Friday, December 10, 2010

WikiLeaks, Subprime Lenders, & "Government Pressure"

Anyone following the WikiLeaks story knows that the website itself has been as much on the run as its principals — and now, with Assange in the custody of the British authorities awaiting extradition to Sweden, perhaps even more so. Amazon recently gave the boot, the site recently lost its .org domain name, and if you're interested in supporting the WikiLeaks organization, PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa can't help you.

These results have generally been attributed to "pressure" from the United States government, and depending on where you sit politically, your reason to cry foul might range from the thoughtful ("This sort of extrajudicial pressure is undemocratic.") to, you know, hers ("C'mon, Obama: deploy the snipers, already.").
Let's put aside for the moment protests from the State Department and DOJ that they have not, in fact, been working the phones with the credit card companies.

If you are a cardholder calling about abusive finance charges, press 1. If you are Hillary Clinton, and you're calling about WikiLeaks, press 2 . . .

Even taking State and Justice at their word, the U.S. government has — ahem — other instrumentalities that can do this sort of behind-the-scenes work. And for that matter, the government can apply pressure on WikiLeaks's corporate contractors without contacting them directly. The nationally broadcast rumblings from a certain U.S. Senator against the New York Times, word from DOJ that it is continues to consider its criminal enforcement options against Assange — this sort of thing raises red flags for the legal and PR departments of large corporate institutions. Talk of government action against WikiLeaks and, more importantly, another large corporate institution that has had dealings with WikiLeaks, might certainly be enough to give Amazon pause to think about how important its hosting relationship with WikiLeaks really is.

But of course, I'm speculating. And herein lies the problem in judging the actions taken by the government to date: we really don't know what the government has been up to, and we don't know what role it's played in prompting the Amazon takedown and the credit card kissoffs. It seems plausible, by which I mean "obvious," that these results are attributable at least in part to direct or indirect government (as opposed to public) pressure. But absent any of the deets, we're stuck with that exceedingly vague word: pressure.

When I hear complaints about unelaborated "government pressure," I'm put in mind of the 2008 election, when the American right, put to the task of trying to explain how the financial crisis was entirely the fault of the American left, complained that the government "pressured" banks to make the lousy subprime loans that, in the end, precipitated the destruction of our economy. (Here's a post-election rendition of that argument, from a predictable source.) And as a right-minded Obama supporter, I raised the appropriate objections, one of which focused on the term "pressure," which the argument's adherents seemed to have left deliberately vague. What does "pressure" mean? Something short of force, presumably, but other than that, no details. Can it really be said that a financial institution, in the modern U.S. of A., will ever succumb to "government pressure" and take on business it doesn't want to have? In the end, of course, it was the banks that issued the loans, and just as emphasis on the alleged government pressure did the rhetorical work of lifting agency from the banks, we risk letting Amazon et al. off the hook here in the same way. And we shouldn't, necessarily.

More importantly, government exerts pressure on corporations in all sorts of ways, some of which are more benign and democratic than others. Perhaps President Obama works the bully pulpit to prompt improved remedial action from BP, or the aforementioned Senator wanders into a cable news studio and calls for federal investigation of the Times. We might be inclined to critique either of these undertakings, based on our feelings about the speakers and corporations involved. But these surely do not constitute the sort of government pressure that undermines our democracy. After all, public officials have always been entitled to leverage their power over corporations through speech, and this is a tradition we should continue, given that corporations are, we're told, very much entitled to do the converse.

Contrast a species of pressure that I think would indeed be sorely troubling, as a democratic matter: imagine that DOJ did contact Amazon and threaten to charge its principals under the godawfully vague espionage laws still on the books, if it didn't give the boot. In theory DOJ could have brandished similar charges at the payment processors, on an aiding and abetting theory. And if/when WikiLeaks ever finds itself listed as a designated terror organization, PayPal and card companies could be charged for providing it with "material support." A considerably greater pressure would be brought to bear under these circumstances, and at its root is the monopoly on force. For that matter, if the government threatened or executed cyberattacks on the target companies, then I would agree that the government pressure would be inappropriately applied and of grave concern to our constitutional, democratic system.

The thing is, we just don't know what's gone on outside of the public view. We don't know what sort of pressure the government might have applied to Amazon, PayPal, and the card companies, and so we're stuck. Hm. If only there were somebody out there — some sort of organization — that could get hold of the details and pass them along to the public . . .

Friday, May 14, 2010

FO News Roundup: May 14, 2010

Been a while, but we're alive and well. Well, I am.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

On Unintended Consequences and Happy Meals

Supervisors in Santa Clara County, California participated in America's great experiment of "laboratory federalism" last week by enacting a law that prohibits restaurants from providing toys with children's meals, unless the accompanying food meets certain nutritional standards.

The regulation, which for the sake of shorthand we'll call "the Unhappy Meal Law," only applies in areas where the county supervisors are the sovereign local authority — i.e., only in those pockets of land in Santa Clara County that are not incorporated into a city or town (which of course can pass their own laws). Thus, rather than entirely beat back the hordes of junk plastic movie tie-in action figures past the county lines, the law only makes Happy Meal toys a little less ubiquitous in fast food restaurants in the county. This will, of course, cause great confusion and consternation among Bay Area five-year-olds, who absent access to a GPS device, a county map, and an understanding of California's principles of local government and jurisdiction, won't know on a given day whether, where, or why they won't be getting a Mermaid Barbie doll with their cheeseburgers. And it's just this sort of random arrangement of cause and consequence that, according to behavioral psychologists, leads to "learned helplessness" and depression.

But hey — at least our kids won't be obese. At least that's the thinking, as county supervisors, applying the "Joe Camel principle," have concluded that Happy Meal toys draw children to fast-food restaurants, where they become tracked into the habit of eating unhealthy food.

Needless to say, I have some thoughts on this subject. Four fingers of thoughts, in fact:

☞ McDonald's introduced the Happy Meal in 1979. I remember when this happened. My father took me to McDonald's every Saturday. It was one of my favorite things in the whole world. Then one day I got to McDonald's, I read the menu, and I realized that not only was I going to get a burger and fries for lunch, but I was going to get a toy, too. And McDonald's became even more awesome.

Because I went to McDonald's, as a child, both before and after McDonald's launched the Happy Meal, I can count myself as something of an authority on the drawing effect of Happy Meal toys. As I recall my state of mind in the Pre-Happy Meal Era, I always frickin' wanted to go to McDonald's for lunch. And of course, in the Happy Meal Era, I always frickin' wanted to go to McDonald's for lunch. Check my math, Mithridates, but as I calculate this, the net drawing effect of Happy Meal toys = 0. Zero.

☞ Whether or not I actually did go to McDonald's for lunch as a child was a question that turned not so much on what I wanted to do, but on what my parents wanted to do. And of course, now that I'm fully grown with children of my own, I'm the one who gets to make the call on whether my children get to go to McDonald's. So now that we've dispensed with the notion that Happy Meal toys make children marginally and meaningfully more interested in McDonald's, it seems worthwhile to cover the effect of the toys on parents' decisions.


[deep breath]

Yes, um, where were we? Oh, right: I always frickin' want to go to McDonald's for lunch. But if I'm with the kids, then they're of course going to come along, and that means I'm going to bring home more godawful nine-cent hunks of plastic that will, without fail, find their way into my bed, into my bathtub, under foot as I walk through the dark into the bathroom, between couch cushions for me to sit on. So yes, if anything, the Happy Meal toys actually reduce my interest in taking the kids to McDonald's. Seriously.

☞ Anyone who has actually given a child a Happy Meal knows that the accompanying toy actually reduces the amount of food the child will ingest. The logic is simple: if you give a kid a big pile of greasy, delicious junk food, he'll eat it. If you give the kid the same big pile of greasy, delicious junk food and a toy, he'll find himself torn between eating the junk food and playing with the toy. If you withhold the toy until the kid is done with his lunch, he will in most cases prematurely declare the lunch finished and actually allow you to throw out his McNuggets and fries so that he can get a crack at the toy.

I've seen this dynamic at work: just today I took The Boy to McDonald's. No toy, I said, until we got into the car. The Boy ate one McNugget and insisted that lunch was over. I told him that we were going to sit for a few more minutes ("for our digestion") before leaving. If he wanted to have some more lunch during that time, he was welcome to do so. The Boy ate two more McNuggets and a fistful of fries. Q.E. freakin' D.

☞ Finally, consider how McDonald's might respond to the Unhappy Meal law. If McDonald's accepts, as Santa Clara County does (and I don't), that Happy Meal toys make their restaurant more attractive to children, and therefore families, then they'll have to find some other way to market to children. Deprived of the ability to offer collateral inducements, they'll have to beef up (pun intended) their food offerings. And since it's axiomatic that food is more appealing when it tastes better, and that the worse food is for you, the better it tastes — well, McDonald's now has an incentive to make its food even greasy, junkier, and more delicious. And/or cheaper.

I could talk more about how a county restriction means city kids get toys and country kids don't, how the Unhappy Meal law seems entirely predicated on the suggestion that parents don't know how to say no to their children, and so on. But it ought to be enough to note that either the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors don't have kids and never were kids, or they just didn't think this one through.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Lieberman's Absurd Miranda Workaround

Here we go again. Another terror arrest, another round of trumped-up hand-wringing from the right about having to "read rights to terrorists." Once again, it seems this "rights = soft on terror" concern is much more theoretical than practical, because the Times Square Rube Goldberg Smoking Car Bomber is talking.

Never mind all that, says Joe Lieberman: we need to strip homegrown terrorists of their citizenship. If we can do that, then we don't have to worry about all these rights, and we can do anything we want to these jerks:
“I’m now putting together legislation to amend that to [specify that] any individual American citizen who is found to be involved in a foreign terrorist organization, as defined by the Department of State, would be deprived of their citizenship rights,” Lieberman said Tuesday.

This would be a clever answer to the Miranda "problem," if indeed (1) there were a problem, (2) this approach resolved the problem, and (3) it were clever. But Lieberman's whacked-out law doesn't meet any of these three conditions. Here's why:

We don't always know if a person is innocent or guilty.

The rights and protections we extend to criminal suspects and defendants are designed, among other reasons, to ensure that the state doesn't manufacture guilt. Folks in America don't disappear into black holes of detention — without access to attorneys, under conditions that allow law enforcement to extract forced confessions — not because we think criminals deserve kid-glove treatment, but because it would really suck to have that happen to you, if you weren't a criminal.

So let's imagine life in Joe Lieberman's World. You're sitting on a plane, on the tarmac at JFK. You're looking forward to your vacation. Tray tables are up, you've switched off your cell phone, and suddenly federal agents storm into coach and carry you off. They're thinking you tried to blow up a car in Times Square. Well, there's obviously some mistake; a quick call to your attorney will help clear all this up, except someone just declared that you're "involved in a foreign terrorist organization." No lawyer, then. You're back out on the tarmac now, but it's a military transport plane, and you're heading to Bagram, and not Barcelona.

How could this have happened? you ask. Well, it's frighteningly simple. You've been accused of terrorism. Terrorism is an awful, awful crime — so awful, in fact, that just being accused of it is enough to see you stripped you of your citizenship and all the rights that flow from that. Even if the rights bear importantly on the question whether you're a terrorist at all.

Ick. Nice one, Joe.

Of course, that's not the case here at all. Faisal Shahzad has freely confessed his guilt already. We know he tried to kill dozens, if not hundreds of innocent people, over some unspecified grievance that may have something to do with frickin' South Park. So yes, even this purported bleeding-heart liberal correspondent actually would love to see this guy beaten, waterboarded, and humiliated in public (Times Square seems an appropriate forum). And what the heck, when we're done with him, let's strip the guy of his American citizenship. I'm all for that. Screw Faisal Shahzad.

But do we have to strip folks of their citizenship before we know whether they're guilty of terrorism — for the express purpose of facilitating a finding that they're guilty of terrorism? That's the worst kind of legal bootstrapping. It's beneath America. Hell, it's even beneath Glenn Beck. It's just not beneath Senator Lieberman.

Joe, you, too, have the right to remain silent, and we well and truly wish you'd exercise that right a little more often.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bush Wipes Hand on Clinton

Funny. You would think a good Republican would want to wipe his hand on a Haitian after touching the man whose lending policies caused the financial crisis and whose failure to pursue Al Qaeda led to 9/11, not the other way around.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tiger's Texts: A Lawyer's Take

If anyone wondered why "adult film actress" and reputed lover of Tiger Woods Joslyn James felt the need to go out and retain a big-time lawyer, the picture is getting clearer by the day. Here's my "lawyer's take" on what's going on:

Yeah, sure, Joslyn James was going to find herself in the glare of the public eye, and a lawyer can help manage the publicity and keep the press at bay (i.e., "That one's lawyered up, and Allred is something fierce. Maybe I won't try to break in Joslyn James's house and get pictures of her in the shower.").

But James isn't just in a defensive posture. Consider that she invited press to listen along beside her as she took in Tiger's self-serving soliloquy back on February 19. Consider, too, that when Tiger was finished, Ms. James took the podium and delivered her own tearful statement, demanding a direct apology from Woods. An awkward angle to try to work, this "I thought I was the only Other Woman" bit. But the statement was thick with shots across the bow of Woods's legal team: little tidbits of information that might add up to lawsuit against Tiger. She loves Tiger, and he made her promises. She had pregnancies that ended in miscarriage and abortion. She gave up her career at his request. Yeah, Gloria and Joslyn are laying the groundwork for threatening all sorts of legal claims. Lousy claims, but claims nonetheless, and the point isn't whether you can win or lose on these lousy claims; the point is whether you can get Tiger to pay you some money to make sure they don't end up in court to begin with. What Tiger will pay to settle these claims has very little to do with the value of the claims themselves. He's confronting a potential lawsuit, brought by his mistress, which will extend this scandal for another couple years well past the endpoint he'd hope to establish for it (with his apology speech) and vivisect his sordid personal life, laying it open for the world to see in public legal proceedings.

Which brings us now to the text messages that Joslyn James recently released to the press.
This is hardball. Joslyn James earlier said that she has some 11,000 text messages from Tiger Woods. She released a small subset — only around 100 — of those messages. Release of the messages suggests what should have been obvious following Ms. James' delivery of her counterstatement on February 18: that Allred and Woods's attorneys are negotiating a settlement that will keep James from suing Woods and posting any more damaging information to the media. One of the following is true: (1) they're not close to a deal, or (2) they've reached a deal, and James released the texts anyway. Both scenarios are intriguing.

Scenario (1) suggests that Joslyn James has information far more damaging than what she released yesterday — and the texts she released yesterday were pretty darn damaging, describing Woods' interest in sadistic sex acts. No way no how does Gloria Allred let Joslyn James disclose the most lurid info she has. If this were the worst of it, Woods's attorneys would have no reason to bargain with her, as James couldn't hurt Woods any more than she has to date. We therefore have to assume that the ~100 texts that James disclosed yesterday were carefully selected to generate a modest amount of media buzz (thereby getting her back in the news) but not so much as to leave Allred without leverage going forward. We have to assume that there is something much worse in the rest of the 11,000 texts (or, theoretically, in some other explosive format: video?).

Moreover, the timing of the release was calculated: Tiger announced on Tuesday that he would return from his golf hiatus to play in the Masters next month. He's starting to get back into business as usual, and he's back in the news, too. James counters with the release of the text, which destroys any positive PR momentum he has.

Under Possibility (2), Woods and James have already reached agreement, and James has been already received a lump-sum payment of hush money. There is presumably an enforceable contract here, negotiated by attorneys: Woods pays James an unspecified amount (confidential, of course, per the terms of the contract), and James hands over any documentation of the affair for Woods to destroy. But of course, James could always surreptitiously keep a copy of her materials, to publicize after she cashes her check. This would be a breach of the contract, and Woods could sue her, but would he? If he did, well, there's that very public lawsuit again, and on top of all the other nastiness that would come out about the affair, there would be this new distasteful overlay: Tiger wrote a big check to keep this girl quiet, and now he's suing her over it. In theory, then, James could get paid both by Woods (to keep quiet) and by the press (to spill her secrets). Woods's lawyers, if they have any sense, would therefore have every reason to structure the deal to require payments over time — perhaps an annuity — so that they could preserve some leverage over James going forward, other than resort to the courts. We should assume that Woods's lawyers have quite a lot of sense, such that Scenario (2) is therefore the much less likely of the two here.

All of the above analysis is predicated on the assumption — and I think this is right — that James stands to gain more from Tiger if she withholds her information than she can get from anyone in the press if she discloses it all. The value of a "hot news" exclusive, in this day and age, isn't really all that. Once the texts are out, anyone can pick them up and run with them. It makes sense that Tiger would pay millions to James to keep her quiet; it makes much less sense that a media organization would pay a comparable amount to break this story five minutes before everybody else.

And of course another assumption is in play: that James isn't just an irrational "woman scorned" figure here, whose interest is simply to throw everything she has at Tiger, to hurt him as badly as she can, and damn the settlement offers. This seems to me unlikely. You don't hire Gloria Allred unless you want to work an angle, and Gloria Allred doesn't continue to represent you if you're delivering all your best stuff to the press in anger. And for that matter: ELEVEN THOUSAND TEXTS? James was clearly archiving these messages, either as keepsakes because she loved Tiger so much or rather to save for a rainy day — or a day of opportunity. Hm.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jacko Lives! (Or So We Believe)

Word came out today that Michael Jackson's estate just cut a $250 million deal with Sony Music. The quarter billion goes to Jacko, Inc. in exchange for "unreleased songs and older tracks recorded by Jackson" — in other words, all the dribs and drabs of music that the King of Pop committed to tape but failed to release before dying.

Not exactly the "reissue, repackage, REPACKAGE" phenomenon that the Smiths described in "Paint a Vulgar Picture," but we see today the value that premature death can bring to a pop star's career. A pile of master tapes deemed at least to this point unfit for mass distribution wholesales to Sony for $250 extra-large. Hm.

Anybody else believe that Michael Jackson isn't really dead?
Just stop for a minute and consider the logic of it. At the time he "died," Michael was, by all accounts, some $300 million in debt. The plan he'd announced to bring himself back into the black? A ten-gig comeback stand in London, followed by three more years of world touring, if he delivered on the gigs in England. The very concept betrays how desperate he was: the guy was broken. Reclusive, narcissistic, zonked on painkillers. He was our generation's Howard Hughes, except in one important respect: he was broke. And to get out of debt he was going to take to the stage? Nope. Uh-uh. That was never going to work. It was no surprise that this last-ditch effort was falling apart. Dates were postponed, rumors were swirling about Jackson's health, and the tour promoters had to be poring over the fine print of the insurance policy they surely bought at the time they cut this deal.

At this point, Michael Jackson was a complete loss. He couldn't do public performances. He wasn't releasing new material. There's only so many times you can promote a back catalog. It wouldn't take a genius to run the numbers and conclude, with all the cynicism of Bialystock and Bloom, that on a going-forward basis Michael Jackson was worth more dead than alive. And of course subsequent events bore this out: Thriller and Off the Wall surging to the top of the charts in the weeks after Jacko's "death"; a slapped-together film release and accompanying soundtrack album; and now this nine-figure deal to release demos and B-sides that might never have sold on the merits, but now can be promoted as Michael Jackson's "final word" in the studio.

If you were a onetime pop superstar, world-renowned, critically acclaimed, but now broke, introverted, and slipping into cultural irrelevance — if you were desperate to square your accounts and just cash out — you might consider faking your own death. And if you had all the aforementioned characterizations and motivations, and you were at the level of Michael Jackson, well, faking your own death probably wouldn't be impossible to accomplish. The guy had resources — he had minders, bodyguards, publicists, personal physicians. We know, too, that Jacko wasn't exactly running scared of plastic surgery, which would surely be in order if he wanted to ensure that he could dissolve anonymously, into the general population.

It's not hard to imagine. You're in a rundown town, far away and off the beaten track — maybe somewhere in Southeast Asia, where sex trafficking isn't so much a crime as a local specialty — and you see a middle-aged man limping painfully along down a dirt road with a bag slung over his shoulder. The man's face is gashed and scarred beyond recognition. His frame is slight, and his skin bone-white. The sleeves of his jacket are pulled up over his forearms. Maybe the man's rocking gait seems a bit affected; if you look closely, you might sees flashes of a dancer's grace in this man's slumping stride. Now and again he reaches down with one hand, grabs hold of his groin, and gasps, as if he's in pain.

Just another drifter, this guy. Hard knocks, hard life. The man mutters, grunts, hoots, winces, as he passes you. It's nearly dusk, and as the sky darkens, it appears that the road seems to light up just a little as this man passes by. Surely that was a trick of the light, you think. Angles and reflections, from the setting sun.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Thailand II: Third Toilet

Thailand's a Third World country. By some definition of Third World. But who even knows what that means, anyway? India's a Third World country, too, but would you rather be reborn as an average Indian or an average Thai? This one's easy folks. Way easy. So since Third World doesn't really mean much these days, I've decided we desperately need a new way to classify countries.

To those foreign readers in the First World who are used to thinking of themselves at the top of the heap, be prepared to be offended. To those Americans whose idea of international travel is to stay in five-star resorts that could be anywhere, you'll have no idea what I'm talking about. As in, "we stayed at the Ritz Bali for a week. I thought the Indonesians were very advanced . . ."

The following refers to what you can expect in public places, restaurants, and the median home. This scientific analysis involved one person traveling to geographically clustered destinations, non-randomly sampling the facilities, and reconstructing the data based on memories ranging from one hour to fifteen years old.
First Toilet: A 99+% certainty that toilet paper can be flushed without damaging the system. Guaranteed porcelain seating. Seats even at truck stops and train stations.

The United States sits atop the world in a class by itself. There's a reason they say American Standard on them. That means something. The First Toilet has a few defining characteristics: You can really only be certain of such luxury in the US and fifty miles or less into Canada.

I know some of our American readers are going through their life experiences and recalling some horror at a gas station or bus stop at some point in their life. But venture down the list a bit and be thankful for what we have here.

First toilet countries: US, Near Canada

Second Toilet: You're pretty safe here. Risk of disease is very low and things are likely to be clean, but you're only 90% guaranteed flush-able paper and less than 100% guaranteed a seat.

You arrive on the overnight train to Paris at 7am and the toxins from your three days in Amsterdam have finally caught up to you. You head straight for the first decent-looking café, order a drink and head right to the toilette. The closet size enclosure is clean all right, but there's no actual toilet. Just two foot pads and a hole in the spotless floor.

This is Paris!! In France! This is decidedly First World, they were once an undeniable super-power, and some people even now consider them friendly rivals with the US for the title of Greatest Nation on Earth. Yet at a café in their capital city you might actually have to squat to use the toilet! You might actually be able to perform, but there is this nagging shred of doubt in your mind. What if this isn't the toilet, after all? I mean really, what happens then? So you realize the nearby Musée D'Orsay is about to open, buy your ticket and head for the porcelain bliss of a hermetically sealed one-shooter on the first floor. The Monets never looked so good.

Second Toilet countries: France, Holland, UK, Ireland, Italy, Israel

Third Toilet: There's nothing pleasant about your average experience, but you're 90% successful and safe. You might have to shell out a few baht for entry at the bus station in Thailand, but if that keeps traffic to a minimum and pays for cleaning, you're more than happy to pay. It doesn't smell great and you're not inspired to crack open the paper, but you always leave in better shape than you came in. So despite the low GDP per capita, Thailand, perhaps through reliance on a booming tourist industry, actually maintains decent rest rooms. Even on the train itself, with things shaking around, a post-mystery soup trip to the can is uneventful, clean, and safe. What a country!

Third Toilet countries: Thailand, Ecuador, Greece

Fourth Toilet: You won't die, but you're willing to take a 10% or more chance of catastrophe rather the use the toilet found in the train station of the capital city.

You were out the night before in Madrid and are catching the morning train to Toledo (why again?). You and your brother make a desperate run to the train station facilities before your train departs as last night's Sangria and sausage are on the move. You put your pesetas in the coin-operated door. You brother says "Mine's broken." You open the door to your stall to see a seatless bowl covered in grime and paper. You consider how it might be done and nothing seems remotely acceptable. "Mine's broken, too," you say. You have no choice but to battle it out and hope the commode on the train is marginally better (which it is, thankfully).

Here we have a full-fledged Fourth Toilet country right in Western Europe. Wonderful country, great food, nice people, delicious wine, but the European Union needs to stop worrying so much about deficits and GDP per capita and start refusing entry to countries that can't maintain decent commodes.

Fourth Toilet countries: Spain, China

Fifth Toilet: The lowest designation refers only to those benighted places where proper precautions are necessary to ensure that you don't actually catch hepatitis or worse from going to the bathroom.

You're on a twelve-hour train ride in a second-class coach in India. Things are rolling around and you have to bite the bullet. The tiny compartment in the rear consists of a small hole, a filthy tin cup on a chain, and a rusty faucet.

Now suppose you manage to get the job done despite all the shaking and having nothing to hold on to. You still wonder how exactly you're supposed to make yourself more clean by filling up that nasty tin cup and splashing plague water around your nether regions. There's just no way.

Or take the public restroom at the train station. Mostly out of respect for the next person who might shake your hand, I believe you should wash with soap and water after handling your penis in the process of urinating. But what if your penis is the cleanest thing in the entire bathroom? What if there's a legitimate chance that your hands get dirty and diseased from touching the faucet and paper towel dispenser (was there one? You might be making up the dispenser).

Look, with all due respect there are probably filthier countries on the planet — this reporter just hasn't been there yet.

Fifth Toilet countries: India

All categorizations are subject to review. Please share your stories if you think any country has been rated too high . . .

Friday, February 26, 2010

FO News Roundup: February 27, 2010

Special Weekend Edition!
  • You know, you try and try and try to stay "neutral" in world affairs, and still some psycho foists a jihad on you. What's a country like Switzerland to do? (P)
  • Some 700 Club intern just got called in on the weekend to figure out how Chile might have offended Pat Robertson's God. Better get that research done by Sunday, dude, or you'll be struck by lightning. (P)
  • Talk about your tin ear for politics: PETA's protesting Sea World shows that exploit murderous killer whales that kill. (P)
  • Jenny Sanford gets to divorce her husband. Why doesn't the rest of South Carolina? (P)
  • Just like A-Rod to get into a "fender bender" in his Maybach. If you're gonna crash a half-million dollar sports car, frickin' do it right. (P)
  • Rick Perry is poised to win the Republican primary for Governor of Texas. And of course, if he loses, he'll run for President. Of Texas. (P)
  • C'mon, Fitty: what's the point of being a famous hip-hop artist, if you have to Photoshop yourself into amateur sex videos? (P)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cyborgs on Ice!

I have a long list of grievances about figure skating. A long list that, if I had little else to do during my workday, would lend itself to an extended extended extended post (and you'd love it, too, ONTRI!). But I'll do only a "short program" today, as I mean to discuss a most strongly-held pet peeve: the flesh-colored tights that the women are increasingly wearing over their skates.

First, a disclaimer: I raise this issue not as some sexist couch jockey who is determined to objectify female athletes by critiquing their wardrobe and equipment selections. I really don't care what Lindsay Vonn or Dara Torres wear when they compete; if they think a burqa will make them faster, they should go for it. Just bring home medals to the U.S. of A.

But figure skating's different, of course. Figure skating is a sport predicated entirely on aesthetics: [sadly,] it's all about how you look. So I have to ask the question: what in the name of Dick Button is remotely appealing about flesh-colored tights over skates? For starters, it's not at all convincing. You're not hiding anything, ladies. That's current points leader Kim Yu Na in the photos above (credit: New York Times). Check out that first picture: either Kim has some kind of grotesque protruding bone spur, she's acquired by mutation or surgery an additional joint midway between her knee and ankle, or that unsightly bulge is the poorly-concealed top of her skate. Who is she kidding? WHO?

And of course there are the skate blades. You can "flesh up" the boot, but not the blades. So even if we bought into the fiction that is apparently intended here — that the skates have been fully integrated into Kim's body, that "they are a part of her" — we have to accept that Kim has metal skate blades either screwed into or growing out of the soles of her feet. The very suggestion is, to me, horrifying. If this sport means to tap into our several souls' common craving to witness beauty — if its appeal is to that part of us that deeply appreciates the human form, its capacity for grace and will to perfection — why are we turning our female skaters into cyborgs? This isn't figure skating. It's disfigure skating.

The only possible justification I can muster for this offensive trend is that blending the skate boots into the legs might allow skaters to bluff mistakes past the judges. I write this knowing very little about figure skating, but I throw it out as a possibility. And then I throw the possibility out, too, as it seems to me that judges should be able to see through that sort of crap anyway, and if I were a judge I wouldn't particularly take to a skater who resorted to this sort of trick.

For years now people have been using ice skates to ice skate. It's sort of a requirement of ice skating that I think all of us in the crowd accept. In the spirit of our common humanity — and in recognition of how ice skating works — show us your skates, ladies. Please. There's no downside to it, and you'll be substantially less freakish and terrifying. And Mithridates says he'll give you beads.

The Blame America Crowd

Last week a militant launched a deadly terrorist attack on US soil. Most reasonable people came out and unconditionally condemned the attack, but others sympathized with the perpetrator's motivation while condemning the violence. Comments (assume [sic]s where warranted) include:
This is just the start of things like this. I DISAGREE with the way this guy rebelled, but i fully understand is frustration!!!"
I feel for the guy and I'm sure that there are many more out there who feel the same way. Of course, killing yourself and taking others with you is a horrible and wrong thing to do.
Others went further and actually saw good in the attack . . .
Hopefully, with such extreme measures a few Americans that actually posses a good head on their shoulders will take notice, and then TAKE ACTION
. . . or even worse, took the opportunity to threaten more violence against the American people:
Go here and do a little research before something with jets or propellers falls on your head...
Other crazies displayed an all-too-familiar willingness to blame America first, claiming that the US government brought this action on themselves. Rep. King's reaction was to lambast federal policy, while adding (with a sickening smile) that the attack was unfortunate. These people are clearly "prime example[s] of the 'hate-America crowd,' . . . dripping with contempt for the nation's politics, its leaders, its economic system and for their foolish fellow citizens.'' Some notable conservatives have even D'gone so far as to call flying planes into American buildings courageous.

Our tax policies have indeed caused hardship. I mean how should an independent IT contractor be expected to know how to legally deduct a piano on his tax form? But ask these America haters in what other country low-tax supporters would feel more welcome. France? Not even close. Canada? Laughable.

For the most part, no one is seriously blaming the incident in Austin on anyone but the attacker (a Bush-hating, church-bashing, anti-tax, anti-everyone nutjob), despite the usual victim game played by certain righty types. That tiresome game, of course, involves combing through every corner of every article in search of a suggestion of commonality between the perpetrator and the Tea Party Movement: further evidence that the mainstream media is out to get you!

Of course, supporters of lower taxes (like Bush-haters and church-bashers) are mostly peaceful people who are appalled by the violence of those claiming to act in their name. But the low-tax community needs to root out the militants among them and speak with one voice, condemning these actions unconditionally.

And what about all those nutjobs out there who actually sympathize with and support the terrorists?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

FO News Roundup, February 23, 2010

Seven bullets today:
  • Mass killer and IHOP suckerpuncher Amy Bishop may have planted a "herpes bomb" in her lab building. The jokes just write themselves these days. (P)
  • Apple's iPhone Patrol: please leave the sex apps to the professionals, people. But as always, keep the fart apps coming. (P)
  • Nurse, get me 100 ccs of Viagra, with a Cialis chaser. Boner's gone missing! (P)
  • If Elvis left the building, would Schiphol air security notice? Because they sure as hell didn't see him coming in. (P)
  • Have a heart, Albania. (Yeah, we've done that line before, but who's gonna know?) (P)
  • Brown votes for the jobs bill. What kind of Republican are you, Scott? (P)
  • Lost in the Fox News outrage: the patriotic hero of their story thinks the Pledge of Allegiance is the "national anthem." (P)

DKG, The Economist Jump the "Make 'Em Filibuster" Bandwagon!

The Economist observes that the filibuster is too easy, if you don't actually have to do it:
In the Senate the filibuster is used too often, in part because it is too easy. Senators who want to talk out a bill ought to be obliged to do just that, not rely on a simple procedural vote: voters could then see exactly who was obstructing what.

This comes on the heels of Doris Kearns Goodwin's interview on The Daily Show, in which she, too, argued that Dems should call the GOP's filibuster bluff.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Of course, we opined on this matter weeks ago. Now that not just one but two august publication and an esteemed Presidential scholar have weighed in on the question, can't you see, Democrats, that the answer is right in front of you?

Oh, and you heard it here first.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Some Thai Food

Thailand is one of the truly great food countries in this world of ours. The 28 cent meat on a stick from a street vendor for breakfast; the $4 Chinese feast happily devoured by the only white guy in a hole-in-the-wall in the coolest Chinatown going; the Laotian smorgasbord for dinner last night. Thailand — and especially Bangkok — is food heaven.

So, why, on the afternoon of my last day in country, am I penning my travel memoirs over a $4 Big Mac Set at McDonald's? It's definitely not that I'm sick of Thai food. I was sick of Indian food after two weeks there, but with apologies to my Hindu friends, Thailand is simply a superior food destination, with more tasty culinary diversity in a much smaller country. So why am I here? You got it. It's the ambiance! Attached to the Westin Grand Sukhumvit on Soi 19, my delightfully bright red corner booth overlooks the chaos of swanky Sukhumvit Road. The air-conditioning slowly allows my shirt to dry after a day of touring through the capital on foot. The music is of the Thai elevator variety, but it's really quite soothing.

Bangkok isn't the only place where Mickey D's provides an oasis for a weary American. McDonald's is by far the cleanest, friendliest, and overall nicest place in all of Athens, Greece, for example. In addition to the creature comforts, the ubiquity of McDonald's is reassurance of the continued dominance of American culture around the world. Those golden arches in their legion in every corner of the globe remind the world that we're still here, we're still loud, and you still frickin' love us!

I mean, sure, sitting on the floor at Vientiane Kitchen was more authentic. But then again, with all due respect, authentic Lao would probably be sitting on the shit-covered floor of a mud hut eating a bowl of rice. This clean, comfortable booth all to myself is authentic American - and it's wonderful!

But here we are after two weeks in one of my favorite countries. Over the next several episodes we'll discuss food, of course, but also elephants and roosters; Buddha; the most dangerous activity in Thailand; language; friendliness and sleaze; Thai massage and Thai "massaaaaage"; boys, girls, and that 3rd kind unique to Thailand; martial arts; dung; sweat; and the remarkable transformation of Bangkok from grimy, sleaze capital of the world to kickass cosmopolitan destination. Stay tuned!

Did She Mean To Say That?

I saw this commercial yesterday and had to do a double-take. Played it back on YouTube just now, and yes, indeed, this exchange really did occur:

"Amy," Nutrisystem Success Story: I can take care of the things that need to get done!
Marie Osmond: Including yourself.
Amy: Including myself.

[chuckles all around]

Wow. It's all there, starting at about 1:49, and it almost justifies what they've done with the "Substitute" riff.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Three Albums

So we're promoting the site now through Facebook. We're finding now that we have 20+ "fans" — some of whom aren't even Facebook friends (!) — and on that basis we're talking ourselves round to thinking we have readers. In the hope of dispelling that delusion, I'm writing today to solicit "reader input" on a cultural exercise of great importance:

Brothers and Sisters, name the recording artist with the three best consecutive albums (Three Albums, for short). And, of course, name the albums.
I've been thinking about this question for a while, and because I'm a dork, I've raised it over drinks with friends (who are also dorks — dorky friends, I'm relying on you here). I have some ideas, but before I get to them, first some Rules and Guidelines.

☞ Rule: A greatest hits release doesn't count as an Album, for these purposes. That Steve Miller abomination with the Jordache logo is not an Album (and for that matter, it sucks anyway).

☞ Rule: A live release is not an Album, either, unless it's substantially comprised of new songs written specifically for the release. Thus and so, Under a Blood Red Sky is not an Album. Rattle & Hum? Yeah, probably.

☞ Rule: No EPs or singles compilations, please. We're talking strictly about studio albums. Hatful of Hollow, Louder Than Bombs, and the World Won't Listen are not studio albums. I know this pretty much dooms the Smiths, because it leaves no room to maneuver around Meat Is Murder. This breaks my heart, but it's increasingly clear to me that the Smiths were a singles band, anyway.

As for Guidelines, I figure I'll throw out some general principles you can choose to accept or reject. Obviously Quality comes first, but we might favor as well Three Albums that reveal significant Growth or Refinement on the part of the artist. I'd be inclined to credit Three Albums delivered in a short span of time — say, yearly releases — over a series of three that span a decade or more. It shows me more. Variety would seem important to me. It's the spice of life, after all, and a sign of an artist's versatility. If the Three Albums don't reveal the aforementioned Growth or Refinement, Sustained Level of Brilliance might carry the day. Don't come to me with Two Sandwich Albums on Either Side of a Fair-to-Middling Third. That's not Three Albums. And don't tell me an album is so good it ought to count as Three. I've been in that place. I've considered The Violent Femmes and The Stone Roses. They belong in another contest.

Everybody got it? Good. I submit the following Three Albumses for your consideration:

Start with the Beatles. Get 'em out of the way. You could conceivably do Five, Six, or Seven Albums here, given that we're talking about the Beatles. But Three is the order of the day. I say Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's, and the White Album. But wait, Phutsie: The Magical Mystery Tour came after Sgt. Pepper's and the White Album. Yes, it did, but as I understand matters, it's a soundtrack built around re-released singles ("Strawberry Fields Forever," "Penny Lane"). I won't say I can't be convinced otherwise, but for now I'm excluding TMMT on the ground that it is a compilation.

Some other obvious candidates occur to me. The White Stripes: [self-titled], De Stijl, White Blood Cells. R.E.M.: Life's Rich Pageant, Document, Green. The Clash: [self-titled], Give 'Em Enough Rope, London Calling. And of course an old and enduring favorite, James, for whom I propose two Three Album possibilities: Strip-Mine, Gold Mother, Seven and Gold Mother, Seven, Laid (I see Strip-Mine and Laid as substantially equivalent).

I'd like to nominate My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Armed Forces as contenders, but the first album was recorded by "Elvis Costello" (who recorded with an uncredited backing band), whereas the next two were by "Elvis Costello and the Attractions." Can I get a ruling here?

I am what I am, and I'm a Man of Enthusiasms Others Do Not Share. On that score, I submit to you probably my favorite Three Album set, Stereolab's Mars Audiac Quintet, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Dots and Loops. What Stereolab accomplished between 1993 and 1996 — in terms of the distinctiveness and layered complexity of their sound, their complete overhaul of that sound, and just overall excellence from the standpoint of writing damn good songs — rivals any comparable three-year period from the Beatles' career. Roll your eyes. Laugh. I'll pull a gun on you, I swear. You'll sit down at gunpoint and listen to these albums, and you'll come around. Camper Van Beethoven, of course, falls into My Unshared Enthusiasm category. [self-titled], Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, Key Lime Pie. Eat it, skeptics! And just to push the envelope in this quarter, I'll throw out the Boo Radleys' Giant Steps, Wake Up Boo!, and C'mon Kids!, although the last of these grates on me a little (which was, I've read, the Boos' intention).

Some final ideas before I open up the floor for comment — Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville, Whip-Smart, Whitechocolatespaceegg. They Might Be Giants: Lincoln, Flood, Apollo 18. The Stooges: [self-titled], Fun House, Raw Power. The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, At War with the Mystics. You can accuse me of grasping at straws here by this point, but it ain't easy. Understand that I've considered and had to reject Joy Division, the Pogues, Green Day, Black Sabbath, Oasis — even Led Zeppelin and Blondie, any of whom have Two Albums better than anything I've listed in this paragraph. But for one reason or other (front man hanged himself, III wasn't all that, what the Jaysus happened with Be Here Now?) they don't have Three. And of course I've left it to Mithridates to argue for the Police.

Anyway, we all have our Enthusiasms and Prejudices, and we all have distinct record collections. E.g., I've only got one Bob Dylan album, so someone else will have to post an entry on his behalf. Write a comment, make a case, so we can threaten or laugh at you.

The Frozen Burrito Mystery

What is it about the physical makeup of a microwaved frozen burrito that permits it to be cool to the touch where you test it, but molten hot where you first bite into it? There's a skinless square inch on the roof of my mouth that would very much like to know the answer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Your Public Apology Insults Me and I Don't Want To Hear It

Kazuhito Tadano was young and needed the money.

Later on, after he'd signed a minor league contract to pitch in the Cleveland Indians organization, word got out that back in Japan, when he was young and needed the money, he'd appeared in a gay porn video. Within minutes, Indians officials had swung him in front of a podium to deliver a public apology.

As an Indians fan, I followed this story, and as an Indians fan, I was one of the folks to whom Tadano apologized. At the time — this was back in 2004 — I couldn't quite put my finger on why all this orchestrated penitence troubled me.

Six years and dozens of public apologies later — and with the Mother of All Public Displays of Humility due from Tiger Woods any minute now — I think I've finally sorted through my feelings on this: I don't think I'm owed an apology by Tiger Woods, and it insults me that he thinks I am.

Now let's put aside questions about whether anything Tiger says today will be sincere and from the heart, and whether he, and not a team of attorneys and PR consultants, actually wrote a word of it. A public apology from Tiger Woods presupposes that we all go around relying on Tiger Woods to be faithful to his wife, such that when he didn't, we all suffered some grievous personal harm. I can't speak for the entirety of the public — boy, do I wish I could, but I can't — but for me, this is emphatically not the case. There may be folks out there in the general public whose hearts were just torn to bits upon reading the tawdry revelations about Tiger's sex life in the press. But if you're one of those people, you don't need an apology. You need what we here at Feigned Outrage call perspective in life.

Has anyone else noticed that as often as we're subjected to these apologies for the personal failures of public figures, they never actually apologize for the aspects of their carrying-on that do cause public harm? Consider all the politicians who grandstand about immoral sexual practices while at the same time engaging in them. I'm thinking of you, Mark Sanford, Larry Craig, David Vitter. That's hypocrisy — and at times even bigotry: consider Craig's condemnation of homosexuality, even as he "cruised" sporting goods stores in Boise and did the Solicitation Soft Shoe in men's rooms. We ought to be entitled to apologies for the hypocrisy, but we never get those. We don't hear "I'm sorry for telling you all how to behave, when I can't myself adhere to those standards." We don't even hear "I'm sorry for diverting public funds to my personal long-distance relationship with my mistress." At best we get an acknowledgment of the error and a summary reimbursement, alongside "I'm sorry that all of you put so much faith in me, and I let you down."

Let's out this sort of apology for what it is. It's an apology that means to repedestal the fallen man, to reexalt the speaker over the listener. The news crews are here to see me. You care about me. My conduct, which has nothing to do with you, nonetheless wounds you, because I'm special.

I want a personal exemption from Tiger Woods's apology to the general public, and if I don't get one, I'll be requiring Tiger to deliver an apology for the apology at a press briefing, no later than tomorrow. My people will be in touch with your people, Tiger, about the script.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

FO News Roundup: February 19, 2010

SEVEN bullets. Has to be a record (note that none of them carry (M)s):
  • "Troubling." Fox News comments on the loss of a reader. (P)
  • Hate to harp on a sentiment, but EAT IT, CHINA. (P)
  • Am I the only person in the world who thinks it's terrific that Google has scanned millions of out-of-print books and proposes to make them available to anyone with an Internet connection? Apparently. (P)
  • We all know Boston hasn't been the same since Cheers left the air, but "less drunk" than a city in Utah? COME ON! (P)
  • Look out, Silver Screen: snappy artificial mother/daughter repartee is coming for you. (P)
  • SHOCKER (sez Us Magazine): JWoww and Snooki aren't Italian. Adjust your stereotypes accordingly. (P)
  • FO exclusive sneak peak at Tiger's statement: "I did it all for the makeup sex. Right, baby? Baby?" (P)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Surprising Asian Flare

One more observation from my Virgin Islands vacation: one of the restaurants on St Thomas describes its food as "Delicious Caribbean fare with a surprising Asian flare." We didn't eat there, but I had visions of some poor guy quietly enjoying his jerk chicken before a Japanese ninja-type guy jumps out and lights a magnesium stick right in his face. Flair/flare confusion claims another victim!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Deep Questions, Steel Drum Band Edition

Having just returned from a week in the Virgin Islands, I'm left with this question: how do teenagers in the Virgin Islands ever make out at high school dances? I think the slowest tempo a steel drum band can play is somewhere between andante and allegro, and when you're dancing that fast it's impossible to cop a quick feel, let alone get into some serious "The Lady in Red" face-sucking. Hmmmm.

Friday, February 12, 2010

FO News Roundup, February 12, 2010

Quotes, quotes, quotes:
  • Michelle Obama on Sarah Palin: "I try not to set opinions about people that I haven't had a substantive interaction with." But if everyone adopted that view, who would have an opinion about Sarah Palin? (P)
  • Texas Athletic Director on new NCAA recruiting rules: "Obviously, since this legislation impacts only two programs in the country, we feel we are being singled out." (P, with nothing to add)
  • John Mayer on the "N-word": "It was arrogant of me to think I could intellectualize using it, because I realize that there's no intellectualizing a word that is so emotionally charged." How about "it was arrogant of me to think I could intellectualize anything, because I'm John Mayer?" (P)
  • Spokesperson for anti-whaling org on recent activity in the Japan Sea: "A Sea Shepherd Delta launched from the Steve Irwin annoyed the harpoon vessels with rotten butter bomb attacks." What?!? Are Kim Jong-Il's PR people moonlighting? (P)

Friday, February 05, 2010

Phutsie's Pop Culture War Fantasies: Sinéad Sings "Troy," Destroys American Idol

Our ever-deteriorating popular culture fires aesthetically offensive mortars at us all day long. Taylor Swift. Jay Leno. The Grammy Awards. Twilight. How I Met Your Mother. Whatever the Hell Happened to MTV. It's a near constant bombardment of shallowness and crap, and occasionally I'll close my eyes and daydream scenarios wherein those of us who are most aggrieved seek out one another, form a resistance, and begin to fight back.

Now of course daydreams are by their nature exercises in self-indulgence, and so I'm not ashamed to say that a full two thirds of my pop culture war fantasies culminate in me taking the podium at the Academy Awards and raining down rhetorical hell on the VIP audience. I've written before that I'm a dork, and probably too much of my free time is given over to the composition of these lecture-rants I'll never give at the Oscars. But we have other weapons, and one of them is Sinéad O'Connor, psychotic guerrilla songstress. She's our most radicalized asset, we've been holding her in reserve for a high-stakes mission, and we've been only barely able to contain her fury. Now we're going to unleash her on American Idol.
Picture this: a young, mangy woman with shaved head and downcast eyes steps tentatively onto the Idol set. It's a put-on, of course, because we know how fierce she is, and we know her plans. Simon, Randy, and Paula raise eyebrows in perfect synchronization, but they at least act as though they're reserving judgment. Susan Boyle, right? You never know. It's clear from his face, though, that Simon is piecing together a thousand-word rant on the "hair gimmick."

The woman looks up. Her eyes, cool and blue, betray nothing of her intentions. She stands lightly, with arms at her side and ankles crossed, and she waits.

"It'll be this 'Mandinka' song, then?" Simon snaps, squinting disdainfully at the note in front of him.

Sinéad shakes her head.

"The musicians have rehearsed 'Mandinka.'"

Sinéad speaks for the first time, says quietly, "No musicians."

Simon snorts. Paula shrugs. "Do whatcha gotta do, Sister," Randy contributes, in his signature faux-hip argot.

Sinéad tiptoes to the microphone, drops feet to flats, turns wild eyes on Camera 1. "I remember it," she begins. "Dublin in a rainstorm . . ." And she sings "Troy" straight through, a capella.

What follows is something of a cross between the final scenes of Carrie and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sheer power of Idealized Guerrilla Siren Sinéad O'Connor shears the flesh from the judges' bodies. The audience reacts in a panic as the stage catches fire, fissures appear in the walls and widen, and a great chasm opens in the ground in front of the stage. By the time the song is finished, the American Idol studios have been obliterated, along with much of the surrounding city block. Somehow, miraculously — as if Sinéad had wanted it this way — only Ryan Seacrest survives. Now deaf and blind, he climbs out of the rubble to tell the world what he saw and heard, The Last Things He Saw and Heard.

I haven't decided whether Sinéad survives. "THE PHOENIX FROM THE FLAME! I WILL RISE!" are indeed lines that receive particular vocal emphasis in the song she sang, but it's not clear to me that they don't carry more force if she herself succumbs to her own destructive power. That is, if she doesn't rise immediately, she can be, in a way, more threatening. Does she martyr herself to destroy American Idol, or does she reveal a certain degree of invulnerability by escaping the building's collapse and the ensuing conflagration, without a mark or a scratch? Tough call. I'll have to think about it.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

FO News Roundup, February 4, 2010

  • "I hate Valentine's Day. You pay a ton of money, you get this lousy prix fixe menu, the service sucks, and you end up spending three hours across the table from your woman, starting to look like Ruth Bader Ginsburg." CNN's Ashton Kutcher fetish subsists, unabated. (P)

  • Scott Brown takes office, Dow plunges 270 points. Just sayin'. (P)

  • Pluto's PR people make their case for planethood (photo at right). Really? Is that the best you can do? (P)
  • C'mon already: it's a Prius. Brakes? We don't need no steenkeen' brakes! (P)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

FO News Roundup: February 3, 2010

  • I have to struggle to imagine J.D. Salinger driving a Land Cruiser. Not sure why, but I picture writers in beat-up Volvos. (P)
  • Punxsutawney Phil (the little shit) predicts 6 more weeks of winter. No word from him on when we'll have an economic recovery. (P)
  • Ten films tapped for Best Picture! A cynical plot to sell more movie tickets? You tell me: they did nominate The Blind Side, for crying out loud. (P)
  • If you've been waiting 20 years for the "Real Story" about Milli Vanilli, then this article's for you. Also, let us know so we can ban you from accessing our site. (P)
  • $768.2 billion. Maybe we should apply "don't ask, don't tell" to the defense budget. (P)
  • "Fucking retarded," were Rahm Emmanuel's words, to which Sarah Palin takes offense — at "retarded" on Trig's behalf, and at "fucking" on Bristol's. (P)
  • U.S. government: don't drive your Toyotas. No conflict of interest there. (P)

Friday, January 29, 2010

FO News Roundup: January 29, 2010

  • Senator John Cornyn would fault Obama for offering substantive criticism of a SCOTUS opinion, with the Justices in the room. Whereas it's just fine to suggest, in the same room, that judges are asking to get shot because of their liberal opinions. Really, the GOP couldn't find someone with more moral authority to argue this point? (P)
  • Really? UBL's quoting Noam Chomsky and ranting about climate change? Guess indiscriminate slaughter of infidels isn't the winner of an issue it once was. (P)
  • Mr. Salinger, meet John Lennon. He's got a bone to pick with you. (P)
  • There's no truth to the rumor that the body was found holding a Monkey's Paw. (P)
  • John Edwards made a sex tape with Rielle Hunter, presumably on the theory that no one would ever want to watch that long enough to confirm who was on it. (P)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Make 'Em Filibuster!

Massachusetts elected a Republican Senator, and the health care bill is dead. Cap and trade is dead, too. And absent any lapse in party discipline — and you can accuse Republicans of lacking all sorts of things (hearts and brains leap to mind) but discipline is one thing they have in spades — pretty much any item on the legislative agenda that matters to Democrats is, to put it bluntly, dead.

There's talk now about what to do about the health care bill. Press ahead, undeterred, on the understanding that this was always going to be a slog? Go back to the drawing board? Take the offensive? Blow up the Senate rules? Push the bill through to a vote before Brown takes up his seat?

There's one option I haven't heard discussed: the Democrats could actually require the Republican Senators to filibuster the bill. Seriously.
You see, nobody actually filibusters in the Senate anymore. The minority simply threatens to filibuster — and the majority, upon realizing it doesn't have the required 60 votes, abandons the bill, at least as currently configured. Per my unimpeachable source on the subject:
Today, the minority just advises the majority leader that the filibuster is on. All debate on the bill is stopped until either cloture is voted by three-fifths (now 60 votes) of the Senate. Some modern Senate critics have called for a return to the old dramatic endurance contest but that would inconvenience all senators who would have to stay in session 24/7 until the filibuster is broken.
If the Democrats truly believe they are on the right side of the question here, they should make the Republicans stand on the floor and drag out the debate, for several reasons:

First, if (as we hear) health care reform really matters to the Senators who support it, they ought to suffer through the "inconvenience" of a prolonged debate.

Second, if (as we hear) health care reform really horrifies the Senators who oppose it, they ought to be able to summon the energy to prolong the debate.

Third, if (as we hear) a significant objection to the bill is that it's been "crammed through" in a great hurry and without due attention to the weightiness of the subject matter, then surely a prolonged debate would vitiate that concern. For that matter — and maybe I'm showing exactly how naïve I am about Washington — the prolonged debate could yield insights or result in amendments that improve the bill.

Fourth, if (as we hear) a significant objection to the bill is that the public, and indeed lawmakers themselves, know so little about what's in it, then we all ought to benefit — understand again that I'm naïve — from a prolonged debate on the bill's merits.

Ah, Phutatorius: you dipshit! This isn't how filibusters work! It's not actually a debate. There's no substance here; it's purely a procedural stall, with one side reading the phone book and reciting "Jabberwocky" from memory. What's to be gained from keeping the lights on all night for this nonsense, when we can assume it all away, consistently with "modern practice?"

But now we're getting to the genius of the proposal (if I do say so my-naïve-self): Democrats can participate, too, and they can make their case on the "moral issue" of universal coverage all the more pointedly by juxtaposition. Imagine a scenario in which a Republican takes the floor, say, to auction off a date with his daughter, and then a corresponding Democrat rises to the podium and tells the story of an uninsured family bankrupted by health care costs and ousted from its house. After a round or two of this, the Republicans will have to make substantive contributions to the debate. If they don't, and the Democrats manage in the interim to make coherent and compelling presentations about the crisis this legislation means to resolve (yes, yes, naïveté, etc.), they'll come off looking spiteful and destructive. They'll look not-so-serious about an important moral issue.

Trust me: the GOP will be arguing substantive points on the floor very quickly. And the Democrats can, taking their turns at the microphone make their case as to why this bill, their bill, will alleviate the crisis. Indeed, with both sides committed to indefinite debate, we might even be able to go point-by-point, section-by-section, through the law. At this point the Democrats could make a second, economic case for the bill.

My point is, this ought to be a debate the Democrats want to have, and by promising to filibuster, it's fair to say their Republican counterparts are determined to give them that debate. If they debate well, surely the tide of public opinion will send one or more of the holdout Senators their way.

And if it doesn't, all this would still make great theater. That ought to count for something.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Privacy Protection

Me: The lease is up on my Prius. I want to exercise the buyout option.

Toyota Customer Service Rep: Great. So we'll send you some forms to fill out, and you just need to return them to us with a check for the buyout amount. We can fax you the forms, or —

Me: Can you email them to me?

TCSR: Unfortunately we can't email them to you, because of privacy laws.

Me: But you can fax them to me? Because my email comes just to me, whereas my fax number is for my whole office. Privacy laws are stupid.

TCSR: [silence]

Me: Yeah, OK. So fax them to me.

TCSR: Great. What's your fax number?

. . . and scene.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

FO News Roundup: January 21, 2010

  • Bowling Alley Turf Wars in Jersey: A Farce in Three Lines. Arsonist 1: “Can you spare a match?” Arsonist 2: “Here’s one, now strike it.” Arsonist 1: “Done. It’s 7:10. We’d better split.” (P, here all week, unfortunately).
  • Cindy McCain has duct tape on her mouth to support same-sex marriage. Can we get some on her husband? (P)
  • Your honor, I move to dismiss this complaint as baseless. The plaintiff didn't slip on butter. She slipped on butter-flavored topping. (P)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

FO News Roundup: January 20, 2010

  • Coakley pollster: this wasn't our fault, Dems will get crushed everywhere in November, you'll see, etc. Translation: it was our fault, here's more proof, and now we're gonna take you all down with us. (P)
  • Sorry, Pudge, but not everything stays fair. (P)
  • Brittany Murphy had a "fear of dying." And then she died. Which makes her just like everyone else, only famouser. (P)
  • You thought the a la carte checked luggage fees were rough. Now Air France proposes to charge you for your carry-on fat. (P)
  • N.Y. dealers to N.J.: quit bogarting our business with your "medicinal purposes" law! (P)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Limbaugh, Parks Book Their Seats on the Jerk Jet

If there were an abundance of justice in this world, and said justice had poetic license to act — certain persons in this world would swap places with the suffering citizens of Haiti. Of course Pat Robertson would be named on the passenger manifest of Justice Air's next flight from Pampered Prosperity to Port-au-Prince. And if I had my way as booking agent, two other nimrod passengers would be joining him.

I was conflicted when I wrote about Pat Robertson the other day. What can be said about this nimrod that is new or interesting? And when it's obvious the guy's motivation in saying appalling stupid things is a need for attention, to stay "relevant" and in the public eye, isn't simply ignoring him the better and more constructive thing to do? Yeah, probably. But I'm a weak person, in my soul, and I'm insufferable. Some things I just can't let slide. So it is with Limbaugh, who because of my susceptibility to The Ridiculous wins the moral (if inconsequential) victory of seeing his name in print on Feigned Outrage, on the strength of an obviously calculated bid to "make waves" in the Eastern Caribbean.
Limbaugh took to the airwaves with great vigor and vitriol last week, declaring that President Obama's attention to the crisis in Haiti was a cynical and opportunistic attempt to score political points. Geez, sound familiar, Rush? (Um, er, sound familiar, Phutatorius? All right, Writer's Conscience: knock it off . . .) Rush went on to suggest that Democrats will "use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community, both the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country," adding that "Besides, we've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax."

Now let's assume for a moment — this will take effort — that Limbaugh isn't completely full of shit here. Let's assume that the President's "motivations" for rallying citizen support for the Haitian relief effort and his orders to the U.S. military to assist with the transport and distribution of supplies are purely political. So frickin' what? At times I've given change to someone in the street, and I've felt good about myself afterward, and I've asked myself whether the fact that I felt good about myself — and so gained something from it — detracts somewhat from the pure benevolence of the act. The answer to that question is undoubtedly "Yes." No act of kindness is totally and completely selfless, and that fact should never — never ever ever — cause a person to refrain from acting kindly. Barack Obama is our President. He's therefore The Person in the World Best Positioned To Do Good for Haiti. That goodwill might gather to him as a result ought to be a secondary consideration.

We have aisle seats in coach and Business Class still available, Mr. Limbaugh. Please note that federal regulations prohibit smoking in the aircraft cabin, and we'll kick your fat, freaky ass if you tamper with the smoke detectors in the lavs.

Lest it should appear that the work of nutjob politicizing the Haiti crisis is exclusively the province of the American right, let's board our next passenger, Alexia Parks of The Huffington Post. In response to President Obama's appointment of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush to lead the Haiti Relief Effort writes the following:
No, President Obama. NO! You cannot take this step. It is like opening the door to looters and thieves. This act must be undone. It is not bi-partisan. It
is foolhardy, and shows the degree to which the Bush and Cheney drones are still
undermining real change that must take place, top to bottom in Washington.

* * *

What Haiti needs is visionaries, not vacuous placeholders.
Ms. Parks goes on to suggest that the Bush appointment impliedly introduces Dick Cheney into the relief effort, presumably based solely on Bush's prior association with Cheney, as nothing I've read remotely suggests that Bush and Cheney signed on as a package (or, for that matter, than they're forever joined at the hip).

Somewhere in this post, there might be the shade of a suggestion that the Bush Administration's policies toward Haiti might delegitimize relief efforts led by Dubya. But you'd have to work really hard to extract that logic from Ms. Parks's effusion of outrage. At best, then, this is a lost opportunity to make a plausible point. At worst — and this is what I'm inclined to believe — this comment is politics at its most unreadable.

I'm sorry, Ms. Parks: you'll have to check your ideological baggage at the end of the jetway, as it won't be able to fit in any of the overhead bins.

And it raises an important corollary to the point I just made about Limbaugh: just as it ought to be immaterial why the U.S. is trying to get help to Haitians in great danger and distress, it ought, too, to be immaterial who does it. But this is an observation entirely lost on the likes of Ms. Parks. It puts me in mind of folks on the left who loved to complain that the U.S. government, under Clinton, did not adequately address the Taliban's deplorable treatment of Afghan women. And then, suddenly, when a Republican Administration sends troops in to dislodge that regime by force, many of the same folks objected.

At bottom, I think I need to be a better person. A lot of folks are pulling together to help alleviate the situation in Haiti — with their money, with in-kind donations, with their own blood, sweat, and tears. 99.99999997% of the people in this world have responded to this crisis in ways that attest to our shared human values. That ought to be enough for me.

And maybe it will . . . once we've cleared this Jerk Jet for takeoff.