A.A. Bondy
American Hearts

Leaves in the Gutter

For What I Don't Become

The Thick of It
BBC America

Saddest Ghost Lamp

Thursday, October 27, 2005

That's Right--I'm Pledge-Drive Material

No more posting until Monday. I'll be on WBEZ on Monday morning, when local public affairs show "848" will air an interview I recorded this week with host Steve Edwards. We discussed my story in the October Chicago Magazine about Norman A. Porter Jr., the "killer poet" who lived on the lam in Chicago for 20 years after escaping from prison in Massachusetts, where he was doing time for two murders. I'm told the segment will air around 10 a.m.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Also Announcing the New Loving Cup Latte and Brown Sugar Danish

The Rolling Stones are releasing a "rare and unreleased" record via Starbuck's featuring material that--to judge by the track listing--has stayed rare for a reason. Dance remix of "Harlem Shuffle," anyone?

In any event, I really just wanted to post the cover art, which features a preposterously cool "Some Girls"-era photograph.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Welcome, Indeed

The Huffington Post teaches the Plank a lesson about the blogosphere's loose rules with respect to image-sourcing, and the Plank teaches us all a lesson about the blogosphere's loose rules with respect to shooting your mouth off before you actually know anything:
WELCOME TO THE BLOGOSPHERE: Thank you to the Huffington Post for helping us understand the etiquette of the blogosphere, where you can filch a fellow blogger's photo of Judy Miller without credit or a link. So, now we know.

UPDATE: The Huffington Post has removed the photo from their site. While The Plank just wanted a little love from Arianna, our capacity to get such quick and overwhelming results is uncontestably awesome.

UPDATE UPDATE: The Huffington Post has sent an explanation for their image. It seems that we have the same source. Apologies for my vituperative post.
--Franklin Foer

Honestly, How Hard Is It to Just Watch Television?

It would appear that it's time for an updated edition of the Collected Corrections of Alessandra Stanley. Gawker points out another of Tomorrow's Corrections Today:
On his regular feature "The Word," Mr. Colbert routinely mocks the kind of anti-intellectual populism perfected by Fox News. "Trustiness" was his word of the day, he told viewers with a poker face, sneering at the "wordanistas over at Webster's" who might refute its existence.
Or truthiness. Whatever. As Gawker notes: "It’s not [a word] Stanley is terribly familiar with."

Charity Begins at Work

There's a chill in the air here in the City That Works, and if you work at the Chicago Tribune, you know what that means: United Way is coming to steal your money! That's right, any day now your bosses will begin the annual ritual of strong-arming you into giving money to United Way, irrespective of how much of your income you may have already given to other charities or your feelings about donating money to a massive bureaucracy with a history of corruption and misfeasance. But don't worry--it feels so much better to give under a veiled threat of subtle workplace retaliation. Remember, Ann Marie keeps a list!

I mention this only to point out, by way of a tipster, Tribune Co.'s rather inconsistent policies when it comes to helping those in need. The Tribune's Southern Connecticut Newspapers Inc. division, which runs the Stamford Advocate and the Greenwich Time, is upgrading its computer systems. The papers naturally wanted to give the old computers away to, I don't know, maybe children? Poor people? How about a library? But Chicago has passed down an edict mandating that all the old computers be destroyed. No charity, no taking them home, no Salvation Army. They are to be "properly" disposed of. I guess the hard drives could have trade secrets lurking around--TribCo's triple-secret strategy for winning its tax case, maybe--that could be disastrous for the company if they fell into the hands of under-priveleged students.

I think they're secretly chopping them up and selling the parts on Ebay. Keep it up Dennis--you'll have that billion dollars in no time!

Who's Got the Two-Thousand-and-a-Half?

I live in a deeply retarded city.

The Chicago Tribune reports today that local developers have proposed building a 2000-feet-tall, $300 million tower on the city's lakefront, to be designed by Cesar Pelli, that would serve solely as a broadcasting tower for local television stations. It would dominate the skyline. It would be the tallest structure in the world. And, aside from hosting broadcast antennae, it would have no functional utility whatsoever--no office space, no floors, nothing. Just a big tower.

Which is remarkably stupid even before you consider the fact that 85 percent of Chicago's households don't get their precious television signals over the air--they get them from cable or satellite hook-ups. In other words, the $300 million tower would have zero impact on the vast majority of Chicago's television homes. And the number getting over-the-air signals--all of which are currently served perfectly well by the broadcast facilities atop the Hancock and Sears towers--will only dwindle as WiFi-based IPTV and other technologies continue to demolish the boradcast-era model. They might as well put a dirigible docking station up there while they're at it.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

First Time Farce, Second Time Tragedy

"A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." --Jebediah Springfield

"We're going after criminal organizations and coyotes that traffic in human beings. These people are the worst of the worst. They prey on innocent life. They take advantage of people who want to embetter their own lives." --President George W. Bush, in remarks last week at the signing of the Homeland Security Appropriations Act. (No, they didn't clean up the transcript. Search for "embetter.")

UPDATE: Eric claims that embetter is a word just because he found it on the Internet. But it's not in Webster's 10th Collegiate, which is really the only dictionary that matters, in large part because it doesn't include "embetter" as a word.

Friday, October 21, 2005

I Do, However, Agree That Jews Are Smarter Than People From Utah

I have followed with interest the reports beginning last summer that, according to research assembled by some guys in Utah, there is an evolutionary theory to explain why my wife is smarter than I am. But I continue to be confused by one sticking point (cut me some slack, I'm not Jewish), and wading through Jennifer Senior's lengthy wrestling match with the "Ashkenazi Jews evolved to be smarter than you--just look at Larry David!" theory hasn't cleared it up.

Here's the theory in a nutshell, as related by Senior and other reports:

1) Ashkenazi Jews are susceptible to several genetic and debilitating neurological diseases, including Tay-Sachs, that are caused by recessive genes in both parents being passed on to their children. When only one parent has the recessive gene, no disease results. These sorts of diseases are difficult to explain unless, as in the case of Africans and sickle-cell anemia, inheriting the single recessive gene has some benefit, like resistance to malaria. (Otherwise, the gene ought to pass by the wayside, since getting the double-whammy makes it unlikely that the inheritor will reproduce and pass along the bad gene. But with sickle-cell, the recipient of the single recessive gene is more likely to survive to reproductive age, so the gene persists even though it causes disease when doubled up.)

2) Ashkenazi Jews are wildly successful in everything they do and win all the Nobel Prizes and Einstein was one.

3) Ashkenazi Jews were historically confined to money-lending occupations and the like in Medieval Europe. Those occupations rewarded intelligence.

4) The various genetic conditions afflicting Ashkenazim all affect the brain, and all arose at the same time around 900 A.D.

5) Ergo, the wild and unhinged success of Ashkenazi Jews in all they endeavor to achieve and the persistence of Tay-Sachs et. al. and the relatively recent and simultaneous arrival of those diseases on the scene can all be explained by the proposition that the recessive genes for Tay-Sachs et. al., when passed on only by one parent, confer intelligence, just like the single sickle-cell anemia gene confers resistence to malaria. And the reason they arose around 900 A.D. is that that's roughly when Ashkenazi Jews were pushed into money-lending trades in Europe. In other words, Jews had to do math to survive, so a random mutation that otherwise would have just passed out of the genetic pool wound up persisting because, when it was passed on only by one parent, it made them better at math.

Now here's the part where a completely untrained and uncredentialed reporter and "physics for poets"-type who graduated from high school with a 2.0 GPA demolishes an esoteric and complex evolutionary theory with the stroke of a few keys:

Isn't the key to evolutionary theory survival? If you're advancing a theory that Ashkenazi Jews are smarter because there was evolutionary pressure on them to be smarter in the form of restrictions on the jobs they could have, don't you have to prove that less-smart Jews didn't reproduce? Sure, smarter Jews made better lenders. But that doesn't mean that they reproduced any more than dumber Jews did. The reason that sickle-cell genes continue to get passed on is that, when passed on by one parent, the inheritor is more likely to survive to reproductive age, and hence more likely to pass the gene along. In order for the Ashkenazi Theory to work, the inheritor of a single recessive Tay-Sachs gene has to be more likely than a non-inheritor to survive to reproductive age. But according to the Ashkenazi Theory--and keep in mind, the relationship between intelligence and these recessive genes is purely hypothetical--that single Tay-Sachs gene inheritor would only be a more successful banker than the non-inheritor. That doesn't make him more likely to reproduce, or even--contraception being it what it was--have more children.

In other words, the evolutionary benefit allegedly conferred by the Tay-Sachs et. al. genes doesn't even become a benefit until the inheritor has already reached child-bearing, and banker-becoming, age. For the theory to work at the level of logic, the Utahns would have to make the case that, in Medieval Europe, Jews who failed as bankers for lack of the requisite intellect suddenly stopped reproducing for one reason or another at a very young age, allowing the smarter one-half-Tay-Sachs-inheriting bankers to have more children over time and flood the gene pool with the Tay-Sachs-smart-banker gene. And that seems unlikely, to say the least. You'd essentially be making the case that unsuccessful Medieval Ashkenazi Jews always starved young, an assertion that doesn't jibe with my understanding of Jewish cultural traditions as they relate to philanthropy, community, and caring for those who can't care for themselves.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the alleged evolutionary benefit would only have been conferred on one-half of the population. Only Jewish men became bankers in Medieval Europe. Female intelligence didn't matter. So even if we accept the theory, the smart genes would be highly diluted because non-smart Jewish women would continue to thrive and pass on their non-smart genes.

All of which is by way of saying to my wife: Don't worry, honey. Our kids will have a shot.

Ann Coulter, Your Ears Are Burning!

Or maybe something else. From the More Fun With Search Strings Department:

According to my logs, someone from an IP address associated with "Raytheon Company, Executive Office" and coming from the domain name--you'll recall that Raytheon is a defense contractor with $20 billion in annual revenue and maker of the Tomahawk Cruise Missile, among other neat-o things with which you can fail to locate and kill terrorist ringleaders--recently entered the following search terms into Google (and found this page on Reference Tone):

"ann coulter leather"

Ann, I think you have an admirer. And it sounds like he's got some fun toys lying around, like the AN/TPX-56 IFF - Interrogator, the Digital Navigation Repeater, and the Extended Air Defense Testbed. You should get in touch.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

(Not So) Lonesome Cowboy Bill

Am I misreading Verne Gay's elegy for a demagogue in Newsday, or is Bill O'Reilly barred from making unsupervised phone calls in his Fox News Channel office lest he return to his falafel-soaping ways?
And as a direct consequence of the lawsuit--which was settled for undisclosed terms and which both parties agreed to never speak of publicly--O'Reilly must have a third person present whenever he conducts a rare interview like this one, or talks to someone on the phone.
That sentence could be read two ways: a) That O'Reilly can't talk to the press without a minder, whether it's in person or on the phone. But it's not unusual by any stretch of the imagination for networks to insist on having a flack listen in to any on-the-record, formally requested interviews. That's standard operating procedure, and it's hard to imagine how it would be a "direct consequence of the lawsuit" filed by Andrea Mackris one year ago.

So we have b): O'Reilly can't be alone with anyone in his office or make phone calls without someone monitoring the conversation. That reading certainly makes more sense in terms of the lawsuit, but it's also exceedingly difficult to imagine that Fox would impose such stringent restrictions on its biggest star. It's even more difficult to imagine that the undisclosed settlement agreement included language limiting O'Reilly's behavior so severely.

But if that were the case, I'd be about ready to throw in the towel, too.

My Name is Failure

Breaking news over at the New York Times! Apparently, according to super-sleuth slugger Bill Carter, NBC has lost its claim to First Place among young viewers on Thursday nights:
NBC, which used to own Thursday night lock, stock and barrel, now finds itself wearing the barrel on Thursdays.

The night that defined NBC's dominance in prime-time television for two decades is now a CBS principality, with that network finally winning the 10 p.m. hour in the Eastern and Pacific time zones among the only audience that NBC cares about - adults between the ages of 18 and 49 - with its crime drama "Without a Trace" edging past the most potent drama of the past decade, "ER."
It's all true! Especially if by "used to," you mean "until 2004." And by "now," you mean "for more than a year."

NBC lost it's claim to Thursday night early last season almost out of the gate, when "Joey" debuted to obscurity. The network never recovered. CBS handily won Thursday nights last season in 18-to-49-year-olds.

By Carter's account, NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly is bravely facing up to reality one year later, and considering moving "My Name Is Earl"--currently the 24th most popular television show, 12th among young viewers--over to Thursday nights to literally save the day.

Whatever. The question that doesn't get answered--or even raised--in Carter's portrait of an underdog is why NBC, having failed miserably and historically last season on the night that used to account for 1/3 of its primetime advertising revenue, elected to go into this season with precisely the same line-up of television shows. They left Thurday 100 percent intact. I've got a story in the forthcoming issue of Radar on the dire straits that Reilly's boss, aging wunderkind Jeff Zucker, finds himself in now that he's steered NBC from 1st to 4th among young viewers. One media buyer I spoke to for it said she was so flabbergasted when NBC announced its fall schedule in May that she told her clients that it had to be a fake, and that Zucker would announce some sort of bold Thursday-night shake-up closer to launch. No such luck.

But even as he catalogues NBC's Thursday night woes, Carter manages to give Reilly and Zucker a pass on the decisions they made that got them into this mess in the first place. Instead, we get:
"Joey" has seemingly failed as the 8 p.m. entry, though NBC executives note that it still holds onto a core audience. Putting "My Name Is Earl" at 9 means displacing "The Apprentice," which has tailed off further this season, though it still draws a much better than average rating from 9 to 10 against television's most popular show, "CSI" on CBS.
Seemingly? It would seem so. But it does retain that core audience, by which I guess NBC means that some people continue to watch it. And "The Apprentice" does score a "much-better-than-average" rating against "CSI." Which means...what, exactly? Last Thursday, "CSI" drew more than twice as many 18-to-49-year-olds as "The Apprentice," beating Trump by 7 million young viewers. So less-than-half is still better-than-average? Last Thursday, the average share of the 18-to-49-year-old audience among all networks--CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, UPN, and WB--in the 9 p.m. hour was 8 percent. NBC, with 11 percent, did indeed exceed the average. Which is another way of saying, "At least we beat the WB." I've covered television in one form or another for about six years now, and I've never heard a network tout its ratings by saying they exceed the average rating for that time period. It's an utterly irrelevant way of looking at ratings.

You can't fault NBC for trying to spin things in their favor. But I'm mystified as to why Carter would retail that spin in the Times.

Windows Are for Cheaters, Chimneys for the Poor

Amazon is offering a sneak-peak at the forthcoming CD/DVD 30th-anniversary re-release of "Born to Run" with a free video clip of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing the title track at a London show in 1975. The boxed-set includes a remastered "Born to Run," a making-of documentary, and a two-hour DVD of the London show.

The "Born to Run" clip is a little thrill. Apparently, Springsteen used to wear shirts with sleeves on them. It's a glimpse of one of the greatest American rock bands of the last half of the last century in top form, before Springsteen buffed up and perfected his rock poses. He's a sruffy, scrawny, wiry little frontman with a gruff holler and sweet falsetto. And the E Street Band is pimped out beyond all recognition.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Maketh Voodoo Lounge


I've been listening to the new My Morning Jacket record, the retardedly titled "Z," but haven't made up my mind yet. (It's a departure, with plenty of annoying keyboard pop and some good high-energy guitar rock.) I likewise haven't figured out whether frontman Jim James is a genuinely weird gifted songwriter or a cloying affected gifted songwriter--his new schtick appears to be carrying that Hello Kitty banner everywhere with him like a security blanket.

But I do give him credit for explaining one of the enduring mysteries of the universe in a new Harp Magazine profile:
James lives for moments like this. It is when, in his opinion, the presence of God passes through him. "I think that force, for me, is religion," James had said a few days earlier. "It's why I play music. We'll play some shows and most of them are pretty good and then some of those shows are the greatest thing that ever happened to us. And that is God. It's the same force that made the Rolling Stones good for so long and then made them start sucking."

Where the Hell Have I Been?

Rummaging through my past. There's a new link on the right sidebar with some selected clips and examples of writing and reporting that exceed 75 words, just in case you're looking for someone to pay money to write a story for you and want to know if they're any good.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Haunted By Falafel

Poor Bill O'Reilly can't even say mildly creepy things to his guests without the specter of a loofah rising up in our polluted minds and making them seem really uncomfortably creepy. Last night when he introduced Ann Coulter, he noted what he thought was a new outfit featured on the cover of Coulter's latest maniacal screed, now out in paperback, pictured above:
O'REILLY: Joining us now to talk about this and other news items, Ann Coulter, the author of a book "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)," now out in paperback.

Did you change the color? I thought you were in black leather last time. That's blue leather here. Is that a different color?

ANN COULTER: Yes, I like...

O'REILLY: You have leather in every shape and every color. [Awkward pause.] OK. Just finished reading your column on Miers. You don't like her. Why?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

New Yorker's Los Angeles Times Story

Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet

Here's an advance PDF of Ken Auletta's story on the rift between the Los Angeles Times and the Babbitts at the Tribune Co. I may or may not have more to say tomorrow, but here's my favorite passage:
In Los Angeles, [Tribune Publishing chief Scott] Smith is sometimes described as "an empty suit"—a frequent term in newsrooms for a paper's corporate overseers. Leo Wolinsky recalls a meeting soon after he was appointed: "We were talking about good things we were doing and how we were trying to hire the best people. He said, 'I don’t think you always have to hire the best people.' I was so stunned I didn’t follow up. I may be wrong, but I worried that it meant he did not necessarily mean to hire the best. He wanted us to hire the cheapest." Smith denies saying this. Carroll was there, and although he does not remember Smith's words, he recalls that "several things he said caused concern." He also says, referring to Smith, "Every time I mentioned the idea that the Los Angeles Times should be among the four best papers, I had the feeling it made people uncomfortable. Nobody ever said we shouldn’t do it. But nobody ever said, Yes, that’s a good idea."

Smith is viewed more enthusiastically by Ann Marie Lipinski, who joined the Chicago Tribune as an intern in 1978, right after college, and whom he appointed editor in 2001. Lipinski acknowledges the "ongoing conversation" at all newspapers about "how you balance the social mission with the economics," but she says that Smith "talks a lot about the social mission of the paper, and it's music to my ears. I don't know that every editor is as fortunate to have somebody minding the store who actually understands the value of that as deeply as he does." When Lipinski's words were repeated to Smith, he smiled and said the sort of thing that journalists like to hear people say about them. At the Tribune, he said, he "learned how a journalist thinks about serving readers every day, great storytelling, and what really matters in terms of our public role as well as our commercial role."
Isn't that just adorable?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Keep It Like a Secret

The New York Times opinion manufacturing division has concocted a new ethical hoop for righteous journalists to jump through in an attempt to retroactively render sensible the bizarre odyssey of Judith Miller. Evidently, right-thinking reporters are barred from even asking confidential sources for a release from confidentiality--it would be coercive!--which conveniently explains why Miller went to the hoosegow when her source, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, would have been more than happy to release her had she only asked. It was nothing more than an excess of ethical caution:
Why, then, did she agree to testify yesterday? Could Ms. Miller have gotten the permission earlier? Why didn't she just pick up the phone and ask?

When a journalist guarantees confidentiality, it means that he or she is willing to go to jail rather than disclose the source's identity. We also believe it means that the journalist will not try to coerce the source into granting a waiver to that promise--even if her back is against the wall. If Ms. Miller's source had wanted to release her from her promise, he could have held a press conference and identified himself. And obviously, he could have picked up the phone. Ms. Miller believed--and we agree--that it was not her place to try to hound him into telling her that she did not need to keep her promise.
This is, of course, bullshit. Every reporter who deals with anonymous sources is familiar with the tactic of going back to their sources and pressing them to go on the record with as much information as possible. It's our job to try to edge our sources back away from anonymity, even if we've granted it as a way to get important information out of them. Here's what the New York Times' Confidential News Sources Policy has to say on the matter:
In routine interviewing--that is, most of the interviewing we do--anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source. Exceptions will occur in the reporting of highly sensitive stories, when it is we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us. Similarly they will occur in approaches to authoritative officials in government who, as a matter of policy, do not speak for attribution. On those occasions, we may use an offer of anonymity as a wedge to make telephone contact, get an interview or learn a fact. In such a case, the reporter should press the source, after the conversation, to go on the record with the newsworthy information that has emerged.