8.28.2007 | In other news

  • Holy seats for the holy set — The Vatican has launched its own low-fare airline to ferry pilgrims to holy sites throughout Europe — and possibly beyond. Operated by Italy's Air Mistral (Vatican City proper has no airport to call its own), the airline features seats engraved with the Vatican's seal and décor featuring spiritual slogans such as "I am searching for your face, Lord." Headline writers at various news agencies had fun with this story — the Tampa Bay Times chose "On a wing and a prayer," while Reuters decided to begin their story with the following gem:

    While some passengers only turn to prayer when jolted by turbulence, the Vatican made it standard on Monday by launching the world's first airline for Catholic pilgrims.

    There's more in the article. Don't read on if contrived puns make you grimace.

  • Digging himself deeper — U.S. Senator Larry Craig is at it again, this time coming out swinging with a shocking defense:

    I am not gay, I never have been gay.

    As any media consultant could tell you, speaking from the negative is not the best way to get people on your side. This one ranks right up there with Nixon's "I am not a crook." And we believed him, didn't we?

    The story has been picked up abroad by the BBC, and Reuters, right there with the pithy details, had a particularly punchy headline to describe the situation. Didn't they outsource their headline writers to India?

  • A second chance at failure — Seeking to allay the fears raised about "U.S. American" education since her questionable answer at the Teen Miss USA pageant last week, Miss Teen South Carolina appeared on the Today show to try to answer the question the right way, and she did mostly well. Her defense only raised more questions, though:

    Everybody makes a mistake. I'm human.

    Yes, everybody makes mistakes.

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What I learned in Florida

Expect the amazing. At just about any time if you're in Florida and you don't look at the sky at least once, you're missing out. The name "Sunshine State" belies the number of thunderstorms that pass through in this tropical climate, but even in those there is a silver lining — or pink, or orange, or cyan. One day as I drove across the Howard Frankland Bridge over Tampa Bay, a fire-red sunset splashed the dark clouds of a storm front to the east with its hues, which were then reflected on the water below. No single photograph could have captured that immersion of color.

Use hyphens liberally. Common phrases such as "thank-you" and "buckle-up" require hyphens to make them … readable? I never got a reason for that. I did learn, though, that one newspaper here hyphenates dollar figures (e.g. $1-million) because they once did it to prevent the figure from breaking across lines. It just stayed that way.

Move to higher ground. Between hurricane storm surges and the predicted rise in sea levels from global warming, and with insurers abandoning the coastlines, it's a good idea to check hurricane evacuation maps before finding a place to live. But then again, Florida's beauty is such a powerful siren that any self-respecting sailor would be all too glad to be lured into her grasp.

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In the Earth's shadow

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8.27.2007 | When public isn't private

Craig and Allen: In bad company

It should sound obvious, but I've heard too many stories of politicans getting caught trying to solicit sex (or at least appearing to try to do so) in public restrooms — and yes, two is too many. First it was State Representative Bob Allen of Florida, a co-chair of John McCain's presidential campaign, who was caught trying to offer an undercover police officer $20 for oral sex. Now we hear that Idaho's U.S. Senator Larry Craig, also a Republican, was caught playing footsie in an airport bathroom stall, and he had to leave the Romney campaign.

Look, I don't care if politicians look for some fun on the side; that's part of their private life (a big point of contention during the Clinton impeachment proceedings was that pretty much all politicians have had mistresses; it's only recently that the press started caring about it). But please, senators, representatives, (presidents?) if you need somewhere to look for casual sex, don't do it in a public restroom.

But even better, if you're going to get married, why not just keep the oath you took in the first place?

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8.25.2007 | Equal distribution of ...

Chavez: Timeless?
Fill in the blank. I'll give you a hint: one word, it's what Venezuela's socialist leader Hugo Chavez is attempting to achieve for his citizens, and it's something we all wish we had more of. Give up?


You were thinking wealth, right? Well, technically equal wealth is only achieved with a communist system, and even then, as Geroge Orwell pointed out in Animal Farm, some are more equal than others. What a government can do, apparently, is to ensure equal distribution of sunlight among its citizens.

Venezuela standard time?

In moving Venezuela's time zone back 30 minutes, Chavez says he wants "a more fair distribution of the sunrise," which he believes will help poor children go to school as they now wake up before dawn. And, according to the New York Times, it reverses a decision made in the mid-1960s to move Venezuela's time 30 minutes ahead to fall in line with its neighbors.

The decision places Venezuela in a small club of countries that place their time zones in fractional increments away from Greenwich Mean Time. That list, again according to the Times, is Afghanistan, India, Iran, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Nepal.

A little bit of history repeating

The Times article in question casts Chavez's time zone decision, together with his recent attempt to change the country's constitution, in both historical and symbolic lights — symbolic of Chavez's growing reach and influence, historical because it has happened before.

Chavez is close to Fidel Castro today, but at one time Venezuela was ruled by another Castro called Cipriano. From the beginning of his rule in 1899, there are many parallels to the types of changes Chavez is trying to bring to Venezuela key parallels between what Cipriano Castro did then and what Chavez is trying to do now: eliminate term limits, restore the Bolivarian unity between South American republics, and so on. For this pithy quote, the Times called on a professor of Latin American studies at Wesleyan University:

The good news for anti-Chavistas is that Castro stayed in power only until 1908. The bad news is that he was replaced by his vice president, Juan Vicente Gómez, who remained in power until 1935.

The Times also accuses Chavez of lobbying OPEC to cut production, contributing to today's higher oil prices. But as long as we are dependent on oil imports to fuel our cars, Venezuelan-owned Citgo stations remain neighborhood fixtures all over America.

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8.24.2007 | The Internet is dead. Long live the Internet.

… so says Mark Cuban, the somewhat reclusive billionaire investor who made his fortune selling his Web 1.0 enterprise, Broadcast.com (formerly known as Audionet) to Yahoo! in 1999 for $5.6 billion in Yahoo! stock. His best-known venture since then, besides owning the Dallas Mavericks, is HD Net, which has hired on former CBS anchor Dan Rather to do some reporting on the side.

Anyway, all this just serves as prelude to what Cuban is trying to say. When Condé Nast Portfolio asked him what he meant by saying "the Internet is dead" and "for old people" in a Senate hearing, he explained it this way. In his own words:

Think of it this way. Way back when, electricity changed the world. … Do you get excited about electricity or is it just a utility? … The internet is in the same position today. It’s no longer an exciting platform for societal and business change. It’s a utility. It’s something that is exciting to people who remember the old days of the internet. The only way to change that is to upgrade the platform for bandwidth transport across the country to a minimum of 1 gigabyte per second throughout (sic)* to every home. At that point kids will come up with new and unique applications that we can’t imagine today. That’s when it becomes exciting. Until then, it’s dead and boring.

Comments on one technology news site disparaged Cuban as a "dead and boring" attention whore, turning his own words against him. Perhaps, but it's not too often that I'm prompted to think of the Internet on such a grand scale.

Thinking of Cuban's background in streaming multimedia content online, I'd be disappointed with today's Internet too. At one point I had expected television programs and radio stations to become readily available online. To a large extent, that never happened, and limited bandwidth is one reason why. What video we do have comes in small, digestible bits (though that may be the result of our short attention spans rather than technical limitations). But I can't fault Cuban for trying to get people to think beyond today's Internet. Processors improve exponentially, doubling their power every 18 months according to Moore's Law. Why not broadband speeds to match?

* The (sic) is to point out that Portfolio editors probably don't know the difference between a gigabit and a gigabyte, as one Digg commenter pointed out, and that Cuban had probably meant to say "1 gigabit per second throughput." There are eight bits in every byte.

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8.19.2007 | Chinese toy recall claims new victim

The lead paint epidemic is worse than we thought.

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8.15.2007 | Rove’s departure

So Rove left the White House. What does it all mean? One analyst called it "the end of the Bush presidency," but that sounded like a bit much, so I looked to what I had hoped would be a more reliable source: Rove himself. His reason, according to the New York Times:

Mr. Rove cited a desire to 'start thinking about the next chapter in our family’s life.'

— which only served to bring me back to another NYT article from December 2006, in which executives at large companies say they are leaving to "spend more time with family," only to take jobs a few months later with just as many, if not more, responsibilities. Only time will tell what happens in Mr. Rove's case.

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8.13.2007 | The new face of Death

Extreme makeover: Before and after

Something of a cult figure in Mexico, Santa Muerte, or the Angel of Death, has eschewed the usual scythe and globe for something a bit more accessible: a crown and veil. Venerating the saint of death is controversial in the Catholic Church, which frowns upon it as a sort of pseudo-Satanism linked with black magic. Still, as this one Mother Jones article on immigration showed in 2006, she plays a central role in the dangerous life on the Mexican border, and this military researcher calls her "Mexico's patron saint of crime."

At least now she's a little easier on the eyes.

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A trip down memory lane

How many of you remember what you were doing in 1994? For these two Republican political figures, it was saying things that could be used against them later. Consider these:

If we'd gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone … There would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq … Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? … It's a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq.

— Vice President Dick Cheney explaining why the first President Bush decided not to go on to Baghdad in 1991

That one made it into a YouTube video that went from 100 to over 200 thousand views in the same day. Now this second quote is a bit more interesting because it involves a current presidential candidate. At the time, mayor Rudy Giuliani was talking about getting tough on crime in New York. But now, some are afraid the same philosophy could apply to terrorism and the debate over civil liberties. If you Google freedom and Giuliani, here's what you'll find:

What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.

For this latter quote, one creative Digger rephrased that sentiment as "Freedom is slavery," a reference to part of the slogan of the English Socialist Party in George Orwell's 1984. But we don't know if that's a fair interpretation unless we get an answer from Giuliani himself how he feels today. And in Cheney's case, certainly there must have been some kind of evolution in his philosophy that caused him to take a different tack on the Iraq war today.

Hopefully some journalist out there reading this now has an idea of what question he needs to ask when he next sits down for an interview with either of these politicians — assuming he can get a straight answer.

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8.11.2007 | iPod to iPhone: The War on Terror

In an example of how print doesn't always translate well online, one alternative weekly columnist's look at the “War on Terror™” lacked a direct link with the sidebar that did a better job (in my view) of putting into perspective how long we've been at war: the distance of time between the release of two seminal Apple products. Even the online version of the sidebar lacked the graphics of Apple technology that — especially for an Apple fanboy like me — gave a sense of progression to the story. Compare what you see online with this photo from the print version below:

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In case you missed it ...

Yugoslavia: History, like the car.
… and I know I did, which is unusual for me because I consider myself a follower of world affairs — Yugoslavia no longer exists.

Already worn down by the intense conflict of the 1990s, Yugoslavia had been hanging on to a thread as a federation of two of the country’s former remaining states — Serbia and Montenegro. In 2003, the name “Yugoslavia” was dropped altogether, leaving the country named after its two remaining constituents. Finally, in June 2006 (while I was on vacation, so that’s probably how I missed it), Montenegro declared its independence. Serbia followed suit, and the last union remaining from the former Yugoslavia disappeared off the map.

Sad, because elsewhere in Europe unions are growing stronger under the European Union — or at least they’re supposed to be. An anthropology professor I had for a couple of courses at VCU described the situation as paradoxical and hopeless — an attempt to achieve international integration while disintegration is happening within the member nations’ own countries (see Kosovo, Basque country, Muslim immigration, etc.). The only successful unification in Europe, it seems, was that of East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even the wounds from that haven’t completely healed yet.

So, as Europe loses another of its federations (the last being Czechoslovakia, gone in 1994), and even Scotland may be on the verge of withdrawing from the United Kingdom, I can’t help but wonder how many more times the list of countries in this world will continue to grow in the decades ahead (East Timor comes to mind). And instead of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, we now have the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia (but not Serbia and Montenegro). Did I miss one? If so, that’s just one more reason I miss the old federations.

So, here’s a riddle for you: If even Europe can’t hold its countries together, what makes us think we can keep the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites together in Iraq?

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8.09.2007 | Let the LOLcat jokes begin

(They already have in at least one Internet forum.) While some U.S. communities have considered bans on feeding strays, this Moscow woman may just be the archetypal reason to do so. One hundred thirty cats flood her apartment. She says she loves homeless pets and just wants to help them. English Russia has the photos — and the incredible video.

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8.07.2007 | Anorexics protest new iMac slogan

Okay, not quite. But Apple is definitely relying on sex appeal to sell these new, thinner iMacs. When they introduced the 3rd-generation iMac in 2005, they looked to the iPod for design cues. Is it any coincidence, then, that this new iMac looks more like an iPhone? I don't know what Apple had in mind — that the new iMac was supposed to sell more iPhones or vice-versa, but the effect is clear: I want one.

In the days leading up to the iMac's release, a fake article made it to the front page of Digg.com promoting "leaked" pictures of the "new iMac." It was just a photoshopped version of the Apple Cinema Display, but darn if I don't want the next iMac to look more like that. Perhaps the faker of the photos achieved an insidious alternative effect: spoiling the release of Apple's new product by creating unreachable expectations. Cointelpro from one of Apple's competitors? Say it ain't so.

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