Thursday, July 27, 2006


Yesterday, the Big Dig claimed another victim, a 64-year-old man suffering from a heart attack who died inside an ambulance that couldn't navigate through traffic. The trip from Logan to Boston Medical Center should have taken 4 minutes. Instead, it took 25. They had to call a state police cruiser to escort the ambulance the wrong way through the eastbound tunnel — through the same section that has been closed since 12 tons of concrete killed Milena Del Valle two weeks ago.

Things are going to get worse before they get better.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"Explain it to a 4-year-old."

Imagine you're 22. You're 6'2" and 185 pounds — and for some inexplicable reason, your 10-year-old brother is going through a violent phase where he feels compelled to punch you. You're too strong and too mature to trade blows with a scrawny 10-year-old, and you don't want to hurt the kid; but he needs to learn what's going to happen if he walks around hitting guys who are bigger than him, and better he should learn it from someone who loves him enough not to inflict real damage.

So you tell him to knock it off, and you give him a warning: "For every 3 times you hit me, I'm going to give you a smack on the head." He hits you once, and you ignore him. He hits you again, and you remind him. He hits you a third time, and you smack him — not hard enough to bruise, but hard enough to send him crying to Mommy.

This is Israel. (Maybe without the "love.") I've read a lot of criticism that Israel's attacks on Hezbollah haven't been proportional. It seems to me that if you ignore the first rocket attack, and you ignore the second rocket attack, your eventual response doesn't have to be proportional to the third rocket attack.

Then there's the other rebuttal, that a "proportional" response would occur if Israel began randomly launching rockets into Lebanese villages and marching suicide bombers into cafes in Palestine. It's not a particularly intelligent argument, but it amuses me in its simplicity.

But my favorite argument is about the Golan Heights. For 18 years, Syria used the Golan Heights to shell civilian targets inside Israel. In 1967, Israel captured the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War — and today, nearly everyone seems convinced that Israel must return control of the Heights. I don't claim to be an expert in Middle Eastern relations, but I know something about military strategy and no one has been able to explain this in a way that makes sense. The logic escapes me: You attack me from a strategic position; I defeat your attack and capture control of that position; and now you expect me to give it back?

"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Small World

A friend of mine has been having trouble finding work. He lives in Florida, and he's been bouncing between various temp agencies without much luck. Suffice to say, he's both smart and qualified, so it was difficult to understand why he was having trouble until someone finally told him: There's a man living just over the border in Alabama who shares his name and date of birth, and that man is a convicted felon and registered sex offender.

In 1995, just as America was being introduced to the World Wide Web, Sandra Bullock starred in a bad movie called The Net. The premise was that computer hackers could erase a person's identity by pressing a few buttons, and that the justice system would trust a computer printout over the objections of a living person without a second thought. It was ridiculous in 1995 and it's ridiculous today — except that we're inching toward it.

How is my friend supposed to fix this problem? There isn't any error to be corrected; it's just an unfortunate coincidence. He has to rely on the diligence of future employers to differentiate him from the convicted felon using his name and date of birth — and every time someone fails to do that and moves on to the next resume, my friend loses.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The More You Know

I'm acrophobic — which is to say, I suffer from an irrational fear of heights.

"Phobia" is a concept that's often misused or misunderstood. The key word is "irrational." I don't like glass elevators or standing near ledges — in fact, it bothers me when other people lean over ledges. But that fear doesn't make me acrophobic because it's not irrational: People fall, and falls can kill. And I couldn't ever work washing windows on a skyscraper — but again, that's not an irrational fear, it's just an acute aversion to that particular danger.

I'm acrophobic because, if I watch a movie where a character hangs from a rooftop, my palms sweat. And I'm not talking about watching an IMAX film in an immersion theater: I'm saying that if I sit in my living room with my 19-inch television and I watch a movie where someone scales a cliff, I experience a physical reaction. I'm in absolutely no danger whatsoever and yet my palms will sweat, because it's an involuntary and completely irrational physical reaction. That's phobia.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


I don't often write product endorsements, but it's no secret that I'm a Mac user so I don't figure it's much of a stretch to recommend the iSight. After being teased with futuristic technologies for the last half-century — flying cars, sentient robots, colonies on Mars — this is one of those rare gadgets that actually delivers one of those promises: It's a video phone that really works.

A couple of decades ago, you could buy a video phone for about $250. They worked about as well (read: badly) as most webcams nowadays, with a small, grainy image that refreshed every few seconds. You couldn't use it unless you had a unit on both ends of the call — and this was before wireless phones and answering machines, so $250 was a hell of a lot to spend on a telephone.

The Internet solved the compatibility problem; since any computer could receive the images, you could have one-way video chats even if the other party didn't own a webcam. But there was still a chasm between the low quality of the affordable webcams and the exorbitant price you'd have to pay for a good quality image. Then Apple came along.

The iSight combines a dual-element microphone with an autofocusing video camera that broadcasts up to 30 frames per second. In simpler terms, it looks and sounds great. It's not exactly cheap at $150, but it's a reasonable compromise: It's cheaper than a product of comparable quality would have cost a couple of years ago; and Macs are priced toward hardware's high end anyway, so it's about where you'd expect.

I don't really "chat." I had the opportunity to get an iSight cheap when it was first released and I did, but I hadn't used it until last week. Kerrie took a business trip to Denver; and rather than pay for long distance telephone calls, we kept in touch using AOL Instant Messenger's audio capability with our computers' microphones. I unpacked the iSight for good measure — and to make a short story quick, we're going to buy another before her next trip. It's amazing. It delivers exactly what has been promised for decades: clear audio with full-speed, real-time video between two people across the country.

No question, it's a toy you could live without — but it's exceptionally cool. I think it's better than the iPod. For any household with a broadband Internet connection, it's a genuinely viable replacement for the telephone. Granted, it's probably not something I'll use often; but when I have the opportunity, I'll definitely use it — and in the meantime, I recommend it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Restaurant Review: Strega

379 Hanover Street
Boston, MA 02113
(617) 523-8481

Meet Nick Varano. He's the owner of Strega, and that webpage summarizes what I think of his restaurant: He's more interested in creating a hip, trendy night spot to attract beautiful people and celebrities than serving good food. Varano paid for a series of TV commercials featuring enticements about whom you'll see at Strega and featuring catchphrases like "It's not your father's North End" and "What happens in Strega, stays in Strega." (The latter is read by Vincent Pastore, "Big Pussy" from HBO's The Sopranos, who is shown joking with Varano in the commercial.) When a restaurant touts itself by the people you'll see rather than the food you'll eat, I get suspicious.

Quality: The appetizers were better than the entrées and I had no complaints, so I'll skip ahead to dinner. I ordered tubettini all' aragosta, which is pasta with lobster meat in a spicy marinara. It's an extravagant dish that I order just about anywhere I can find it on the menu — and I'd imagine that even if you've never seen it, you can appreciate that something is wrong when your plate arrives with a half-lobster still stuck inside its shell buried under pasta and sauce and the waiter hands you a nutcracker.

This is like ordering a steak sandwich and being handed a sub roll stuffed with a New York strip. When you order pasta all' aragosta, the lobster meat is supposed to be separated, chopped, and tossed into the pasta before it's served. I can't imagine why any cook would think otherwise, that I'd want to dig my hands through a pile of pasta and red sauce to crack open a lobster and then wipe my hands on a napkin to finally dig into my dinner just as it's gone cold (because obviously, small pasta tubes don't retain heat for long); but this is a perfect example of form over function and why a chef needs to try eating every dish he designs. A lobster in its shell definitely makes for an impressive presentation, but it's a pretty stupid way to serve this particular meal.

Across three entrées, everyone at my table agreed: The ingredients were fresh and the preparation was OK, but the flavors were bland. Obviously, Italian food is not supposed to be bland. Nothing was over- or undercooked and it's not that the kitchen staff made mistakes: The recipes just weren't very good.

Value: The prices aren't much higher than comparable North End restaurants, but the portions weren't impressive and the flavors were disappointing. The check wasn't exorbitant and it didn't feel like we were being ripped off — but I'd have rather spent the money somewhere else.

Hospitality: Our waiter was polite, but we were given the distinct impression that table turnover is their first priority. He held our drinks until we placed our dinner order and he ignored our empty water bottle twice until I asked for another, and busboys were hovering constantly. An Italian restaurant that doesn't serve dessert isn't an aberration in the North End; but in this context, it felt distinctly like another tactic to speed us out the door.

The bottom line: Not recommended. The only reason to eat at Strega is to be able to say that you've eaten at Strega. If Varano wants to position himself as the North End's host to the glitterati, that's fine with me — but he'd better keep buying those TV spots and plugging Strega as "the place to be," because he sure won't impress anyone with its merits as a restaurant.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Defense Spending

Last week was supposed to be a light week. Not much news. It was supposed to be slow — and then a tunnel fell apart and the Middle East went to war.

The latter story is being covered in depth elsewhere by people who are on the ground, so I won't spend much time retracing their steps — but it's worth pointing out that there's a technology called THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser) that could have prevented what's happening. In short, THEL is a defensive weapon that tracks and destroys incoming rockets and mortar shells — and it works.

Intercepting an intercontinental ballistic missile is a complicated, large-scale endeavor. Protecting a localized area from incoming projectiles, on the other hand, is relatively simple. The technology works, and it works reliably — and if that weren't enough, add the fact that most of the best work in THEL has been done by the Israelis. But Israel wasn't able to defend itself against Hezbollah's rocket attacks because THEL isn't deployed on a wide scale. It's too expensive.

Consider this the next time you hear people talking about the defense budget. This is a perfect example of how ambitious military spending could have saved lives — not in some theoretical sense of "to preserve peace, prepare for war," but a real, visible example of how advanced weaponry could have intercepted a first strike to save lives and prevent a fast escalation toward open war.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

More of the Same

Late Monday night, the inevitable finally happened: The Big Dig killed someone. The victim was 38-year-old Milena Del Valle, a mother of three who regularly attended Sunday services at the Hispanic Community Church of Boston. Milena and her husband were driving through the I-90 connector at 10:45 PM when 12 tons of concrete ceiling panels crashed down onto their car, killing her and injuring her husband.

I drove through the tunnel 14 hours earlier. It's the primary route to Logan Airport; and beginning around 6:00 AM, the tunnel remains heavily trafficked through the late evening rush hour. If the accident had happened at almost any other time of day, there's no doubt that more people would have been killed.

Early reports indicate the failure was caused by faulty installation of ceiling bolts and incorrectly mixed epoxy, both of which had been identified as problems in a 1998 report issued by the Office of the Inspector General. In layman's terms: If you want to suspend 3-ton concrete panels above a major highway, you'd better secure them properly. That didn't happen; and as a result, someone was killed.

When the story broke yesterday, the Turnpike Authority said the tunnel would re-open at noon today. Now the tunnel has been "closed indefinitely" — making a stupid, tragic situation even more stupid and frustrating.

The Big Dig is neither more safe or less safe today than it was two weeks ago. The Globe published some nonsense today about Greater Boston residents being shocked by the incident, that "a roadway nearly everyone uses and that they had been repeatedly assured was safe could now kill them." That's bullshit. We've heard steady reports for the last five years from experts in every relevant field attesting that the Big Dig reflects shoddy workmanship with a dangerous result. No one is surprised that someone has been killed. It was inevitable.

The tunnel isn't closed because it's more dangerous today, or even because we have a clearer understanding of its danger. It's being kept closed because, if it were re-opened and another accident killed someone tomorrow, the political fallout would explode exponentially. The tunnel is closed purely for public relations reasons — which doesn't help the Big Dig fiasco, it simply continues the trend of ignoring real problems and eschewing real solutions in favor of cosmetic political tactics.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Fair Trade

Last year, Kyle MacDonald began his quest to turn a red paper clip into a house. He said that his plan was to "barter" the clip for something bigger and better and to continue trading up until he got a house. Personally, I think "barter" implies equality of trade, whereas MacDonald was essentially asking a series of people to make small sacrifices so he could freeload his way into a windfall — but regardless, he apparently succeeded. Last week, the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan offered MacDonald a three-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot home. He accepted and will move to Kipling this September while he writes a book about his experience.

CNN reported this story with the following headline: Blogger proves one red paper clip can indeed buy a house.

After a year's worth of TV and radio appearances, magazine articles, and hundreds of mentions on the Internet, that's precisely not what MacDonald proved. He didn't prove a damn thing about paper clips or bartering. He proved that publicity can buy a house. And maybe that's neat and maybe it was a clever idea, and I certainly give him credit for walking that idea through to completion — but I've been seeing this story for the past few days and this is the stupidest headline yet. It's just wrong.

It isn't "bartering" if you're asking for something "bigger and better." That's panhandling. You're asking other people to be charitable, not to trade for necessity or mutual benefit. And if your quest spans a year's worth of mass media attention and involves Alice Cooper and Corbin Bernsen, you're playing a pretty heavy publicity card. "Please trade me this for that" is not the same as saying, "I'm a celebrity and here's a television camera. Be a part of my project."

All of which is fine. He didn't break any laws and he didn't hurt anyone, and I have absolutely no objection to his project — just the dumb way it's being reported. I watched a homeless man limp up to the outdoor hostess at a fancy Newbury Street restaurant on Saturday; and in front of more than a dozen customers, he claimed he was a diabetic who needed food and he begged to trade his last $5 for a hamburger. He walked away eating a burger that normally costs $16.95, just three blocks away from a Burger King. There's absolutely no difference between that and what Kyle MacDonald did, and people just look stupid insisting otherwise.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


As you've probably noticed, this page has been having some technical difficulties. I was too swamped last week to bother tinkering; and when I tried a quick fix yesterday, I broke the whole website.

Everything should be working now. Thanks to everyone who e-mailed. To be honest, I don't know what happened. I chose Blogger because it's easy, because I don't know how to code my own website and it's not among my priorities to learn — and in this case, the only explanation I can offer is that I don't know what broke, I don't know how I made it worse, and I don't know how I fixed it.

Anyway. It seems to be straightened out, so I'll be back with a new column tomorrow. Thanks again to everyone who e-mailed — both those who offered HTML tips and those who just noted my absence. I appreciate it.