Friday, June 30, 2006

Cognitive Dissonance

I saw this story cross the AP wire while I was eating lunch the other day and the headline caught my eye: "Amish farmer fights milk law after sting." As it turned out, the article interested me for a different reason.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture had received an anonymous tip that Arlie Stutzman was selling raw milk in violation of state law, so they sent an undercover agent to Stutzman's farm. Stutzman filled the agent's plastic container with milk, and the agent gave Stutzman two dollars. As a result, Stutzman's dairy license was revoked.

The problem is that the AP article equivocates between selling and sharing. Stutzman's defense is that his religious beliefs compel him to share his milk with anyone who asks. The article uses the word "share" five times. "Sell" appears only twice. The anonymous tip claimed Stutzman was selling milk, but the article doesn't claim that Stutzman asked the undercover agent for money — only that a man asked Stutzman for milk, Stutzman complied, and the man gave him two dollars. If I asked a stranger for milk and he gave it to me, I'd probably reach for my wallet to compensate him. That doesn't make him a merchant.

The article notes that "sales of raw milk" are illegal in 25 states; but it also quotes an Ohio Department of Agriculture spokeswoman as saying, "You can't just give milk away to someone other than yourself. It's a violation of the law." So are we talking about selling or sharing?

I point this out not just because it's an example of unclear writing, but because it's an example of clumsy journalism and a common trap of journalistic objectivity — that reporters become so focused on reporting the facts coldly that they neglect to add them together and they miss the forest for the trees.

If Stutzman was indeed selling milk to his neighbors, he's in trouble. If, on the other hand, he was "sharing his product with others who would otherwise not have access to it" as he claims, then he probably deserves protection from prosecution. Those are two distinct scenarios that could not reasonably be confused, yet the AP article doesn't seem to distinguish them. It conflates the two terms as if they were equivalent.

Journalism isn't stenography. You can't just report 2 plus 2 — you have to add them together, and if you don't get 4 then you need to find what's missing. Objective doesn't mean disengaged; just because you shouldn't endorse one side over the other doesn't mean that you should avoid scrutinizing either. Good journalism, like most things, requires critical thinking.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Logical Discrepancy

Everyone knows that Boston has been in the midst of a crime murder wave. There have been a disproportionately large number of high-profile homicides in the past few months — and I think it's fair to say that when a homeless man is stabbed to death on a weekday afternoon outside Faneuil Hall, mere steps from City Hall, we've reached a new low.

Mayor Menino has blamed the problem partly on the fact that city police are understaffed and overworked. (Boston has fewer than a dozen full-time homicide detectives.) So last week, Governor Romney offered the services of the state police. Menino declined.

The subsequent 48-hour firestorm accusing him of putting politics ahead of public safety forced him to reverse his position. He will accept the help of state troopers in limited capacity during the next few months. But still...his initial public decision was to decline, because Romney's politics are unpopular in the same communities who are currently living in fear.

It wasn't always this way. Tip O'Neill and Billy Bulger may not have been ethical paragons, but they knew their jobs and they served their constituencies. Mayor Menino couldn't host a Democratic National Convention without embarrassing the presidential nominee by pitting him against a police union picket line. Now citizens are fleeing the city in droves, half of them being chased by gunfire, and he's spitting in the governor's eye because the governor might run for president in 2008. And this man defeated Maura Hennigan in a popular election.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Blue State

For your consideration, I submit the first two paragraphs of yesterday's front page Boston Globe article about the man who should have already locked down the Democratic nomination for governor.
Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said yesterday it is not his responsibility to crack down on Massachusetts employers that hire undocumented immigrants, and he said he will continue his policy of taking no action against the companies.

In 2001, Reilly established a policy, saying his office would aggressively fight for the rights and wages of immigrant workers, legal or not, and promise not to report them to federal authorities.
Reilly's opponents are two Democrats who have never been elected to public office and a Republican lieutenant governor that most voters couldn't pick out of a lineup. By contrast, Reilly has been one of the most high-profile politicians in Massachusetts for the past four years. He should have been a landslide favorite — and instead, he's fighting an uphill battle after naming a running mate who was immediately identified as a tax cheat and obstructing an investigation into the deaths of two teenagers whose father contributed to Reilly's campaign.

This kind of incompetence is painful to watch.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

War Games

Yesterday, I said the time had come for the US to display its military strength, and apparently someone agrees. Today, the US began its largest war game in decades off the coast of Guam involving 30 warships, 280 aircraft, and the USS Kitty Hawk, USS Abraham Lincoln, and USS Ronald Reagan, in addition to more than 22,000 personnel.

Yet more attention is being paid to the activation of the US missile defense system from test mode to operational status. The ground-based interceptor system has been the single biggest expense in the US defense budget since its inception during the Reagan administration. Its advocates insist that, despite its public failures, if the system were able to successfully intercept a missile launched by North Korea, it would represent the most significant development in global warfare since the Manhattan Project.

It's a tremendous risk. If North Korea's launch succeeds and our test fails, we elevate North Korea and we look foolish. Whether it's a smart decision depends on information I don't have, information that's probably codeword-classified (despite the few tests that have been discussed publicly): the system's track record. If we can reasonably expect it to succeed, intercepting North Korea's missile would be a spectacular display of US military superiority. It would be the only display more powerful than a weapon test of our own: an indisputable demonstration that North Korea has spent more than a decade developing a missile that we've made irrelevant.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Right now, North Korea is preparing to launch a long-range ballistic missile. The New York Times reported yesterday that satellite imagery confirms a two-stage Taepodong 2 missile has been fueled and assembled on its launching pad. This is assumed to be a test. If successful, the missile could deliver a nuclear strike to Alaska. A three-stage version of the same missile could strike anywhere in the United States.

For the past several days, US and Japanese officials have been trying to forestall the launch. If the missile has indeed been fueled, those efforts would seem to have failed. Siphoning rocket fuel out of a missile is a dangerous and complicated procedure. Moreover, if the missile isn't launched soon, the fuel will begin to corrode its tanks. A launch seems imminent.

On September 9, 2004, a large explosion was recorded in the Ryanggang province of North Korea. A reconnaissance satellite observed a mushroom cloud approximately 4 kilometers in diameter which coincided with massive seismic activity. Subsequent satellite imagery noted what appeared to be a subsidence crater — a signature of an underground detonation — at the same location.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the time, "There was no indication that it was a nuclear event of any kind. Exactly what it was, we're not sure." National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told CNN, "Maybe it was a forest fire of some kind." Despite these denials, the fact remains that during the week leading up to September 9, newspapers had been abuzz with reports that the White House had received repeated warnings that North Korea was preparing to test a nuclear weapon.

Three plausible theories exist to explain the Ryanggang explosion. The most obvious is that North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and that fact has been concealed to maintain global stability. The second possibility is that North Korea detonated a mass of radioactive material in an attempt to create the impression they had developed a bomb. The third explanation is that the incident was an accidental explosion of a massive ammunition dump (which may have caused, or been caused by, a forest fire).

North Korea's last test of a long-range missile was in 1998. That test involved a three-stage Taepodong 1 missile that exploded during flight. The Clinton administration had tried and failed to dissuade North Korea from conducting that launch. If North Korea proceeds with this launch, it would represent a similar diplomatic failure for the Bush administration.

We invaded Iraq because, according to our president and Congress, Saddam Hussein's efforts to obtain nuclear capability constituted a clear and present danger to the United States. North Korea has proven its intent — and depending on the results of this launch, it will have demonstrated its capacity to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.

I'm not suggesting we compound one mistake with another. Our troops don't belong in Iraq, and I don't believe we should invade North Korea. But the time for diplomacy has passed. We need to show our teeth.

The Cold War consisted of a delicate (albeit uncomfortable) balance between superpowers based on a simple principle: Mutually Assured Destruction. Both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that if either side launched an attack, both sides would perish. In the years since, however, United States military actions have created the impression that, although we're quick to engage, we're unwilling to commit. That cannot stand.

We are faced with a determined aggressor. We don't yet have cause to launch a preemptive attack — but we must make a preemptive show of force to assure North Korea that if we are attacked, we will not respond with restraint. We need to test a weapon of our own. It is imperative that our enemies understand our might, and we have to brandish our sword.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Pop Quiz

Stephen Colbert hosts a segment on Comedy Central called "Better Know a District." Last week he visited Georgia's 8th to interview Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who has endorsed legislation to display the Ten Commandments in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Rather predictably, Colbert asked Westmoreland to name all Ten Commandments.

You can find the video online. Westmoreland reacts like a deer caught in headlights: He stumbles through three and then gives up. On Friday, the Macon Telegraph spoke with Westmoreland's press secretary, Brian Robinson, who insisted that the tape had been edited unfairly: In reality, Robinson said, Westmoreland had been able to recall seven.

As if that weren't sufficient to qualify Robinson for some sort of prize for incompetence, he continued: "I challenge anybody outside of the clergy to try to [name them all]."

Westmoreland claims to attend SouthCrest Church in Newnan. So the next step for an enterprising reporter at the Telegraph would be to show up at Sunday mass and interview Westmoreland's fellow parishioners to find out just how many of them can name all Ten Commandments. I'll wager that every single one can do better than three, that most can beat seven, and that more than half can name all ten.

Everyone has been excoriating Westmoreland for his insincerity in touting principles he can't even remember; but as a political advisor, I'm more inclined to criticize his office's staggering incompetence. Frankly, it's difficult not to feel frustrated. Here's a press secretary who has just simultaneously insulted his constituents and challenged a newspaper reporter to further embarrass his boss — and this guy has a better job than I do.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Search Values

Last weekend, the New York Times published yet another story about employers using the Internet to research job applicants. The author claims this is a new development and a serious issue. I declare shenanigans.

First, let's dispense with the hyperbole. No one is being blacklisted over politics or religion. The Times cited two examples where candidates had been rejected because of their online profiles; in both cases, the students had plastered their Facebook profiles with graphic descriptions of sex and drug abuse.

I realize that intelligent people can disagree about sexual proclivities or the legalization of marijuana. I won't presume that engaging in illicit sex or smoking an occasional joint necessarily indicates a lack of personal judgment — but irrespective of the acts themselves, surely we can agree that bragging about them to strangers on a global forum does indicate a lapse of both judgment and discretion.

This discussion is revived every couple of months by a newspaper or TV magazine, and it's always depicted as "a growing problem." I get annoyed when the same reporters repeatedly declare the same information to be revelatory; but moreover, I dispute the contention that "Google screening" is a common practice. Quoting the Times:
Some college career executives are skeptical that many employers routinely check applicants online. "My observation is that it's more fiction than fact," said Tom Devlin, director of the career center at the University of California, Berkeley.
I agree. Most employers don't bother to fact-check applicants' resumés or confirm their education, so you're crazy if you think they're stalking your participation on Usenet. Like most conspiracy theories, it assumes an unreasonable degree of coordination.

It's like one of those scaremongering teasers for the local news: "Could your baby's diapers be dangerous? Tune in at eleven!!" And then you watch the report and it turns out that (1) they're talking about some obscure brand of diapers that no one buys, and (2) the diapers cause a mild rash in 0.5% of babies. That's what's happening here. Yes, if you litter your MySpace profile with Hitler jokes and references to 4:20, it's possible that a small percentage of employers will find it and reject you. But if you're worried about that, frankly, you're not the sort of person who deserves career advice from the New York Times.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Gyorgy Ligeti, 1923–2006

Gyorgy Ligeti died this morning. He was 83.

You can find obituaries elsewhere. But let me say that I've never met a serious musician familiar with Ligeti's music who didn't insist that it was required listening. His genius was evident to everyone, even those who don't normally appreciate that type of music, and he was praised unanimously.

He will be missed.

You can begin exploring his music with these recordings. Both series were intended to document all his written works. I recommend (and own) all of them.

The Ligeti Project (Teldec)
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5

Gyorgi Ligeti Edition (Sony Classical)
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5
Volume 6
Volume 7
Volume 8

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Native Tongue

Joey Vento is an American whose grandparents immigrated from Sicily during the 1920s. He owns Geno's, one of Philadelphia's most famous sandwich shops. He keeps a sign in the front window that reads, "This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'SPEAK ENGLISH.'"

His explanation is simple: He speaks English. He doesn't speak Spanish or German or Arabic — so if you try to order in those languages, he won't understand you. You'll have to speak English.

A city councilman asked Vento to remove the sign. Vento declined. He explained that no customer has ever been refused service because of a language barrier. His staff is glad to help non-native speakers place their orders in English.

Nevertheless, a Latino advocacy group has announced that it will send representatives to Geno's to try to order in Spanish. The group's director said that, depending on what happens, the group may pursue legal action against Geno's.

I swear. Some of these stories speak for themselves.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Qualified Applicants

Last month, a Georgia police officer stopped a car on Highway 10 because its driver wasn't wearing a seat belt. The driver was behaving suspiciously, so the officer asked him to step out of the car. A quick pat-down revealed cocaine, and the driver was told he was under arrest. He struggled and pulled the officer across the highway and into a briar patch, until he was finally subdued with the aid of a passerby.

The driver stood nearly 7 feet tall. The police officer, Julie Ann Welch, is 5 feet, 4 inches.

This is what's wrong with quotas. You pretend everyone's equal when they're not, and you end up hiring people who can't perform the job. Stop talking about fairness. It's a non sequitur. The fact is, a police officer's job has physical demands — and if you come up short, you could wind up dead.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Five Days Late

Today's date has been mentioned in every newspaper and website I've read for the past week. Fox spent months coordinating a special Tuesday opening for its remake of 1976's The Omen. Ann Coulter is releasing a new book titled Godless: The Church of Liberalism, and Christian publisher Tyndale House is releasing a new volume in its apocalyptic Left Behind series. CMH Records is issuing a tribute to Van Halen titled Strummin' With the Devil, and the heavy metal band Slayer is releasing a five-song EP through Hot Topic, a chain of stores that sells vampire clothing to teenagers.

All of this refers to Chapter 13 of Revelation, which tells of a beast that rose out of the earth, with two horns like a lamb and the voice of a dragon. The beast would cause all men and women to be marked with its number, and that number was 666.

Today's date is represented in Gregorian shorthand as 6/6/06. You'll note this is not, actually, 666 — but it's as close as can be achieved with that particular format, so it's lazily been designated the Devil's Day. This reminds me of the insistence that January 1, 2000 was "the birth of a new millennium," except this is stupider. It's like using a pocketknife to force a square peg into a round hole. Everyone's exclaiming, "Look! It matches!!" Well, of course it does. You dropped a number.

And that's fine. It's all in good fun (read: a cheap marketing stunt) anyway, so I don't suppose it's worth a lecture. But for the record, the number itself is probably a mistake.

Most Biblical scholars agree that "the number of the beast" was probably a coded reference to the Roman Emperor Nero, who ruthlessly oppressed Christians. This theory has gathered momentum in recent years as archaeologists have unearthed early Greek translations that use the number 616 in place of 666. According to the ancient practice of gematria, alphabetical symbols were converted to their numerical equivalents and added together, and the sum was used as a crude cipher for the name. The number 666 can be deciphered using Hebrew characters to read "Neron Caesar," which is sufficiently close to suggest we're on the right track — but 616 translates exactly to "Nero Caesar."

With that in mind, here's the exact passage from Revelation 13:18.
This calls for wisdom: Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.
Any questions?

Monday, June 05, 2006

ACLU Warning

I joined the ACLU several years ago. I could claim that it was naive optimism, that I sincerely believed in their commitment to defending the Bill of Rights — but I couldn't sell that fiction if I tried, so I'll be honest and confess that I wanted bragging rights. I was looking forward to the next argument where some liberal muppet would accuse me of betraying personal liberties, and I'd slap my ACLU card down onto the table and look smug.

I think I'd been watching too many Westerns on cable that week. Maybe I wasn't getting enough sleep. Either way, it was a dumb idea; and by the time I realized that, I was out $35.

For the next year, I was flooded with letters urging me to "stop Ashcroft" from passing various laws. (Apparently the ACLU hasn't been briefed on the separation of powers.) When the time came to renew, an enthusiastic fellow telephoned me and said the ACLU needed my donation to be ready "to defeat Bush in 2004."

I declined. When they called back, I repeated my answer. In the years since, I've politely asked at least a dozen times to be removed from the ACLU's mailing list. I've submitted two requests in writing. The calls and letters keep coming. Just last week, I got another.

Be forewarned. If you understand the ACLU's charter and you agree with its mission, then by all means, write a check. But make no mistake: It's a heavily partisan organization that abuses its legal status as a tax-exempt charitable organization to keep hounding individuals despite repeated requests to desist. Once you get on its list, you'll never get off.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Other Sports

Congratulations to Katharine Klose from Spring Lake, New Jersey, who won last night's National Spelling Bee with the word "ursprache." I have no shame in admitting that I couldn't have spelled it correctly, much less live on national television.

When one of the final two contestants misspells a word, her opponent must correctly spell the next two words in order to win. Katharine had no trouble with the first of these, "kundalini"; but when the judge read "ursprache," the audience gasped. She nailed it anyway.

I've heard it suggested that a spelling bee is a waste of time. That's nonsense. First, these kids are building their vocabularies, and you can't put a price on that. More often than not, we judge a person's intellect on whether he's well-spoken. True, you'd hope that Katharine won't be using "ursprache" in casual conversation; but sometimes you push the upper limits to secure the fundamentals.

Second, these kids are learning to solve problems. They're learning detective skills, albeit in an etymological context. When they ask for a word's origin or definition, they're not stalling for time. They use those clues to deduce the spelling. If you can't see the benefit in that, I pity your children.

Having said all that, I have one criticism. The runner-up — a 14-year-old girl who correctly spelled dasyphyllous, machicotage, esquisse, maieutic, poiesis, tutoyer, and koine, all of which would have stumped me — lives in Alberta, Canada. According to the rules, our National Spelling Bee is open to "English-speaking populations around the world."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

To Build a Fire

The New York Times ran a feature on high-end grills last Sunday. The writer interviewed a 34-year-old Dallas attorney who owns an $1,800 Weber, and the fellow said to the reporter, "Grilling has become my creative outlet."

That comment reminded me of an article from earlier this month about cookbook author Phyllis Pellman Good, in which the Times quoted Cook's Illustrated founding editor Christopher Kimball:
"I think the food media has been responsible for creating this whole world of faux food, and this is a media largely consumed by people who eat out six times a week," he added. "We are not all served by thinking of food as a special-occasion product."
No, indeed we're not — and I think the New York Times just used a 34-year-old Dallas attorney to make Kimball's point.