pasta. I'm looking forward to going back for lunch; the menu includes a meatball sub, and I'm dying to see how they twist that. I guarantee it'll be large.

The Phantom Gourmet breaks its reviews into ten categories including location, atmosphere, portions, and cleanliness. I'm afraid my world is a bit simpler: There's food and there's service, and if I don't get both then I don't see value. I've been to Cassarino's twice. Both times, the food has been great; and both times we've had the same waiter, Joe, who earned a solid tip on both occasions. Last night, we sat a table of three for drinks, appetizers, dinners, and dessert for a total of $112.64 before tip. That's more than reasonable in my book. Cassarino's gets two thumbs up.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Training Camp

Tonight's Patriots game proved once again that important lessons can be learned from sports. Denver beat New England 27–13; but every point that Denver scored came from an interception or turnover. This was a crucial game for New England, their chance to become the first team in NFL history to win three straight titles — and they lost.

I can't help seeing political parallels in these things; and in this case, the Patriots fell prey to exactly the same fault that has cost the Democratic Party two straight presidential elections: Make enough mistakes, and you lose.

Our society places tremendous emphasis on excellence. But excellence demands risk; if you're going to achieve greatness, you've got to be prepared to spend a lot of time being knocked on your ass. Excellence requires a stretch, an extra mile — and sometimes in the rush to attain excellence, we forget to just be good.

Al Gore campaigned from the White House. John Kerry opposed a sitting president with dismal approval and enough controversies to maintain a tabloid. Both enjoyed the idolatry of the mainstream press — and both squandered every advantage they had by making mistake after mistake after mistake. The Republicans didn't win the last two elections. The Democrats lost.

Forget excellence. There's absolutely nothing you can win through flashy plays that you can't earn just as well with a good ground game. So now it's back to Foxboro, back to the drawing board for next year — for the Democrats, it's back to the stable to find a horse to run in 2008. For both, it's back to basics.

Slow and steady wins the race.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Larry King's guest tonight was James Frey, an author whose best-selling autobiography was featured on Oprah's Book Club. The book apparently paints Frey as an alcoholic, drug-addicted badass who spent considerable time in jail, who tried to run down an Ohio cop, who was the focus of an FBI investigation — all of which, according to the Smoking Gun, are lies.

The site's exposé was the result of a six-week investigation and is supported by specific evidence and copies of court documents. King's interview was a typical softball; he only asked Frey about two of the article's allegations, and Frey ducked both. In fact, Frey avoided answering any direct questions whatsoever; his appearance on CNN was a sham, a ploy to look like he was addressing the controversy without actually commenting.

Frey does admit to "embellishing" select portions of his book. The book apparently relates a story about aiming his car toward a police officer while he was high on crack; subsequent investigation reports that he bumped his tire on a curb while intoxicated, and that he was polite and respectful toward the police who responded. Frey claims he spent three months in jail; the Smoking Gun reports that Frey waited several hours in a cell while a friend bailed him out. Asked whether these constitute embellishments or outright lies, Frey answered, "Everyone's memory is subjective."

Ultimately, Frey's strategy was to hide behind the word memoir as if it were some obscure term. King repeatedly asked (albeit generally) about the accuracy of Frey's book versus the accuracy of the exposé article; he reminded Frey that a memoir was an autobiography, and that readers expect a memoir will at least attempt to be factual. Frey responded:
The genre of memoir is very new, and the boundaries of it have not been established yet.
I haven't read Frey's book. I can't speak about the stories he tells or the impressions they create. He claims only 18 pages from 432 have been contested; and I can't say whether those 18 pages are key, or to what degree these apparently false stories establish the tone of Frey's character in his book. But tonight's interview established that he's a liar and a coward.

Frey insisted that "memory is subjective." That may be true; but when you tell someone that you spent three months in jail and it turns out you cooled your heels for a few hours in a holding cell, we're not talking about subjectivity. We're talking about deliberate falsehood. The Smoking Gun cites several interviews where Frey claimed the events depicted in his book were completely true, interviews where Frey said nothing about embellishment or subjectivity. Obviously, he's changed his tune now that someone pulled back the curtain.

But he's still singing. Rather than admit he made a mistake and simply apologizing, he acted like a man who hadn't been caught. He sat on national television, with his mother sitting in the next chair, and repeatedly dodged King's questions. He treated his readers like idiots. He behaved like a coward. And his mother was clearly proud of him.

Maybe that's the difference between his family and mine. If I were in his situation, my mother wouldn't hold my hand while I dodged questions and tried to worm myself on national television. Of course, I wouldn't have subjected her to that humiliation; but if I tried, she certainly wouldn't have been proud. And maybe that's why I didn't end up like Frey, a hopeless junkie crumpled in a gutter, and a liar without apparent ethics or shame — because I didn't have a mother like his.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Natural Selection

Last night, trolling Tower Records looking for hidden gems, I found a disc of Wayne Shorter's music recorded by Enrico Pieranunzi. I've looked at about 40 different charts by Shorter in the past six weeks, so this caught my eye; and it was released by Challenge Records, which is usually a seal of quality. I picked it up and carried it around for awhile, trying to decide whether to buy it; but ultimately, I put it back.

Partly, it's January; my wallet is recovering from Christmas, and my head is still ringing with financial resolutions. But as I was standing in the aisle reading the track list, it occurred to me, "I've got all of Shorter's albums. Why don't I just go home and listen to him play his music?"

Enrico Pieranunzi is a top shelf pianist. As a matter of fact, I expect tomorrow's mail delivery to include his new album (also on Challenge), a double-CD recorded live with Hein van de Geyn and André Ceccarelli. I'm sure Infant Eyes is more than simply driving in Shorter's tracks; I'm sure that Pieranunzi plotted an original tack and brought something worthwhile to each tune. I would like to hear it; I added it to my list, and I'll pick it up someday.

But I'm getting older; and I'm becoming stingier, more critical, and far less willing to drop a coin on every kid slinging a horn who sprints down the turnpike. I used to consider it a badge of honor that I knew all their names, and could speak intelligently about their styles as soon as they broke out. I've watched too many of those bright young could-be's drop into private lessons and disappear from sight forever. Now, I consider it a waste of my time.

I'm not yet a cynic. When I listed my Top 10 albums from last year, it wasn't hard to think of ten; I started with about 30, actually, and edited. There's plenty of great music being made. But whereas I once found value in trying to know everything, today I'm less willing to invest time on mediocrity. A great CD is going to reveal new facets upon repeated listening, and I'm going to enjoy each time more than the last — so that's where I want to focus my attention.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Emerald Cities

A fellow was traveling to Boston on business. He wasn't going to be free during the day, so he asked for advice on what to see in the city after sunset. I suggested the bridge.

I suppose it wasn't the most exciting suggestion. If you've just finished an eight-hour day spent in a stuffy conference room, you can probably conceive a few sexier ideas than hopping into a cab and declaring, "To the bridge, driver!" So I also pointed him to a few other stops, including Wally's, Quincy Market, and the North End.

But I think part of the fun in visiting another city is seeing the architecture that defines it. Those are the sights I remember. And maybe it's a trivial thought; but when I watch a movie or read a book, and the story is set in a city I've seen, being able to visualize its landmarks anchors me into that setting.

It's part of the reason why I don't fly. (Mostly, I abhor airports.) I usually drive. It's an investment into the trip; the memories of baggage claim and airline food lack the resonance of watching landscapes and mileage markers tick past. And dropping into the middle of a city, relying on subways and taxicabs to ferry you through a few districts, lacks the poignancy of stumbling your way through bridges and tunnels.

I've been to Montréal a few times. I won a few thousand dollars in the casino and had a few great meals at Da Emma and Pizziaole. Those are great memories. But when I think about Montréal, the city I remember seeing the outside of the casino and the Biosphere along the skyline at night, or cruising the main stretch of rue Sainte-Catherine (and maybe the oddity of highway speed limits in residential areas on the outskirts of Quebec).

Manhattan is always a party; but it's sweeter for having earned it with a five-hour drive through the traffic on the FDR, winding around one-way streets lined with mile-high buildings. I've been to Montréal a few times, and I've won a few grand and had great meals at Da Emma and Pizziaole; but when I think about the city, I remember its skyline, the international symmetry of the Casino standing opposite the Biosphere. (The former was built as the French pavilion for the 1967 World's Fair; the latter was the US pavilion.)

Restaurants and clubs, museums and concerts, these are great experiences in their own right; but in a very real sense, a city's character is established by its architecture. Everything else aside, possibly the most incredible aspect of Manhattan is standing in the middle of Rockefeller Center and thinking, "Before we landed here, this island was a forest."

Friday, January 06, 2006

Two Hours

Tonight's weekly dinner with Kerrie's family turned into a minor disaster in customer service. I promptly twisted it into a flawless demonstration of snobbery.

We went to Lucciano's Cafe in Londonderry, N.H. Kerrie's mother had called earlier in the afternoon and was told they didn't accept reservations after four o'clock. First come, first served. I suppose that's reasonable for a popular restaurant like Cheesecake Factory, which doesn't want to hold tables empty while throngs of would-be customers fill the lobby; but since there were only four other parties in Lucciano's 20-table dining room when we arrived, I think they might have been giving themselves too much credit. But whatever. We got a table, so we were fine.

The first page of the menu explained that Lucciano's was a "chef-owned restaurant," and asked for patience if entrées took longer to prepare. I'm not sure how one followed from the other; but it was one of those things that seemed charming at the time — and ominous in hindsight.

We got drinks, and the waitress took our orders; mine was bruschetta and chicken cacciatore, both without cheese. About ten minutes later, the waitress comes back to explain the chef "doesn't want" to make bruschetta without cheese. "The mozzarella kind of holds it all together," she said. Ohh-kay. So instead, I told her, I'd have the beef stew from the specials menu. She agreed.

We had arrived at the restaurant at 6:30; our appetizers were delivered to our table at exactly 7:17. Along with my beef stew, Kerrie had ordered caprese; her parents didn't get appetizers. So it took the kitchen 47 minutes to spoon stew into a bowl and slice a tomato onto a plate.

It was 8:00 before our dinners arrived. The waitress brought Kerrie something entirely different from what she had ordered. My "chicken cacciatore," described in the menu as a breast of chicken served over a bed of pasta, peppers, and onions, was a bowl of penne and bite-sized chunks of chicken overflowing with marinara sauce — and cheese.

It was another ten minutes before our dinners were fixed, by which time her parents had finished eating. Frankly, nothing had arrived together. You'd think a waitress could balance a tray with four plates; at worst, she could deliver four dinners in two trips. Nope. She carried each dinner out individually, slowly, a few minutes apart. Keep in mind, during our meal the restaurant remained less than half-full with two other waiters working tables. This wasn't a crowded, bustling, Friday night dining room. They weren't swamped. They just sucked.

The kicker was the bill. I've seen fewer mistakes at chain restaurants and watched management trip over each other to apologize and then compensate by knocking items off the check. If this had happened at the Outback, the entire dinner — everything except the alcohol — would have been comped. The bill would have been $15, and I would have left a hefty tip. But here, nothing was comped. Not the appetizers. Not the entrées. They didn't even offer a dessert.

I figured most of the blame belonged to the chef/owner/slacker. I was inclined to leave our waitress a decent tip; but I certainly didn't intend to pay full price for that train wreck of a meal, so I called her over. I explained my objections, having waited 45 minutes each for appetizers and dinner; and I figured she would comp two of our entrées to cover her tip. Instead, she looked at me and said, " wasn't 45 minutes."

I suddenly flashed back. A few years ago, I got out of my car at a stop sign. The woman driving behind me had been tailgating for several miles, and I told her to back off. She shouted that I had been driving 20 miles an hour and that I should speed up. Now, anyone who has ever driven with me will snicker at the idea of me driving slowly; I've got the speeding tickets to prove it. I had been doing 45, and I couldn't help laughing at this woman. Why would you lie about something like that? It's like a kid lying to his mommy about stealing from the cookie jar: We both know who ate the cookies. Why would you bother lying about it?

I looked at this waitress and I saw that woman. Sure, I could have argued. We were a table of four; and we had been watching the clock, annoyed, throughout dinner. We knew damn well how long we had been there; it was ridiculous to hear her insist otherwise, and it might have been amusing to watch her squirm. But that's the difference between me and every other arrogant sonofabitch in the world.

I walked away.

I just turned and walked away from her. She asked if I wanted to speak with the manager; I said no. She mumbled she'd bring him out anyway, and she did; I brushed him away. "I'm done," I said. "Good night." I paid the bill, and we left. The total was $81.82. I left $82.

I don't mind having a reputation as a prick. But I have friends who behave that way just to behave that way, just to stir trouble because it amuses them; and that's not what makes me tick. Kerrie's mother still wanted to argue about it; she couldn't believe the waitress would question something like that. I told her to forget about it. That's what separates a true snob from a garden variety prick, I said. "She wasn't worth my time."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Method of Extraction

Early Monday morning, an explosion trapped 13 men inside a West Virginia mine. Rescue crews spent the next two days drilling; and although air quality samples on Tuesday indicated toxic levels of carbon monoxide, families prayed for a miracle. For three hours late Tuesday night, that miracle seemed to have arrived: Word traveled from the command center that 12 men had been found alive. In fact, a report from the rescue party had been misinterpreted: The men had been discovered approximately 13,000 feet inside the mine entrance, apparently asphyxiated by carbon monoxide.

In writing about industry, I've often cracked, "It could be worse — you could be shoveling coal." I like the phrase, although I've said that I think the effect is lost on New England audiences, for whom coal mining is a relic from fourth-grade social studies textbooks. When kids around here mull possible career paths, "coal miner" simply isn't mentioned; it almost doesn't occur to us that anyone actually does that. That's why I use it.

New York City just recovered from a three-day strike by transit workers. Strikes emerged as a powerful tool for workers during the industrial revolution, when factories and mines subjected workers to abject, unsafe conditions for less than a living wage. Today, union fat cats blow the strike whistle to negotiate for inflated pensions and benefits.

There's a recurring theme in science fiction of the complacent society relying on machinery it's forgotten how to operate. Life aboard an offshore oil rig or in a Pacific Northwest lumber camp is outside the grasp of many Americans' imaginations. We need to be reminded that, while the media harps on the dangers of terrorism and shark attacks, too many of our countrymen succumb to mundane perils from a past that haunts our present.

An investigation has already begun into the Sago explosion; but tomorrow morning, miners in 27 states will return to work to produce the coal that generates more than half of the electricity used in the United States. It's a job we need, an industry this country leans on; yet we tend to forget them. We need to remember: Beneath the din of our cell phones and wireless internet, the machinery we've forgotten continues to hum.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Rate of Return

Tom Menino was sworn into his fourth term as Boston mayor yesterday. He won reelection in November with 67% of the vote, despite a ten-year high in the homicide rate and an embarrassing showdown with the police union during last year's Democratic Convention. His opponent, Maura Hennigan, is now unemployed after 24 years on the City Council.

Hennigan ran the sort of campaign I'd have been proud to help run aground. She pitched ideas, four-seam fastballs in a sport known for changeups and sliders. If Menino's fourth term improves his average, it's only because Hennigan cornered him from coronation into a campaign. Chalk one up for opposition politics.

When Phileas Fogg ran out of coal in the mid-Atlantic with only 24 hours to reach London, he tore apart his ship and burned the decks and cabins to keep the furnaces at full steam. Hennigan's challenge cost her $725,000 from her own pocket. It's a steep loss that I can't imagine, but she knew the odds and she kept sailing at full bore. "I don't regret it at all," she says. I believe that. I wish I'd made the trip with her.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Fool's Errand

I've played at three casinos: Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, and Le Casino de Montréal. The first was underwhelming; the latter two were impressive structures, Montréal's having been constructed as the French pavilion for the 1967 World's Fair. But in every case, I was more struck by the fact that I saw the exact same scene when I stepped inside.

I had envisioned huge rooms teeming with card players, craps tables and roulette wheels. In fact, you have to search for table games. The entire structure is devoted to slot machines. You wind through a maze, rows and rows of singing boxes with stools. When you read about the billions of dollars spent building these casinos, you expect to marvel at the care and skill taken in designing each room; instead, it looks remarkably like a laundromat.

Slot machines will never make sense to the Nintendo generation. We spent our youth marching Mario over Koopas — at home, for free. We don't understand the appeal of pulling a level and hoping to see three cherries. Today's AARP constituency notwithstanding, slot manufacturers are going to have to adapt if they hope to lure customers away from PlayStation.

But the most depressing aspect is the people you see. I grew up in a suburb outside Boston, one of the wealthiest regions in the United States. I've seen rich folk, and they're not difficult to recognize. Try this experiment: Spend a few minutes in an upscale mall like Copley Place or Chestnut Hill. Then walk into Foxwoods. You're going to see totally different people, and it's painfully obvious they don't have any money. Doesn't that tell you something?

Foxwoods earns more than $60 million every month from slot machines alone. You're standing in a massive auditorium filled with the sound of ringing machines, and you're listening to more than $1,300 change hands every minute; but you look around, and there isn't a single person in sight who appears to have more than $30 in his savings account. That's a clue, right there. If there were easy money in the room, you'd see Armani and Chanel instead of cigarettes and sweatpants. Take the hint.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

50 Ways I Can Improve Myself

Today begins 2006. Following the spirit of New Year's resolutions, I'm presenting a list written by John Patterson, founder and president of the National Cash Register Company. I've copied it from a reprint on pages 16 and 17 in Jeffrey Gitomer's book The Patterson Principles of Selling, which is essentially a compilation of Patterson's advice for his salesmen. The book contains a scan of this list, which was originally published inside a 1923 sales manual; the scan is credited to the NCR Archive at the Montgomery Historical Society.

Patterson lists five categories for self-improvement, with ten principles for each category:

  1. Simple food, quality, quantity.
  2. Regularity in eating and sleep.
  3. Masticate; leave table hungry.
  4. We are a part of all we have eaten.
  5. Exercise, five minutes, three times daily.
  6. Air — most important.
  7. Sunlight, artificial light.
  8. Water inside and outside.
  9. Loose clothing.
  10. Early to sleep; get plenty.
  1. Think sanely.
  2. Learn from mental superiors.
  3. Learn to listen attentively.
  4. Read best newspapers and books.
  5. Improve the memory.
  6. Concentrate.
  7. Don't worry unnecessarily.
  8. Be systematic.
  9. Weigh both sides.
  10. Avoid inferior minds.
  1. Right is right, wrong is wrong.
  2. Be truthful.
  3. Ignore precedent if wrong.
  4. Seek elevating recreation.
  5. Don't deceive yourself.
  6. Learn to say "no."
  7. Live up to your principles.
  8. Avoid temptation.
  9. Form good habits.
  10. Have a constitution.
  1. Increase my earnings.
  2. Decrease unnecessary expense.
  3. Save money, U.S. Postal Bank.
  4. Money makes money.
  5. Invest — don't gamble.
  6. Make family budget.
  7. Hard work.
  8. Study the business.
  9. Pay cash for everything.
  10. Increase credit balance.
  1. Avoid bad associates.
  2. Select helpful friends.
  3. Think alone.
  4. Learn to be happy alone.
  5. Family best company.
  6. Work out, alone, my problems.
  7. Avoid so-called society.
  8. Entertain economically.
  9. Stand well with neighbors.
  10. Do some welfare work.