March 28, 2007

The Dog is Starting to Wag

The U.S. has two aircraft carrier groups in the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Iran. It is the largest U.S. "show of force" in the region since 2003. At the same time, Iran has seized 15 British Royal Navy sailors in the Persian Gulf, and is holding them hostage. How long will it be before shooting begins in the U.S. War against Iran?

I would not be surprised to see a joint U.S./Britain military "hostage rescue mission" against Iran as soon as Karl Rove determines that the Bush Administration scandals, many of which Rove is deeply involved in, reach the breaking point. The latest such scandals, which are coming fast and furious, include the firings of U.S. attorneys orchestrated by the White House and the Justice Department, the FBI's misuse of the Patriot Act to illegally spy on U.S. citizens, and the General Services Administration's law-breaking video conference with Rove deputy Scott Jennings to bolster Republican candidates for Congress.

That breaking point could be any day now.

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March 26, 2007

Getting Bombed Again in Dresden

Last Saturday night, I satisfied my penchant for retro at one of the meccas of retro.The Dresden Room has been a Los Angeles staple since the 1950s, and has been featured in the films "Swingers" and "That Thing You Do." The interior of the Dresden Room looks like a Vegas lounge that has not been refurbished in decades. On one side is a brightly lit dining room with round white leather seating booths. But most of the activity takes place on the other side of the art deco frosted glass. There, one is surrounded by dark wood, hanging wrought iron lamps, and a stone wall that could have been lifted from the Brady Bunch's living room. On either side of the stone, dark cork lines the walls.

The Dresden Room crowd has a retro sensibility to match the interior of the place. Many of the women wear vintage print dresses. Some of the guys wear fedoras or porkpie hats. One woman has a silver razor blade hanging from her neck, reminscent of a 1970s Studio 54 clubgoer. We find seats at the bar and turn to face into the room, which seems like a good idea, until people start packing in and standing right in front of us. The drinks are pouring and the conversations grow loud. The cork on the walls is not doing its job. The Dresden Room begins to take on the appearance of a hen house.

Luckily, we are saved by the Dresden Room's key attraction: musical duo Marty and Elayne. Made famous in their appearance in "Swingers" and a regular act at the Dresden Room since 1982, Marty and Elayne personify the term "lounge lizards." Marty walks into the bar dressed in a black caftan style shirt with gold trim and, as Borat would say, "sleeve of wizard." He moves a table that is inches out of place. Then he takes a seat at the drum kit. Next to him is an array of keyboards that juts into the middle of the room. Around the curve of the piano is a small bar where patrons can sit and listen to Elayne, a birdlike woman with a flashy silver and black outfit and jet black hair matching Marty's.

Accompanied by an upright bass player who does not share Marty and Elayne's hair dye habit, the duo launch into "The Lady is a Tramp" followed by "The Best is Yet to Come." They share vocal duties, with Elayne scat singing in a heavenly falsetto to accompany her keyboard notes. But then their playlist becomes as random as my iPod on shuffle. Elayne sings the opening lines of "I Will Survive." By the end of the song, she has given this disco classic a psychedelic twist, using her entire body to wring from the keyboards a heavy metal solo that would make Deep Purple jealous.

Afterward, Marty and Elayne shift gears again for "Copacabana." I catch the following conversation from the clucking hens standing in front of us:

Girl #1: "Copa -- do you know it?"
Girl #2: "A Mexico beach?"
Girl #1: "No, it's in fucking Rio!"
Girl #2: "I knew that!"

I didn't have the patience to tell them that the song is about a New York City night club that shares the name, but not much else, with the beach in Rio.

My one "Swingers" moment occurs when the woman I am with returns from the ladies room to find a guy standing up against the front of her bar stool. I tap him twice on the back of the shoulder and say "Can you move a little? She needs more room." He turns and gives me a menacing look. But instead of us pointing guns and exchanging epithets, as happened in the nearby rear parking lot in "Swingers," he replies: "You know, you could have said that in a nicer way." Apparently, life does not always imitate art, and this time, I'm glad for it.

Maybe one day, someone will write a song about the Dresden. Maybe someone already has.

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March 23, 2007

Car Sticker Spotted in Southern California

Here's a ribbon-shaped car sticker I have not seen before: "Support Farting".

Oddly enough, this SUV had New Jersey plates.

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March 20, 2007

Then They Came for the Comedians

I have been a Bill Maher fan ever since he told one of the greatest jokes of all time:

"I was raised half Jewish and half Catholic. So I went to confession, but I brough an attorney along. I'd say 'Bless me, father, for I have sinned -- and you know Mr. Cohen here.'"

In recent years, Maher has taken up edgy topical and political humor. Maher caused a huge controversy in 2002 when, on his appropriately named ABC program "Politically Incorrect," he said a most politically incorrect thing in reference to the 9/11 terrorists being labeled "cowards":

"We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly. Stupid maybe, but not cowardly."

Afterward, ABC did not renew Maher's contract.

I do not subscribe to HBO, but am able to watch it occasionally at friends' homes. Recently, on Maher's new HBO program "Real Time With Bill Maher," guest Dan Rather said that, as television networks have been taken over by entertainment executives, news has become an unwanted stepchild. These executives view news as an unprofitable nuisance, whereas entertainment programming is profitable. As a result, according to Rather, so-called "entertainment news," such as the endless coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death, has taken over the news. Rather also said that, at major newspapers, the relationship between the executives and journalists and the government officials they cover has become too cozy. As a result, Rather said, journalists have too often permitted government officials to escape wrongdoing with insufficient scrutiny. Rather said that it was now left to comedians such as Bill Maher and John Stewart to "speak truth to power."

I agree with Dan Rather, and would add a couple of observations. First, as I have mentioned before, as someone who has worked for and with cable television networks such as CNN for years, I think that one reason for the explosion of "entertainment news" is that the cable networks have 24 hours a day to fill, and, in the minds of their executives, there isn't that much real news going on. These executives also believe that the public has no appetite for "hard news" all day long. This view becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I have no doubt that opinion surveys support the decision to air celebrity gossip and other fluff on the news networks.

I also agree with Rather's point about speaking truth to power. A lot of evidence emerged in the Scooter Libby trial that well-known newspaper journalists and columnists such as Robert Novak and Judith Miller sometimes act as uncritical stenographers for high-level government officials who, by waving the prospect of exclusive access to juicy scoops, use these reporters to leak their message behind a cloak of anonymity and legitimacy.

It seems to me that, aside from comedians such as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Chris Rock, there are too few brave souls who are willing to deliver to Americans the information we need to make informed decisions on where to take our country. (Incidentally, as Maher's remark about the 9/11 terrorists indicates, he is happy to criticize powerful Democrats and Republicans alike). That this duty is now left to the comedians, who by definition need to package their information to be funny and entertaining, is a pretty sad commentary on the direction in which we have headed. Although Dan Rather did not mention it, perhaps the blogosphere also serves this critical function that the news organizations have increasingly abandoned. If so, we have reason to be hopeful.

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March 15, 2007

Accent Neutralization, Cultural Awareness and Two Bucks Will Get You a Ride on the Subway

Here are the conversations I have had with the customer service representatives at a major airline while trying to change a cross-country flight reservation to return one day later:

First conversation:
(After long hold time)
Me: I have a reservation with you and would like to return on April 22 instead of April 21. (I'm put on hold while CSR in India searches for flights).
CSR in India: No problem, we have seats available on several flights that day.
Me: Really? When I first made the reservation yesterday, I was told there were no seats available on April 22. I'd be surprised if there were suddenly so many seats available that day.
CSR: Oh, April 22? I was checking March 22.
Click. (The sound of me hanging up).

Second conversation:
(After long hold time)
Me: I have a reservation with you and would like to return on April 22 instead of April 21. (I'm put on hold while CSR in ?? searches for flights).
CSR: I am tranferring you now to the reissue desk.
Me: What? I don't have anything to reissue. I told you, I have a reservation, not a ticket.
Click. (Me hanging up again).

Third conversation:
(After long hold time)
Me: I have a blah blah blah. (I'm put on hold while CSR in India yada yada yada).
CSR: We have a first class seat available. That's what you have now, right?
Me: Yes.
CSR: But wait .... We don't have Class A, B or F available.
Me: I don't know what that means. Do you have a first class seat available on the other flight or not?
CSR: I'm sorry ... It's my first week on the job.

Next step -- I send an email to the airline's customer service department, complaining about the incompetence of their reservation agents. A short while later, I receive this reply:

"We have several vendor partnerships which enable us to become more efficient and as a result, strengthen our long-term viability. These partnerships help us
effectively handle the millions of calls received each year. Our partners receive the same training and are equipped with the same tools as [airline name] representatives. In addition, we require supplier personnel to attend ongoing accent neutralization and cultural awareness classes to minimize barriers and provide you with the excellent service you deserve. Your comments are appreciated and will be forwarded to the department responsible for our partner relationships."

My reply:

"It seems that, in 2 out of 3 cases, your CSR did a poor job of listening to me. This doesn't seem to increase "efficiency," I'm sure you would agree. Perhaps instead of cultural awareness and accent neutrality, your CSRs should be trained in more basic skills, such as listening to what the customer is saying."

So the CSRs from other countries are being trained to say "like," "okay" and "dude," and to ask about the Red Sox and the Redskins and the Red Wings, instead of learning the fundamentals of customer service. I for one do not plan to bet on the airline's "long term viability" by buying its stock, or, in the future, its tickets.

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March 12, 2007

Show Us Some Pink

If you are looking for the latest trend from California, I found one that is relatively cheap, flavorful and possibly even good for you.
Pinkberry is a small but growing chain of frozen yogurt shops that are unlike any you have ever seen.

One thing that distinguishes Pinkberry is its Asian connection. Its founders are reportedly Korean-Americans Hyekyung Hwang and Young Lee. Pinkberry operates a store in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, as well as about 11 stores in Southern California and one in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan. They plan to add more stores in the near future. Pinkberry's concept is supposedly reminiscent of the Red Mango frozen yogurt chain in Korea. The decor is Asian Modern, with glossy plastic orange, white and green surfaces, plastic furniture, and under-lit shelves full of cute colorful objects that look like they come from the Alessi catalog.

But Pinkberry’s true claim to fame, and possible health angle, is that its frozen yogurt is made from “real” yogurt, i.e., using cultured milk aged with a type of bacteria. As a result, Pinkberry's frozen yogurt has the sour taste found in real yogurt. However, one has some control over the taste and overall health of one's dish, as toppings range from fresh blueberries and blackberries to carob chips to mochi (Japanese sticky rise) to Fruity Pebbles cereal. Moreover, Pinkberry's product contains sugar, even without toppings. I have eaten Pinkberry's plain yogurt twice, first with carob chips and then with blueberries. Since I don't like the taste of regular yogurt, I was slightly off-put at first. The carob chips or some other topping were a necessity. By the second tasting, however, I enjoyed it much more.

Although I like the taste of Pinkberry and it is more natural than the gloop coming from the machines of other so-called "frozen yogurt" outlets, there are two impediments to my becoming a "crackberry" addict. First, the store near me often has a line way out the door. Second, the parking situation there is abysmal. Of the few spaces in front of the store, a high percentage are marked "compact" and then taken over by behemoth SUVs, rendering the adjoining spaces practically unusable.

This might be a good thing; otherwise, my weight might skyrocket from too much of Pinkberry's whipped, Fruity-Pebbled health food.

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March 08, 2007

The Springer Show

Who knew that a trip to Chik-Fil-A would reverberate seven months later? Last August, an impromptu stop in Silver Spring, Maryland led to a blog post about how downtown Silver Spring's redevelopment appeared to lean heavily on chain stores and astroturf. I was not prepared for the Jerry Springer Show-style firestorm that ensued. First, I was barraged by angry commenters who fiercely defended Silver Spring. They named a few local businesses in order to demonstrate that downtown Silver Spring was not as I had described it. Some of the commenters went after me for living in nearby Chevy Chase, a posh shopping area with many non-local businesses of its own. One such commenter said that Silver Spring, but not Chevy Chase, had a "Pirate Bar." Apparently, at the Pirate Bar (correct name: Piratz Tavern), one is greeted by parrots on shoulders, peg legs, and lots of "Arrrggghhhss!" I'm thinking Judge Reinhold as Brad Hamilton in the movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Next, the Washington Post Express picked up and ran the blog battle over Silver Spring in its pages and online. Then, someone who blogs about Silver Spring bashed my post on his blog, even though his own description of his blog called Silver Spring "nowhere." If memory serves me, this blogger repeated his criticisms with a link to me in at least one subsequent blog post.

Since then, I have left Chevy Chase for sunny California. However, the specter of Silver Spring continues to haunt. Today, another blog about Silver Spring mentions three new businesses opening in town, and concludes that "the buildup of new independent businesses just in the past week is contrary to those who protest that Silver Spring is loosing [sic] its independent businesses or is engulfed by national chains." The phrase "engulfed by national chains" was hyperlinked back to my original August 2006 post. The new post today is receiving more comments, including some by a poster with the name IHateYuppies.

It's funny and surprising when you find out which blog posts cause controversy and which do not. I wish that some of my posts about truly important issues, such as the Iraq War and illegal activities by Bush Administration officials, caused as extensive and as passionate a reaction as posts about Pirate Bars.

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March 06, 2007

You See Libby Libby Libby on the Cable Cable Cable

Dick Cheney's former Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, was found guilty today of four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice in covering up Cheney's role in the CIA leak scandal. Here's the brief background (an extensive background can be found here): in October 2001, a month after 9/11, intelligence reports surfaced in Italy that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Niger. Cheney asked that the CIA check out the reports. The CIA sent former ambassador Joe Wilson to Niger in February 2002. Wilson found no truth to the uranium story, and reported his findings to his superiors. These findings, and Wilson's identity as the envoy to Niger, were not made public. However, nearly a year later, in his 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush repeated the false claim about Iraq's attempt to purchase uranium from Niger. This was at a time when Bush, Cheney, Libby and other administration officials were trying to sell the idea of a war against Iraq to the American people and the world, with Iraq's possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction the centerpiece of the sales job. Less than two months later, the U.S. invaded Iraq. In July 2003, Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times identifying himself as the envoy to Niger, repeating his findings that there was no evidence of an Iraqi attempt to purchase uranium from Niger, and concluding that Bush's false claim to the contrary means that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." Eight days later, Robert Novak published a syndicated column stating that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, was a CIA operative specializing in WMD. Valerie Plame Wilson's CIA employment was classified, meaning it was secret. With her cover blown, Valerie Wilson had to resign from the CIA.

During Libby's trial, we learned that Cheney directed Libby in an operation to discredit Joe Wilson, and what they could come up with was that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had suggested that Wilson be chosen for the Niger trip. Cheney instructed Libby to speak to various reporters, and told Libby specifically what to say in order to try to discredit Wilson. Apparently, Cheney felt that, if nepotism was behind Wilson's trip, Wilson's conclusions would be discredited. Or perhaps Cheney wanted to plant the suggestion that Valerie Wilson and her husband Joe were against the idea of invading Iraq from the start, and cooked up the idea of Wilson's going to Niger after already deciding to find no evidence of the Iraq-Niger uranium connection. No evidence was ever presented of such a bias on the part of the Wilsons.

The jury found that Libby committed perjury and obstructed justice when telling federal investigators that, rather than finding out about Valerie Wilson's identity from Dick Cheney, he found out the information from NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert.

Today's jury verdict against Libby comes at the same time that Congress is investigating the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys at the behest of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. One of the attorneys, David Iglesias, was fired after New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici and Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson repeatedly phoned Iglesias during Wilson's October 2006 election race to try to get Iglesias to speed up ongoing investigations, and, hopefully, indictments, of Democratic officials before the election. Domenici also phoned Gonzales and his senior deputy four times to complain about Iglesias. Wilson squeaked to victory by 1,000 votes. Some of the fired prosecutors were in the middle of investigating wrongdoing by Republican officials.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee is investigating the mistreatment and neglect of wounded U.S. soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The Walter Reed scandal appears to be a Katrina-style case of what happens when an administration follows an ideology that holds that the government should not be used to solve problems.

Finally, nine U.S. soldiers were killed by bombs in Iraq today, and several more were wounded. The wounded will be returning to the U.S. in need of assistance. These soldiers will be returning to a very sad state of affairs.

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March 05, 2007

Making Democracy Safe for Democracy

Today something remarkable is happening in the nation's capital. The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee is actually overseeing something. In this case, it is the condition of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Thanks to the Washington Post, we have learned that veterans returning from the Iraq War, many of whom had horrible injuries resulting in amputations, were placed in rooms that were infested with mice and cockroaches, and full of mold. Many of these soldiers faced shameful maltreatment and neglect.

Thanks to the voters, after six years of the rubber-stamp Republican Congress which did not oversee anything except their golf scores while being flown by lobbyists on private jets, the new Congress is beginning to fulfill its Constitutional oversight responsibility. Unlike the people who spout empty slogans and place magnets on their cars, the leaders now runnng Congress know the true meaning of the phrase "support the troops." We should also thank the Washington Post and other news organizations who, in the absence of Congressional oversight during the past six years, stepped into the vacuum and exposed illegal and abhorrent conduct by the Bush Administration, including Abu Ghraib, prisoner torture, NSA spying on American citizens, the kidnapping of suspects and sending them to countries to be tortured (euphemistically called "rendition"), and more.

It's a new day.

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March 04, 2007

Confessions of an ex-Jew

Today I returned to the trail head after a beautiful, strenuous hike. In the parking area, which also serves state park facilities, I saw a bunch of kids and some adults in various constumes, including Winnie the Pooh. They were walking towards the little outdoor performance area nearby. I asked a couple of adults what kind of show was playing. Behind a very creepy lion nose mask, a woman's voice said, "it's Purim!" She left off the "silly" but I'm sure that's what she was thinking.

I was happy for these people and their religous enthusiasm, or their eagerness to put on costumes and put on plays, or both. To me, however, religion is what I had just experienced at the top of that mountain that we had just descended.

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March 02, 2007

And They Were Greeted as Liberators

"Switzerland Invades Lichtenstein!" screamed the headlines today. Was this a new front in the War on Terror? Has the U.S. finally become a role model for the rest of the world? Turns out, Switzerland's invasion of Lichtenstein was an accident. During a routine Swiss military training exercise two nights ago, a company of Swiss soldiers got lost and accidentally wandered across the border into Lichtenstein.

The first thing the Swiss did? Apologize profusely to Lichtenstein, whose diplomats said, "no big deal." How quaint. Wouldn't it be nice if the U.S. apologized to the Iraqi people for invading their country? In fact, wouldn't it be nice if America was more like Switzerland? The Swiss have a beautiful, clean country. The Swiss have a very high standard of living. They make lots of money from banking, tourism, cuckoo clocks, Swiss Army Knives and cheese. Their soldiers guard the Vatican in five hundred year-old uniforms resembling rugby shirts after a strenuous scrum. Their beer is delicious. And the chocolate!

Ok, so there was that period during World War II where the Swiss did the banking and other business for the Nazis. But hey, the U.S. track record regarding refugees and other downtrodden people during World War II isn't so hot either. How many people have the Swiss Army ever killed with those little knives with the toothpicks?

Wouldn't it be nice for the U.S. to behave as responsibly as Switzerland?

Did I mention the chocolate?

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