Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Creative Zen Micro (review sort of)

A couple years ago my daughter wanted an IPOD Nano for Christmas so I picked up a Creative Labs Zen Micro for her on E-Bay instead. I have this bizarre attraction to technological underdogs. Naturally, I had a Beta VCR, a cpm computer, and ran OS2 for a year instead of Windows. I also have a mountain bike with 27” wheels, bought a Pocket PC pda instead of a Palm, and use something called “Snapstream” instead of Tivo. I’ve maybe been most extreme with mp3 players. I started with an Archos (fwiw I loved rockbox), went to a Frontier Nex II (AA batteries and removable compact flash cards for storage), and had taken to just using my PDA for mp3s when my daughter made her request. One of the joys of oddball choices in the electronic world is that you run into audio eccentrics. The Frontier Nex II was recommended by Xin Feng of who built portable headphone amps, found ways to make am-fm walkmen sound dramatically better, and offered tips on how to keep neighbor dogs from leaving excrement on your front lawn.

Anyway, I have this weird gene that can’t resist going against the consumer grain. I reasoned that the Creative Labs option had more than double the storage, included an FM radio, and also had a voice recorder. I had to buy one. I was just using the daughter as an excuse for doing it. In any case, my older daughter helped me avert a Christmas disaster by telling me that I had to get the IPOD Nano because teenagers don’t generally like being that different.

My daughter was very happy with her Nano until our dog ate it. A year later, someone stole the replacement. So, for her birthday this summer I got her another Nano. In the meantime, the other daughter’s Nano bought the same Christmas lost its ability to turn on and off this summer. Nonetheless, they’ve been very happy with the things. They use them for workouts and when they travel and to them simplicity matters. You plug the thing in, the software works, you learn a couple buttons, and that’s pretty much it.

In the meantime, the Creative Labs Zen Micro sat in a box in my office. I would have used it myself, but there was a problem - my computer wouldn’t recognize it which meant I had no way to load music on it. Creative sold two million of the things for Christmas 2005. Somehow, they didn’t make it terribly clear that the Zen Micro not only worked only with PC’s, it only really worked well with Windows XP. I had Windows 2000. In my frustration, I erased the firmware on the player which only made matters worse.

Creative maintains a pretty good help board on their own site. That said, reading the thing would convince you that the Zen Micro was a tech support disaster. First, the company had a quality control issue with the headphone jack. Thousands of Zen Micros had a loose connection which resulted in the loss of a channel. Second, the original firmware had a battery drain issue. The Zen would go from full to empty just from sitting on the shelf for a day. Third, I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t get the computer to recognize the player.

The E-bay guy I bought it from was very nice, but I figured I’d dallied too long before I discovered that it didn’t really work. I just consigned myself to treating it alternately as a paperweight in my office or as a “project”. Fwiw, the Creative Zen tech support people were also sort of helpful. It was just that nothing they suggested actually worked.

Maybe it was having to get my daughter another Ipod this summer or maybe it was finally making the change to Windows XP on my computer (I’d tried getting it to work on other people’s XP computers without any success), but I decided to give it one more try. I looked up a clue on the Creative support board and actually got my computer to accept a working driver. The trick turned out to be that you have to remove Windows Media Player from your computer, install the driver, then reinstall Media Player. I think it has something to do with what Creative calls “Plays for sure”, a feature that makes the Zen compatible with Windows Media Player 10. If you have Windows Media Player 11 though, all bets are off. Once I got the driver loaded, the firmware installer then was able to recognize it and load firmware (with the battery fix) onto the player. My daughters would have shot me had they had to go through tis and I have no idea how many hours I spent fiddling with the thing before I got it to work.

Once done, I was pleasantly surprised. I had bought the Zen partly because audiophiles claimed that Creative actually made the best-sounding MP3 player (of course the minor problem there now is that most audiophiles use formats other than MP3 to minimize or even eliminate compression issues. Talk about shades of writing your software only for Windows XP). The Zen actually does sound better. For you audiophiles playing at home, you can hear instrumenetal detail clearly separated in space. Supposedly, they took some care in choosing capacitors and in layout with the Zen.

Someone had designed a very nice product. There are little issues like the touch buttons being too sensitive, but aside from the production flaw with the headphone jack, the Zen really is better in many ways than the IPOD. It sounds better, holds more, has a great menu system, and I use the radio more than I thought I would. It’s not the best radio, but sometimes you just get tired of listening to the music you already know. Btw, it’s just easier to use a single purpose device. PDAs do mp3s reasonably well and I still think they’re better than most media players for video, but the zen is a better size for regular use and it helps to have dedicated buttons located in the right places. I got tired of hitting the wrong thing and turning on my PIM instead of music. Having the Zen fit just so in your palm is a reminder that there is such a thing as too small.

I have no idea how Creative Labs managed to screw up virtually everything else about what might have been a very competitive product. In the meantime, I’m trying to understand the giant nerd that lives inside me who would hang on to an MP3 player for 19 months without ever having it work properly. It’s actually very satisfying to have gotten the thing to work and adds to my enjoyment of my Zen. I suppose “Zen” was a good name for the thing. It’s just that I would never recommend a Creative Labs product to anyone else.


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Monday, July 30, 2007

A Sporting Chance

After Michael Rasmussen, the holder of the yellow jersey at the time in this year’s Tour de France, was taken out of the race by his own team for testing protocol irregularities, I heard they submitted a proposal to change the name of the event to “Tour de Pharmacy”. In the NBA, I’m sure David Stern is now really even happier about his decision to hold last year’s all star weekend in Las Vegas. I have this picture of Tim Donaghy co-hosting a pre-game party there with his good friends Hyman Roth and Lucky Luciano. NASCAR has had mechanical scandals with both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip. Barry Bonds is chasing Hank Aaron while being chased by a grand jury. At least one NFL quarterback’s career may have gone to the dogs. Don King is beginning to look comparatively clean.

In the meantime, we tell our own kids, “Go play soccer, baseball, football, whatever. Sports will help you build character.”

If athletics is supposed to be so wholesome and character building, what the hell’s going on?

Unquestionably, money’s a part of it. Perhaps the biggest shock to me about the Donaghy scandal was learning that NBA refs make two hundred and sixty thousand dollars per year which is a hundred thousand more than we pay U.S. Senators and perhaps more interesting it’s also at least sixty thousand more than you get for being a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. On the other hand, more Americans follow the NBA closely than the Supreme Court and more NBA refs are on a first name basis with Tim Duncan and Alan Iverson than any Supreme Court Justices.

That brings up the second matter. We just pay a whole lot more attention to sports than we ever did. It’s probably only right that I know more details about the Balco case than I do about the U.S. Attorney scandal. I’m not sure it’s right that Alberto Gonzales can say the same, but what the heck! This means that the monetary reward for successful cheating is far bigger than ever.

I don’t know why we should expect the Sports world to be any less corrupt than either the business world or the White House. For one, professional athletics is now much more nakedly simply an extension of rather than a respite from the business world. It is odd to me that people don’t yell “Cheater, cheater” as Conrad Black wanders the streets or even Martha Stewart. Still, if we lionize the business tactics of say Bill Gates, why shouldn’t sports people take the cue? After all Paul Allen, his former partner, does own two professional sports franchises himself. Ninety percent of franchises are controlled either by corporations or individuals who made their money in the business world. I wouldn't be shocked to learn that some did so like the De Bartolo family did.

While we claim “Cheaters never prosper”, the fact is that we pay inordinate attention to those who will do and did “anything to win”. Years ago, Lyle Alzado, shortly before he died from a brain tumor, published one of the earliest steroid mea culpas in Sports Illustrated. In the text of the article, Alzado went on at length about how what he did was wrong and that he now knew better. At the same time, the article included photos of Alzado’s attractive wife, pictures of him from his “glory” days, etc. Bottom line, read in a particular way, the article was an endorsement of steroids in that Alzado’s deal with the anabolic devil let him achieve all his dreams. It was just that he suffered through an early and painful death. There might be a lot of people who would have made that trade. Look at Jose Canseco. The guy sure had fun in his time and he still seems to get attention and opportunities that the rest of us only dream about. If say, Joe Rudi, picked up the phone and called a reporter for an interview, who do you thinks call gets answered first Rudi's or Canseco's?

Bottom line, there’s a problem with focusing so heavily on the perpetrators, we're helping them prosper. Even if you try to take it all away, they still got something highly desirable out of it. They got the attention that “winning” brought with it. Most of those who follow cycling would tell you that Floyd Landis won it in dramatic fashion then lost it due to a bad though still contested drug test. How many casual followers of cycling can tell you who won it in 2006? It was Oscar Pereiro, how many people remember that? Whatever happens with Barry Bonds, in terms of punishment, it’s too late. He’ll have his post 1999 records, the money, and the attention that comes with them. Even if he’s convicted and serves longer than Lewis Libby, he’ll be remembered for what he did so what if it’s tainted by how he did it. Consider this, I remember Ken Caminiti probably better because he confessed before he died than I do say Terry Pendleton, another one year wonder third baseman who won the MVP award and who has, to my knowledge, never been tied to steroids.

Let me offer a small confession in this regard. One of the most exciting things I ever saw in sports was Ben Johnson running away from Carl Lewis in the 1988 Olympics. Even now that I know how it happened, I still have the image of Johnson (albeit illegally) blowing away the then invincible Lewis. It's just one of those weird things. We tend to remember the image not the facts behind it.

We pay much too much attention to the “cheaters” maybe especially when we catch them. Sometimes I think about Ken Griffey Jr. whose name has never come up in connection with steroids. After multiple injuries, he’s still closing in on Willie Mays’s home run total. Once in a while, you’ll see some mention that Griffey has passed some notable on the home run list, but when Griffey makes it to 600 either late this year or early the next will we make a point of giving him more attention than when Sammy Sosa crossed 600 earlier this year? In a saner world, we should be giving the adulation to those who came by their accomplishments not only honestly but honorably. I mean why don’t we talk about Linus Torvald instead of Bill Gates? Okay, it’s not a fair test to ask it this week, but name one NBA referee off the top of your head!

I have no idea in sports as to who the really “good” role models are. A lot of it is just the result of having either a good relationship with the media or a competent publicist or some combination of the two. Clearly, some of the old time role models like Mantle and Ford wouldn’t have held up to the modern press. We once didn’t find out about mistresses, income taxes, salary negotiations, etc. Most of what we knew about our sports heroes came from either watching the games or from following stories that were carefully vetted by team ownership. I do, however, know that they exist. I sometimes wonder how it feels to be Omar Vizquel, the Giants’ fine-fielding shortstop and consummate teammate, whose name comes up about one time to every hundred that Bonds’s does.

Sometimes the stories do get told in the media. Most people do know about Pat Tillman for instance. When Sean Elliot shortened his own NBA career to donate a kidney to his brother, we certainly heard about it. Anyone remember Chiefs running back Joe Delaney? It’s just that we don’t remember those stories nearly as well.

Oddly, I’m writing this post the day after Gwynn and Ripken entered the Hall of Fame and on the day Bill Walsh died. He wasn’t necessarily a perfect human being, but for the most part he died having done things right. As a coach, Walsh succeeded within the rules. While there are Walsh players who had serious personal problems during their time playing for him, one doesn’t hear that Walsh mishandled those matters. In addition, Walsh played a key role in integrating the NFL’s coaching ranks with African-American students of the game. He is not the coach who won the most Super Bowls, but those that he did win seemed to be done so with a respect for the spirit of the game. Fwiw, I don’t worry about Walsh getting his due. It's not like we totally ignore those who do things the right way in sports.

As fans, we need to stop worshiping the whole business of “who did it most” or “who got the most for doing what he or she did.” These days, I’m reminding myself to pay more attention to “who did it best” and to make a point of honoring that. If we pass this on to our own kids, maybe they really will see sports as a place to learn character rather than a way to make money. In that world Dean Smith remains a great college coach whether or not he has the most wins, Martina is the most courageous tennis champion, and Jackie Robinson remains perhaps the most important baseball player despite modest career statistics. It won’t make the cheaters go away, but it’ll at least remind us that the who and how matters more than the what or how many and how much. It always did.


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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Powerpoint the Right Way (Another Karl Rove Adventure)

Karl Rove called me the other night to ask me another coding question.

CL: Karl, it’s two in the morning here. Are you just up really early again?

KR: Sorry CL, I sometimes forget that you sleep.

CL: Don’t we all sleep?

KR: Well, you know how people sometimes ask “How can you sleep at night?”

CL: As in if you do something unconscionable?

KR: I just don’t, haven’t in years. Don’t even try.

CL: Karl, just out of curiosity when’s the last time you looked at yourself in a mirror?

KR: Haven’t done that either in years. I have an intern who grooms me. You remember Jeff Gannon?

CL: Wow, I’d wondered what happened to the guy.

KR: Anyway, got another Power Point question for you. How do I get the numbers to fly in from the upper left corner with my red and blue pie charts.

CL: Okay, go to settings then click the mouse….

KR: Just so you know, my mouse only has a right button.

CL: What’s with all the Power Point presentations anyway?

KR: It’s just to help government employees do their job better. You know make sure your tax money is spent properly.

CL: But Karl what do you know about being Surgeon General, being in the Peace Corps, or being a diplomat? Your entire adult life, the only thing you’ve done is to be a campaign strategist.

KR: All jobs are political. I teach them that part of their job.

CL: But as deputy chief of staff to the president, you don’t work for the Republican Party, you work for the American people?

KR: That’s my point. There’s no difference between the two. Don’t you remember Sarah Taylor’s answers to Senator Leahy about her oath of allegiance.

CL: So the taxpayers pay you more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year to win elections for the Republican Party?

KR: You want to ask me why?

CL: You think?

KR: Remember, the last four letters of “Rebublican” are “I can.” It’s because I can.

CL: Mmmmm… if I give a “crat”.

KR: You know next week, I do a presentation for the Postal Service. We’ve targeted 38 districts where mail delivery of Democratic flyers will just happen to get lost.

CL: In parts of Iraq, they have hospitals where Sunnis get turned away for care just because they’re Sunnis, because Al Sadr was given control of the ministry of health.

KR: See, they’re learning how to become a democracy there. Isn’t it a shame that the media never reports this kind of progress.

CL: You’re right about that Karl. They haven’t reported that story much at all.

KR: No, they’re obsessed about this executive privilege business instead.

CL: Well, there is the small matter that “executive privilege” really isn’t in the constitution and we at the VRWC do claim to be strict constructionists.

KR: You’re being much too literal CL. The Constitution says whatever God or the President who listened to God intended it to say. You should know that.

CL: So, who else are you doing these Power Point presentations for?

KR: You promise not to tell anyone?

CL: I consider any crimes we discuss or commit together a matter subject to the protections of Executive Privilege.

KR: Well, I’ve got another one set up for the Supreme Court. Honestly, I don’t like doing those.

CL: Why not?

KR: When we get into the really weird stuff like why torture is good and why the President should be immune from prosecution for anything he does, Justices Scalia and Thomas start doing things underneath their robes. Honestly, it’s kind of creepy.

CL: Sad…. I blame it all on rap music lyrics, the Duke lacrosse team case, and the increase in welfare payments during the sixties.

KR: True enough. It’s so fun to have people not believing in science. They can’t make any sense out of cause and effect any longer….btw…You wouldn’t consider doing the Supreme Court Power Point for me next week. I’ve got this great slide about overruling Roe vs. Wade. It starts with this Blue background and then it washes Red as soon as the text comes up.

CL: I don’t know KR. I thought they were supposed to be looking at the Constitution not some power point presentation done in conjunction with the Republican National Committee. Just call me old fashioned, I guess.

KR: Wow, that is old-fashioned. No one’s done that since before Bush v. Gore. Wait until they hear a case on the Hatch Act, you'll get an even better idea of how they work now.

CL: So I suppose after the Supreme Court, you have another one lined up at the CIA.

KR: Why are you even asking if you already know my schedule? My power point presentations have worked really well at the Department of Homeland Security, why not the CIA? I know they still have a few bad apples there who don’t understand that post 9/11 politics require partisan intelligence reports, but most of those oafs are already on notice that they’re fair game.

CL: I feel safer already.

KR: If you really want to feel safe, you should help me with the one I’m doing in August for Al Qaeda of Iraq.

CL: Well, the President did mention them 45 times in his speech yesterday. I just didn’t realize that they were part of the Republican party or the government?

KR: It’s not well known, but for the last six years we’ve absolutely relied on them as part of our national political strategy. You remember the unknown terrorist video back in 2004?

CL: Excuse me for a second Karl. I think I’m going to be sick.

KR: No worries CL. The plumbers go back a long way with the Party. Have a good surge back there……My God CL are you okay? It sounds like you’re trying to flush a laptop down that toilet.

CL: Sorry Karl. I think I need to install a new operating system. This one is about to crash.

More Karl Rove adventures


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Monday, July 23, 2007

Thanks JK Rowling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

I was on page 564 of the Deathly Hallows when my seventeen year old daughter came home Sunday night from a date and demanded her book back. It started when she was eight and three of the Potter books were already in print. While I have several friends who like to insist that their own children started reading the books on their own at age four, I treasure the time my daughter would make me read the Potter books with her aloud. I think our record was ninety six pages in a single evening of my reading an average of ten pages to her one or two with both of us struggling to figure out how to pronounce words like “basilisk”, “accio”, “expelliramus”.

Just before book 4, we also discovered the pleasures of Jim Dale and the Potter Books on tape. For a couple years, wherever we drove we listened to the same man do some thirty five different voices per book until my wife and older daughter would insist that they couldn’t listen through another retelling of the virtues of Hippogriffs or the dangers of floo powder. At one point, my daughter made a custom of taking long baths while listening to the Potter Books on tape. For the most part, my reading aloud lost out to Jim Dale though it never got to the point where she would send him Father's Day cards.

It happened that the new books always got released on or around her birthday, July 20 so it became a custom every other birthday for us to wait for Amazon to deliver it on the day it came out. Two years ago, we were on vacation when Book 6 was supposed to show up, so we went to Walmart and got a second copy of the book and the CD version so we could read it right away and listen in the car. This year, I dropped my daughter off at the local independent bookseller at midnight on her birthday so she could attend the publication party there even though we both knew our copy was coming the mail tne next day. The line ran down the street.

In the nine years, we went to see a local version of Book 1 done as a play in which they literally left nothing out which meant that it ran for close to three hours. One of my friends ( we didn’t know them at the time) put on a Hogwarts Birthday for his eleven year old daughter with all the parents playing various adults in the book. For some reason his daughter wanted him to be Argus Filch. He wanted to be Dumbledore. My daughter has also seen all five movies. At their best, the movies only seem to augment the experience of the books rather than threaten to stand alone as great entertainment. It’s probably better that way.

The oddest extra-Potter experience for me happened last night. With my daughter in her bedroom with our copy of the Deathly Hallows, I decided to go online to look for a copy in those evil places Muggles set up on the Internet. I pulled down what I assumed to be scanned versions of the book. I figured Rowling is rich enough and I’d already done my part by purchasing a legal copy of her book. Perhaps it was some act of wizardry, but the two documents that purported to be scanned versions of the Deathly Hallows turned out to be very poorly written fan-fic exercises. Someone or someones had taken the time to write 624 pages of their own version of the Deathly Hallows. I opened the thing trying to find the equivalent page to where I left off in the real thing and kept going “I don’t remember reading this part”. Eventually I decided to try reading a couple pages straight through, I didn’t make it. Rowling my not be Dickens or even Tolkien, but this exercise made it clear that hardly anyone is J.K. Rowling.

While I’ve argued with others about the literary merits of Potter or even where it ranks compared to great Children’s literature, I’m not sure any of that matters. I’m certain that no series of books will ever play a larger role in the life of my family than Harry Potter did. I don’t know that there can be any greater compliment to an author of children’s books than to tell her that her characters essentially became members of our family from the time when my daughter and I stayed up past one in the morning reading aloud from Book 3 to yesterday when she read Book 7 between phone calls with her future college volleyball coach. The NCAA apparently has yet to sanction quidditch. Sadly, we gave up confusing Harry Potter with reality about five years ago and we no longer make wands, pretend that jelly beans came from Bertie Botts, nor do I place protection charms on her before she gets in a car with a boy.

One interesting thing for us was that Harry, Ron, and Hermione started out a few years older than my daughter but by the time they had their last adventure she was exactly the same age they were. I think the books stayed in her life also goes beyond the sheer force of habit or will to finish what she started. Clearly, Rowling’s sensibility also grows with the reader. While the Sorcerer’s Stone is largely a children’s book, the themes of the succeeding books grow progressively darker and older. For one, people begin to die starting in book 4 and Rowling begins making much more direct references to contemporary politics, particularly the War on Terror.

Actually, something the more scholarly types will have to look at is how the long run of the Potter Series ultimately dealt with the Post 9/11 world. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both influenced by World War 2. Hogwarts clearly was influenced mid-series by the “War on Terror” to the point where Book 7 is replete with the Minstry of Magic and all Wizarding Media being infiltrated by the Death Eaters. Voldemort himself comes surprisingly close to being a roman a clef for some combination of Karl Rove/Dick Cheney. More significant, the characters really do go from being kids to teenagers as do the narrative demands of the books as they grew successively longer and more complicated. I wonder if the experience will be the same for a nine year old who discovers Potter in 2008 and reads through the series in say six months.

While many focused on the “magic” and “wizardry” in Potter (in the U.S. there were a number of complaints that the books endorsed witchcraft as opposed to Christianity, yeesh), that’s tended to obscure how deeply conservative Rowling really is as a writer and the way in which the vision of the Potter books wound up underscoring actual “family values” as opposed to what passes for political conservatism. Ultimately, Harry Potter does not tell the story of an ordinary boy’s transformation into a great and powerful wizard. Potter is really more the story of how an orphan who never directly knew love since he was a baby acquires family, friends, and connections to the world. Underneath that, the Potter saga traces the saga of three men Tom Riddle, Albus Dumbledore, and Severus Snape who find very different ways to work through the pains of childhood and adolescence. Rowling is really writing about the magic of ordinary life, something which possibly couldn’t be any clearer than in the duel between Molly Weasley, the archetypal mother of the Potter books, and Bellatrix Lestrange or in the way Harry deals with Remus Lupin, someone he once idolized, at one point mid-book.

My childhood was built around constant fear of nuclear holocaust. My daughter’s childhood has been haunted by fear of terrorists and ecological disaster. J.K. Rowling has given us the most magical gift in the Potter series, the reminder that the real magic comes from simple acts like exploring all the different ways to share a book and an imagined world with one’s children. Whether or not the world is doomed or civilization is headed for generations long decline, Rowling insists that certain basics of friendship and family continue to make a difference.

Even if the single mom on the dole who became the wealthiest woman in Britain wound up with a significant percentage of my family’s discretionary income from the last decade, I’m not complaining.


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Friday, July 20, 2007

Genarlow Wilson and the President

The odd case of Genarlow Wilson made its way to the Georgia State Supreme Court today. Wilson is a young man who got a ten year prison sentence for consensual oral sex with a young woman. At the time, Wilson was 17 and the girl was 15. A Georgia law at the time aimed at adult sexual predators had made the ten year prison sentence mandatory. Had he simply had intercourse with the girl, the matter would have been a misdemeanor.
An honors student and a star football player at the time of the arrest, Wilson has been in state prison ever since.

The case has any number of cultural resonances. The girls involved may have initiated the activities, the party got videotaped, and Wilson was the only one of the males who refused to plea bargain. It’s worth mentioning that unlike a similar Tennessee case involving an African-American male and a white female, both Wilson and the “victim” are African-American. In the meantime, the matter has received national attention. The prosecutor and the State Attorney General are basically insisting that “the rule of law” must stand. Wilson’s supporters, including the legislator who wrote the law he was convicted of violating (he even wrote a friend of the court brief), point to the fact that the young man has already had his life ruined for behavior that large numbers of teenagers have engaged in and that the sentence is cruel and unusual. I don’t know how common it is for teenagers to have an orgy, do drugs, and videotape the thing (my own adolescence never included those things), but he was convicted for having consensual oral sex with a girl two years younger than he was. He’s also the only person at the party who wound up in prison and the law that he was convicted for breaking has since been changed.

So where’s the President on this one? I'm mot the only one wondering why Lewis Libby got his sentence commuted while this young man is supposed to serve as the poster boy (man?) for the rule of law in America? I could see the President commuting the sentence then using the occasion to blame it on Bill Clinton for being a bad role model. Wouldn't that be worth it? It can't be all that fun to be President this month. Why not do a good deed, show some of that conservative compassion, and take a dig at Hillary's candidacy all at once? Just a coincidence, Wilson has spent 29 months in prison so far which happens to have been the length of Libby's prison sentence.

Fwiw, The governor of Georgia doesn’t have pardon power. A state judge did intervene in the matter and reduced Wilson’s sentence to one year, but the State Attorney General, also African-American, appealed the judge’s attempt to reduce the sentence which brought the matter to the State Supreme Court. I do sort of wonder why no one ever gets convicted in these things for performing cunnilingus? More silly stuff, Wilson’s attorney is a woman named B.J. Bernstein.

Just for the sake of comparison, have a look at this odd case of a 25 year old marine convicted of killing an Iraqi civilian who was given no prison time. A little more perspective on that one. A soldier who tried to become a conscientious objector after serving in Iraq was given several years.


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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Running in Place as My Mind Wanders

The last few mornings, I’ve taken to spending exactly ten minutes on the treadmill before heading off to work. I have a copy of the Time Traveler’s Wife on my PDA so I plug that into a pair of amplified speakers that I built a few months ago and try to make sure I break a sweat before my morning shower. My wife always tells me that I need to concentrate on doing one thing at a time rather than trying to listen, exercise, and play audiophile (btw one really interesting test of speaker quality is to listen to spoken word sources on them for extended periods of time. Often if there’s something wrong, you won’t be able to listen all that long) at the same time. She fights back by warning me that if I play the book loudly enough to be heard over the motor of the treadmill, it’ll wake up our daughter. Anyway, my current regimen is to do all of 10 minutes on the treadmill which amounts to three quarters of a mile. I know this isn’t much of a physical workout. It’s not exactly meditation either, but that’s not the point. I’m doing it to develop some replacement habits. My default position is in the living room browsing the internet. I know it’s not healthy, but flickering websites alternating past me appeals to the ADD end of my personality.

I figure that the books on PDA or tape can’t be a bad thing. I was having a really good time with Eli Evans’s, The Provincials, a personal study of Jews in the South, just a couple weeks ago. A few years ago, I lived part of the time in Washington D.C. and I had a housemate, David Rabin, who loved to invite people to brunch and dinner at the house. One time, he had over a woman who was working in campaign finance reform who also happened to have grown up Jewish in Oklahoma. That was the first time I’d ever heard of “Jew Stores”. Jew Stores filled an economic niche in the South in that they brought relatively exotic goods to remote places, extended credit, and served both black and white customers. Most towns had one and many Southern towns had very small Jewish communities.

Much like the Chinese diaspora, the Jews have spread across the world to a number of countries where they remain permanent minorities. Both Chinese and Jewish culture tend to stress that children maintain a separate ethnic identity while assimilating in most every other way imaginable. Anyway, Evans’s book, which started as a series of articles in Harpers’ back in the early 70’s that were first commissioned by Willie Morris, provided a strangely soothing portrait of Jews in the American South. I say soothing because it paralleled the rural California Chinese I write about in my stories in so many ways.

Evans is at his best in describing the fascinating sociology of his father’s “Jew Store” in Durham, North Carolina in the fifties where it served as a cross between an old rural general store, a pre-Walmart five and dime, and common folks department store. Evans’s father was actually the mayor of Durham for many years, but fascinatingly Evans always saw himself as an outsider. The Jew store played a unique role in southern small town culture in the way the owners often remained outsiders in some essential way, yet the stores themselves served as junction points both commercially and culturally for the black and white communities within the town.

Evans is a little less good is that the book, perhaps it was the vogue in the 70’s when it was written, also includes endless recountings of studies and surveys about American attitudes about the Jews and Judaism. When you’re listening while on a treadmill though, those sections are perfect for cranking up the speed and incline, which makes it a bit harder to listen, and concentrating on the workout part.

Over the last ten years, there’s been a plethora of ways to enjoy books, movies, and music at times and in places you once wouldn’t have thought practical, possible, or desirable. At this point, I probably listen to more books on tape than I read in printed form. Where I used to read in an armchair in the living room or in bed (my wife and I argue about the light needing to be off at certain times though and how I make noise turning the pages after she falls not quite asleep), I now do much of my “reading” in the car, while riding my bicycle, walking into town, or on the treadmill in the garage. Similarly where movies used to be something I saw in a theater, I not only watch movies on DVD in the living room where I can stop, pause, rewind, etc., I also watch a lot of them on my PDA when waiting at the doctor’s office or riding on busses to the airport.
It goes without saying that I get to listen to music most anywhere and at most any time as opposed to the days when I knew the only decent audio version could be gotten from my turntable and several thousand dollars worth of stereo equipment carefully set up in some room of my home.

I do think this is generally a good thing, but I am noticing that consuming “culture” in this fashion does affect my tastes. Mostly, it allows me to slip in and out of paying attention to the source. I now rather like things more that don’t depend on quite the same level of beginning to end dedication. If the book or movie is something that I can enjoy at more or less random ten minute snippets, all the better. I suppose this is deeply insulting to the creative folk who pour their souls into getting every detail and sequence just so in their work. I’d hate it if someone read one of my stories a page at a time, not necessarily in order, while trying to work up a sweat jogging. That’s not quite true, I do think it beats being completely ignored and unread.

I know that television served as video wallpaper for at least two generations and that radio largely served that function for at least a generation before that. In fact, radio is an interesting reference point. There was a time when the console radio served as the center point of both the living room and family entertainment. Starting when I was a kid, radios became smaller, more portable, and much more something that was just going on in the background as people’s attentions drifted in and out of listening. Radio programming changed accordingly.

So, I’m wondering if over time they’ll start creating books expressly written to be “listened to” in short slightly distracted blocks? Maybe it’s happening already? I do think movies have already changed to suit a world where people are as likely to view them over and over on a portable DVD or PDA-IPOD like device as to watch them beginning to end in a single sitting. More and more there are movies built around a single scene or scenes that seem aimed at people who might stop and replay that scene continuously and enjoy multiple playings. Often, they have surprisingly flimsy or fractured plots and most of the resources and creativity went into developing a single set piece that serves as the “focal point” of the previews and eventually the movie itself.

It’s quite likely that none of this is healthy either for “culture” or for me, but I do wonder if it’s possible to create things that are “artistic” , “enlighteningly funny”, or “profound” for a media environment that’s increasingly concentration-challenged. I’ve honestly loved listening to books and listening to music while doing other things. It doesn’t mean that I can’t or don’t sit and pay undivided attention to some books and some music, but I confess I do both a lot less these days. I also do from time to time come across something striking while viewing or listening in this fashion and I take a few seconds or even minutes to “study” or think carefully about what’s being communicated. At the same time, it might be very interesting to develop cultural media that can make the brain and the body sweat at the same time. Is the product inherently worse or less worthy because you’re not expected to be totally focused on it? Will a book read differently when I absorb it with my heart going 150 beats per minute instead of 60?

I guess the oddest thing about it all is that for most of my life I’ve both run and read without the aid of machines. Maybe before I die, they’ll have books that you don’t either read or listen to per se, you just absorb them while say running on a treadmill?


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Monday, July 16, 2007

A Nation of Yahoos (White House Initial Benchmark Report)

I often skim the headlines on Yahoo and one thing I’ve never fully understood is just how a news story featured on Yahoo falls off the front page. I believe that an item stays there until newer items hit the top. If there are a bunch of stories then, regardless of the significance of the story whether it’s about executive privilege or Jessica Simpson’s newest diet, four newer stories knock it off the front page. Certain events though generate follow up stories, so the news item appears to stay on yahoo’s front page longer than it actually did because there are multiple stories about the same event that I tend to remember as the same news item. In the ten years that I’ve used the internet as my primary news source, I’ve mentally collected what I think of as “six hour Yahoo stories”, items that show up don’t attract follow up articles and quickly get pushed off the page by news about plastic surgery, the virtues of wine after dinner, or the latest price of a barrel of oil.

Probably because it’s the second biggest source of news stories after the state of Brad Pitt’s marriages , a lot of Iraq stories disappear after a six hour stay on Yahoo. In 2005 my favorite came out of Basra when British soldiers broke two British soldiers out of an Iraqi jail with a tank. The jailed soldiers apparently landed in jail when they were accused of shooting at Iraqi policemen. Even stranger, at the time they were arrested by Iraqi police, the British soldiers were dressed as civilians. Two years later, we have this equally weird story about American soldiers killing six Iraqi policemen.

Whose idea of progress is this and how bad is this stuff? If we couple it with a story like this one about U.S. soldiers possibly being encouraged to kill Iraqis, what do we have? Both the Iraqi and the American army/police may have deeper problems than we might imagine. Perhaps this is what happens when you have an administration that insists that it stands for the rule of law in Iraq, but doesn’t seem to believe in it quite as much in the United States.

In the meantime, there was an equally entertaining six hour story from the BALCO investigation. While Barry’s slipped into a dreadful slump, the defense attorney who leaked all that grand jury testimony to the San Francisco Chronicle got sentenced to two and a half years.
Here’s the irony, the guy asks the judge for the same deal that Lewis Libby got. Well it was worth a try I guess. The judge tells him, you want that kind of justice you better ask the president about it. So in our world, 30 months for leaking information about a steroid case isn’t excessive yet outing a CIA agent doesn’t get any time in prison? (note this parallel. No baseball players have been indicted in Balco) I’m definitely starting to understand why those Iraqis are having such a tough time grasping the American notion of “the rule of law” that we are trying so hard to get them to master over there.

One of the odd things about depending on the Yahoo home page (or any other news service for that matter) is the opposite situation. There were several articles on Yahoo about the White House’s Initial Benchmark Assessment Report released on July 12, 2007. If you read the articles, you would have learned that there were two interpretations of the thing. The Democrats and several prominent Republicans (none of whom were running for President in 2008) were pointing out that we hadn’t made satisfactory progress on most of the eighteen benchmarks. The Administration was claiming that there had actually been progress on eight of the benchmarks and there was thus still a chance of success in Iraq. The odd thing is that there is one thing you wouldn’t have learned from reading all those articles. I never saw anyone simply read the report itself and break it down. None of the articles even quoted the White House report directly including Tony Snow himself. Of course, that’s our fault. The White House released the report on its website for anyone to read instead of depending on Tony Snow’s or George W’s take on the thing. It’s only twenty five pages long and tellingly didn’t include a conclusion at the end, but you can reasonably count on most of America not even bothering to look at the thing.

Even the White House’s report sends a clear message.-the US is not making progress in Iraq. Think about any other job in the world, if you have 18 things you’re evaluated on and you show no significant progress in ten of them, you either get fired or you are expected to do something different to keep your job. Think about a basketball player who can play defense satisfactorily, but can’t pass, rebound, shoot, or dribble. What happens to him or her? So why is it that saying the following is even remotely defensible?

“Here’s my own report on how we’re doing over there, we’re not getting anywhere on most of our own benchmarks, so we’re going to keep doing more of the same thing.”

You want to know how bad it is? One of the signs of progress in the report is that a wide cross section of Iraqis agreed that blowing up a mosque full of people was a bad thing. How’s that for an encouraging starting point towards national reconciliation there? I can’t imagine what other questions they might have asked and not gotten agreement on. Say, do you think child abuse is a bad thing? How about starvation? Do you consider corruption bad? Actually, the report did leave out one other point of consensus in Iraq. Most Iraqis want a deadline for the US to get its troops out of their country.

Believe it or not, I saw that one on Yahoo some time ago, but it stayed up for such a short period of time that even the link went bad.


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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Cleaners (fiction)

note: In the spirit of Rachel Ray, I occasionally see if I can write a short story in a couple hours. Usually, I do it because I have to go to my twice monthly writer's group which meets at 7:15 pm on Wednesdays. At the end of my workday at about five, I sometimes don't have anything to share with the group. I will then force myself to get something on paper to meet the deadline. Anyway, The Cleaners is one of those efforts.
The other notable thing for me about the story is that I'd been doing some work around the 14th amendment. One result was the prior post about the path from Plessy to this month's Seattle Schools Decision, the other was that I started thinking about the California Chinese and their role in legal history. It's not in the story, but Yick Wo v. Hopkins took place almost immediately after the Chinese Exclusion act, back when Asians were the immigrant peril who were going to take America down with them unless their numbers could be controlled. One of the sadder aspects of Yick Wo is that the story wasn't passed diligently across the generations. The Chinese my age who learned about it, usually found out about the case in college. In that way, it's a little bit like the obscuring of the story of Fred Korematsu. end prattle.

The Cleaners

Until I was ten, my mother had the responsibility of making sure that my Grandfather’s suits went to the Tang Brothers Steam Laundry in downtown Sacramento. The Tang Brothers Laundry was on the first floor of an old wooden building in a sadly run-down neighborhood still beyond the reach of the city’s redevelopment agency. The building looked like it got painted once every twenty years which meant that it probably had received between four and five coats of paint in its lifetime. It smelled of mildew. The front windows were covered with painted-cyclone fencing and most of the signage inside was in Chinese. The building was so old that the wiring ran in exposed conduits on the face of the interior walls. It looked like the place should have burned down decades ago.

Two buildings on the same street had burned and no one had bothered to rebuild or even move away the rubble. Bottom line, the Tang Brothers Laundry felt creepy and the neighborhood was getting scarier. When my mother drove there, she only went in the middle of the day. Because of the neighborhood, she also wouldn’t let me sit in the car to listen to the radio while she completed the errand.

“I can keep the doors locked and I won’t play with the windows. You know I’d never talk to strangers,” I would plead. “I don’t even talk to adults anyway.”

My mother would shake her head.

“It’s not about you. It’s just not safe for you to be out here in the car.”

The car was a white Lincoln Premier with electric windows and power seats, an expensive accessory at the time. The upholstery was two-toned turquoise and white.

“I don’t like going inside there. It smells bad. How can they clean clothes in a place that smells like that?”

“Lucky, don’t you want to help your grandfather?”

I always lost the argument. It didn’t really occur to me that my mother insisted that I come inside because she didn’t want to go in to the Tang Brothers laundry by herself. Going inside was like being yanked back to the days when Chinese males wore queues and women had to bind their feet. For one thing, the old man and woman who dealt with the customers at Tang Brothers refused to speak any English with either my mother or me. I say refused, because I had observed the old man deal with his very occasional non-Chinese customer. Unlike some Chinatown businesses, Tang Brothers happily served blacks and Mexicans. His English was slow, but surprisingly unaccented.

On top of that, Mr. and Mrs. Tang spoke a different dialect from my mother, so their exchanges always involved hand signals and other ambiguous exchanges. We never really knew how much anything cost or how long it would take to get my Grandfather’s white shirts starched or his gray suits cleaned and pressed. Since my Grandfather wore a gray suit with a white shirt almost every day, we had to make the trip to Tang Brothers at least once a week. Unless we came too early to pick up my Grandfather’s suits, the jackets and pants always came back crisply pressed and hung on wooden hangers tied together with a red wax-coated twine. The shirts would be wrapped in brown paper, hand folded and terminated in creased triangles, as if the paper itself had been pressed too. The packages of shirts were tied together with a yellow yarn with an odd knot that couldn’t be untied only cut with a pair of scissors. Whenever we came back, the custom was to bring the same number of wooden hangers we had left with on the previous visit a hassle that only added to the burden of going to Tang Brothers.

A couple times my mother forgot to bring the wooden hangers and Mrs. Tang lectured her then charged her two dollars extra, an act which my mother resented. If it happened, she would complain to my father about it for the rest of the week.

Bottom line, I hated having to make the stop and suspected that my mother didn’t like it any better than I did. Whenever we drove home from the Tang Brothers, I would make a point of keeping an eye out for the many dry cleaners in free standing buildings outside the downtown area. There were probably half a dozen just outside South Land Park. Typically these could be spotted easily from a block away because they had big plastic-lettered signs that proclaimed their ability to do alterations, martinize, and press any cloth item cheaply, quickly, or both. The storefronts had full expanses of clear glass through which you could see modern electric machinery inside. They had dedicated parking and the insides often had a waiting area with chairs and old magazines.

Sometimes, they also included a coin Laundromat instead of the hand washing done at Tang Brothers in ancient open wash tubs. They promised a kind of American clean free of hand work that no traditional Chinese laundry like the Tang Brothers could ever deliver. After we moved to Strawberry Creek from Paperson, my mother brought anything we had of our own that needed to be dry-cleaned to one of these shops where our clothes would come back on disposable wire hangers wrapped in paper. The name of the laundry printed on kite-like paper that filled the open oval of the hanger. A clear plastic bag made from the same material that kept school lunches fresher than wax paper shrouded the hangers and the clothes that hung on them, along with a metal twist tie.

The only issue was that none of the dry cleaners near our home were Chinese owned. My Grandfather believed strongly that if you could do business with other Chinese, you had to. It didn’t matter if the same service or merchandise could be found cheaper or better elsewhere.

My parents never completely agreed with my Grandfather’s consumer ethnocentrism.

“We should just buy the best products. It seems wrong to buy something from someone just because it’s Chinese….” My Dad would say. “Besides, sometimes I’m almost certain that they overcharge us on purpose because they assume that we won’t go anywhere else.”

In their first home of their own in Strawberry Creek, they set out to fill their living room and kitchen with American goods. The furniture in the living room came from Bruner’s, the slightly upscale downtown department store instead of the Chinese import company in San Francisco that supplied their parents’ furniture. We had two sets of dishes. One was Chinese a red-green porcelain generally used when my Grandparents or other relatives would visit. The other was oval and Scandinavian and we used it for breakfast and most other meals. Our clothes came from Sears and Weinstocks and later the new Macy’s that got built into what was once part of Sacramento’s Chinatown.

Perhaps it was just a matter of time, but a new dry cleaner opened up near our neighborhood in the corner of a shopping center. The building itself was all windows and the new laundry, like the banks, had incorporated a drive through window covered with a carport to let customers do business without leaving the car even when it rained. Most exciting of all, the owners were Chinese. Within a matter of days after the opening of Atomic Cleaners, my mother started bringing my Dad’s restaurant suits and her own dresses there where she would talk to owner’s wife, a woman her own age, about schools, golf, and the unending stream of new and improved clear-plastic packaged products on the shelves of the supermarket on the other side of the parking lot.

“It’s cheaper, faster, and it’s still Chinese,” she would tell my father over dinner. “It doesn’t make sense that we should make two trips to two different dry cleaners.”

My father would nod in agreement, but he remained skeptical.

“Tang Brothers is just where pop has always gone to do his dry cleaning. He likes to do things a certain way.”

We continued to make our stop at the Tang Brothers laundry with my Grandfather’s suits and shirts. If Mr. and Mrs. Tang ever wondered what my mother and father did with their own dry cleaning, they never asked. One time we were there and I noticed that an old black and white photo of a man in traditional Chinese clothes that had always hung on the back wall had been reframed. I’d assumed that it was a photo of one of the Tang’s ancestors. Perhaps this one was the original owner of the laundry. I pointed at the picture.

“Look mom, they changed the photo.”

My mom got the white-haired Mrs. Tang’s attention and pointed to the portrait as well to tell her in Chinese that the new frame looked nice. I could tell because my mother’s limited Chinese forced her to use the English word “frame”, which she pronounced as if it were a Cantonese word.

The old woman nodded.

My mother asked again in Chinese “Neh Baba?” which I understood to mean “Is that your father?”

She shook her head.

My mother shook her head along with her. “Ah, Tang Cow Hoo ge Ba Ba?”

She pointed at Mr. Tang, sure that the photo was of one of his relatives.

Mrs. Tang shook her head again.

“Ye Ga Lee Yick.”

My mother look puzzled.

“Lee Yick?”

Mr. and Mrs. Tang then began telling the story of the man in the portrait while pointing animatedly at the laundry’s wooden walls and their faded paint. I could tell that my mother had gotten lost in Mrs. Tang’s explanation which involved two names Lee Yick and what seemed to be that of another man, named Yick Wo, by the way she just nodded her head randomly and the fact that she wasn’t stopping to translate for me anymore.

At the end of her explanation, Mrs. Tang put her hand over her heart and said in English “Proud to be American.”

My mother smiled. I smiled. Mr. Tang handed me the perfectly creased paper bundle of shirts and handed my mother two suit jackets and three pairs of pressed pants on five wooden hangers. The only problem was that my mother and I had only brought three wooden hangers in with us. Mrs. Tang held up her index finger signaling that she expected one more dollar for the hanger deposit.

My mother started to argue back then just shook her head. Once in the car, she said in my presence for the first time, “I’m sick of going there, tired of the hangers thing. They’re so old-fashioned.”

One time I was in the store when a black customer came in who had forgotten to bring in the right number of hangers. I saw Mr. Tang point to the one English sign inside the store “Hanger deposit .50 cents/hanger, no exceptions.”

“Man, you’ve got to be kidding me. Those hangers couldn’t cost you more than a couple cents a piece.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Tang answered, “Is our right. This is America. Is our right.”

The man fished through his pocket, found the coins, then slammed the door behind him. I was certain that he would never return. Oddly enough, I saw him back there weeks later.

Over the next three weekends when we had dinner at my grandparents in Paperson, my mother made a point about talking about the new laundry near our house with the drive up window. “It’s half the price, they do a better job, and they’re Chinese too. The wife was even a Tang.”

My Grandfather shrugged, “But her husband is a Wong.”

“You can drive right up, there’s no waiting Pop. Times are changing,” My Dad did his best to support my mother’s endorsement of the new laundry.

My Grandfather shook his head, drank down a shot of whiskey, and made a clicking sound between his teeth, but said nothing for a few minutes then finally muttered, “Time change, but no one remember.”

“Seriously Pop, I don’t know how long Tang Wo can stay in business even if we keep going there.”

My Grandfather shook his head again.

For several more weeks my mother and I continued to make our stop at the Tang Brothers. Sometime since that dinner, my mother had figured out that she could buy the same wooden hangers a dozen for a quarter at a shop during one of our trips to San Francisco. She bought five dollars worth and kept them in the trunk of the Lincoln, but my mother was as stubborn as my Grandfather. She decided to make her case by just happening to take half of his shirts and one of his suits to Atomic Cleaners.

When she returned to Paperson that weekend with one of his suits in a plastic wrapper, he refused to take the plastic wrapped ones upstairs with him. Instead, he hung them in the downstairs closet. The rest he took up to his room but said nothing directly to either my mother or myself. A few days later, the suit and pants still in their plastic wrap were put in a shipment for the China Relief fund. After that, he simply began taking his own clothes into Tang Brothers when he drove into Sacramento himself.

At first my mother was concerned that she had lost face with my Grandfather and through my father she explained that she just wanted him to see what a good job Jet Cleaners could do with its suits and that they were run by Chinese as well. She insisted that she would be happy to keep taking all of his suits and shirts back to Tang Brothers in the future, but my Grandfather just shook his head.

“I’m not blaming you,” I heard him tell my parents in English. “I understand.”

“Pop, seriously.” My mother said, “I even bought dozens of wooden hangers. I bought them, I should use them.”

“Just give me the hangers. I can use them,” he told her. “I’m not mad, it’s all right. I just want to do this.”

He hugged her and me. “Things change.” He murmured. “You young, so you like the change.”

Over the next several months, my mother and I were quietly relieved that we no longer had to make our weekly trip to Tang brother cleaners. A year after my Grandfather started driving his own laundry to Sacramento, the Tang Brothers closed up shop. A few weeks after that an arsonist got the building and burned up all the wooden hangers and the framed photo of the mysterious Lee Yick.

I was in college when I learned who Lee Yick was. He was a San Francisco laundryman who hired a lawyer to oppose an city ordinance that required wooden laundries to get permits to operate from the city because they were supposed to be fire hazards. As it happened, most wooden laundries in the city of San Francisco were run by Chinese immigrants. No permits were granted to Chinese-owned laundries including Lee Yick’s Yick Wo Laundry.

The case went to the Supreme Court. The Chinese Laundry men won a few years later in 1886 with the help of money raised across California to pay for the lawyer through various formal and informal Chinese laundrymen’s associations. The court held that wooden laundries weren’t really a fire hazard at all and that the ordinance had been enforced in a discriminatory fashion and thus violated the 14th amendment. It was the first time the 14th amendment had ever been applied to protect an ethnic group in America.

Many years after that, I went to the library to look it up in old editions of the Sacramento Union. While Chinatown news seldom made it into the English newspaper, I found a mention of the fact that Sacramento laundrymen led by Shih Tang had raised a thousand dollars for the cause. I looked for, but never found another picture of Lee Yick.

Had my Grandfather tried to tell my parents the story? Did he know the story? Perhaps, his loyalty was more personally based than historical. Did he try to tell the story of the Tang Brothers and their tie to Constitutional History, but just couldn’t translate it into mutually understandable Chinese or English with his own children because of the complex legal terms? Did he tell his sons and daughters and did the story not get remembered because it simply didn’t fit their notions of what the elders who preceded my Grandfather and Mr. and Mrs. Tang had been like?

A couple years ago, I drove into town and discovered that Atomic Cleaners had long since disappeared. I figured that they would have changed the name in the seventies, but assumed that the building still existed. Instead, the entire shopping center had been bulldozed in favor of a Target Store, which mostly sold heavily-discounted goods made in the People’s Republic of “China. I made a point of driving a few miles across town to look for the site of the Tang Brothers laundry, but sadly I had no idea where it was. For some reason, I had assumed that I would be able to follow the smell.


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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

All Due Deliberate Speed (Parents v. Seattle Schools Case)

The peculiar history of the fourteenth amendment just took another odd turn with the recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Public Schools. In this case, Justice Roberts determined that racial-balancing measures for school transfer plans that included explicit consideration of race in Seattle and Louisville violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment.

In writing the court’s main opinion, Chief Justice Roberts kept citing Justice Harlan’s famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate but equal case from 1896, and its now famous phrase “The Constitution is Color Blind.” While they didn’t do so formally, the high court literally moved backwards by shifting the magic phrase from 1954 that “Separate is not Equal” to the Harlan dissent from 1896 and “The Constitution is color blind”. Ironically, Harlan was the last man to sit on the Supreme Court whose family had owned slaves themselves. He had been personally shocked by the rise of the Klan and in some ways his personal connection to the racial questions in Plessy may have given him a sensitivity to the “real issues” that all of the other members of the court lacked.

I’ll let others do the constitutional analysis of the Seattle case. There’s plenty of it out there. I don’t think there’s as much from a historical point of view.

There are two aspects of Plessy, the case that made Jim Crow, de jure segregation,constitutional that have gotten obscured over the last century. First, one of Homer Plessy’s arguments was that he wasn’t “Colored”. Plessy happened to be an octoroon which meant that seven of his eight great grandparents were white. He therefore argued that he had a right to ride the streetcars in the “white” section because he was in fact more white than black. One of the sponsors of Homer Plessy’s test case was the Creole society of New Orleans, the city in America in which fine racial distinctions were the most deeply institutionalized. Through the 19th century, creoles occupied a clearly-defined niche of New Orleans society. Many were highly-educated. Many had familial though odd relationships with their white fathers and grandfathers. Most saw their place in New Orleans culture as being distinctly above blacks and often poor whites.

By the time the case made it to the Supreme Court, the legal issue had been simplified to “separate but equal”. None of the courts dealt with the much more troubling question raised by Plessy about the arbitrary and artificial concept of “race” per se.

Fifty eight years later when the Warren court formally overruled Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education, they found that separate was inherently unequal and thus segregated schools violated the 14th amendment's equal protection provision. It took almost two decades to implement Brown with the court's mandate of "all due deliberate speed". To many people’s surprise, it proved harder to integrate northern schools than southern schools. In southern towns, blacks and whites often lived closer to one another and had more contact. In the post-World War 2 north, middle class whites had left the cities for the outer ring suburbs. If a child went to a “neighborhood” school, it would effectively be a segregated school. The streetcar from Plessy had made the suburbs possible. Motorized public transportation would make school integration possible.

Even though it was overruled more than fifty years ago, the Plessy case lives on in its weird way. Jefferson County which includes Louisville, Kentucky was the other District under review in the recent Supreme Court case. Many years ago, the county had responded to a desegregation order by recognizing the obvious. The city of Louisville itself was predominantly African-American. The schools just outside the city were predominantly white. They integrated the schools by treating all of Jefferson County as a single school district. The bus made it possible.

In the two generations since Brown, another change happened. The rate of interracial marriage jumped. While it was not until the mid-sixties in the case of Loving v. Virginia that the US Supreme Court formally held that forbade states to enforce anti-miscegenation laws, the social shift happened after world war 2. There are now significant numbers of Americans who are neither black nor white because they have grandparents and parents who are both. There are also considerably larger numbers of Americans who didn’t fit either mold. Asians, South-Asians, Middle-Easterners, and Hispanics immigrated to the US after racial quotas were removed from the immigration system. Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey, and Barack Obama are some of the more prominent contemporary individuals who defy racial categories. Fascinatingly though, the press tends to treat the two males, Woods and Obama, as black in much the same way that Homer Plessy was made legally “black” in his historic court challenge that off-handedly denied the Creoles the separate identity they had cherished for so many generations. Mariah Carey, the singer who is African-American, Venezuelan, and Irish, largely gets treated as if she were “white”.

In a theoretical sense, the court’s attempt to embrace the Harlan “Color Blind” dissent from Plessy v. Ferguson, actually does capture a significant shift in American society in the last century. On an individual basis, racial lines have become much more blurred and racial categories are becoming increasingly obsolete in many parts of America. In a socially-realistic sense, race does still matter though. For example, Barack Obama may not be “black”, but he gets death threats because he’s black enough for certain elements of the population. The same happened with Tiger Woods back when he won the Masters for the first time. Back in 1896, the Supreme Court stuck its collective head in the sand by embracing the theoretical notion that “separate could still be equal”, something that may have been only remotely true on railway cars but not in any other social situations where Jim Crow was implemented. By insisting on legal and literal color blindness in all school regulations, the Roberts court similarly divorced itself from reality.

In the nineties, I worked with low income high schools across the United States. With the exception of Appalachia (an interesting discussion of its own), public high schools with larger percentages of white students tend to outperform high schools with larger percentages of black and latino students. Actually, the lowest performing schools I visited in my time were those that were exclusively American Indian. In any case, I spent a fair amount of time working with schools in Chicago, D.C., and Philadelphia that were almost exclusively African-American and a lot of time with California schools that were what’s known as “majority-minority” which had kids of multiple ethnicities but virtually no middle class white students. While these programs often had very-able administrators and staff, they never seemed to have the resources they actually needed to do their job well.

At the time, Gary Orfield (his work is quoted prominently in the Breyer dissent in the Seattle case), a Harvard Professor had studied the phenomenon of re-segregation systematically. His conclusion was simple. It was becoming more rather than less likely that an African-American student in most northern cities would not have a white classmate. In general, schools that were subject to re-segregation were not as academically high achieving as their suburban counterparts. One could see the data and argue that black students simply don’t do as well as white students, but it’s much more complicated than that. The other fact is that all of the resegregating schools were low income schools. As a group, poor kids tend to have more extensive educational needs.

Bottom line, when given a choice students tend to choose whiter or at least more Asian schools. Even if the constitution is supposed to be color blind, the movement of students from one school to another is decidedly not. Actually, even more interesting, they often don’t choose schools based on race at all. A surprisingly large number of families prefer neighborhood schools even when schools outside the neighborhood are higher achieving.

For the fifty years since Brown, the question of whether or not racial integration per se improves the quality of schools has largely gone unanswered. Whether or not children learn well too often is a question that transcends any single factor. On the whole though, the sad truth remains that the average non-white child does not get comparable educational opportunities to the average white child in America.

Perhaps it’s really more the school district’s job to figure out how to do this, but the saddest thing to me about the Seattle-Louiville case is that the Court turned a color blind eye to the heart of the matter. Perhaps the remedy should be color blind, but race and perhaps more importantly income remain all too big a factor in the educational result. The simple reason I observed for this is that kids with equal needs do not receive comparable resources. For example, the chances that a suburban student with talent in a particular subject would get instruction from an experienced teacher with an advanced degree in that field are much higher than for a student in a low income urban school. The urban teacher might even earn slightly more money, but the actual human resources were sadly disparate. I did meet a number of teachers in low income schools who were exceptions to this, but on the whole this was the way it played out.

Personally, I think kids are better off attending racially integrated schools for reasons that are not traditionally academic. Everyday exposure to a broad range of individuals is educational in the broader sense. It’s one of the reasons many people have life-changing experiences either going away to college or serving in the armed forces. If it were up to me, I’d make it part of deliberate social policy. The current Supreme Court says otherwise and that may be an intellectually defensible argument.

Sadly though, the reverse-discrimination argument misses the point. By heating up the rhetoric about “racial criteria”, our culture ignores the real problem. On average, through no fault of their own, the average black or Latino student or those so identified gets an inferior public education to their average white counterpart. The Brown court remains quite right. Separate has never been equal and that inequality has always gone in one direction in America. Even if changing the racial composition of the student body is not the answer, the problem remains. We as a people must do something about it. Now that we live in a country where most of us honestly don’t know if our own grandchildren and greatgrandchildren will be black, white, or other, it’s critical that all children have the opportunity to get a quality publicly-financed education.

In the hundred years since Plessy v. Ferguson, the law has changed but the underlying educational reality may not have. Perhaps the Constitution should be as color blind as John Harlan the Older proclaimed back then, but society should be too. Before we pat ourselves on the back about the former, we need to remember that the social reality is the one that matters more than the legal reality. I’m saddened by the fact that the Roberts Court attempt to proclaim itself color blind exposed its inability to see social issues in all the complex colors that come between black and white.


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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Imperial Life in the Emerald City-Rajiv Chandrasekaran (book review)

Between teling me to access multiple levels of true awareness, my friend Mr. Pogblog has been urging me to get a copy of Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief in 2003-2004. I was something like number fifty on the waiting list at my county library for one of their eleven copies, so I wound up picking up an unabridged audio version through a promotional offer through I still hate their software, but I like the service all in all, just wish they'd widen their fiction selection. Mr. Pogblog rather likes giving advice, much of it good, and this is one of those occasions.

Eventually, some writer finds the perfect metaphor for a war. During Vietnam, David Halberstam called it the Making of a Quagmire and Frances Fitzgerald came up with Fire in the Lake, both of which had a liquid or even quicksand-filled feel that caught the "stuck" nature of that conflict. Chandrasekaran’s metaphor of the Emerald City used to describe the "safe zone" built around one of Saddam's former palaces catches the "tragic fantasy" at the heart of the Iraq war.

While one of the major subjects of debate around this war has been the matter of how real or sincere was the administration's evidence for getting us there, Chandrasekaran rather intriguingly avoids any discussion of the path to the war itself and chooses instead to portray the utter incompetence of the Administration's planning and execution of the occupation. By choosing to focus on what is meant to be the safest and most secure zone in all of Iraq, he manages to make the portrait even more disturbing.

Chandrasekaran has a very sharp eye for irony. Many of the incidents reported in the book seem like they must have sprung from some lost sequel to Joseph Heller's Catch 22. The fact that the events are real adds to the effect in a way that Heller couldn’t. Chandrasekaran’s command for irony gets established immediately in the way his unusually well written book starts not with an IED or some other page one event, but with a seemingly benign description of the food service within the Green Zone. It turns out that the most common item on the menu is some form of pork, a taboo food for Moslems.

Both due to a fear of being poisoned and the fact that food service workers have to handle so much pork, almost none of the food service workers are Iraqis despite close to forty five percent effective unemployment within Iraq. Instead, the CPA imports workers from even poorer Moslem countries like Pakistan to work the food service within the Green Zone where three times a day the workers are expected to prepare and serve food to the American occupiers there that the workers consider disgusting. Imagine if you went to work as a cook in the home of a wealthy foreign family living in your country and you discovered your job was to prepare and serve dogs and cats for them to eat every night.

Chandrasekaran takes us from the cafeteria line to a group of individuals watching news of the Iraq beyond the walls on Fox News. We learn that most of the news about Iraq itself for those within the Green Zone comes through Fox. Most of those inside never leave its secure confines and they get no native information about events. This insularity both shapes and foreshadows the many CPA mistakes chronicled in the book. For example in the name of free enterprise, the CPA decides to end tariffs on the importation of cars to Iraq. The result is an unplanned doubling of the number of vehicles in Baghdad. In a city where the major routes have already been blocked off and rerouted for security reasons, the streets of the city suddenly are beset with gridlock so extreme that it impedes the capacity of the local police or the Americans to patrol the streets themselves. A CPA official responds by gamely trying to write a traffic code for Iraq based on the state of Maryland's. Unfortunately, there are no reliable police nor is there an effective court system to implement the new traffic code. Drivers simply begin ignoring any rules or signs and formerly law abiding individuals routinely drive on the sidewalk to aovid traffic.

Perhaps the most damning theme in the book is the way in which the CPA repeatedly ignore competence and expertise in favor of partisan loyalty. At the beginning of the occupation any number of individuals with actual expertise are taken off the job simply because they are connected to the State Department instead of the Department of Defense or simply because they need to make way for young repeatedly inexperienced campaign staffers who come to Iraq to further their careers. It wasn't intended that way, but Imperial Life offers an interesting perspective on the U.S. Attorney firings scandal and the Gonzales Justice Department. The consistent preference for ideology over competence within the CPA is identical to descriptions of the current justice department.

Among the more celebrated anecdotes is the removal of individuals with actual experience on Wall Street in favor of a twenty four year old with no business experience to take on the task of bringing a "free market" institutional structure to the Iraqi economy. The young man sets out to build a New York style computerized commodity exchange complete with rules and regulations in four months with no staff and no knowledge of existing Iraqi business practices or sociology. He finds several locals to work the new planned exchange and totally misses the fact that every person he's hired to be the caretakers for the new Iraqi economy is a Sunni. Once the young man leaves, Chandrasekeran asks an Iraqi businessman what difference it made and the man answers, "Without the CPA we would have had a working system up in a matter of days."

Even more poignant, an Iraqi man returns from Italy and attempts to open an authentic pizza place just outside the Green Zone as a real expression of faith in the promised free enterprise friendly new American order in Baghdad. There are no customers because no Americans ever leave the Green Zone and all of their needs are taken care of inside the walls where market competition does not exist.

While Chandrasekaran does not argue whether the American strategy in Iraq would have worked. He makes it clear that whatever chance there was for it to work was completely wasted by the Administration and the CPA’s failures. Perhaps the deepest irony is that whatever efficiency the free market offers comes from the fact that incompetence ultimately has its price. In the allegedly "market" and "democracy" friendly American occupation of Iraq, the opposite is the case. After multiple mistakes on the path to elections and a constitution there, L. Paul Bremer and the administration celebrate their symbolic success when in fact they have sown the seeds of the sectarian struggle that dooms Iraq to several more years of internal violence and thousands of American deaths.

Imperial Life In the Emerald City may be the most devastating critique of Donald Rumsfeld, J. A. Bremer, and the Bush Administration's adventure in Iraq. Written with a fiction writer’s touch and a journalist’s accuracy, it ruthlessly exposes the unimaginable incompetence of an administration so blinded by ideology and insulated from reality that tragedy becomes inevitable. At the end of the first of the Oz books, the Wizard who runs the Emerald City turns out to be a meek little man behind a curtain. The saddest part about this Emerald City is that we saw the man behind the curtain all along and even re-elected him after all of this was known or should have been known. Imperial Life in the Emerald City will stand alongside Fire in the Lake as a portrait of American power stumbling on its own pride.

Simply put, Imperial Life tells us who really failed to support the troops in the most basic way. It makes it crystal clear that the Bush Administration made their job on Iraq both more difficult and more dangerous.


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Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq June 2007

photo by Brian Mullennix

Have you ever had someone try to sell you something and you figure out about five minutes in that he or she is embarrassed to be selling it? Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq 2007, the Pentagon's report to Congress on how well our money's being spent there reads like that. For our hundred billion dollars a year, the Pentagon tells us that progress there is mixed at best. In fact the most positive news they appear to have is that sectarian attacks in Baghdad are down and that "confidence" in the Iraqi government's ability to improve matters has gone up? It doesn't take long to read a bit further and find out that the total number of violent attacks in Iraq as a whole and Baghdad itself have gone up since the "surge" started or that the Iraqi government has been able to manage little to no progress in taking any meaningful steps towards national reconciliation.

In fact, the whole report is "yes buts" For instance, one learns that the Iraqi budget allocated a large amount of money to improving oil production and distribution, but for various reasons has only been able to execute three percent of its budget for improving the oil infrastructure. Oil produuction, the key economic factor in stabilizing the Iraqi econiomy for the last year has been basically flat. Significant numbers of police units often don't have their full allocation of critical equipment. One of the promises in the report is that the government is undertaking a one hundred percent inventory review of all units to determine what equipment is really available.

Electricity production also has not improved in the last twelve months across the country. It's been reported that there's a critical shortage of hospital equipment and capacity. It hasn't been reported as widely that the Sadrists control the ministry of health and thus most of the hospitals. It's not unusual for individuals to be denied medical care for sectarian reasons.

I reviewed last year's version of this report and the story really hasn’t changed much. For example, they mention that more than a three hundred thousand people have been trained either for the army or the police, but never tell us how many trained men are actually available for military service. Instead we learn that most Iraqi army units are at about sixty five percent strength at any time, because they don't have a trustworthy pay disbursement system in place. Soldiers frequently go AWOL or take extended leaves to take their pay home and make sure it gets to their families. The Iraqi police report suggests that anywhere from thirty to seventy percent of those trained are not available for service.

Similarly, one of the oil production issues is that those who work in the distribution system are literally siphoning off oil and selling it on the black market. One consequence of De Baathification has been that the country has had to rebuild all of its distribution and administration systems from scratch.

Two of my favorite items from the last report are back. The Iraqi air force has a handful of helicopters but a year later none of them are operational. One metric that hit the popular press last year was that the Iraqi army had something like two divisions that were capable of operating fully independently. Instead of breaking out that number again, the Pentagon now only reports that there are more than forty Iraqi units in the lead with minimal coalition support copmared to thirty four a year ago.

What's this mean for a possible withdrawal? At the current rate of improvement, we're looking at a minimum of ten years before Iraqi units can come close to taking the lead in anything resembling sufficient numbers to deal with the current level of violence in the country. Throughout the report, the Pentagon tells congress that measures have been "partially effective" or "limited progress has been made".

Some of the items are so frightening, they're laughable. The agricultural section of the report mentions that the war has left the country's irrigation system in complete disrepepair and that the soil has become increasingly saline which has led to even lower crop yields. What's the good news? The US is developing a consortium of US Universities to develop an agricultural extension program in Iraq. In other words, millions of dollars are going to US Universities to tell Iraqi farmers how to fix their fields. As for getting them equipment and experts on the ground, well there's no mention of that in the report. This is hauntingly similar to one of the anecdotes in the excellent "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" about a University in Hawaii getting millions of dollars from the Coalition Provisional Authority to consult with Iraqis on the topic of tropical plants.

Another favorite measure of mine is the "number of tips" about possible terrorist violence getting to the authorities. The report mentions that this has continued to grow and suggests that this is a sign of greater cooperation among the general public. The problem is that this number more or less exactly tracks the growth in the number of violent incidents. There are more tips because there is more violent activity to report. Even the most positive statistic in the report, the drop of sectarian violence in Iraq misses the fact that the killings drop in what we know as the winter months and go up sharply in the spring. The report fails to note that the violence may be cyclical and that the downturn may be the result of a natural drop with a subsequent rise in the spring. As recently as a month ago, one general was quoted as saying that some forty percent of Baghdad, the focus of the surge, is still not under control.

As I read this year's version of the report, it strikes me that the military is all but begging to get out of this thing. There are for instance no suggestions that more troops or more money will improve matters. While they do mention that the surge is not complete, the report declines to name a number or a strategy that would transform what it calls "partial progress" into sustained improvement. Our own Department of Defense is giving Congress a far bleaker picture of the situation than either the Administration or many members of Congress acknowledge. What's going on? Measuring Stability is a very public document specifically addressed to Congress. Why are so many members of Congress willing to keep paying for a war without either demanding better results than this or insisting on some different or better strategy? Why is there so little mention of the content of this document in the media?

One of the sad things to me is that the public during both Vietnam and Iraq has seriously monitored only one measure of the cost of either war, the number of dead American soliders. In both cases, the President announced a withdrawal plan that prominently counted on the capacity of either Vietnam or Iraq to take care of its own security and economic needs. For some odd reason, the public never seriously looks at the very clear data about how well that's going.
Even a casual read of Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq will reveal the bad news. At the current rate, it's going to be decades before Iraq is sufficiently stable to allow the US to withdraw. If this is what the Pentagon's own report is essentially telling us, just imagine what’s left out.


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