Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Poor treatment for 'heroes'

ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff, himself injured in an explosion while covering the war in Iraq, reported last night on the Veterans Administration's shortcomings in dealing with military personnel who are returning home. Coming as this does just days after the Washington Post's devastating look at the treatment of outpatients at Walter Reed Hospital, the Defense Department's flagship facility, it is a shameful indictment of how America treats the same people that are frequently called "heroes" when it is politically expedient.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Reality TV?

"Jack Bauer is a criminal," according to Gary Solis, a retired West Point law professor. "In real life, he would be prosecuted." Solis speaks, of course, about the character played by Kiefer Sutherland on Fox television's wildly successful program, 24. His comments are part of an article in the Feb. 19 issue of The New Yorker that discusses the portrayal of torture on the show and profiles Joel Surnow, co-creator and executive producer of 24.

Surnow appears to be an egotistical, empty-headed loudmouth -- though I'm sure people who lean to the right could read the piece, which is called "Whatever It Takes," and was written by Jane Mayer, and come away feeling that Surnow is an outspoken defender of all that is good. The part of the article that is most interesting, however, is the middle third, when Mayer discusses a visit to the set of 24 by Gen. Patrick Finnegan, the dean of West Point. Along with Finnegan were "three of the most experienced military and FBI interrogators in the country," and the group came to "voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers."

Yikes. It's a scary thought, but according to Finnegan and others, 24 is quite popular among cadets at West Point as well as soldiers in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan, where DVDs of the program circulate widely. One interrogation expert, who was deployed overseas, said, "People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.” He added, "In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence." The FBI expert said, "Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don't want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems."

On TV, Jack Bauer is always presented with the "ticking bomb scenerio," in which getting key information from the bad guys immediately can prevent the loss of thousands or millions of lives. The truth is more complex. First, that situation rarely, if ever, happens. Second, torture rarely, if ever, gets usable information from suspects. In the context of those facts, is it then worthwhile to follow a course that will, in the end, produce little information, eventually scar the interrogator and, as Gen. Finnegan added in the story, hurts America's image around the world?

For his part, Sutherland is said to be upset at the possible fallout from the actions of his character and also "bored with playing torture scenes." He has condemned the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as "absolutely criminal," and is being asked to appear personally at West Point or in a training film to emphasize that his show is purely entertainment and should not be emulated. Surnow, of course, said, "They say that torture doesn't work, but I don't believe them." I disagree with his position, but what infuriates me is the arrogance of a person who dismisses the input of others -- as well as facts and figures -- so callously. The army interrogation expert said, "They have this money-making machine, and we were telling them it's immoral." Unfortunately, the first half of that assessment is the only part that carries any weight.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Too many cooks?

The Associated Press has a story today about polygamy amongst the ancestors of Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is a top-tier Republican candidate for president, and if elected would be the first Mormon to serve as Chief Executive. Though the LDS church has publicly condemned polygamy since 1890, the practice was widespread for a long time after that and today there are still at least 35,000 Americans living in communities where polygamy is widely accepted -- and there may be thousands more involved in such relationships.

What does all this have to do with Romney? He is, after all, married to one woman and he disassociates himself from polygamy. One has to go back into the great-grandfathers and beyond to find Romney forefathers who had more than a single wife. While Mitt himself should not be guilty by association, I'm guessing that a lot of Christians will be wary of voting for a Mormon, and the main reason will be that religion's association with polygamy. I think, therefore, that Romney's candidacy is already doomed.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Red storm

It's February, pro football players are still cleaning mud off their cleats, spring training has barely begun and the local media is already filled with stories about the Red Sox. Dice-K, Manny and now Curt Schilling, who is, as always, shooting his mouth off. Props to Dan Shaugnessy, who today refers to Schilling as "The Big Blowhard." Shaughnessy notes that he is never at a loss of material when reporting on the Sox: "Covering this team is like doing layup drills on an 8-foot rim." In other words, you can't miss.

I've been quite disillusioned with professional sports for years now, only really giving my attention -- and only a bit of it -- to the Sox. There are too many other interesting, cool, funny, engaging and important things going on in the world, so it is hard for me to watch grown men acting like fools, whether owners or players.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Examining our lives

I took part, last evening, in a philosophical discussion with 40 or more others at a bookstore in Somerville. The Davis Square Philosophy Cafe meets on the third Tuesday of each month at McIntyre & Moore, and yesterday's topic was "Evolution Extended: What Kind of Creatures Should We Become?" Our group focused on whether human beings should be allowed to augment their bodies and minds using new sciences and technologies. The discussion was lively, and I offered my thoughts on the negative consequences of technology on our society to date.

Such philosophical discussions -- often called Socrates Cafes after the title of a recent book encouraging their creation -- are springing up around the country. There are monthly meetings in Cambridge and Chelmsford, and when I was living in Maine I attended one in South Portland. I have often dreamed of hosting some type of salon -- gatherings of people to discuss ideas, politics and art like those popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. We should, I think, look more closely at ourselves, our relationship to others and to the universe. "The unexamined life," Socrates said, "is not worth living."

A walk in the marsh

In my attempt to live a more Thoreauvian lifestyle, I've been going for a walk each day. Yesterday I spent some time at the Belle Isle Marsh Reservation, ambling about and taking some photographs. Belle Isle, which straddles the borders of East Boston, Winthrop and Revere, is a salt marsh, and the water levels rise and fall with the tides. It's also beneath a flight approach for Logan Airport, which is less than a mile away from the marsh. When the wind is blowing from the northeast, aircraft will come in quite low over Belle Isle at the rate of about one per minute.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


From French writer and philosopher Voltaire, a few words that can be applied to the history of some religions, as well as to America’s current situation in Iraq: “If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.”

British statistician and economist E.F. Schumacher wrote: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction.”

And finally, writer Kurt Vonnegut keenly observed: “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”

The honeymoon is a-wasting

Writers for both of Boston's dailies -- Alan Lupo in the Herald and Brian McGrory in the Globe -- attempt to restart and refocus Deval Patrick's administration today, and with good reason. I'm a Democrat and I voted for Patrick. I still think that he is a better choice than Kerry Healey and four more years of Republican rule, but in the opening seven weeks the new governor has made several missteps and not a lot of smart steps.

Let's get going, gov.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Presidents Day trivial thought

Ever notice the resemblance between our third president, Thomas Jefferson, and the actor Robert Redford? I've long felt that Redford should have played the great statesman at some point in his career.

Tube talk

No one working in television that I am aware of writes like Aaron Sorkin. While he was at the rudder of The West Wing the show was brilliant -- rivaled only by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I kid you not.) I recently borrowed from a friend DVDs of Sorkin's previous TV series, Sports Night, and if I can get my DVD player hooked up I hope to watch that program soon.

Currently, Sorkin is the force behind another show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and while it might be a bit short of The West Wing at that show's height -- though the episode "Nevada Day, Part 1" was damn close -- Studio 60 is witty, lively, moving and funny. Check it out Mondays at 10 on NBC.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Musical restaurants

O'Naturals -- a healthy fast-food eatery -- was quite popular in Portland, Maine, while I was living there. I ate there at least once a week. The food was good and affordable, and the place was right in the center of the city. There was a second location in nearby Falmouth, Maine, and in the spring of 2005 O'Naturals came to Massachusetts with a restaurant in Somerville, in what used to be a Carberry's, just outside Davis Square.

Well, I noticed today that the location is now occupied by Boloco, a Boston-based burrito chain. I had visited the Somerville O'Naturals a couple of times and definitely felt it lacking in the atmosphere that is apparent in Portland. Seems I wasn't the only one. Too bad. I was hoping they could recapture that spark.

There is another Massachusetts location in Acton, and also one, strangely, in Wichita, Kansas.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

This just in...

I am totally up to speed on the ins and outs of Anna Nicole's posthumous legal tussles and Britney's shorn locks, despite my lack of interest in either. One would have to be cut off from every form of media not to be. The cult of celebrity has probably always existed, but it has reached absurd and revolting levels in the past 20 years. Diana was probably killed by it, and individuals such as Michael Jackson and Lindsay Lohan are chewed up and spit out by it.

Meanwhile, people around the world are hungry, homeless, sick, tortured and ignored, but you want find much, if any, of that on the evening news.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Mack the nitwit

Florida Congressman Connie Mack should shut his yap regarding Citizens Energy, Joe Kennedy's non-profit company that provides low-cost heating oil to the elderly and the poor. Mack called the recent Citizens television commercial -- in which Kennedy thanks "our good friends in Venezuela" for the cheap oil provided by Citgo, which is owned by the Venezuelan government -- propaganda.

Mack is upset because Venezuela's leader, Hugo Chavez, doesn't make nice with the US. He even called George W. Bush "the devil" at the UN last year. No one is saying that we all have to agree with Chavez's socialist politics when we purchase his oil.

I'm sure that if Mack were up here in hearty New England and unable to pay his heating bill, he'd refuse the oil from Venezuela, right? Just like he refuses gasoline from Saudi Arabia, which is run by corrupt extremists, or Russia, controlled by the tyrant Putin.

Police warn women in Eastie

East Boston has a relatively low crime rate, but one or more guys is going around the community groping women, according to today's Boston Globe. The article says that most of the attacks happened near the Airport subway station, but they are scattered throughout the Eagle Hill and "flats" areas of the neighborhood. Ladies, beware.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lynn, Lynn, city of...latte?

An article in today's Globe mentions three food establishments owned by couples, one here in East Boston; one in Davis Square, Somerville, which I frequent; and the third in Lynn, which I don't live in or frequent, but that is the one of the three that I've been to ... a couple of times, actually.

The Lynn location is the Gulu-Gulu Cafe and it's pretty cool. They also have a nice web site. There aren't too many spots north of Eastie to get a latte and an equal dose of funkiness within a 20 minute drive, so a place like Gulu-Gulu is welcome.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sorry Gipper

Ronald Reagan cut taxes for the rich, grew the deficit and supported ruthless dictators around the world. He was not a good president, and I am with Deval on this one.

Manny being...oh, who cares?

Dan Shaugnessy has got this one right: There are few real heroes in the Sports section. The incident he writes about is covered in a Globe story from yesterday that sounds much like a Mike Barnicle column from about 20 years ago that I was so moved by I clipped it out and used it in the classroom for years. One difference: In yesterday's fire in Roxbury the three children were rescued, but two boys and their sister -- all under the age of 7 -- died in the other conflagration despite valient attempts to save them.

I ran into Mike Barnicle about three years ago. We chatted briefly and then I asked him about that particular column. He remembered the incident and even the name of the firefighter that he focused on, which was cool.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Bees or not bees? A serious question

No one is sure why, but honeybees in America are dying according to a story on and that is terrible news. Of course, I will be quite angry when the price of honey skyrockets as a result, but there are other consequences if the little social buzzers meet their demise: Many plants -- including those that produce fruit and drugs -- need to be pollinated.

Maybe it's some side effect of global climate change or industrial pollution, or maybe it's a non-native mite or disease, but whatever the cause let's hope it doesn't wipe out all of the honeybees in the US. Not only will a catastrophe such as that cause a number of problems, but it could be a canary in our collective coal mine.

Bush fails returning soldiers

Kings, fuhrers and presidents have, throughout history, sent people off to die in misguided wars. I don't know much about the effects of such an experience for soldiers of the Roman Empire or Attila's Huns, but in America in the 21st century we all know that men and women return home with a great deal of physical and emotional difficulties as a result of being in battle.

It's unconscionable, then, that our government should not be prepared to offer the necessary services that our military people need and deserve when they come home, but that is what often happens and there is a Boston Globe story today about the sad result for one young man.

It seems like a tax cut for the well off is more important to George W. Bush than taking care of the people that he put in harm's way.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Good, bad and ugly

Is morality taught to us or is it ingrained in our genes? That is part of the research being done by a Harvard psychologist and discussed in a recent Globe story.

I'm always impressed when I see cars stopped at a red light late at night when there is clearly no traffic coming across an intersection and no law enforcement around. It's proof that our society is holding together by some shared sense of right and wrong. On the other hand, when young people march off to fight in a war without questioning their elected leaders, I feel like there is too much blind subservience to authority in our world.

Some would say, of course, that morality is handed to us by a higher power, but I long ago gave up ascribing credit or blame -- or anything else -- to anything except physics, chemistry and the machinations of human beings.

Friday, February 9, 2007

'Surge' in civilian deaths?

The funny thing about bombs is that they don't restrict themselves to blowing up bad guys. Actually, it's not funny, it's sad -- and horrific and shameful.

The American military says that an air strike Thursday killed 13 insurgents, but Iraqi officials said that 45 civilians died in the attack. The actual numbers are likely some combination of those two, but there is no justification for innocent people dying because they happen to be near the targeted individuals.

The photo shows a boy reportedly injured in the attack. Reporters on the scene also saw the bodies of children killed by the air strike. But hey, we could all do what US Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt suggested Americans do when they see images of dead Iraqi civilians on TV: "Change the channel."

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Prescription nation

How can a 2-year-old child be diagnosed as being bipolar and having ADHD? That's what happened to Rebecca Riley. At the age of 4 the little girl from Hingham was being given large doses of prescription meds, which eventually killed her in December. Riley's parents are now charged with her death and the girl's doctor is being investigated by the state medical board.

In America we focus on the use of illegal drugs when it seems that the legal stuff is causing just as many problems. Why do our young people need to be on so many meds? Does the clout and ubiquity of the pharmaceutical industry have anything to do with it? Didn't we survive as a species for 200,000 years using natural herbs instead of these manufactured pills?

Look at the recent comments by a Tufts doctor on the subject of multivitamins that so many people take. There seems to be little evidence that they work. As is true with most health-related issues, the bottom line is to eat your vegetables, go easy on the meat, drink in moderation, don't smoke and exercise regularly.

Sunday, February 4, 2007


I don't remember hearing that Congress moved Daylight Savings Time up four weeks back in 2005, but the new alignment goes into effect this year in just over a month and there's a story in today's Globe that talks about the ramifications. It's no Y2K -- hell, Y2K was no Y2K -- but the new shift could cause some small glitches.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

It's no theory

Global warming is not just a theory. Ask the stranded polar bears in the photo ... and ask them quickly because the life span of their species in the wild can probably measured in decades. The scientific world is still trying to convince the political world, however, which means we are probably doomed.

'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.'

Real, natural, unprocessed food. It's what's for dinner. Or, at least, should be for all of us. This New York Times story talks about an area I've thought a great deal about in recent years.

It's a long article, but what is more important than what we eat? Note especially the nine rules at the end of the piece. One of them is, "Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food."

This is who they are

Despite all Massport's warm and fuzzy talk about being a good neighbor, the reality is much different. Take a look at this story about a woman nearly beaten to death on Massport property.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

His name is Clint

In recent days I saw the film Unforgiven for the first time since its theatrical release in 1992, and I think I'm even more impressed now with its deconstruction of the mythology of the West. If you have yet to see the movie, I recommend it. Be cautioned, however, that Unforgiven takes quite a dark view of the world.

Late in the film, which took the Oscar for Best Picture, a young cowboy says of a man that he just killed, "He had it coming, right?" Clint Eastwood's grizzled and weary gunslinger pauses, looks out over the landscape and says, "We've all got it coming, kid."