Monday, January 31, 2005


Iraqis Light "Fire of Freedom" in "Center of Middle East"

Our Top Story

BAGHDAD -- In what is being viewed as "a mixed bag" for the Bush Administration, an unknown but larger-than-expected number of Iraqi voters responded to the Bush Administration's call to spread freedom around the world, by choosing John F. Kerry to be the 44th President of the United States....


Quote of the day

I'm reading The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler by John Lukacs. He writes:
Portents, after all, are only seen in retrospect.
A paradox, beautifully described.

Saturday, January 29, 2005


Blue-Tie Flails

Wherein wild attempts are made at "personalization" of Social Security and at Bush's nickname.

Blogger-economist Marginal Utility puts his economic prowess in the service of a worthy cause in these three posts by exploding the mythically distorted numbers of right wing think tanks who are starting to shill for the Bush Administration's planned assault on Social Security. Apparently, the Administration's flunkies will claim that you can increase your monthly retirement benefit by $5,000 simply by transforming the benefit-giving vehicle from something called "Social Security" to something renamed a "Social Security personalized account" in which you make a personalized decision to invest the money in exactly the same way the government now does for you. Sounds good to me!

You have to be really scared that the presidential administration that can convince the nation that they've got the Iraq quagmire under control can easily convince the nation that privatizing Social Security will "make us all millionaires with no money down" (to quote a late night infomercial).

Here's a snippet from Marginal Utility's post:
The Social Security Trustees project the maximum benefit at normal retirement age in 2035 — when I would in fact turn 67 — to be $2754, so while I have no idea why Heritage didn't use the Trustees' projected maximum benefit, the error is a minor $56 in their favor. This ends the good news for the privatizers.
Deploying my own economic acumen, I discern the following. Mr. Bozzo, Marginal Utility's author, turns 37 this year. Otherwise I have to admit my eyes pretty much glaze over. It's really great that we have some folks with number crunching capability on our side, isn't it?

From Numbers to Words

So let's return to a realm where my own prowess is stronger. Words. I'm a word man. A wordsmith. Words are my home field. You wanna play with words, you're playing in my house. The road to words runs through me, my friend.

Note for example, the very clever title to this post. All my titles are clever, to be sure, but this one puns on the increasingly obscure song lyric "Blue Tail Fly,"which school children used to (still) sing, apparently in an ambiguous reflection of our nation's slave-owning history. The subtitle to this post explains the meaning of "Blue-Tie Flails."

How clever can word-play be if you have to explain it? You might well ask. The classic in the field of ruining jokes by explaining why they're funny is Sigmund Freud's Wit and It's Relation to the Unconscious. Seriously, you should read it sometime -- it's a hoot! Here's a taste:
Two Jews met in a train at a Galician railway station. "Where are you traveling," asked one. "To Cracow," was the reply. "Now see here, what a liar you are!" said the first one, bristling. "When you say that you are traveling to Cracow, you really wish me to believe that you are traveling to Lemberg. Well, but I am sure that you are traveling to Cracow, so why lie about it?"

This precious story, which creates an impression of exaggerated subtlety, evidently operates by means of the technique of absurdity. The second Jew has put himself in the way of being called a liar because he said that he is traveling to Cracow, which is his real goal!
No kidding -- This is really from the book!

The Nickname the Prez Update!

My partner, B, had been gathering nickname entries via email, but a virus destroyed her inbox. If you emailed your entry to her (you know who you are) please resend them. Otherwise, the entries so far are kind of paltry:

Junior (From Marginal Utility, who kind of ruins "Blue Tie" by finding pics of Bush in a red tie)

Dumb-ya (from the hilariously witty CS in LA, who acknowledges this is one is sort of lame)

Boy George (from MK in LA)

Sorry, folks, so far my own "little w" remains in first place. Keep those entries coming!

Thursday, January 27, 2005



Foiled again?

Now that the famed Boston Red Sox Curse has ended with the Bosox' 2004 World Series victory, is there a new curse for baseball fans and sports journalists to make a huge fuss about?

After winning the 1918 World Series, the Sox suffered 85 seasons without another World Series win. Because this World Series "drought" corresponded with their 1918 post-season sale of one of their star players, Babe Ruth, to the Yankees, it became known as the Curse of the Bambino.

Taking failure to win the World Series as the measure of cursedness, are there any promising curses in the making? Why, yes.

The Curse of Bush. No Texas-based ballclub has even played in, let alone won, the world Series. Ever. The Houston Astros run of futility is now in its 43rd year. (The team began as the Colt 45s in 1962.) The Texas Rangers, relocating from Washington D.C. for the 1972 season, have never won a pennant. Indeed, if you count the Senators unsuccessful run (playing sub .500 ball from every year but one since their first season as an expansion club in 1962), you have a pair of twin 40-year losers. I call this the Curse of Bush because Texas baseball will not capture a World Series title so long as the Bush family continues to stain the public affairs of our nation. Moreover, George "little w" "Blue Tie" Bush, in the course of climbing his career ladder to ever greater failures, managed to bumble away Sammy Sosa while serving as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers.

The Curse of the Senators. Only one sitting Senator has won the presidency this century (Kennedy in 1960), and Washington D.C. has not won a World Series since 1924. To be sure, the original Washington Senators franchise moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961, where they won the Series in 1987 and 1991. But it seems that some curses are city-based, rather than franchise-based. While six years shorter (so far) than the Red Sox curse, the Washington curse is in many ways worse: they have lost two different franchises (again, to Minnesota and Texas), have not even had Major League Baseball for the past 32 years, and are now going to be home to the former Montreal Expos, who established their own neat little 35-year curse without any World Series play.

The Curse of Cleveland. The Cleveland Indians won the Series in 1920 and 1948, and that's it. Not so great for a franchise that has been in the Majors for 100 years. Indeed, of the original 16 franchises in modern baseball, only the Philadelphia Phillies have had less World Series success – one win – and were it not for the fact that the Phillies won the series a mere 24 years ago, they'd be cursed too. Plus, the Indians play in Cleveland.

The Gold Rush Curse. Everyone knows how the Dodgers betrayed their Brooklyn fans by moving to LA after the 1956 season. The Giants fled New York seeking California gold the next year. The franchise won the Series in 1954 while still in New York, but has played in San Francisco for 46 years without winning the Series.

The Curse of the Second City. Is any baseball city more cursed than Chicago? They host not one, but two accursed teams.

The White Sox have not won the World Series since 1917. This could be called the Curse of the Black Sox or Comiskey's Curse, depending on your point of view: in 1919, the Chisox threw the World Series to the inferior Cincinnati club, as several key players had been bribed. By some accounts, they were open to offers of payoffs from gamblers at least in part due to chagrin over owner Charles Comiskey's tight-fistedness. Moreover, the Chisox have made only one World Series appearance (losing to LA in 1959, the 40th anniversary year of the Black Sox scandal).

The Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908, and have not played in the World Series since 1945. Cubs fans are perfectly aware of this history of futility, yet you don't hear them whining about some "curse."

Hey, wait a minute. You've got a couple of ongoing curses that in some ways are nearly as bad as the former Red Sox curse. Then you have the two Chicago teams, whose curses are of longer standing than the Red Sox. Why all the fuss about the Red Sox curse?

Maybe the real curse of the Red Sox is one that has not ended: their fans are a bunch of whiners.



Remember Bosox first sacker Doug Mientkiewicz trying to keep the ball that was grounded into the final out of the Red Sox 2004 World Series Win? The story has more legs than the one about Donald Rumsfeld's repsonsibility for the torture at Abu Ghraib. Our bold news media is still doggedly reporting it. The LA Times made this report just a few days ago:

legal scholars say the team has a good case if it wants to fight Mientkiewicz in court.

"What appears to be emerging as a legal consensus is that the person with the least rights to it is Mientkiewicz himself," said Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh, who ranked the claims as: "the Cardinals, the Red Sox, major league baseball and then the guy who happened to hold it at the end of the game."
I wonder whether the LA Times sports reporter, who intrepidly phoned the dean of Yale Law School for a quote, asked "what do you see as the emerging legal consensus on this issue?" My guess is that the question was, "who do you, as a legal scholar, think owns the ball." The deanly response was to couch the answer in terms of "emerging legal consensus." I'm fascinated that there even is "an emerging legal consensus" on this issue.

By the way, if the LA Times had asked me to rank the legal claims, I'd say Cardinals (the home team, who presumably supplied the ball), Red Sox, Major League Baseball, the Busch Stadium grounds crew, the Red Sox travelling equipment guys, followed by any fan who likes the Sox enough to own a Red Sox cap, then Orlando Cabrera who fielded the ball and made the throw to Mientkiewicz, then any member of the Red Sox team who played for the Sox the full 2004 season (Mientkiewicz having been acquired at mid-season from the Twins) and then, if none of those folks wanted it, Mientkiewicz.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Bruised and confused

I belatedly review Fight Club

Right off the bat, I’m breaking the first two rules of Fight Club. (“Rule no. 1: Do not talk about Fight Club. Rule no. 2: Do NOT... talk about Fight Club.”) And I’m breaking one of the top five rules of blogging. (“Always blog about fresh topics”). How many reviewers do you think used the “talking about fight club” joke?

My initial determination not to see Fight Club when it was new or even newly released on DVD, I now know, was largely the fault of the movie’s marketing people, who produced one of the worst theatrical promo trailers I’ve ever seen. I recall the trailer consisting almost entirely of sweaty, tightly muscled men engaging in bare-knuckled, bloody fisticuffs. In short, they fooled me into thinking this was an action movie, when, in fact, it is really a “cult film” which had very little fistifcuffs beyond what you saw in the trailer.

I recently decided to watch Fight Club on the independent recommendations of two WTDs (“Women of Taste and Discernment”), who could not possibly have been urging me to watch a macho wankathon.

Fight Club stars Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, and you have to say this about Pitt: it’s kind of charming that a man with such a pretty face is so willing to parade it around looking so bruised and swollen – he’s as beaten up here as he was in Snatch, where he played a small time Irish prizefighter. More on facial bruises tomorrow.

The movie reels you in fast. Norton, with his signature comedic deadpan, narrates his life as an insomniac loser who copes by getting addicted to support groups for people whose lives are wrecked by everything from testicular cancer to worms. For the first fifteen minutes, his reflections on society sound like a really excellent blog. When he meets Pitt, and the two bond through a kind of platonic S & M joy in punching each other, the "Fight Club" that emerges from their own regular fistfights becomes a bizarro support group for dysfunctional but well-muscled men throughout the city and eventually morphs into a paramilitary, terrorist cult led by Pitt.

I don’t find this story-line to be per se objectionable, and I can accept the fact that the movie’s many funny insights and satirical jabs just float there like lumps in a big stew. Thematic and narrative coherence are not requirements of the cult film genre.

What leaves me cold is cinematic bait-and-switch. The movie starts out as a twisted and sophisticated buddy movie, promising an unstinting look at a difficult subject – that a non-sexual male friendship can be subject to eros, in the form of the kind of jealousies and merging of individuality that can undermine any love between two people. But, as if the movie makers got in over their heads and had no idea where to go with that, they change the story by means of a cheesy pyscho-surrealistic artifice into something completely different. I won’t say what this artifice is, because such warning could spoil your lack of enjoyment of this film. Suffice it to say that the plot twist feels like an awkward retrofit.

Helena Bonham Carter, who somehow manages to be hot even while playing her Fight Club role of self-destructive nightmare, is a fine actress wasted. Her role fits the “buddy” story, but not the psycho-surreal thing, and she sort of drifts into irrelevance. The best thing about her appearance in the film is that it allows a movie that is grossly irresponsible about the health affects of weekly head-bashings to be responsible about sex. While more “grown up” Hollywood films routinely dispense with the inconvenience of condoms in portraying sexual intercourse, Fight Club makes sure to let us know that the raucus sex between Pitt and Carter in Pitt’s hideously squalid crash pad is safe sex: cut to half a dozen used condoms in the toilet.

The movie has some charm, mostly in the workings of Norton’s mind, which provide some memorable lines. Norton, discovers in Pitt’s trash house some old magazines running that series of stories that teaches anatomy through personification – “I Am Joe’s Spleen,” etc. – becomes obsessed with the idea. Later, when his boss calls him onto the carpet for increasingly unacceptable Fight-Club induced work performance, Norton says blandly: “I am Joe’s Totally Not Surprised.”

Footnote Club
Fight Club was made in 1999, and its scene of high-rise buildings being reduced to rubble by terrorists would be unthinkable in a Hollywood movie now, particular as – in Fight Club – the stuff of dark humor. Another way our world is different after 9/11. For some reason, I find it far more disturbing to watch the opening credits of Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant sit/com/drom Sports Night, which gives us the NYC skyline centered on the two towers.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Announcing the Nationwide "Nickname the Prez" contest

George w Bush is apparently an inveterate nicknamer. He is supposed to have wooed the press into submission in 2000, at least in part, by coming up with cute nicknames for members of his press entourage. It is only fair that he have a cute nickname of his own.

"Dubya" is not it. I don't buy into the who Bush family thing, and that's his family nickname, isn't it? It has more to do with George H.W. Bush's annoying speech mannerisms than anything about "w" himself.

I've tried in these pages, quite unsuccessfully, to build a movement for nicknaming him "w." Note that this is a lower case "w," so it's more of a print nickname, but it could profitably be pronounced "little w." I think the prez would like that.

Nevertheless, it's difficult to build a national movement, or even start a national dialogue, with a blog read by an average of 35-40 people per day, so I understand why "little w" has not caught on.

So let's make this more fun: a national "nickname the prez" competition. Email this post to half a dozen friends, or you will break the chain and have bad luck: four more years of the worst president in American history, for example.

Here's my entry in the nickname contest: "Blue-Tie."


The Blue-Tie President

George w. Bush always wears the same silver-blue tie, whenever he wears a tie. (I do not count cowboy string ties.) Why does this disturbing fact go essentially without public comment?

The fact is that modern presidential candidates seem to pick a tie and ride it to the bitter end. In 2004, Kerry was the red-tie candidate and Bush stayed with the blue tie that I'm pretty sure he wore throughout the 2000 presidential race.

What's the deal? And why do I find this disturbing? I'm not sure exactly, but it feels like a secret code that I'm not privy to, a kind of presidential candidate gang sign. Plainly, presidential candidates are required by some unwritten rule to suit up (i.e., when wearing business attire, not when wearing their studied casual garbed) in the colors of the American flag: white shirt, and either blue or red tie. And since it would be a disaster for our political system for opposing candidates to wear the same color tie, it seems as though one chooses blue and the other red. I suppose it's a detail hammered out by the candidates' advance people early on in the campaign.

I don't quite get why they have to stick to one color and what it means. A dogged consistency, perhaps? "I will not admit the war in Iraq was a major policy failure as long as I wear my blue tie" or "I will wear this tie until the fire of freedom burns in Iraq rather than the fire of terrorist bombs"?

I have an unconfirmed hunch that the habit of Presidential candidates tying themselves to one color tie is perhaps the greatest (or at least, the least offensive) legacy of the late, beloved Ronald Reagan. I recall him wearning a red tie all the time. Before Reagan it was the 70s, and who knows what color ties Jimmy Carter wore -- earth tones and avocado, I'm guessing. And gong back much before that, it was all black and white.

I don't mean to suggest that Bush has only one blue tie. Let's be real -- this is the man who, in his first term, nearly choked to death on a pretzel. The man undoubtedly gets food stains on his tie. So like those movie scenes showing the closet of the super-rich anal bachelor, who has a solid row of identical white shirts and black suits, I imagine Bush has a neat hanging row of, like, 50 silver-blue ties.

Monday, January 24, 2005


Maybe the Norwegians are onto something

How do we know "Hook 'em, 'Horns" isn't an elaborate cover story?

George Bush as messenger of Satan? I've heard stranger things...

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Bush's Inaugural Tie Clashes With Orange

Does anyone wonder why there wasn't a terror alert last week?

Remember how some Bush administration officials last fall floated a trial balloon about postponing the November election?

In case there is any lingering doubt that the "w" admin's color-coded terror danger indicator is anything other than pure manipulation, you have to wonder why the terro-meter didn't even blush in the days leading up to the inauguration. Instead, this:
U.S. officials say they have no indications that al-Qaida or any other terrorist group intends to attack Bush's inauguration.
Don't look for any orange alerts until the next Bush administration screwup that has to be pushed off the front pages.


Why I'm not watching the NFL playoffs

I realize you don't really are about this. I have a hunch that most of you aren't sports fans, and the few that are, well you're watching the NFL playoffs. But I used to love watching football, and today I couldn't even tell you who's playing. Shouldn't the marketing people want to know how they lost me?

1. Traditionalism. One of the things that hooks sports fans from year to year is the sense of tradition and continuity -- the feeling that you can make comparisons across time, and that you're witnessing an unfolding story. The NFL is insufficiently traditional about things that I think matter -- team locations and divisional alignments -- and anal retentive about traditions that are silly (using roman numerals to humber Super Bowls). The NFL has been too lax about franchise moves (compared to baseball). I hate that storied franchises like the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Colts changed cities. Who gets to put Jim Brown in their museum -- the new Cleveland Browns, or the Baltimore Ravens? And is Johnny Unitas part of the Indianapolis Colts lore? And of course, divisional realignment every few years makes your head spin.

2. Owners. I've always said, you know you're in trouble as a fan if you know the name of the team owner. Obnoxious team owners are a problem in every sport, but somehow in football it seems worse. Maybe it's just because my favorite team has traditionally been the Washington Redskins. It's particularly revolting when the TV cameras and sportscasters lavish attention on the owners. Who cares how the owner feels about the QBs third interception of the game?

3. Violence. Football has always been a violent game, but after Rob Huizenga's book about NFL injuries, and some follow-up news reports about how common it was for football players to be crippled for life and how much shorter their life expectancies are than average, I started to feel like I was watching gladiatorial blood sports. Throw in steroids, and think about how much bigger today's players are than they were 40 or even 20 years ago. Took some of the joy out of it for me. The physical maltreatment of football players is a scandal, but the story did not have legs and is forgotten in an orgy of cognitive dissonance, kind of like Bush administration scandals.

4. Production values. I never got over when the networks switched their musical broadcast themes away from military marching band music to whatever syntho-pop crap they have used since the beginning of Monday night football. So maybe that's traditionalism run amok. But you have to admit that the games are packaged like a cross between a cheesy Vegas stage show and a commercial for a mid-1990s Play Station action game. And there are so many commercials!

5. Irritating color commentators. I think John Madden is (or at least was, in his day) arguably the best color commentator on television, in any sport (my other nominee is baseball's Tim McCarver). What I hate is that every retired player who goes to broadcasting school is apparently taught to do a bad Madden impersonation -- high-pitched, amped up voice, and that trademark cutting short his own sentences with a muted gasp, as if they're all suffering from shortness of breath.

6. Playoff structure. Now that they have four divisions, they should get rid of the wild card teams. You now have a pair of neat 4-team tournaments, just like you did after the original NFL-AFL merger. Wild card slots make winning the division -- and thereby, intradivision rivalries -- less meaningful, and make it more likely that wild card teams with 8-8 records will qualify for the playoffs. Under the current alignment, the wild card system necessitates the first round playoff bye, which was always at best a necessary evil. The main virtue of a wild card team is either to keep more teams in the running until the last day, but with four divisions in each league, there will be enough of that.

7. No team I like is in it. I root for the Redskins and the Green Bay Packers these days. Neither of them is in it. Still, I often watch baseball playoffs when my team isn't in it.

8. Life is too short to spend at least three prime weekend hours vegging in front of the TV. Go out and do something!

Saturday, January 22, 2005


Snow day

Eight-to-ten inches of light powdery snow fell on our little community in the past day. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

My partner B has a highly developed sense of right and wrong when it comes to driving behavior, and exacts her own brand of vigilante justice on bad drivers. Today, while walking to Grandma Moses for coffee, we were passed by no fewer than two SUVs plying the snow bound streets with a one-handed driver talking with the other hand on the cell phone. I allow “politeness” to check me from expressing my heartfelt disapproval, but B puts the common good ahead of personal comfort, and lets it rip. Because we live in a small community where she is likely to be recognized, or to encounter the person again, I like to call what she does “running for mayor.”

At the first SUV driver, B shouted: “What’s wrong with you? The driving conditions are terrible and you’re talking on a cell phone!” The comment must have penetrated the SUV’s closed window, because the driver looked at us and sort of cowered.

The second time B dropped in a few F-bombs: “What’s with you f***ing people who think you can f***ing drive when you’re talking on the f***ing cell phone!!!”

The SUV driver slunk away. B plopped down onto the snow, and with the sweetest smile, made a snow angel.


SUV safety control systems

One of the studies of SUV unsafety made the point that the behemoth vehicles appeal – and indeed, are to some extent marketed to – people who believe that they don’t drive that well, and believe so quite rightly. Perhaps Marginal Utility, which raises blogging standards by citing actual data (rather than simply shooting from the hip like some people I could mention) could look at the connection between SUV driving and driving while talking with one hand on the cell phone.

While electronic stability control systems will undoubtedly improve safety, such systems will be radically incomplete as long as rampant cell phone talking-driving persists. Perhaps a feature could be added to these systems that safely pulls the car over to the side of the road if a cell phone is operating and only one hand is on the wheel.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


Not one damn dime day

I like the idea of the boycott, to drive home the fact that this president has nothing like a "mandate." I'm sure some version of the word "unite" was uttered by "w" today. Don't tell me, I don't really want to know. "I'm a uniter, not a divider," "let's work to bring the country together," or, more accurately, "why can't everyone just agree with me? They can't? Oh, well..."

Actually, I had totally forgotten about the boycott.

Fortunately, I overslept this morning, and made a command decision to grab some iced coffee to go from my own fridge (despite sub-freezing temperatures outside). I ran for the bus and caught it just in time, flashing my prepaid bus pass. Having decided that I would be unable to stomach the food sold inside our law school building, and that I would not have time to go out for lunch, I packed a banana to eat at my desk during lunchtime. The rest of the day I prepped for classes or taught them. Then, around 5:00 p.m., a colleague, who is a Republican but a very nice guy, mentioned the boycott. I will not spend a damn dime the rest of the day.

Does that count?


The Inauguration

I suppose I have to make some acknowledgment that "w" is being inaugurated today, lest I appear to be Mr. Head in the Sand Doesn't Read the Papers. Oh, screw it...

Actually, please see the photojournalistic satire posted over at Accident Prone, incorporated herein by this reference.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Life imitates Larry David

The first time I saw “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the HBO sitcom starring and written by Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld, I thought it was a shriveled and unfunny version of Seinfeld. Another show about nothing, but this time with an obnoxious, gray/white-haired bald guy at the center of it instead of the charming and funny Jerry Seinfeld. Put another way, I thought it the equivalent of a Seinfeld spinoff about Jerry’s sidekick George Costanza. Which I suppose it is.

A couple of years later, I saw “Curb” again – I rented the first season DVD on a dare from a friend, and wouldn’t you know it, I was drawn in and then hooked. The show not only has a sneaky, wicked funniness, but Larry David, in the process of mercilessly laughing at himself, creates a persona that you can’t help growing fond of. Archie Bunker became a sort of pre-po-mo icon because culture-pundits mistakenly pigeonholded him as “the man you love to hate,” whereas in reality Archie was “the man you hate to love,” or “the man you kind of dislike yourself for loving.” Larry David is, in his unique way, like that. He gets himself into things because he’s almost always wrong, except that on some level he’s sort of right.

I found myself in my own personal Larry David World last Friday night. Please bear with me, because this story is hilarious. Well, mildly amusing. It nicely ties together my recent food themes.

Friday night involved dinner with my friend CT, me and our respective partners – a couple first date. Having dissed (in these very pages!) the restaurant recommendation CT forwarded to me from a friend of hers, and then having exercised the poor judgment of forwarding the blog post to CT, I was on a kind of probation. This is a new friendship that has not been cemented, and I had now raised a warning flag of “unbearable food snob and prig.” So to be agreeable, I raised no objection to CT’s restaurant proposal for our evening out: an Ethiopian place.

I have two dim memories of Ethopian restaurants. One was, on the whole, negative. It seemed to me like Indian food, but eaten with the fingers, with the aid of a massive spongy, tepid and slightly sour-tasting crepe that seems to have been sitting too long at room temperature and then drizzled liberally with lemon juice. My second, slightly-better memory was of eating a chicken-curryesque dish with a knife and fork.

The utensil memory is key, because I really cannot get my head (or hands) around the idea of eating with your fingers when the food is served family style, as it customarily is in Indian, Ethiopian and Chinese restaurants (at least in this country). It’s like going to a Mexican restaurant with your friends and saying, “hey, let’s all agree to double-dip our tortilla chips!” Think about it: grab a morsel of food from the community plate – food with a saucy r stew consistency – and put food and fingertips in mouth. Return fingertips to saucy pile of food.

Now hold on there, you might be saying, you don’t grab the morsels of stew-stuff with your fingers, but rather with the Injera (the spongy crepe thingy). But let’s be real. No one handles the Injera as though it were a surgical glove – there is plenty of mouth-finger-food action.

But I figured I could handle the Ethiopian place simply by ordering the knife-and-fork curry, or whatever it was I had those many years ago. So I responded with a gracious and open-minded, “Ethiopian? Why certainly. Yum!”

In the next couple of days, our couple-first-date was subjected to some social maneuvering. I must admit that it began with, again, my own exercise of bad judgment. I pulled a verison of “LA” rules on our friends -- LA rules modified by middle-of-country politeness. In LA, it is generally understood that any social commitment is conditional, subject to being cancelled up to the last minute in favor of a superseding invitation. I think LA rules are designed to give Angelinos the flexibility to blow people off in order to suck up to celebrities and movie producers, which doesn’t really apply here in the flyover states. In this case, the invitation was to a party which was to be attended by some mutual friends of CT and me as well as some friends of mine I really wanted to introduce to CT and her partner J, so I proposed that we have dinner earlier, and then all go over to the party. CT replied, “A party with your friends? Why certainly. Yum!”

But Friday afternoon, CT came back with an advisory that her partner J had double booked them for Friday night. They would have to have drinks with an old buddy of his after dinner, and so would skip the party. As it happens, CT grew up in the LA area. Check and mate!

By Friday evening, my partner B had developed some gastrointestinal issues – from the leftover Indian food I had brought home the night before, no less! The very thought of Ethiopian food made B want to lock herself away in the bathroom, not to mention the moral quandary of double-finger-dipping with others when you have some sort of stomach bug. I wanted to keep the date, so we agreed that I would go to dinner, but then blow off the party.

The Ethiopian restaurant was much nicer than I had expected, with newish, fancy decor, and a warm, inviting ambience. But I didn’t find “knife and fork curry” anywhere on the menu. At each place was a smartly folded cloth napkin, but no cutlery. I looked around the room, and didn’t see a knife, fork or spoon anywhere. The movement at our table was clearly for family style dining. I might have been able to bring myself to mount a separatist movement if I had a knife and fork in front of me, but somehow the extra effort to ask for silverware -- the uncertainty about whether they even had any, and the ... the uncoolness -- was too much to bear.

I ate the food placed in front of us. I double dipped. It was not half bad – if you like Ethiopian restaurants, my sense is that this is a good one – but I made a show of eating more than I really did by playing with my food. I mean using slightly exaggerated finger gestures. CT and J were too polite to notice, and seemed to believe me when I said I thought the food was "really good." They kindly asked if I wanted to join them for a drink – and live music – with their friend after dinner. “Thanks, but I should get home to B,” I said.

When I got home, B was feeling better – hungry, in fact. For pizza. “I could use a couple of slices myself,” I thought, and I picked up the phone to call the Serenity Bar and Grill, a neighborhood bar that makes a fabulous pizza and has a thriving live music scene on weekend nights. Then I put everything together and realized that this was timed perfectly so that CT and J would arrive at the Serenity to meet their friend just as I would be leaving with a box of pizza.

Larry David would have gone. He would have bumped into CT and J, and would have stammered as CT said sarcastically, "Like the Ethopian food huh? Or is this for B? She feeling better?" and his tuba theme music started up.

I called the other pizza place that delivered.

Monday, January 17, 2005


Kulcha wars

I live in a so-called "flyover state" in the middle of the country, in a smallish city which I love. But love means being honest, and the ethnic restaurant situation here is kind of bleak. People who have lived here a long time insist that the ethnic restaurant situation is really good, but when you press them, they admit that what they really mean is "much better than it used to be 15 years ago." Even then, I've learned to question their recommendations, and write off many of these recommendations as coming from "restaurant pod people." The reference is to the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers – they look like my friends and neighbors, but their bodies have been taken over by aliens who travel to earth in pods that resemble giant zucchinis and who, apparently, like really bad ethnic food.

There are a couple of good southeast asian places, but basically, my two favorite types of ethnic restaurants, Chinese and Indian, are pretty bad. At the most highly recommended Indian place, for instance, I was once served what I'm pretty sure was flour tortillas instead of nan. At a highly recommended Chinese place, they had a cute hand-lettered brochure on the table describing the secrets of Chinese cookery. One of the early pages listed "Ingredients of Chinese cookery." What was the first ingredient listed? MSG. I'm not kidding.

When I travel to large coastal cities, the first thing I do is run to a Chinese or Indian restaurant.

My town's basic idea of ethnic food is tons of pepper or tabasco sauce to make it really hot. If you go to the really popular places, like the Nepalese restaurant on Capital Ave., whose authenticity includes swarms of flies in the summer, spicy food means hot and tasteless at the same time, mouthburn followed soon by heartburn. Yum.

Before going further, I should acknowledge the lack of proper nomenclature here. We're talking about cuisine that is not traditional or new-wave American or European. "Ethnic" food is a funny term to use, because "ethnic" means: "Of or relating to a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage." So many regional American cuisines, from fried chicken to bratwurst, are "ethnic" in this sense. Maybe the implication is "ethnic minority," in the same way that the ethnicity of white people becomes invisible as the default culture, but that's not right either, since the term isn't usually used to include soul food. (Or is it?) Nor is "foreign food" right, because the ethnicities in question, while they did not perhaps come over on the Mayflower, have become integral parts of the American melting pot. And I'm guessing that most ethnic restauranteurs are U.S. citizens.

I wonder whether restaurants make a transition out of the "ethnic restaurant" category in a manner analogous to the gradual assimilation of immigrant groups into American culture and civil society. For example, I don't hear people call Italian or Jewish restaurants "ethnic," while Greek restaurants are called ethnic sometimes, but not consistently.

Interestingly, in connection with this last point, I saw Calvin Trillin give a reading here in town a couple of years ago. He's well known for zeroing in on the best local eateries wherever he goes, and was asked whether he liked any of our local ethnic restaurants. He replied with his theory that an ethnic group has to have a sufficient population base in a city to elect two alderman in order for there to be any good restaurants of that ethnic variety.

I have heard two other theories to explain why my city has so few good ethic restaurants. In contrast to Trillin's population supply theory, there's a population demand theory. Our people don't have enough collective good taste, according to this theory, to demand really good, tasty ethnic food. We can also call this the "tabasco sauce" theory.

And then there is the "cornerstone" theory. A friend of mine claims that a thriving culture of good ethnic restaurants can only be built upon a cornerstone of good Chinese restaurants. Since our Chinese restaurants are terrible, we are structurally doomed.

Last week, I was lured to an Indian place I hadn't previously tried. I found it surprisingly good. But I need to qualify that, and say that the jury is still out. First, my friend skillfully played the expectations game, telling me the place had terrible atmosphere; I pictured bright neon lights and Taco Bell-style tables, but I found it to have a pleasant ambience. Second, I brought some leftovers home to my friend, who wolfed them down and later than night reported getting diarrhea. There may or may not be a causal connection there.

Finally, I may have become a restaurant pod person. Desperation will do that to you.

Sunday, January 16, 2005


My readers know more than I do

WS has this to say about yesterday's post re: "the Affront":
According to "The Songwriter's Guide to Collaboration" by Carter, Writer's
Digest Books, you and CT *both* own equal shares in this particular joke.
It would have been better if the 2 of you had worked out an agreement
beforehand (and even better to have it on paper). What the book recommends
is that "anyone in the room" when a song (or by extension, joke) is written
is a co-writer - and they give an example very much like your "out front"-
turns-into-Affront example.
I guess there was more to this thing than I thought.

Saturday, January 15, 2005


SUV Names revisited -- and an intellectual property question

Whose idea was it anyway?

How about this as a great new name for an SUV: "the Affront."

I would like to take full credit for this incredible witticism, but truth be told, it was basically given to me by CT, who was recently complaining about her car, which is apparently some old beater. "My car is an affront," she said.

Okay, so she meant that her driving sensibilities were offended, not that her car model was (or should be) named an "Affront." On the other hand, if somebody said to me, "I'll give you twenty bucks right now if you can come up with an SUV name that makes me laugh," I don't think I'd have ever come up with "Affront." It's found, rather than created, humor.

This happens to me a lot: somebody says something which I think is the greatest thing, a veritable knee slapper, only it turns out that they didn't say what I thought -- I misheard them. Suppose, for instance, CT had simply said, "my car is out front." I then go around talking about the Ford Affront SUV. Who gets credit?

Okay, if you don't think "Affront" is a funny name for an SUV, then I guess I've lost you right from the start, and even if you think it was sort of a smile, you're still thinking, "so what?" What is this whole "credit" thing anyway.

I still want to know. Maybe it's just idle curiosity. And maybe I want to be prepared just in case the next time this mishearing-leads-to-idea thing turns out to be something really big, the next new thing. I don't want CT coming back to me later and saying, "hey, that twenty bucks is mine."


The Euro-space program???

The NYT reports that an unmanned Eurpoean spacecraft acheived the first-ever landing on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, and took photographs that may be ice.

I'm stunned. Forget the fact that there may be liquid on another planet's moon. Since when did Europe have a space program?

The things I don't know...

Friday, January 14, 2005



You see how lawyers can take a little thing, and .... ?

Gordon at Conglomerate has a neat little post applying hornbook agency law to the funky dispute between Doug Mientkiewicz and the Red Sox over the ball that was grounded into the final out of the 2004 World Series. Gordon suggests the general duty of loyalty owed by an employee to his employer under agency law holds that Mientkiewicz should cough up the ball to the Sox, while the property law concepts focused on by the ESPN columnist are a red herring.
The general duty from the Restatement (Second) of Agency §387 reads: "unless otherwise agreed, an agent is subject to a duty to his principal to act solely for the benefit of the principal in all matters connected with his agency." No matter who owned the ball when it was placed in the pitcher's glove, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which ownership transfers to Mientkiewicz over the Red Sox.
While I would normally bet heavily on Gordon in a legal analysis smackdown between him and any sportswriter, I have to suggest that Gordon has not provided the "A" answer on this law school exam question.

First, I would advise anyone writing for an audience that includes many legal academics and cheese afficionados who may not also be baseball fans, that the name Mientkiewicz should not be written without a pronunciation guide. (Men-kay-uh-vitch, I'm told.)

Second, the question of who owns property that is created or used in an employment relationship may not be settled entirely as a matter of property law, but it's not a pure agency question either. The Red Sox couldn't lay claim to Mientkiewicz's street clothes hanging in his locker during game 7 -- or more plausibly, his first-baseman's mitt -- on the theory that it was in their best interests to have those items in their museum display on the 2004 World Series, so that a duty of loyalty required him to hand over his property.

As Gordon rightly suggests, it's kind of weird to think that every ballplayer who gloves a baseball gains the right to own that ball, which is what Mientkiewicz's argument boils down to, but the reason is that the balls were supplied (and owned) by the team, and the team owns them just like the employer owns the pens it supplies to its employees.

I suppose an argument could be made that the ball has become special, and different from a generic $8 major league baseball, because of some efforts made by the players. Looked at this way, the ball might be like some invention made by engineer while in the employ of a company. We're getting somewhat out of my field here -- I know that employers engaged in lines of work in which intellectual property is created often subject their employees to aggressive contract clauses that give the employer ownership of inventions made even off site in the employee's spare time. In any event, the employer's entitlement to value created with tools and equipment owned by the employer and efforts expended by the employee within the course and scope of employment, seems like a pretty clear-cut thing, though I don't see it determined by the Restatement (Second) of Agency §387.

Mientkiewicz was obviously acting within the scope of employment when he caught the throw from shortstop (or was it second base? I forget) for the final out of the series. The Red Sox own the ball, even if Mientkiewicz, who is known for his fielding, had made a splendid pick of a throw in the dirt -- which, incidentally, he didn't, it being just a routine play.

I think the reason Mientkiewicz foolishly believes the ball is his is because he's thinking of fans who apparently own balls they catch in the stands. Sometimes a ballplayer will ask a fan for the ball as a souvenir if it was a home run ball of significance to the player. Mientkiewicz probably thinks it's like that -- a ball of special value -- and that he has simply cut out the middleman (the fan) by catching the ball himself.

That's pretty silly of him. Fans are different -- they don't work for the ball club. What's more, despite what fans and probably ballplayers might think, I seriously doubt that the fan's right to the ball arises because a law of "finders keepers" applies in ballparks. In the dead ball era, before 1920, balls hit into the stands would be retrieved from fans and put back in play. I seriously doubt that property law changed in 1920; what changed was custom. I suppose nowadays, there's an unwritten understanding that is arguably part of the contract in buying a ticket to a ball game that fans get to keep baseballs hit, or fouled or (increasingly) tossed to them by the ballplayers. But if the owners decided to post notices on tickets and around the stadium reserving the right to retrieve baseballs from the fans, I doubt that the fans would have much of a case.

But rights aside, how will the Mientkiewicz-RedSox dispute be resolved? Will the Sox file a lawsuit against their backup first baseman for replevin (a remedy in which the court would order return of the ball)? Does the baseball basic agreement require arbitration of this? Will they let it go because suing your own players creates bad clubhouse chemistry? Or maybe trade him and then sue him?

Thursday, January 13, 2005


Ask Professor Bainbridge

Are law professor blogs more important than self-important?

I’m ambivalent about blogging. On the one hand, I like writing my blog, which affords a great outlet for my 500-word superficial ideas and rants. And it keeps my pen moving, so to speak. On the other hand, blogging always threatens to become, for me, yet another arena in which to measure my importance or lack thereof. Note how I obsessively check my hit counters, for instance. And when I do, here’s what goes through my head: “Can’t you do something for the pure joy of it, without desperately needing the outside validation? Hmm, my average is up to 40 hits a day...”

This issue was recently raised, sort of, by an AALS co-attendee, Professor Bainbridge.
Professor Bainbridge writes a blog called: “Professor Bainbridge.” I have to say, that is a great name for a blog. It reminds me of Mr. Peabody, (pictured left, with his sidekick Sherman), the professorial talking cartoon dog who was a member of the Rocky and Bullwinkle entourage. As I recall, Mr. Peabody's relationship with Sherman is quite like that of many law professors with their students. The name "Professor Bainbridge" holds the promise of answering your questions, like Mr. Peabody always did (if somewhat pedantically) for Sherman. Or like “Ask Dr. Science.” Of course he really is “Professor Bainbridge,” so a measure of luck diminishes the sheer creativity of the blog’s title, but give him credit for seeing the blog-ness of the name.

In a recent post, Professor Bainbridge had this complaint about the AALS conference:
Oddly enough, there's nothing in the AALS program about blogging. I find that curious, since many top bloggers are law professors (including the big dog and most of the famed Conspirators; plus, well, modesty forbids, but you know). Indeed, the first three conversations I had with fellow law profs at the hotel all turned to blogging at some point. Yet, as far as the AALS is concerned, it's apparently irrelevant.
(Note: hypertext links are Bainbridge's.) Reading this passage, with its reference to “the big dog,” makes me want to – well, let’s just say a cross between bark and woof. Is that envy on my part, or just a modicum of decency? Both, I suspect. Let’s deconstruct for a moment.

The chummy code-names “big dog” for Instapundit, “famed Conspirator” for The Volokh Conspiracy, and “modesty forbids, you know” for Professor Bainbridge, together with the self-inclusion among “top bloggers,” are all a bit smug. Okay, very smug. Well, all right: it's so smug that it makes Mr. Peabody appear quite humble.

But it’s the substance of Bainbridge’s comment that piques my interest. What’s so important about law professor blogs that makes the absence of attention to bloggers at the AALS conference so wrong? I’m seriously interested. Make your case, Professor Bainbridge.

We can say right away that Professor Bainbridge’s case for the importance of law professor blogs must be dismissed if he has nothing more than the anecdotal evidence of the topic having arisen in “the first three conversations I had” at AALS. That evidence does not amount to much, particularly if the conversations went like this:
OTHER LAW PROF: Hey, Professor Bainbridge! Nice to see you again. How are you?

PROFESSOR BAINBRIDGE: Fine, thank you. Say, have you read my blog?

Clearly, blogging is a social phenomenon in the sense that any widespread time-suck is a social phenomenon. I think blogging may become (or perhaps already is) important as an alternative to MSM as a source of news dissemination and opinion. But the question for Professor Bainbridge is whether law blogs – also known by the more cute and cuddly moniker “blawgs” – are meaningfully and importantly different from (a) opinion blogs and (b) other outlets for legal information and opinion.

Many law professor blogs offer links to news items and opinions on news or things like wine (Bainbridge) and cheese (Conglomerate). Nothing wrong with that. I find my law professor colleagues to be, on the whole, an intelligent and witty set of people, who have interesting things to say on a wide variety of topics, including cheese. But that sort of blogging doesn't differentiate "blawgs" from other blogs.

Law blogs may be important sources of opinion, analysis and information about the law. But before we go baying at the big dogs, let’s consider the outlets that existed before blogs. Legal newsletters and updates – such as U.S. Law Week – have existed in abundance for years. With the advent of the web, case updates and short legal analyses have been available from LEXIS and Westlaw and other web sites. Since the advent of email, professors have been able to alert colleagues to legal developments and issue short commentary through list-serves.

To be sure, blogs have advantages. They allow for more immediacy and much wider participation (and less paper) than printed legal newsletters, though published legal newsletters probably have higher standards for editorial content and factual accuracy than the blogosphere. List-serves afford comparable immediacy and participation, but blogs offer the advantage of allowing a standing archive and not clogging up email inboxes. And if blogging encourages shooting from the hip rather than well-thought-through commentary (for instance, will tweaking Professor Bainbridge come back to haunt me? Dunno, haven’t given it much thought....), it is still valuable as a form of thinking out loud. It’s like talking to your colleagues, but in written form, so you can reach faraway colleagues (without phone calls!) rather than just the ones down the hall.

Well, that’s good for at least 10 minutes of panel discussion at AALS. There must be more to say about law blogs, but what? You could have a presentation about how in the world blogging professors find the time to blog, what other projects they may stint in order to make time for blogging, and whether they think they waste a lot more time surfing the web since the advent of blogs. I suppose you could talk about the Brian Leiter project. This is a sort of web-based performance art project by a cabal of law students, led by the delightfully titled “weird Michigan law student” blog Letters of Marque, to disrupt Google searches that would otherwise call up Professor Brian Leiter’s blog. This is apparently achieved by adding "Brian Leiter" to code in one’s own blog, creating a so-called “google bomb.” The “project” must be in it’s infancy, because Leiter comes right up on a Google search. Now there’s a topic worthy of some serious AALS panel time: "Law, Blogs and Dada."

So let's answer the two questions raised in this post:

(1) Do blawgs add value to the world of legal information? I think the jury is still out.

(2) Will the world -- even the AALS -- be a better place if "Professor Bainbridge" receives due regard as a top dog blog? The Professor Bainbridge blog averages an impressive 2,400 hits per day. While his readers average only 50 seconds per visit, he sure beats some of the other “top bloggers.” Multiplying 2,400 hits per day by the 50 seconds per hit, you get... let’s see. Well, that’s pretty darn close to 15 minutes of fame, I’d say. What more is needed to make a blogger's life complete?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Word processing on the Imperial Death Star

If Microsoft is the Evil Empire, then Windows is the Imperial Death Star. PC users must therefore use the Imperial Death Star as the platform for all their computing.

I have an IBM Thinkpad, which I really like toting around to coffeehouses, etc., but for two things. Sometimes it doesn't shut down, but just freezes in a kind of logoff limbo. And about once every two to three times I try to launch Word Perfect (version 12), my word processor of choice, either the system locks up or Word Perfect fails to boot up.

Trusting appearances, my first reaction is always to get angry and blame the laptop, and then blame Word Perfect 12. But then I remember, I'm launching Word Perfect 12 from the Imperial Death Star.

How easy would it be for Microsoft to embed some code in Windows XP that would undermine the performance of Word Perfect 12 and other software products that compete with Microsoft? Pretty darn easy, I would think. But could they get away with it? Well, let's gather the facts. Microsoft settled the big antitrust suit over three years ago, yet their software is so heavily bundled with any PC purchased in the US that it's hard to believe we have antitrust laws. My guess: yes, they could get away with it.


The unraveling helix

Blogging sociology prof Jeremy Freese reports dreaming that his tenure prospects were unravelling because, as a colleague tells him in the dream, "the emerging helix of opinion is that your talk sucked." He modestly calls "helix of opinion" an odd locution, but I say: don't sell yourself short.

A helix is "a spiral form or structure," and it is far from farfetched to imagine an emerging opinion taking a spiral shape, going round and round, but rising. The helix spiral may form a cylinder or cone, which is significant. A conical upward spiral of opinion reflects an emerging consensus, whereas a conical downward spiral suggests a nightmare of one's tenure chances being "confined to the vortex of the toilet." (I put that phrase in quotes because it, strangely, is the one line I remember from Nabokov's Lolita.)

I'm a firm believer in marketing one's original locutions. What a great thing if it were to catch on and become part of our language! With the fame and fortune that redounds to him as the creator of the "opinion helix," Freese could try to land a job with, say, a linguistics department in case his tenure at Sociology in fact unravels.

I don't mean to make light of a colleague's academic nightmare. I empathize, and I'll share my own. I graduated law school with the minimum required number of credits, and 2 of those credits were for a course that might be called the "conspiracy of laziness." The professor structured it as a colloquium, meaning that outside professors presented some talk for each class. Not only did this free the professor from any class prep, but he was freed from grading by the fact that there was no exam or paper required. I pushed the low demands of this course a step further by cutting every class after the first one.

The foregoing is all true. In the recurring dream, an audit is performed by some shadowy law school accreditation committee, and it is determined that the two credits for the Conspiracy of Laziness must be revoked. For me, this means not enough credits to graduate. My law degree is stripped away, and with it, my admission to the bar and my professorial status. The only thing that will prevent my life from unraveling is retaking a full semester of law school classes, which is fine, except that semester is over and I must take a battery of exams for courses that I have completely skipped. I have about 24 hours to study.

An even more nightmarish variant of this dream has a similar thing happening with college or even high school, except that the exam is in chemistry. With the removal of the college degree or high school diploma my career does not spiral downward, in a helix of failure, but rather implodes, like a building whose foundation is demolished by strategically placed charges. What a house of cards is one's professional credentials!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005


Hanging out in LA

Can ordinary folks start fashion trends?

Here's an LA story I forgot to mention in my travelogue. I went to my favorite coffee place, Groundworks a/k/a Gourmet Coffee Warehouse on Rose at Lincoln Ave. in Venice, where they have the second-best iced coffee in the world. It was my first cup of the day, and my first transaction outside my own abode and, not having had my first cup of the day, I was a bit groggy as usual.

On my way out of the store, I felt something tapping against my butt. It was my belt. We've all experienced having our own clothes turn on us in petty acts of betrayal, but this struck me as taking a good joke too far. Apparently, in getting dressed that morning, I'd forgotten to hook up my belt, and it was threaded through the loops only halfway around my jeans to the one in the back. The front half of my belt (the end with the holes) protruded from under my waist-length jacket, hanging down my backside like a large rat tail, in full view of anyone behind me.

The guy working the register is the one who is way too cool for school and who looks like a young John Cassavetes wearing an LA Dodger hat. He didn't say anything, but I could have scripted what was going through his mind:
Nice look, dude.
To which, had he said it, and had I been clever enough, I'd have made this snappy comeback:
You're laughing now, my friend, but in six months you'll be wearing one of these.
When you think about it, is the rat-tail belt-down-the-butt so different from wearing your pants pulled way down below your baggy boxers? No, but the problem here is that the answer to my opening question about ordinary folks is "of course not!" What makes us plain folks so plain is precisely that we cannot start fashion trends. You have to have either a hunk of fame or else some societally-imbued edginess.

However, if in six months or so, you start to see hip young guys wearing their belts undone and hanging down behind them like an ass necktie, remember: you read it here first.


Speaking of SUVs

Marginal Utility makes a trenchant report that the "what'll they think of next?" quality of SUV names has exceeded the absurdity threshold with the "Subaru Tribeca." I personally felt this had been acheived with Porsche's "Cayenne," which promised to open the world of herb and spice names to the SUV industry.

When will they ban those things? Gas guzzling aside, they are a danger to themselves and others. It has been well documented that, although they win in head-on collisions with smaller vehicles, they are much less safe for everyone because they get into more collisions in the first place due to their poor maneuverability. They spill over the edges of parking spaces like a fat guy in an airplane seat, they block the sight-lines of other drivers, and based on personal observation, an SUV driver is ten times more likely than a normal-sized-car driver to have at least one hand holding a cell phone. Or to paraphrase the old joke, one hand holding the cell phone, one hand picking his nose, and the third hand on the wheel.

For my part, I try to have at least one hypothetical involving an SUV accident in any suitable law school course course I teach.


The "Are you a baby boomer?" test results

If your answer to any of the questions is "yes," you are a baby boomer.

Monday, January 10, 2005


Are you a baby boomer?

Take this simple test!

Baby boomers (see immediately previous post) try to expand their numbers by including virtually anyone born before 1966 in their ranks, but they exaggerate by a good 8-10 years in order to gain some political advantage. To me, "baby boomer" is more of a functional concept, and is truthfully and accurately revealed by the following test:

1. Did you buy low and sell high any of the following:
a) your rambling Victorian or Craftsman house?
b) your New York, Boston or San Francisco loft or apartment condo?
c) your mutual funds?

2. Is your kids’ college tuition more than 4 times higher than your own college tuition was?

3. Did you buy your second home before the dot-com boom?

4. Are you comfortable watching any of the following:
a) Harrison Ford kissing Anne Heche?
b) Michael Douglas kissing Katie Holmes?
c) Jack Nicholson kissing?

The answer key will appear in tomorrow's post. Stay tuned!


The baby boom: an overview

As we all know, the spawn of the post-World War II “baby boom,” known as “baby boomers,” have wielded influence over culture, the economy and the political system disproportionate to their numbers.

The baby boomers “came of age” in “the sixties” (circa 1964-1974), and established cultural hegemony over the rest of us by successfully making their symbols and reference points the virtual masters of culture since that time.

When the baby boomers decided that, notwithstanding “the 60s,” it was time for them to become high-wage earners, wage-earning became cool. “Power lunches” and “power ties” were in, making money on Wall Street become fascinating and okay.

When the baby boomers decided it was time to have kids, parenting became a frenzied pop-culture fascination. Old parenting standards, which largely consisted of forcing your kids to go to public school on a bus, throwing your kids in the back of the station wagon when you needed to take them somewhere, and otherwise letting them play outside, were shattered by new cultural norms. These new norms all grew out of baby-boomers’ learning in therapy that they received bad parenting. Kids were now to be driven to school (preferably private), encased in car seats within tanklike “family vans.” Time-wasting unstructured playing outside was replaced by arranged “play dates,” soccer, karate and Suzuki violin. Kids themselves were given therapy and even psychotropic medication.

When the baby boomers decided to buy houses, they revolutionized the housing market. They rejected ticky-tacky tract houses, and decided to renovate older living spaces. Victorians and Craftsmen houses with their wood built-ins and Wedgewood stoves, rambling loft apartments in former factory districts, became the rage, and prices skyrocketed. Baby boomers amassed great fortunes selling their TLC-needing “starter” homes to gen-Xers and dot-commers for three, five, ten times the original price.

As the baby boomers hit mid life, dominant culture became very concerned with their mid-life issues. Their tanklike family vans gave way to tanklike SUVs -- family vehicles disguised, through clever marketing, as mid-life-crisis sex machines. Middle-aged fitness (we won’t repeat the mistakes of our couch potato parents!) became cool, bringing us “power walking” and “power yoga.” Hollywood became very intent on making sure wrinkled stars like Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton maintained their grasp on sex-symboldom. As the baby boomers’ parents began reaching the end of their lives, and the boomers started worrying about inheriting their parents money to pay off their kids' college tuition bills, abolition of inheritance tax (the so called “death” tax) became stylishly plausible.

Despite the claims of the baby boomer Department of Marketing, I'm actually not a baby boomer. I'm actually part of a no-name "lost" cohort falling between the cracks of the late baby boom and the so-called "generation X" which followed the boom. To determine whether you or someone you know is a baby boomer, you can take the test in my next post.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


Heading home

I'm eager to get back home, a journey that takes me to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. ORD, as it is affectionately known in the air travel world, broadcasts an "unattended luggage" announcement at regular intervals. The relevant part begins:
Do not leave your luggage unattended at O'Hare International Airport.
Nothing noteworthy there, except perhaps the slight Texarkana twang of the female announcer.
Do not leave your luggage unattended at any airport.
Is it public-spirited, or merely officious to helpfully dictate our behavior in all the airports of the land? Could she add, "brush all teeth after every meal"? In any case, arent' the other airports outside of the jurisdiction of this Chicago-O'Hare announcer, even if her accent would recommend her to airports in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston? The announcement goes on, but I'll present it in its entirety for the full affect:
Do not leave your luggage unattended at O'Hare International Airport. Do not leave your luggage unattended at any airport.

Unattended luggage will be destroyed by the Chicago police.
Now, I get it: the announcer is simply alerting us to the fact that the Chicago police may show up in any airport throughout the Homeland Security empire and, if need be, destroy your luggage.

Friday, January 07, 2005


1-5-04 to the present: Dork Tags

So what is this “Double A-L-S annual meeting?

My travelogue has finally caught up to today, Friday January 7. It's hight time that I explain what this AALS Annual Meeting is, the final destination of my California swing. AALS, as I describe it to my friends, is a sci-fi-con for law professors. It’s a four day conference that is widely acknowledged to be a schmooze fest and opportunity to reconnect with law school friends around the country.

I arrive on Wednesday, and on registration, I’m given a 160-page pamphlet chock full of schedule information for dozens of substantive panel discussions on a dazzling array of legal topics. Cynics might say that this is just a thick veneer of substance to cover a four day romp in which law professors to relive their student days by enacting a simulation of cutting classes. We might find our friend sitting in the back row and in the first ten minutes of a ninety-minute panel say, “Hey, let’s slip out for coffee.” Then we don’t even show up for the next panel, and instead explore the delights of cities like San Francisco, Chicago or New Orleans.

To be sure, the panel discussions hold more than their fair share of bloviating, but then I imagine that most professional conferences have more than their fair share as well. There are enough insightful things said by smart people to make enough of the panels worthwhile, and the conversations you have when sneaking off with your friends inevitably wind around to shop talk, so that it’s a stimulating 3-4 days even while playing substantial amounts of hookey.

Some of the panels do go on too long, and it’s at once amusing and tiresome when they reach the Q & A session -- usually the last 15-30 minutes of a 90 minute panel. The audience, you see, is filled with law professors who are as smart as the panelists, and as needful to show that. Dying to get their two-cents in, they “ask” the panelists “questions” which, oddly, sound like mini-lectures. It’s Jeopardy in reverse: “please put your question in the form of an answer.” A typical “question” will begin, “my question has three parts,” or else will be a couple of minutes of declarative statements followed by, “Here’s my question.”

The dress ranges from suits to very casual, getting progressively more casual as the conference wears on and a sort of collective “familiarity breeds contempt” sets in. I find that what makes you look important is not the suits, but the “dork tags.” I refer to the conference badges, neatly printed with name and law school affiliation, that you wear so that the conference staff will let you inside the various meeting rooms and so that your law school colleauges who have forgotten your name can stare at your chest while shaking hands and say, “Why, hello, um — Oscar.”

Although the term “dork tag” has not made its way into the OED, I am reliably informed by a professional in a health-care-related field that the term broadly applies to any ID badge that must be worn on the person in an enclosed (secure or hemi-demi-semi-secure) environment. Thus the term describes how you feel about yourself when you inadvertently wear your ID badge out onto the street and realize you’ve been spotted by a civilian, as in:
"Hey, you forgot to take off your dork tag."
Conference dork tags have gone through something of an evolution. I suppose the very first conference (as opposed to workplace) dork tag would not have been a tag at all, but a hat – a shriner’s fez, for instance.

The low-budget-party adhesive tag, more dorklike if it bears the inscription “Hello, my name is:,” represents the first of the modern conference dork tags.

The main technological advance over the adhesive tag is, of course, the plastic card holder, with name card slipped in. Not only does it provide for more durable dork tagging – allowing repeated use over a multi-day conference – but it can also be fixed more securely to the person than can an adhesive label.

The first generation of plastic dork tags was the safety pin tag. Unfortunately, the safety pin used to fix the tag had to be of a medium or large bore that would leave holes in clothing, particularly finer weave fabrics.

But engineering dorks, using that same ingenuity that brought us the pocket protector, came up with the necklace style dork tag (click here and scroll to the bottom of the page), which can be worn safely and comfortably over the clothing.

This represents the current state of the art, beyond which we've seen only incremental advances in how the dork tag is attached to the necklace. For example, here.

At AALS, we have a substantial three-quarter inch mesh-fabric lanyard, bearing the logo of a corporate sponsor, that could probably withstand 200 pounds of tension. The lanyard has a ring at the end, onto which a spring-action tension clip on the back of the dork tag itself can be latched. In other words, it would take a pretty hard yank to pull off someone’s dork tag, and I doubt whether any law professor has that kind of arm strength.

The AALS lanyard-style dork-tag makes a great children’s gift. I slipped a picture of my 9-year old niece into the plastic sheath and gave it to her, telling her it was her spy ID. She wore it around for hours. Because of the great tensile strength of the lanyard, this dork tag would probably also be useful on a camping trip, except for the fact that you’d have to wear it outside the conference,where you'd need to put up with repeatedly being told, “hey, you forgot to take off your dork tag.”


1-5-05. Back at the airport

In the departure lounge at LAX, a baby crawls toward me on all fours, looks me straight in the eye, and grins. This is an extremely cute baby. I grin back. Let’s get this straight: I’m not some baby-hating ogre.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


1-4-05: Barneys New York, LA

I'm still in LA. Barneys New York has a store in Beverly Hills. Am I not remembering right, or did Barneys used to be a big fat discount rack place, like Filene's Basement, where you could afford to buy clothes that normally you couldn't even look at? I think I bought my first law interview suit there in the early 1980s. I don't know whether that suit made me look important or not, but I was rejected from several jobs in that suit.

If Barneys was ever that place, it hasn't been so for a while, and when I got on the elevator from the underground parking garage, my heart sank as I glanced over to the side to the large photo showing a male model wearing the following (with apologies to Mastercard):
velvet tux -- $2,500
cashmere turtleneck -- $750
smug expression ... priceless
Velvet tux? What was I doing at Barneys New York, anyway? My friend CT heard from a friend that the store had a New York deli that offered a great lunch and people-watching. Barneys New York LA does indeed, as it happens, host a New York deli: none other than Barney Greengrass, the "Sturgeon King" of Amsterdam Avenue. I don't think Barney the Sturgeon King is any relation to Barney the "why pay retail?"-discounter- of- designer-clothing turned too-snobby-for-the- real-world, though I could be wrong.

I am a very reluctant consumer of sturgeon. I find it the most delicious of the smoked fishes, yet I am told that the sturgeon is a large, long-lived fish and that, in consuming it, you are very likely to violate what I consider to be a very good rule of living like a mensch on our planet: "never eat anything older than you are."

So I order a lox and sturgeon plate with scrambled eggs with some hesitation, feeling that I must take this lunch as a rare treat, on the theory that only the deliciousness of sturgeon can redeem the excessive markup of this people-watching lunch establishment.

The people-watching is typical of Beverly Hills and any other high-density pretension spot in LA. The room is filled with the almost famous. People who vaguely look like someone you might recognize from TV or a movie. But who are undoubtedly not. Maybe a producer or two. Hey look, it's Steven, not Speilberg, the other one... Schmeilberg.

The waiter brings out a large plate of scrambled eggs and smoked fish. The plate has been warmed. Incredibly, disastrously, the smoked fish is warm. I hope you understand, you do not serve smoked fish warm. This would be like stir-frying caviar. You do not do it. Yes, there is something called a lox scramble, but that's just something that you do with the leftover "lox trim," the shavings of the sliced smoked fish. Good smoked fish, particularly Sturgeon, has a subtle flavor and a perfect restrained oiliness that, like revenge, must be served cold.

If they intentionally heated up the lox and sturgeon, they are criminals. If they heated the plate to keep the scrambled eggs warm, and thereby ruined the $16 worth of smoked fish to safeguard the "perfection" of the $1 worth of scrambled eggs, they are criminally stupid.

I spent the rest of the meal dreading the question from our waiter, who was as unctuous as the warmed sturgeon, "how is everything?" What would I say? A truthful response could only be conveyed in the form of a diatribe. Does a mature person just let it go? Fortunately, he never asked.

LA doesn't know how to do New York. That's the lesson. And it occurs to me that to this crowd of Angelinos, New York is "the old country." This city is filled with second- and third- generation New Yorkers, whose hazy memories of lox and bagels on a childhood visit "back east" to see grandma and grandpa creates this demand for New York culinary simulacra. Lox warmed over.


1-3-05. Raining in LA

It has been raining continuously for days. Steady, serious, day-after-day rain. No one is talking about this, but how can there not be mud slides if this keeps up?

LA is in a desert of course, a city that shouldn’t be here, whose lawns and flowers are the product of a titannic irrigation project spanning nearly a century. Check out Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. Naturally, no one has bothered to turn off their automatic sprinkler systems. In various times and places in Venice Beach and Santa Monica, I see lawns being watered by timer-driven pop up sprinklers even as the rain comes down.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


1-2-05. The Disney Empire

It’s impossible for a reflective person to have unmixed feelings about Disneyland. I admit I have fun there, or else I wouldn’t have gone enough to memorize where the bathrooms are. I went with a 14-year-old cousin last year, an often surly, too-cool-for-school teen, and watched in amazement as the lingering traces of girlhood in her came to the forefront for the day. She eagerly posed for photo ops with all of the characters we encountered. Even when I go with grown ups, it’s kind of fun to play kid for a day, and you have to admire the massive and clever effort at amusing you put up by the theme park makers.

But Disneyland has its dark side. They are good – almost too good – at crowd control, and you can never escape the feeling that inside Mickey’s flabby white glove is an iron fist. Michael Harrington, the late elder statesman of American Democratic Socialism, wrote an interesting article called “To The Disney Station,” about Walt Disney’s desire to create a corporate utopia – essentially, when he found he could not subject local government in Anaheim to his total and obsessive control, he bought the site for Disneyworld and created his own corporate municipality.

And then of course there was (is!) that endless fin-du-siecle corporate soap opera, “Eisner and Ovitz.”

I like to think about parallels between Disney and the Roman empire. Ancient Rome absorbed and appropriated the cultures it conquered. Roman legions made Greece a vassal state, and Rome took on Hellenic culture. Local gods of conquered people were routinely added to the pantheon of Roman gods.

Disney has done the same thing with cartoon characters. Winnie-the-Pooh seemed awfully popular, and rather than engage in a competitive Mickey versus Winnie struggle to the death, Disney simply acquired the Pooh and added it to the stable of cartoon stars.

And of course, Disney somehow acquired the rights to Roger Rabbit and made it “Mickey’s Toon Town.” Toon Town was the creation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Steven Speilbergs satirical homage to cartoons, which parodied characters like Mickey as well as Hollywood moguls behind him. So Mickey’s Toon Town stands a great – and highly post-modern – example of conquest by acquisition.

Do you think Disney ever tried to take over Bugs Bunny and Chuck Jones Studios? I can imagine an intense, behind-the-scenes struggle spanning the 1960s’ in which Disney perhaps attempted tihs ultimate conquest. Was there a final apocalyptic battle that, like the Roman legions’ disastrous defeat by the Germanic tribesmen at Teutoburg Forest , marked the outer boundary of the Disney Empire? Chuck Jones as Walt Disney’s Hermann?


1-2-05: What I wish I overheard on the Disneyland Railroad

Same guy, on his cell phone:

"Dude, I’m going into a tunnel. Let me call you back."


1-2-05: What I overheard on the Disneyland Railroad

No, I’m not heading back to the airport. I’m traveling in a circle around the Magic Kingdom, with stops at New Orleans Square (Haunted House, Pirates of the Caribbean), Mickey’s Toon Town, and Tomorrowland, before returning to Main Street, USA.

I overhear the following conversation, by another passenger answering his cell phone:

"Dude, I’m at Disneyland, on the train. What are you up to?"


1-2-05: Disneyland

I’ve spent enough time at Disneyland, aka “The Happiest Place on Earth” to have a pretty clear mental map of the “Magic Kingdom.” My companion and I can find our way around, and even stop at strategically-located bathrooms, without looking at the map.

What’s this? Disneyland? A grown man? Who objects to Starbucks and Microsoft? Perhaps I owe you an explanation. Perhaps one day I’ll provide one.


1-1-05, back on BART to SFO: New Year’s wisdom

Let the first advice you hear in the New Year be your watchword

I’m now heading back to SFO to fly down to LA. May this isn’t the most sensible itinerary, since I’m returning to SF for AALS in a few days, but there it is.

I overhear the following snippet of conversation on BART. As they are the first words of advice I hear in 2005, they must hold special significance for me.

“Dude... don’t ever, ever, eat at Jack in the Box.”


12-31-04, Berkeley: New Year’s Rockin’ Eve

I’ve spent three recent New Year’s Eves with my friends P and T in various parts of California. It’s usually a quiet dinner, champagne and some sort of word game, like Boggle. I find New Year’s Eve to be a manipulative holiday; I’ve never been one for forced jollity, I resent the stupendous markup on restaurant and “night-spot” prices, I’m still pissed off about those years on which I didn’t have a date, and I generally don’t like being part of a crowd. Sounds like a night made for me, huh?

This year, T makes the following observation:
New Year’s should be in the fall, at harvest time, like the Jewish New Year. Or it should be in the Spring, to mark the renewal of nature. But January? It’s a completely arbitrary part of the dead of winter, dictated only by the happenstance of the Julian calendar.

We all agree that T’s point is pretty much unassailable, and there's nothing for it but to go off to our respective beds. It’s 10:30.


12-31-04, on BART: Law suits

I’m riding the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train from SFO (San Francisco International Airport). This in itself is noteworthy. Until very recently, there was no reliable public transportation link to SFO. Why is it that cities with strong public rail transportation or subway systems, like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, have resisted running those rail systems out to their airports? I’ve heard tell that the taxicab lobbies have been that strong. Anyway, BART now very excitingly goes to SFO. The airport itself has undergone major renovation in the last few years, and pulling away from it on the airport tram link to the BART station, you see a a serpant’s nest of elevated highway ramps leading to a futuristic airport structure, not sprawling horizontally, but rising vertically, with four levels of roadway. It looks like something out of the Jetsons, or a Chuck Jones cartoon segment lampooning the mechanization of mankind to that industrial marching music theme. I’d hum it for you, but I haven’t figured out how to upload that sort of thing yet.

On the BART train, I spy a young man wearing a T-Shirt emblazoned with the slogan: “Suits make you look important!” The slogan is illustrated by a cartoon image of a well-dressed man in that distinctive late-1930s/early-1940s advertizing graphics style.

“Suits make you look important!” on a T-shirt is worth a smile, certainly, but the irony is not that this is on a T-shirt. That’s just typical post-modern merchandising. The real irony is that the well-dressed man pictured on the T-shirt is wearing a blazer or sport coat.

I myself will be wearing a tweed sport coat for the upcoming Association of American Law Schools (or AALS, pronounced “double-A-L-S”) Annual Meeting. (No elbow patches though -- what sort of walking cliché do you take me for?) You might say that tweed sport coats are the uniform of the academic establishment, but sartorial norms differ somewhat for professional schools – like law or business – whose mission is to churn out suited hordes of professionals. In doing my job of teaching soon-to-be-suits to bring suits, arguably I should wear a suit. Many of my colleagues do.

I would venture to say that law professors who wear suits in suit-optional settings, like Double-ALS, did not practice law all that long. I did – for 13 years – and got suit-wearing out of my system. One of the great things about my job – a few notches below coffee days, but definitely on the list – is that I don’t have to wear a suit if I don’t want to. I’ll just have to find some other way to make myself look “important!”

Tuesday, January 04, 2005



Where the heck am I?

I mentioned previously that I've been traveling. The lack of internet access discouraged me from blogging (though I guess I could have written directly to Word Perfect and then uploaded later), so rather than a chronological travel narrative, I'll give you a few random memory snapshots.

New Years Eve day, 12-31-04.
I booked tickets to San Francisco on the theory that New Years Eve is a good -- meaning light -- travel day. You know, short lines, plenty of empty seats on the flight. People have already gotten to where they're going so they can take a long disco nap in preparation for New Years Eve partymania.

That turns out to be a myth: New Years Eve is a big travel day. The only difference I notice is the unusual number of babies on board. There is a baby in, like, every other row. Okay, by "baby" I mean child under the age of seven. But still, that's a lot of screaming and kicking of seats. A harried mom has just boarded and is trying to get herself settled in the row in front of me. She carries her baby like a large sack of flour, wedged between her forearm and her belly. You know how this goes with the sack: once it slips to where more than half the weight is below the forearm, the slipping, sliding and eventual plop to the floor is inevitable. Dad arrives, also looking harried, and becomes very preoccupied with jamming the baby bag and (it seems) more than the allowed number of carry ons into the overhead bin. The baby crawls between his legs and out into the aisle as passengers continue to board. Mom and Dad are both fussing with inanimate objects and don't seem to notice. We're close to the front of the plane, mind you, and I'm wondering whether etiquette discourages me from saying, "excuse me, is that your baby there in the aisle?" At what point does a public-spirited concern for the welfare of the child outweigh the awkwardness of suggesting to someone's face a charge of negligent parenting? Before I have time to conduct an internet poll on this question, Dad scoops the baby up and puts him in Mom's lap.

I'm seated directly in front of a seat-kicker. At fairly regular intervals, I feel a dull thud in the small of my back. I ponder the "four stages of having your airplane seat kicked by a small child."
1. Hope. Maybe Daddy will realize that junior is irritating the shit out of that nice man in the seat in front of us and get junior to stop.

2. Self-righteousness. Daddy is a self-absorbed breeder jerk who is, in his own way, as oblivious to those around him as his four-year-old. He's negotiating with his kid, and losing badly at it.

3. Rage. I would like to change places with the elderly lady in the seat behind junior, and see how much he likes having his seat kicked every ninety seconds.

4. Resignation. The flight will be over in, what, four hours.
I'm reading a historical novel, The Last Citadel by David L. Robbins, about the battle of Kursk on the Russian front during World War II. It was the largest tank battle in history, and a turning point of in a brutal and devastating theatre of that war. I imagine the Russian tankers driving their T-34 tanks over the steppe, cramped into a steel hulk whose bumping, vibrating and fumes must have been nasty indeed before even getting into combat.

In one of the more memorable lines of the novel, one of the characters, an SS officer caught out in the streets of Berlin during an air raid observes, not without irony, "war is the ultimate inconvenience."

I live such a cushy comfortable life compared to most other people in the world, now and throughout the history of our species. The tsunami is just the most recent reminder of the kind of privation and suffering that I've so far been so consistently spared from. What's a little kicking in the back?

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