Saturday, June 29, 2002

Now there's a weird connection

Am listening right now to a talk-radio show on WMAL about Steven Hatfill, the bioweapons scientist whose apartment was recently searched by investigators looking into the anthrax mailings. The guest on the show has some info I haven't heard anywhere else: allegedly when Hatfill was living in Zimbabwe, he lived right near a place called the Greendale School, which as you'll recall was the phony school name in the return address on the anthrax letters. Has anyone else heard any more about this? I'll update later if I find out more.

Update: I have posted some more.
I love it when a conspiracy theory comes together

This time it's the WaPo reporting on Hezbollah increasingly working together with al Qaeda, more proof that the warbloggers' endless harping about links between Islamist extremist organizations is continuing to prove true. However, the terrorists' links to the Internet may portend more problems with government overreach when trying to crack down on dangerous Net traffic:
Loose partnerships are being facilitated by members' ability to communicate using Internet chat rooms accessible with constantly changing passwords. The connections, intelligence officials believe, are made case by case, depending on the needs of a particular local group. "When someone's traveling and needs assistance in passing through, whomever happens to have that capacity will be turned to," said Paul R. Pillar, former deputy director of the CIA counterterrorism center and author of "Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy."

The chat rooms are set up to avoid detection. New recruits can enter only rooms where "holy war" against America or other general topics are discussed. Only trusted and vetted operatives can access chat rooms where specific deals are discussed.

And the irony of medievalist radicals making use of up-to-the-minute technology continues, continues, and continues. On the lighter side, there's this quote from Florida Sen. Bob Graham:
"Hezbollah is the A-team of terrorism," said Sen. Bob Graham (D- Fla.), the chairman of the Senate panel, who has been briefed on the subject.

Hey! At least that means they won't be able to hijack any more airliners without sedating B.A. first!
And speaking of phallic symbols

Thanks to Maarten Schenk, I managed to find what just might be the coolest non-blog Web site ever: the skyscraper diagram generator, which has user-submitted diagrams of just about every big cool building in the world, both planned and built, all on the same scale of one pixel = one metre for easy comparison purposes.

Not only is the big list of all buildings beautiful, but you can also do special searches to get comparisons of just a few buildings of importance to you. What's more, if you go to the list of diagrams, you can easily click your way to diagrams of various categories of building, including oddball categories like mechanical, ship, and other, the last of which includes to-scale pictures of Godzilla and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. The "destroyed" page, meanwhile, even has one of those giant buddha statues that the Taliban blew up.

You can spend hours looking through this page! I already have, and discovered that somebody even bothered to do diagrams of three buildings in my neighborhood. Funny thing about the Francis Newlands building's diagram -- in the immortal words of Osama bin Laden, I swear it looks bigger in person.
I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth

Inasmuch as it's the duty of brand-new bloggers to go out of their way to bring in hits, I was trying to figure out just what I'd need to do with an article headlined Beach Sex Couple Ordered to Apologize in order to bring in the big bad linky love from everyone's favorite blogstress. Dawn, can I do anything with sex to get your attention, or do you lavish more of your attention on the gals? Would it be easier for me if I went from being Combustible Boy to being Combustible Girl? And hey, just how much would you pay to see a LIVE STREAMING VIDEO of the sex change operation? Would everyone be willing to foot the bill through a tip jar?

Then I started reading the article and thought maybe I'd thunk up a way to link-whore myself to the big guy...
PAINESVILLE, Ohio (Reuters) - A couple who had sex on a popular lakeside beach in Ohio were ordered by a judge to apologize to shocked beachgoers in newspaper advertisements, or go to jail.

Okay, here we have a judge who obviously moonlights in newspaper ad sales, and he was sure he'd found a way to bring in more business when he found himself presiding over the case of two young lovers who were publicly making the sign of the eight-legged aardvark. Right? That's what I thought too, then I went down a little further:
The couple, who engaged in oral sex, agreed to complete two days of community service and submit the ads, which will be worded, "I apologize for any activities that I engaged in that were offensive and disrespectful."

Engaged in oral sex? Just four years since the Clinton impeachment trial, and already engaging in oral sex is acceptably equivalent to "having sex" that even Reuters, the wire service so devoted to semantic hairsplitting that it can't call a terrorist a terrorist, is happy to create that equivalence?

It's too bad this development hadn't emerged yet when I was in high school, because at that time, we were all falling all over ourselves to demonstrate that we weren't virgins, yet we had to get past the conventional wisdom that just getting oral sex didn't count as having sex. Just anyone, even Combustible Boy, could get oral sex, but getting all the way to home plate was much more difficult, probably because science has not yet found a way to get girls pregnant through fellatio. Of course it makes sense that back then, when we were desperately desirous of being accepted as having had sex, the definition of "having sex" was kept as slender as possible, while in Clinton's case, when he was trying to prove he hadn't had sex with that woman Miss Lewinsky, he was faced with a definition of "having sex" so broad that even handling Yasser Arafat's companion box of baby wipes would qualify as having had a fling with the old viable dialogue partner that would surely make Fantasy Arik green with envy.

That's when it dawned on me that I might have the answer-to-end-all-answers for InstantMan's questions about what distinguishes teen sex from grownup sex. Combustible Boy says: The teen years are when you're not supposed to have sex and you desperately want everyone to think you are, while the adult years are when you're allowed to have sex and you desperately want to keep anyone from finding out.

That is, unless you're one of Dawn's galpals. Even us shy, painfully introverted boys love you girls! When we're not bitter with envy.

Friday, June 28, 2002

Lileks, there in spirit

Something else I noticed at the National Press Club panel today -- just about everyone's a Lileks fan now. One audience member had brought a copy of a Lileks book to be signed, and she and Larry Jarvik both spoke familiarly of him. A little too familiarly, as it happens; they both kept referring to him as "Jim", despite the number of times he's pointed out that he's James, darn it. (Interestingly, Taranto also insisted on being James and not Jim.) Later, during one of the panel discussions, John Hiler also noted Lileks' observation that a newspaper is a lecture, while a blog is a conversation.

It sure is interesting to see Lileks known 'round the world, since for a long time he was a relatively little-known guy who I could claim as a favorite columnist and get piles of street cred for knowing a guy who wasn't that high-profile outside the Twin Cities and the places where his Newhouse columns ran. In 1993, as a college student, I picked up "Notes of a Nervous Man" from the university bookstore -- I knew nothing about Lileks, but paged through the first couple of essays and found them hilarious, so I bought the book right away. Over nearly a decade since then, I've savored the sizzling writing in that book, going back and forth through it so many times that it's horrendously dog-eared and the front cover is held on with Scotch tape. I wonder what Lileks would have thought if he had been at the panel and I had presented that war-torn book to him?

Now, Lileks belongs to the world, and in my long-suffering indie-rocker way, I almost feel like I have to find a new lesser-known columnist to become fascinated with.
Whither the Blogosphere?

Though diminished, perhaps, by the absence of InstantMan, James Lileks, and even local boy Josh Marshall, the "Inside the Blogosphere" panel discussion at the National Press Club today had some intriguing conversation about blogging in generall -- and not just the warblogging scene that Reynolds and Lileks are often identified with today.

Hosted by The Idler webzine, the discussion included:

In addition, The Idler's Laurence Jarvik and Alice Goldfarb Marquis took part. See also my pictures of speakers at the event.

Hiler began the discussion by describing the pushbutton-publishing blog as the first format in which it is so easy to write -- and so addictive, with the instant gratification of seeing the written word published for all to read. Blogging is addictive for both the reader and the writer, Hiler said -- "I think that addiction is really important." From the reader's perspective, the tense wait for new posts to appear on a favorite blog, hitting the refresh button again and again until something new appears, only adds to the addiction; Hiler's research into pharmacological addiction taught him that addiction becomes even stronger when there is a pause between taking the drug and the onset of the high, and this is simulated by the wait for new posts to appear. All media is addictive to its audience, and blogs can hold their own on this count, Hiler opined.

Johnson and McLennan both described how they were moved to begin publishing online after noting the decline in newspaper coverage of their favorite areas -- books and art, respectively. Even newspapers serving cities that are important book markets, such as Philadelphia, have been dropping standalone book sections, Johnson said.

While McLennan and Johnson had similar stories to tell, they disagreed on the relevance of objectivity in blogging; while Johnson described his work as both opinion-writing and objective descriptions of the items he links to, McLennan stressed the importance of the blogger's personal point of view and ability to provide passion and context to the subject at hand. McLennan criticized U.S. newspapers for hiding behind the pretense of objectivity and fairness, clinging to the illusion that there are just two sides to every story -- two sides chosen by the reporter, who is in effect expressing an opinion by deeming only those two sides to be the prominent, relevant ones.

At that point, it was Marquis' turn to assume the role of devil's advocate, posing a number of questions about blogging as a new sort of news medium. In her days in the newspaper business, she said, "we used to call ourselves ink-stained wretches -- well, now we have link-stained wretches." On the positive side, she said, blogs are more fun than other types of writing -- democratic, sincere, heartfelt, with no gatekeeper -- but on the other hand, the quick nature of publishing leaves little room for reflection. The glut of content out there, and tendency to write at great length -- "blogorrhea," she called it -- is another problem, as who has time to pay attention to all of it? (Hey, isn't that why we have InstantMan, BlogDex, and N.Z. Bear, among others?)

Hiler and McLennan also spent some time discussiong some down sides of the blogging scene. While it is gratifying when someone reads your blog, the ego release involved can open a dark element, Hiler said, quipping that "It can be like pouring gasoline on the ego, and I think some people aren't equipped for that." McLennan, who did some work for Salon.com in its early days when it had high hopes for being an extremely literary magazine, said that the constant feedback about what the readers were interested in ended up having a vast effect upon the site's style and content, and Salon is a much different place now than it was in the idealistic early days.

After a short break, during which it was ascertained that Josh Marshall wasn't going to show, Taranto took the podium to tell a bit of his story. He explained that he's already spent two decades writing about politics online, starting as a young computer geek aiming to get a rise out of people on BBSes. After he lost interest in studying computer science, his BBS experiences provided the epiphany that pushed him into the career he occupies now: "I learned from using these BBSes that I had a real flair for the sarcastic crack -- so why not give journalism a try?" After spending years working in the WSJ's editorial-page section, he found his way into OpinionJournal in part because he had always been one of the trusty computer nerds around the WSJ offices. He also mentioned that Ira Stoll, later of Smarter Times and the New York Sun, gave him plenty of tips for Best of the Web early on.

A raucous Q&A period followed, in which a great deal of frustration filled the room as panelists and other audience members attempted to answer one woman's question about the problem of children wandering online and finding loads of misinformation online, with little way to tell truth from falsehood. (Hiler maintained, meanwhile, that his time reading and writing blogs has vastly increased his media savvy.) Much of the cacophony of the Q&A period, as well as Marquis' rhetorical questions about blogging, has been well captured in reports from Mike of What's On It For Me, who was busily typing on a Mac laptop throughout the panel discussion, and Tom Gallagher of TLeeves. Also in the audience was Corante's Arnold Kling, who seemed to be taking notes on the back of a computer printout, and there was a tall guy standing in the back who looked exactly like Rich Lowry.

Update: A few notes about the frequent invocations of Lileks, whose airport bleat from last night was available in hard copy at the panel discussion, are posted above.
I'm not the only one

Both Asparagirl and Chloë and Pete's Jessica have posted about temporary fits of fear they experienced after hearing a huge thunderclap near their offices in New York. Even though I had already read their posts, something similar happened to me as I sat merrily typing in my apartment last night.

Here in D.C.-land, we've also been jittery about the next possible terrorist attack here, especially since the 9/11 attacks weren't quite as spectacularly devastating here as they were in New York, so we figure the evildoers might try to hit our city that much harder next time. So when I heard a huge rumbling boom last night, the panicky side of my brain immediately said, That's it -- that's the big one, the other shoe has dropped! The rational side of my brain soothingly responded, Nonsense, that boom came from north of here, and this is downtown Bethesda, so if D.C. blew up the sound would come from the south. Undaunted, the panicky side replied, North of downtown Bethesda? That means the terrorists blew up NIH! They blew up NIH to release chembio agents into the air! We're all gonna die!

Then, after a few seconds of waiting to inhale deadly poison, I remembered Asparagirl and Jessica's posts, so I started listening more intently, as it's hard to hear when there's a computer fan right next to you. Sure enough, the raindrops were slapping my windows silly. Whew.
Early impressions of the plejuvaleejince

I'd say that Chatterbox has got us all dead to rights with Thursday's piece arguing that the Pledge of Allegiance is such a burst of purple prose that the "under God" part is probably just about the only thing that the young'uns reciting it can actually understand. I actually recall that when I was a kid I had the idea that "Liberty and Justice" were the names of people [like Starsky and Hutch?--ed. No, I recall they were wearing priestlike vestments in my fevered imagination.] and I wasn't entirely aware that "plejaleejince" was more than one word.

Surely the same goes for other things we're required to recite monotonously as little kids with small vocabularies. Hey, Tim, are you sufficiently atheistic to do a number on the Lord's Prayer and the Nicene Creed yet?

Thursday, June 27, 2002

Will you still haunt me....tomorrow?

The Washington Post reports that an entrepreneurship professor at the University of Maryland is putting together an online archive of gilded dreams of the dot-com boom -- everything from high-hopes business proposals to now-risible PowerPoint presentations. An archive of business plans is already available, while the final archive is still under construction.

This looks like it'll be a lot of fun to visit, yet I can't help but get the creeps when realizing how this would have looked to the people involved back when they were making all this crazy stuff -- the thought that the presentations they slapped together and the internal e-mail they dashed off might someday end up in an archive for everyone to laugh at. Sure, the professor behind this project is doing everything above-the-board, but who knows how things will play out in practice. What this points up to me is the growing need for public awareness of personal records-keeping policies.

Experienced Internet users already bemoan the problem of knowing their words may end up archived for all time -- even if the archiving technology doesn't exist yet. Google Groups, a repository of Usenet posts going back more than two decades, built much of its archive from backup tapes made when most Usenetters would never have guessed their words would live on past the date in the Expires: header. I already know two people who have run into problems with employers because of archived Usenet posts. I myself, when posting to Usenet under my real name, am always agonizing over every line and toning down every risqué joke because of concern over how it will look to some future archive digger, or more importantly some future employer, when my post is brought up out of context years later from Google. On this blog, meanwhile, I've decided to start off pseudonymous partly for this reason -- I might be working as a reporter in the future, and I don't know what might happen to my job options if would-be employers see that I have been expressing opinions publicly, even if only on a blog. (Writers like Ken Layne would probably pooh-pooh this, but I still find it a worrisome issue.)

Consultants and trade-magazine writers alike have lately been falling all over themselves to convey to businesses the importance of having set records-keeping -- and records-destruction -- policies ahead of time, mindful of what might happen if e-mails on server hard drives end up in the wrong hands, or if the company starts trying to shred documents too late, as so prominently happened to one formerly renowned firm recently. I predict that within the next 18 months there will be an increasing drive to inform ordinary Internet users of how important it could be to have personal records-keeping policies, on reasons to try to keep e-mail and chat logs, not to mention online bulletin-board posts, from hanging around so long that they become a problem.

At any rate, speaking of leaving a trail on the Internet, do you think this professor's archive will include anything juicy about the now-infamous DEN.net? Better dust off those NDAs, former DENsters!
No soapin' in the boys' room


I'm a devoted fan of the Wall Street Journal's "Middle Column", the space on the front page where a lengthy feature article on some arcane subject or other runs each day. The middle column -- which, since the WSJ hews to the six-column format, is actually to the right of center, like the paper itself -- has been collected into at least a couple of books, the most recent of which is being touted by the WSJ right now.

Anyway, today's piece is about a fellow by the name of Tom Keating who has made it his goal in life to convince public schools to try to keep their lavatories clean. The article [currently available for subscribers only] explains: "If a school can't do a single thing like keep soap in a dispenser, he says, how can it hope to teach students self-respect or inspire them to greater academic achievement?"

And you know, it sounds like a picayune thing at first, but I think this guy's on to something for at least three reasons. For one thing, I don't even want to think about what I would do if I suddenly had to do #2 in the school restroom and then discovered that there was no toilet paper left in the place. (What do the young women do when they have that problem?) For another, hey, let's try to have at least a little hygiene available.

Most importantly, though, I think this reflects on the same general principle that underlies "quality-of-life" initiatives in cities: If the authorities in charge are allowing your surroundings to deteriorate to a sickly point, what sort of mood will you be in to take care of the place yourself? I'm not generally inclined to criminal behavior, mind, but I do know that when I'm in a place that's well taken care of -- and that inevitably does include how the gents' looks -- I subconsciously find my deportment improving all around. For kids naturally inclined to believe that the people in charge don't give a damn about them -- kids like the mopey black-clad writer of non-rhyming poetry who I was back then -- it seems they'd need look no further than the empty soap dispensers and absent toilet tissue for confirming evidence.

Also, like all WSJ middle columns, this one ends memorably:


This fall, he plans to bring in firemen, athletic coaches and other local leaders to talk about citizenship and self-respect. The goal: to convince the boys that, in ways large and small, the future of their community could be influenced by how well they aim and flush today.

Athletic coaches? Like Mr. Buzzcut? ("Step three: commence urinating! LEAK! LEAK! LEAK! LEAK! LEAK!") Eh, at least they mean well.
Oh Martha, you're so fined, you're so fined you blow my mind


Well, maybe not yet, but the WaPo is jumping on the get-Martha-Stewart bandwagon with a precious feature article assuring us that her most devoted fans figure she must have done nothing wrong because she looks so nice on TV. (So, if the soccer moms remain at the top of the political heap, how come no one's urged Martha to run yet? Is it because she would likely be another NewYorKonneticut Republican?) At any rate, the most revealing part of this article is that the writer managed to track down a former Stewart devotee who lost her faith in the domestic goddess after the latest tell-all book came out:

She bought Stewart's brand name comforter, dust ruffle, sham and sheets, all in a blue-green inspired by the eggs of Stewart's Araucana hens. Then she stenciled a matching border around her bedroom. She hollowed out a bowl of bread and filled it with vinaigrette, basil, tomato, salami, ham and cheese, according to a Stewart recipe. It was delicious.

Over the years, though, "I had my suspicions that she wasn't as nice as she appeared to be." When she read "Martha Inc.," "I was horrified." Not only did Stewart seem like "a phony," but "she's a disaster -- she's disorganized, she's cluttered."

Asked about the scandal du jour, Zerobnick says with all the bitterness of a spurned lover, "I think she's guilty."

Isn't that always the way? However, it's the last paragraph that contains the article's greatest zinger:

She doesn't need Martha Stewart anymore. The other day, she and her husband painted a wall in their house burgundy, then Zerobnick used a sea sponge dipped in paint to apply a textured gold finish. "And I did it all myself," she says.

Someone get that Zerobnick woman a teevee show!
Okay, okay, okay, I've been aware of blogs for years and have been reading the "warbloggers" regularly since late last year, but up until now I've been timid about creating a blog of my own, mostly out of concern that I'll just be jumping on a bandwagon. Well, I am, I guess, but this seems like a helluva nice bandwagon to jump on -- particularly since I'm going to the big blogger press conference at the National Press Club tomorrow (I'm a D.C.-area local), and I'll need someplace to write about it, right? Right.