Table of Contents

ad report card
Would You Like Your Cable Company More if It Were Quirky and Hip?

Advanced Search

Incredible Hulks

How To Understand the Culture of Poverty

Bushism of the Day

The Good Flip-Flop

Going to California

Strained Ties

Cure for the Common Bonus

The Suicide Gap


Bleak House: The 3-D Concert Experience

day to day
The Problem With Eyewitness Accounts

dear prudence
Our Marriage Is All an Act

Will the Economic Crisis Destabilize Tajikistan?

When Did Drunks Start Wearing Lampshades?

What Happens to the Archives of Defunct Newspapers?

The Bonus Explainer

fighting words
Terrorists, Dissidents, and Copy Editors

A "Beacon Light" Into Black Sites

The Long Goodbye

human nature
Dish Respect

human nature
Scrambled Eggs

Irony Board

Franken's Monster

Ice Water and Sweatboxes

Genetic Surveillance for All

Have the Eyes Had It?

medical examiner
Diabetes of the Brain

Goldman Sachs, Welfare Queen

They Got the Wrong Guy


Stop Listening to Wall Street

I Love You, Man

Pretty Confusing

my goodness
Just Say No

other magazines
Swiss Mess

"All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame"

All the Rage

Anger Management

Unjustly Enriched

Fireside Chat 2.0

Libertarians Gone Wild

press box
Debunking PCP's "Comeback"

press box
Hello and Goodbye to the P-I

Why Is It Called "March Madness"?

Productivity Madness

Why Are Pakistani Lawyers Always Protesting?

The Lead Is Safe

St. Patrick Revealed

But Enough About You …

slate v
Cubez: Exotic Vet

slate v
Eight-Block-Long Love Letter

slate v
Dear Prudence: My Two Brats

sports nut
Teams We Hate

sports nut
How To Win Your NCAA Pool

How To Find a Job Online

Late Night With Barack Obama

Better Off Ted

The City

the best policy
In a State

the best policy
The Real AIG Scandal

the chat room
Dear Prudence, Live

the good word
If You Seek Amy's Ancestors

the green lantern
Dirty Butts

the green lantern
Wear Green, Drink Greenly

today's business press
A Tax Hike the Masses Will Love

today's papers
Took Federal Money? No Bonus for You.

today's papers
Fed Takes Out the Big Guns

today's papers
Lawmakers: Pay it Back, AIG

today's papers
Obama Demands a Refund

today's papers
AIG Writes a Receipt

today's papers
Bonuses For Ruining The Economy

today's papers
Beijing Gets the T-Bond Blues

tv club
Friday Night Lights, Season 3

war stories
Don't Be Afraid To Kill the F-22

xx factor xxtra

ad report card
Would You Like Your Cable Company More if It Were Quirky and Hip?
Comcast is hoping so.
By Seth Stevenson
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 6:51 AM ET

The Spot: Live actors wander through an animated cityscape. They sing rhyming ditties that express satisfaction with the various Internet, cable television, and telephony services offered by the Comcast Corp. (Click here to watch the ad.)

Ad Report Card reader Laurie G. e-mails:

Those new Comcast commercials are mesmerizing. My children and I stop in our tracks when one comes on, and I find myself watching in fascination. The colors, the songs, the people, the town. I think it's a great campaign ... but I still hate Comcast.

They really are arresting, aren't they? I think in part it's that combination of live actors and animated backdrops. The actual human beings moving around on that illustrated set seem to pop out of the scene and attract our gaze. Once we're hooked in, it's hard to look away because the camera never cuts. It zooms in and out and pans around, but it's all one seamless journey through what appears to be a fully realized, bustling, imaginary neighborhood.

Then there's that earworm of a song. With its chugging cadences; its ascending, three-chord progression; and its affable strumming, it's perfectly designed to build a condo in our brains and take up long-term residence. Whoever composed it clearly took her cues from the monotonic melody and sunny repetition of "Anyone Else but You"—the Moldy Peaches song that Michael Cera and Ellen Page sing at the end of Juno (and which, by the way, has already appeared in an ad for Atlantis resorts). Of course, what seems catchy at first can very quickly come to irritate us. Also, the flat affect of the actors' voices, coupled with their half-smiles and steady staring into the camera, creates a vaguely serial-killer-ish vibe.

According to Peter Intermaggio, senior vice president for marketing and communications, this is Comcast's first foray into "brand advertising." Previous campaigns have all highlighted a particular Comcast product or promotion. These ads have a more elliptical goal: to make the Comcast brand seem friendlier, or more fun, in the eyes of the consumer. Intermaggio says the seamlessness of the camera as it moves through Comcast Town is meant to evoke the fluidity of Comcast services, as people move between Internet chats and telephone calls and on-demand HD movies.

The campaign Web site lets you download Comcast wallpaper and ring tones and create your own "room" in Comcast Town, complete with virtual furniture and accessories. You can also see the lyrics for the Comcast Town songs and even open PDFs of the sheet music. The site is meant to be a sort of interactive playground for Comcast enthusiasts.

Which brings me to the problem with this campaign. Who on earth would become a Comcast enthusiast? Who hangs out at a Comcast Web site and rearranges pretend furniture? Or, put more broadly: What sane person forms a loving attachment to a cable behemoth?

I just don't think this is a category where warm, fuzzy emotions come into play. I want my cable, Internet, and phone to work. That's all. And, among people I know, Comcast has developed a reputation for … not working. My own time in Comcast's clutches was a continuous nightmare of outages and dreadful customer service, which ended only when I switched to a different provider. Based on my experience, Comcast Town would be a wasteland of flickering streetlights and crumbling apartment blocks. It would be populated solely by fat repairmen, who would stare listlessly at their clipboards and tell you they're still not quite sure why your cable's snowy.

This ad does nothing to convince me that things have changed at Comcast. Nor, apparently, has it convinced the above-quoted Laurie G., who says she loves the ads and yet continues to hate the company. If this is an attempt to reboot the brand—to sweep away any bad associations and replace them with a sunny new corporate personality—it fails. It's just not credible that people would be so happy with their Comcast service that they'd break into song. (Anyway, the actors' zombie-ish demeanor suggests less a spontaneous outpouring than a hostage situation: "Now show the people out there how much you love your suite of HD channels! Sing about it—if you ever want to see your family again!") I'd be far more receptive to an ad that delicately acknowledges my concerns and tells me exactly how Comcast has addressed them.

Even if you haven't yet been through the Comcast grinder and are coming to the brand with fresh eyes, I don't see how this ad would sway you to pick Comcast over another company. We choose our bundled cable packages based on price, range of products and features, quality of customer service, and availability in our area. Not because of a cute song and a lame interactive Web environment.

Grade: C+. I'm awarding some points for artistic merit. The excellent animation in the ads is by Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes, who received an Academy Award nomination this year for their funny short about a pair of undertakers. They ended up losing the Oscar to a more poignant animated short about an old man retracing the journey of his life. (The old man at no point reminisces about his cable provider.)

Advanced Search
Friday, October 19, 2001, at 6:39 PM ET

Incredible Hulks
Exploring Detroit's beautiful ruins.
By Witold Rybczynski
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 6:59 AM ET

Click here to read a slide-show essay about the architecture of Detroit.




How To Understand the Culture of Poverty
William Julius Wilson once again defies both right and left.
By Sudhir Venkatesh
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 6:49 AM ET

Pop quiz: Who made the following observation? "At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of [black America] is the deterioration of the [black] family. It is a fundamental weakness of [black Americans] at the present time." Each year, I pose this question to my undergraduate students. Most will guess George Bush, Bill Cosby, Al Sharpton, or Bill Clinton. This is not surprising, given their age. More telling is their perception that such a view might come from the political left or right. It reveals just how commonplace the link of family-race-poverty is in the American mindset.

But there is a little trickery going on: Replace "black" with "Negro" and change the date to 1965. The correct author is Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He wrote these words as part of a policy brief to help President Lyndon Johnson understand the distressed social conditions in urban ghettos. "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" leaked to the press and created a firestorm of controversy with its contention that a "tangle of pathology" engulfed black America.

The so-called "Moynihan Report" brought about a new language for understanding race and poverty: Now-familiar terms like pathology, blame the victim, and culture of poverty entered American thought as people debated whether Moynihan was courageously pointing out the causes of social ills or simply finger-pointing. Moynihan forced a nation to ask, "Is the culture of poor blacks at the core of their problems?"

This question continues to haunt us, and Moynihan's arguments about black culture still preoccupy and divide academics. (The January 2009 issue of the Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science is dedicated to a critical reappraisal of his report.) Coming from a liberal democrat, the senator's discussion of race was remarkably bold and straightforward: Unemployed black men were "failures"; female heads of households ("matriarchs") threatened black masculinity; blacks needed help from "white America." One wishes social scientists would write with such conviction today, even at the risk of simplifying complex social processes.

The wider disputes the Moynihan Report set in motion are anything but ivory-tower squabbles. Liberals charged that the senator's theory gave ammunition to right-wing arguments for diminished government support of anti-poverty programs. They watched, with growing helplessness, as a crescendo of Republican voices began invoking Moynihan's writings to defend reduced funding for Head Start, job training, adult literacy, and welfare. Simply put, conservatives argued that blacks needed to change their behavior before money could do any good.

In this way, a deep American schism was born. Liberals believed that black poverty was caused by systemic racism, such as workplace discrimination and residential segregation, and that focusing on the family was a form of "blaming the victim." Conservatives pointed to individual failure to embrace mainstream cultural values like hard work and sobriety, and intact (read: nuclear) families. It's like Yankees vs. Mets, and for 40 years there has been no middle ground. (That the current generation of college students might not necessarily share this polarized view may augur an important shift in the years ahead.)

In this standoff, along comes the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson, whom I studied with at the University of Chicago in the 1990s, promising to transcend the polarizing discourse on race in American society. (Sound familiar?) Wilson claims his analysis in his new book, titled More Than Just Race, will bridge the two worlds and create a new, more enlightened way for Americans to talk about race (heard this one before?)—but he is well aware that won't happen without controversy.

It is fitting that the most famous contemporary sociologist has decided to address the most significant policy issue of our time. Anything but shy, Wilson has devoted his career to wading into contentious debates that have enormous social implications for the way we understand race and inequality in America. In the wake of the civil-rights era, as black politicians bemoaned the persistence of discrimination in America, Wilson published The Declining Significance of Race (1978). He used evidence of a rising black middle class to argue that race alone can't explain the plight of black Americans. He was shunned in black intellectual circles but won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. His subsequent study of inner-city poverty, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), challenged conservative and liberal dogma regarding poverty alleviation. In it, Wilson made the case that the focus should be on promoting work opportunities and alleviating poverty concentration rather than simply fighting racism or promoting punitive policies. After President Clinton called the book a must-read, Wilson's critics on both sides quickly ran over to his side.

More Than Just Race, which draws on Wilson's earlier research as well as more recent studies, is yet more proof of his willingness to ignore political and academic pieties and his will to make social science relevant to the public. Wilson wants to explain inner-city behavior—such as young black males' disdain for low-wage jobs, their use of violence, and their refusal to take responsibility for children—without pointing simplistically to discrimination or a deficit in values. Instead, he argues that many years of exposure to similar situations can create responses that look as if they express individual will or active preference when they are, in fact, adaptations or resigned responses to racial exclusion.

Consider a young man who works in the drug economy. Doing so doesn't mean he places little if any value on legitimate work. Employment opportunities are limited in the man's racially segregated neighborhood. There are few neighbors and friends who have social connections to employers, and most of the good jobs are far away. To complicate matters, many of his friends and neighbors are probably connected to the drug trade. Survival and peer pressure dictate that the man will seek out the dangerous, illegal jobs that are nearby, even while he may prefer a stable, mainstream job. Delinquent behavior? Certainly, but more than likely a comprehensible response to lack of opportunity.

One could apply the same logic to teenage pregnancy, another all too common feature of inner-city life. The political left and right both argue that the prospect of welfare payments can motivate young women to have children—conservatives point to delinquent values, while liberals deem this a response to lack of income. Apply Wilson's "socialization" lens, and learned behaviors take priority over economic need: Young women achieve both personal identity and social validation in their community by entering into motherhood. They join others whose lives are similarly defined by early parenting. The receipt of welfare helps them contribute to the household while placing them on a surer moral footing than those who fail to bring income into the home.

Wilson does more than argue for the rationality of such behaviors. The actions of both the young man and the teenage mother are "cultural," he suggests, because they follow from the individual's perceptions of how society works. These perceptions are learned over time, and they create powerful expectations that can lead individuals to act in ways that, to the outside world, suggest insolence, laziness, pathology, etc. In this way, Wilson's framework seeks to find individual agency in contexts of dire economic hardship.

Wilson describes this process succinctly: "Parents in segregated communities who have had experiences [with discrimination and disrespect] may transmit to children, through the process of socialization, a set of beliefs about what to expect from life and how one should respond to circumstances. … In the process children may acquire a disposition to interpret the way the world works that reflects a strong sense that other members of society disrespect them because they are black."

If you think you're at a disadvantage (however justified or unjustified that belief may be), you internalize your status, such that your low expectations become as durable an obstacle as the discrimination you might be facing. This is why people (of any race and social class) turn down assistance: The simple belief that help is futile can be a powerful deterrent to social change.

What Wilson argues may sound obvious and even a bit like Psychology 101, but there is a deeper motivation to his writing. Wilson appreciates Moynihan for shedding light on ghetto poverty. But by focusing on the capacity of the poor to act rationally and thoughtfully, Wilson wants us to get off the victimhood bandwagon that followed Moynihan. In his view, neither defending the victim nor blaming the victim is very helpful in moving us forward.

Moynihan was also not altogether hopeful that black family patterns—which he traced to a legacy of slavery—might change, although, to be fair, his report was not intended as a primer on poverty-alleviation strategy. Wilson's history is more recent, and his optimism is apparent: Three generations of black ghetto dwellers have been relying on welfare and sporadic work and doing so in isolation from the mainstream. It is folly to believe that some distinctive behavior, values, or outlooks have not arisen as a consequence. Whereas Moynihan seemed at pains to point out "pathology" in the black community, in Wilson's work, the recognition functions almost like confession: Let us face the truth, so that we may finally bring forth change.

The book stands to have a powerful impact in policy circles because it points to the elephant in the room. Wilson knows it is difficult to engineer cultural change. We can train black youths, we can move their families to better neighborhoods, etc., but changing their way of thinking is not so easy. Evidence of this lies in the many "mobility" programs that move inner-city families to lower-poverty suburbs: Young women continue to have children out of wedlock and, inexplicably, the young men who move out return to their communities to commit crime! These patterns flummox researchers and, according to Wilson, they will continue to remain mysterious until we look at culture for an answer.

Critics will complain that Wilson himself has little to offer in terms of policy recommendations. But More Than Just Race contains some clues as to where he may be headed. He emphasizes the advantages of "race neutral" programs. Wilson knows that Americans and their elected leaders are more likely to support initiatives that are not identified with poor blacks. And in this economy, there is no shortage of disadvantaged Americans—white or black—who require employment assistance and supportive services. He is also partial to addressing joblessness first, despite his insistence that culture matters (and that behaviors don't change as quickly as policymakers wish). Wilson repeatedly points to the benefits that jobs programs and vocational training have on the cultural front. Stated somewhat crudely, increasing employment will reduce the number of people who might promote or even condone deviant behavior. Change might not occur overnight, and it may not be wholesale, but it will take place.

Wilson advised the Obama campaign, and it is likely that his combination of race-neutral social policies and "jobs-first" agenda will be attractive to our president. Perhaps after addressing the financial mess, terrorism, the Iraq war, "AfPak," education, health care, and the climate, the administration will turn its attention to domestic poverty. However long that takes, it is alas safe to predict that ghetto poverty will still be a pressing national problem.

Bushism of the Day
By Jacob Weisberg
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 2:16 PM ET

"I'm going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there's an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened."—On what he hopes to accomplish with his memoir, as reported by the Associated Press, Calgary, Canada, March 17, 2009

Got a Bushism? Send it to For more, see "The Complete Bushisms."




The Good Flip-Flop
Obama abandons a plan to make private insurers pay for veterans' combat injuries.
By Chris Wilson
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 4:33 PM ET

The Change-o-Meter is now a widget. You can add it to your blog, Web site, or profile with just a few clicks. (Shortcut for Facebook here.) Each time we publish a new column, the widget will automatically update to reflect the latest score.

President Obama is currently one-for-three in his NCAA picks, meaning he's even worse at choosing basketball teams than he is at picking Cabinet nominees. In real news, Obama continues a trip to California, where he is scheduled for two town halls, a factory visit, and a late-night-TV appearance. But a reversal of an odious plan to saddle insurers with veterans' combat injuries and a shift in marijuana policy combine for 35 points on the Change-o-Meter.

During a town hall meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., last night, Obama continued to rally around the common anger over lush bonuses at bailed-out AIG. As Slate's John Dickerson notes, however, playing off this anger may weaken Obama's ability to sell future bailouts, and many economists and commentators believe further infusion of federal funds will be necessary. Polls show public opinion is against more government money for financial institutions by a margin of 16 points. The 'Meter calls this a wash for now, with Obama managing the anger reasonably well at the possible expense of future political capital. (Meanwhile, the House rushed through legislation to levy huge taxes on the bonuses.)

While Obama is in California, the biggest news for the state today came out of Washington, where Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal agencies will no longer go after marijuana distributors who follow state guidelines for dispensing the drug for medicinal purposes, even though such a practice still violates federal law. California was the first of 13 states that now allow the drug for such purposes. The 'Meter approves, for a variety of reasons, and awards 15 points for the reasonable application of federal anti-drug resources to more urgent matters.

Meanwhile, Obama dropped a proposal to make veterans' health-insurance providers foot the bill for combat-related injuries and conditions, which would have saved the Department of Veterans Affairs an estimated $500 million a year. Veterans groups quickly condemned the plan, and yesterday Obama did, too. The 'Meter sees two ways to read this: A flip-flopping president backs off his plan to screw veterans when the politics get hot, or a thoughtful president acknowledges the moral error in his plan and amends it. Today it's going with the latter; all leaders produce half-baked ideas, like starting a war in Iraq, and the 'Meter approves of those who know when to cut bait: 20 points.

There's a lot to cover, so we want to hear your thoughts on what the Change-o-Meter should be taking into account. No detail is too small or wonky. E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.

Going to California
Obama takes his message to the West Coast while the administration ponders a controversial parliamentary move.
By Chris Wilson
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 6:38 PM ET

The 'Meter hopes you were paying close attention in U.S. History 101, because what the Obama administration may attempt in order to get its 2010 budget through Congress was covered in "I'm Just a Bill." President Obama receives a 10 on the Change-o-Meter.

The administration is reportedly considering a Senate measure known as "reconciliation" to slim down the margin of votes required for passage and cap the allowable debate from the normal eternity to 20 hours. Any mention of reconciliation is guaranteed to provoke outrage from the opposition party (and quite possibly the parliamentary fetishists in one's own party). For a cautionary tale, see Joshua Green's November 2006 profile of Hillary Clinton in the Atlantic, which includes (on Page 3 of 11) an account of how an attempt to pass the Clinton administration's health care legislation via reconciliation, in early 1993, was killed by Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd. Senate Republicans are making the expected noises, as are a handful of Democrats.

The 'Meter isn't quite ready to join that chorus, however. Given that Congress passed last year's budget only a few weeks ago—the deadline was October 2008—those senators who decry the attempt are not in the strongest position. The 'Meter subtracts 10 points for the somewhat authoritarian and decidedly nonbipartisan strategy (which is still sketchy at this point), but that's the extent to which it is prepared to side with the Senate on much of anything that involves the velocity of legislation.

Obama is going to California for a few town hall meetings, a visit to a factory, and a stop at The Tonight Show, the first sitting president to do so since John F. Kennedy. It may seem trivial, but the 'Meter awards 10 points for this public strategy—unquestionably a change from the previous administration, which by the end was pretty much restricting its members' appearances to American Legion and VFW halls. Obama clearly intends to use his popularity as a political tool for as long as possible. He gets another five points for landing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as his warm-up act at one of the town halls.

Before he left for California, Obama told reporters that he wanted the American public to channel its seething anger over AIG bonuses toward constructive outlets. AIG CEO Edward Liddy wasn't wanting of abuse after appearing at a Housing hearing. The president used the occasion to prop up his bruised treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, and say the right things about regulating the AIGs of the future. Five points for staying on a good message.

There's a lot to cover, so we want to hear your thoughts on what the Change-o-Meter should be taking into account. No detail is too small or wonky. E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.

Strained Ties
Russia plans to get aggressive—in 2011—while blood still boils over AIG bonuses.
By Emily Lowe
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 3:50 PM ET

It's St. Patrick's Day, and since Obama is a little more Irish than you think, the White House is celebrating with zeal. The water in the White House fountain was dyed green, and Obama is donning a chic mint-colored tie all day. (The 'Meter awards 100 points for the sartorial bravery, which it immediately retracts for the fashion crime.) Obama used the occasion to nominate Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney to be the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Unfortunately, Obama will need more than a few four-leaf clovers to ride out the rage building around the AIG debacle. And a misstep in his efforts to befriend Russia isn't encouraging, either. But a surprising jump in home construction stops Obama from going into the red, bringing the Change-o-Meter to the first-ever score of 0.

Anger is mounting over taxpayer-supported AIG shelling out huge bonuses to top executives. With the insurance giant refusing to budge, that ire is finding a new target in Obama instead. While Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa recommends seppuku, Democrats in the House and Senate are demanding that Obama find a way to void the bonus checks—and the public is none too patient, either. While Obama has said he is committed to doing anything he can to squelch the bonuses (within legal bounds), his chances of garnering support for another round of bank bailouts seem slimmer than ever. The 'Meter doesn't blame Obama for the bonuses but deducts 10 points for the loss of confidence in his big picture.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is also growing wary of Obama's promises. Unhappy with continued U.S.-led NATO expansion near the Russian border, Medvedev promised a major rearmament of Russian nuclear forces in 2011. Obama has two years to talk him down, but the tone from Russia signals a few steps backward in what previously appeared to be a warming relationship. The 'Meter docks another 10 points.

But there are glimmers of hope for the young administration, as reports show that construction of new homes spiked last month, defying economists' predictions. Housing production is up 89 percent in the Northeast and 59 percent in the Midwest, although the Western states are still mired in the housing slump. Baffled economists are attributing the growth to February's beautiful weather, but the 'Meter seems to recall that at least one part of the Northeast wasn't so sunny last month. It prefers to interpret the numbers as an indication of optimism in the housing market, and generously gives Obama his 20 lost points back. It is a holiday, after all.

There's a lot to cover, so we want to hear your thoughts on what the Change-o-Meter should be taking into account. No detail is too small or wonky. E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.

Cure for the Common Bonus
Obama wants more oversight over bad food and bad finances.
By Molly Redden
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 4:51 PM ET

The Change-o-Meter is now a widget. You can add it to your blog, Web site, or profile with just a few clicks. (Shortcut for Facebook here.) Each time we publish a new column, the widget will automatically update to reflect the latest score.

President Obama has plenty of oversight in the food and finance sectors. But the Government Accountability Office worries oversight is exactly what's lacking as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced a well-meaning cash injection for small businesses. At the end of the day, Obama scores a 47 on the Change-o-Meter.

Obama is beating the populist drums again, directing Geithner to use all his powers to block $165 million in bonuses that AIG, buoyed by billions in government support, plans to pay its employees. AIG says it is contractually obligated to make the payments, and Obama was careful to request that Geithner pursue "every single legal avenue"—emphasis the 'Meter's—in blocking the bonuses. The 'Meter offers an enthusiastic 15 points for the efforts to curb profligacy by companies on the government dime but is on the lookout for any solutions that get legally funky. There was enough of that in the last administration.

This weekend, Obama took a break from all that money talk to take up the sword against killer peanut butter. On Sunday, the president announced that to improve the recently dismal performances of the agencies in charge of monitoring food products, he intends to create a food-safety advisory group. Obama also announced his choice of two former health commissioners to lead the FDA. While the 'Meter is too disillusioned to give out points for seemingly sound nominations—it will get excited when they're confirmed and have spent a week in office without trouble from the FBI—it awards 20 points for fighting the good fight against gastroenteritis.

Obama's got a plan to fight illness in the financial market, too, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, will "include giving the Federal Reserve new powers that include authority to monitor and address broad risks across the economy." The administration won't reveal said plan until the G-20 meeting on April 2. But many of the details closely match recommendations by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Rep. Barney Frank, who chairs the relevant committee in the House. (The verdict is still out on some of Frank's more radical but prudent suggestions, like giving state attorneys the power to prosecute national banks.) The 'Meter eagerly awaits a fully realized proposal but in the meantime gives the Obama team eight points for having a plan at all.

Geithner has also announced that $375 million from the stimulus plan will go to the Small Business Administration to raise the federal guarantee on small business loans up to 90 percent, from 50 percent to 85 percent. The administration's heart is in the right place, given that small businesses were responsible for the bulk of job growth in the last decade—but its eyes aren't. A GAO investigation revealed that few participating banks monitor whether their borrowers are actually deserving of the loans. One investigator called the program "nothing more than a large, unregulated pot of money that lenders are going to scramble to get their hands on." In his announcement, Geithner gave this issue a worryingly brief treatment. The 'Meter awards 20 points for the important effort but immediately deducts 10 for this embarrassing revelation at the heart of the strategy.

Overseas, European nations betray nervousness over holding former Guantanamo detainees, complaining that the Obama administration hasn't given them enough information about the individual detainees. Team Obama will have to cough up details about detainees if it still aspires to rebuild alliances around the world and will slide backward six until it does so.

There's a lot to cover, so we want to hear your thoughts on what the Change-o-Meter should be taking into account. No detail is too small or wonky. E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.

The Suicide Gap
European financiers are killing themselves. American financiers aren't.
By Timothy Noah
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 9:33 PM ET

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told an Iowa radio station that AIG executives ought to "follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, 'I'm sorry.' And then … do one [of] two things. Resign, or go commit suicide." The comment was reprehensible (not to mention difficult to square with Grassley's strong opposition to abortion and embryonic-stem-cell research). It caused a predictable furor, prompting Grassley to sputter, "You ought to be able to tell rhetoric when you hear it." But setting aside the ham-handed recommendation that financiers who brought economic ruin to others croak themselves, Grassley's comment raises an interesting cross-cultural question: Why do so few financier suicides involve Americans?

Consider the lead paragraph of a Jan. 11 New York piece by Michael Idov in ("Are Wall Street Suicide Epidemics Real?"):

Last week, German investor Adolf Merckle, a multibillionaire who lost a fortune on shorted Volkswagen stock, threw himself under a train. Two weeks earlier, Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, an heir to French aristocracy and the co-founder of an investment fund whose money vanished in Bernie Madoff's alleged pyramid scheme, told the cleaning crew at his Madison Avenue office to clear out, sat behind his desk, and slashed his wrists with a box cutter. Five days before that, in London, a hotel worker entered a $750-a-night suite at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower to find the body of Christen Schnor, HSBC's head of insurance, hanging by a belt in a closet. This spate of financier suicides is already the second such wave in a year: The first commenced with Bear Stearns research supervisor Barry Fox's 29-story plunge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, on May 22, and was quickly followed by at least two more cases in June and July.

Idov goes on to argue that these high-profile cases do not reflect an underlying trend; in the United States, "bankers are no more or less likely to kill themselves, in good times or bad, than anyone else." Nina Shen Rastogi has disabused Slate readers of the popular notion that the stock market crash of 1929 caused Wall Street speculators to leap to their deaths: "Between Black Thursday and the end of 1929, only four of the 100 suicides and suicide attempts reported in the New York Times were plunges linked to the crash, and only two took place on Wall Street." Idov points out that in New York City there were fewer suicides in the immediate aftermath of the 1929 crash than there were during the same period in blue-sky 1928, when stock prices were 350 percent higher than they'd been five years earlier.

What Idov doesn't say is that, save for one person (Barry Fox), everyone on his list of high-profile financiers who killed themselves was European. Merkle was German. Magon de la Villehuchet was a Frenchman who divided his time between New York and Brittany. Schnor was Danish-born and lived in England. Googling the word suicide together with the word financier calls up the sad story of Kirk Stephenson, chief operating officer of Olivant Advisers, a subsidiary of a Tokyo-based investment bank, who in September threw himself under a train. Stephenson was born in New Zealand and lived and worked in London. It also calls up Patrick Rocca, an Irish real estate tycoon who shot himself dead in a Dublin suburb. American names aren't entirely absent—Steven Good, CEO of a giant real-estate-auction firm, killed himself in Chicago in January—but they're mostly absent. Marcus Schrenker, a financial manager in Indiana facing a half-million-dollar legal judgment in Maryland, was arrested in January and charged with faking his suicide by issuing a distress call from his private plane and then crashing it while parachuting to safety. This would seem a more typically American approach. Bernard Madoff, whose criminality and financial losses were unmatched by anyone mentioned here, pleaded guilty to 11 charges and will probably spend his remaining years (he's 71 next month) behind bars. It remains to be seen what will happen to his assets.

Judging from this admittedly superficial evidence, Europeans possess a greater tendency to internalize public disgrace and/or humiliation. Grassley calls this tendency Japanese. You can also find its roots in classical Greece and Rome. In The Savage God, a definitive text on suicide and its place in Western culture, A. Alvarez writes of the "calm, though slightly excessive, reasonableness" of the Stoics' attitude toward self-extermination. In general, Alvarez argues, "the more sophisticated and rational a society becomes, the further it travels from superstitious fears and the more easily suicide is tolerated." The culturati often argue that western Europe is "more sophisticated and rational" than the United States. Maybe that helps account for the discrepancy in financier suicides. Social scientists often note that Europe is more class-bound. If you thought your position in society was fixed permanently at the top, the prospect of suddenly falling to the bottom might be that much harder to face.

The irony is that, quite apart from moral and religious considerations, American financiers' bumpkin resistance to suicide makes greater logical sense than European financiers' Old World acceptance of it. As Michael Lewis pointed out in a Jan. 8 Bloomberg column, any notion that a ruined financier who commits suicide is "taking responsibility" for his actions, as a New York Times blogger came distressingly close to arguing, flunks a utilitarian test:

[A]fter a financier has killed himself, there is no noticeable decline in the sum total of responsibility in need of taking in the financial world. His death fixes no problems, restores no wealth, redresses no harm.

The people whose affairs the financier has disturbed are left in at least as much of a lurch as they were while he lived—though now, perhaps they feel not only aggrieved by their losses but party to a suicide.

Sen. Grassley, take note. Our culture's relative incapacity for shame has a few advantages.

Friday, March 20, 2009, at 6:52 AM ET

In the March 18 "Architecture," Witold Rybczynski misspelled the name of Detroit's Fisher Building.

In the March 18 "Human Nature," about an IVF embryo mix-up in Japan, William Saletan asked whether it was the world's first wrong-embryo pregnancy. A reader subsequently pointed out a previous such pregnancy, which led Saletan to find several other mix-ups that had ended in births or, in one case, immediate post-transfer expulsion of the embryos.

In a March 17 "Jurisprudence," Darius Rejali misspelled, and thus changed the meaning, of tehuacanazo.

In the March 17 "XX Factor XXtra," Dahlia Lithwick misattributed Anne Baxter's role in All About Eve to Anne Bancroft.

In the March 13 "Spectator," Ron Rosenbaum misspelled the last name of Robert Earl Keen.

If you believe you have found an inaccuracy in a Slate story, please send an e-mail to, and we will investigate. General comments should be posted in "The Fray," our reader discussion forum.

Bleak House: The 3-D Concert Experience
Did Charles Dickens' 1867 trip to America inspire the first stirrings of modern celebrity culture?
By Matthew Pearl
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 9:55 AM ET

Three years ago, I began plotting a historical novel about Charles Dickens that would take place, in part, during the author's lucrative visit to America in 1867-68. Teamed with a series of theatrical managers, Dickens had developed performative readings from his popular novels, which he had taken to the stage throughout Great Britain. But it was the United States Dickens saw as the "golden campaigning ground," and soon after the dust settled from the Civil War, a tour was planned. Once a lowly factory boy, Dickens had by this point become an international superstar. In order to intensify my plot and prompt readers to reflect on the nature of fame at the dawn of celebrity culture, I decided to insert a stalker character into my novel. To my surprise, however, my research turned up something like the real thing.

Her name was Jane Bigelow. Born in 1829 in Baltimore, Bigelow was a descendant of the Poultneys of England, a family that boasted an Earl of Bath and a four-time mayor of London. At 21, Jane married 33-year-old New York-born lawyer John Bigelow, who was later appointed by Abraham Lincoln minister to Paris during the Civil War. During the Bigelows' diplomatic missions, Jane managed to offend politicos and royals, slapping the Prince of Wales on the back and shocking the emperor of Germany by sending her servants to sit in the imperial box at the opera. It was rumored that John Bigelow was denied the coveted post as American minister to London because of her outré behavior .

In November 1867, Dickens arrived in America for his reading tour, which had been arranged and financed by top American publisher Fields, Osgood & Co. of Boston. The stately Parker House hotel in downtown Boston served as the visiting novelist's home base. Dickens, a workaholic, was restless waiting a week and a half for the first series of public engagements. The Bigelows lived in New York but happened to be visiting Boston—and also staying at the Parker House—during Dickens' time there. The New York couple dined with Dickens, his manager, and publisher and played parlor games like "history," a whispering game like the one today we call "telephone."

Dickens seems to have liked the company of John Bigelow—at least in part because he did not like the company of Bigelow's wife. Famed Boston socialite Annie Fields, wife of Dickens' publisher James T. Fields, recorded in her diary that Dickens sympathized with John Bigelow. Dickens was candid about his unhappiness "in having had so many children by a wife who was totally incompatible." This was Catherine Dickens, mother of Dickens's 10 children, whom Dickens had often characterized as weak-minded and embarrassing, and who had long before been banished from the family estate in Rochester, England. Mrs. Fields recorded in her diary that Dickens had "the deepest sympathy for men who are unfitly married and has really taken an especial fancy I think to John Bigelow, our late minister to Paris who is here, because his wife is such an incubus."

Mrs. Fields seems to have sensed a problem brewing from Jane Bigelow, and within a month from the "incubus" entry she writes that the eccentric "Mrs. Bigg" had "at last brought matters to a crisis." Dickens was in New York for a series of readings there, residing at the Westminster Hotel near Union Square. A "little widow" named Mrs. Hertz, who was a friend of the hotel manager, wanted to meet Dickens and sent him flowers. She was brought into his room for a private meeting at noon the next day. When the star-struck widow left the room, Jane Bigelow was waiting in the hall. She accosted the widow—assaulting her with her fists—while screaming about the woman's "daring" at having entered Dickens' room alone.

The incident was startling for the degree of violence against a woman and because of the person who perpetrated it. But by this point, Dickens was accustomed to the hassles of fans. In America, loose copyright laws had meant that Dickens' books could be printed by any publisher (something Fields, Osgood & Co. were strategizing against), resulting in untold losses of profits but sweeping gains in the number of readers who now wanted a glimpse of the author in the flesh. Dickens' theatrical manager, George Dolby, had to place guards at the doors to the novelist's hotel rooms to keep away admirers who tried to barge in and demand a handshake or a free ticket to his readings. "We have divided our men into watches, so that one always sits outside," Dickens reassured his sister-in-law back in England. Along the tour, admirers had ripped out parts of his shawl and clumps of fur from his coat, and one even took an impression of his muddy boot print from the gravel. "How queer it is," Dickens lamented when describing Bigelow's attack on the widow to his incredulous friends the Fieldses, "that I should be perpetually having things happen to me with regard to people that nobody else in the world can be made to believe." Meanwhile, banished from Dickens' social circle, Jane tried to see Dickens several more times at his hotel, but Dickens' lookouts helped him avoid her.

Celebrity encounters were of recent vintage in Dickens' day. Before the 19th century, the public relationship with a writer was by necessity mostly limited to the act of reading. Along with photography and the rise of interviews and gossip items in print media, there were advances by mid-century in travel by railroad and by ship, and it became possible for the first time in history for the general public to see writers—as well as actors and singers—up close and to judge them by how they dressed, spoke, read, and behaved in person. Dickens had contemplated bringing along his longtime lover, actress Ellen Ternan, 27 years his junior, but must have envisioned the scandal it would have caused in an American press that was already curious enough about his personal habits to report that he did not use mustard at a particular restaurant in New York.

Dickens, who had a gleefully gaudy fashion sense that attracted attention and some revulsion, was a particularly striking celebrity to encounter. According to one French observer, the author looked as if he could have been "the head clerk of a big banking house, a smart reporter of an assize court, the secret agent of a diplomatic intrigue, an astute and wily barrister, a lucky gambler, or simply the manager of a troupe of strolling players," just as easily as he could have been who he was—the most famous writer in the world. A resident of Worcester, Mass., admitted that "his external appearance did not answer to our puritanical notions of a literary man." His surprising personal presence seems to have disoriented or even disappointed some of the 114,000 Americans who saw Dickens read on his tour. In Boston, one audience member left in the middle of a reading, exclaiming, "That ain't the real Charles Dickens, the man as wrote all them books I've been reading all these years!" A newspaper advertisement even offered tutoring apparently geared to those left unsatisfied by Dickens' readings, promising to "enable the pupil to make each character perfectly discriminated in quality of voice and manner from all the others, and to personate the same with a vivacity, spirit and naturalness far superior to the style of the great novelist." A Dickens fan could surpass Dickens himself for a fee of $5 an hour.

The Romantic era, argues Tom Mole in Byron's Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy, ushered in a new mode of celebrity based on "branded identity" brought about by frequent visual and verbal depictions in the print media culture. Authors like Byron, who promoted his personality along with his poems, tempted readers into feeling themselves engaged in a personal relationship with the author beyond the pages of a book. In crafting the biggest brand name in literature by writing for all classes, and making himself publicly visible through his unprecedented reading tours, Dickens set the stage for a whole new perception of intimacy with his readers. He also set the stage for the modern disjunction that comes from the realization that the celebrity who seems to be part of our lives is in fact another stranger.


Return to article

Bigelow was not shy about defying traditional manners and gender roles. One fellow traveler described her as being a skilled mimic of voices and as possessing a "pure eccentricity." She was late or a no-show for appointments and spoke out of turn without conventional etiquette. When she called on the salon of novelist Ouida, the pen name for Maria Louise Ramé, and was denied a visit on the grounds that Ouida didn't like Americans, Mrs. Bigelow yelled out, "We're the only fools that read your nasty books, anyway!" Ouida, amused by the outburst, invited her inside and ultimately found her such an intriguing character that she asked her to stay a month so that she might study her.


Return to article

In "history," the starting player whispered a sentence of his invention to be repeated around the room and written down each time. Dickens started out by whispering to Jane Bigelow: "A controversy arose between Mr. Green and Mrs. Brown in consequence of the conduct of young Black, who it appeared had made turtle soup in a coal scuttle belonging to Miss White without her consent."

From Jane whispering to Annie Fields, the sentence went around the room until it became, "A controversy arose between Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Green about a coal scuttle which Mrs. Brown couldn't tell anything about." Dickens exclaimed of the butchered sentence, "Such is History!"

day to day
The Problem With Eyewitness Accounts
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 1:55 PM ET

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Jurisprudence: Lying Eyes

Police lineups, finger-pointing, and eyewitness accounts have been tools of our justice system since its inception. But how reliable are they? Senior editor Dahlia Lithwick explores the issue in a conversation with Madeleine Brand. Listen to the segment.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Explainer: The Facts Behind the AIG Bonuses

The management of AIG and some members of the Obama administration believe the firm may be legally obligated to pay bonuses to some of its employees. How do the bonuses work? How did they evolve? Listen to the segment.

dear prudence
Our Marriage Is All an Act
My wife loves appearing in community theater more than she loves me.
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 6:50 AM ET

Get "Dear Prudence" delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Please send your questions for publication to (Questions may be edited.)

Got a burning question for Prudie? She'll be online at to chat with readers each Monday at 1 p.m. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the live discussion.

Dear Prudence,

I'm married to a wonderful woman who has been everything I could ever want in a partner. There has been only one recurring issue between us that has ever caused strain: thespianism. I didn't find out until after college and we had moved in together (she gave it up for four years to study) that she is a local-theater nut. It frequently keeps her out of the house four to seven nights a week. This isn't a once-in-a-while thing, either; she'll do four shows a year, meaning she's in a show more often than she isn't. I've tried doing shows with her, but it just isn't my thing. All this drama has me feeling like I'm a second priority in her life, and it constantly means we're not doing things together. What's really brought this to a head is that she has decided to start auditioning for summer shows (she's a teacher and has summers off) that will possibly have her away from the house for 90 days straight. I'm feeling conflicted—this isn't what I want in my marriage, but I don't want to stand in the way of her dreams.

—Another Opening, Another Show

Dear Another,

Your drama queen's dreams are putting a scrim between your expectations of married life and reality. If a consuming hobby means someone is out almost every night, then the left-behind spouse is either going to be filled with resentment or, worse, construct a life that assumes one's beloved is usually missing or, worst, possibly start looking for an understudy. This is not to say people who are passionate about golf, or biking, or pottery, or theater should just give it up so they can spend their free time with their spouse working on that exciting project re-grouting the shower. But a successful relationship requires weighing the longing to play Miss Hannigan in Annie with recognizing that you can't make "Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow" the theme of your marriage. Tell your wife you want her to fulfill her thespian desires but that you miss her, and you need a better balance between her independent pursuits and the time you spend as a couple. Ask if she'll both cut down on the overall number of productions she's in and figure out if there's a way she can be in summer stock without leaving you to star in your own version of The Bachelor.


Dear Prudence Video: My Two Brats

Dear Prudence,

My father died in surgery when I was 20. This was painful, but we had a loving relationship, and I grieved and worked past it. My mother committed suicide when I was 21. It was terrible, and getting over it was compounded by the fact that we had had a difficult relationship. My problem is with people I meet at work or new acquaintances. I'm completely comfortable with the inevitable "So what do your parents do?" question, since I'm still young and it's a reasonable assumption that they are alive. However, when I calmly state they have been deceased for many years, some people follow up with asking how it happened or other probing questions. Until I know someone to a certain degree, I do not want to open this subject. I find I completely lack the words or resources to deflect this question. One of the first people who asked me, before I learned to be vague, actually asked how my mother killed herself. What do I do?

—Third Degree

Dear Third,

Person You Don't Know Well: So, where do your parents live?

You: Unfortunately, my parents are both deceased.

PYDKW: I'm so sorry. That's terrible. What happened?

You: They died—and it's a painful subject so I hope you understand I'd rather not talk about it.

PYDKW: But you're so young! How old were you when they died?

You: I'm so glad winter's finally over—aren't you? I saw some daffodils yesterday.

PYDKW: Did they die in an accident or something?

You: You'll have to excuse me. I've got to get back to my desk. OR: You'll have to excuse me. I need to freshen my drink.


Dear Prudie,

Twenty-odd years ago, I was a painfully shy art geek at my small high school, where a group of girls went out of their way to bully me and make my life a living hell. Then I would go home to my alcoholic father, who was physically abusive to me and my mother. After years in therapy, I have since gone on to have a successful career, a group of amazing friends, and a life filled with travel and love and the usual ups and downs. Recently, I found my only friend from high school via social networking and was thrilled to be in touch. That has led to his contacts from high school wanting to connect with me as well. Some of them were part of the gang of cruel girls, which has brought that horrible time back to my consciousness. What is an appropriate response? I don't want to be mean, but I also don't believe that I need to welcome everyone into my life just because I set up an account online.

—Bliss in Exile

Dear Bliss,

Hit your networking site's "ignore" button or its equivalent to send your mean classmates off into the deep freeze of the unfriended. The good thing about online social networks is that they can put us back in touch with people from our past. The bad thing about online social networks is that they can put us back in touch with people from our past. Perhaps Herman Melville was anticipating Facebook when he wrote, "The poor old Past, the Future's slave." You may find your online network encouraging you to give the bullies of your poor old past a chance because they've probably reformed, or regret their behavior, or are oblivious about how they treated you. But your present, real-life friendship queue is full, and pretending to cheerily welcome contact from long-ago jerks is only going to stir up unnecessary pain. As Robert Frost, another writer you must have read in high-school English, wrote: "But if it had to perish twice,/ I think I know enough of hate/ To say that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice."


Dear Prudence,

I'm a legal secretary at a small bankruptcy-law firm, which is extremely busy in this bad economy. I have lately been working two to four hours of overtime each day, working through lunch, and coming in on Saturdays just to keep up with the workload on my desk. I don't mind working overtime—I'm extremely grateful just to have a job when everyone around me is laid off—but I'm the only one of the support staff who does work late. For my overtime, instead of an hourly rate, I get paid per item that I complete. My work is very time-consuming, so this rate usually equals less than my regular hourly pay. I feel that the free time I sacrifice so that the office runs smoothly is worth more than I am receiving. But I don't know how to tactfully ask for an increase in my overtime pay.

—Worn Out,

Dear Worn Out,

I am hearing from a lot of people who are expected to pick up the slack for a half-dozen laid-off colleagues and then be snivelingly grateful that they still have jobs. Getting a paycheck is a wonderful thing, but the lousy economy doesn't mean a return to feudalism. You're being taken advantage of, especially since economic disaster means good times for your firm. Sit down and explain to your boss how keeping up with your expanding duties means your workday now stretches late into the evening and through the weekend. Tell the boss that you always strive to work efficiently, but your job requires meticulous attention, so you need to be reimbursed for overtime at your regular hourly rate.* You should add that while you want to do everything you can to keep up with the demand, it's not possible for you to continue to work these hours indefinitely and that the office needs at least another part-time legal secretary. Your firm is one of the lucky few to be raking it in. The people who run it need to remember what our president once said (if in another context): "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."


Update, March 19, 2009: As many astute readers have pointed out, Worn Out's employers may be violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, and she may be entitled to time-and-a-half pay when she works more than 40 hours a week. Before talking to her boss, she should check out both federal and her state's labor and wage laws—she may even be owed back pay. When she has her discussion, she can point out that she's sure her law firm would want to stay within the law.

Will the Economic Crisis Destabilize Tajikistan?
The end of Russia's building boom could cause more problems on Afghanistan's borders.
By Ilan Greenberg
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 12:34 PM ET

VOSAY, Tajikistan—Taking a car from Dushanbe, Tajikistan's easy-going capital city, to the Afghanistan border requires special permission from government authorities. I didn't have it. Which was why I found myself near the border in a town called Vosay, drinking tea and cognac with a local man after we had aborted his harebrained plan to take his special "short cut" over the mountains to a string of border hamlets where the Tajik police rarely go.

A half-hour earlier, I had been in a car spinning dangerously over treacherous mountain overhangs on a soft road of loose gravel and dirt. The temperature dropped, and it had begun to drizzle. Cell phone coverage had evaporated, and goats kept getting in our way. At one point, the car skirted both edges of a precipitous drop, and in the fading light we were having more and more close calls on the switchback turns. The local man had gripped his hat and airily observed that the rain could turn the dry river bed crossing the road ahead into a swiftly moving creek. That's when I told the driver to turn around.

Back in Vosay, which had zero electricity and no clean water, women stood around large earthen kilns baking flat bread. Rail-thin children scrambled around ramshackle buildings. A passing sheepherder flung his stick at the legs of laggards in his flock. And at the mouth of the village, a large group of men just stood around.

At first sighting, Vosay appeared to be an innocuous pastoral tableau, impoverished and eerily quiet but a comforting destination after our attempt at the back road to Afghanistan. But for anyone concerned with regional stability and near-term developments in Afghanistan, the scene in Vosay is far more worrying than any broken-down mountain border road. It all starts with those idle men.

Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, the northern alpine border with Tajikistan has been the border that mattered least. True, little Tajikistan (its population is less than 7 million) became a significant conduit for drug trafficking, and a new U.S.-built bridge provides Afghanistan with an important northern trade link, but generally speaking, Tajikistan has been more like a bit player in the Afghanistan conflagration. The real drama was down the road over by the big outside actors in the conflict, Pakistan and Iran.

In the last few weeks, however, Tajikistan has started to play a much bigger role.

The trouble starts at Russian construction sites. Tajikistan derives a full half of its total GDP from remittances, according to International Monetary Fund statistics. Most of this money is earned by Tajik men working jobs generated by Russia's fevered building boom. But the financial crisis is poised to put an end to all that, potentially sending upward of 1 million young, restless, broke, and mostly male Tajiks home to a nation without electricity and bereft of jobs, impoverished and misgoverned, where half the population is under the age of 18. Like sharks returning to an irreparably damaged coral reef, these restive former migrants are heading to a country in an advanced stage of decay.

In every village, town, and city I visited in Tajikistan, there were men standing around. They had returned from Russia to visit their families and wait for the spring construction season to begin.

Many returnees told me they intend to go back to Russia—they had no alternative—but several already had disturbing stories. Among the dozen or so men in Vosay, half said they had been ripped off by their bosses in Russia. They received only a fraction of the money owed to them. One man said relatives had to send money for his train ticket home. Others said they had borrowed money from other Tajiks in Russia. "I would prefer to deal with the skinheads in Russia if I can make money," said a 30-year-old migrant squatting against a piece of junk sheet metal. "What can I do in Tajikistan?"

Criminal networks and radicalism could quickly fill the void. In a recently released report widely cited by Western diplomats here, the International Crisis Group concluded that Tajikistan is at risk for massive social unrest and is no longer a "bulwark against the spread of extremism and violence from Afghanistan." Rather, it is a potential source for both.

Alarming statistics back up the report. The Tajik government reports that this year crime is up 6.5 percent (and that's probably a low-ball estimate), while, according to the IMF, remittances are already down by 24 percent. Almost none of the Tajik countryside receives electricity or water in the winter, while three-quarters of rural residents live in what the International Crisis Group characterized as "abject poverty." The report adds, "[H]unger is now spreading to the cities." The country's two biggest industries, cotton and aluminum, have tanked.

Not that long ago, Central Asia—all those opaque countries ending in -stan that used to be part of the Soviet Union—was diplomatic flyover country. Other than as a source of oil and the site of the odd U.S. military base, Central Asia has not registered as a priority for the security mandarins commanding U.S. foreign policy. This may soon have to change. This mostly Muslim region, marinated in oil, uranium, and a full periodic table of other important commodities, is in a position to undermine the Obama administration's emphatic aspirations for success in Afghanistan. From failing banks in Kazakhstan to angry and unemployed men loitering in the shadows in Tajik villages, the financial crisis threatens to disrupt Central Asia's fragile political and social stability.

Having failed to reach Tajikistan's southern border with Afghanistan, I decided to check out the country's northern boundaries with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I flew into a northern city called Khojand, which dates its municipal history to Alexander's conquest. On the sidewalks, dirty little Chinese-built gas generators powered the lights in stores and offices. And on the streets, cars imported from Eastern Europe and purchased with money earned in Russia maneuvered for advantage to cross intersections made chaotic by an absence of working traffic lights.

In the city, I hired a car and a translator and headed for the border with Kyrgyzstan. Again I met with total failure. This time, a couple of police officials stopped me. Citing a dormant uranium mine nearby and employing Central Asia's standard interrogation method (bad cop/worse cop), the police claimed I had entered a "closed" town. I was promptly relieved of my press credentials.

Utterly defeated, I returned to Khojand, where I had lunch with Aziz, a university student whose parents are both doctors in a village bordering Uzbekistan. Aziz wore a suit and carried an old-fashioned briefcase. He spoke English, so he was able to find a part-time job working as a security guard in a hotel.

I told Aziz about my problems reaching his country's borders.

"These borders are a problem for everybody. But I can tell you, they do not matter." Aziz picked at his grilled meat and continued. "On all sides of our borders you will find the same thing: angry people with nothing to do."

When Did Drunks Start Wearing Lampshades?
A history of tipsy tomfoolery.
By Christopher Beam
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 6:36 PM ET

In a speech to Irish leaders on St. Patrick's Day, Barack Obama jokingly urged the audience to go easy on the spirits. "Stay as long as you want, try to avoid putting any lampshades on your head, because there are a lot of photographers here," he said. When did putting a lampshade on your head become a universal symbol of drunkenness?

Probably in the 1910s or 1920s. While it's impossible to pinpoint the first instance of a man donning a lampshade at a party, the image most likely came out of vaudeville and was popularized in early silent films. In The Adventurer (1917), Charlie Chaplin plays a rich yachtsman who, pursued by the police, puts a lampshade over his head and stands still as the cops pass by. While that example is more about disguise than inebriation, the lampshade on the head had become a drunk gag by 1928, when the Baltimore Evening Sun ran a satirical piece called "The Life of the Party": "It is usually customary for the life of the party about the middle of the evening to put a lampshade on his head and give an impersonation of [Scottish soprano] Mary Garden, after which he tells a joke that is not meant for mixed company."

Since then, the lampshade on the head has come to symbolize the obnoxious drunk trying to be funny—and failing. In 1938, a columnist described alcoholic actor John Barrymore as "at any moment … likely to drag down a lace curtain, clap a lampshade on his head, and play a scene from Shakespeare." In the 1940s, comedian Jim Backus played a radio character named Hubert Updyke III, a wealthy East Coast boor who called cocktail parties "pours" and regularly donned lampshades. (Backus would later play Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island.)

The victims of lampshade-wearing tend to be wives and girlfriends. In a 1966 letter to Ann Landers, a reader pleaded: "Please tell me what you think of a husband who entertains the crowd at a party by singing World War II songs which were never intended for ladies, puts a lampshade on his head and does a belly dance, borrows a blonde wig from a guest who is also smashed, and then insists that he's going to drive home?"

Variations on the lampshade joke abound. At one point in this Three Stooges short from 1950, Larry hides under a lampshade a la Chaplin and holds a lightbulb that lights up when someone pulls his tie. At a performance for soldiers in Vietnam in 1970, Bob Hope joked about drug use: "I saw a sergeant standing in a corner with a lampshade on his head waiting to be turned on."

Why is a lampshade on a head funny? French philosopher Henri Bergson theorized that laughter is a response to the mechanistic aspects of human movement and behavior. Because a standing lamp is similar in form to a person, putting the shade in the place of one's head produces an incongruity that provokes laughter. Cross-dressing may also play a role, as lampshade wearers are almost exclusively male and the practice often involves singing and dancing. It also puns on the idea of a drunk person being "lit."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

What Happens to the Archives of Defunct Newspapers?
They end up in a library.
By Noreen Malone
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 7:06 PM ET

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced Monday that it would discontinue the print edition of the newspaper. A few weeks ago, the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News published its final issue. When newspapers fold, what happens to their archives?

They usually wind up at a competing paper or in a library. In the last quarter of the 20th century, when many cities lost one of their competing newspapers, it was common for the survivor to absorb the assets of the one that went out of business. For instance, the archives of the defunct Washington Star are now owned by the Washington Post Co. Under other circumstances, a dead newspaper might sell its archives to a museum or an independent investor, but it's more likely to donate them to a library for a big tax write-off. (When the San Francisco Examiner was sold in 2006, the new owner donated the entire archive, including more than 5 million photos, to UC-Berkeley's Bancroft Collection.)

Some newspapers hand over their archives even while they're still in business to save money on storage space. That's why the University of Texas looks after paper clippings for the New York Times and its extinct brethren, the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Journal American.

In the future, newspaper back issues may be available online. Google launched its advertiser-supported News Archive Program in September with a plan to digitize and index as much of the historical newspaper record as possible. For now, though, most of the searchable material was already online to start with.

What about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News? The parent company of the P-I will retain all print and digital rights to the archives for the "foreseeable future." The morgue of old clippings takes up two large rooms in the paper's headquarters, but both archivists have been let go, and former staffers are doubtful that the material will remain in the building. As for the Denver paper, at least one investor has shown some interest in buying the Web site and archives.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Bill Barrow of Cleveland State University; Dan Richman and Lytton Smith, formerly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and Rick Mastroianni of the Newseum.

The Bonus Explainer
How did the AIG executive "bonuses" become a legal obligation?
By Brian Palmer
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 7:14 PM ET

President Obama expressed outrage on Monday at the use of federal bailout money to pay $165 million in bonuses to AIG employees and ordered the Treasury Secretary to use all legal means to prevent the payments. Yet some administration officials have cautioned that the company has a legal obligation to make the payments. Why would AIG have to pay out its "bonuses"?

Because that's what it agreed to do. Many top executives have employment contracts that specify a formula for computing their annual bonuses. These formulas usually incorporate some measure of overall company performance (stock price, free cash flow, or net income, for example) or the performance of the unit for which the executive is responsible. At some firms, the bonus formulas are freely determined by the board of directors and left out of any employment contracts—but the board may limit its own right to change the formula. It might, say, promise not to change the formula after a specific date. If the company then failed to pay under the original formula, a disgruntled executive could sue the firm for failing to follow its own rules. Under pressure from shareholders, many corporations are becoming more proactive about reserving the right to change their bonus structures. Some boards even reserve the right to recover bonuses already paid if there is evidence of bad behavior by the recipients.

Employee bonuses have their roots in Christmas. Through the end of the 19th century, many employers offered a year-end bonus in the form of a gift. (Montgomery Ward once distributed 7,500 turkey dinners.) In the early 20th century, most large employers converted the bonuses to cash, often a percentage of an employee's annual salary. The practice had become widespread by 1952, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a Christmas bonus qualified as wages, rather than a gift, as long as it was paid at the same time and in a predictable amount every year. Today, only about 40 percent of employers hand out across-the-board holiday bonuses, and many of those have switched back to noncash gifts. (Some jurisdictions are stubbornly hanging onto the tradition. Puerto Rico enacted a mandatory Christmas bonus law in 1969 and strengthened it in 2005.)

Performance-based bonuses have increasingly replaced Christmas bonuses. While the Wall Street bonus pool sank by 44 percent last year, it was still the sixth-highest ever. In addition to bonuses for top executives, most companies grant "bonus pools" to managers for distribution to their subordinates. Some companies pay lower-tier employee bonuses on a purely discretionary basis, meaning that the company can decide not to pay a bonus with no consequences (aside from the risk of losing employees).

Contractually Obligated Bonus Explainer: What did Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner mean when he conceded last week that failing to pay the bonuses could result in punitive damages? It's hard to say. Breaches of contract rarely, if ever, give rise to punitive damages. Some state labor laws penalize any company that fails to pay its employees by requiring that late wages be doubled or tripled in size. Bonuses have so far been construed as wages under these laws only if they are based on the performance of the employee (as opposed to the performance of the company as a whole).

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Peter Marathas of Proskauer Rose LLP, Broc Romanek of, Bruce Tolgan of RainmakerThinking Inc., and Viviana Zelizer of Princeton University.

fighting words
Terrorists, Dissidents, and Copy Editors
Why it matters how the media describe killers in Iraq and Ireland.
By Christopher Hitchens
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 11:34 AM ET

I knew this would happen sooner or later. On Sunday, the New York Times Week in Review section, alluding on its second page to recent suicide attacks on Iraq police and army forces, published the following:

Though violence in Baghdad has remained fairly low by post-invasion standards, the attacks against Iraqi officers operating under fairly high security suggested a rising level of sophistication by insurgents. Officials worried that militant former Baathists were again cooperating with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a largely homegrown terrorist group.

This appeared not as "The News" but as a piece of analysis called "Behind the News." Now, up until the present it has been the policy of the New York Times to describe the gang known as "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia" by the regular wording "a largely homegrown terrorist group that American intelligence says is foreign-led." This cumbersome and misleading formulation was at least intended to split the difference between those who regarded AQM as an intrusion into Iraqi affairs by the Bin Ladenists and those who saw it as a local response to the coalition presence. (If you look to the language in the above paragraph, you can see this same confusion continued and even extended, in that "insurgents" are described as more "sophisticated" because they get more vicious as the American presence becomes less noticeable. Wait: Wasn't the "insurgency" supposed to be a protest against occupation?)

The long, pedantic form of the description was also supposed to muffle the controversy over whether collusion between the Baathists and the Bin Ladenists was something that went way back, or something that was only tactically cemented by the coalition intervention. But at least this ponderous formulation expressed the ambiguity. And it preserved the paper's neutrality in the face of pretty convincing evidence that AQM was a franchise run by outsiders in close alliance with Bin Laden himself, as well as a foreign jihadist outfit that had long availed itself of cooperation with the arsenals and the officers of Saddam Hussein's intelligence apparatus. (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian who came to Iraq from Afghanistan before the intervention took place.)

There could be two views about this. But now look what's happened. The formulation has turned by rote and repetition into a mere mantra, and copy editor needs to cut a paragraph by just one line and—presto!—al-Qaida in Mesopotamia has become transformed by the journal of record, without the customary qualifications about its probable foreign leadership, into "a largely homegrown terrorist group." Ah, yes, homegrown: a reassuringly horticultural image with likable overtones of thrift and enterprise.

Until recently, the same newspaper used to employ a description of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland that was slightly less misleading and also somewhat more amusing. Aware of the fact that its readers knew that there were two discrepant kinds of Christianity practiced in the province, the New York Times would do its job of being strictly informative by characterizing the IRA as "overwhelmingly Catholic." One could see what the editors were vainly trying to do—namely, to suggest that very few Ulster Protestants indeed were succumbing to the temptation to enlist in the ranks of the IRA—but the resulting image was nonetheless risible, as if someone encountering a gunman of the IRA would be first and foremost overwhelmed by his Catholicism. (Come to think of it, where was Bill Donohue of the Catholic League when this slander was being promulgated? He usually kindles into flame at much less provocation.)

But now something really depressing has happened and is spreading like weed across the media. Since the Good Friday agreement that committed the IRA to disarmament and the Republican movement to electoral politics, two small, ultraviolent nationalist factions have sworn to continue the armed struggle. In the past week, they have randomly slain members of the army and police. And it has been agreed, apparently without a discussion or an argument, to refer to these gruesome elements as dissidents.

I have consulted the final court of appeal on this, in the form of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the ruling is pretty final. All the origins of the term lie in expressions of argument and opinion, and of "dissent" from ruling systems or ideologies. There is a solitary and obscure reference, from a report in the London Times of 1955, to an obscure Vietnamese sect described as "dissident" and also as launching attacks on local Vietnamese army positions, but otherwise all the sources and authorities are unanimous: The term describes only attitudes and not actions, and it is most famously associated with the intellectual opposition to Soviet totalitarianism. (Prior to that usage, it was principally applied to those religious people of conscience who refused allegiance to the established Catholic and Episcopalian churches, which ironically would perhaps qualify the word dissident as being "overwhelmingly Protestant.")

Plainly, something has been lost when such a historic term of honor and respect is loosely applied to homicidal thugs who shoot a Catholic policeman in the head and use pizza delivery workers as human shields. But in a media world where Bin Laden's murderous surrogates in Iraq can be given a homely moniker, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. As a novel about the Nazi era has recently reminded us, the Furies of antiquity were so much dreaded that they were sometimes apotropaically named "the Kindly Ones," or Eumenides. If you want a quick definition of euphemism, this would do: It consists of inventing nice terms for nasty things (perhaps to make them seem less nasty) and soft words for frightening things (perhaps to make them seem less scary). We should have learned by now that this form of dishonesty is also a form of cowardice, by which some of the enemy's work is done for him. We have seen through propaganda terms like collateral damage and ethnic cleansing. Let us not put up with homegrown for something vile and alien, or the abuse of the moral term dissident for something that is both cruel and coercive.

A "Beacon Light" Into Black Sites
Our answer to secret torture prisons ought to be the rule of law.
By Anne Applebaum
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 7:58 PM ET

"America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere."

—Ronald Reagan, echoing John Winthrop's 1630 sermon

From the earliest days of our republic, Americans have been drawn to the idea of their nation as different, exceptional, an example for others. Sometimes that view has been shared by outsiders who really did strive to be guided by our "beacon light," and sometimes not. Never mind: We came up with the notion of ourselves as an exception, and over time, we have become exceptional—though not because we are morally superior to anyone else. We are exceptional because we periodically feel obliged to hold our most senior leaders to standards with which others might not comply. We made Nixon resign. We made Clinton testify. Sooner or later, we will also have to hold accountable the American leaders who ordered American citizens to torture prisoners they had captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere, in violation both of our own Constitution and of international conventions we ratified long ago.

I say "American leaders" deliberately: Before any investigation has taken place, it is pointless to name names and to politicize needlessly what should, in principle, be a neutral legal process. That there were crimes committed is no longer in doubt. Mark Danner, writing in the New York Review of Books, has just printed excerpts from a previously confidential report, by the International Committee of the Red Cross, on interrogation methods used by the CIA in its "black site" prisons. Unlike Guantanamo Bay in its current incarnation, these prisons never officially existed. They are, or were, in the cellars of military bases in Afghanistan, perhaps, or maybe in the back rooms of Thai jails, or at the edge of Eastern European airfields.

They may not have held hundreds or even dozens of prisoners. The Red Cross report is based on interviews with only 14 detainees that ICRC officials conducted in 2006. But the horror of the CIA interrogation tactics in these places lies not in their scale but in the doggedness with which they defied American and international law. Water-boarding is one of the more benign methods on a list of "other methods of ill-treatment," interrogation approaches that also included many hours of forced standing, nudity, beating and kicking, confinement in a box, sleep deprivation, and exposure to cold temperatures. Detainees also spoke of being "strapped to a bed, in a very white room," of being smashed "repeatedly against the hard walls of the room," of being forced to listen to unbearably loud music and deprived of solid food. Describing these techniques, Red Cross officials deliberately use the word torture with all of its legal and moral connotations.

These techniques, horrific in and of themselves, did deep political damage. As I've written previously, and as Danner concurs, there is still no evidence that information obtained through torture was of any special value: People under extreme physical stress will say anything to make the pain stop. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the use of torture damaged some of the central goals of what I am still happy to call the war on terror. Certainly, they made it impossible to try those 14 black-site prisoners publicly, allowing the whole world to hear of their horrific crimes and feel disgust for their cause. The confessions of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—mastermind of Sept. 11 and one of the 14 "high-value" detainees—were widely ignored two years ago precisely because many people assumed, rightly, that these confessions were obtained using torture. Certainly, the knowledge that Americans use torture alienated millions of potential allies, both in the Muslim world and outside it, convincing them that America is no different from the fanatics it is fighting. As Danner puts it, "[W]e freely chose to become the caricature they made of us."

But the political rights and wrongs of this failed policy are no longer the point. What matters now is that our laws be enforced. America is not and never was a fascist state, and the CIA prisons were not the Gulag. These 14 prisoners were not tortured as part of an ordinary and accepted routine, in other words, but according to special rules and procedures, set up at the highest level of government by leaders who surely knew that they were illegal, or they would not have limited them so carefully. What we need now, therefore, is not an endless, politicized circus of a congressional investigation into every aspect of George W. Bush's White House but a very specific, carefully targeted legal investigation of the CIA's invisible prisons: Who gave the orders to use torture, who carried the orders out, what exactly was done, who objected? The guilty, however senior, should be named, forced to testify, and called to account—because the rule of law, and nothing else, is what makes us exceptional.

The Long Goodbye
Dreaming of the dead.
By Meghan O'Rourke
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 11:36 AM ET

From: Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: The Long Goodbye

Posted Monday, February 16, 2009, at 6:02 PM ET

The other morning I looked at my BlackBerry and saw an e-mail from my mother. At last! I thought. I've missed her so much. Then I caught myself. The e-mail couldn't be from my mother. My mother died a month ago.

The e-mail was from a publicist with the same first name: Barbara. The name was all that had showed up on the screen.

My mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer sometime before 3 p.m. on Christmas Day. I can't say the exact time, because none of us thought to look at a clock for some time after she stopped breathing. She was in a hospital bed in the living room of my parents' house (now my father's house) in Connecticut with my father, my two younger brothers, and me. She had been unconscious for five days. She opened her eyes only when we moved her, which caused her extreme pain, and so we began to move her less and less, despite cautions from the hospice nurses about bedsores.

For several weeks before her death, my mother had been experiencing some confusion due to ammonia building up in her brain as her liver began to fail. And yet, irrationally, I am confident my mother knew what day it was when she died. I believe she knew we were around her. And I believe she chose to die when she did. Christmas was her favorite day of the year; she loved the morning ritual of walking the dogs, making coffee as we all waited impatiently for her to be ready, then slowly opening presents, drawing the gift-giving out for hours. This year, she couldn't walk the dogs or make coffee, but her bed was in the room where our tree was, and as we opened presents that morning, she made a madrigal of quiet sounds, as if to indicate that she was with us.

Since my mother's death, I have been in grief. I walk down the street; I answer my phone; I brush my hair; I manage, at times, to look like a normal person, but I don't feel normal. I am not surprised to find that it is a lonely life: After all, the person who brought me into the world is gone. But it is more than that. I feel not just that I am but that the world around me is deeply unprepared to deal with grief. Nearly every day I get e-mails from people who write: "I hope you're doing well." It's a kind sentiment, and yet sometimes it angers me. I am not OK. Nor do I find much relief in the well-meant refrain that at least my mother is "no longer suffering." Mainly, I feel one thing: My mother is dead, and I want her back. I really want her back—sometimes so intensely that I don't even want to heal. At least, not yet.

Nothing about the past losses I have experienced prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me in the least. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. What makes it worse is that my mother was young: 55. The loss I feel stems partly from feeling robbed of 20 more years with her I'd always imagined having.

I say this knowing it sounds melodramatic. This is part of the complexity of grief: A piece of you recognizes it is an extreme state, an altered state, yet a large part of you is entirely subject to its demands. I am aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I am an adult. My mother had a good life. We had insurance that allowed us to treat her cancer and to keep her as comfortable as possible before she died. And in the past year, I got to know my mother as never before. I went with her to the hospital and bought her lunch while she had chemotherapy, searching for juices that wouldn't sting the sores in her mouth. We went to a spiritual doctor who made her sing and passed crystals over her body. We shopped for new clothes together, standing frankly in our underwear in the changing room after years of being shyly polite with our bodies. I crawled into bed with her and stroked her hair when she cried in frustration that she couldn't go to work. I grew to love my mother in ways I never had. Some of the new intimacy came from finding myself in a caretaking role where, before, I had been the one taken care of. But much of it came from being forced into openness by our sense that time was passing. Every time we had a cup of coffee together (when she was well enough to drink coffee), I thought, against my will: This could be the last time I have coffee with my mother.

Grief is common, as Hamlet's mother Gertrude brusquely reminds him. We know it exists in our midst. But I am suddenly aware of how difficult it is for us to confront it. And to the degree that we do want to confront it, we do so in the form of self-help: We want to heal our grief. We want to achieve an emotional recovery. We want our grief to be teleological, and we've assigned it five tidy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Yet as we've come to frame grief as a psychological process, we've also made it more private. Many Americans don't mourn in public anymore—we don't wear black, we don't beat our chests and wail. We may—I have done it—weep and rail privately, in the middle of the night. But we don't have the rituals of public mourning around which the individual experience of grief were once constellated.

And in the weeks since my mother died, I have felt acutely the lack of these rituals. I was not prepared for how hard I would find it to re-enter the slipstream of contemporary life, our world of constant connectivity and immediacy, so ill-suited to reflection. I envy my Jewish friends the ritual of saying kaddish—a ritual that seems perfectly conceived, with its built-in support group and its ceremonious designation of time each day devoted to remembering the lost person. So I began wondering: What does it mean to grieve in a culture that—for many of us, at least—has few ceremonies for observing it? What is it actually like to grieve? In a series of pieces over the next few weeks, I'll delve into these questions and also look at the literature of grieving, from memoirs to medical texts. I'll be doing so from an intellectual perspective, but also from a personal one: I want to write about grief from the inside out. I will be writing about my grief, of course, and I don't pretend that it is universal. But I hope these pieces will reflect something about the paradox of loss, with its monumental sublimity and microscopic intimacy.

If you have a story or thought about grieving you'd like to share, please e-mail me at

From: Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Finding a Metaphor for Your Loss

Posted Tuesday, February 24, 2009, at 7:11 AM ET

I am the indoctrinated child of two lapsed Irish Catholics. Which is to say: I am not religious. And until my mother grew ill, I might not have described myself as deeply spiritual. I used to find it infuriating when people offered up the—to me—empty consolation that whatever happened, she "will always be there with you."

But when my mother died, I found that I did not believe that she was gone. She took one slow, rattling breath; then, 30 seconds later, another; then she opened her eyes and looked at us, and took a last. As she exhaled, her face settled into repose. Her body grew utterly still, and yet she seemed present. I felt she had simply been transferred into another substance; what substance, where it might be located, I wasn't quite sure.

I went outside onto my parents' porch without putting my coat on. The limp winter sun sparkled off the frozen snow on the lawn. "Please take good care of my mother," I said to the air. I addressed the fir tree she loved and the wind moving in it. "Please keep her safe for me."

This is what a friend of mine—let's call her Rose—calls "finding a metaphor." I was visiting her a few weeks ago in California; we stayed up late, drinking lemon-ginger tea and talking about the difficulty of grieving, its odd jags of ecstasy and pain. Her father died several years ago, and it was easy to speak with her: She was in what more than one acquaintance who's lost a parent has now referred to as "the club." It's not a club any of us wished to join, but I, for one, am glad it exists. It makes mourning less lonely. I told Rose how I envied my Jewish friends the reassuring ritual of saying kaddish. She talked about the hodge-podge of traditions she had embraced in the midst of her grief. And then she asked me, "Have you found a metaphor?"

"A metaphor?"

"Have you found your metaphor for where your mother is?"

I knew immediately what Rose meant. I had. It was the sky—the wind. (The cynic in me cringes on rereading this. But, in fact, it's how I feel.) When I got home to Brooklyn, I asked one of my mother's friends whether she had a metaphor for where my mother was. She unhesitatingly answered: "The water. The ocean."

The idea that my mother might be somewhere rather than nowhere is one that's hard for the skeptical empiricist in me to swallow. When my grandfather died last September, he seemed to me merely—gone. On a safari in South Africa a few weeks later, I saw two female lions kill a zebra. The zebra struggled for three or four long minutes; as soon as he stopped, his body seemed to be only flesh. (When I got home the next week, I found out that my mother had learned that same day that her cancer had returned. It spooked me.)

But I never felt my mother leave the world.

At times I simply feel she's just on a long trip—and am jolted to realize it's one she's not coming back from. I'm reminded of an untitled poem I love by Franz Wright, a contemporary American poet, which has new meaning. It reads, in full:

I basked in you;

I loved you, helplessly, with a boundless tongue-tied love.

And death doesn't prevent me from loving you.


in my opinion you aren't dead.

(I know dead people, and you are not dead.)

Sometimes I recite this to myself as I walk around.

At lunch yesterday, as velvety snow coated the narrow Brooklyn street, I attempted to talk about this haunted feeling with a friend whose son died a few years ago. She told me that she, too, feels that her son is with her. They have conversations. She's an intellectually exacting person, and she told me that she had sometimes wondered about how to conceptualize her—well, let's call it a persistent intuition. A psychiatrist reframed it for her: He reminded her that the sensation isn't merely an empty notion. The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.

That's a kind of comfort. But I confess I felt a sudden resistance of the therapist's view. The truth is, I need to experience my mother's presence in the world around me and not just in my head. Every now and then, I see a tree shift in the wind and its bend has, to my eye, a distinctly maternal cast. For me, my metaphor is—as all good metaphors ought to be—a persuasive transformation. In these moments, I do not say to myself that my mother is like the wind; I think she is the wind. I feel her: there, and there. One sad day, I actually sat up in shock when I felt my mother come shake me out of a pervasive fearfulness that was making it hard for me to read or get on subways. Whether it was the ghostly flicker of my synapses, or an actual ghostly flicker of her spirit, I don't know. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping it was the latter.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: "Normal" vs. "Complicated" Grief

Posted Thursday, March 5, 2009, at 11:24 AM ET

A death from a long illness is very different from a sudden death. It gives you time to say goodbye and time to adjust to the idea that the beloved will not be with you anymore. Some researchers have found that it is "easier" to experience a death if you know for at least six months that your loved one is terminally ill. But this fact is like orders of infinity: there in theory, hard to detect in practice. On my birthday, a month after my mother passed away, a friend mused out loud that my mom's death was surely easier to bear because I knew it was coming. I almost bit her head off: Easier to bear compared to what—the time she died of a heart attack? Instead, I bit my tongue.

What studies actually say is that I'll begin to "accept" my mother's death more quickly than I would have in the case of a sudden loss—possibly because I experienced what researchers call "anticipatory grief" while she was still alive. In the meantime, it sucks as much as any other death. You still feel like you're pacing in the chilly dark outside a house with lit-up windows, wishing you could go inside. You feel clueless about the rules of shelter and solace in this new environment you've been exiled to.

And that is why one afternoon, about three weeks after my mother died, I Googled "grief."

I was having a bad day. It was 2 p.m., and I was supposed to be doing something. Instead, I was sitting on my bed (which I had actually made, in compensation for everything else undone) wondering: Was it normal to feel everything was pointless? Would I always feel this way? I wanted to know more. I wanted to get a picture of this strange experience from the outside, instead of the melted inside. So I Googled—feeling a little like Lindsay in Freaks and Geeks, in the episode where she smokes a joint, gets way too high, and digs out an encyclopedia to learn more about "marijuana." Only information can prevent her from feeling that she's floating away.

The clinical literature on grief is extensive. Much of it reinforces what even the newish mourner has already begun to realize: Grief isn't rational; it isn't linear; it is experienced in waves. Joan Didion talks about this in The Year of Magical Thinking, her remarkable memoir about losing her husband while her daughter was ill: "[V]irtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of waves," she writes. She quotes a 1944 description by Michael Lindemann, then chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. He defines grief as:

sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.

Intensive subjective distress. Yes, exactly: That was the objective description I was looking for. The experience is, as Lindemann notes, brutally physiological: It literally takes your breath away. This is also what makes grief so hard to communicate to anyone who hasn't experienced it.

One thing I learned is that researchers believe there are two kinds of grief: "normal grief" and "complicated grief" (which is also called "prolonged grief"). Normal grief is a term for the feeling most bereaved people experience, which peaks within the first six months and then begins to dissipate. ("Complicated grief" does not—and evidence suggests that many parents who lose children are experiencing something more like complicated grief.) Calling grief "normal" makes it sound mundane, but, as one researcher underscored to me, its symptoms are extreme. They include insomnia or other sleep disorders, difficulty breathing, auditory or visual hallucinations, appetite problems, and dryness of mouth.

I have had all of these symptoms, including one (quite banal) hallucination at dinner with a friend. (I saw a waitress bring him ice cream. I could even see the flecks in the ice cream. Vanilla bean, I thought. But there was no ice cream.) In addition to these symptoms, I have one more: I can't spell. Like my mother before me, I have always been a good speller. Now I have to rely on dictionaries to ascertain whether tranquility has one L or two. My Googling helped explain this new trouble with orthography: Some studies have suggested that mourning takes a toll on cognitive function. And I am still in a stage of fairly profound grief. I can say this with confidence because I have affirmation from a tool called "The Texas Revised Inventory of Grief"—one of the tests psychiatrists use to measure psychological distress among the bereaved. Designed for use after time has gone by, this test suggested that, yes, I was very, very sad. (To its list of statements like "I still get upset when I think about the person who died," I answered, "Completely True"—the most extreme answer on a scale of one to five, with five being "Completely False.")

Mainly, I realized, I wanted to know if there was any empirical evidence supporting the infamous "five stages of grief." Mention that you had a death in the family, and a stranger will perk up his ears and start chattering about the five stages. But I was not feeling the stages. Not the way I was supposed to. The notion was popularized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her famous 1969 study On Death and Dying. At the time, Kübler-Ross felt—accurately—that there was a problem with how the medical establishment dealt with death. During the 1960s, American doctors often concealed from patients the fact that they were terminally ill, and many died without knowing how sick they were. Kübler-Ross asked several theology students to help her interview patients in hospitals and then reported on what she discovered.

By writing openly about how the dying felt, Kübler-Ross helped demystify the experience of death and made the case that the dying deserved to know—in fact, often wanted to know—that they were terminal. She also exposed the anger and avoidance that patients, family members, and doctors often felt in the face of death. And she posited that, according to what she had seen, for both the dying and their families, grieving took the form of five emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Of course, like so many other ideas popularized in the 1970s, the five stages turned out to be more complex than initially thought. There is little empirical evidence suggesting that we actually experience capital-letter Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance in simple sequence. In On Grief and Grieving, published years later, Kübler-Ross insists she never meant to suggest the stages were sequential. But if you read On Death and Dying—as I just did—you'll find that this is slightly disingenuous. In it, she does imply, for example, that anger must be experienced before bargaining. (I tried, then, to tackle On Grief and Grieving but threw it across the room in a fit of frustration at its feel-good emphasis on "healing.") Researchers at Yale recently conducted an extensive study of bereavement and found that Kübler-Ross' stages were more like states. While people did experience those emotions, the dominant feeling they experienced after a death was yearning or pining.

Yearning is definitely what I feel. I keep thinking of a night, 13 years ago, when I took a late flight to Dublin, where I was going to live for six months. This would be the longest time I had ever been away from home. I woke up disoriented in my seat at 1 a.m. to see a spectacular display of the aurora borealis. I had never seen anything like it. The twisting lights in the sky seemed to evoke a presence, a living force. I felt a sudden, acute desire to turn around and go back—not just to my worried parents back in Brooklyn, but deep into my childhood, into my mother's arms holding me on those late nights when we would drive home from dinner at a neighbor's house in Maine, and she would sing a lullaby and tell me to put my head on her soft, warm shoulder. And I would sleep.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Hamlet's Not Depressed. He's Grieving.

Posted Thursday, March 12, 2009, at 11:29 AM ET

I had a hard time sleeping right after my mother died. The nights were long and had their share of what C.S. Lewis, in his memoir A Grief Observed, calls "mad, midnight … entreaties spoken into the empty air." One of the things I did was read. I read lots of books about death and loss. But one said more to me about grieving than any other: Hamlet. I'm not alone in this. A colleague recently told me that after his mother died he listened over and over to a tape recording he'd made of the Kenneth Branagh film version.

I had always thought of Hamlet's melancholy as existential. I saw his sense that "the world is out of joint" as vague and philosophical. He's a depressive, self-obsessed young man who can't stop chewing at big metaphysical questions. But reading the play after my mother's death, I felt differently. Hamlet's moodiness and irascibility suddenly seemed deeply connected to the fact that his father has just died, and he doesn't know how to handle it. He is radically dislocated, stumbling through the world, trying to figure out where the walls are while the rest of the world acts as if nothing important has changed. I can relate. When Hamlet comes onstage he is greeted by his uncle with the worst question you can ask a grieving person: "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" It reminded me of the friend who said, 14 days after my mother died, "Hope you're doing well." No wonder Hamlet is angry and cagey.

Hamlet is the best description of grief I've read because it dramatizes grief rather than merely describing it. Grief, Shakespeare understands, is a social experience. It's not just that Hamlet is sad; it's that everyone around him is unnerved by his grief. And Shakespeare doesn't flinch from that truth. He captures the way that people act as if sadness is bizarre when it is all too explainable. Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, tries to get him to see that his loss is "common." His uncle Claudius chides him to put aside his "unmanly grief." It's not just guilty people who act this way. Some are eager to get past the obvious rawness in your eyes or voice; why should they step into the flat shadows of your "sterile promontory"? Even if they wanted to, how could they? And this tension between your private sadness and the busy old world is a huge part of what I feel as I grieve—and felt most intensely in the first weeks of loss. Even if, as a friend helpfully pointed out, my mother wasn't murdered.

I am also moved by how much in Hamlet is about slippage—the difference between being and seeming, the uncertainty about how the inner translates into the outer. To mourn is to wonder at the strangeness that grief is not written all over your face in bruised hieroglyphics. And it's also to feel, quite powerfully, that you're not allowed to descend into the deepest fathom of your grief—that to do so would be taboo somehow. Hamlet is a play about a man whose grief is deemed unseemly.

Strangely, Hamlet somehow made me feel it was OK that I, too, had "lost all my mirth." My colleague put it better: "Hamlet is the grief-slacker's Bible, a knowing book that understands what you're going through and doesn't ask for much in return," he wrote to me. Maybe that's because the entire play is as drenched in grief as it is in blood. There is Ophelia's grief at Hamlet's angry withdrawal from her. There is Laertes' grief that Polonius and Ophelia die. There is Gertrude and Claudius' grief, which is as fake as the flowers in a funeral home. Everyone is sad and messed up. If only the court had just let Hamlet feel bad about his dad, you start to feel, things in Denmark might not have disintegrated so quickly!

Hamlet also captures one of the aspects of grief I find it most difficult to speak about—the profound sense of ennui, the moments of angrily feeling it is not worth continuing to live. After my mother died, I felt that abruptly, amid the chaos that is daily life, I had arrived at a terrible, insistent truth about the impermanence of the everyday. Everything seemed exhausting. Nothing seemed important. C.S. Lewis has a great passage about the laziness of grief, how it made him not want to shave or answer letters. At one point during that first month, I did not wash my hair for 10 days. Hamlet's soliloquy captures that numb exhaustion, and now I read it as a true expression of grief:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. O God! God!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Those adjectives felt apt. And so, even, does the pained wish—in my case, thankfully fleeting—that one might melt away. Researchers have found that the bereaved are at a higher risk for suicideality (or suicidal thinking and behaviors) than the depressed. For many, that risk is quite acute. For others of us, this passage captures how passive a form those thoughts can take. Hamlet is less searching for death actively than he is wishing powerfully for the pain just to go away. And it is, to be honest, strangely comforting to see my own worst thoughts mirrored back at me—perhaps because I do not feel likely to go as far into them as Hamlet does. (So far, I have not accidentally killed anyone with a dagger, for example.)

The way Hamlet speaks conveys his grief as much as what he says. He talks in run-on sentences to Ophelia. He slips between like things without distinguishing fully between them—"to die, to sleep" and "to sleep, perchance to dream." He resorts to puns because puns free him from the terrible logic of normalcy, which has nothing to do with grief and cannot fully admit its darkness.

And Hamlet's madness, too, makes new sense. He goes mad because madness is the only method that makes sense in a world tyrannized by false logic. If no one can tell whether he is mad, it is because he cannot tell either. Grief is a bad moon, a sleeper wave. It's like having an inner combatant, a saboteur who, at the slightest change in the sunlight, or at the first notes of a jingle for a dog food commercial, will flick the memory switch, bringing tears to your eyes. No wonder Hamlet said, "… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Grief can also make you feel, like Hamlet, strangely flat. Nor is it ennobling, as Hamlet drives home. It makes you at once vulnerable and self-absorbed, needy and standoffish, knotted up inside, even punitive.

Like Hamlet, I, too, find it difficult to remember that my own "change in disposition" is connected to a distinct event. Most of the time, I just feel that I see the world more accurately than I used to. ("There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.") Pessimists, after all, are said to have a more realistic view of themselves in the world than optimists.

The other piece of writing I have been drawn to is a poem by George Herbert called "The Flower." It opens:

How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean

Are thy returns! ev'n as the flowers in spring;

To which, besides their own demean,

The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.

Grief melts away

Like snow in May,

As if there were no such cold thing.

Who would have thought my shrivel'd heart

Could have recover'd greennesse? It was gone

Quite under ground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown;

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

Quite underground, I keep house unknown: It does seem the right image of wintry grief. I look forward to the moment when I can say the first sentence of the second stanza and feel its wonder as my own.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Dreaming of the Dead

Posted Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 11:36 AM ET

After my mother died, one of my brothers told me he had been dreaming about her. He was comforted by this. I was envious. I was not dreaming about her, and my main fear, in those first days, was that I would forget what her face looked like. I told an old friend this. He just looked at me and said, "That's not going to happen." I didn't know how he could know this, but I was comforted by his certainty.

Then, about a month later, I began to dream about her. The dreams are not frequent, but they are powerful. Unlike dreams I had about my mother when she was alive, these dreams seem to capture her as she truly was. They seem, in some sense, beyond my own invention, as if, in the nether-realm of sleep, we truly are visiting each other. These visits, though, are always full of boundaries—boundaries, that, judging from other mourners' accounts, seem almost universal.

The first dream was set in both the past and the present. And it captured an identity confusion that is, apparently, not uncommon right after a loved one dies. In the dream, it was summertime, and my mother and I were standing outside a house like one we used to go to on Cape Cod. There was a sandy driveway and a long dirt road. We were going to get ice cream, and we were saying goodbye to my youngest brother, who is 12 years younger than I am; in the dream, he was just a little boy. When I looked at him, I felt an oceanic sadness, but I didn't know why. He smiled and waved from the porch as my mother and I pulled out; I was driving, which struck me as odd in the dream. (My mother loved to drive, and I learned to drive only last year; she taught me.)

As we headed down the long road, my mother talked about my brother, telling me I didn't need to be anxious about him. It became clear she was going somewhere, though I couldn't figure out where. The conversation replicated one we had while she was in the hospital, when I reassured her that my brother (now in college) would be OK, and that I'd help look after him. Only in the dream, she was playing me and I was playing her. The dream had a quality so intense I can still feel it: I am as sad as I have ever been, as if ice is being poured down my windpipe, and I keep trying to turn so I can see my mother, but I have to keep my eyes on the road.

In the next dream, I am at my parents' house in Connecticut with my father and one of my brothers, when, to our surprise, my mother walks into the kitchen. Somehow, we all know she will die in six days. She seems healthy, although her fate hangs around her and separates her from us. Even so, her eyes are bright and dark, darker than I remember them being. We ask her what she is doing that day. She tells us, with a sly smile, that she is going to something called Suicide Park. I become upset. She reassures me. "I'm not going to there to commit suicide, Meg," she says. "It's a place where people who know they're dying go to do risky things they might not do otherwise—like jump out of a plane." She's excited, like a bride on the precipice of a life-changing ritual. I am happy to see her face, and I never want her to leave.

(Two days later, I tell her friend Eleanor about my dream, and she goes silent on the phone. Then she asks, "Did you know that your mother told me she wanted to jump out of a plane?" No, I say. "One Friday this fall, when she had to stay home from school, I was at the house with her, and she said: 'I really want to jump out a plane before I die.' I said, 'B, you can't—you'll hurt your knee.' But she got upset. So we tried to figure out how she might really jump out a plane. She also wanted to learn Italian. This was when we thought she had more time.")

The third dream had the quality of a visitation. Again, I am at my parents' house in Connecticut, feeling anxious about work. In the den, I tell my father, who is watching football, that I need to go back to New York, and he gets up to look at the train schedule. As he rises, I become aware in my peripheral vision that there are holiday ornaments on the kitchen table, and that people are sitting there. "Stay another night," I hear my mother's voice say, and I look up to see that she is the person at the table. She looks at me, but her hands are busy—either knitting or kneading dough for apple pie. "Stay another night," she says again, with longing in her voice. "Of course," I say, happy I can grant this wish, so simple yet so fundamental. When I woke that morning, I felt calm and peaceful. The voice was my mother's voice, and for the first time, her face was my mother's face. I felt that she had been saying something important to me; I wasn't quite sure what it was, but it had to do with how she loved me; I was still her daughter.

My middle brother has told me about some of his dreams, too. And I am struck by the continuities among all of them. Our dreams almost seem to follow certain rules of genre. In all, I know my mother is gone and that she will never be back as before. But I am given a moment to be with her, to say something, or to share a look or a feeling. In most, the important conversation comes when we are alone together, although another family member may be present on the outskirts. I am never fully able to grasp her; in the first, the car was a barrier between us; in a recent dream, I held her hand over the barrier of a hospital bed. My brother's dreams are similar. (His, I find, are even more beautiful and evocative than mine.) We both experience a quality of being visited, of being comforted, though we also feel a sense of a distance that cannot be traversed. Many readers who have written to me have reported a similar sense of feeling visited from a great distance.

Every time I wake from these dreams, I am reminded of passages from epics like The Aeneid in which the heroes go to the Underworld to see their fathers and cannot embrace them, though they can see them. Or of the beautiful sonnet by Milton about his wife, who died in childbirth. Recounting a dream about her, he writes, "Me thought I saw my late espoused saint," and then invokes her disappearance at precisely the moment they try to touch : "But oh! As to embrace me she inclin'd,/ I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night." What surprises me is how comforted I feel when I wake. I am sad that the dream has ended, but it's not the depleted sadness I've felt in the past when I've woken up from a wishful dream. I feel, instead, replete, reassured, like a child who has kicked the covers off her in her sleep on a chilly night and dimly senses as her mother steals into the dark room, pulls them up over her, strokes her hair, and gives her a kiss before leaving.

human nature
Dish Respect
The political crackdown on IVF embryo screening.
By William Saletan
Friday, March 20, 2009, at 10:09 AM ET

Remember that bill in Georgia to restrict in vitro fertilization? The Associated Press thought it was dead. Surprise! The Georgia Senate revised it and passed it a week ago. But don't worry, says the senator who rewrote the bill. In its revised form, all the bill says is that "when you create a fertilized embryo, that's for the purpose of creating children." He adds: "The only thing you can't do is form the embryo for the purpose of scientific research." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution agrees that the bill just "mandates that all embryos be created for the purpose of making babies. All mention of in vitro fertilization was removed."

No, no, no. I'll say it again: Read the bill, not the spin. The legislation, Senate Bill 169, has indeed been stripped of several controversial provisions. But look closely at the operative text of the adopted version:

(a) It shall be unlawful for any person or entity to intentionally or knowingly create or attempt to create an in vitro human embryo by any means other than fertilization or intracytoplasmic sperm injection of a human egg by a human sperm.

(b) The creation of an in vitro human embryo shall be solely for the purposes of initiating a human pregnancy by means of transfer to the uterus of a human female for the treatment of human infertility or cryopreservation for such treatment in the future.

The first paragraph bans the cloning of embryos for any purpose. But the second paragraph does not, as advertised, require that IVF be "for the purpose of creating children." It requires that IVF be "for the treatment of human infertility." The two phrases are not equivalent. Sometimes IVF is done to create children for couples who are technically or even clearly fertile. The bill, as written, would prohibit this.

Much of the muscle against the Georgia bill came from Resolve, a group whose mission is "to ensure equal access to all family building options for men and women experiencing infertility." Resolve claims to have pumped thousands of e-mails and letters into Georgia to stop the bill. It purportedly helped opponents "pack" the hearing that deep-sixed the original version. Jim Galloway, the Journal-Constitution's statehouse reporter, says this constituency was pivotal in forcing senators to rewrite the bill: "Religious conservatives underestimated the reaction of couples who have had to cope with infertility."

Resolve remains unhappy that the bill doesn't clearly permit IVF for "women who have medical conditions like kidney disease that prevent them from carrying a pregnancy, but who are not usually considered to have 'infertility.' " But that language can be resolved easily in Georgia's House of Representatives. The more interesting question is what will happen to the use of IVF for creating children when there's no question of infertility at all. That use is the screening of embryos for unwanted genes: preimplantation genetic diagnosis.

PGD began with screening for fatal childhood diseases but has gradually expanded to flaws that are less lethal, less harmful, less likely to cause disease, and less likely to strike early in life. Two years ago, British regulators approved its use to get rid of embryos that might become grotesquely cross-eyed. PGD is now frequently used to weed out boys or girls. One clinic temporarily advertised it for selecting hair, eye, and skin color.

From this unsettling progression, it's tempting to conclude that we should wall off the slippery slope of PGD. That's what the Georgia bill, as written, would do. The pro-lifers behind the bill have already conceded the IVF provisions necessary to get it through the Senate. They might appease the infertility lobby further by explicitly permitting IVF for pregnancy-related diseases. That would leave one constituency isolated: couples and doctors who want to use PGD not to overcome fertility problems but to screen out embryos that have unwanted genes or are of the wrong sex.

Is that constituency strong enough to get its own exception added to the Georgia bill? Will pro-lifers tolerate this use of IVF? My bet on both questions is no.

I don't know whether the bill will pass the Georgia House. But this is just the beginning. The bill is part of a nationwide project to regulate the emerging industry of embryo production. In one state or another—and then another and another—legislation will be filed to restrict IVF. Based on the Georgia experiment, these bills will probably make exceptions for infertility but not PGD. The battles, then, will be fought over which uses of PGD are acceptable. And these fights will be every bit as ugly as the preceding fights over abortion.

This column is dedicated to making us look at ugly facts and moral problems we don't want to see. For several years, one of these problems has been the slippery slope of PGD. Now we'll have to face, in all its ugliness, the slippery slope of regulating it.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. Cell phones that let you see through walls. 2. The United States shoots down an Iranian drone. 3. If Portugal restricts salt, will the United States follow?)

human nature
Scrambled Eggs
Aborting a fetus because it's not yours.
By William Saletan
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 7:41 AM ET

Would you abort a fetus just because it wasn't yours?

The question sounds crazy. How could it not be yours? If it's in your body, you must be the mom, right?

Wrong. Through in vitro fertilization, you can get pregnant with somebody else's fetus. Thousands of surrogates already have. You can also carry an unrelated child using donor eggs and sperm. But these are things you'd have to sign up for. The scary scenario is the one you never expect: going through IVF and discovering, weeks into your pregnancy, that your doctor put the wrong embryo in your womb.

If you think this can't happen, I have bad news: It just did. A public hospital did it to a woman in Japan. Now she's suing the local government for more than $200,000, claiming mental anguish.

How did it happen? Simple. The doctor got two dishes mixed up. Here's the time line, as far as we know: On Sept. 18, the doctor transferred two of the woman's embryos to her womb. On Sept. 20, he added a third embryo—the unrelated one. On Oct. 7, he told her she was pregnant. Around Oct. 16, he started to suspect the growing embryo wasn't hers. On Nov. 7, he explained what had happened and told her she was probably carrying another woman's child. On Nov. 11, with the couple's consent, the pregnancy was aborted.

If this time line holds up, the embryo grew for 54 days in vivo. Add a few days of cultivation in the dish, and you're looking at 8 weeks of development—technically, a fetus. The couple has filed suit, and the hospital has held several news conferences, with each party divulging details. Yet nowhere in the press accounts is there any suggestion, much less evidence, of a fetal or maternal health problem. If either party could invoke such grounds for the abortion, you'd think they would have. But they haven't. It seems to be a straightforward case of aborting a fetus because it came from the wrong family.

Or, rather, because it may have come from the wrong family. Remember, the first two embryos that went into the woman were hers. For complex reasons, the doctor inferred that the one that had grown was the third one. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, doctors told the woman on Nov. 8 that "it was not possible to confirm the source of the fertilized egg at that time, but they could analyze the mother's amniotic fluid in six weeks. However, if she waited that long, it would be too late to terminate the pregnancy." Apparently, the fetus was subsequently discarded, leaving no way to settle the question.

Now the parties are disputing which of them pushed for the abortion. The couple's suit, as described in a wire report, alleges that "they reluctantly terminated the pregnancy under hospital guidance" after doctors "recommended an early termination … telling [the woman] not to wait until amniotic fluid analysis could be conducted for confirmation of the fetus' identity due to risks to the mother." A hospital official describes the exchange differently: "We just explained to her about the risks of abortion in the period after an amniotic fluid scan but did not recommend abortion."

Where do I start with this twisted story? In the Japanese press, there's a suggestion of scandal because, absent definitive tests, the fetus might actually have been the couple's own flesh and blood. If it was, the story goes, then the hospital must be called to account for persuading them to abort their own child, when they innocently thought they were aborting somebody else's.

That somebody else, a fellow IVF patient, was in the same hospital all along. Nobody consulted her about the abortion or even told her about the pregnancy. Not until Jan. 25, a full two and a half months afterward, did doctors tell her and her husband what had happened. The doctors claim she was too weak to be burdened with the bad news.

From a pro-life standpoint, the whole thing is grotesque. But from a pro-choice standpoint, it's agonizing. One woman who wanted a child aborted, in her own body, another woman's healthy, wanted child. It's generally understood that if you hire a surrogate to carry your embryo, she, not you, gets to decide whether to abort it. It may be your baby, but it's her body, and that's the legal trump card. A woman who's carrying your child against her will, as in the Japanese case, presumably has an even greater right to end the pregnancy. But what about you? You didn't sign a surrogacy contract. You made that embryo so you could give it life yourself. The doctor picked it because it looked like a good candidate to become a child, and the subsequent pregnancy proved him right. A healthy child, your child, was terminated without your consent, consultation, or knowledge. Is that right?

If you think this is an easy call, hang on: It gets worse. The woman who aborted the fetus was in her 20s. The woman who lost it was in her 40s. If the elder woman has since become pregnant, I can't find any record of it. Can you imagine losing your last chance at motherhood this way? What would you have said to the woman carrying your child, if you'd had a chance to speak to her in time?

The Japanese fertility establishment swears a mix-up like this has never happened before and won't happen again. Really? Here's a list of five other known cases from England and the United States. (Thanks to Slate reader apropos1 for flagging the original case in New York.) All of these mix-ups led to births except one: a 2002 incident in which, according to the London Evening Standard, two women who got the wrong embryos were informed of the mistake "within hours," and "an emergency technique was carried out to flush the embryos from their wombs and they were given drugs to ensure there was no risk of pregnancy."

The number of babies born worldwide from IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies is fast approaching 4 million. In Japan, one of every 60 kids is an IVF product. A year ago, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, half the Japanese fertility centers participating in a survey "said they understood how medical accidents could occur" at their facilities. Thirteen admitted to medication errors, and two "said they had mixed up their patients." If that's how many clinics acknowledge such errors, imagine how many have actually committed them.

Maybe this was the world's first wrong-embryo abortion.* But with more than 1 million IVF cycles being processed around the world each year, my bet is that it has happened before and will happen again. Next time, I hope, the woman who conceived the embryo will get a chance to talk to the woman who decides its fate.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. The United States shoots down an Iranian drone. 2. If Portugal restricts salt, will the United States follow? 3. Is being gay like being black?)

Correction, March 18, 2009: I originally asked whether this was the world's first wrong-embryo pregnancy. Thanks to a heads-up in the Fray from apropos1, I found several previous mix-ups that ended in births or, in one case, immediate post-transfer expulsion of the embryos. Accordingly, I've changed the question to whether this is the first such incident ending in an abortion. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Irony Board
How many ways can Senate Republicans show intellectual hypocrisy?
By Dahlia Lithwick
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 7:05 PM ET

Let's stipulate: You hate our nominees, and we hate yours. Our nominees are all godless baby killers and terrorist lovers. Yours are all God-crazed rights suppressors and misogynists. Fine. But isn't it also the case that when you reverse, rewrite, or undermine every rule and standard you've ever laid out for measuring the fitness of a presidential nominee, you become ridiculous—period?

The irony now on display among Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee is staggering. You need to pedal your intellectual bike hard and fast just to get past the hypocrisy of the sudden rule changes: Senate Republicans who, four short years ago, condemned the use of the filibuster as "unconstitutional" and threatened to answer it with the "nuclear option" are now earnestly pledging to filibuster President Obama's judicial nominees, even though he has named just one. (They hate him.) Because, of course, the filibuster isn't unconstitutional when it comes to thwarting "judicial activists."

But it goes so far beyond that. See, for instance, Senate Republicans roughing up Obama's pick for his solicitor general, Elena Kagan, this afternoon on the Senate floor as they voted on her confirmation. She was confirmed by a vote of 61-31. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., voted nay. Now, Kagan, the dean of Harvard Law School, has been endorsed by every solicitor general serving from 1985 to 2009, including Charles Fried, Ken Starr, Drew Days, Walter Dellinger, Seth Waxman, Ted Olson, Paul Clement, and Greg Garre. While at Harvard, she was acclaimed for brilliant scholarship and an unprecedented willingness to hire scholars from across the political spectrum. So what is it that Kagan is being hassled about by Republicans on the judiciary committee? Her failure to provide sufficient information about her ideological views. Sen. Specter has already publicly spanked her for providing "insufficient answers" to his questions.

Oddly enough, it's always the Democratic nominees who fail to provide sufficient information to the committee. When then-Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito provided his wispy minimalist haikus in lieu of substantive answers, Specter was out on the ramparts defending him, insisting, "Alito went further than any previous judicial nominee in the thoroughness of his answers." And Specter himself is fond of saying that nominees answer only enough questions to get themselves confirmed. Actually, the opposite appears to be more accurate. Republican senators continue to demand answers until they can find a reason to vote no.

Kagan has answered and answered and answered. But the Senate still has questions.

See, also, Dawn Johnsen, Obama's nominee for the head of the Office of Legal Counsel. This morning, the judiciary committee approved Johnsen 11-7 in a vote down party lines. Her nomination will now head to the Senate floor. Like Kagan, professor Johnsen (who blogged for Slate's legal blog, "Convictions") answered questions at a hearing, then answered questions and more questions. Johnsen has provided more than 165 written answers to the committee's follow-up questions, including detailed information on terrorism, detainee treatment, executive power, warrantless wiretapping and electronic surveillance, the use of military force and CIA operations against al-Qaida, extraordinary rendition, guidelines for the proper operation of OLC, reproductive rights, the judicial nominations process, a "progressive agenda," voter ID laws, the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, enforcing and defending the Constitution, obscenity and child pornography. To name a few. She answered questions about actions she had taken when she served in the Office of Legal Counsel—questions that Bushies like Jay Bybee and Stephen Bradbury, also former OLC lawyers, declined to answer at their own hearings.

What did Johnsen get for her forthrightness? Seven Republicans cast votes against her. Following years of superb legal scholarship and service at OLC, Johnsen was in fact described this morning by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, as lacking the "requisite seriousness" needed for the job. Whether Cornyn's comments reflect blatant sexism on his part or some messianic new standard for legal seriousness I leave to you to decide.

And how did professor Johnsen so affront all the serious Republicans on the committee? An analogy from a footnote in a 20-year-old brief that compared forcing a mother to give birth with slavery in violation of the 13th Amendment—a passing note that has the folks at the National Review so steamy and frothing you could make cappuccino on them. Similarly, Kagan's great sin is that she once signed onto a brief opposing the presence of military recruiters on law school campuses, since their anti-gay policies violated school anti-discrimination rules. It was, as Kagan has painstakingly explained, a legal argument with merit on both sides. That she has been caricatured by her opponents as an "anti-military zealot" for this one act gives new meaning to reckless oversimplification.

Ted Olson gave legal advice to the Arkansas project, but he was confirmed as solicitor general. Dawn Johnson dropped a footnote in a brief, and she's a raging ideologue.

But let's say 20-year-old footnotes and signing your name on a brief really do signify deeply felt ideological views. What did Senate Republicans do with then-nominee John Roberts' 1984 memo defending legislation that would have stripped all school-busing cases from the courts—even when his superiors at the Justice Department thought the proposed bill went too far? Nothing. What did they read into his 1985 memo about nominating a government lawyer for an award program honoring women who changed professions after 30, in which he opined, "Some might question whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good, but I suppose that is for the judges to decide"? Nothing. Roberts' Paleozoic views on women freaked out even Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum. But his GOP supporters dismissed these youthful foibles and celebrated him as "nonactivist."

What did the Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee make of then-nominee Samuel Alito's 1985 job application for a high-level position in Ronald Reagan's Justice Department? The one in which Alito reiterated his loyalty to the Federalist Society and referred to the "supremacy" of the executive branch and Congress over the federal judiciary? Or his statement that he believed "very strongly" that "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion" and that he was "proud" to help advance that position in the Justice Department, including a proposal to work toward the "eventual overturning of Roe v. Wade and, in the meantime, of mitigating its effects"? Ah, well, that wasn't activism in the manner of a Dawn Johnsen. That was just good lawyering. Confirm!

I am not here to relitigate Roe. I leave that to these folks. I merely observe that 20 years ago, Dawn Johnsen voiced support for abortion—which was legal—and that makes her an activist, whereas 20 years ago Samuel Alito voiced opposition to abortion—which was, still, legal—and that makes him a great constitutional minimalist. Sen. Specter, why is it that your ideologues invariably have open minds and ours have some form of brain damage? Or is it merely that when men hold constitutional opinions for decades they are principled, whereas when women do, they "lack seriousness"?

Never mind. The only person who really wants to hold presidential nominees to their own confirmation promises is Arlen Specter, who actually wanted to hold hearings into whether Alito and Roberts fibbed about their positions at their confirmation hearings! Everyone else understands—quoting Elena Kagan in a book review now—that "when the Senate ceases to engage nominees in meaningful discussion of legal issues, the confirmation process takes on an air of vacuity and farce."

Vacuity and farce would be a very generous characterization of today's exercise in doublespeak. Shameless insincerity works, too.

Franken's Monster
Will Bush v. Gore bite Democrats in Coleman v. Franken?
By Richard L. Hasen
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 2:07 PM ET

Justice Antonin Scalia has repeatedly told questioners to "Get over it" when they raise questions about the fairness of Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court's decision ending the 2000 Florida recount and handing the 43rd presidency to George W. Bush. The case is so radioactive that no justice on the Supreme Court has cited it in any opinion in the eight years since it was decided. And despite the opinion's broad declaration that it is unconstitutional for a state to "value one person's vote over that of another," the case has not led to the expansion of voting rights by the lower courts. No one has made lemonade from lemons, at least not yet.

Norm Coleman hopes to change that, or at least to make a plausible enough legal argument to delay the seating of Al Franken as Minnesota's junior U.S. senator. Coleman went into the election contest in January hoping to find enough problems to make up for the 225-vote advantage that Franken secured following the recount in the state. That outcome now appears unlikely. Minnesota has a pretty good record of election administration compared with other states, and the state canvassing board did a great job transparently and virtually unanimously ruling on disputed ballots during the state recount. But as the election contest drags on, Bush v. Gore is poised to become the monster that's hard to kill.

When the court hearing the contest finally rules, the losing side—which most people think will be Coleman—is expected to appeal to the state Supreme Court. There, Coleman will need more than an argument that the lower court counted the ballots wrong, a decision the state Supreme Court will not want to second-guess. So Coleman's lawyers and the Republican leadership are already previewing their backup argument: that the equal-protection principles of Bush v. Gore require the courts either to count more illegal absentee votes cast for him or to order a new election in the state.

The Republican leadership has professed a renewed love for Bush v. Gore. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently urged Coleman to fight on to the state Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, declaring, "We all remember Bush v. Gore." Sen. Lindsey Graham told Politico that "from what I can tell, there are legal issues well worth taking up in the [Supreme] Court. … I think the whole Bush v. Gore—using the same standards to count votes is a big issue."

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled that Franken cannot get his certificate of election until the state election contest is resolved. To drag out the fight even longer, Sen. John Cornyn suggested that Coleman should bring a parallel suit in federal court should he lose in the state courts. All of this, of course, helps Republicans delay the day when the Senate has 59 Democrats.

But how good is Coleman's legal argument on the merits? Coleman appears to be making two somewhat contradictory arguments based on Bush v. Gore. First, he is arguing that because certain local election administrators counted some absentee ballots that they shouldn't have (such as absentee ballots signed in the wrong place on the ballot envelope), the state court is obligated under Bush v. Gore to count similar illegal votes cast in other Minnesota jurisdictions but not counted. A failure to do so, he argues, treats some voters' votes better than others. Second, Coleman argues that the Bush v. Gore ideal of treating all voters equally requires the court to count absentee ballots that "substantially complied" with the law, even if they did not comply with the literal requirements of the law.

It seems unlikely that either of these Bush v. Gore arguments would fare well in court. To begin with, there's a great debate over whether Bush v. Gore even has precedential value (the opinion contains unusual language limiting its application to "present circumstances") and, assuming it does have value, what the case means. Reading the ruling narrowly to require application of equal standards for ballots counted in state-mandated recounts, Coleman should lose. The problems Coleman points to with the alleged counting of certain illegal absentee ballots occurred before the recount; both the canvassing board and the court in the election contest appear to have achieved great uniformity in the treatment of similar problematic ballots. And certainly nothing in Bush v. Gore requires the counting of ballots that don't actually comply with the election statutes. If anything, counting such ballots could raise equal-protection problems. And since we cannot identify which illegal absentee ballots were cast for which candidate, we can't just take those out from the vote totals in the name of promoting equal protection.

Coleman's Bush v. Gore arguments depend on the most generous readings of the equal-protection principles of Bush v. Gore, which say that courts should find an equal-protection violation when there are systematic deviations across a state in how similar ballots are treated. Most courts have so far rejected such arguments. For example, both the 6th and 9th Circuits have rejected lower court rulings holding that it violates Bush v. Gore to use unreliable punch-card voting machines in some parts of a state rather than others.

Even if a court were to accept this generous reading of Bush v. Gore in the abstract, its application to Coleman is problematic. As Ned Foley explains, under Coleman's theory, if Coleman could find a jurisdiction in Minnesota that allowed felons to vote (contrary to state law), the court would have to count illegal votes cast by felons throughout the state. In essence, Coleman is asking the courts to compound equal-protection problems in the state by adding more illegal votes to the total.

Perhaps Coleman's lawyers would respond that Bush v. Gore then requires a new election because of errors of local election officials in administering a statewide election. But the logical end point of that argument requires states to take over from local election authorities the business of administering elections under uniform standards. This isn't a bad result, I'd argue, but one that that courts would be loath to adopt. It would open up just about every close election to a redo, because problems with election administration are endemic in the United States, with no guarantee that the redo will get the job done any better.

In the end, Coleman doesn't have a strong equal-protection argument. Then again, most of us thought George W. Bush didn't, either.

Ice Water and Sweatboxes
The long and sadistic history behind the CIA's torture techniques.
By Darius Rejali
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 5:23 PM ET

In the 20th century, there were two main traditions of clean torture—the kind that doesn't leave marks, as modern torturers prefer. The first is French modern, a combination of water- and electro-torture. The second is Anglo-Saxon modern, a classic list of sleep deprivation, positional and restraint tortures, extremes of temperature, noise, and beatings.

All the techniques in the accounts of torture by the International Committee of the Red Cross, as reported Monday, collected from 14 detainees held in CIA custody, fit a long historical pattern of Anglo-Saxon modern. The ICRC report apparently includes details of CIA practices unknown until now, details that point to practices with names, histories, and political influences. In torture, hell is always in the details.

The ice-water cure. "On a daily basis during the first two weeks I was made to lie on a plastic sheet placed on the floor which would then be lifted at the edges. Cold water was then poured onto my body with buckets. ... I would be kept wrapped inside the sheet with the cold water for several minutes. I would then be taken for interrogation," detainee Walid bin Attash told the Red Cross.

In the 1920s, the Chicago police used to extract confessions from prisoners by chilling them in freezing water baths. This was called the "ice-water cure." That's not its first use. During World War I, American military prisons subjected conscientious objectors to ice-water showers and baths until they fainted. The technique appeared in some British penal colonies as well; occasionally in Soviet interrogation in the 1930s; and more commonly in fascist Spain, Vichy France, and Gestapo-occupied Belgium. The Allies also used it against people they regarded as war criminals and terrorists. Between 1940 and 1948, British interrogators used "cold-water showers" as part of a brutal interrogation regimen in a clandestine London prison for German POWs accused of war crimes. French Paras also used cold showers occasionally in Algeria in the 1950s. In the 1970s, Greek, Chilean, Israeli, and Syrian interrogators made prisoners stand under cold showers or in cold pools for long periods. And American soldiers in Vietnam called it the "old cold-water-hot-water treatment" in the 1960s.

Cold cell. Abu Zubaydah, another detainee, says, "I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. … [T]he cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold." There, he was shackled to a chair for two to three weeks. "Cold cell" is one of six known authorized CIA interrogation techniques.

Since the 1960s, torturers have adapted air vents to put "the air in a state of war with me," in the words of one prisoner. In the first recorded case in 1961, guards at Parchman, Mississippi's state penitentiary, blasted civil rights detainees with a fire hose and then turned "the air-conditioning system on full blast" for three days. In 1965, detainees in Aden reported that British guards kept them "undressed in very cold cells with air conditioners and fans running at full speed." In other countries, interrogators have forced prisoners to stand or squat for long periods in front of blasting air-conditioning units or fans, as in South Vietnam (1970s), Singapore (1970s), the Philippines (1976), Taiwan (1980), South Africa (1980s), and Israel (1991 to present).

In a scene eerily similar to the CIA interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, South Vietnamese torturers held Vhuen Van Tai, the highest-ranking Viet Cong officer captured, in a windowless white room outfitted with heavy-duty air conditioners for four years. Frank Snepp, a CIA interrogator who interviewed him in 1972 in the room regularly, described Tai as "thoroughly chilled."

Water-boarding. Abu Zubaydah says that after he was strapped to a bed, "[a] black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe." If the contents of the mineral-water bottle were carbonated, this would be a well-known Mexican police technique (tehuacanazo), documented since the 1980s.* The Mexican signature mark is to mix in a little chili pepper before forcing the water down the nasal passage.

Water-boarding is not a technical term in torture, and reports have described several different water tortures under this name. The ICRC report puts to rest which kind the CIA used. It turns out to be the traditional "water cure," an antique Dutch technique invented in the East Indies in the 17th century. It migrated here after American troops returned from the Philippine insurgency in the early 20th century. By the 1930s, the water cure was favored by the Southern police. Interrogators tie or hold down a victim on his back. Then they pour water down his nostrils "so as to strangle him, thus causing pain and horror for the purpose of forcing a confession." Sometimes torturers cover the face with a napkin, making it difficult for the prisoner to breathe, as the ICRC report describes.

Sweatboxes and coubarils. Abu Zubaydah says, "Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. … The other was shorter, perhaps only [3 feet 6 inches] in height." The large box, which Abu Zubaydah says he was held in for up to two hours, is a classic sweatbox. Sweatboxes are old, and they came into modern torture from traditional Asian penal practices. If you've seen Bridge on the River Kwai, you know the Japanese used them in POW camps in World War II. They are still common in East Asia. The Chinese used them during the Korean War, and Chinese prisoners today relate accounts of squeeze cells (xiaohao, literally "small number"), dark cells (heiwu), and extremely hot or cold cells. In Vietnam, they are dubbed variously "dark cells," "tiger cages," or "connex boxes," which are metal and heat up rapidly in the tropical sun.

Abu Zubaydah was also placed into the smaller box, in which he was forced to crouch for hours, until "the stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful." This smaller type of box was once called a coubaril. Coubarils often bent the body in an uncomfortable position. They were standard in French penal colonies in New Guinea in the 19th century, where some prisoners were held in them for 16 days at a stretch.

Both kinds of boxes entered American prison and military practice in the 19th century. They were a standard part of naval discipline, and the word sweatbox comes from the Civil War era. In the 1970s, prisoners described sweatboxes in South Vietnam, Iran (tabout, or "coffin"), Israel, and Turkey ("tortoise cell"). In the last three decades, prisoners have reported the use of sweatboxes in Brazil (cofrinho), Honduras (cajones), and Paraguay (guardia). And after 2002, Iraqi prisoners held in U.S. detention centers describe "cells so small that they could neither stand nor lie down," as well as a box known as "the coffin" at the U.S. detention center at Qaim near Syria.

Standing cells. Walid Bin Attash says, "I was put in a cell measuring approximately [3 feet 6 inches-by-6 feet 6 inches]. I was kept in a standing position, feet flat on the floor, but with my arms above my head and fixed with handcuffs and a chain to a metal bar running across the width of the cell." Over the last century, many prisons had built-in, tall, narrow, coffin-size cells, in which prisoners were forced to stand for hours, their hands chained to the ceiling. In the early 20th century, the women's prison in Gainesville, Texas, had a standing cell in the dining room so that prisoners could smell the food.

High-cuffing. Detainees routinely describe having their hands cuffed high above their heads while they stand with their feet on the ground. This is less damaging than full suspension by the wrists, which causes permanent nerve damage in 15 minutes to an average-size man. High-cuffing increases the time prisoners may be suspended, elongates the pain, and delays permanent injury. It is a restraint torture, as opposed to a positional torture, which requires prisoners to assume a normal human position (standing or sitting), but for a prolonged period of time.

High-cuffing is an old slave punishment of the Americas, once called "hanging from the rafters." John Brown, a free slave, said of it, "Some tie them up in a very uneasy posture, where they must stand all night, and they will then work them hard all day." American military prisons adopted the practice in World War I. High-cuffing was the standard prescribed military punishment for desertion, insubordination, and conscientious objection. Prisoners were handcuffed to their cell door eight to nine hours a day, in one case for up to 50 days. They described high-cuffing as excruciatingly painful, and the American public, otherwise unsympathetic with these prisoners, found the practice appalling, sparking a newspaper debate over "manacling" in November 1918. A month later, the War Department rescinded high-cuffing as a mode of punishment.

Towels, collars, and plywood. Sometimes torturers come up with something entirely new. "Also," says Abu Zubaydah, "on a daily basis during the first two weeks a collar was looped around my neck and then used to slam me against the walls of the interrogation room. It was also placed around my neck when being taken out of my cell for interrogation and was used to lead me along the corridor. It was also used to slam me against the walls of the corridor during such movements."

This is a novel approach to beating someone in a way that leaves few marks. For 30 years, I've studied a long and remorseless two centuries of torture around the world, and I can find only one instance of an account resembling the collars and plywood technique described in the ICRC report. It's American. During World War I, conscientious objectors in military prisons report that their guards dragged them like animals with a rope around the neck, across rough floors, slamming them into walls. This one, as far as I can tell, is entirely homegrown.

Correction, March 20, 2009: The original sentence misspelled, and thus changed the meaning, of tehuacanazo. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Genetic Surveillance for All
What if the FBI put the family of everyone who has ever been convicted or arrested into a giant DNA database?
By Jeffrey Rosen
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 4:52 PM ET

The Case of the Bloody Brick

In March 2003, a drunk in southern England threw a brick off a bridge late at night, striking and killing a truck driver traveling along the freeway below. Armed with DNA from the blood on the brick, the British police searched the United Kingdom's national DNA database, which includes convicted felons and people who have been arrested, but failed to get a direct match. They then conducted a DNA dragnet, asking hundreds of young men in the area to donate a sample voluntarily, but still came up short. Without any other leads, the police decided to conduct what's called a "familial search" of the national DNA database. They were looking not for perfect matches to convicted offenders but for near matches, in the hope of using them to identify a relative who might have committed the crime.

Ordinarily, when searching for actual offenders, the British police look for a perfect match to a DNA profile that contains 10 pairs of peaks, or "alleles," with one number in each pair provided by the father and the other by the mother. Only identical twins share genetic profiles on all 20 alleles, so if you get a perfect match between the DNA you find at the scene and the DNA database profile, you have very strong evidence that the person in the database committed the crime. But the police can also program the search to look for partial matches, identifying profiles that are similar but not identical to those in the database. A partial match can suggest that the person in the database didn't commit the crime, but a close relative whose DNA pattern varies slightly on some of the 20 alleles may have done so. Accordingly, the British authorities programmed the search to pull up any offender in the database who matched at least 11 alleles out of 20 from the blood on the brick.

Initially, this familial search produced more matches than the police could follow up. But then the authorities limited the search to young men from two counties near the crime scene. This narrowed the number of partial matches to around 25. After interviewing the person whose profile represented the closest match—16 out of 20 alleles—the police found he had a brother who lived in one of the nearby counties. They went to the brother, Craig Harman, who agreed to give a DNA sample. It turned out to match the DNA on the brick. Harmon confessed after being confronted with the match, and in 2004, he was convicted of manslaughter.

Two years later, the district attorney of Denver, Mitch Morrissey, learned about the trail from the blood on the brick to Craig Harman on a trip to the United Kingdom, where he met with officials from the home office, police, and Forensic Science Service. They praised the success of familial searches. According to the country's Forensic Science Service, the Brits have done 70 such searches since 2004, leading to 18 matches and 13 convictions. The success rate is estimated at around 10 percent, which seems low but which the police see as worthwhile.

Morrissey returned to the United Sates and pitched the FBI, urging the agency to expand the search capacity of its Combined DNA Index System for "familial searches." He met resistance from Thomas F. Callaghan, who was then head of the FBI laboratory's CODIS unit, which encompasses the national DNA database. Callaghan is a former forensic scientist with the Pennsylvania State Police who has a doctorate in molecular biology; he balked at Morrissey's suggestion. His concern was that if the FBI began doing familial searches without congressional or judicial authorization, there could be a political and legal backlash over privacy and civil liberties that would imperil the federal government's recent decision to begin storing DNA samples not merely from convicted felons but from anyone who is arrested.

Last March, at an FBI conference about genetic privacy, critics of familial searches made their case to the administrators of the national, state, and local DNA databases. Partly as a result, the FBI decided not to reconfigure the national CODIS software to allow familial searches. Nevertheless, current FBI policy allows individual states to decide whether to proceed with familial searches on their own. As a result, last April, California Attorney General Jerry Brown (who is considering a run for governor) began to allow familial DNA searching in the largest state database in the country. The decision may provoke precisely the legal and political backlash that Callaghan predicted.

The California DNA database now contains approximately 1.2 million convicted people. And it's about to grow dramatically. In January, Brown announced a "major expansion" of the California database, as the state began to add the DNA of arrestees. California expects this to increase the pool of new DNA profiles from 200,000 to nearly 390,000 a year.

All of this could mean a slew of legal challenges on the horizon—not only over familial searching but also over the decision to include people who have been arrested in DNA databases at all, as 14 states and the federal government have done. In December, the European Court of Human Rights held that Britain's decision to store the DNA of unconvicted people violates European privacy guarantees—throwing the future of the British database into question.

The legal limits on family searches and DNA databases are murky, but the political implications are explosive for one big reason in particular: race. African-Americans, by several estimates, represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population but 40 percent of the people convicted of felonies every year. The CODIS database of 6.6 million now includes samples from convicted offenders. As arrestees are added to this mix, CODIS may soon grow to 50 million samples, which might be even more disproportionately African-American. Hank Greely of Stanford Law School has estimated that 17 percent of African-American citizens could be identified through familial searches, as opposed to only 4 percent of the Caucasian population. Once the implications of the racial disparity become clear, there may be a reaction against ever-more-expansive forms of DNA collection that makes the debate about racial profiling look tame.

The Dilemma of "CODIS Creep"

Not long ago, I drove to Quantico, Va., to meet with Tom Callaghan, who recently left CODIS, and to tour the CODIS unit, located on a bucolic Marine base in the gleaming new FBI Laboratory on Investigation Parkway. As we sat around a conference table, Callaghan gave me a history of CODIS, which contains national, state, and local DNA databases of convicted offenders, arrestees, crime scenes, and missing persons. The story he told was one of steady expansion. States began to set up their own databases in the early 1990s, and in 1994 Congress authorized the creation of the National DNS Index System. It launched in 1998 and originally included only nine states. Federal offenders were added two years later. In the beginning, only violent felons went into the federal database; that later expanded to all felons and then to all felony arrestees. Today, the national database includes 178 labs, and the CODIS software is distributed to all 50 states and 44 labs in 30 foreign countries.

Flipping through his PowerPoint slides, Callaghan explained to me how CODIS works. Each CODIS profile contains 52 characters representing 13 genetic locations, with two results per location and two digits for each result. Every Monday at 9 a.m., the national database automatically conducts two searches, looking for matches between the DNA of convicted offenders and the DNA at crime scenes. The automatic search also compares all crime-scene DNA samples with one another in search of serial criminals. A request for a specific search—say, from Florida to search the national database for a serial killer at large—goes to the custodian of the national database. As of January, the FBI claims that CODIS searches have "aided" more than 83,000 investigations. In addition, state investigators have provided names for state investigations more than 60,000 times, and states have traded the names of offenders 8,818 times. Still, the feds don't keep statistics on how many of these "cold hits" have actually led to convictions.

As I watched a mock report of a cold hit flash across the screen, a jarring statistic appeared: The FBI ranks the probability of its matches by using racial categories. In other words, if there is a perfect match of 23 alleles at all 13 genetic locations (the super-sized American version of the British 10 peaks), and an African-American with the targeted profile goes on trial, the jury might be told that those alleles are found in, say, one out of 14 quadrillion African-Americans while being only slightly more (or less) common in Caucasians or southeastern Hispanics. The point of the statistic, according to the FBI, is to reassure jurors who think the police may not have correctly identified a suspect whose race is hard to determine visually: Rather than taking the government's word for it, the jurors can see for themselves that the perpetrator must be the suspect whom the government has charged. But the decision to record the probabilities of each match in racial terms gives a creepy whiff of eugenics to the CODIS database. And this might become all the more unsettling as the racial disparities in the database increase.

The first political controversy about the national database focused not on race but on partial matches. These occur when, in an initial search of the database, investigators don't look for perfect matches at each of the 23 genetic locations, but a routine search allows for a little imprecision at each location because of so many different laboratories and agents. In 10 years of operation, the FBI is aware of only seven partial matches using CODIS. But they led to a dilemma. With a partial match in hand, the FBI is confident that the offender in the database isn't the source of the DNA at the crime scene. But investigators might be inclined to release the innocent person's name to law enforcement so that his family members can be investigated as possible exact matches.

Sometimes this works in the best way possible: to exonerate the innocent and convict the guilty. The most famous example of this led to the release of Daryl Hunt, a North Carolina man who, as 60 Minutes has documented, spent 19 years behind bars for a brutal rape and murder of a newspaper editor. Nine years after DNA testing first cleared him of rape, which happened 10 years after his initial conviction, the state ran DNA from the crime scene through its state database. The result was a near match to a convicted felon named Anthony Brown, indicating that Hunt could not have committed the murder, but a relative of Brown's might have. FBI rules at the time allowed states to share the results of partial matches within their own borders, and further investigation revealed that Brown had a brother named Willard in a nearby county. Investigators tracked down Willard Brown, offered him a cigarette, and, as soon as the interview ended, tested the DNA on it. It matched the DNA at the crime scene perfectly. Based on the partial match, Willard Brown confessed and Daryl Hunt was eventually freed.

In 2005, Mitch Morrissey asked the FBI to authorize states to share the results of partial matches across state lines. He had discovered partial matches between the genetic evidence left by three rapists in Colorado and the profiles of convicted offenders in Oregon, Arizona, and California. Morrissey wanted Oregon to test its sample to determine whether its convicted offender shared a Y chromosome with the material found at Morrissey's crime scene. This technique is called YSTR analysis, and it's a way of narrowing down a long list of suspects with similar DNA to determine whether they are, in fact, related. Close male relatives share a Y chromosome: My two sons and I, for example, have the same Y chromosome as my father and my father's brother. In a YSTR test, the police analyze the Y chromosome of the convicted offender in the database who didn't commit the crime and then compare it with the Y chromosome on the genetic evidence from the crime scene. If the DNA is different, it means the brother, or son, of the offender in the database didn't commit the crime. If the Y chromosome is the same, he might well have.

Faced with Morrissey's request, Tom Callaghan told Morrissey that the national database procedures prohibited states from sharing information about people who weren't suspected of committing crimes. Releasing the names of offenders except in cases of a confirmed match, he told Morrissey, might be viewed by courts as an expansion of the database beyond its original purpose: to solve crimes by surveilling convicted criminals. Morrissey, who had used Callaghan as an expert witness, was surprised by Callaghan's caution. He decided to go over Callaghan's head and eventually spoke to Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI. "He said, 'We have a problem?' I said, 'Yup.' He said, 'Give me 10 days and we'll get it fixed.' " In 2006, on Mueller's orders, the FBI established an interim policy allowing states to establish their own policies and procedures to follow up on partial matches that emerged from standard database searches. Armed with the new policy, Oregon and Arizona agreed to cooperate with Morrissey, but YSTR testing, which compared the Y chromosomes, revealed that neither of the profiles in the state databases was related to the Colorado rapists.

Morrissey wasn't satisfied with his victory on partial matches. Because they occur unexpectedly and infrequently, they're unlikely to produce lots of investigative leads. Accordingly, Morrissey began to pressure Callaghan and the FBI to change federal policy to allow not only partial matches but also familial searches. The main difference between the two techniques is that partial matches emerge inadvertently from a routine search of the database while family searches represent a second, deliberate trolling of the database for close biological relatives after the first search has failed to produce a perfect match.

The prospect of familial searches alarmed Callaghan. He feared that they might imperil the entire CODIS system since courts might view the searches as an even more troubling example of "CODIS creep"—an attempt by the government to use samples collected for one purpose for a very different purpose. Moreover, even though federal law requires the FBI to inform Congress every time it intends to change the genetic loci in the national database, proponents of familial searches wanted the FBI to act on its own. In Callaghan's view, the database was an invaluable resource that generates more than thousands of leads a month. Given the fact that familial searching has a success rate of only about 10 percent in the United Kingdom, he reasoned, why jeopardize solving hundreds if not thousands of cases in the future to adopt a controversial and fringe technique that might solve just a handful of cases at most? So when he was asked to organize an FBI symposium on genetic privacy and familial searching, he jumped at the chance to invite critics to challenge a proposal he viewed as ill-advised.

What's the Law on Expansive DNA Searches?

Last February, I got an e-mail from Callaghan, whom I'd never met, asking me to speak about the constitutionality of genetic privacy and familial searching at an FBI symposium on the topic. And so, in March, I showed up at the Sheraton Crystal City in Arlington, Va., where the FBI had assembled the legal advisers and administrators of all 50 state DNA databases.

The most enthusiastic boosters of familial searches spoke first. Mitch Morrissey explained that a pilot familial searching program in his city, using specially designed software, had identified three cases in which there was a 90 percent chance of a brother or a father-son link to the sample left at the crime scene and someone in the local database. Follow-up YSTR testing suggested a match in chromosome types, although, for different reasons, none of the leads actually led to convictions. Morrissey said he was trying to convince Colorado authorities to begin familial searching and criticized the FBI for resisting. "I liken it to having a Porsche and driving it like a Pinto," he said.

Another enthusiastic proponent, Dr. Frederick Bieber of Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital, spoke in language that eerily echoed the eugenic family studies of the early 20th century. "Does crime cluster in families?" he asked. "We know that it does." Nearly half of prison inmates in federal and state institutions had a family member who had been incarcerated, he announced. "If crime didn't occur in clusters of families, all this would be an academic conversation."

Then it was the critics' turn. Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project said that he could imagine supporting familial searches if Congress authorized and carefully regulated them with safeguards such as the requirement of a judicial warrant and corroborating evidence. But, he argued, "I don't think there can be any doubt that when the U.S. Congress passed the DNA identification Act of 1994, it did not think for a nanosecond that it was authorizing a database that was going to be used for purposes of familial searches." Everyone who testified before Congress expected the database to be used for "law enforcement purposes"—by which they meant finding past offenders who could be linked to crime scenes. Several witnesses noted that the National Research Council of the National Academies, which provide scientific advice to the federal government, had warned in 1992 about the dangers of familial searches, citing concerns about "privacy and fairness" for "relatives who have committed no crime." The council concluded, "Such uses should be prevented both by limitations on the software for search and by statutory guarantees of privacy."

When my turn came, I said that the constitutional and legal arguments against familial searches weren't clear and that courts might come down on both sides of the question. The main constitutional objections are that these searches violate the long-established principle that the Fourth Amendment prohibits searches—of a house or a database—for general law enforcement purposes without individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. And in the case of a familial search, the police already know that no one in the database committed the crime. On the other hand, if a familial search is backed up by a YSTR test, it seems less troubling from a privacy point of view because this means the name of a family member will be released for investigation only when there's a high probability that the person is connected to the crime scene. Courts have often said that searches are reasonable when they're highly effective at identifying the guilty and don't invade the privacy of the innocent.

In addition, the framers of the Constitution were concerned about "corruption of blood." They believed that you should be punished for what you do, rather than for the sins of your fathers. But the analogy isn't perfect: In the case of familial searches, relatives are being investigated, not punished, and the ones identified through YSTR testing are likely to be guilty, not innocent.

The strongest legal argument against familial searches is that they're not what Congress intended when it set up the database. In the leading case upholding the collection of DNA samples, U.S. v. Kincade, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit stressed in 2004 that the government had two good reasons for requiring people on probation to provide a DNA sample: the diminished expectation of privacy that people have once they're on probation, and the state's strong interest in ensuring that they reform rather than becoming recidivists and commit new crimes in the future. Familial searches can't be justified by either rationale. The family members of offenders have done nothing to reduce their expectation of privacy, and the state is investigating new crimes, not stopping repeat offenders.

If the legal implications were murky, the political implications were clear. Given the dramatic racial disparities of family searches, African-American families might be four times as likely to be put under genetic surveillance as white families. For this reason, I predicted that a national decision to begin familial searches without explicit congressional approval might cause a political firestorm that would imperil political support for the entire CODIS system. As custodians of the national and state databases, I concluded with a melodramatic flourish, the officials at the symposium might want to proceed cautiously rather than risk being accused of violating a public trust.

Several months later, I called Tom Callaghan for an update. He sounded relieved. The criticisms of familial searches at the symposium, especially the predictions of a political firestorm, had dampened enthusiasm for implementing them at a national level. The scientific working group advising the FBI in July, he said, provided scientific recommendations about partial matches but was silent about whether CODIS should adopt familial searches. Individual states, however, remain free to proceed with familial searches on their own.

The Grim Sleeper Slips the DNA Dragnet. But the Rest of Us Might Not.

Between 1985 and 2007, a California serial killer shot and strangled at least 11 victims, most of them African-American women. Newspapers called him the "Grim Sleeper" because 13 years elapsed between two of the murders. Starting in 2004, DNA analysis linked several of the crime scenes to one another, but a search of the CODIS database failed to identify the killer.

Soon after the FBI symposium I attended, California decided to forge ahead with familial searching on its own, partly in the hope of identifying the Grim Sleeper. According to the Los Angeles Times, Jerry Brown, the state's attorney general, overruled his legal adviser's concerns that judges might strike down familial searches on constitutional grounds and decided to authorize them in April. The policy that California adopted limits the use of the searches to cases with "critical public safety implications," in which no search of the offender's crime scene DNA has produced a direct hit or partial match. There are a few safeguards for privacy, most notably the requirement that any DNA evidence be subjected to YSTR testing before a name is released to law enforcement to confirm a probable link between the sample at the crime scene and the target of the familial search.

Since California adopted its new familial searching policy, the attorney general's office has authorized two searches that failed to produce a YSTR match between the potential-offender sample and the crime scene sample. Most prominently, a familial search did not identify the "Grim Sleeper." State officials downplayed the failure, emphasizing that they always estimated the chance of finding the serial killer this way as something like 1 in 10.

At the moment, California is limiting its familial searches to convicted offenders. Still, the searches may provoke lawsuits challenging the expansion of the state database to include arrestees—just as Tom Callaghan feared. And courts could well be troubled by the open-ended idea that once you're arrested and cleared, the state can subject you and future generations of your family members to permanent genetic surveillance.

Indeed, that's precisely why the European Court of Human Rights last December ruled that the United Kingdom's decision to store the DNA of arrestees violated European privacy guarantees. The court was especially concerned about the possibilities of familial searches of the DNA of arrestees. The court was also troubled that "the processing of DNA profiles allows the authorities to assess the likely ethnic origin of the donor."

U.S. courts may be similarly skeptical of the decision to include arrestees in state and federal databases. When Congress, in 2006, authorized the FBI to place the DNA profiles of federal arrestees in the CODIS database, the FBI further required that state databases allow arrestees to expunge their DNA from state databases if they are subsequently cleared or not charged. Thirty-eight states have laws with explicit expungement procedures (although they are not always easy to use). Nevertheless, the Minnesota Court of Appeals in 2006 struck down a state law authorizing the collection of DNA from arrestees for violating the constitutional requirement that searches may not be conducted without a warrant. The court emphasized that under the state law it was striking down, no one had to consider whether the DNA was in any way related to the charged crime or any other criminal activity. On the other hand, the Virginia Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion, in 2007, holding that taking a DNA sample on arrest is no different than taking a fingerprint.

How the Supreme Court would rule on familial searches of arrestees is an open question. Two years ago, in the foreword to a book about the technology of justice, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, "DNA identification may raise privacy concerns. Suppose a check of a convict DNA database reveals a near miss, thereby implicating a relative who has no record of conviction and was consequently not included in the bank. What kind of legal rules should apply?"

Stephen Mercer, a defense attorney who convinced the Maryland legislature to ban familial searches, predicts that courts will be skeptical of the expansion of DNA databases to include arrestees. As genetic research—led by private companies such as 23andMe—reveals increasing ties between genes and predisposition to violence and other antisocial behavior, there may be growing discomfort with the idea of giving the government access to DNA, which could lead to people being surveilled, detained, or suspected for their behavioral tendencies rather than their actions. Especially given the risk of racial bias.

The standard answer to the racial bias charge is this: Expand the database to include everyone. Some progressive scholars, such as Akhil Amar of Yale Law School, have argued that a universal database, such as the one created in Iceland, "would be a godsend to innocent convicts." For this reason, Amar has argued, U.S. citizens should be compelled to donate their DNA to a universal database, as long as there are strict privacy controls. He would limit "testing to so-called junk DNA—parts of the DNA code that identify individuals without revealing other medicals facts" and "allowing the government to search the database only for important needs, as certified by a special DNA court."

This seems utopian. As Mercer notes, "the problem is that the FBI keeps the original sample, and that firewall that the FBI said exists between the genetic sample and the edited profile is being breached through familial searching. Now that they're willing to go back to the original samples for YSTR testing, to determine familial relationships, how long will it be before they say: let's test those snips to see if someone is a sociopath?"

Moreover, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Congress would limit the searching of the DNA database only to serious crimes. Lawmakers refused to impose a similar limitation on foreign surveillance searches during debates over the Patriot Act, succumbing to the bipartisan arguments that those who have nothing to hide should have nothing to fear.

Nor does the Obama administration seem likely to encourage courts to impose the kinds of complicated and nuanced controls on information sharing that a universal database would require. Last month, the administration disappointed privacy advocates by arguing before the Supreme Court that there is no constitutional right for convicts to obtain DNA evidence that might exonerate them.

Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom have any models for the kind of comprehensive privacy regulations that would prevent the government from sharing DNA profiles in law enforcement databases with insurance companies, employers, schools, and the private sector. For this reason, while a perfectly regulated universal database may be conceivable in theory, it's nearly impossible to imagine in practice. And a universal database that can be consulted for any crime, serious or trivial, is one that many citizens would resist. It opens us to a world in which, based on the seemingly infallible evidence of DNA, people can be framed or tracked, by their enemies or by the government, in ways that liberal societies have traditionally found unacceptable.

What stands between us and this unsettling future are decisions by conscientious public officials, such as Tom Callaghan's efforts to prevent the FBI from surreptitiously expanding its database to include familial searches without congressional authorization. Thanks to Callaghan's determination to abide by the law rather than push the envelope, national familial searches are on hold for now. But they may soon become reality as states implement them on their own. There are relentless pressures—well-intentioned but shortsighted—to expand DNA databases without meaningful regulations or controls. And as California's decision to adopt familial searches shows, all the political incentives are on the side of expansion rather than regulation. It's unfortunate, in any event, that scenarios previously limited to movies like Minority Report are unfolding quietly, before most of us have thought about the consequences.

Have the Eyes Had It?
Is our eyewitness identification system sending innocents to jail?
By Dahlia Lithwick
Saturday, March 14, 2009, at 7:19 AM ET

We are able to find everything in our memory, which is like a dispensary or chemical laboratory in which chance steers our hand sometimes to a soothing drug and sometimes to a dangerous poison. —Marcel Proust

Describe the last person who served you a coffee. What if I helped refresh your memory? Showed you some photos of local baristas? Pulled together a helpful lineup? Cheered exuberantly when you picked the "right" one? Now imagine that instead of identifying the person who made your venti latte last week, we had just worked together to nail a robber or a rapist. Imagine how good we would feel. Now imagine what would happen if we were wrong.

Last month, a Texas judge cleared Timothy Cole of the aggravated sexual assault conviction that sent him to prison in 1986. Although his victim positively identified him three times—twice in police lineups and again at trial—Cole was ultimately exonerated by DNA testing. The real rapist, Jerry Wayne Johnson, had been confessing to the crime since 1995. Unfortunately, Cole died in prison in 1999, long before his name was cleared.

Our eyes deceive us. Social scientists have insisted for decades that our eyewitness identification process is unreliable at best and can be the cause of grievous injustice. A study published last month by Gary Wells and Deah Quinlivan in Law and Human Behavior, the journal of the American Psychology-Law Society, reveals just how often those injustices occur: Of the more than 230 people in the United States who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence, approximately 77 percent involved cases of mistaken eyewitness identification, more than any other single factor.

Wells has been studying mistaken identifications for decades, and his objection to the eyewitness identification system is not that people make mistakes. In an interview he explains that eyewitness evidence is important but should be treated—like blood, fingerprints, and fiber evidence—as trace evidence, subject to contamination, deterioration, and corruption. Our current criminal justice system—blessed by a 30-year-old Supreme Court precedent—allows juries to hear eyewitness identification evidence shaped by suggestive police procedures. In a 1977 case, Manson v. Brathwaite, the Supreme Court held that evidence that was a product of suggestive identification procedures need not be excluded if the identification was nevertheless deemed "reliable." Five criteria for determining whether that identification could be reliable were laid out—including how much opportunity the witness had to view the perpetrator and how certain she was of her identification. In the intervening years, social scientists have called into question much of the science underlying these five factors. Today we know, for instance, that you can have a good long look, be certain you have the right guy, and also be wrong. But Manson is still considered good law.

Jennifer Thompson was 22 the night she was raped in 1984. Throughout the ordeal, she scrupulously studied her attacker, determined to memorize every detail of his face and voice so that, if she survived, she could help the police catch him. Thompson soon identified Ronald Cotton in a photo lineup. When she—after some hesitation—again picked Cotton out of a physical lineup a few days later, a detective told her she'd picked the same person in the photo lineup. As Thompson told Leslie Stahl on CBS last weekend, that assurance led her to think: "Bingo. I did it right. I did it right."

But in this case Thompson got it wrong, although Cotton served 10 and a half years before DNA evidence exonerated him and decisively implicated another man, Bobby Poole. The curious part of the story is that despite Thompson's determination to memorize every detail, when she first saw Bobby Poole in court she was certain she had never seen him before. Indeed, according to Wells and Quinlivan, "Even after DNA had exonerated Cotton and Thompson herself had accepted the fact that Poole was her attacker, she had no memory of Poole's face and, when thinking back to the attack she says, 'I still see Ronald Cotton.' "

How did our eyewitness identification system manage to paint a detailed picture of the wrong face in Jennifer Thompson's mind while somehow completely erasing the right one? Wells and Quinlivan's paper suggests a host of tricks the mind can play, ranging from incorporating innocent "feedback" from police investigators, to increasing certainty in one's shaky memories that become reinforced over time.

Add to that Thompson's determination to regain control over her life, and her need to believe that the justice system was just, and it would have been doubly hard for her to look at a police lineup that, as it happened, did not include an image of the real rapist and walk away. To hear Thompson and other victims tell it, being part of a system that identified and ultimately convicted the wrong man became another form of victimization, and for that reason alone the system needs to be reformed.

The problems with the eyewitness identification system cannot be laid at the feet of crime victims any more than they can be blamed on police investigators. Wells' argument for reforming our eyewitness identification system is that the incentive for the police to subtly nudge our memories goes not only uncorrected by the justice system, but sometimes is rewarded by it. Wells wants the Supreme Court to revisit the scientific assumptions underpinning Manson v. Brathwaite, which allows such identifications to come into a courtroom as long as the identification is "reliable."

Whether or not the John Roberts court wishes to take up the issue of innocent prisoners—there is, for instance, a case now percolating through the New Jersey courts testing the scientific premises of Manson—a few states and cities have used innocent exoneration scandals to rethink their eyewitness identification practices in ways that would begin to restore the credibility of such evidence. Proposed changes include showing victims photos sequentially, explaining to the victim that the perpetrator may not be included in the lineup, and ensuring that whoever conducts the lineup has no knowledge of which person is the actual suspect.

This is not an issue that tracks the usual pro-prosecution, pro-defense divide. Mostly, police departments don't change their eyewitness identification procedures simply because there is no big loud constituency demanding that guys in lineups be treated more fairly. But some of the most zealous reformers of the current eyewitness identification process are lifelong conservatives who recognize that the credibility of the whole justice system is on the line each time an innocent man goes to jail. That's because when that happens, a guilty man often walks free.

A version of this article appears in this week's issue of Newsweek.

medical examiner
Diabetes of the Brain
Is Alzheimer's disease actually a form of diabetes?
By Amanda Schaffer
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 1:01 PM ET

When the brazen James Watson had his genome sequenced, he declined to find out whether he carried a gene variant that would increase his risk for Alzheimer's disease. Ditto for Steven Pinker. There are virtually no treatment or prevention options for those who have or are at risk for Alzheimer's. Nor do scientists fully understand what causes it, though for years, opposing camps have duked it out over hypotheses that have focused largely on brain abnormalities called plaques and others called tangles, neither of which has so far proved a good therapeutic target.

Now some experts are proposing an avant-garde way of approaching Alzheimer's: as a form of diabetes. Some even dub it "type 3 diabetes" or "diabetes of the brain." The idea is that memory loss and cognitive deterioration in at least some Alzheimer's patients may be caused by low insulin or insulin resistance in the brain, much as lack of production or poor response to insulin in the body is central to the pathologies of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Effective Alzheimer's treatments, then, might aim to boost brain insulin levels or decrease resistance while addressing destructive factors like inflammation and oxidative stress. If the theory holds up, as early research suggests, it could be a boon to a field scarred by disappointments and dead ends.

Alzheimer's researchers have been bitterly divided over what initially causes the disease and where to look for treatments. For years, the dominant view was that plaques—sticky deposits of a protein called beta-amyloid—were the central culprits, destroying neurons and causing cognitive decline. More recently, some researchers in the amyloid camp have begun to focus on toxic, soluble forms of the protein, rather than the plaques themselves, as the real instigator. At the same time, another faction has emphasized abnormal modifications of a protein called tau that results in so-called tangles, which also turn up in brains ravaged by Alzheimer's. But neither the plaques nor the tangles seem to account fully for the onset of the disease. Plaques often appear in the brains of elderly people without Alzheimer's, and some evidence suggests that tangles form later in the disease's progression, rather than triggering it. Nor has either abnormality yet proven to be a fruitful target for new drugs. Meanwhile, the pitched battles have done damage to the field. It's been "one army against another," a prominent researcher told me. "You see them fighting at meetings," she says, and you think, "Oh, shut up. Try to come up with something that fits both."

Which brings us to insulin. Insulin is the hormone that allows cells, including some brain cells, to take up energy in the form of glucose. Proper insulin function in the brain appears necessary to the formation and maintenance of memories. And, crucially, a lack of insulin or insulin resistance is connected both to amyloid protein regulation and to the modification of tau proteins, which can cause tangles. In other words, insulin seems to hold up a conceptual umbrella under which the amyloid and the tangle camps might finally meet. (Type 2 diabetes is also a risk factor for Alzheimer's and cognitive decline. In 2005, researchers at Brown showed that by knocking out insulin production and causing brain insulin resistance in rats, they could create a model of Alzheimer's, complete with plaques and abnormal accumulations of tau. (Suzanne de la Monte, who led this group, was the first to dub Alzheimer's "type 3 diabetes." She reviews the evidence to date on this theory here.) Scientists have also described links between abnormal insulin and other hallmarks of Alzheimer's, such as oxidative damage and inflammation. And last month, Bill Klein at Northwestern found that in an in vitro model using rats' brain cells, insulin could shield the cells from an onslaught of soluble amyloid proteins. That is, he found that when memory-forming cells from the brain's hippocampus were dosed with insulin, their cell connections were not as badly damaged by the amyloids. This suggests insulin might help to preserve or improve memory circuitry in the face of disease.

Insulin-related therapies look preliminarily good in clinical trials, too. In 2007, researchers in Seattle conducted a small, randomized clinical trial in which patients with early Alzheimer's disease received daily puffs of insulin in the nose for 21 days. (The team chose this method of administration so that the insulin would move more directly to the brain without circulating throughout the body, where it might cause an unwanted drop in blood glucose.) The group, led by Suzanne Craft of the VA Puget Sound Medical Center, found that patients who received insulin were better able to pay attention to a story that was read to them and recall details 20 minutes later. Their caregivers also rated their mental functioning more highly. The team is now conducting a larger clinical trial, with results expected this fall. Craft says she is optimistic that insulin may open new doors for Alzheimer's patients. However, she shies away from dubbing the disease a "diabetes of the brain," noting that diabetes is normally diagnosed on the basis of elevated glucose levels, which do not appear to be at play here.

Other promising, early results come from the diabetes drug rosiglitazone, which has a checkered reputation. In patients with type 2 diabetes, rosiglitazone (aka Avandia) acts to increase insulin sensitivity in the body. But it may also raise the risk of heart attacks. The hope is that in some Alzheimer's patients, at least, the drug will have benefits for the brain—without the cardiovascular downside. In a small trial in 2005, Alzheimer's patients who received rosiglitazone for six months showed better attention and better recall than those who received a placebo. A more substantial, phase-two trial, published in 2006 and sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline (which makes the drug), found that patients who received rosiglitazone also fared better after 24 weeks of treatment—but only if they did not carry a particular gene variant. (This variant, called APOE-E4, is known to predispose people to the disease.)

GSK is now sponsoring several multinational phase-three trials, involving roughly 3,000 patients in 22 countries, which are expected to show more definitively whether rosiglitazone helps to improve cognition and functional capacity in patients with mild to moderate disease. Results are expected this summer. GSK researcher Michael Gold says that the Data Safety and Monitoring Board, which oversees these studies and has access to unblinded data, has not signaled a need to change or stop the studies based on safety. Still, researchers like Craft, who has served as a consultant to GSK, suggest that other drugs in the same chemical class as rosiglitazone might ultimately offer benefits to Alzheimer's patients with less cardiovascular risk.

Of course, taking intranasal insulin or a diabetes drug like rosiglitazone is not the only possible way to boost the brain's sensitivity to insulin. Another, even better option may be to do aerobic exercise, says Craft. And this seems to hold for older adults in general, including those without Alzheimer's: Better insulin signaling and glucose uptake in the brain may offer them a cognitive boost as well. One more reason, it seems, to close the medicine cabinet and work up a good sweat.

Goldman Sachs, Welfare Queen
Wall Street's most storied firm is surviving on taxpayer dollars.
By Daniel Gross
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 6:09 PM ET

While it was singed in the credit meltdown, Goldman Sachs, the alpha male of Wall Street, has emerged as a survivor. The cover of last week's Barron's heralded the resurrection of Goldman and Morgan Stanley—"the sole standouts," as Andrew Bary called them. The company's shares have rallied back above $100, and its market capitalization is nearly $47 billion. Goldman's emergence from the wreckage could be seen as yet another glorious chapter for the firm. Charles Ellis, in his book about Goldman, The Partnership, lionized the firm as the only company "with such strengths that it operates with almost no external constraints in virtually any financial market it chooses, on the terms it chooses, on the scale it chooses, when it chooses, and with the partners it chooses." For the paperback, Ellis might want to add the following proviso: so long as the government is willing to give it billions of dollars.

People sometimes refer to the firm as Government Sachs because so many of its former employees wind up in high positions in Washington (Robert Rubin, Henry Paulson, etc.). But the sobriquet sticks today because the company is heavily reliant on the government for support. Tally up the various forms of direct and indirect taxpayer assistance Goldman has received in the last several months, and it turns out that you and I are providing billions of dollars to bail out the proud firm. The former undisputed heavyweight champion of the financial services sector has become one of New York's biggest welfare queens.

Last fall, in the wake of the failure of Lehman Bros., Goldman transformed itself from an unregulated investment bank into a bank holding company so it could accept deposits. Like other banks, Goldman participated in the TARP program. On Oct. 28, Goldman sold $10 billion in preferred stock to the government, which bears an interest rate of 5 percent through 2013 (after which the rate bumps up to 9 percent). Like other TARP recipients, Goldman received capital on pretty easy terms. Just a month earlier, when Goldman raised $5 billion from investor Warren Buffett, it sold preferred shares that carried a 10 percent interest rate. (At the same time, Goldman also raised $10 billion in a public offering of stock.) The difference between borrowing $10 billion at 5 percent and borrowing $10 billion at 10 percent—in other words, the value of the government subsidy—is $500 million per year. David Viniar, the chief financial officer of Goldman, has made noises about paying back the TARP funds soon. But the firm hasn't made any moves to do so yet.

But wait—there's more! Last fall, concerned that financial firms could raise funds only by issuing expensive debt to the likes of Buffett, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. established a program to guarantee new unsecured debt sold by banks. Many banks felt they didn't need to participate. (Here's a list of those that have opted out.) While the FDIC discloses the amount of debt that has been issued under the program (about $250 billion by the end of January), it doesn't disclose which firms have tapped into this program. In November, Goldman was the first company to tap the program, issuing $5 billion in three-year notes at a 3.367 percent rate. On March 12, it sold another $5 billion. In all, the company says it has sold $21 billion in such bonds. Thanks to the government guarantee, and accounting for fees, Goldman is saving several hundred million dollars per year in interest.

And there's still more! A good chunk of the money taxpayers gave to AIG as part of the bailout found its way to financial institutions—including Goldman Sachs. Here's the full list of AIG counterparties, which documents payments made by different entities. AIG's securities lending unit paid Goldman $4.8 billion, Maiden Lane III (the entity created to unwind credit default swaps) paid Goldman $5.6 billion, and AIG has posted another $2.5 billion in collateral to Goldman. Goldman, and many other firms, made the mistake of a) buying insurance from a company that, it turned out, couldn't make good on its insurance contracts, and b) borrowing securities from, and lending securities to, a company that essentially went bankrupt. In normal bankruptcies, firms in these in situations have to get in line with other creditors and ultimately settle for a fraction of the amounts they're owed. As Eliot Spitzer pointed out, because the government didn't let AIG formally file for bankruptcy, Goldman, and so many others, have instead been made whole.

Goldman may still be an outstanding company, as Barron's argues. But without the expensive federal crutches, the firm would likely be limping.

They Got the Wrong Guy
Why Congress' confrontation with AIG's CEO was a failure.
By Daniel Gross
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 7:04 PM ET

The appearance by AIG CEO Edward Liddy before Congress on Wednesday was billed as an epic confrontation between the angry tribunes of a furious public and an arrogant Wall Street. Chris Matthews hyped it on MSNBC as "Watergate Redux." But the actual hearing—Liddy's appearance and questioning lasted barely longer than the two-hour preliminaries—was disappointing and misguided.

Roasting Liddy for AIG's manifold and expensive failures would be like putting Gerald Ford on trial for the crimes of Watergate. Edward Liddy isn't G. Gordon Liddy. Yes, he could have handled this issue much better. But he's not the villain. He's a genuine dollar-a-year man who isn't looking to make a quick buck on the bailout. (It's OK, he made gazillions when he ran Allstate.)

Watch Edward Liddy at a congressional hearing on AIG:

The proximate cause of the hearings was the revelation that AIG had paid $165 million in "retention businesses" to executives at AIG's Financial Products division, the tiny unit whose reckless bets and issuance of insurance on financial products blew up the whole company. Liddy acknowledged that it was "distasteful to have to make these payments" and explained that they were made not to people who sold credit-default swaps but to employees who were winding down other components of the business, some of which were profitable. He had asked employees of the division who received at least $100,000 to return at least half of their bonuses, he said, and some had offered to return all of it.

Aside from revealing congressional ignorance of all things financial, the hearing showed Liddy to be the wrong man at the wrong place—and it was yet another example of misplaced anger. There's no denying the horrific symbolism of these bonuses. But it would be nice if members of Congress—Republican and Democratic alike—displayed as much attention and outrage over the $80 billion-plus wound that AIG's implosion has already inflicted on the American taxpayers instead of grandstanding over a mere (irony intended) $165 million.

The failure of leadership at AIG was immense and catastrophic. But Liddy wasn't leading AIG when it blew up. He didn't get paid to make the disastrous trades, or to oversee the disastrous traders, or to oversee the people who oversaw the disastrous traders, or even to oversee the people who oversaw the people who oversaw the disastrous traders. It wasn't his idea for AIG Financial Products to insure billions of dollars in mortgage bonds, or to engage in "regulatory capital trades" or "balance-sheet rental"—insuring assets of European banks to allow them to move assets off their balance sheets. Liddy noted that at its height, AIG had between $350 billion and $370 billion of "balance sheet rental" insurance in force. (The figure is down to a mere $230 billion.)

The relevant story behind AIG isn't the bonuses. It is how a single unit of a huge company managed to threaten to blow up the entire financial system, and how the bailout is keeping all sorts of large financial institutions afloat. But Liddy isn't the person to ask about that. I'd like to hear from Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, who built AIG into an international empire and claims the whole thing fell apart after he left. I'd like to hear from Martin Sullivan, CEO from 2005 until June 2008, who got a $47 million severance package, and who, in congressional testimony, blamed AIG's demise on mark-to-market accounting. I'd really like to hear from the many savvy worthies who were on the board of directors: people like Martin Feldstein, the Harvard economist and father of Reaganomics, who has served on the board since 1987 and has collected millions of dollars in fees (the proxy shows that in 2007 alone he received $236,635), and diplomat Richard Holbrooke (2007 fees: $232,865), and Michael Sutton, a former chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Did any of them ever raise any questions as to what AIG was doing and the risks it was assuming? And if not, what were they getting paid for?

Congress should have subpoenaed Joseph Cassano, who hauled down a few hundred million dollars while running AIG Financial Products and was the executive with the most direct responsibility (and likely the most legal liability) for the debacle. Or the economist who concocted the models upon which AIG-FP relied. And, for old time's sake, why not recall Alan Greenspan, who assured the public that credit-default swaps and shadow banks like AIG didn't need to be regulated.

Oh, and Congress should also hear from the many AIG counterparties who together have received billions of dollars of taxpayer funds so far through AIG. These folks bought insurance from or did business with a company that was unable, as it turned out, to make good on its financial commitments. And yet because the government didn't let AIG file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, these counterparties have been made whole. I'd like to hear Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein tell Congress why it was appropriate for taxpayers to make a payment to Goldman of $5.6 billion in credit-default swaps, and why Goldman shouldn't eat at least a portion of the losses it would have suffered had the taxpayers let AIG fail. It would be nice to hear from the half-dozen German banks, including the state-owned Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg, who have benefited from one of the biggest transfers of taxpayer wealth to Europe since the Marshall Plan. Or from executives at Citadel, the beleaguered hedge fund that received $200 million in payments from AIG's securities-lending business. They should be duly sworn in and forced to explain why taxpayers should pay these claims just because their firms bought insurance without determining whether the insurer could pay the claims.

Or maybe Congress can call in CNBC's Rick Santelli and force him to explain why subsidizing these losers is somehow different than subsidizing losers who are behind in their mortgages. Now that, at least, would be good theater.

If the economy is going to recover, Americans need to start taking risks again.
By Daniel Gross
Saturday, March 14, 2009, at 7:21 AM ET

The hum of ambient noise in Midtown Manhattan is several decibels lower than it was a year ago. Fewer black Town Cars idle outside the investment bank offices on Park Avenue. The aisles of the flagship Saks Fifth Avenue are so quiet, you'd think you were in a library. The restaurants and shops at Rockefeller Center are open as usual, but they seem oddly depopulated. Where are all the tourists and office workers, the hordes of junior analysts lining up in Starbucks?

Something less tangible is also absent: the spirit of caffeinated, heedless risk-taking. For the last few years, risk has been the adrenaline of the nation's economy, the substance that made us all—from the denizens of Midtown Manhattan to the residents of Manhattan, Kan.—run a lit­tle faster and stay up a little later. Now, with the economy in its 16th month of re­cession and the markets scythed in half, it seems we've all either switched to decaf or simply lost the taste for risk.

In the grips of a bubble mentality, we—as investors, consumers, and businesses—blithely assumed risk and convinced our­selves it was perfectly safe to do so. We bought houses with no money down, took on huge amounts of debt, and let the booming stock and housing markets perform the heavy lifting of saving. After all, new technologies, securitization, and de­rivatives supposedly permitted financial wizards to slice, dice, sell—and, ultimately, banish—any type of risk. But the intellec­tual scaffolding surrounding that culture of debt and risk has fallen along with the stocks of Citigroup and AIG. And now the zeitgeist has spun 180 degrees. Squeeze your nickels, slash debt, stop gambling. In January, Nevada's casinos reported gam­blers lost 14.6 percent less money than they did in January 2008.

"The precau­tionary behavior of every entity in the global economy has gone up," said Mohamed El-Arian, CEO of the giant bond invest­ment fund PIMCO. "We've gone from an age of entitlement to an age of thrift."

Call it a flight to safety, a rush from risk, the new sobriety.

"People have run with their money to banks that they think are still healthy," said Ronald Hermance, CEO of Hudson City Bancorp, where deposits have soared by nearly one-third since the beginning of 2008.

In January, Americans saved 5 percent of disposable personal in­come, up from 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007—and our newfound desire to squirrel away cash seems likely to con­tinue. When pollster Scott Rasmussen asked investors what they'd do with new money in February, 32 percent said they'd save it and only 16 percent said they'd in­vest in stocks. Even though they offer vir­tually no returns, money-market mutual funds, now guaranteed by the federal gov­ernment, have attracted $3.8 trillion, up from $3.4 trillion a year ago. The global rush for U.S. government bonds, the world's safest and most liquid invest­ments, has pushed rates so far down—the 10-year bond yields just 2.9 percent—that investor (and Washington Post Co. board member) Warren Buffett has warned of a "U.S. Treasury bond bubble."

While sales of safes and guns are on the rise, venture capitalists, the ultimate risk-takers, are pulling in their horns. "We're hunkering down and conserving cash in our fund and in our companies," said Car­ol Winslow, founding partner of Chicago-based Channel Medical Partners, which hasn't made an investment since 2007.

Last year, Delaware, the preferred home for the registration of new firms, saw new incorporations drop by 25 percent. The rush to hoard cash and pinch pen­nies is understandable, given that about $13 trillion in household net worth evapo­rated between mid-2007 and the end of 2008. But while it makes complete micro­economic sense for families and individual businesses, the spending freeze and collec­tive shunning of nonguaranteed invest­ments is macroeconomically trou­bling. Especially if it persists once the credit crisis passes.

For the economy to recover and thrive, hoarders must open their wallets and become consumers, business must once again be willing to roll the dice. Nobody is advocating a return to the debt-fueled days of 4,000-square-foot sec­ond homes, $1,000 handbags, and $6 spe­cialty coffees. But in our economy, in which 70 percent of activity is derived from consumers, we do need our neigh­bors to spend. Otherwise we fall into what economist John Maynard Keynes called the "paradox of thrift." If everyone saves during a slack period, economic activity will decrease, thus making everyone poor­er.

We also need to start investing again—not necessarily in the stocks of Citigroup or in condos in Miami. But rather to build skills, to create the new companies that are so vital to growth, and to fund the discov­ery and development of new technologies.

Is this era of thrift a temporary phe­nomenon? Will we revert to our risk-tak­ing selves as soon as we latch onto the next New, New Thing? Those are the $14 tril­lion questions. Earlier this decade, we transitioned effortlessly from the dot-com bubble to a housing and credit bubble, which suggests a powerful resiliency. But financial trauma can leave deep scar tis­sue, as it did after the Great Depression. It took the Dow 25 years to return to its 1929 peak. And much to the chagrin of Charles Merrill, the pioneering stockbro­ker who worked tirelessly to democratize stock ownership, it took much longer to convince middle-class Americans that stocks were safe.

In 1952, a Brookings In­stitution survey found that while 82 per­cent of families had life insurance, just 4.2 percent owned stocks. People who were young in the 1930s developed a set of atti­tudes toward money and risk that they carried with them throughout their lives. A relative of mine who came of age in the Depression built several successful businesses. When he sold them and retired in the early 1980s, he refused to hold any­thing other than Treasury bonds.

It's tempting in this period of contrac­tion to mimic Thoreau, to live simply and deliberately. But if we lose our penchant for gain and risk, we'll lose some of the essence of what makes us American. In his book The Hypomanic Edge, psycholo­gist John Gartner argues convincingly that over the centuries, the American popula­tion, continually infused with immigrants, has self-selected for hypomania—a ten­dency to action, an appetite for risk, an endless belief in human possibilities. While the 1990s were "a perfect storm of economic hypomania," Gartner says, "to­day the mood is anything but hypomanic."

Economists warn that if we don't man­age to jolt the economy back into life soon, we run the risk of repeating Japan's so-called "lost decade" of the 1990s. Would that be so bad? After all, while Japan en­dured a prolonged period of slow growth, nobody starved, there was no social unrest in the aging country, and its biggest com­panies continued to innovate. But America is different. Thanks to our continually ris­ing population, we need significant growth just to maintain our standards of living—and the health of our democracy.

"When people experience progress in their material living standards and they have some degree of optimism that it will con­tinue, they're inclined to support public policies that reflect tolerance, opening of opportunity, and commitments to democ­racy," said Benjamin Friedman, a Harvard economist and author of The Moral Conse­quences of Growth.

A second moral im­perative demands that America get back on the growth track. The United States remains the single largest source of demand. Until America emerges from its bunker, the global economy—facing its first year of contraction since World War II—is likely to remain moribund.

Saving cash and building up reserves is a necessary first step to recovery. But even­tually the mountain of cash has to be put to work. Last week's sharp market rally was certainly a sign—however fleeting it may turn out to be—that investors are put­ting money to work again.

But there's much more work to be done. Ironically, post-bubble periods are frequently great times to start new ventures. The best time to start a dot-com wasn't in 1999 when the IPO market was raging; it was in 2002, when the price of everything associated with the business—office space, program­ming talent—had plummeted. When Al­lied Corp. in the late 1980s didn't want to pursue the development of consumer products based on global positioning satellite technology, Gary Burrell left, raised $4 mil­lion, and formed Garmin, which today employs about 7,000 people.

But investing during slack times re­quires a leap of faith. Thomas Watson, CEO of IBM, ramped up R&D spending every year from 1931-35. "His board of directors thought he was nuts," said Har­vard Business School historian Nancy Koehn. But when the Social Security sys­tem was rolled out later in the decade, only IBM could handle the data-processing re­quirements. Both Southwest Airlines and Federal Express were founded in 1971 and took flight in a period when stagnant growth and soaring energy costs conspired against transportation companies.

"Recession-Plagued Nation De­mands New Bubble to Invest in," ran a headline from the satirical magazine the Onion. But the antidote to a spell of mind­less debt, spending, and investment isn't necessarily another binge of mindless debt, spending, and investment. Risk to­day has a bad name, in part because so much of the capital put at risk in the past several years was done so in vain. Much of the debt created didn't finance business or dreams (unless your dreams consisted of flat-screen televisions). Rather, it was sim­ply debt layered on top of debt for the pur­pose of generating fees and trading profits.

Between 1996 and 2007, according to the Kauffman Foundation, about 0.3 per­cent of the adult population started a new business each month, or about 495,000 per month. There's no reason to think such entrepreneurial activity will decline in this recession, although there are some barri­ers. In recent years, many new businesses have been financed through retirement savings, second mortgages, and credit-card debt. None of those three sources of fund­ing is particularly deep now.

Even so, layoffs can prove a powerful spur to entrepreneurship. Last October, Susan Durrett was laid off from her job at a San Francisco-based architecture firm whose business designing large resorts and condominium projects had dried up. "Starting my own business was actually my best alternative," she said. Reasoning that people might be forswearing major remodeling projects for smaller ones, she started her own firm, Susan Durrett Land­scape Architecture, and now has four proj­ects in the works. Durrett touts growth ar­eas, such as green roofs, edible gardens, and sustainable design.

The new ethos of thrift, which is as much about efficiency and sustainability as it is about penny-pinching, may have significant commercial applications be­yond green roofs. Venture capitalists are seeding startups in wind power and smart-grid technology. Small enterprises that in­stall solar panels and conduct energy au­dits are expanding. They, and other busi­nesses, will benefit from measures in the recently passed stimulus package to weatherize homes and make government buildings more energy efficient.

Of course, there's more the government can do. To name one example: An affordable national health care policy, which could allow peo­ple to quit their jobs and launch businesses without worrying about the crippling costs of premiums or medical costs, might be a better spur to risk-taking than targeted small-business loans.

The markets, and the economy as a whole, are continually buffeted by the twin forces of fear and greed. For the past year, fear has clearly had the upper hand. But over time, as fear subsides, our inborn in­stincts to improve our lot and desire for gains, and greed—Adam Smith would call it self-interest—will make a comeback. In the meantime, it wouldn't hurt for some of our most successful risk takers to step up.

The recently published Forbes list shows there are easily more than 300 American billionaires. And while their net worths have suffered, they still have the means to provide the risk capital that is now in short supply. That's what the nation's wealthiest family did during the Great Depression. In 1931, in the depths of the Depression, John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had spent his life giving away his father's fortune, embarked upon a massive, private stimulus program: the construction of Rockefeller Center. The project, the only major development in New York between 1931 and 1946, em­ployed about 75,000 people, from stone-cutters in granite quarries to artists, archi­tects, and welders. "It showed a great deal of confidence," says Daniel Okrent, author of the definitive book on Rockefeller Cen­ter, Great Fortune. Conceived as a sort of philanthropic, private-sector public works project, Rockefeller Center turned out to be a home run as an investment—and still supports thousands of private-sector jobs.

Newsweek's Daniel Stone, Nick Summers, and Jessica Ramirez contributed to this story. A version of this article appears in this week's Newsweek.

Stop Listening to Wall Street
Obama should pay no attention at all to stock prices.
By Daniel Gross
Saturday, March 14, 2009, at 7:20 AM ET

Investment professionals and econo-pundits claiming to speak for Wall Street have been blaming President Obama for the recent run of losses in the stock market. In their view, investors around the world are giving a daily thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the administration's manifold policy initiatives. "Obama's Radicalism is Killing the Dow," read the headline of a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Stanford economist Michael Boskin, a former official of the first Bush administration.

On March 3, Strategas analyst Dan Clifton noted that "with the S&P 500 off close to 8.5 percent since the budget was introduced, it is clear that equity investors remain skeptical of the government's plan to lead us out of this financial crisis." Even CNBC's James Cramer, who supported Obama during the presidential campaign, has turned on the president, calling him a "wealth destroyer."

Talk about misplaced anger. Wall Street built a wooden house, stuffed it with flammable material, set it on fire, and then poured gasoline on the blaze. And now it's blaming the inferno on the arson inspector, who wasn't appointed until after the fire had reached three-alarm status?

Alas, the investor in chief is taking notice. In early March, he made a tentative stab at bucking up the markets. "What you're now seeing is profit and earning ratios starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal, if you've got a long-term perspective on it." (Maybe if this whole Leader of the Free World thing doesn't work out, he can get a gig on CNBC.) But Obama's commendable tendency to engage his critics is misguided in this case. He should be ignoring the Dow. The index has fallen about 50 percent from its closing peak of 14,164 on Oct. 9, 2007. (That was the week the Fox Business Channel debuted. Coincidence? I report, you decide.) Everything about the markets has been chopped in half—their value, their moral authority, and hence their claim on Washington's attention. Having deprived Americans of so much of their wealth, the market is today like Rush Limbaugh: an unpopular loudmouth prone to emotional outbursts.

When Obama compared the Dow to a "tracking poll in politics" he made an error commonly seen in the Washington-Wall Street corridor. Securities markets are decidedly not public opinion polls. In the fall of 2007, when the Dow was at its peak, only 25 percent of Americans thought the country was on the right track, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. And since Obama's election, the right-track number has exploded to the upside, from 11 percent in early November to 41 percent this month—even as the markets plunged. Besides, markets aren't partisan. They don't like one president and dislike another. Proponents of the Obama bear-market thesis tend to leave out the inconvenient fact that this horrific bout of wealth destruction started in October 2007 and had completed most of its rampage when a president whose name is no longer spoken—it rhymes with "smush"—was in control. And when the market rallies, as it did early last week, folks like Boskin and Clifton don't declare that the market has suddenly endorsed the latest fiscal plans. "I don't believe that people sit home and watch [Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner speak and change their confidence views," said pollster Scott Rasmussen, who tallies a daily investor confidence index. In recent weeks, he notes, Republican investors have become more pessimistic while Democratic investors have become less pessimistic.

Above all, though, I'd dispute the very notion that the market "thinks" anything coherent at all. The market is made up of all types of participants: rational, irrational, some focused on the past, some on the future, some obsessed with Washington, others with China. In October 2007, with the Dow at 14,000, did the market "know" a recession was about to start and that a financial tsunami was about to hit? Um, no. Of course, over time the market does respond to fundamentals like earnings and dividend payments. But in the past half-dozen months, the fundamentals have been fundamentally unsound. The S&P 500 could be at around 700 because Obama is a Commie who wants to destroy free enterprise. Or it could be at around 700 because that's roughly 15 times the index's estimated operating earnings per share.

Even if the Dow and S&P 500 were dispassionate, rational, and shrewd, we'd still err in regarding them as gauges of the American economy. Their constituents are in fact citizens of the world who happen to be domiciled in the United States. In 2007, the typical Standard & Poor's 500 member that broke out foreign sales reported that 45.8 percent of its revenues came from outside the United States. For many of the 30 components of the Dow, the percentages are much higher, according to Compustat: General Electric (54.3 percent), Caterpillar (66 percent), Intel (85.6 percent). Last week, IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said he expects the global economy to shrink for the first time since the 1940s. It's no surprise that stocks with the greatest exposure to the global economy have been getting whacked.

Some critics have charged that Obama is trying to do too much at once. If he's looking for items to remove from his daily to-do list, he could start with: "Check on what markets are thinking."

A version of this article appears in this week's Newsweek.

I Love You, Man
Very likable, quietly subversive.
By Dana Stevens
Friday, March 20, 2009, at 11:22 AM ET

In a key scene in the male-bonding comedy I Love You, Man (Dreamworks Pictures), the heroes, played by Jason Segel and Paul Rudd, jam semi-competently on guitar and bass over a recording of the Rush song "Tom Sawyer," then take a ride together on a Vespa, belting out the song in their best Geddy Lee falsettos. While the '80s rock standard makes as little sense as ever (what in the hell is that "mean, mean pride" line about?), one lyric seems to stand as an epigraph for the movie: "Today's Tom Sawyer/ He gets high on you/ And the energy you trade." I Love You, Man is about the energy field generated between good friends, and despite the movie's many flaws, the two leads' genuine rapport is enough to give the audience a solid contact high.

Rudd plays Peter Klaven, a self-effacing real estate broker (do these really exist?) in Los Angeles. After getting engaged to his girlfriend, Zooey (Rashida Jones), Peter begins to notice the difference between her social world and his: While she meets weekly with a gaggle of close girlfriends, he has trouble coming up with a single candidate for best man. Peter's gay brother, Robbie (Andy Samberg), tries to coach him in the art of meeting guys. But all of Peter's candidates for buddyhood turn out to be either gay men looking for love (Thomas Lennon) or monosyllabic macho lugs (a bewigged Jon Favreau, playing hilariously against his usual neurotic type).

Then Sydney Fife (Segel) crashes an open house Peter is holding at the lavish estate of Lou Ferrigno. Sydney, an independent investor and slovenly bon vivant, lives alone in a bungalow on Venice Beach, answers to no man or woman, and generally embodies the free-spirited bro-itude that Peter so desperately aspires to. Their early encounters, in which Peter struggles to emulate Sydney's effortless cool, make for the movie's best moments: When Syd casually nicknames him "Pistol" after their first night out, the best Pete can counter with is, "Catch you later … Jobin." Pete's mortified struggle to become fluent in guy-speak is a joke that gets beaten into the ground by the end of the movie. But his flailing neologisms (many of them improvised by Rudd on-set) are consistently cringe-worthy and hilarious: "Totes magotes!" "Workin' like a dogue." "Call me when you get a mo. Ment. When you get a moment."

The usual conceit of the Apatow-era romantic comedy is that male friendship is a given. In Knocked Up, for example, the squalid house that Seth Rogen shares with his roommates is a kind of cozy swamp from which his character must emerge to take on the adult responsibilities of fatherhood, and it's Katherine Heigl's character who's excluded from the regressive fun. What's subversive about I Love You, Man (directed and co-written by John Hamburg, who also shared writing credits on Zoolander and both Meet the Parents movies) is the way it treats straight masculinity as an awkward construct, a code that must be mastered. In the early stages of Peter and Sydney's friendship, Syd functions as a kind of guru of guyhood, coaching Pete on how to access his inner dude. But once the barriers have fallen and they've jammed on that Rush song together, Pete also helps to bring out Sydney's fruitier side, convincing him to apologize for his sometimes offensive candor and even, eventually, to watch Chocolat. By movie's end, they're processing their friendship in meta-conversations worthy of any pair of female friends and exchanging extravagant endearments: "I love you, Tyco Bra-he." "I love you, Broseph Goebbels."

It's when I Love You, Man veers away from the central Pete/Syd romance and into the territory of male-female relationships that it loses its loopy originality. Although the movie is never actively misogynistic—itself an achievement for a comedy of this type—the female characters are predictably one-dimensional, from Rashida Jones' sweet and supportive fiancee to Jane Curtin's … sweet and supportive mother. Jaime Pressly, in a small role as Jon Favreau's perpetually exasperated, sex-bartering wife, is a welcome exception to this lineup of gamely smiling ladies. I Love You, Man 's subversion of genre and gender has its limits: Like most romantic comedies, it ends by subsuming all other plot threads to the affirmation of conjugal bliss. And the movie's obligatory excursions into Grossoutville—one extended fart joke and two instances of projectile barfing—seem checked off the wish list of some particularly charmless focus group.

Though the script doesn't always rise to their level, I Love You, Man is more than worth seeing for the chemistry between the shambling Segel and the endlessly inventive Rudd (who, if I may just say, "I told you so," I tagged last year as the leading man to watch in '09). In the words, again, of Rush: "Catch the witness, catch the wit/ Catch the spirit, catch the spit." But avoid the projectile vomit.

Pretty Confusing
Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in the stylish but muddled Duplicity.
By Dana Stevens
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 10:42 AM ET

Duplicity (Universal Pictures), the second film from Michael Clayton director and Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy, couldn't look and sound better, with its lush cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and its witty retro-Hitchcock-ian score by James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight). It's got Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, two actors who radiate old-fashioned Hollywood star power, exchanging clever and well-crafted dialogue in posh far-flung locations. Duplicity is also stuffed with smaller-scale pleasures, including a knockout credit sequence in which Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson wrestle in slow motion on an airport runway. But shouldn't even a film constructed around a labyrinthine espionage plot have to make actual narrative sense?

To be fair, I guess if Gilroy were to sit down and outline the entire movie on a flow chart or watch it with me on DVD while pausing for on-demand Q&A sessions, I could puzzle out those details of the story that remain murky. But is it too much to ask that a spy movie unravel its secrets, at least the explicitly plot-bound ones, on a single viewing?

To illustrate my point while sidestepping spoilers, let me set up one of the movie's most striking early twists. Roberts plays Claire Stenwick (a character name that inevitably invokes screwball-comedy goddess Barbara Stanwyck), an undercover CIA agent in Dubai. Owen is Ray Koval, an MI6 operative who picks her up at a party in 2003. After they sleep together, Claire proceeds to drug Ray and steal a top-secret envelope from his hotel room (something involving Egyptian military codes).

Five years later, in the present day, both Claire and Ray have left their government jobs for lucrative corporate-spy positions in New York. They meet again at a drop arranged by their employer, a top pharmaceutical company trying to steal the secrets of its competitor. Their encounter culminates in a bizarre exchange in which we realize that either Claire has completely forgotten who Ray is, or she's pretending to.

Cut to Rome, two years earlier: Ray is suavely sipping a cappuccino outside the Pantheon when he sees Claire walk by (in the Platonic ideal of a summer dress, which half the female audience will be searching for on Google next week). He chases her down a side street, corners her … and they proceed to have the exact same conversation, word for word, that we just saw them have at the Lord & Taylor perfume counter in New York.

That two-minute scrap of dialogue, repeated verbatim in two different places and times within the first 15 minutes of the movie, creates an alienation effect on the audience that's vertiginous and thrilling. Why are these two spies repeating a seemingly private conversation years apart in different cities? Have they rehearsed it? Are they being recorded? Who's gaming whom? My first reaction on recognizing the repeated lines was one of willing viewer masochism: Oh yeah, Tony Gilroy, mess with my head some more! But—and here's where I need Gilroy on my couch with a DVD remote in his hand—the movie never does reveal, at least not with enough precision to be truly satisfying, just what Claire and Ray's prefab conversation (which will recur at intervals throughout the movie) is all about.

That's not the only way in which Duplicity disappoints, just one of the few that can be described without major spoilage. There are so many leaps back and forth in time, so many twists and countertwists and double fake-outs, that we keep losing track of who (including ourselves) is supposed to know what when. There's a kind of pleasure in this repeated experience of bewilderment, but it's a pleasure predicated on the assumption that all the puzzle pieces will click together in the end. Duplicity does end with a whopper of a twist, but it's not clear how that revelation affects everything that came before. The conversation on the way home from a movie like this should consist of triumphant "aha!"s, not bumbling "wha?"s.

But romantic thrillers do not live by twists alone: They need romance, and on that front, Duplicity delivers quite nicely. Roberts isn't my particular cup of tea as an actress—she's too reliant on tics, and her famous smile has come to constitute a kind of brand logo. Still, her on-screen charisma is as undeniable as the heat of the sun, and you don't need to be a Pretty Woman fan to get why Ray would chase her through that Roman piazza. Owen is perfectly in his element as the Champagne-swilling, amoral, yet sincerely love-struck Ray; in an era less obsessed with deconstructing its own icons, he would have made a sensational James Bond. Gilroy explores the spies-in-love conceit with a trace more emotional sophistication than your average espionage thriller. Ray and Claire's wary, adversarial passion becomes a metaphor for relationships in general; we may not all be involved in international con games with our sweethearts, but everyone's had the experience of not knowing whom, and how far, to trust.

In a way, Duplicity plays as a less-successful comic remake of Michael Clayton. Both films share themes of corporate corruption and personal betrayal, protagonists who are tricksters and idealists in equal measure, and fantastic supporting turns by Tom Wilkinson. In Michael Clayton, Wilkinson's manic-depressive lawyer was the lone voice in the wilderness protesting the corporate abuse of power. Here, he's the most ruthless capitalist in sight, coolly tending a single bonsai tree from behind his vast stone slab of a desk. Paul Giamatti is also genially unhinged as Wilkinson's competitor in the race to find … but I couldn't possibly reveal the pharmaceutical MacGuffin that's the object of Wilkinson and Giamatti's cold war. Its unveiling is one of Duplicity's cleverest and best-timed jokes, and one of the few opportunities this stylish but muddled movie affords to shout out a satisfying, "Ah, of course!"

my goodness
Just Say No
How to turn down requests for charity without feeling like a jerk.
By Patty Stonesifer and Sandy Stonesifer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 6:58 AM ET

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Patty and Sandy,

How should I decline requests for charity without going straight to hell? I'm a good person, but sometimes I don't have it to spare. Sometimes I do have it to spare but don't want to spare it for that cause. Sometimes I just want a coffee or new shoes. What's the most respectful, yet firm, way to say no?

Erica in Philadelphia


I might have more practice at this than almost anyone! Having spent a decade making more than 300 grants per year at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I've been party to thousands and thousands of "no thank yous." In spite of the scale, it was never easy to turn down a friend, community leader, or nonprofit director who believed passionately in their mission and badly needed our support to fulfill their objectives.

I would advise you, Erica, to adopt the method I used: "hug and release." Why take the time to hug? Because most of these individuals and organizations are working extremely hard on important causes we all want to see progress on: The "hug" should be a genuine acknowledgment of what they are trying to do and your appreciation for their efforts. The "release" needs to be equally genuine and should give them information that helps them understand their own failure to win your support.

So here is my recommended turn-down framework: "John, it's great that you are working to support finding a cure for breast cancer. I have been reading about the many possibilities for improved treatment that are beginning to surface thanks to the research going on in this area ..." (the genuine hug)—"but I have chosen to focus my giving on early childhood education—it's an area I have interest and passion in and also needs whatever resources I can give" (the release).

After 10 years of having to turn down 10 times the number of people we could fund, I have had only one truly ugly experience. The majority of the time, people, while disappointed and sometimes painfully so, understand that choices can and must be made by even the largest giver. And they will recognize the same thing when you turn them down.


While I haven't had billions of dollars to "hug and release" over the past few years, I—like Erica—have felt plenty guilty turning down some great, and even some not-so-great, organizations seeking my limited contributions. With nearly 1.5 million nonprofits in this country, it's no wonder it sometimes feels like you're solicited at every corner.

My view is that the easiest way to say "no" is to know when you'll say "yes." My mom's method worked because the Gates Foundation had a highly articulated plan that helped her know when to say yes and when to say no: If a grant proposal didn't fit into the foundation's grantmaking priorities, she knew it was time to "hug and release." You can do the same thing by making a giving plan and sticking to it.

How? Start by determining a realistic amount for you to give this year. The 89 percent of Americans who donate annually give an average of 3 percent of their income to charity. Depending on your budget, you may be able to give more or less. Don't put your financial solvency at risk in order to give more than you really should, but also don't let yourself off too easy—many of us can give more than we think. If tax savings might tip the scale, you can use Charity Navigator's giving calculator to determine how much your donation will really cost you.

Next, make a list of the issues you care about, and research which organizations are doing the best job at addressing these. While there are many opinions on the right way to "rank" charities, start by using Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau, or GuideStar to identify organizations working in those areas (though there are many organizations that don't make it onto these sites, so don't just stop there) and gather information about their activities. GiveWell is a relative newcomer to the field of charity evaluation and is trying to rank based on impact rather than financials (a tall order). While they don't have many organizations evaluated yet, it may be a good place to poke around. When you're choosing which groups to support, remember that small donations cost just as much to process as large donations, so try to focus your giving on just a handful of worthy organizations.

The Network for Good, an online giving site, offers 10 tips on giving wisely. Donating through the site also allows you to keep all your giving records in one place and track whether or not you're living up to your giving goals. Giving online helps the money get to the organization quicker, which is especially helpful in these tough times. If your charity of choice isn't part of the network or you have some fear of PayPal, make sure to keep your donation receipts and set up your own system for tracking your donations—it's nothing an Excel spreadsheet can't handle.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.

other magazines
Swiss Mess
Newsweek on the shady inner workings of UBS.
By Sonia Smith
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 5:52 PM ET

Newsweek, March 23

An article tries to demystify the inner workings of Swiss bank UBS, which sent its bankers on secretive missions to America to hunt for rich clients. Internal UBS documents warn its bankers to "always maintain 'clear desk policy' in hotel rooms; use secure infrastructure (travel notebook, PDA); be aware that cell phones are prone to eavesdropping; cross borders without client-related documents." Federal authorities have swooped in, winning $780 million from the bank and obtaining bank information for 250 American clients. Dinosaur bones can fetch a pretty penny, as one freelance fossil hunter discovered when a "bambiraptor" skeleton he lifted from a Montana ranch was valued at up to $400,000, an article reports. In America, the ownership of these "gnarled, inanimate lumps of calcite" is often unclear: Is it finders keepers? Or is the landowner, the government, or the museum footing the bill for the dig?

New Republic, April 1

An article casts a critical eye on America's business schools for churning out graduates who, taught to worship unregulated markets in the classroom and on Wall Street, did their part to ruin the global financial system. While schools earlier in the 20th century taught future executives to act as "elder statesmen" and work with civil society, students recently have been taught to focus on pumping the market for short-term profits. "Many of the financial tools that played a starring role in the current crisis … were taught and developed in business schools without, often, a full appreciation for how they could go sour." Noam Scheiber pens a glowing profile of Larry Summers, the notoriously blunt head of the National Economic Council. The author wonders why he is not spearheading the economic recovery himself. "If the Obama administration fails to revive the economy, will it be because Summers is too influential over economic policy, or not influential enough?"

Weekly Standard, March 23

P.J. O'Rourke declares that Obama went from being "wrong to being damn wrong" when he signed an executive order to allow federal funding for stem-cell research. "If you want to kill little, bitty babies, get Congress to pass a law to kill little, bitty babies, if you can," O'Rourke writes. At Gen. David Petraeus' invitation, three reporters traveled to Afghanistan for the cover story and found the war there is winnable. Reporters who carp about the country being the "graveyard of empires" are just pessimists, they write. The violence in Kabul today is minimal compared with attacks in Baghdad at the height of insurgency. The ground commanders they spoke with were confident that incoming U.S. troops would give them the manpower to push back against the insurgents across the country. "For all their ferocity and cunning, the insurgents in Afghanistan do not offer a viable alternative that can win widespread acceptance."

The New Yorker, March 23

Keith Gessen files a dispatch from Moscow on the trial of the brothers Makhmudov, who were acquitted after evidence connecting them to the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya unraveled. Dzhabrail Makhmudov, the alleged getaway driver, had written a 300-page thesis on the Chechen refugee problem. "If he was not innocent, it meant that the organizers had involved in their plot a young man who shared Politkovskaya's beliefs, had worked on the same issues; who was bright, eager and extremely sweet and personable," Gessen writes. The prosecutors didn't go after the real killers but instead "the ones the authorities could spare." Jeffrey Toobin profiles Roland Burris, the junior senator from Illinois appointed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. "Few senators in history have made a more ignominious national début than Roland Burris," Toobin writes. Despite this, Toobin finds Burris to be a conventional politician, "one guided far more by cautious self-interest than by ideological passion," who just wanted to add senator to his list of accomplishments.

New York, March 23

A collection of short pieces extols the virtues of Michelle Obama and wonders what kind of legacy she will have within the "pantheon of powerful women." One piece hopes that Obama will show the world a "third way" outside the "false dichotomy" of first ladies, proving that one does not have to be "either Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush." Another story, featuring a sweet photo of the Obamas almost touching foreheads on inauguration night, remarks that the first couple seems very much in love. "Only now are we discovering what a functioning marriage between equals actually looks like," the author writes. A profile of nonagenarian playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents—"one of the few left standing from the theater's golden age of bad behavior"—celebrates his return to Broadway with a revival of West Side Story. Laurents, prickly from his youth, has a complicated relationship with Broadway, often referring to it as "Chernobyl." He lost many famous friends over the years because of his penchant for "telling the truth unguardedly," he says.

"All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame"
Fulke Greville's eloquent path to confused arousal.
By Robert Pinsky
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 6:47 AM ET

This month's classic poem narrates an adulterous nighttime adventure that doesn't work out as planned. In the 56th poem of Fulke Greville's sequence Caelica (published in 1633), the poet tells of going to a married lady's bedchamber, where, as he puts it, "wonders I saw, who can tell." Gazing at Cynthia, apparently "naked on the bed of play," he launches a "conceit"—an extended comparison—drawing out likenesses between the sky and the object of his adulterous desire. Cynthia's heavenly eyes are stars, he declaims, and her body is the Milky Way. This pale splendor leads his gaze to the "dainty throne" where Vulcan—traditionally the cuckold of the gods—"thinks to dwell alone." (Greville's dizzy, heavenly, and unreined conceit is even longer in one manuscript version, which will be linked to this week in "The Fray.")

The poem presents these poetical musings as a practical and moral blunder. On the one hand, the extravagant conceit fails as practical ars amoris, giving Cynthia time to change her mind and slip away—leaving the amorous poet alone with his arousal: "There stand I, like Arctic pole." On a moral plane, his prolix, poeticizing wonder at Cynthia's body has deluded him, elevating bodily and imaginative play as though they were actually "divine" Erotically charged fancy has distorted his understanding of his own emotions. Or, as Greville puts it, "Wonder hinders love and hate."

Yet the most powerful, arresting element of this poem for me is the quality that most defies description. I mean the way the poem sounds: the rhythm of these "beheaded" (seven syllables rather than eight) tetrameter lines—the form of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"—bound with a mix of self-reproach and excitement. The line "In the night where smooth is fair," as the lustful expedition begins, sounds to me like both a severe moral judgment and an enthusiastic sexual notion: In the dark, anything that feels good is "fair." That line also raises the idea of functional blindness or degrees of vision—seeing less than one might is both arousing and risky, foreshadowing the final couplet, "None can well behold with eyes/ But what underneath him lies." On the level of ars amoris, in other words, make sure you are on top of your lover's body before you start comparing it to heaven. On a moral level, realize that your eyes can take in only the physical world, not the divine or spiritual realm.

A ferocious playfulness and self-mockery characterizes the poem, supersaturating its incantational language: the meaning of "die" as orgasm, here bizarrely linked to a prelude of prayer; the tradition of preaching at the execution place; compact apothegms like "Wonder hinders love and hate" or "Hope went on the wheel of lust." Greville ultimately seems to relish letting his "conceit" go wild, then reining it in with terse moral formulas. That internal, psychological drama heightens the external drama of a sexual encounter that doesn't quite happen.

Caelica 56: "All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame"

All my senses, like beacon's flame,

Gave alarum to desire

To take arms in Cynthia's name

And set all my thoughts on fire:

Fury's wit persuaded me,

Happy love was hazard's heir,

Cupid did best shoot and see

In the night where smooth is fair;

Up I start believing well

To see if Cynthia were awake;

Wonders I saw, who can tell?

And thus unto myself I spake:

"Sweet God Cupid, where am I,

That by pale Diana's light,

Such rich beauties do espy,

As harm our senses with delight?

Am I borne up to the skies?

See where Jove and Venus shine,

Showing in her heavenly eyes

That desire is divine.

Look where lies the milken way,

Way unto that dainty throne,

Where while all the Gods would play,

Vulcan thinks to dwell alone."

I gave reins to this conceit,

Hope went on the wheel of lust;

Fancy's scales are false of weight,

Thoughts take thought that go of trust.

I stepped forth to touch the sky,

I a God by Cupid dreams;

Cynthia, who did naked lie,

Runs away like silver streams,

Leaving hollow banks behind

Who can neither forward move,

Nor, if rivers be unkind,

Turn away or leave to love.

There stand I, like Arctic pole,

Where Sol passeth o'er the line,

Mourning my benighted soul,

Which so loseth light divine.

There stand I like men that preach

From the execution place,

At their death content to teach

All the world with their disgrace.

He that lets his Cynthia lie

Naked on a bed of play,

To say prayers ere she die,

Teacheth time to run away.

Let no love‑desiring heart

In the stars go seek his fate,

Love is only Nature's art.

Wonder hinders Love and Hate.

**None can well behold with eyes

**But what underneath him lies.

**************—Fulke Greville

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Robert Pinsky read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be participating in the Poems "Fray" this week. Post your questions and comments on "All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame," and he'll respond and participate. (In the interest of keeping the discussion as rich as possible, please read existing comments before posting your own.) You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.

All the Rage
Republican heads explode over AIG bonuses.
By Christopher Beam
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 8:42 PM ET

Congressional Republicans, like their Democratic colleagues, are livid, just livid, about the $165 million in bonuses handed out to AIG employees. They just aren't sure what to do about it.

As the House prepared to vote Thursday on a bill that would tax the bonuses of employees at bailed-out firms like AIG at 90 percent, Minority Leader John Boehner said he opposed it but told other Republicans to "vote their conscience." That afternoon, 85 Republicans joined 243 Democrats in voting for it.

The AIG bonus scandal, if we can call it that now, presents something of an existential crisis for the GOP. On the one hand, Republicans can read the same polls as everyone else and may even share the public's outrage at the injustice of rewarding the same corporate goons who got us into this mess. On the other, they bridle at the notion of interfering with the business of business. Defend the little guy or attack big government? It's a tough one. Even worse, the solution proposed by Democrats—taxing the bonuses—insults the very essence of conservatism.

The dilemma was clear even before Thursday's vote, which explains the GOP's muddled response. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bonuses "appalling" and asked the administration to "pursue any and all lawful means of recovering these payments." He has still not suggested how. In the House, Minority Whip Eric Cantor declared the bonuses "nothing short of an outrage" but refused, even when pressed, to propose a means of recovering them. Other lawmakers were equally wishy-washy. Sen. Jim DeMint criticized the bonuses, but his spokesman declined to specify a method of recoupment. Sen. James Inhofe promised on the Senate floor Monday that "we will do all we can to right this wrong and get these bonuses back." As of Thursday, the Republicans had not proposed an alternative.

OK, they had. But to call it half-assed would be an insult to the cheek. The proposal looks good on paper: Unlike the Democrats' solution, which would recoup only 90 percent of the bonuses in a year's time, Boehner says the Republican alternative would get the entire sum in two weeks. But when I asked a Republican leadership spokesman how the bill would accomplish this, the answer was simple: Tell Treasury to get the money back. No matter that Treasury had already determined it could not legally recoup the bonuses once they were paid out. It needs to try harder. For evidence that recoupment by force is possible, the spokesman pointed to a quote from Sen. Chris Dodd, who said the stimulus legislation allowed Treasury to "reach back to these bonuses or compensation packages when they're inconsistent with the TARP legislation or in contrary to public interest." Yet if this were feasible, it's hard to see why the Treasury Department wouldn't have done it by now.

Other Republicans have their own pseudo-alternatives. Inhofe's solution: no more bailouts. "Much of the blame should be directed right here, to the members of this body, the U.S. Senate, to the other side of the Capitol in the U.S. House for voting for the original $700 billion bailout," he said Monday. If we hadn't bailed out AIG in the first place, the reasoning goes, we wouldn't have gotten into this mess. (It's true—we'd be in a different mess.) Sen. Kit Bond, no fan of government takeovers, said taking away bonuses isn't enough: "We need to go further." What does that mean? "1) Identify failing institutions; 2) Remove the toxic assets, protect depositors, and remove the failed leadership; and 3) Return healthy, cleansed banks into the private sector." Sounds familiar. Wait: Isn't that exactly what the Obama administration is trying to do?

All this fretting feels not only strained but unnecessary. In voting on the bonus bill, lawmakers are choosing between the wrath of the American people and the wrath of, well, no one.

Practically the only person in America who could conceivably oppose this tax, and who could punish Republicans for supporting the bonus legislation, is anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. And even he is giving them permission. Norquist fired off a press release Thursday saying he is "strongly opposed" to the bill. But he gave Republicans an out: His no-taxes pledge "did not apply" to the bonus bill, he wrote, because the legislation is "unconstitutional," a "police action" concocted by Congress, and an "illegal political coverup" designed to distract from Obama's and Geithner's mistakes. "This legislation is not what the Pledge ever envisioned," he wrote. Thus, he freed up anti-taxers to vote however they like.

With that, Republicans lost their last, best excuse for opposing the bonus recoupment. On the bright side, they have another week, until the Senate votes, to think of another one.

Anger Management
Can the Obama administration stoke public outrage about AIG without getting burned?
By John Dickerson
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 7:25 PM ET

Everyone is outraged about AIG. The president is outraged. Press secretary Robert Gibbs used the word (or some form of it) 13 times in his briefing Tuesday. Mild-mannered budget director Peter Orszag told reporters that among the White House staff, "the outrage is visceral." Members of Congress are competing to see who can be most outraged. The fever could almost become stimulative: Think of all the economic activity that would be produced if all 418 AIG bonus recipients purchased home-security systems to protect themselves from the advancing mob.

Administration aides know this outrage can go too far. If the president stokes too much outrage, he'll have a tougher time asking for more tax money for future bailouts of banks and other industries. But, as it was explained to me by an administration adviser, it is impossible for the president not to show that he's outraged. If he didn't, he'd lose credibility, which would eventually hurt his ability to sell future bailouts and his budget.

If we thought it was tricky to price these toxic assets at failed banks, try calibrating outrage. That's going to be the president's task after this AIG mess is over: figuring out how much unfairness the American people will tolerate, even as he promotes a new framework based on fairness.

At the heart of Obama's economic plans has always been a tension about fairness. Obama is selling his budget, with its reorientation of spending priorities and taxes as an effort to make the system fairer: Government resources must be redistributed to reverse a three-decade-long trend of rising inequality in incomes and wealth. At the same time, however, he is stuck promoting efforts to revive the economy that are inevitably unfair. It's not just rewarding people who helped us get into this mess with $165 million in bonuses or paying back Wall Street investment banks that mislead investors about their health. It's explaining why your neighbor gets help with his mortgage but you don't.

So far, according to polls, Obama had been able to navigate these tensions. People are realistic about the country's economic problems and aren't demanding a quick fix. They don't blame Obama for policies that were put in place before he was in office, and they believe he will put regulations in place to keep the bad behavior from happening again. In polls about the administration's housing plan, for example, people said that while they thought the program was unfair because it bailed out those who had been imprudent, they nevertheless thought it would improve the greater economy in the end, so they were willing to tolerate some unfairness.

Putting tough rules in place was crucial in helping the public stomach this unfairness. So Obama has repeatedly stressed that while a lot of taxpayer money may be going toward bailouts and stimulus packages, it will be carefully accounted for. In the Obama administration, we are told, old ways of mismanagement and waste are gone, and no one will benefit from special dealing. The president has railed against CEO pay, boasted he would go line by line in his budget to eliminate waste, and explained how the stimulus-bill spending would be tracked to ensure the money was being spent wisely. If it was going to ask people to accept some level of unfairness, then the administration also wanted to make sure that it was as little unfairness as possible.

All of these initiatives have been aimed at building trust—because Obama needs trust for his big ask: his budget. The budget rests on a "grand bargain," as Obama puts it, in which individuals agree to make some sacrifices in order to improve our collective lot. No one is going to make a sacrifice if he thinks the new game is just as crooked as the one that allowed our economy to get so out of whack.

The AIG bonuses threaten to undo all of the Obama team's patient work. Whether the Obama team knew about the bonuses and only became outraged after they became public or simply lacked the legal ability to break contracts doesn't matter. Clueless or powerless, the episode is especially dangerous for Obama because it suggests that the candidate of change cannot change the system. It's as if the public is saying, We knew there would still be unfairness, but it's the same old unfairness we've always had. (And, as Eliot Spitzer points out, beyond the bonuses there's another whole level of unfairness we're being asked to tolerate.)

This poses several political problems as Obama tries to pivot from cleaning up the mess he inherited with the banks and housing to the restructuring of the federal budget. More people are going to ask why they should sacrifice when the well-connected didn't have to. And the president is going to have to do even more work explaining that his team will be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. That's why Wednesday the president went before the cameras to stress that in the wake of the AIG mess, he was putting new rules in place. "We're going to be moving that on a fast track. This is part of the broader package of financial regulatory steps that we're going to be taking that ensures that going forward in the future we're not going to find ourselves in these kinds of terrible positions again."

Obama is asking for more time, but just minutes before he said, "I don't want to quell anger." He was wrestling once again with the old tension. He needs to sympathize with the public's outrage while at the same time hoping that the public calms down enough to be patient.

Unjustly Enriched
Can Obama take back the AIG bonuses?
By Christopher Beam
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 9:27 PM ET

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs is not a lawyer, nor does he play one on TV. So when just about every question at Tuesday's afternoon briefing concerned bonuses at insurance giant AIG, Gibbs had a nonanswer at the ready. "I'm not a contracts lawyer," he said at one point, later explaining that he was "not a contract lawyer," either. When asked whether the president could simply deny more money to AIG unless it scrapped bonuses, he repeated: "Again, I'd refer you to a contract lawyer, which I'm not one."

So I took up Gibbs up on his offer and called up a contract lawyer or two. My question: Is there any way for the government to recoup the $165 million in bailout money that went to AIG bonuses?

The frustrating yet unsurprising legalistic answer: maybe.

Every contract lawyer and his mother have a theory about how the government can get taxpayer money back. Some say you can cite the legal doctrine of "frustration," which says that you can back out of a contractual deal because of unanticipated, uncontrollable circumstances. The problem there is that AIG and the government clearly anticipated its possible failure when they signed the bailout contract. (It's also one reason the bonuses were so high, since employees had plenty of incentive to leave the company.) Another doctrine, called "impracticability," says you can breach a contract if you're suddenly unable to hold up your end of the bargain. For example, if AIG simply couldn't afford to pay the bonuses, it might be able to back out and give the Treasury back its money. But AIG, in part because of the government bailout, has plenty of cash to go around. Lawyers have also cited "unconscionability" as a potential defense—to say that a contract is so outrageously unfair that courts should not enforce it. But that usually presumes a lack of knowledge by one party. (For example, it protects poor people who sign horrendous mortgage deals.) Again, both AIG and the Treasury knew what they were getting into.

The government's best hope—although still a long shot—may be a legal concept called "unjust enrichment." Unjust enrichment belongs to a set of principles called equity law, which nonlawyers might just refer to as fairness. It basically says that you can sue someone if he took your money unfairly. For example, if I catered your party but didn't get paid, I could sue you—even if we never signed a formal contract. It also works the other way around: If you paid me to cater your party next week but I never showed up, you could claim I was unjustly enriched, since I never performed the service for which I was paid.

Unjust enrichment usually applies in the absence of a contract. But, as part of equity law, it could also override a contract if the existing law is deemed insufficient. The government could argue that AIG employees, some of whom were responsible for selling bad loans, don't deserve to be rewarded for bad behavior. Moreover, to reward them with taxpayer money—the money of the victims of their mistakes—is the very definition of unjust enrichment.

This approach is, admittedly, a Hail Mary. The theory of unjust enrichment is "not boundless in the sense that whenever you think something is unjust you can go and undo it," says Frank Snyder, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University. But the vagueness of the concept allows for flexibility. If the lawsuit ever made it to court, its outcome would depend largely on the whims of the judge or jury. Unjust enrichment laws vary by state, but in general they merely require that one party be enriched (in this case, AIG), another be impoverished (taxpayers), and that there be no remedy provided by law.

OK, so it's not the open-and-shut legal case Obama is looking for. And as some have argued, it may be cheaper to pay the bonuses than to block them and pay for ensuing litigation. But with an outraged citizenry and an administration searching for answers, the unjust enrichment argument might be worth exploring.

Fireside Chat 2.0
Obama's plans to adapt FDR's model to address today's economy.
By John Dickerson
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 7:42 PM ET

In an effort to educate the public on the state of the economy and his plans for improving it, President Obama is considering a series of short televised addresses similar to Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats. Press secretary Robert Gibbs has told the television networks that the administration may request more time than usual for a president. Gibbs did not provide a schedule but described the addresses as lasting about 10 minutes each.

You may think you've heard all this before. When Barack Obama became the first president to put his weekly radio address on YouTube, it was heralded as his version of FDR's famous fireside chats. It was a sloppy comparison. FDR wasn't the first president to use radio. (Here's Hoover giving a fireside-chat-like address on unemployment.) And FDR did not speak weekly. (That was a Reagan invention.) Roosevelt spoke only 30 times in 12 years. But what made the addresses so powerful and popular was the connection the president created with the country as he explained his sweeping policies.

As Warren Buffett put it so pointedly last week, how a president communicates his policies can be as important as the policies themselves. Since winning the presidency, Obama has been trying to accurately describe the dire economic conditions, and his solutions for them, without sounding too grim or too optimistic. His first prime-time press conference and his address to Congress included passages specifically designed to educate the country, but mostly he has been trying to calibrate—in daily doses, speculating on whether stocks are now a good investment and offering gently bullish statements about the economy.

During the campaign, Obama used longer-than-commercial-length addresses to focus on his economic plans. Last week, an adviser suggested in an interview that this same straight-to-camera approach would beat back criticism from Buffett, Andy Grove, and others that Obama was distracted from the crucial issue of the economy.

Obama's aides know that if they are to go forward with these short presidential addresses, they have to be doled out carefully. The president asked the networks for airtime on the weekend of Presidents Day in mid-February so that he could address the country after signing the stimulus bill but ultimately decided against the plan. Aides said he wanted to save the opportunity for a more crucial moment. Describing the network addresses, an administration aide compared them to the president's town hall meetings, which Obama has asked his staff to schedule infrequently so that they still seem special enough to get coverage and add extra punch to the message. (Obama will hold town hall meetings in California on Wednesday.)

The Bush administration used FDR's presidential addresses as a model for a series of Iraq speeches Bush gave updating the country on the progress of the war. "At the end of 2005, the Iraq message became much more of an 'explanation' exercise than a persuasion exercise, influenced by the fireside chat model," says one senior Bush aide.

For Bush, the model was FDR's war addresses. Obama will look at FDR's remarks about the economy, which have passages he could lift wholesale. "In our efforts for recovery we have avoided on the one hand the theory that business should and must be taken over into an all-embracing government," said Roosevelt in 1934. "We have avoided on the other hand the equally untenable theory that it is an interference with liberty to offer reasonable help when private enterprise is in need of help." Or, if consumer confidence is as much of a hindrance to the economy as experts say, then the end of FDR's first address seems apt: "More important than gold … is the confidence of the people. … You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. … We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail."

The negative formulation may not be Obama's style. (The chant is "Yes, we can," not "No, we can't".) But the message is almost eerily contemporary. A stampede of rumors and guesses? FDR could have been talking about cable TV.

Libertarians Gone Wild
Ron Paul's insane cameo in the upcoming Bruno movie.
By Christopher Beam
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 6:16 PM ET

Presidential candidates will do almost anything for publicity. But Ron Paul's appearance in Sacha Baron Cohen's upcoming Bruno movie suggests he draws the line at making sex tapes with gay Austrian TV hosts.

In a five-minute scene, comedian Cohen tries—and fails—to seduce the Texas congressman and former Republican presidential candidate in a Washington hotel room. A spokeswoman for Paul confirmed the appearance but declined to discuss details, which were provided by two people who attended a test screening last week.

The film, slated for release in July, is the follow-up to 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, about a Kazakh news reporter's quest to find a wife. Bruno follows a similar arc: After the flamboyant TV host's show in Austria gets canceled, he heads to the United States to try to resurrect his career.

The scene with Paul, filmed in early 2008, occurs about halfway through the movie, after Bruno gets the idea that you have to make a sex tape to become famous. (Stop reading here if you want to see the movie unspoiled.)

Cut to a nondescript hotel suite where Bruno sits across from Ron Paul. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, a light blows out on the set. Bruno apologizes for the technical difficulties and suggests that he and Paul wait in the other room while the crew fixes the light.

The other room, it turns out, is a bedroom. The lighting is low, and the film is now grainy—not unlike a sex tape—as it cuts to a hidden spy camera. There's a spread of Champagne and strawberries and caviar on a table.

Bruno tells Paul to make himself comfortable. Paul sits down on the bed. Bruno turns on some music and starts dancing. Paul is visibly uneasy but doesn't say anything at first. He picks up a newspaper and pretends to read it. "You can tell at each weird gay detail, he [chalks] it up to, This guy is European," says one of the attendees.

Finally, Paul asks what's going on. "Don't worry about it, Dr. Paul," says Bruno, who then unbuckles his belt and drops his pants. At that point, Paul snaps up and storms out of the room.

As Paul is walking away, you can hear him say, several times, something like, "This guy is a queer!" "The word queer comes out of his mouth three or four times," says an attendee.

A spokeswoman for Paul confirmed that the episode took place but declined to provide details. "We don't want it to distract from his message," said press secretary Rachel Mills. "Now is the time when people need to be listening to him on economic issues."

Mills, who was present at the taping, did elaborate on the "queer" line. "I heard him say 'weird,' " she wrote in an e-mail. "In any case, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Queer as Folk … it's not exactly a shocking term if that's what he did say."

Mills also noted that Cohen's people were "very deceptive in their tactics." At the time, she thought they were "legitimate," but now confesses to some concern. "I'm familiar with his work, so you can imagine how I feel about it," she said.

The rest of the movie is a mix of interviews and stunts targeting celebrities and conservatives of various stripes. At one point, Bruno enrolls in a homosexual reprogramming course with evangelical Christians and spends the whole time hitting on the trainers. He sits down with a leader of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who tells Bruno to leave after Bruno tells him "your King Osama" looks like a "dirty wizard." During an interview with Paula Abdul, Bruno makes immigrant day laborers get down on their hands and knees and serve as furniture. And in the movie's much-hyped set piece, he stages a cage fight in Arkansas where, to the audience's surprise, he proceeds to make out passionately with another man.

Jesse Benton, senior vice president of Campaign for Liberty and former campaign spokesman for Paul, said Paul was not familiar with Cohen's HBO program, Da Ali G Show. "If it's not on hard-core financial news, he doesn't follow it," Benton said. But, he added, "It sounds like it's going to be pretty funny."

press box
Debunking PCP's "Comeback"
The Washington Post fails to make the case.
By Jack Shafer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 6:14 PM ET

Along with child molesters, Klansmen, and the 9/11 terrorists, the illicit drug PCP occupies a space in the news culture so low that a journalist in search of a crowd-pleasing story need not consult the facts or build a compelling argument to write a crowd-pleasing story about it.

It's been that way for the four decades users have taken the drug, and nothing anybody writes—least of all me—can change that. Mining the public's dread of PCP this week is the Washington Post, which drew on the slimmest of pretexts Tuesday to declare on Page One that PCP was making a "comeback" in the district.

All the clichés of PCP coverage that inform our thinking about the drug are there: the Grand Guignol accounts of users ripped on the drug stabbing their daughters, shooting their mothers, and driving their cars into pedestrians; police officers and prosecutors alleging the drug's rebound; and assertions that the drug is producing a general crime wave.

That PCP stinks is a given, but the drug's stinkatude doesn't release reporters, editors, or newspapers from the obligation to tell the truth about it. Take, for example, the story's assertion that PCP is making a "comeback," that there is a "rise in PCP use," that use is on the "rebound" among criminal suspects, and that the drug is on the "spread." The article's author, Keith L. Alexander, cherry-picks the data to make this hysteria-stoking claim: "Ten percent of adult defendants now test positive for the drug, the highest rate in five years, according to D.C. Pretrial Services."

While it's true that 2008's rate of 10 percent positive was the highest rate for defendants in five years, what do you suppose the positive rate was in 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004? That would be 9 percent, 9 percent, 8 percent, and 6 percent, respectively, as the stats compiled by pretrial services indicate (PDF). I doubt very much that 2008's one percentage-point increase in positives over 2007 and 2006, or its two percentage-point increase over 2005, signifies much of a PCP resurgence.

Instead of hyping a PCP revival, Alexander should consider writing a story about how PCP use—as reflected in the crude measurement of drug tests administered to adult arrestees—appears to be pretty flat. Circumstantial evidence can be found in the pretrial services stats for January (PDF), which report that only 8 percent of arrestees tested positive for PCP. Some PCP comeback!

Although PCP has long been part of the area's drugscape, the Post has rarely done more than accept police department and prosecutor handouts in reporting on the topic. For instance, if the police declare a "street value" for a quantity of seized PCP, the Post automatically publishes it. An Aug. 24, 1978, Post story quoted a street price of $700 per ounce for PCP. On March 15, 1984, the Post wrote of "10 ounces of liquid PCP" having "a value of $1.4 million." That's $140,000 per ounce. The arithmetical cartoon continues:

Washington Post, Oct. 22, 1985: 2 gallons worth $1 million ($3,906 per ounce).

Washington Post, Nov. 8, 1985: 46 ounces worth $400,000, or $8,700 per ounce.

Washington Post, Feb. 5, 1986: 3.5 gallons worth $8 million ($17,857 per ounce).

Washington Post, June 24, 1986: 2.5 gallons worth $2 million ($6,250 per ounce).

Washington Post, Feb. 1, 1987: 7 gallons worth $1.4 million ($1,562 per ounce).

Washington Post: Aug. 25, 1987: 1 gallon worth $735,000 ($5,742 per ounce).

Washington Post, Aug. 27, 1987: 2.25 gallons worth $12 million ($41,666 per ounce).

Washington Post, Feb. 23, 1988: 6.5 gallons worth $1.9 million ($2,283 per ounce).

Washington Post, April 8, 1988: 30 gallons worth $8 million ($2,083 per ounce).

Washington Post, Feb. 15, 1989: 28.5 gallons worth $6 million ($1,847 per ounce).

Washington Post, Nov. 23, 1993: 5 gallons worth $250,000 to $1 million ($391 to $1,563 per ounce).

Washington Post, June 21, 2007: 5 gallons with a street value approaching $1 million ($1,563 per ounce).

Yesterday's Post piece pegged the price at $1,966 per ounce (a 178-ounce seizure with a street value of $350,000).

If I haven't made the point that law enforcement conjures a drug valuation out of thin air and the press publishes it without question, bear with me. An April 24, 1984, Post story stated PCP numbers that work out to $3.12 per dose (presumably one cigarette or other smoking material soaked in a vial of PCP). A June 7, 1985, article indicated a price of $11.54 per dose. I know that prices in underground markets vary widely because economic information isn't transmitted as transparently as in legal markets, that purchases in bulk are always cheaper than small transactions, and that I'm quoting prices over a span of 30 years, but this is ridiculous.

How do stories like the Post's get published? As Robert P. Bomboy wrote in 1974, newspapers don't (but should) keep reporters on the drug beat and few employ editors who are knowledgeable about drugs. The press corps gives into their readers' worst fears when reporting about drugs, embracing the most sensational or dramatic aspects of the story. And worst of all, the press routinely fails to cross-check information provided by law-enforcement sources. When reporting about PCP, Klansmen, child molesters, and terrorists, most reporters would just rather not challenge anybody's preconceptions.


How do I keep from becoming bitter? I Twitter. Here's some sensible information about PCP. Send e-mail about PCP to (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type PCP in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to

press box
Hello and Goodbye to the P-I
Thoughts upon the venerable Seattle daily becoming a Web-only operation.
By Jack Shafer
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 6:31 PM ET

A couple of years ago, a newspaper mogul I know took to calling the Hearst Corp. a born-again newspaper company after the company spent billions to solidify its grip on the daily markets in Houston and San Francisco and purchased an interest in William Dean Singleton's Media News chain.

But Hearst lost its regained faith faster than it acquired it. Today, the media conglomerate made good on its threat to convert its 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer to a Web-only operation, and it plans to fold or sell its hugely unprofitable San Francisco Chronicle unless it wins the concessions from workers that it has demanded.

Everybody knows why newspapers are failing—the Web-based advertising revolution, changes in news consumption, the joint operating agreements that kept dying newspapers on life support, the high costs of printing and trucking, changes in commuting patterns, aging readership, migration of readers to the suburbs, etc.—so there's no reason to conduct a complete autopsy.

Instead of lamenting the death of the P-I—which I can't do even though I read it regularly during my four-year stay in Seattle at the end of the century—let's brainstorm a little about what sort of news site the surviving might become. Blogger Alan D. Mutter got there last week with an exhaustive memo advising the new P-I not to replicate the old print edition, to be different, to cop an attitude, to crib liberally (especially from its surviving JOA partner, the Seattle Times), to go hyper-local, take risks, and to create premium content that can be sold to readers.

According to the New York Times story, the new P-I will have a news staff of 20 instead of the 165 of its print edition. Supplementing the small staff's output will be unpaid local bloggers, content from Hearst's magazine division, and columns by prominent citizens—"Norm Rice, a former Seattle mayor, and his wife, Constance Rice; a congressman, Jim McDermott; Maria Goodloe-Johnson, who heads the city's public schools; and a former police chief, a former United States attorney, and two former governors," the New York Times reports. (That's me in the corner, losing my lunch.) One advantage has over Crosscut, an existing local-news site, is significant name recognition that generated 1.8 million unique visitors in February.

To give you a sense of scale, in late 2007 the P-I held the rank of the 19th most popular newspaper site in the country, and the Seattle Times site held the No. 17 spot. Not bad for the 14th-largest media market in the country. Crosscut's Chuck Taylor noted at the time that if you were to combine the sites' numbers, this Web colossus would rank No. 5 nationally, with a bigger Web presence than the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune.

In an addendum, Taylor acknowledged that Web traffic can't really be added together like that, but he made his point—Seattle, home to Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, a good chunk of Boeing (which is now headquartered in Chicago), the University of Washington, and more, loves the Web, and the Web loves it back. According to a January piece in Forbes, Seattle is the nation's most wired city. Reflecting that Webified glory should be the new P-I's first task.

Although the name Hearst conjures dusty images of San Simeon, Marion Davies, and yellow journalism, the corporation has made a considerable investment in interactive media—something you wouldn't know automatically from looking at the company's newspaper sites. How about pouring some of the special sauce and expertise from those properties onto the P-I? And seriously, does anybody in Hearst's New York headquarters think that 20 paid editorial employees are going to be enough to maintain and build traffic? Come on, Hearst. Are you investing, or are you finding another slow way to kill the P-I? Send in the interactive cavalry! Everything the company learns in Seattle can be used at its other newspaper sites (the Chronicles in Houston and San Francisco, the Albany Times Union, the San Antonio Express-News, the Advocate in Stamford, and its many weeklies).

Users become habituated to Web sites that reward their habituation. One of the many reasons that the Drudge Report pulls so many users is that it's always changing. Compared with Drudge, the home pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post move at a pace that would bore a tectonic plate. I once asked the editor of a top newspaper's Web site if he had to rely on his own home page or the Drudge Report to stay on top of the news (breaking and otherwise), which would he pick? He said Drudge.

So, the first assignment I'd give the P-I's home page would be to have it change as many times an hour as humanly possible. Be there with something new every time somebody at a screen wants to have a media moment. Make the site pulse like a good news-radio station, with updates updating the updates from the news wires. Satisfy the readers' need to know but also convey to them that every story is ongoing. (Developing! as Drudge would put it.) Follow the news. Make the news. Be the news!

Next, I'd have the P-I hire as many news-savvy developers as they can. Drop them into "the newsroom," but call them reporters. I'd also have the site hire (and retain) reporters who want to be developers and allow them make the site's pages their sandbox. Allow them to make as many mistakes as they want as long as the mistakes aren't mis-renderings of the facts.

After that, order the kidnapping of Adrian Holovaty, the sultan of microlocal. Holovaty has already mapped Seattle in his EveryBlock site. Put the man in chains and leave him there until he produces an atom-by-atom replica of the Seattle area for the P-I to exploit. Raid the city's two alternative weeklies—the Seattle Weekly and the Stranger—for editorial talent.

Avoid the grandiose, abstract promises that usually accompany a Web launch. Except for Muhammad Ali, nobody has ever delivered on their self-hype. Don't tout user-generated content unless you know what all that user-generated content is supposed to accomplish. (In other words, unless the prominent citizens recruited to write blogs can really write, spike them.) And please, please, please,, find a frontman or -woman with a pulse who can convey a sense of terror and discovery. Today's column introducing the new by its top hand, Executive Producer Michelle Nicolosi, reads like an advertisement for embalming fluid. Nicolosi writes:

Bottom line: We're going to focus on what readers are telling us they want and on what makes essential and unique—within the context of our local news mission, of course.

If the P-I delivers on her vision, it's doomed.


I got this itch that only my Twitter can reach. Send your best ideas for the P-I to, and I'll amend this column with them. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type P-I in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to

Why Is It Called "March Madness"?
How the NCAA Tournament got its nickname.
By Brendan I. Koerner
Friday, March 20, 2009, at 6:53 AM ET

For the next three weeks, college basketball fans will be obsessing over March Madness, hopeful that their teams will advance to the Sweet 16, perhaps even the Final Four. In 2004, Brendan I. Koerner explained where all of this specialized NCAA Tournament jargon comes from. The original piece is reprinted below.

The NCAA men's basketball tournament, which tipped off today, is colloquially known as "March Madness." Other staples of the 65-team tourney's unique lingo include "Sweet 16," "Final Four," and the "Big Dance." How and when did these terms originate?

March Madness traces back to Illinois' statewide high-school basketball tournament, which began in 1908. In 1939, an official with the Illinois High School Association, Henry V. Porter, penned an article called "March Madness" for the organization's in-house magazine. "A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel," he wrote. Three years later, he followed up with a poem, "Basketball Ides of March," which read in part: "A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight/ The Madness of March is running."

The phrase was confined to Illinois high-school ball until 1982, when CBS broadcaster (and ex-Chicago Daily News sportswriter) Brent Musburger used it during his network's NCAA tournament coverage. The IHSA, meanwhile, applied to trademark "March Madness" in 1989. The NCAA and IHSA clashed in 1996, when the IHSA sued to stop GTE, an NCAA corporate partner, from distributing a CD-ROM game bearing the March Madness title. The NCAA contended that it had a common-law trademark on the phrase and was thus allowed to license it at will. The 7th Circuit Court sided with the NCAA, but its ruling was vague enough to open the door for future litigation. Rather than endure more rounds in court, the two sides agreed to form the March Madness Athletic Association, a joint holding company. The IHSA controls the name on the high-school level, while the NCAA has a perpetual license to use the phrase in connection with its (much larger) collegiate tournament.

A similar clash occurred in the late 1990s over "Sweet 16," tourney slang for the third round. CBS commentators started using the phrase in the late 1980s, after the tournament field expanded from 53 to 64 teams. Unfortunately for the NCAA, the phrase (using both "16" and "Sixteen") was trademarked by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in 1988, as a handle for its annual championship tournament. Perhaps mindful of the March Madness precedent, however, the KHSAA chose to bargain with the NCAA rather than litigate. The two sides struck a deal similar to the one between the IHSA and the NCAA, splitting control along scholastic-collegiate lines. (The NCAA also owns the trademark to "Elite Eight," though the exact origins of that phrase are unclear.)

There are some high-school basketball purists who insist that the phrase "Final Four" was first used in connection with Indiana's legendary annual tournament (which inspired the film Hoosiers). But the official NCAA story is that "Final Four" was coined by a Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter, Ed Chay. In a 1975 article for the Official Collegiate Basketball Guide, Chay wrote that Al McGuire's Marquette squad "was one of the final four" in the previous year's tournament. Something about the phrase struck a chord with the NCAA's marketing folks, and they started capitalizing it as "Final Four" in 1978. It is, of course, now trademarked. (College hockey is stuck with the nickname "Frozen Four" for its national semifinals.)

The origin of "Big Dance" is seemingly lost to history, at least in terms of who first used it as a synonym for March Madness. Nevertheless, the NCAA trademarked the phrase in 2000.

Productivity Madness
What's that crazy stat about the NCAA Tournament and distracted workers?
By Jack Shafer
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 6:50 AM ET

The NCAA Tournament gets under way on Thursday, and it's reportedly luring diligent workers away from their desks to manage office pools and watch their favorite teams—to the great detriment of the U.S. economy. In a 2006 "Press Box," reprinted below, Jack Shafer revealed that speculation about how much the productivity of the U.S. economy suffers during March Madness amounts to nothing more than fuzzy math and hype. Also, in a 2006 "Dismal Science," Jeff Merron explained how those workplace-interruptions calculations are taken out of context.

If you believe what you read in the press, fan devotion to March Madness could cost employers $3.8 billion or more in lost productivity as workers slip away to check NCAA Tournament scores, participate in office pools, read stories about the contests, or avail themselves to CBS' free streaming videocasts of the games on their office computers.

Such prominent news sources as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Daily Press of Newport News, Va., Florida Today, the Kansas City Star, MarketWatch, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Denver Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel, The CBS Evening News, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury News, the Baltimore Sun, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe publicized the $3.8 billion estimate contained in a Feb. 28 press release by consultant John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray, & Christmas.

Challenger's quotable release made immediate news in the March 1 Boston Globe under the headline "Workers Take Break for NCAA Tournament." Other media outlets followed the Globe's lead, churning out headlines such as "During NCAA Tourney, Bet on a Loss in Productivity"; "Chore a Bore, What's the Score?"; "Will Tourney Hurt Businesses? You Bet"; "March Madness Fouls Out With Bosses"; " 'Madness' Dunks Productivity"; and "NCAA Cuts Into Workers' Output."

According to Challenger, businesses would feel the first hit of March Madness on March 13, after the selection committee announced the qualifying teams and workers organized office pools.

Challenger arrived at his $3.8 billion estimate based on an average wage of $18 an hour and 58 million college basketball fans spending 13.5 minutes online each of the 16 business days from March 13 through April 3, the day of the championship game. He also allowed that his figure might be conservative! "The cost may end up being much higher, since it will now be possible to watch entire games on the Internet," he stated in the release.

But as Jeff Merron argued in Slate last week, lost productivity estimates are almost always bogus, especially when they come from attention-seeking professionals who are in the business of increasing productivity. Challenger, Gray, & Christmas helps companies "manage" plant closings, among other things.

I'm happy to report that Challenger's estimate is as loosey-goosey as they come. For one thing, he misjudges the size of the dedicated college hoops audience. In 2005, for instance, the NCAA championship game drew 23.1 million households, according to Nielsen. The year before, only 16.6 million households tuned in to the championship game, which indicates that many so-called fans have only a casual interest in the tournament. Many are happy to tune out the tournament's biggest game if it's a blowout, or if the matchup doesn't interest them. Also, many nonfans and casual fans who participate in office pools experience reduced interest in the tournament as it proceeds and the teams they bet on get knocked out.

In concocting his lost-productivity estimate, Challenger doesn't acknowledge that "wasted time" is built into every workday. Workers routinely shop during office hours, take extended coffee breaks, talk to friends on the phone, enjoy long lunches, or gossip around the water cooler. It's likely that NCAA tourney fans merely reallocate to the games the time they ordinarily waste elsewhere. Likewise, many office workers who don't complete their tasks by the end of the day stay late or take work home. If fans who screw off at work ultimately do their work at home, the alleged "loss" to productivity would be a wash.

Last, the fear that millions of workers will waste time watching the games live for hours at the office is groundless. More than two-thirds of the games are played on weeknights or weekends, when very few employees are stuck behind their work terminals. Besides, the CBS system can only accommodate 200,000 computers at a time, as the Daily Press noted in its story. My unsolicited advice to my press colleagues is to beware of grand estimates such as Challenger's, and to anxious supervisors, I counsel you to worry less about how your employees waste time and more about how much they screw off.

Addendum, March 21, 9:30 a.m.: Carl Bialik, "The Numbers Guy" columnist at the Wall Street Journal, beat me to the Challenger story earlier this month, nailing the consultant. Bialik's 2005 column ridiculed the "consultant" for estimating the productivity loss from the 2005 NCAA tournament at $889 million. A $3 billion increase in one year? Get out of here! Bialik also whacked Challenger for his 2005 estimate that Super Bowl water-cooler talk would cost $1.06 billion. While we're giving out credit, let's also salute Hannah Clark of Forbes, who took Challenger down earlier this month.

Addendum, March 22, 11:30 a.m.: Salon's King Kaufman blew the whistle on Challenger last year and again this year. Josh Hendrickson got a piece of the action, too.


When the Western Michigan University Broncos get knocked out of the tournament—which usually comes in December—I lose all interest in the NCAA. Share your hoop dreams and nightmares and screwing-off-while-at-work techniques via e-mail: (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Why Are Pakistani Lawyers Always Protesting?
More on the judicial crisis in Islamabad.
By Michelle Tsai
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 11:54 AM ET

Lawyers in Pakistan celebrated this week—and canceled a planned march on the capital—after the prime minister announced he would reinstate the country's chief justice. In a November 2007 "Explainer," Michelle Tsai looked at why Pakistani lawyers are so involved in political protests. The article is reprinted below.

Lawyers demonstrating in their black suits and ties clashed with police in Pakistan on Monday, two days after Pervez Musharraf declared martial law. In Lahore, about 2,000 lawyers gathered at the high court, even as some news outlets reported 1,500 arrests of lawyers across the country. Why are attorneys leading this round of protests?

Because they want to, and they can. When Musharraf came to power in 1999, he effectively paralyzed the two major political parties that opposed him. The leaders of those groups, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistani Muslim League, went into exile. Other political figures were arrested, and public rallies were generally not permitted. (The gathering of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis to greet Bhutto's return in October was a rare exception.) Thus weakened, the parties couldn't lead a mass response to Musharraf's takeover. Lawyers, on the other hand, could circumvent some of the general's restrictions. Since they still had to go to court, lawyers were able to use the courts as public meeting places. They also couldn't be easily targeted as a group, since bar associations carry out necessary functions for the government, like ensuring that local political campaigns follow the rules and authenticating applicants for a national ID card. This appears to have changed, however; one eyewitness said the police were now arresting "anyone wearing the lawyer's uniform."

The black-suited lawyers also had the will to protest, having been incensed by Musharraf's attacks on the constitution and the judicial branch of government. In March, he suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who had rankled the military by taking on cases involving dissidents and human rights activists. This intervention was received as an attack on the legal profession, and lawyers and other supporters took to the streets in the spring. Chaudhry was reinstated in July, though over the weekend he was placed under house arrest, along with other members of the Supreme Court who refused to uphold Musharraf's provisional constitution. The military also arrested Aitzaz Ahsan, the highly regarded lawyer who successfully defended the chief justice from his suspension earlier this year.

Lawyers and the law have played a central role in politics since the beginning of Pakistan's history. The founder of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a barrister—he mounted a series of successful arguments for how the 1947 separation from India would take place; at heart, Partition was a legal arrangement. And throughout the decades of Pakistan's existence, lawyers have fought for the development of legislative and judicial institutions in opposition to military dictatorship and the existing bureaucratic rule. The idea of an independent rule of law became a rallying cry for the opposition during the early period of military rule, which lasted from the 1950s to about 1971. In 1968, lawyers demonstrated in defiance of the government's ban on public meetings. Since no more than six people could gather without a permit at the time, lawyers protested six at a time, standing outside the courts with signs in their hands. Their actions added momentum to the mass protests that took place a few months later and eventually led to the ousting of the nation's first military ruler, Ayub Khan.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Manan Ahmed of University of Chicago, Arnaud de Borchgrave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Husain Haqqani of Boston University, and Amit Pangya of the Henry L. Stimson Center.

The Lead Is Safe
How to tell when a college basketball game is out of reach.
By Bill James
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 7:03 AM ET

There are five minutes to go and your team has a 15-point lead. You start to flip the channel but then have a moment of doubt—is there a chance that the other guys could come back and win? From now on, you'll never have to wonder. Last year, Bill James, a lifelong Kansas Jayhawks fan, shared his personal formula to determine when a lead in a college hoops game is safe. If you're thinking about switching to another game during March Madness, just keep this page open and plug the current score into the Bill James Lead Calculator. The piece is reprinted below.

Question: How do you know when the contest is not officially "over," but the outcome is no longer in doubt?

Answer: How would I know? I was a Huckabee guy.

With apologies to the Sage of St. Louis, there comes a time when it ain't over, but ... it's over. There comes a time in a relationship when a woman will still answer your phone calls, but you're wasting your money buying flowers; you know what I'm saying? There comes a moment during a job interview when you're still talking, but you might as well take off your shoes. There is a time in an illness when you're not dead yet, but you might as well stop taking that nasty medicine.

There is a line there somewhere, and how do you know when the line is crossed that separates hope from fantasy? If we're talking politics, romance, job interviews, or medicine, I don't know. When it comes to college basketball, I've got a theory.

This thing has a 40-year history, actually. I've been attending basketball games at Allen Field House in Lawrence, Kan. (home of the Jayhawks), since 1967. The Jayhawks usually win by 15 or 20 points, and sometime in about 1968 I started wondering whether there wasn't some way to decide when the game was no longer in doubt. I began to experiment with heuristic inventions to try to find the moment at which the line was crossed. A heuristic could be loosely defined as a mathematical rule that works even though no licensed mathematician would be caught dead associating with it.

Let's see ... what about: The game is over when the number of points you are ahead (or behind) is more than one-tenth the number of seconds left in the game?*

Nah, that doesn't work. If you're 30 points behind, the game is over much more than five minutes out (300 seconds); if you're two points behind, the game is not over when there are 20 seconds left. The rule doesn't work on either end.

Eventually I found a rule that did work at that time, but at that time there was no 3-point shot in basketball. When they added the 3-point line, I had to recalibrate my system.

OK, I've stalled as long as I can. You ready?

Take the number of points one team is ahead. Subtract three. Add a half-point if the team that is ahead has the ball, and subtract a half-point if the other team has the ball. (Numbers less than zero become zero.) Square that. If the result is greater than the number of seconds left in the game, the lead is safe.

(If you don't have a calculator handy, use the tool below to do the calculations for you.)

If you've got a 10-point lead and the ball with 10 minutes left, is that a safe lead?

Of course not; teams come back from a 10-point deficit all the time. A 10-point lead, plus the ball, gives you a 7.5-point safety margin. It's safe for 56.25 seconds—56, rounded down. With 600 seconds to play, a 10-point lead (with the ball) is 9 percent safe. That doesn't mean a team with a 10-point lead and the ball with 10 minutes to go has only a 9 percent chance of winning. Rather, it means they're 9 percent of the way to having a completely insurmountable advantage.

An 11-point lead with nine minutes to play—we'll let you keep the ball. That's an 8.5-point safety margin with 540 seconds to play; it's 13 percent safe (72.25 divided by 540).

A 12-point lead with eight minutes to play ... that's a 9.5 point margin. It's 19 percent safe (90.25 divided by 480).

A 13-point lead with seven minutes to play ... 26 percent safe.

A 16-point lead with four minutes to play ... 76 percent safe, assuming the team with the lead also has the ball. It's really unusual for a team to come from 16 back with four to play and win, but it does happen. I would guess it happens twice a year somewhere in the world of college basketball.

A 17-point lead with three minutes to play ... bingo. That's a safe lead. Seventeen points with three minutes to play is a safe lead whether you have the ball or not, actually; a 17-point lead with the ball is safe at 3:30; a 17-point lead without the ball is safe at 3:02.

Once a lead is safe, it's permanently safe, even if the score tightens up. You're down 17 with three to play; you can make a little run, maybe cut it to 8 with 1:41 to play. The lead, if it was once safe, remains safe. The theory of a safe lead is that to overcome it requires a series of events so improbable as to be essentially impossible. If the "dead" team pulls back over the safety line, that just means that they got some part of the impossible sequence—not that they have a meaningful chance to run the whole thing.

Why calculate when the lead is safe? The real answer is "because I like to." I like to feel that I understand little things about sports. I like to feel that I can see the difference between a safe lead and a live contest for the same reason that I like to feel that I can recognize a zone defense and recognize a pick-and-roll.

But if that answer doesn't work for you ... you pay a price in sports for anything you believe that is not true. The fact is that everybody around a college basketball game—the coaches, the announcers, even the referees at a lower level—calculates when the game is really over. They calculate it with intuition and guesswork. When the lead is judged to be safe, the coaches empty the bench. When the lead is judged to be safe, the announcers start re-ranking the top 25 and talking about the upcoming games or the next-round matchups. When the lead is safe, the Jayhawk fans start doing the slow, spooky Rock Chalk chant. I love that.

If a coach misjudges the moment at which the lead is safe, he can empty the bench too early and get himself into trouble. I've never actually seen a coach lose a game that way, but I certainly have seen coaches misjudge when the lead is safe, empty the bench too early, and get hit by a haymaker. More commonly, because coaches are afraid that that might happen, they continue to compete after the game is beyond any reasonable possibility of a reversal. That has consequences, too. You can get a player hurt playing for nothing. You can miss the opportunity to get a little bit of rest for players who are tired at the end of the season but have a game on Saturday. You can miss the opportunity to get that 12th man his 20 seconds in an NCAA tournament game—and if there's no value in that, then why do they do it?

And I think we've all seen games in which the announcers misjudged the moment when the lead was safe and started talking about the consequences of an outcome that was never to be. Probably announcers don't enjoy doing that.

I have never personally seen a game in which a team lost after having a safe lead. In February 1994, LSU led Kentucky by 31 with 15:30 left to play, only to see Kentucky rally for a 99-95 victory. That was impressive, but a 31-point lead without the ball is safe for 12:36. The lead was 81 percent safe. And then this year, LSU blew a 15-point lead to Villanova with 2:59 to go—which, again, is close but no kewpie doll. With 179 seconds to play you need a 13.5-point margin, which means a 16-point lead with the ball or 17 without. The curse of Dale Brown. Actually, I would guess Dale was cursing up a storm when that happened.

My editor, doing his due diligence, found one game in which a team lost after holding a safe lead. On March 2, 1974, North Carolina trailed Duke, 86-78, with 17 seconds to play—a safe lead for Duke. Duke had repeated misadventures in in-bounding the basketball and wound up losing the game in overtime. That was before the human typo was hired to coach Duke, but ... does anybody know where I could get a tape of that game?

My little formula, over the course of 40 years, has wormed its way into our family's college basketball experience. Early on in every game, usually once in the first half when the score is about 23-21 and again midway through the second half, I will observe soberly, in my best faux-expert voice, that "the lead is not safe," and my wife will look at me not only as if I were an idiot, but as if for some reason she is surprised by this. In the closing minutes of a tense game, it gets serious: "Is that it? Is the lead safe yet, Dad? How much more?" They are waiting to exhale, waiting to unbundle their nerves. They know that every time the clock stops, when I should be scoping out the cheerleaders, I am recalculating the lead in the back of my head. I've been doing it so long, I can do both at the same time.

I hope you get something out of it.

And if you do, tell Ralph Nader. It's over, man. Go home.

Correction, March 17, 2008: This piece originally misstated a possible heuristic for determining whether a basketball lead is safe. Rather than "[t]he game is over when the number of points you are ahead (or behind) is more than 10 times the number of seconds left in the game," it should have read "more than one-tenth the numbers of seconds." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

St. Patrick Revealed
The man behind the green beer and myth.
By David Plotz
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 1:54 PM ET

On March 17, revelers will drink green beer (and eat corned beef) in celebration of the man who, according to David Plotz, "didn't rid the land of snakes, didn't compare the Trinity to the shamrock, and wasn't even Irish." In a 2000 piece reproduced below, Plotz stripped the myth away from St. Patrick, evaluating the many different popular incarnations that have arisen in the years since his birth.

Today we raise a glass of warm green beer to a fine fellow, the Irishman who didn't rid the land of snakes, didn't compare the Trinity to the shamrock, and wasn't even Irish. St. Patrick, who died 1,507, 1,539, or 1,540 years ago today—depending on which unreliable source you want to believe—has been adorned with centuries of Irish blarney. Innumerable folk tales recount how he faced down kings, negotiated with God, tricked and slaughtered Ireland's reptiles.

The facts about St. Patrick are few. Most derive from the two documents he probably wrote, the autobiographical Confession and the indignant Letter to a slave-taking marauder named Coroticus. Patrick was born in Britain, probably in Wales, around 385 A.D. His father was a Roman official. When Patrick was 16, seafaring raiders captured him, carried him to Ireland, and sold him into slavery. The Christian Patrick spent six lonely years herding sheep and, according to him, praying 100 times a day. In a dream, God told him to escape. He returned home, where he had another vision in which the Irish people begged him to return and minister to them: "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more," he recalls in the Confession. He studied for the priesthood in France, then made his way back to Ireland.

He spent his last 30 years there, baptizing pagans, ordaining priests, and founding churches and monasteries. His persuasive powers must have been astounding: Ireland fully converted to Christianity within 200 years and was the only country in Europe to Christianize peacefully. Patrick's Christian conversion ended slavery, human sacrifice, and most intertribal warfare in Ireland. (He did not banish the snakes: Ireland never had any. Scholars now consider snakes a metaphor for the serpent of paganism. Nor did he invent the Shamrock Trinity. That was an 18th-century fabrication.)

According to Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Paddy's influence extended far beyond his adopted land. Cahill's book, which could just as well be titled How St. Patrick Saved Civilization, contends that Patrick's conversion of Ireland allowed Western learning to survive the Dark Ages. Ireland pacified and churchified as the rest of Europe crumbled. Patrick's monasteries copied and preserved classical texts. Later, Irish monks returned this knowledge to Europe by establishing monasteries in England, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

The Irish have celebrated their patron saint with a quiet religious holiday for centuries, perhaps more than 1,000 years. It took the United States to turn St. Patrick's Day into a boozy spectacle. Irish immigrants first celebrated it in Boston in 1737 and first paraded in New York in 1762. By the late 19th century, the St. Patrick's Day parade had become a way for Irish-Americans to flaunt their numerical and political might. It retains this role today.

The scarcity of facts about St. Patrick's life has made him a dress-up doll: Anyone can create his own St. Patrick. Ireland's Catholics and Protestants, who have long feuded over him, each have built a St. Patrick in their own image. Catholics cherish Paddy as the father of Catholic Ireland. They say that Patrick was consecrated as a bishop and that the pope himself sent him to convert the heathen Irish. (Evidence is sketchy about both the bishop and pope claims.) One of the most popular Irish Catholic stories holds that Patrick bargained with God and got the Big Fella to promise that Ireland would remain Catholic and free.

Ireland's Protestant minority, by contrast, denies that Patrick was a bishop or that he was sent by Rome. They depict him as anti-Roman Catholic and credit him with inventing a distinctly Celtic church, with its own homegrown symbols and practices. He is an Irish hero, not a Catholic one.

Outside Ireland, too, Patrick has been freely reinterpreted. Evangelical Protestants claim him as one of their own. After all, he read his Bible, and his faith came to him in visions. Biblical inspiration and personal revelation are Protestant hallmarks. Utah newspapers emphasize that Patrick was a missionary sent overseas to convert the ungodly, an image that resonates in Mormon country. New Age Christians revere Patrick as a virtual patron saint. Patrick co-opted Druid symbols in order to undermine the rival religion, fusing nature and magic with Christian practice. The Irish placed a sun at the center of their cross. "St. Patrick's Breastplate," Patrick's famous prayer (which he certainly did not write) invokes the power of the sun, moon, rocks, and wind, as well as God. (This is what is called "Erin go hoo-ha.")

Patrick has even been enlisted in the gay rights cause. For a decade, gay and lesbian Irish-Americans have sought permission to march in New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade, and for a decade they have lost in court. Cahill, among others, has allied Patrick with gays and lesbians. Cahill's Patrick is a muscular progressive. He was a proto-feminist who valued women in an age when the church ignored them. He always sided with the downtrodden and the excluded, whether they were slaves or the pagan Irish. If Patrick were around today, Cahill says, he would join the gay marchers.

Now television has invented yet another Patrick. Last night, Fox Family Channel aired its made-for-TV movie St. Patrick. Fox's Patrick is mostly drawn from the historical record, but the producers added one new storyline. The English parent church demands that Patrick collect its church taxes in Ireland. Patrick rebels and risks excommunication by the British bishop. The fearless colonist leads a tax revolt against the villainous English. We Americans, like everyone else, think St. Patrick is one of us.

But Enough About You …
What is narcissistic personality disorder, and why does everyone seem to have it?
By Emily Yoffe
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 7:05 AM ET

The narcissists did it. Some commentators are fingering them as the culprits of the financial meltdown. A Bloomberg columnist blamed the conceited for our financial troubles in a piece titled "Harvard Narcissists With MBAs Killed Wall Street." A Wall Street Journal op-ed on California's economy suggested that Gov. Schwarzenegger's desire for voter's love ("It's classic narcissism") helped cause the state's budget debacle. A forthcoming book, The Narcissism Epidemic, says we went on a national binge of I-deserve-it consumption that's now resulting in our economic purging.

This is the cultural moment of the narcissist. In a New Yorker cartoon, Roz Chast suggests a line of narcissist greeting cards ("Wow! Your Birthday's Really Close to Mine!"). John Edwards outed himself as one when forced to confess an adulterous affair. (Given his comical vanity, the deceitful way he used his marriage for his advancement, and his self-elevation as an embodiment of the common man while living in a house the size of an arena, it sounds like a pretty good diagnosis.) New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley wrote of journalists who Twitter, "it's beginning to look more like yet another gateway drug to full-blown media narcissism." And what other malady could explain the simultaneous phenomena of Blago and the Octomom?

These days, "narcissist" gets tossed around as an all-purpose insult, a description of self-aggrandizing, obnoxious behavior. Unfortunately, the same word is used to describe a quality that comes in three gradations: a characteristic that in the right amount is a normal component of healthy ego; a troublesome trait when there is too much; and a pathological state when it overwhelms a personality. Narcissism fuels drive and ambition, a desire to be recognized for one's accomplishments, a sense that one's life has meaning and importance. The problem occurs when narcissism becomes the primary principle of someone's personality. Its most extreme form is narcissistic personality disorder, a psychological condition that impairs a person's ability to form normal relationships and wreaks havoc on those who have close encounters with it.

A recent study titled "Leader Emergence: The Case of the Narcissistic Leader" describes how narcissists have skills and qualities—confidence, extraversion, a desire for power—that propel them into leadership roles but that when true narcissists are in charge, other aspects of their makeup—a feeling the rules don't apply to them, a need for constant stroking—can have "disastrous consequences." Yes, we're talking about you, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. After Blagojevich was caught on tape trying to sell a Senate seat, he reveled in the opportunity to appear on talk shows, making the case that he himself was a victim—self-pity being a favorite narcissist refuge.

A line from a New York Times profile of him is as trenchant a description of narcissism as is found in most psychology textbooks: "[He] is unapologetically late to almost everything, and can treat employees with disdain, cursing and erupting in fury for failings as mundane as neglecting to have at hand at all times his preferred black Paul Mitchell hairbrush." There it all is: the sense that other people don't matter, the belief others are instruments for the narcissist's use, the self-admiration.

Narcissistic personality disorder is not simply about taking normal egoism to extremes. NPD is one of fewer than a dozen personality disorders described by the American Psychiatric Association. These differ from the major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and manic-depression, which are believed to have a biological origin. Personality disorders are seen as a failure of character development. Others include anti-social personality disorder (these people are also commonly called "sociopaths" or "Bernie Madoff") and borderline personality disorder (think of Livia Soprano). NPD has been officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association only since 1980, but descriptions of this syndrome go back to ancient times. The name for it, after all, comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who was unable to love until he saw his own reflection in the water and died pining away at his image.

Elsa Ronningstam, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School who specializes in NPD, points out the myth is not really about self-love but the inability to love. Eleanor Payson, a therapist in Michigan and the author of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, says of people with NPD, "They have a primitive, undeveloped sense of self." To compensate, they create a grandiose image to distract from an inner state that Payson says is one of "almost malignant anxiety and emptiness."

Octomom Nadya Suleman explained in an interview that she started having her brood so she they would fill "the void, the feeling of emptiness" inside her she said was the result of an unhappy childhood. When the first six kids apparently failed to understand their Sisyphean life's work of making their mother feel loved, Suleman pushed on and had eight more. Perhaps this latest batch—once they get out of the neonatal intensive care unit—will discharge their obligations better.

People with NPD act as if they are special beings who are exceptionally intelligent, accomplished, beautiful, or sexy (or all of the above), to whom lesser people (pretty much everyone else) must bow. For example, the late real estate heiress Leona Helmsley did time in prison for her belief about herself and her husband, "We don't pay taxes. Only little people pay taxes." Narcissists like to leave posthumous landmines in their wills, and in hers Helmsley excluded two grandchildren and left $12 million to the individual she cared about the most, her Maltese, Trouble. (A judge considered the dog's needs and cut its award to $2 million.) Helmsley left a $5.2 billion fortune to a foundation whose mission was to be the care of dogs, a bequest that made her Slate's No. 1 charitable giver of 2008. But the little people may have gotten their revenge. Another judge just ruled that the foundation's trustees may ignore Helmsley's wishes.

Every personality disorder runs on a continuum from mild to severe. People with mild NPD, more than those with mild cases of other personality disorders, can be very high functioning. Their aura of excitement, the force of their personality can be powerfully seductive. The arts, medicine, politics all attract inwardly injured people with an outsize sense of themselves and a desire for the world to recognize them. As columnist Charles Krauthammer noted about the 42nd president, "Clinton craves your adulation (the source of all his troubles)." Ronningstam says part of director Ingmar Bergman's genius was that he could project his narcissistic struggles in a compelling way on-screen. A striking number of successful artistic people with NPD establish their own compounds. Bergman, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, director Stanley Kubrick, and artist Salvador Dalí all retreated to self-created worlds, populated with casts (often revolving) of adoring spouses and assistants.

NPD is a little-studied condition. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 1 percent of the general population has it. To researchers in the field, this is a significant underestimate. (One recent study concludes it occurs in 6 percent of Americans.) Psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, who obviously have a stake in proving there is one, estimate around 10 percent of today's young people have clinical manifestations of NPD. They believe narcissism is a cultural virus that has spread throughout the population over the past several decades.

Those who frequently treat NPD, or its victims, point out one reason the statistics may so underestimate its incidence is that narcissists rarely show up at a therapist's office. There are no pharmaceutical fixes, and therapy is often unsuccessful. If they do seek treatment—usually under duress—a primary outcome is that they drive their therapists bonkers. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that "clinicians reported feeling anger, resentment, and dread in working with narcissistic personality disorder patients; feeling devalued and criticized by the patient; and finding themselves distracted, avoidant, and wishing to terminate the treatment."

In a paper in Comprehensive Psychiatry, researchers explored whether NPD should even be considered a disorder since the people who have it, by definition, think so highly of themselves. The authors conclude it is a pathological condition but one that uniquely causes "pain and duress" not to the sufferers but to those closest to them. Psychologist Allan N. Schore, an associate clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA says NPD can be summed up as, "Contempt of other people and their emotions." People with NPD are convinced there is nothing wrong with them; it's everyone around them who is impossible or crazy. There's some truth to their perception because often the spouse and children of the narcissist have been driven mad by their cruelty, disparagement, rages, and vindictiveness.

The leading theory about the development of NPD is that people get it the old-fashioned, Freudian way: Your parents give it to you. It starts very early when the attachment between infant and caregiver goes awry. In the first years attentive parents instinctively respond to the infant's moods. But cold, neglectful, or abusive parents don't provide the necessary comfort. Paradoxically, over-involved parents can be just as damaging because they convey anxiety and distress in the face of their child's unhappiness. As a result of neglect or smothering, these children don't learn the essential skills of being able to soothe themselves and regulate their feelings. The authors of The Narcissism Epidemic say the drift toward hovering, boosterish parents who want to gratify their child's every impulse will churn out more narcissistically disordered people.

Fortunately, not everyone with this kind of parenting ends up with NPD, which indicates there is a genetic susceptibility as well. Harvard's Ronningstam, in her book Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality, cites evidence that hypersensitive babies with a low tolerance for frustration and a strong aggressive drive may be particularly vulnerable.

Because the caregiver lacks an empathetic understanding of the baby, the baby's ability to become an empathetic person is impaired. Empathy, the ability to instinctively understand how another person is feeling, is a crucial human attribute, part of what makes us a social species. A chilling lack of empathy is a hallmark of NPD. Shame, that painful sense one has acted in an unacceptable way, is another necessary emotion that is also largely missing from the person with NPD. Since shame feels so terrible, it sounds liberating not to feel it. But psychologist Schore points out a feeling of shame signals that we need to reassess our behavior. "Shame is a moral emotion," he says. "It's without feeling shame that the most horrendous acts occur."

Those involved with someone with NPD frequently say they feel as if they are interacting with a kindergartener. In some way they are. According to a study in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatments, narcissists are stuck with the emotional development of 5-year-olds. It's about at age 5 that children start realizing their feelings are not just the result of other people or events but occur within themselves, and that they have control over them. But this understanding does not take place for the narcissist, who continues to see all internal states as having an external cause. Because of narcissists' inability to control their own emotions, they unconsciously experience the world as constantly threatening—thus the tendency toward inexplicable rages, the wild overreactions to the slightest perception of criticism.

Management consultant Michael Maccoby studied narcissistic bosses for his book, The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership. He makes a distinction between leaders with narcissistic traits and those who have full-blown NPD. He says narcissists can be charismatic forces for change—because of their drive, vision, risk-taking, and even ruthlessness, many corporations turn to narcissists for salvation. But such people can become dangerous because their success fuels their already ample grandiosity and feeds the sense they got there by disdaining the normal rules. Maccoby says those working for or doing business with a narcissist have to be careful not be drawn into crossing legal and ethical lines. A good example is Blagojevich, who seemed to have a rare ability to taint almost anyone who took his phone calls. Twenge and Campbell cite studies which show that narcissistic bosses produce volatile results. Their boldness can lead to big short-term success but long-term disaster.

If the observers who say that part of our economic troubles result from a mass case of narcissism, from consumers who thought they should have the house of their dreams financed on bad debt to bankers who thought they deserved eight-figure bonuses for packaging that bad debt, then perhaps we are about to be cured. Twenge and Campbell point out that the 1920s was a narcissistic era whose economic collapse led to the Great Depression and the greatest generation. Perhaps its time to dig out those Depression-era recipes for humble pie.

slate v
Cubez: Exotic Vet
A daily video from Slate V.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 9:53 AM ET


slate v
Eight-Block-Long Love Letter
A daily video from Slate V.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 9:51 AM ET


slate v
Dear Prudence: My Two Brats
A daily video from Slate V.
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 10:32 AM ET


sports nut
Teams We Hate
Duke, Eric Devendorf, and five more odious things about this year's NCAA Tournament.
By Josh Levin
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 7:01 AM ET

For the first time in nearly three decades, roundball curmudgeon Billy Packer will not be on CBS complaining about the quality of play in the Final Four. Without Packer around to slag on the Missouri Valley Conference and overpraise the ACC—and to say other things one should never utter around a live mike—you might think that this year's NCAA Tournament would be nothing but sweetness and light. You couldn't be more wrong. Once again, Sports Nut is your guide to everything evil in college hoops. While in years past we've restricted the hate to America's basketball-playing universities, this year's suspects include an individual player, a Packer heir, and a bracketologist. But don't worry: There's always room for Duke.

Duke University

Compared with past Duke teams, the 2009 model isn't particularly deplorable. With point guard and assistant-coach-in-waiting Greg Paulus getting an early start on his bench-sitting career, this squad fails to fulfill the most-irksome Blue Devil trait: the cultivation of underachievers who comport themselves like overachievers. Indeed, Duke got off to a strong start after coach/American hero/ethicist Mike Krzyzewski disowned the school's floor-slapping legacy, benching the runty Paulus for talented sophomore Nolan Smith. And after a midseason slump in which the Devils lost three of four games, the team found its mojo by rebenching Paulus—who had somehow wormed his way back into the lineup—in favor of freshman Elliot Williams.

While reasonable fans might wonder why Williams, a reigning McDonald's All-American, wasn't seeing more time to begin with, Krzyzewski got credit for unearthing a diamond in the rough. "He's been really good in practice and always has a good attitude," Coach K explained. This, of course, is the Duke way—basketball as leadership seminar, where winning is an outgrowth of "a good attitude" rather than the simple act of replacing a substandard basketball player with one who's capable of passing, shooting, playing defense, and dribbling. Actually, strike that last one—at Duke, dribbling is always optional.

Jim Calhoun

After securing his 800th career victory last month, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun explained his philosophy of coaching. "Any day that I sat down on a kid and didn't really push them, and then loved them as much as I possibly could and backed them, then I'm not really doing my job," he said. "That's the only way they're going to give you the type of performance they gave me tonight." A decent man credits others on the occasion of personal success. Jim Calhoun discusses his players like a jockey talks about his mounts.

Big-time college basketball coaches aren't sympathetic creatures, but Calhoun's classlessness and self-aggrandizing bring shame to a shameless profession. Another recent lowlight came when Calhoun shouted down a writer—"My best advice to you: Shut up"—who questioned his high salary during a time of economic hardship. The coach isn't an AIG executive, and he should get some leeway for his brusqueness, because he was ambushed at a postgame press conference. (Let's also assume Calhoun didn't understand that he was confusing revenue with net profit when he yelled that his program "bring[s] in $12 million [a year] to this university.") But even days later, when he had a chance to say he could have handled things better, Calhoun instead chose to call attention to all the charity work he does.

Leave aside the fact that the Big East legend coddles felony-committing stars and takes away the scholarships of kids who fail to live up to expectations—so do a lot of other coaches. What sets him apart from his peers is his misplaced self-regard. Somewhere along the line, it wasn't good enough for Calhoun to have built a hoops dynasty at a very unlikely school. Instead, he feels compelled to turn his life story into a fantasy in which Connecticut, if not America, is saved by a coaching messiah.

North Dakota State University

Believe it or not, the North Dakota State Bison have a shot at beating defending champion Kansas. Point guard Ben Woodside, who scored 60 points in a game earlier this season, will put up enough points to keep things close. And since the game is being played in nearby Minneapolis—where 30,000 North Dakotans traveled to watch the school's football team beat Minnesota in 2007—NDSU is guaranteed to have the home-court advantage in the final minutes.

So what's to hate about the plucky Bison? They're a bunch of old men. Way back in 2004, the North Dakota State coaching staff redshirted Woodside and three other incoming freshmen with an eye toward 2009, NDSU's first year of tourney eligibility after transitioning into Division I play; the five-year plan worked perfectly, as the quartet of now-23-year-olds just won a Summit League title. Running an extended-stay university isn't quite cheating, but it is a bit devious for a team that's being portrayed as a bunch of aw-shucking upstarts. The Bison aren't modern-day versions of Jimmy, Ollie, Buddy, and the rest of those underdeveloped upstarts from Hickory High. Rather, they're the Van Wilders of the NCAA Tournament: elderly undergrads delaying passage to the real world for as long as possible. Beat Kansas in the first round, and they can wait a little longer.

Eric Devendorf

Three years ago, Robert Weintraub wrote a piece for Slate on college basketball's "Annoying White Guys"—those players, often coaches' sons, who irritatingly scrap their way into our living rooms every March. At the end of his essay, which focused on Syracuse's Gerry McNamara, Weintraub nominated fellow Orange guard Eric Devendorf as the NCAA's next-gen Annoying White Guy. Never has a better prediction been made.

One might normally feel pangs of guilt for rooting against college kids—I was just kidding, North Dakota State!—but Devendorf isn't merely annoying. In December, he was suspended from school for assaulting a female student while on probation for "harming" a different Syracuse student. In a Calhoun-esque move, Coach Jim Boeheim let Devendorf suit up while the case was under appeal, and the suspension was later reduced. In the end, he sat out only two games.

Upon his return to the court, the shooting guard played with the joylessness and hostility of a schoolyard bully. Actually, more like the schoolyard bully's yappy best friend. In the Big East Tournament, Devendorf repeatedly talked trash to opposing defenders after his teammates found him for wide-open jumpers. It was like watching John Paxson pop his jersey. Let's make a deal, big guy: You can start woofing the next time you create your own shot.

Joe Lunardi

In the run-up to Selection Sunday, ESPN's Joe Lunardi appeared on the network by the hour to dispense his bracketological wisdom: who's in, who's out, and where everyone should be seeded. Lunardi, the longtime editor of the hyper-detailed hoops preview magazine Blue Ribbon, worked hard to earn his perch. (He did not, as alleged in his Wikipedia entry, win the role on a reality show called Dream Job: Bracketology Edition.)

If only he were up to the job of being the nation's bracket sage. This year, Lunardi predicted 64 of the tournament's 65 teams correctly—OK, more like 33 of 34 considering that 31 spots are taken by automatic qualifiers. Not bad, right? Well, according to the site the Bracket Project—which collected the picks of 61 March Madness prognosticators—92 percent of the bracketeers agreed on 32 of the 34 at-large teams, and a healthy 82 percent agreed on 33 of 34. Bracketology, you see, isn't very hard. Joe Lunardi's entire job this year was to identify a single team. He went 0 for 1: Creighton out, Arizona in. Lunardi also whiffed on the one No. 1 seed for which there wasn't an iron-clad consensus, guessing Memphis instead of UConn.

Perhaps it's unfair to ding him for these slip-ups, as the selection committee doesn't necessarily behave consistently year-to-year. Then again, he's the one who's selling the idea that bracket predicting is a science. If bracketology is indeed a skill, then Joe Lunardi hasn't mastered it. The Bracket Project has ranked the 12 tourney scholars who've been publishing guesses for at least four years, grading them based on how many teams they pick correctly and the accuracy of their seeding forecasts. Lunardi is 10th out of 12. My early bubble picks for 2010: Bracketology 101 in, Joe Lunardi out.

University of Dayton

In sports, the saying goes, the breaks even out. Unlike most athletic clichés, this one turns out to be kind of true. College hoops genius Ken Pomeroy tracks a statistic called "luck"—to oversimplify things, a team is considered "lucky" (subscription required) if it pulls out an unexpectedly high number of close victories, whereas a squad is "unlucky" if it absorbs a lot of close defeats. In college basketball, luck doesn't last: Last year's six most-fortunate teams have all regressed substantially in 2009. Conversely, three of Pomeroy's four unluckiest teams in 2008 were Illinois, Utah, and Missouri. All three missed out on March Madness last season, and all three earned surprisingly good seeds to this year's tourney.

This year's luckiest—in other words, least deserving—at-large NCAA Tournament team is the University of Dayton. Of the Flyers' 26 victories, 12 came by an average of 3.25 points, including five decided by 1 or 2 points. By contrast, Dayton earned its seven defeats, losing by an average of 11.7 points. If those fluky Ohioans didn't get a tournament bid on merit, then somebody must've been jobbed. It wasn't St. Mary's or Penn State or Creighton or San Diego State—each of those teams had above-average luck, too. Of all the legitimate at-large candidates, Florida (luck ranking: 324 of 344) got most screwed over by the fates. Gators fans should find some solace in the fact that next year can't possibly be as bad. The reverse is true for Dayton: Savor that first-round loss to West Virginia, Flyers. Next year's going to be a lot worse.

Jay Bilas

With Billy Packer now yelling at the TV from home, you might think that the NCAA Tournament would be free from the scourge of the know-it-all in a network blazer. Tune in on Thursday, though, and you'll hear Packer's heir, a color commentator who never misses a chance to point out that he's the smartest guy in the arena.

Judging by his performance on Selection Sunday, Jay Bilas is already in postseason form. During an ESPN studio show (Bilas does most of his work for ESPN but moonlights for CBS during the tourney), the hoops analyst smugly rolled his eyes at Dick Vitale's argument that Arizona's selection over St. Mary's was a defeat for the "little Davids." Bilas, a sometime litigator and erstwhile actor, won the debate less because of the substance of what he said—condescendingly conceding that Vitale's point that big schools won't schedule mid-majors might have been correct "30 years ago"—than with the fact he was dueling with a man who tends to punctuate every statement with, "It's awesome, baby!"

Examine Bilas' words in a non-Vitale context and it's hard to find anything enlightening. The biggest accomplishment of the Duke grad's announcing career is bringing the word bouncy into the basketball lexicon. His most frequent announcerly flourish is to call someone "a man" without further explication. (Which leads one to wonder: If Bilas called a WNBA game, would he declare that "Candace Parker is a woman"?) Bilas' twin hobby horses this year, though, have been the scourge of elbow-throwing—except when the elbow throwers go to Duke—and the concept of "toughness." In a 3,000-word piece for, Bilas articulated his belief that "people [don't] really understand what coaches and experienced players mean when they emphasize 'toughness' in basketball." So what does it mean, smart basketball man? Setting a good screen, talking on defense, and taking a charge—that is, the same exact stuff that every coach and announcer has extolled for 100 years. Billy Packer would be proud.

sports nut
How To Win Your NCAA Pool
Act like a hedge-fund manager, and pick Duke to win it all.
By Chris Wilson
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 8:02 PM ET

For anyone who, like me, merely hopes to survive March Madness with minimal embarrassment, the introduction of wisdom-of-the-crowd statistics to online bracket contests has been pure salvation. Even though I didn't follow college basketball this winter, I can fake a little competence by basing my picks on what a majority of all entrants think will happen. By copying the "national bracket," as ESPN calls it, I'll lose my $5 with dignity. That's the magic of crowd-sourced bracketology: So long as your office pool is big enough to resemble a cross section of America, you're unlikely to finish in last place.

Of course, you're also very unlikely to win if you copy everybody else's picks. Even if you get the last few games right for the big points, a lot of other people will, too. At least one of them will probably be luckier than you. Still, collective wisdom can be eerily powerful in the right circumstances. The national bracket typically performs well, as various commentators have noted, though it will probably win the money in only a very small pool populated by inexpert players. So is there a way to use these collective picks to your advantage while still having a prayer of taking home the pot?

As it turns out, the wisdom-of-crowds information is extremely useful. The statisticians and expert bracketologists I talked to all urged one central point: Don't think about guessing the most games correctly. Instead, think about finding "bargains" in the bracket where collective wisdom runs askance of more objective measurements. Exploiting games where your fellow bracketologists are likely to guess wrong—even if the odds of that happening are still against you—will give you the best shot at jetting ahead of the pack. An NCAA bracket, then, is more like a long-shot stock than a game; the odds of winning may be low, but the big pot makes the gamble worth it—if you know how to maximize your investment.

The "contrarian" strategy I'm suggesting here isn't new; correctly choosing upsets has always given pool jockeys a major boost. What's changed in the last few years is our ability to value the risk and rewards of a given bet and to decide whether it's worth it. This bracket-picking strategy isn't so different from the way Wall Street became obsessed with modeling risk, as Wired recently chronicled. The key is having access to two data sets: the wisdom-of-the-crowds data from the national bracket and a table of more objective stats. By comparing the two, you'll be able to assess whether you're getting bang for your buck when you throw your lot in with an underdog team.

Before you start filling out your bracket, then, you need to choose some measure of team strength that's free of biases and groupthink. Here, the bountiful Internet does not disappoint. Dabblers can choose from many different statistical measures—adjusted scoring margin, the Pomeroy ratings, Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings—that rank teams based on factors like strength of schedule and margin of victory. Other services, like BracketBrains, charge a fee for rigorous analysis, factoring in the results of real games between similar pairs of teams, the distance from each team's home campus, and so forth.

Second, you have to steel yourself for the possibility that your pursuit of first place will leave you in last place. While it may get you ridiculed by your friends, it's important to remember that (at least monetarily) the consequences of coming in dead last are no more severe than coming in a few spots shy of the gold. Act as if you're a hedge-fund manager in the good old days: Risk is your friend, and the consequences of making a bad bet are small. And unlike with a multibillion-dollar hedge fund, you're not playing against opponents with equal fidelity to statistics and information. Your office pool is full of people making decisions based on snippets of games they happened to catch and whatever allegiances or vendettas they're bringing to the table. This is your chance to take advantage.

Again, your overall strategy should be to look for situations where the national bracket values a team much higher than the objective statistics. (I should stipulate that all of this advice assumes standard NCAA pool rules, where the points for a correct guess double each round, from one point in the first to 32 for the final game.) For example, a mere 3.8 percent of those who have entered ESPN's pool so far predict Duke to win the whole tournament—the right-most column on this table—while Sagarin's tables give the Blue Devils a 7.7 percent chance of winning it all. Although that's still a relatively slim chance, the fact that the Blue Devils are so undervalued—probably because they're so reviled—makes this a valuable bet. By contrast, 28.2 percent of the crowd has North Carolina taking the title, while their Sagarin odds stand at 13.2 percent. Which would you take: a 13.2 percent chance of guessing the same correct outcome as more than one-quarter of your pool or a 7.7 percent chance of an outcome that would put you way ahead of the pack? I would take the second—at least, if I wanted a chance to win the prize money. (This assumes your pool resembles the country at large, of course; a pool among Duke undergraduates probably would not offer the same generous odds.)

Biostatistician Bradley Carlin, who co-authored a 2005 paper on contrarian strategies in NCAA brackets, suggests a "champion-only" technique. While most people spend a lot of time puzzling over potential first-round upsets, the mathematical reality is that it's difficult to win a pool without securing those boffo championship game points. The payoff for risk-taking also increases in later rounds. Consider the first round game between Morgan State and Oklahoma. Just less than 1 percent of ESPN users predict Morgan State will win this game, while the Sagarin numbers give it a 9.2 percent chance. On paper, that tenfold differential looks great. But consider that this upset will reward the lucky Morgan State fan with only one extra point. If Oklahoma does win—which it almost certainly will—you're suddenly missing an important player in the bracket.

Whom should you pick as your champion? You want to look for teams with a respectable chance of winning that don't come in with high expectations. As the size of the pool balloons, so must your audacity. You may skate to victory with traditional choices in a group of 12 people, but in a pool of 100, you'll have to get fancy and prepare to lose miserably if the cards don't fall your way. Even a team like Gonzaga—a four-seed with 5.6 percent odds on the Sagarin tables—starts to look attractive, given how few others will pick them.

Of course, the trouble with a strategy like this is that its benefits materialize only in the long term. Another author of that 2005 paper on bracket strategies, Jarad Niemi, told me that he has won back three to four times his investment in entry fees over the years, but a great deal of that came from a good year in 2008. (Considering how good they are at calculating risk, it's no surprise that guys like Niemi and Carlin excel in pools that award bonus points for upsets. Carlin said he won one such pool three out of five years.) A strategy that wins you a lot of money a small amount of the time may work well in sports with long seasons, but it can be tough to keep the faith when you finish in the cellar for six straight Marches. But look at it this way: Did you ever win with your old strategy?

How To Find a Job Online
Forget Monster. Try Facebook.
By Farhad Manjoo
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 5:54 PM ET

Of the hundreds of people who've written to Michael Stearns, the husband who stars in, some haven't been very nice. They've mocked him for subjecting himself to public emasculation—the site's front page features a picture of Stearns' wife, Robin, holding up a sign that reads, "Hire my husband." But Stearns says he's OK with the jokes. He graduated from Georgetown's business school last May, and he's been looking for a position in corporate marketing ever since. Stearns tried everything—answering dozens of listings, cold-calling, relentless networking. Nothing panned out.

So Stearns and his wife decided to take their search online. Over the last few weeks, the couple snapped cute pictures of themselves frolicking around San Francisco, recorded a video introduction with Mike, and wrote up some heartwarming marketing copy. Robin designed the site on her MacBook (she says she paid for the computer with a tax refund) and launched it last week. now seems on track to go viral; CNN had a small piece on it over the weekend. "We never in our wildest dreams anticipated that it would blow up like this," Stearns told me. He says he's found a few promising leads in the torrent of e-mail. So far, though, no job.

Is Stearns' gambit tacky, or brilliant? (You could ask the same thing about this video in which a teenager holds up signs touting his laid-off dad's work history.) The site certainly smacks of desperation, though given the circumstances, it's hard to fault him. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an unemployed person in this recession will remain jobless for about five months. Competition for the few available jobs is rough; every position is met with hundreds or thousands of applications. Stearns is just an extreme example of what's become a mantra for employment consultants these days: When you're looking for a job, do whatever you can to make yourself stand out.

Over the last few days, I've spoken to a half-dozen people who've been searching for work during the downturn. I also talked to recruiters, job search coaches, and folks who are building new online tools to help the unemployed find work. They all report the same thing: The key to finding work in this economy is to look beyond job-listings sites like; if your search consists mainly of scouring available jobs and sending in your résumé and cover letter, you're on the wrong path.

That's because companies will often look to fill positions before paying for a listing. If they do post something online, it's often a perfunctory listing designed to comply with HR policy, even though they actually plan to fill the job in some other way. What other way? Every year, the employment consulting firm CareerXRoads conducts a survey of HR managers at large companies. The 2009 survey shows that just 12 percent of recent new hires were found through job boards, while 27 percent were found through referrals—that is, people who work at the company or who have connections to the company recommend the largest share of new people. There's a word for this sort of job-seeking: networking.

The word networking can seem a bit slimy, conjuring up images of finger-gun-shooting frat guys who are talking to you only to get something in return. But networking need not be so wretched. Now you can use the Web to find people who'll help you find work. The most forward-looking job seekers I spoke to said they'd all but abandoned job-listing sites in favor of social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. For a few people, job-hunting on these sites paid off; for others, the social networks showed some promise—at least more promise than sending in résumés. For a couple of others, social networking proved useless.

Here are some of their stories, with pointers on what to do and what to avoid when going online to look for work.

Facebook: In early February, Evan Sornstein, a designer who lives in San Francisco, got laid off from his job at the advertising firm Razorfish. He began looking for work by searching job sites that list creative design positions. He also asked a couple of creative agencies to look for work on his behalf. Two weeks passed with no prospects. Then, on a lark, he posted a Facebook status update, worded carefully to avoid any hint of desperation: "Does anybody know of anybody who's looking for a Website?"

Within 10 minutes, he says, he got four replies. Two of his friends promised to ask around for him. One reply was from Sornstein's mortgage broker, who needed a new site designed; Sornstein will likely begin working on that soon. He also got a message from his friend Jenn Shreve, a writer (and sometime Slate contributor) who lives in New York. Shreve knew of an agency that was looking to redesign a Web site, and she introduced Sornstein to someone at the firm over Facebook. The introduction worked; Sornstein landed the gig, getting back to work within three weeks of his layoff.

Shreve herself recently had a similar experience on Facebook. Over Thanksgiving, she was let go from her job at an ad agency (her boss sent her the layoff message over Facebook), and she began calling a recruiter who represented a firm that she really wanted to work for. But he kept giving her the brushoff. So she turned to her network, asking a friend in the firm's San Francisco office to introduce her over Facebook to someone in the New York office. She and the guy in New York became friends; when a position suddenly opened up, he asked the recruiter to give Shreve a call. She got the job.

There are a couple of things to note about Shreve's and Sornstein's experiences. Neither of their gigs had been advertised; the firms were only looking to hire through referrals, so Facebook gave them a leg-up over job boards. Notice, too, that they weren't shy about letting their friends know about their unemployment. "I don't think there's any shame in being laid off right now," Shreve says. "You can only gain by reaching out to everyone you know."

Still, both Shreve and Sornstein are special cases. They work in an industry that's acclimated to doing business online, and Sornstein can design Web sites from home, so he's open to employment from firms all over the world. Other industries don't work that way. Thomas Gladysz, who was laid off from his job at the San Francisco bookstore the Booksmith in January, posted this message last week: "Thomas Gladysz is job hunting. Got work?" He got some leads but no solid work as of yet. John Hart, a young lawyer in Northern California who's been looking for a job since last year, recently posted a status update saying he's looking for work—"and I only got a few condolences," he told me.

LinkedIn: If you're unemployed, jump on this social network for networkers. David Hahn, LinkedIn's director of product management, advises users to begin their job search by typing in the companies they want to work for—the site then lists friends, friends-of-friends, and even friends-of-friends-of-friends who work there. Now you can ask for a buddy-to-buddy introduction at your dream company. "This changes the application process," Hahn says. "You're no longer dropping a résumé into a black hole. You've got a warm connection at a company you love."

Though Hahn's method sounds promising, none of the people I spoke to had any luck landing jobs through LinkedIn. Michael Stearns, of, did tell me that he'd used the site to set up a lot of "informational" interviews with companies—interviews to get to know people at a firm, even though no specific job was being offered.

There's another way to use LinkedIn—to investigate the organizational structure of any firm before you go to interview there. "You can see the résumé of the person in the job that you want or where the person who was in the job that you want has gone," says Willy Franzen, who runs the entry-level jobs blog One Day, One Job. Many job listings don't include a position's full description. By looking at the bios of others who've filled the job, you can get a better idea of what's required from you.

Twitter: A couple of weeks ago, I explained why Twitter isn't a great Web search engine, so I was naturally wary when people began calling it a great job-search engine. Boosters say that people looking for work can use it just like they'd use Facebook or LinkedIn—to connect with people and companies they find interesting and to engage them in conversation in the hopes that they'll get noticed. Last year, for instance, a software developer named Kevin Smith began following several Ruby programmers over Twitter. He became friends with a guy who worked at a small company called Gnoso. He sent them a résumé and told the friend about it over Twitter. The friend pushed for Smith to get the job—and he was hired.

TheJobMagnet, a Canadian startup, recently launched tweetCruit, a service to let firms streamline the process of posting job listings on their Twitter feeds. Divesh Sisodraker, the company's CEO, told me that this lets companies push their listings to a far wider group of people—he told me that one recent posting for a social-media strategist reached 15,000 views within a few hours. But such successes seem rare. Twitter is a niche product; it may work well for you if you're looking for a software development job on the Web, but if you want work as a doctor or a fireman, you probably won't find it as helpful.

General guidelines: Social networks demand careful etiquette. The experts I spoke to offered these tips: Don't spam people. Don't put on like you're best friends with people you don't really know; if you're contacting an old friend for the first time in years only to ask for a job, at least be up front about it. Don't ask your friends to recommend you for positions you're not qualified to do. And don't sound like a sad sack—whining about not working isn't going to convince people to help you. It's also easy to get carried away when selling yourself. Sure, you can make a funny video as your cover letter, or take out ads on Facebook targeted to people in your industry, or ask your wife to hold up a sign begging for a job on your behalf—but to a lot of people, such efforts could signal that you're not taking the process seriously.

Many of the people I contacted for this story work in tech or media (my circles run geeky), but even beyond those fields, people reported feeling that old ways of looking for work no longer pay off. Gladysz, the guy who's looking for a job at a bookstore, told me, "I've been feeling that creating a kind of brand or persona online is going to be important."

There's also some advice for people who are currently employed: Maintain your presence online. Some people believe Facebook is destroying America. But if you lose your job, you'll probably lose e-mail addresses for all of your colleagues, and you'll need some way to stay in touch. As Kay Luo, a spokeswoman for LinkedIn advises, "Build your network before you need it."

Late Night With Barack Obama
The president as sitcom dad.
By Troy Patterson
Friday, March 20, 2009, at 10:55 AM ET

A key chapter of the recent book Strange Bedfellows, an indispensable map for thinkers navigating the ever-expanding territory where late-night comedy and Beltway business mingle, begins by pointing toward the Depression-era musical comedy Stand Up and Cheer! There, prior to some moments of Shirley Temple twinkling, an FDR stand-in drafts a Broadway producer into boosting the country's morale by serving as the secretary of amusement. Until life imitates art and some patriotic entertainment impresario—Judd Apatow? Ashton Kutcher?—ascends to that post, the commander in chief will have to shoulder that burden himself. Thus did Barack Obama materialize on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (NBC, 11:35 p.m. ET) last night, the first sitting president to appear in such a venue. He sought to repair the broken confidence of a broke nation—or at least to address that segment of his constituency that sticks its head back in the sand when a presidential press conference pre-empts Dancing With the Stars.

Leno began the show by presenting some comedy unburdened, as usual, by wit. Then the band struck up "Hail to the Chief," and Obama glided onto the set. Like a starlet hitting the stage in advance of her movie opening wide, he had an exciting new project to promote—the aversion of a financial catastrophe perhaps coming soon to a Hooverville near you.

One school of thought says the chief executive should not be doing something as unserious as appearing on a talk show in a time of crisis. But Leno is no more frivolous an interviewer than, say, Matt Lauer. He is not, after all, any funnier. In any case, the slow-pitch questions he sent Obama's way combined elements of town-hall-meeting pleas, fundraising-dinner chitchat, and rope-line flattering patter.

When Obama addresses the country next Tuesday, he'll be playing the wise father. Last night, his soberly paternal talk—about AIG and economic stimulus, mostly, with the customary moral cheerleading about getting "back to those values that built America"—was framed by his appearance in his increasingly familiar role as a sitcom dad.

This figure is faintly melancholic but resilient. He is the mildly suffering son-in-law; in the scheme of Leno's monologue, the president had flown to the West Coast to escape his wife's mother at the White House. He is the faintly bewildered head of household; chatting about his family's first ride on Marine One, Obama depicted himself trying to interest his daughters in the majesty of the capital as they sat absorbed in a candy dish. Even the evening's gaffe—of an attempt at bowling: "It was like the Special Olympics or something"—issued from an attempt to sell his humanizing haplessness.

Another element of Obama's self-deprecating humor in apolitical settings is his characterization of himself as a pandering politician. At one point, talking about his March Madness picks, he beamed to Leno that it's "a complete coincidence" that the teams he's got his money on hail from the swing states of Iowa, Indiana, and North Carolina. In conclusion, regarding the delay in the appearance of a puppy romping about the White House lawn, he said, "This is Washington. That was a campaign promise." Obama was feeling relaxed by that point, so loose that his utterance of dog emerged as dawg, calling to mind the woofing "dog pound" of The Arsenio Hall Show, on which Bill Clinton famously blew his sax as a candidate, a reveille awaking American politics to this new late-night world.

Better Off Ted
What you'd get if you turned Mad Men into a bad, unfunny sitcom.
By Troy Patterson
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 5:43 PM ET

Primarily unfolding within the offices of a conglomerate that makes General Electric look like a mom-and-pop store, Better Off Ted (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET) uncomfortably resembles a travesty of Mad Men. It is set in a sleek corporate building within some faceless contemporary metropolis and features a protagonist with a manly brow reminiscent of Don Draper's. Steadily middling, it is the latest of ABC's failed attempts to create a decent sitcom. But the failure is at least marginally noble. The producers have invested the show's silly, occasionally potty-humorous vignettes with something like dry wit.

Actor Jay Harrington, who exudes a crisp competence that's gotten him cast as an M.D. in no fewer than three other shows, plays Ted, who is something of a straight man at the center of a farce. Ted, an "R&D legend" at Veridian Dynamics, oversees the lab-coated dweebs and well-tailored misfits who toil to make advances in consumer goods and industrial technology. These include an office chair called the Focus Master ("The scratchier the fabric, the more uncomfortable people are and the harder they work") and a weaponized pumpkin intended to attack enemy soldiers by giving them "a magnificent soft downy coating," as someone says in a rather buffoonish foreign accent. Ted often addresses the camera as he strides through the halls in tracking shots that seem borrowed from another, more exciting show.

For comic foils, he has Veronica (Portia de Rossi), a coldly demanding hottie of the Heather Locklear tradition of bosses, a superior entrancingly obnoxious in her sense of superiority, all firm orders and tight skirts. "Everything you said was just so concise," she tells Ted in a flashback illustrating a moment they once shared after he aced a presentation. "I think you and I should have sex." His new love interest is Linda (Andrea Anders), a slapstick cutie-pie who hoards creamer from the break room and bumbles through personal calls pertaining to a children's book she's writing about a mutant toaster. They will get together only if Ted can shake his reluctance to be perceived as a workplace gigolo: "I used up my office affair."

Rounding out the crew is a herd of weird scientists, socially maladjusted in all the usual ways. In the pilot, Ted coerces one among them, Phil (Jonathan Slavin), into acting as a guinea pig for a new product. Like the Millennium Falcon's captain or Ted Williams' corpse, Phil gets cryogenically frozen, his mouth wearing an excessively broad expression of comic fear as the temperature drops in the chamber.

Better Off Ted, which feels more devoted to establishing its cool than earning some laughs, is hardly so bad to deserve a bleh from halfway-discerning viewers. Eh or meh would be closer to the mark. Some scholars of the tube might explain its blandness by asserting that networks believe audiences want comfort food in times of distress. But I'd attribute its core mediocrity to the sense of risk aversion at the forefront of big-media minds as they all face the prospect of working in little media. It further seems possible that the executives who green-lighted this unfunny comedy are a touch too attached to the idea of the workings of amoral corporate behemoths as a source of gentle amusement.

The City
A boring heroine you can't help rooting for.
By Troy Patterson
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 4:20 PM ET

As presented on The City (MTV, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET), New York is a dreamscape of little black dresses and big yellow taxis. Perfectly sanitized, it reflects the perfect blankness of the show. (Asking the question "Do you watch The City?" is not too distant from inquiring, "Do you stare at the wall?") There is no litter on the streets, no chaos in the air, none of the mongrel vivacity that makes the place thrum, no major hassles. When 22-year-old protagonist Whitney Port goes looking for a place to live, she succeeds in snapping up the first apartment she sees. This is the most vexing of the reality show's many departures from reality. Conventionally a wee bit less pleasant than the iron maiden, the New York apartment hunt is intended to build character by testing the soul.

But since self-commodifying Whitney—an alumna of the lustrously phony Hills—has peddled her soul to MTV, that issue is moot, and The City is free to proceed as a provincial teenager's idea of urban paradise. Meanwhile, New Yorkers can admire the interstitial shots of elegant fire escapes and underappreciated bridges and also receive final confirmation that the noxiously gentrified Meatpacking District, where Whitney works and plays, would have been better off ceded to the federal government and maintained as a wildlife preserve for tranny hookers.

That neighborhood is the site of both Whitney's office (she holds clipboards and twists her mouth at handbags for designer Diane von Furstenberg) and some of the hash houses where she rehashes the intrigues of which her stage-managed life consists. Appropriate to a show that should be judged on the same aesthetic level as conversations overheard at brunch, much of The City involves Whitney discussing her love life in bad restaurants—and yet she and her confidantes are rarely seen putting actual food in their pieholes. They must subsist on their own insipidity.

Whitney faces some tough choices heading into tonight's season finale, chief among them whether to continue deluding herself that her boyfriend is in any way suitable. That is Jay, and he's from Australia, which is still no excuse for using the word babe as a form of direct address. Jay fronts a band called Tamarama, its name helpfully evocative of its sound, soft rock that calls to mind afternoons on airy beaches and the effect of taking two Ambiens. It took him a while to get around to telling Whitney that his band would be going out on tour. The problem is for the viewer to sort out what kind of joker Jay is: Is he the player who cannot bite back his grin when a friend forecasts panty-flinging groupies on the road? Or the wuss who cries like a girl when Whitney calls him out? Storming away from another dinner table, she tells him, "I don't want to be in a relationship with someone that thinks I'm a burden." The prig in me is tempted to scold Whitney for using that rather than who, but he is outmatched by another fellow—a sucker for her strictly because she seems nice and is pretty—who only regrets that she had not ordered a meal to toss in his simpering face.

A cohort of photogenic acquaintances and fond frenemies counsels Whit in such matters, sometimes proffering bromides unsupported by actuality ("Good things happen to good people"), sometimes undermining like mercenaries practiced in tunnel warfare. The best of these—which is to say, the worst—is a doll-like individual named Olivia Palermo, who is likely to stand as the most odious reality-TV villainess of the year. Olivia, a talented arriviste, doesn't put on airs; she's all airs. The worst kind of name-dropper, in terms of both tone and technique, she summons a forced casualness in mentioning that the perfectly lovely Brooke frigging Shields will be in attendance at some silly fundraiser she is throwing at some awful nightspot. She employs champers as a synonym for Champagne, a usage approved only for characters in Evelyn Waugh novels. Preparing an in-house presentation at DVF, the lazy thing glows with an empty confidence that makes it a robust pleasure to witness her extravagant failure at the task. Compare her spoiled indolence with Whitney's respectable work ethic. Say what you will about how vapid her show is—no, really, say anything—but girlfriend's got hustle. "If I came home I would just be quitting," she breathes over the phone this week to good old Lauren Conrad. But there is no suspense here. MTV has picked up the show for a second season, and Whitney is tolerable enough as a citizen of this ersatz wonderland. She couldn't go home again even if, encased as she is in her fabricated celebrity, she wanted to try.

the best policy
In a State
Being a governor has become America's toughest job.
By Eliot Spitzer
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 12:16 PM ET

There has never been a tougher time to be a governor. Governors must deal with all the problems confronting our economy, but they lack the federal government's ability to run a deficit. With the $787 billion stimulus and sundry other bailout spending, President Obama and Congress have the rather pleasant task of printing gobs of money and throwing it toward favored sectors and projects.

Governors can only gaze on with envy. The numbers from the states are downright horrifying—and getting worse. The best estimate is that states, nearly all of which are constitutionally obligated to balance their budgets, collectively face deficits of about $350 billion over the next 30 months. That is about 20 percent of total state spending.

OK, you're saying, but didn't the federal stimulus package include money for the states? Sure, about $140 billion for all 50 states, enough to cover 40 percent of the shortfall. (AIG, by the way, has received about $183 billion, just about enough to cover its bonuses and Goldman Sachs' exposure.) So states still must make actual cuts of more than 10 percent.

But for governors, the news may be even worse. Unless the recovery outpaces all predictions, state revenues will continue to be paltry. Fourth quarter '08 numbers showed an inflation-adjusted decline of 5.6 percent from fourth quarter '07. The three major revenue streams for states—personal income tax, corporate income tax, and sales tax—all had declines, and the trend line suggests worse declines to come.

(All of this, by the way, does not even touch the problems of governments "below" the state level. With the dramatic collapse of property values and thus property-tax revenues, counties, towns, and villages are going to be struggling, begging for even more assistance from states, and seeking relief from mandated services and contributions to state programs.)

Unlike manufacturers, which can alter marginal costs, states cannot easily cut costs when revenues drop. Indeed, many think that state spending is and should be countercyclical since, in many respects, it becomes more important when the economy dips. So how on earth are governors going to manage this catastrophe?

First, consider state expenditures. The two largest sectors of state spending are education and Medicaid. More than 31 percent of state budgets, on average, is allocated to education (21 percent for elementary and secondary and 10.5 percent for higher education), an area where the pressure for better quality and, consequentially, more spending is overwhelming. Whether one believes that smaller classes, merit pay for teachers, expanded efforts on early literacy, extended hours, extended school years, more charter schools, or tougher standards and testing are the answer, none will come without more dollars. Significant reduction in this 31 percent of the budget is unrealistic.

The 21-plus percent allocated to Medicaid presents a similar conundrum. Demand for Medicaid services will probably spike as economic conditions decline, making more people eligible and desperate for Medicaid. Try as they might to control per-person Medicaid spending, the ineluctable rise of health care spending—driven by remarkable technology and remarkable inefficiencies—make this an area where real dollar saving are incredibly difficult. Absent fundamental federal overhaul, savings will be slim.

During my tenure as governor, we sought to restructure New York's $60 billion Medicaid program, per capita the most expensive in the nation, by creating a program focused more on community and preventive care, enrolling all eligible children, and shifting care away from expensive teaching hospitals and emergency rooms. It was the right step from both a health policy and budgetary perspective, and the plan was endorsed by thoughtful voices. As a political matter, it was Armageddon. After what can only be described as a political brawl, we had moderate success at a policy level, saving a bit more than 3 percent of the state dollar allocation to Medicaid. The opposition—all the major teaching hospitals and health care unions—spent about $10 million in negative TV advertising directed at me personally. Not surprisingly, other governors are not rushing to try similar programs.

With about 50 percent of all spending dedicated to these almost inviolate purposes, and another 20 percent or so allocated to debt service, corrections, transportation, and public assistance, it begins to become evident that finding cuts of 10 percent is easier to editorialize about than to effectuate.

Sure, we could eliminate all investment in needed water-treatment facilities, close libraries and parks, cut funding for law enforcement, DNA databases, and Innocence Projects, and abolish summer programs for kids. But that is not the government most of us want.

Compounding this misery, these state economies have for too long been based on an antiquated industrial model, which governors are trying desperately to retool. Whether in Michigan (disappearing auto jobs), California (shrinking high-tech sector), North Carolina (vanishing textile and furniture industry), or New York (cratering financial sector), governors are searching for a transformational fix to restart the job-creation engine. Yet this requires significant investment capital. The most promising ideas—increased higher education to foster the knowledge-based economy, high-speed rail to create efficient and environmentally sound transportation in our densest corridors, universal high-speed Internet access, and venture funds to create bio-tech startups—all require the one resource not available: money.

It is too bad the federal stimulus package did not require the sort of politically challenging yet necessary changes that would begin to alter the condition of state finances for the long term. The federal government could have used the opportunity to break the status quo over pension obligations, Medicaid structure, mandated services for health insurance programs, and teacher merit pay.

As the elected officials charged with paying for essential services using revenue sources that are directly correlated to economic cycles, governors have no easy remedies, and not even many hard ones.

the best policy
The Real AIG Scandal
It's not the bonuses. It's that AIG's counterparties are getting paid back in full.
By Eliot Spitzer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 10:41 AM ET

Everybody is rushing to condemn AIG's bonuses, but this simple scandal is obscuring the real disgrace at the insurance giant: Why are AIG's counterparties getting paid back in full, to the tune of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars?

For the answer to this question, we need to go back to the very first decision to bail out AIG, made, we are told, by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, then-New York Fed official Timothy Geithner, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke last fall. Post-Lehman's collapse, they feared a systemic failure could be triggered by AIG's inability to pay the counterparties to all the sophisticated instruments AIG had sold. And who were AIG's trading partners? No shock here: Goldman, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, and on it goes. So now we know for sure what we already surmised: The AIG bailout has been a way to hide an enormous second round of cash to the same group that had received TARP money already.

It all appears, once again, to be the same insiders protecting themselves against sharing the pain and risk of their own bad adventure. The payments to AIG's counterparties are justified with an appeal to the sanctity of contract. If AIG's contracts turned out to be shaky, the theory goes, then the whole edifice of the financial system would collapse.

But wait a moment, aren't we in the midst of reopening contracts all over the place to share the burden of this crisis? From raising taxes—income taxes to sales taxes—to properly reopening labor contracts, we are all being asked to pitch in and carry our share of the burden. Workers around the country are being asked to take pay cuts and accept shorter work weeks so that colleagues won't be laid off. Why can't Wall Street royalty shoulder some of the burden? Why did Goldman have to get back 100 cents on the dollar? Didn't we already give Goldman a $25 billion capital infusion, and aren't they sitting on more than $100 billion in cash? Haven't we been told recently that they are beginning to come back to fiscal stability? If that is so, couldn't they have accepted a discount, and couldn't they have agreed to certain conditions before the AIG dollars—that is, our dollars—flowed?

The appearance that this was all an inside job is overwhelming. AIG was nothing more than a conduit for huge capital flows to the same old suspects, with no reason or explanation.

So here are several questions that should be answered, in public, under oath, to clear the air:

What was the precise conversation among Bernanke, Geithner, Paulson, and Blankfein that preceded the initial $80 billion grant?

Was it already known who the counterparties were and what the exposure was for each of the counterparties?

What did Goldman, and all the other counterparties, know about AIG's financial condition at the time they executed the swaps or other contracts? Had they done adequate due diligence to see whether they were buying real protection? And why shouldn't they bear a percentage of the risk of failure of their own counterparty?

What is the deeper relationship between Goldman and AIG? Didn't they almost merge a few years ago but did not because Goldman couldn't get its arms around the black box that is AIG? If that is true, why should Goldman get bailed out? After all, they should have known as well as anybody that a big part of AIG's business model was not to pay on insurance it had issued.

Why weren't the counterparties immediately and fully disclosed?

Failure to answer these questions will feed the populist rage that is metastasizing very quickly. And it will raise basic questions about the competence of those who are supposedly guiding this economic policy.

the chat room
Dear Prudence, Live
Introducing a weekly chat with Slate's advice columnist.
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 3:20 PM ET

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, will be online at every Monday at 1 p.m. to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. (Read her Slate columns here.) An unedited transcript of this week's chat follows.

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I'm going to be here every Monday at 1 pm eastern to answer questions about life's big and little (which sometimes actually are big) dilemmas. I look forward to it!


Old people and coffee shops: What is it with grumpy oldsters and coffee shops? They act like they own the joint! I took my kids into a coffee shop on Sunday morning and they gave my tots the stinkeye. My lovelies have just as much right to roam around at 8 am (not bothering anyone) as they do to slurp and silently rustle their Washington Post. People mis-remember how quiet their little darlings were at two years old.

Emily Yoffe: Hey, these people are reading the Washington Post! They should be getting awards. Maybe you are misinterpreting the stinkeye—maybe they just read about the AIG bonuses and are looking at your little darlings and thinking, "You poor kids—YOU'RE going to be paying for the AIG bailout when you grow up." Look, people are entitled to look grumpy. Just ignore them and enjoy your latte.

And now I will be hearing from people who say, "I just want to read my Washington Post in peace. Can't people take their toddlers to Gymboree?"


My older sister doesn't like me: In high school I was very pretty and popular, and my older sister was a bad combination of smart, artsy, and indifferent—in a word, poisonous to my own social standing. I was very mean to her, and her weird friends, and made sure my popular friends were, too. So now the irony sets in, because now we are in our 30's, and my sister has become very successful in a field that utilizes her talents, and has actually became almost pretty. Every time I try to tell myself that she and I should be friends now, it starts out fine, but then I am overcome with the same old mean tendencies. For her part, she seems willing to talk to me, but when I start making fun of her or criticizing, she'll just stop contact and go about her business, so I feel like I am the only one making an effort. How can I make my sister be friends with me, now that we're grown up?

Emily Yoffe: This is a fascinating twist on the mean girl story which I think the movies haven't tackled: What if your own sister is the mean girl? The one thing you have going for you here is that your recognize your own awful behavior—sort of. Yet, you seem, even at this late date, unable to control yourself. I have to admire your sister for taking the tack of enjoying her own life, pursuits, and friends, and ignoring you and your nastiness. Yes, you're making an effort: an effort to keep your old dynamic in which (for some reason) you seem compelled to rip someone else in order to make yourself feel good. But it doesn't make you feel good does it? How about if you drop the high school act, make a conscious effort to stop criticizing, and actually try to find out about your sister and her life. An apology for your years of rudeness might also help. Your older sister sounds like a great role model—so start taking advantage of this and modeling yourself on her.


Washington, D.C.: Good morning to you, Emily.

My boyfriend and I are moving in together in a few weeks. We've been together almost three years, and this wasn't a decision we came upon rashly. I am very excited about us really starting a home/life together.

That said, I am not without worry. I own a (small) home, and he will be moving in to my place. I haven't had a roommate since college (let's just say it was "several" years ago). Then of course, since we aren't engaged or married, there are the boundaries that need to be set as far as what is "our" money, etc.

We've never had to talk about any of this before. I'm not afraid to talk to my boyfriend about these things, I was just wondering what the most tactful, loving way to go about this would be. I really want to make it clear that none of this tempers my excitement about our new life. But it's incredibly important and I feel it needs to be done before he moves in. Any help?

Emily Yoffe: This is one of the difficulties of living together. When you're married, things are just assumed to be "ours." But there's no need to tiptoe around this—not clarifying your financial situation will only lead to misunderstanding down the road. Do you expect him to help pay your mortgage now that he's moving in? Or do you not want him to establish some kind of claim on your house? Do you expect to split the expenses 50-50? Do you want to set up joint checking? All this has to be figured out. Sure, it's not romantic. But also not romantic is six months from now deciding the relationship isn't working out because you two could never discuss the financial practicalities of it, and are now really mad.


Roanoke, Va.: My husband and I recently announced to our families that we are expecting our first child this fall. Immediately after we told our mothers (in the same conversation), both informed us that they want to be present when the child is born. Not in the delivery room, but in town (we live several states away) and then at the house when we come home from the hospital. I think this was extremely presumptuous on both their parts and I don't want to be inundated with family right after giving birth, even though they mean well, both mothers can be quite overbearing! I don't have any problem with people coming to visit after a few days, I think it would be lovely to have people there to help AFTER we have been home for a few days. Both mothers are quite upset with me now and feel it is their right to be there when the baby is born and I am taking that right away. My husband would like his parents in town when the baby is born, I feel that I just want a day or so of privacy before overbearing family comes flying in. Is it just me and the hormones talking? Should I back down? There have been many tears over this!

Emily Yoffe: Learning to calmly listen while other people make demands, have tantrums, and insist they should get their way will be very good practice for motherhood. Every mother is different. Some want a mother or mother-in-law there for advice and relief those first few days; some want to recover and figure out their new baby before loving family descends. This should be up to you. Yes, it's going to be difficult to balance the competition between grandmas and everyone's competing needs, but you have to decide on a schedule that works for you. But don't keep them away too long—you may find you'd welcome grandmas to hold your little one and cook some meals.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Prudence,

I am a medical student about to be married in December. Obviously, I am not making any money for the next 3 years while I am in school. My mother has very graciously stepped in and is providing for most of the wedding expenditures. We are having some troubles with putting together our guest list. Currently it is split 50/50 between my guests and the guests of my fiance and his family. My fiance is concerned with the guest list being too high and mentioned that I should exclude the more "distant relatives" or people I don't know that well, since "I seem to have more of those on my list."

My dilemma is that I feel if my mother is footing the bill, she should have precedence on who she wishes to invite. I am very grateful to her for putting on a nice event for us, and quite frankly, those "distant relatives" are very close with her (they grew up together). Of course, my mother won't say this because she is very sweet. However, I don't want her to feel like we are just ignoring her wishes and denying her of the chance to share this happy occasion with those she loves. How do I tell my fiance that I don't think it's fair to cut my mom's guests considering my mother is providing us with the means to have a beautiful wedding?

- Grateful and Worried Bride

Emily Yoffe: It turns out in the wedding business she who controls the purse strings writes the guest list. Even when times were flush, I hated to see families spend nest eggs on wedding centerpieces. Surely, especially now it would make more sense for your mother to divert some of this money from guests to helping you pay off your student loans. However, if she has the money, this is what she wants to do with it, and you and your fiance are letting her pick up the tab for the celebration, then he should be quietly grateful and let her invite Aunt Edna (who you haven't seen since the time she came to your junior high graduation).


Sanford, N.C.: I am a 14 year old girl in the 9th grade. I'm very mature for my age and have been talking to a 16-year-old boy for about 6 months. I guess he's my boyfriend. We have been out together and we talk all day long. The problem is my mom. She is really against it. She doesn't even know him and she's always telling me how she doesn't approve. She hasn't ever really talked to him so she doesn't really know him. We haven't been able to hang out for about a month because she doesn't want to take me anywhere he that will be. It's hard because I just got out of an emotionally abusive relationship and then he dumped me for another girl ten months later. This boy has helped me through it and I really care about him. I haven't even told my mom he's my boyfriend yet. I'm afraid if I do she will be even worse. I am ok now and I think I should be able to see this boy. He is nothing but nice and I really, really like him. How do I convince her to let me see him?

Emily Yoffe: Have you come to the wrong place! I'm the mother of a 13 year old girl and I'm with your mom that while I may understand that everything in human evolution is pushing you to want to spend all your time with your "boyfriend," everything in human evolution is pushing your mother to say, "No way." You mention that you have already had and "emotionally abusive relationship." That's a screaming alarm for any mother, and yours is right to want you to concentrate on school, your activities, and friendships before you embark on another consuming relationship. Maybe, if you show how mature you are by concentrating on those things, your mother at some point will relent and let your 16 year old come over for supervised milk and cookies one afternoon. But by then, he may have drifted off—as 16 year old boys are prone to do.


Puh-leeze: To the mother taking her kids to coffee shops to roam around: Seriously? This is how your kids want to spend their day? And you don't think that a small child "roaming around" (implying that they are out of your reach) would concern people at a places where hot beverages are placed on small, tipsy tables in cramped spaces? Tables that are generally just about eye-level for a kid? Sure, maybe your kid never bumps into anything, but most kids do, routinely. Which is probably why your fellow patrons are a bit concerned.

If an old man came to Gymboree and took a nap in the bounce house, he wouldn't be "bothering" anyone in as much of the same way your kid isn't "bothering" anyone. But I bet you'd still wonder why he felt the need to spend his time in a place that obviously was not designed with him in mind.

Emily Yoffe: Okay, you make a good point. Just make sure you are reading the Washington Post when you shoot a grumpy look at those toddlers.


Arlington, Va.: Dear Prudence (btw - love the song),

My mom has been particularly cantankerous lately. She practically speaks in zingers that really sting. I left yesterday (she's 300 miles away) feeling like I don't want to be back for a long time.

She and I have never had a fab relationship—my teenage years were quite difficult on both of us, but we've matured and since my son arrived, have talked almost everyday. So I'm a bit stung, and hurt.

Do I confront her? Do I get tougher skin? Do I chalk it up to menopause?


Emily Yoffe: You don't confront her, but you do talk to her. It's taken you a long time to rebuild a decent relationship, so don't let it suffer through simmering resentment. When you talk to her next just tell her that you felt stung by some of her comments. Say you're sure she didn't mean to be so harsh, but her opinion of you matters, and you felt hurt. You can also ask if something else is going on that's upsetting her in general. So don't escalate this, but don't be left to stew.


Nosy Parker: How nosy can you be around your neighbors? When their house is up for sale, can you poke around during the open house? Can you open closets? The last time an ambulance stopped in my street, I ran out to see who it was for, and was chided for being a "looky lou."

Emily Yoffe: You mean I have to stop going to open houses in the neighborhood? That's my only hobby! Since you are not there to buy, however, it's one thing to get a look at how the kitchen is laid out, it's another to look in the medicine cabinet and open the dresser.

As for an ambulance, it's only natural to want to know if a neighbor has fallen ill (and perhaps see how you can help if something dire has happened), it's another thing to run out and stare raptly as the EMTs strap someone to a gurney.

It sounds like you may be crossing that delicate line.


New York, Fla.: I recently learned a friend of mine, quite close indeed, runs an escort service and employs dozens of girls that provide sexual services to clients. My issue is that she is quite close to me and my kids. We usually talk every day and see each other often but I feel I cannot cope with this aspect of her life and want to cut off contact. Should I tell her I know?

Emily Yoffe: What has your friend told you she does all these years—run a very specialized temp service? This person is a close friend, and I don't see how you just cut off contact without saying anything, and at the very least confirming with her this information is true. Just be honest, and tell her what you've found out. If she denies it, you can tell her why you think your information is reliable. If she confirms the information (or you come away believing it) then you should discuss with her that you are worried about her being involved in activities that are both illegal and morally questionable (to say the least). You owe her and the friendship that much before you decide you want her out of your life.


College Park, Md.: Things get on my nerves very easily, e.g. a loud co-worker who speaks in a high-pitched voice; co-workers popping chewing gum all day long. Any suggestions on how I can better cope with annoying co-workers, when I suspect the real problem may be that I have a low tolerance for irritation?

Emily Yoffe: Belching, munching, farting, humming co-workers are one of the most recurring problems I hear about from readers. (How lucky am I that I work at home and only the dog notices me doing these things?) I have no global answer, but you sound wise to realize that in your case the problem may be your low tolerance and easy distractability. Try a technological solution: ear plugs or noise canceling headphones. Maybe you can also request to me moved to the remotest cubicle.


Alexandria, Va.: So, a recent guy friend just got in touch with me after I reached out to him on LinkedIn. We worked together when I was 23. He was the nicest person ever. He made a point of letting me know he's single again and said many nice things about me, let's get together, etc. Problem—we're 57 now! I don't have my girlish figure anymore. I'd love to get together again but I'm Afraid!

Emily Yoffe: He's 57, too! What are the chances he looks like Harrison Ford? Get together with him! Don't warn him to look for the lady with the midriff bulge. Just wear a flattering outfit (don't try TOO hard) and go and enjoy your reunion. If you liked you then, think of how much more interesting you've become in the past three decades.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Any thoughts on how to tone down stress? My fiance gets sad when I'm not happy, which is sweet, but hard to take when I am stressed out and just trying to get through the week. (I can't be happy 24-7, and if I'm focused on getting things done I'm not going to be laughing or joking. He worries that I'm too serious.) I'm dealing with a high-stress job, a close family friend just diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer (I am helping the family with paperwork), a wedding in 2 months, and my fiance just got laid off. The combination makes it hard for me to relax since either I am sad about the family friend, or I am focused on what I need to do next to help the family, plan the wedding, and succeed at work. My fiance is supportive and has picked up most of the housework since he lost his job, but I still find that there aren't enough hours in the day and I can't seem to lose the stress.

Emily Yoffe: It sounds as if you've got a couple of issues here. One is that your life sounds overwhelming right now. The other is that added to this is your fiance's need for you to be happy, which understandably adds to your stress. He may in part be particularly insecure about your mood because he is so insecure about his ability to support himself. So he's trying to make sure his unemployment is not making you unhappy, which makes you unhappy, etc. So you need to do two things: realize you can't do everything all at the same time; and be able to talk to your fiance about your interactions about your unhappiness.

You will be no good to anyone if you collapse, so whatever you can delegate on the wedding front, for example, do it. Make sure you build in breaks from your obligations—to run, go to yoga, take a hike, go to a movie. And tell your fiance that when he gets anxious about your mood, it only makes your mood worse, and figure out a way you can be checking in with each other, without driving each other crazy.


San Francisco: There's no dead tree Washington Post here. OK to read on my iPhone while looking grumpy?

Emily Yoffe: If you're out of the metropolitan Washington area, yes please read the Washington Post online while looking grumpy (hard not to look grumpy while reading the paper these days).


Springfield: I had a party several weeks ago, and invited a lot of people with whom I've worked for many years. But I didn't invite everyone I work with, because I don't know some of them very well, and because, well, I didn't want a "staff" party. But I found out afterwards that there were a few people who really wanted to come, but nobody told me, so I didn't invite them. Now I feel badly, and two of them have even made comments like "oh, well you'll have to invite me to your party next year." I have good friends in my workplace, but I'm wondering now if inviting co-workers to a party is a bad idea, since I can't (and don't really want to) invite all of them.

Emily Yoffe: This is kind of the elementary school birthday party dilemma. My daughter's school had a rule either you invite the whole class or less than half the class. Sure you're allowed to invite the co-workers with whom you're friendly, but if that is the preponderance of your co-workers, then other people are going to get their feelings hurt when on Monday everyone is saying (as they shouldn't!), "Thanks for the great party." But once people start asking around, they should realize they weren't the only ones who were left out, that it wasn't an office party (minus them), and that people are entitled to their out of work social lives.


Portland, Ore.: My husband of 2 years doesn't like my relationship with my daughter (thinks I'm too generous, too accepting of decisions she's made)... and he finds it impossible to simply enjoy her company when she's visiting from out of state... and, will end up letting his disapproval show. This has come between my daughter and me... where she used to love visiting, now she's reluctant. This has become worse recently because she has a new boyfriend who my husband doesn't like...

What should I do? My husband thinks he has a right to his opinion. I hate what's happening with my relationship to my daughter.

A few details: she's 28, just finished her PhD and is looking for work in her field. She's very kind and helpful. My husband's objections are that she's not looking harder for work and that she's accepted a boyfriend who's "beneath" her... and, that I'm enabling it somehow.

Emily Yoffe: This is one of the things that really burns me up—when a new spouse tries to harm the relationship their spouse has to a child from a previous marriage. Your daughter sounds wonderful as does your relationship with her. Is your husband jealous that there's someone else you who love equally to him and is capable of taking your attention away from him? I think you and your husband need to get into counseling. If he succeeds at poisoning your relationship with your daughter—as he appears to be doing—there's no hope for your marriage, is there?


Philadelphia, Pa.: Prudie, I'm stuck in the awful nether world between trying to extricate myself from a marriage gracefully, and desperately wanting to start dating again (which I don't want to do until I've worked through my marital baggage). Please give me some wise words to stay patient and not act rashly!! Thank you.

Emily Yoffe: Re-read your letter and put in italics the word "desperate." Desperate dating rarely ends happily. It is unlikely the right person is going to get away because you take the time to act like a responsible person and handle the end of your marriage with dignity. Handling the end of your marriage with dignity will actually make you much more attractive to whoever else might come along.


To the mother taking her kids to coffee shops to roam around: Seriously? This is how your kids want to spend their day? : So once you have kids you're barred from ever entering a coffee shop again? Dear old or young miserable people: take a deep breath, count to ten, relax. If you want absolute silence while drinking your coffee go home. Or buy earplugs. I could understand if the kids were screaming and running around, that is just common courtesy to buy the coffee and get the kids out of there. But if they are just hanging around for a half hour or so what is the big deal?

Emily Yoffe: Here's another perspective. Look up from all the bad news in your Washington Post and enjoy the fact that there are adorable 2 year-olds who find the world fun and entertaining and aren't asking for a billion dollar bailout.


Dear Prudence: My father has been estranged from my family for the past 5 years or so. Basically, we believe he has a mental illness that he combined with alcoholism, which resulted in him quitting his job as an executive and eventually moving in with his parents, with whom he has lived for the past four and a half years. He refuses to look for another job and has not contributed any child support for my minor sibling since 2003.

This is the issue: my siblings deny him any access into their lives because of their own anger towards him (and his tendency to become abusive and angry when he feels his overtures have been rebuffed), but I allow a modicum of access on a social networking site—mainly so he is able to see pictures of my child, whom he has never met. I recently received a message from him regarding the birth of my second child, due this summer. I came down with a serious, life-threatening condition during labor with my first, and his message stated that given the chance I could get it again, he WILL be present at the birth of this baby, even if he has to be hidden somewhere.

Prudie, he yelled at me after my first child was born because I didn't call to tell him I was in labor (yes, this was AFTER mentioning the life-threatening condition). I don't want him there for this one. Part of my goal has been to have as little stress as possible to increase the chances of a safe labor and delivery, and the idea of him being there, his presence stressing everyone out, and most likely causing some serious rifts makes me tense already. I know it is up to me and my spouse, and I think both of us are agreed we'd prefer he not be there.

My problem is that I don't know how to tell him. I am sure even if I agonize over my words and make it as gentle as possible that he will still blow up and I will be hurt by what he says. I am approaching the time deadline where he normally writes "I guess you've decided you don't want to talk to me," so I need a response soon. Please help. Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: It sounds as if you've been handling the amount of contact with him that makes you comfortable very well. You just need to continue to be firm, direct, and polite. Just tell him something like, "Dad, we will let you know as soon as the baby comes and send you photos. But it's important to me that just my husband is there for the delivery, so I'm sorry we won't be able to accommodate having you there." Then don't let him know what hospital you will be at.


DC: Can I look grumpily at my own kids while reading the paper?

Emily Yoffe: As long as they're allowed to look grumpily back at you.


for College Park, Md.: For dealing with irritating coworkers, I've dealt with it in the past by choosing my biggest pet peeve—popping chewing gum—and then have a short non-confrontational conversation with the offenders. Along the lines of hey, you may not be aware that you are chewing your gum really loudly, could you be a little quieter? It works like a charm everytime mostly because the offenders are embarrassed about it, but admittedly I'm not complaining about everything.

Emily Yoffe: Excellent advice. The keys here are "short" "non-confrontational." So often people sit in their cubicle and seethe at the offender and then blow up—which is the first the offender has even heard of it.


Washington, DC: For the wife whose husband says her daughter has "accepted a boyfriend who's 'beneath' her": Perhaps you should cheerfully inform him that, yes, such behavior is a hereditary trait among the women in your family, and isn't he lucky.

Then, while he's puzzling that over, take your daughter out to lunch and enjoy her company.

Emily Yoffe: Touche!


Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone for such a great range of provocative questions. Talk to you next week!

the good word
If You Seek Amy's Ancestors
Britney Spears didn't invent the dirty pun in her new song title. She stole it from Joyce and Shakespeare.
By Jesse Sheidlower
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 6:51 AM ET

Last week, Britney Spears released the video for her recent single "If U Seek Amy." As many have pointed out, the song's title, when spoken aloud, sounds a lot like "F-U-C-K me." Indeed, that's the only way to interpret it, since the lyric itself makes no sense in context: "All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy." The suggestive video even begins with a TV news anchor speaking the title over a chyron that reads, "Britney Spears Song Lyrics Spell Out Obscenity in Disguise," so there's no possibility that the pop star is trying to sneak something through. Has Britney pioneered a new kind of dirty pun?

Not really, although she does offer a new twist. The trope of spelling out fuck with the words if you see Kay has been frequently explored by musicians. The earliest instance appears to be by blues pianist Memphis Slim, who recorded a wistful "If You See Kay," about his lost girlfriend, in 1963:

If you see Kay

Please tell her I say, "Hurry home."

Lord I ain't had no lovin'

Since my little Kay been gone.

If you see Kay,

Please bring her home to me.

Quite a number of rock songs feature this title as well, and in most cases, the artists appear to have come up with the concept independently. In 1977, lo-fi pioneer R. Stevie Moore released his "If You See Kay," a lopingly heartbroken revenge song that concludes: "If you see Kay you."

In 1982, the Canadian band April Wine released a lousy song called "If You See Kay"; the period details in the video that accompanied it compensate somewhat for lines such as "She had the look of need/ Like 'Give it to me'/ I decided I should take a chance."

In 1990, the pop-punk band Poster Children released a ragged, raucous "If You See Kay," and in 2005 the Norwegian punk band Turbonegro released the slick and poppy "If You See Kaye," performed in English. Britney's songwriters do, however, seem to have found new territory in her substitution of "seek Amy" for "see Kay"; I could find no earlier examples of that locution.

One of the catchiest recent iterations of this trope comes from the Irish band the Script, which released its "If You See Kay" on MySpace several years ago. In a recent interview, the band acknowledged its debt to James Joyce—whom they helpfully identify as "a literary god in Ireland"—noting that he used the "If you see kay" gag in Ulysses. The Irish literary god does in fact appear to be the first person to have used this phrase; in Ulysses, Joyce included a bit of doggerel sung by the Prison Gate Girls:

If you see kay

Tell him he may

See you in tea

Tell him from me.

In the third line, Joyce manages to encode cunt as well. Take that, Britney!

Joyce isn't, however, the only great writer to encode dirty words in his work. Hundreds of years earlier, none other than English literary god William Shakespeare used a similar trick. In Twelfth Night, Olivia's butler Malvolio receives a letter written by Maria but in Olivia's handwriting; analyzing the script, Malvolio says, "By my life this is my lady's hand. These be her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her great P's." With the and sounding like N, Shakespeare not only spells out cunt, but gets pee in there as well.

And he didn't need a news anchor, or even a town crier, to explain it.

the green lantern
Dirty Butts
Can cigarette smoking ever be green?
By Nina Shen Rastogi
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 6:48 AM ET

I've been a pack-a-day smoker for years and have no intention of quitting. I know, I know, I'm polluting my body and the bodies of those around me—but what impact am I having on the environment at large? And is there any way to make my nasty habit more eco-friendly?

It's true: Your nicotine addiction affects the planet as well as your lungs. While there's nothing you can do to totally absolve your green guilt, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Tobacco is not a particularly green crop. Because it's very sensitive to disease, it requires a lot of pesticides; in the United States alone, tobacco farmers use 27 million pounds of the stuff every year. That may be a tiny proportion of the 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides used in the United States, but growing tobacco results in the use of more pesticide per acre than raising most other crops. (Potatoes, tomatoes, citrus, grapes, and apples use more.)

Tobacco's contribution to deforestation also earns plenty of ire from environmentalists. The most common method of drying out tobacco leaves, called flue curing, requires an external heat source. In the developing world, where 85 percent of the world's tobacco is grown, that's usually a wood-burning fire. (In the United States, tobacco curing is more likely to be fueled by oil, coal, or liquid petroleum gas.) According to a comprehensive 1999 report published in the journal Tobacco Control, an estimated 494,211 acres of forest and woodland are cleared annually by tobacco farming, comprising about 1.7 percent of total forest-cover losses around the world. (You can rest assured that your vice is less taxing than that of your neighborhood cokehead: Tobacco farming clears only about one-third as much woodland as the cultivation of coca and opium poppies, according to CIA estimates.)

Eco-minded addicts can mitigate some of these costs by switching to organically grown leaf, which at least addresses the pesticide issue. (Organic tobacco is still cured using external heat.) Many smokers swear by American Spirit, which currently produces the only cigarette made with USDA-certified organic tobacco. But while American Spirit's pesticide-free, sustainable farming efforts are laudable, plenty of environmentalists cry green-washing, given that its parent company is Reynolds American, a subsidiary of the giant British American Tobacco. The Green Lantern, however, would still recommend smoking organic if you're going to smoke at all.

Of course organic cigarettes aren't any better for your health than conventional brands—and they don't make for cleaner plumes. Most of the dangerous elements found in secondhand smoke come from combustion of the leaf itself, rather than from chemical additives. So a "natural" tobacco cigarette will still produce carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and sticky, carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Toxic nitrosamines formed during the curing process also remain an issue.

So what kind of air pollution does the world's nicotine craving produce? The average cigarette emits about 14 milligrams of fine particulate matter, the tiny little fragments that can lodge in lungs and cause health problems. The global tobacco industry manufactures roughly 5.5 trillion cigarettes annually. Assuming that all those cancer sticks get consumed, smokers around the world spew out about 84,878 tons of fine particulate matter annually, or a little less than half of a year's worth of emissions from American on-road vehicles.

Sadly, there's not much you can do on the air-pollution front besides smoking less. Choosing a different kind of cigarette won't help: According to a recent University of Michigan study, "regular tar," "low tar," menthol, and nonmenthol cigarettes showed only minor differences when it came to emissions of both particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and styrene, a potential carcinogen. R.J. Reynolds does produce a cigarettelike product called the Eclipse, in which charcoal is used to heat the tobacco, rather than burn it. The Eclipse produces 86 percent to 90 percent less particulate matter than a traditional cigarette, which makes it a better choice, environmentally speaking. But claims that it's a "safer" smoke overall are as yet unproven, and its maker is being sued over the matter.

You can take some responsibility when the time comes to toss your dirty butt. Cigarette trash is a major problem—a whopping 1.7 billion pounds of used smokes end up as litter worldwide. Filters, which reduce the harshness of inhaled smoke, are almost always made from nonbiodegradable cellulose acetate—so you'd do well to switch to a nonfiltered variety or a brand like Parliament that uses a paper filter. (You can also roll your own cigs without filters—preferably with loose, organic tobacco.) And always make sure that your remnants end up in the trash, as opposed to the gutter or the toilet, where they can find their way into rivers and oceans. Cigarettes already make up 40 percent of the items picked up by volunteers along the world's coastlines. (You might carry an empty Altoid tin with you so that you won't be tempted to flick when you're finished.)

Finally, there's always the electronic cigarette, a battery-operated contraption that delivers a nicotine solution dissolved in water and propylene glycol, the stuff used in fog machines. Though public health officials stress a lack of research on the safety of these products, e-cigarettes do produce less trash and air pollution than the traditional variety. You may be exposing yourself to ridicule, but isn't that a small price to pay for your sins?

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to, and check this space every Tuesday.

the green lantern
Wear Green, Drink Greenly
The eco-guide to responsible drinking.
By Brendan I. Koerner
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 3:10 PM ET

Those who plan a night (or day) of hearty St. Patrick's Day drinking don't have to sacrifice their eco-consciences along with their motor skills. Last March, Brendan I. Koerner weighed the comparative green benefits of bottled and canned beer. (Yes, Guinness comes in both varieties.) His findings—along with an alternative that's better than either of them—are below.

I've been gearing up for next week's St. Patrick's Day drink-a-thon. If I'm intent on being an environmentally correct lush, should I plan on quaffing my suds from bottles or cans?

That's a tough question to answer without knowing how far you live from your favorite brewery, as well as your brewery's stance on using recycled materials. If your chosen tipple is produced very close to home and your town has a robust recycling program, then glass bottles are probably the way to go. But if your preferred suds are brewed far away, by a company that's even mildly eco-aware, aluminum cans are the wiser choice.

Between the mine and the brewery's loading dock, at least, glass bottles are the clear winner. Aluminum is made from bauxite, which requires substantial, land-scarring effort to extract from the Earth; the United States imports virtually all of its bauxite from the likes of Australia, Guinea, and Jamaica, where mining operations have caused environmental controversy. Glass, by contrast, is made from the more easily accessible silica.

As a result of bauxite mining's environmental toll, manufacturing a 12-ounce aluminum can is twice as energy-intensive as making a similarly sized glass bottle: 2.07 kilowatt hours of electricity for the can vs. 1.09 kilowatt hours for the bottle.

But those figures assume that the materials used in the containers are 100 percent virgin—that is, entirely lacking in recycled content. The average beer can contains 40 percent recycled aluminum, while American beer bottles are typically composed of 20 percent to 30 percent recycled glass. But the energy savings that accumulate when you recycle a ton of aluminum are far greater than they are for glass—96 percent vs. a mere 26.5 percent. So if your brewery uses cans that contain lots of secondhand aluminum, the bottle's environmental edge narrows considerably.

That edge vanishes if your beer is trucked across several states. Without its liquid payload, the average beer can weighs less than an ounce, while an empty bottle clocks in at close to 6 ounces. That disparity makes a real difference in terms of overall greenhouse-gas emissions, since heavier items require more fuel to transport. This intriguing breakdown, which relies on transport data compiled by Germany's Wuppertal Institute, claims that once a cross-country truck journey is factored into the equation, a bottle ends up emitting 20 percent more greenhouse gases than a can. (In this example, the hypothetical can is made from 100 percent virgin aluminum; the recycled content of the glass bottle is not specified, but the energy required to mine the necessary silica is included in the calculation.)

You can avoid this part of the environmental equation by drinking local beers, though you might want to check where those nearby breweries obtain their containers—it's alarmingly common for empty cans and bottles to travel hundreds of miles from manufacturer to bottling plant.

Regardless of the road miles involved, aluminum cans enjoy a more promising post-celebration fate. About 45 percent of cans are recycled, compared with around 25 percent of bottles. This is partly because consumers erroneously believe that bottles will biodegrade in landfills, so they toss them in with their regular trash. But there's also a weaker demand for the glass that does end up in the blue bags. While automakers and other manufacturers crave aluminum, 90 percent of recycled glass simply ends up going back into bottles and similar containers. And sorting facilities usually separate brown, green, and clear bottles from one another before processing, a laborious and pricey endeavor. It takes a lot of energy to rid green glass, in particular, of the metals (such as iron and copper) that are used to tint it, and there's little market for the stuff once it's been recycled; as a result, a lot of towns don't even bother to recycle your Heineken empties.

Glass bottles would make more environmental sense if they were refillable, as they are in parts of Europe and Canada. Yes, there are energy costs associated with trucking the empty bottles back to the brewery. But according to a 2001 study conducted on behalf of the European Commission, refillables still come out ahead of single-use bottles and cans. In fact, if we assume that a refillable bottle were used 20 times, and that the glass bottles used over that period were recycled at a rate of 42 percent, then the refillable would win over disposable options as long as the distance between the brewery and the local distribution center was less than 2,608 miles. (As myriad beverage-industry professionals have pointed out, refillable bottles would be even more efficient if they were made of polyethylene terephthalate rather than glass.)

In lieu of waiting around (probably forever) for American brewers to adopt refillable bottles en masse, how about taking a pulled pint instead? Draught beer is the greenest means of getting your hops-and-barley fix, as kegs can last between 15 and 20 years. Sure, they're heavy, but in terms of packaging per serving they're actually lighter than glass bottles—based on an empty weight of 29.7 pounds, a 15.5-gallon keg provides just 2.88 ounces of packaging per 12-ounce beer.

While you're preparing to get smashed, also give some thought to how your beer is created. Brewing requires a lot of energy, especially during the heat-intensive wort-boil phase. Beer makers have begun taking steps to reduce their environmental impact: New York's Brooklyn Brewery, for example, uses wind-generated electricity to power all of its operations.

Ah, but is wind power all it's cracked up to be? That's fodder for a future column—until then, enjoy toasting the man who apocryphally drove the snakes out of Ireland, and take comfort in the fact that puke is fully biodegradable.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to, and check this space every Tuesday.

today's business press
A Tax Hike the Masses Will Love
By Bernhard Warner
Friday, March 20, 2009, at 6:00 AM ET

today's papers
Took Federal Money? No Bonus for You.
By Daniel Politi
Friday, March 20, 2009, at 6:43 AM ET

The New York Times and Washington Post lead with the House of Representatives passing a bill that would impose a huge tax on bonuses awarded by firms that receive large amounts of government aid. Republicans raised some objections during debate, but the vote wasn't even close, as the measure was approved 328-93. The bill would impose a 90 percent tax on bonuses awarded to employees with a household income of more than $250,000 by any company that received at least $5 billion from the government's financial rescue package. Wall Street insiders immediately complained that the measure could undermine the government's efforts to rescue the financial system because firms would be less willing to participate.

The Los Angeles Times leads with a look at how President Obama's budget faces "a rocky road" in the congressional debate that is set to formally start next week. On top of a slew of recent developments, the chairman of the Senate budget committee said the deficits could be $1.6 trillion higher over the next 10 years than what the Obama administration had calculated, partly because of the worsening economic climate. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to reveal similar numbers today. The budget debate will "force Congress, for the first time this session, to make tough choices between competing priorities," notes the LAT. USA Today leads with figures that reveal there's an 11.2 percent jobless rate among veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, a significantly higher number than the 8.8 percent rate among nonveterans. The poor job market might be encouraging some service members to re-enlist. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with Obama's video message to Iran's government and its people that encouraged them to create a new relationship with the United States (watch it here). The message was set to coincide with the Persian holiday of Nowruz, and the president said the celebrations could mark a "new day" in bilateral relations between the two countries.

House lawmakers were clearly reacting to the public outrage over the $165 million handed out by American International Group last week, but the bill passed yesterday would end up affecting "tens of thousands" (WP) of employees at some of the country's largest financial firms. The NYT says 11 institutions would be affected, and the WP and WSJ point out that mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would also fall into that group. Many employees at these firms were sent "into a panic" (NYT) yesterday, particularly because the measure would be retroactive to Dec. 31, 2008, which means that some could be expected to pay back money they've already spent. The Senate is set to take up a similar measure next week, which would be less punitive but broader. The Senate bill would impose a 70 percent tax on bonuses, which would be split between the company and the employee, awarded by any firm that received more than $100 million in federal assistance.

Financial institutions immediately complained that Washington lawmakers are punishing them for someone else's sins and warned that this could ultimately undermine the government's efforts to rescue the financial system. The fear is not only that banks would want to give back the money they received, thus slowing down efforts to thaw the credit markets, but it might also scare some firms from participating in future rescue efforts out of fear that the government could later slap on restrictions to their compensation. Many are already wary of participating, and the WSJ notes that more than 200 banks have withdrawn their applications to participate in the voluntary program that seeks to inject $250 billion into ailing banks.

In a separate front-page piece, the WP reports that some bank executives are saying the bill would force them to choose between keeping the government money and losing key employees or giving back the money, which would delay any form of economic recovery. There are also worries that the legislation would give an advantage to foreign banks since it targets bonuses paid by U.S. companies. The WSJ hears word from an executive of a large American financial firm that headhunters representing foreign banks have already been calling up employees.

Lawmakers in Washington were in no mood to hear complaints from the financial sector, particularly since, as the LAT highlights, "the infuriating news just kept coming." One lawmaker revealed that 13 companies that received government aid had failed to pay more than $220 million in taxes, and Bloomberg reported that Citigroup plans to spend $10 million for new executive offices. And that's without considering the outrage that has been building this week over the revelation that Fannie Mae is set to hand out its own retention bonuses. For his part, Obama, in a tactic that has become increasingly common, took on the role of spectator and didn't really state whether he is in favor of these efforts. At first he seemed to endorse the legislation but then tracked back, saying that while he understands "everybody's anger … the best way to handle this is to make sure that you close the door before the horse gets out of the barn."

Obama made that statement on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, when he became the first sitting president to appear on late-night television. On the show, Obama "walked a tightrope between projecting good humor and projecting a presidential air," notes the NYT. He talked seriously about the economy, but also made some jokes ("In Washington, it's a little like American Idol, except everybody is Simon Cowell"), talked about his bowling game ("It was like the Special Olympics or something," Obama said in the one statement that could create controversy), and the family dog.

The WSJ fronts a look at how credit-rating companies, which have been heavily criticized for their role in sparking the financial crisis, could make a nice chunk of change from the government's efforts to prop up the credit markets. The credit-rating agencies have come under fire because of their overly positive projections on mortgage-backed securities, but the government is going to rely on their judgment since it will allow its money to be used only to buy securities with a triple-A rating. "If the ratings companies are wrong this time around, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury—and therefore taxpayers—will be on the hook for some losses," notes the WSJ. If all goes as planned, the credit-rating companies could make anywhere from $400 million to $1.2 billion.

The LAT and NYT front, and everyone reports, that the Israeli military ordered a special investigation into accounts by officers that troops had little concern for civilian life and private property during the Gaza war. The accounts that were published in a military institute's newsletter and Israeli newspapers "resembled accounts given by many Palestinians" and "appeared to support contentions by some human rights groups that Israel had violated the laws of war," notes the LAT. The accounts sparked a huge controversy in Israel since it marked the first time that anyone within the Israeli military contradicted the much-repeated mantra that Israeli troops were careful to avoid civilian casualties throughout the conflict.

All the papers note that First Lady Michelle Obama will break ground today on a vegetable garden that will grow in a section of the South Lawn of the White House. The 1,100-square-foot plot will contain 55 varieties of vegetables, all grown organically, of course. There will even be two beehives. The food will be served to the president's family as well as during official events, but the first lady said its most important function will be to educate children about the benefits of healthy, locally grown products. The Clintons had a small rooftop garden, but this will mark the first large vegetable patch on White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt tended to a victory garden during World War II. Many have been campaigning for the garden and were elated by the news. "Nothing could be more exciting," said Alice Waters, a celebrity chef who has been lobbying for it since the Clinton administration.

The WSJ reports on the latest craze among today's troubled youth: "smoking Smarties." Kids figured out that if you crush the tart candy and pour it in your mouth you can blow out a fine dust that looks an awful lot like smoke from a cigarette. (Confused? Check out this video.) Although "other candies have endured misuses" through the years, "few have involved such obvious mimicry of lethal adult vices," reports the WSJ. Parents are freaking out and some schools have even banned the candy. One parent likened "smoking Smarties" to a gateway drug that could lead "to smoking cigarettes or pot or anything else like that."

today's papers
Fed Takes Out the Big Guns
By Daniel Politi
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 6:34 AM ET

The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times lead with, and the Wall Street Journal banners, the Federal Reserve's surprise announcement that it would inject the financial system with an additional $1.15 trillion to push down interest rates on mortgages and other consumer and business loans. The central bank said it would purchase government bonds and more than double what it planned to buy in mortgage-related securities in the hopes of spurring economic activity by, essentially, printing more money. The Post says the announcement "amounts to a recognition by Fed leaders that the economy has gotten much worse than they had forecast at their last policymaking meeting." The Fed's latest aggressive strategy "makes it more likely that the country's 15-month-old recession will be over by the end of this year," notes the LAT. The markets liked it, but the move does carry significant inflationary risks.

USA Today leads with, and everybody else fronts, the continuing outrage over the $165 million in bonuses that American International Group paid out to members of its disgraced financial-products unit. AIG's chief executive, Edward Liddy, was grilled by lawmakers yesterday who demanded the money be returned. Liddy said he had asked those who received $100,000 or more to give back at least half. Republicans also criticized Democrats for changing legislation that would have limited executive compensation at companies that received taxpayer money.

To recap, the Fed usually combats recessions by lowering interest rates. But seeing as though the key interest rate is already effectively zero, the central bank has been turning to alternative methods to try to stimulate the economy, and yesterday's announcement marked a big expansion of those efforts. Adding it all up, the Fed said it would buy as much as $300 billion of longer-term U.S. Treasury securities in the next six months as well as purchase an additional $750 billion in mortgage-backed securities, which is on top of the $500 billion that the central bank already said it would buy. In addition, the central bank would double, to $200 billion, the purchase of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt. "I've never known when the Fed has taken a move this powerful in easing monetary policy," a former Fed economist tells the LAT.

These latest actions mean the Fed's balance sheet continues to grow. Before September, the Fed barely had $900 billion in assets, but after it makes the purchases announced yesterday, and assuming it won't cut back in other areas, that figure will rise to more than $3 trillion. One economist tells the NYT that the Fed has decided to adopt a "kitchen sink" strategy. "They are trying to fire absolutely every weapon they can," one economist tells the LAT. The WSJ points out that the Fed's announcement "highlighted the central bank's ability to move aggressively on the financial crisis without approval from Congress," which is particularly important now that Washington politicians are reluctant to approve more money for bailouts.

Investors certainly liked the announcement. The stock market was down for the day but quickly shot up after the Fed's announcement, and the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index surged 2.1 percent. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes sharply decreased to 2.53 percent from more than 3 percent, "the largest one-day drop since the aftermath of the 1987 market crash," notes the WSJ, suggesting that mortgage rates will soon follow suit. Even assuming that the new measures will work as intended, they're hardly risk-free moves. The value of the dollar sank yet again, illustrating fears that all this money-printing could reduce the value of the U.S. currency in the long term. There's also the very real risk of inflation since the Fed might find it difficult to get such a huge amount of money out of the financial system once the economy recovers. "The challenge is the exit strategy," an economist tells the Post.

When testifying before Congress yesterday, Liddy said several of the AIG employees have returned their bonuses but refused to specify how many. Liddy also said he didn't want to provide the names of those who kept the money because he feared for their safety. The WSJ hears word that the AIG employee who received the biggest bonus—$6.4 million—has returned the money. As could be expected, lawmakers were on full-on outrage mode and weren't satisfied with the news that some employees would be giving back their bonuses. The House is scheduled to vote today on a measure to set a tax rate of 90 percent on bonuses that AIG employees receive this year.

Meanwhile, Sen. Christopher Dodd tried to explain how a measure in the economic recovery bill that would have limited executive compensation was changed at the last minute to allow certain bonuses. As the NYT points out, "it is far from clear that the change mattered in the case of AIG." But that little detail didn't seem to be of any concern to Republicans who said Democrats could have prevented this mess. Dodd at first said he didn't know how the change was made but then told an interviewer that it came at the request from officials at the Treasury Department.

Even as he said that employees were asked to give back their bonuses, Liddy defended the thinking behind making the payments, saying that they were needed to prevent key employees from leaving and creating huge losses for the company. In a front-page piece, the WP says that may not be entirely accurate. By the end of December, AIG had already gotten rid of a large chunk of its riskiest bets. Two executives at AIG's financial-products division said the hardest work has already been completed, and employees are now focused on unwinding a portfolio that is still large but far less risky. Still, the executives said that losing experienced employees would reduce AIG's ability to get the best price in negotiations with other financial companies. But one former executive says AIG employees aren't exactly haggling, particularly since government officials are encouraging employees to perform the deals at a price point that would help the other financial firms.

The controversy over AIG has now moved well beyond the bonuses, notes the LAT. Lawmakers are raising questions about why AIG used taxpayer money to repay some of Wall Street's largest firms and even some foreign banks. Several lawmakers said the actions once again demonstrated the cozy ties between Washington and Wall Street. Democrats blamed the Bush administration, but Republicans focused their ire on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and two lawmakers called for his resignation. President Obama said Geithner "is making the right moves in terms of playing a bad hand" and emphasized that he still has "complete confidence" in his treasury secretary.

Of course, as any observer of Washington's ways knows already, "complete confidence" can soon turn into a resignation "to spend more time with my family." In a front-page piece, the NYT calls this a "defining moment" for the treasury secretary. In defense of Geithner, the NYT points out that he "is shouldering more crises on his slight frame than most Treasury secretaries ever have" and has to do it without a number of assistants who still haven't passed the administration's vetting process. Still, questions surrounding why he didn't know about the bonuses earlier and didn't do anything to stop them "threaten to overwhelm his achievements and undermine Mr. Obama's overall economic agenda." Right now, it's all about what he knew and when he knew it, a question that is also the subject of a separate WP front-page piece. AIG apparently told the Fed about the bonuses three months ago, but the Treasury and White House say they weren't informed until a few days before the payments were due. But one WP source says senior Treasury officials were told at least a month ago, and Time reports that they were informed on Feb. 28. It's all very unclear, to say the least. What does seem obvious is that Fed officials failed to fully appreciate what a huge controversy the bonuses would create.

One of the reasons why it has been hard for many to believe that Geithner didn't know about the bonuses is that he played such a key role in the initial AIG bailout as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But, in his defense, some say that at the time he was worried about the big picture of preventing a collapse of the financial system and not compensation, a topic that was barely ever discussed.

The NYT and USAT front, and everyone else covers, the results of two large studies that conclude screening for prostate cancer saves few, if any, lives and can lead to much harm by pushing men to undergo aggressive treatments that can cause impotence and incontinence, among other side effects. Whether to screen for prostate cancer has always been a controversial topic, but the results of these two major studies, one in Europe and the other in the United States, are astounding. The American study found no survival benefit to screening while "the European study tells us is that, if you are a man who chooses screening, you are 47 times more likely to be harmed ... than to have your life saved," the chief medical officer of the American cancer society tells the LAT.

today's papers
Lawmakers: Pay It Back, AIG
By Daniel Politi
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 6:31 AM ET

The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times lead with the continuing outrage over the bonuses paid by American International Group last week. This controversy isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and new details seem to come out daily that only help to further fuel the fire. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo revealed yesterday that the $165 million in bonuses went to 418 AIG employees, including $33.6 million handed out to 52 people who have left the company. A total of 73 AIG employees received bonuses of $1 million or more, including 11 who are no longer working at the insurance giant. Trying to calm the uproar that has broken out among lawmakers and the public, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he would deduct the cost of the bonuses from the pending $30 billion cash infusion to the insurance giant that would bring the total amount of taxpayer money that AIG has received to around $200 billion.

The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev striking "a Cold War tone" as he pledged to go ahead with rearmament plans in response to what he said were NATO's plans to expand close to Russia's border. The comments were made a few weeks before Medvedev is scheduled to meet with President Obama for the first time and were widely seen as a negotiating tactic. USA Today leads with word that Transportation Security Administration officers will be stepping up efforts to screen randomly selected passengers before they board a plane. The TSA has already been carrying out this double-screening at airport gates, but passengers can expect to see more of their fellow fliers pulled aside while boarding, particularly in what are described as riskier flights.

Leading Democrats tried to "get out in front of the mounting public furor," as the NYT puts it, over AIG by proposing a variety of measures that would use the tax code to punish those who refuse to voluntarily give back their bonuses. At least three separate bills have been introduced in the House that would impose a tax rate of anywhere from 95 percent to 100 percent on the AIG bonuses. For example, one of these bills, introduced by Democratic Rep. Gary Peters of Michigan, would impose a 60 percent surtax on top of the normal 35 percent income tax on bonuses over a certain amount paid by any company in which the government holds at least a 79 percent equity stake. "AIG is the only company in that category," explains the LAT.

The Senate is also drafting similar legislation, and one proposal by the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee would impose large excise taxes on bonuses awarded by not only AIG, but any company that receives bailout funds. The NYT, however, points out that this may be an imperfect solution because some of the AIG employees who received the money are foreigners living abroad and so wouldn't have to pay U.S. taxes regardless. Republicans were less enthusiastic about endorsing these tax proposals and warned they could run into some legal issues. Whether such a move would be legal is unclear. One expert tells the LAT that "Congress can tax anything they damn well please," but others said that directly singling out AIG executives could raise constitutional issues.

Republicans didn't issue any proposals to get the bonus money back but loudly questioned what these payments say about oversight of the companies that have received taxpayer cash and made it clear they would reject any more bailout requests. "No more bailouts," House Minority Whip Eric Cantor said. "The American people have had it. They want this Congress to get back to fiscal discipline and restraint and the belief that the freedom to succeed includes the freedom to fail."

A group of prominent Democratic senators wrote to AIG Chief Executive Edward Liddy urging that the bonuses be repaid. You can bet that the issue will be brought up again today when Liddy testifies before a House subcommittee. The WP reports that Liddy is expected to send out a letter to AIG employees asking them to return the bonus payments.

In preparation for his congressional hearing, Liddy, who was appointed head of AIG by the Bush administration in September and receives an annual salary of $1, writes an op-ed piece in the WP today. Liddy says that he "would never have approved the retention contracts" and assures readers that making the payments "was distasteful." Liddy also insists AIG has every intention to return all the taxpayer money to the government and is "making progress" toward that goal. The most important lesson that must be learned from the AIG debacle is that the government must put in place "safeguards against the systemic consequences of failures of large, interconnected financial institutions." As long as the American people are patient and the government continues to support the company's efforts, "we can resolve AIG's challenges and help its businesses contribute to a global economic recovery."

Just because Liddy agreed to come out of retirement for an unenviable $1-a-year job doesn't mean he's above criticism. The WP's Steven Pearlstein writes that Liddy could have come up with several different ways to renegotiate the contracts before last week's deadline, but so far all Liddy "seems to have served up is a litany of complaints about what a bad hand he was dealt." At the very least, Liddy could have been more transparent about the company's situation with the taxpayers. "Instead, [Liddy] has not only left us wondering whose side he's really on, but also, because of the bonus backlash, he has managed to put the entire financial rescue effort in political jeopardy." Liddy isn't the "only one on Wall Street who can't quite grasp the idea that extraordinary times require a different way of doing things." Wall Street executives still act as if it's their duty to maximize personal profits, even if it's the taxpayers who will be footing the bill.

In its daily front-page chart, USAT reveals that only 26 percent of Americans think people on Wall Street are "as honest and moral as other people." In 2006, that number was 41 percent.

Just in case there isn't enough outrage over the AIG bailout, the WSJ goes high with word that some of the taxpayer money that went to AIG could be used to pay hedge funds that made bets against the U.S. housing market. Basically that means that while the U.S. government is devoting billions to try to lift the housing market, it is also "putting up cash that could be used to pay off investors who bet housing prices would tumble and many mortgage holders would default," explains the WSJ. Although the transactions were perfectly legal, they do illustrate how "AIG strayed from its core business" and was heavily involved in financial speculation. An investment consultant says that, in essence, taxpayers now have to pay AIG's "gambling debts."

The WP takes a look at how several financial firms are looking on at the outrage over AIG's bonuses and are suggesting they want to stay as far away from it as possible. If enough financial firms are actually serious about this, it could eventually threaten the government's efforts to persuade private investors to get involved in its numerous economic recovery programs. "Am I afraid of the populist outrage? Yes," said the chief executive of a private-equity firm that is considering participating in the government's efforts to thaw the frozen credit markets. Some say they'll wait to see how early participants fare before jumping in.

The NYT off-leads word that the Obama administration is weighing whether it should extend the reach of the missile strikes being carried out by CIA-operated drones into areas beyond the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan. Some officials want to expand the covert war in Pakistan to include the area in and around the city of Quetta, which the paper describes as "a major insurgent sanctuary." There are fears that extending the strikes would increase tensions with Pakistan's government, which often complains the ongoing strikes violate the country's sovereignty. But some officials say that extending the reach of the drones is imperative because many Taliban and al-Qaida leaders have fled the tribal regions, and the Pakistani military seems unable or unwilling to stop the spreading insurgency.

The NYT's Thomas Friedman writes that the "the anger level in the country is reaching a Bonfire of the Vanities, get-out-the-pitchforks danger level." There are several reasons why this is dangerous, but mostly because it "could overwhelm the still really difficult but critically important things we must do in the next few weeks to defuse this financial crisis." If there's any hope to fix the financial system, it's likely that Obama will need to request the extra $750 billion it has already warned Congress about in order to get the toxic assets out of banks' balance sheets. "The only person with the clout to sell something this big is President Obama." Sure, everyone will have to pitch in, but ultimately Obama will be the one who has to "persuade people that this is the least unfair and most effective solution," writes Friedman. "It will be his first big leadership test."

today's papers
Obama Demands a Refund
By Daniel Politi
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 6:30 AM ET

The New York Times and Washington Post lead with, and everyone else fronts, the continuing fallout from the $165 million in bonuses that American International Group handed out to employees who were at least partly responsible for the insurance giant's fall from grace. President Obama ordered his administration to "pursue every legal avenue to block these bonuses" that started to go out Friday. Separately, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said he would subpoena the company to find out details about the bonuses and their recipients.

The Los Angeles Times leads with a look at how President Obama has "launched an aggressive campaign-style offensive" to garner support for his agenda and make his political opponents seem irrelevant. E-mails are going out to campaign supporters asking them to call members of Congress, and the White House is coordinating with grass-roots groups that are running ads targeting Republicans. Obama will even go on The Tonight Show on Thursday, marking the first time that a sitting president will appear on a late-night talk show. USA Today leads with a new poll that shows support for the war in Afghanistan has dropped to new lows. About 42 percent of Americans think it was "a mistake" to send troops to Afghanistan, a marked increase from the 30 percent who thought so in February. A mere 38 percent of Americans think the war is going well. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with news that Mohammad Khatami, Iran's reformist former president, has decided to drop out of the race. The move might make it more difficult for reformists to stop the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khatami dropped out after a reformist rival vowed to stay in the race and the former president said he didn't want to split the vote.

Coming a day after Obama's top economic advisers said that they had no choice and had to let the AIG bonuses go through, it's hard to see how the president's order to "block these bonuses" was anything besides a little grandstanding. Indeed, the WSJ says that by the end of the day, administration officials had acknowledged that there was nothing they could do to demand the recipients return the payments without getting involved in a legal fight that could very well end up being more expensive than the bonuses themselves. The LAT talks to some legal experts and concludes that at the very least it would be difficult, and might even be illegal, for the government to force employees to return payments that they were entitled to under their contracts.

To get around these legal issues, there are suggestions that the administration would write new conditions to the $30 billion installment of taxpayer money that AIG is set to receive soon. As the NYT points out, this "seemed to leave open the possibility that the company would effectively be repaying taxpayers with taxpayer money." An administration official obviously denied it, but it's difficult to see how else the company could give the money back.

Now that the American public seems to have channeled all its rage about the financial collapse into AIG (hey, at least it's a more worthy victim than Jim Cramer), questions are starting to pop up about who knew and when did they know it. The NYT says officials at the Treasury and Federal Reserve knew about the bonus program "as far back as last fall." One lawmaker—Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland—didn't get very far when he tried to obtain information about the bonuses in December. But, again according to the NYT, Timothy Geithner, the treasury secretary, didn't personally know that another round of bonuses was due on March 15 until last week. The WP takes it back even further and says AIG had publicly disclosed its plans for the payments "more than a year ago" and the details had been "widely reported." The Post also specifies that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which has overseen AIG since September, extensively looked into the issue and concluded they couldn't do anything about the bonuses. For some reason, the paper doesn't remind readers that Geithner was the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York until he joined the Obama administration.

The WSJ points out that the confusing and seemingly haphazard response to what has essentially become a public relations crisis "illustrates the bind that Mr. Obama finds himself in." While he needs to convince Americans that he shares their anger, he also "needs the executives and employees of those companies to help the government untangle the current financial mess." Working at AIG now is hardly a picnic. The WP points out that there were armed guards outside the insurance giant's Financial Products division offices in Connecticut, where employees were swamped with angry phone calls and e-mails, including a few death threats. Some managers resigned, and others just didn't show up to work. "It's a mob effect," one senior executive said. "It's putting people's lives in danger."

We all need to calm down, suggests the NYT's Andrew Ross Sorkin. Giving out $165 million to the people "that nearly took down the financial system" doesn't seem to fit anyone's definition of fair but perhaps we should all just "swallow hard and pay up." Although it may seem like a cop out to say that contracts can't be broken, just imagine what could happen to the economy "if the business community started to worry that the government would start abrogating contracts left and right." Even if we set aside the issue of contracts, there's the uncomfortable fact that since "AIG built this bomb … it may be the only outfit that really knows how to defuse it." AIG's employees know where the skeletons are buried and could move to another company to make money betting against taxpayers' interests. It might be tempting to think that's not really an option because there are no jobs in Wall Street, but the truth is that "the real moneymakers in finance always have a place to go."

While we're at it, we should all ease up a bit on the attacks on banks that took bailout money and have the audacity to still hold staff retreats or sponsor events, writes the WP's Allan Sloan. "Sure, it makes for great sound bites," writes Sloan. "But it's counterproductive, because it will cost taxpayers money and make reviving our financial system more difficult." Sloan isn't talking about the AIG bonuses or Citigroup's plans to buy expensive private planes, which are true symbols of corporate excess. But rather, trips to reward employees or Northern Trust's much-maligned sponsorship of a golf tournament. All this scrutiny has motivated some banks to say they want to return government money ASAP. That attitude may be easy to mock, but it could end up costing taxpayers money. Furthermore, if healthy institutions return the money it would stigmatize the institutions that can't pay back the government. If lawmakers want to micromanage the companies, they should just take them over. "Until then, they should stop acting like children throwing spitballs."

Criticizing companies for their profligate ways is a lot like criticizing earmarks: way too easy. The WP fronts a look at one of the most maligned earmarks in the recently passed omnibus spending bill, which involved $1 million to kill Mormon crickets. ("Is that the species of cricket or a game played by the brits?" quipped Sen. John McCain on Twitter.) But the issue is far from a joke for the ranchers of Grouse Creek, Utah, who have been suffering through an invasion of the critters that have "devoured crops, frightened children and threatened families' livelihoods." Of course, many say that the problem with earmarks isn't the projects that they fund, but rather how it's all done in secret and that it could be used as an expensive thank-you note to campaign contributors.

The LAT points out that demand for hybrids has plunged just as automakers are releasing more of the fuel-efficient cars than ever before. It's hardly a secret that the whole auto industry is doing badly, but hybrids are particularly difficult to get off the sales floor because consumers are reluctant to pay a premium for fuel-efficiency when the average price of gasoline has dropped below $2 a gallon. Automakers, however, feel as though they have no choice but to keep producing these types of vehicles because of pressure from Washington. "The automakers are in the situation of needing to pacify politicians that are in the position to bail them out with expensive fuel-efficient cars," an analyst said.

The papers report that Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a deal with nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu to join his government in exchange for a few important Cabinet seats. If finalized, the deal could mean that the controversial leader of Yisrael Beitenu, Avigdor Lieberman, could become Israel's next foreign minister. During the campaign, Lieberman won over hard-line voters with a promise to mandate that all Israeli citizens must take a loyalty oath. The agreement doesn't mention a loyalty oath but also has no mention of peace talks or a peace process. But it does pledge to topple Hamas and vow that the government won't negotiate with terrorist groups.

In the NYT's op-ed page, Patrick French writes that the decision by the Pakistani government to hand power over the Swat Valley to the "Pakistani Taliban" was a "foolish bargain" that "represents the most serious blow to the country's territorial integrity since the civil war of 1971." The once-popular tourist destination that is merely 100 miles from Islamabad "is not one of Pakistan's wild border areas" but has now ostensibly become a terrorist sanctuary. The situation is similar to what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when the government slowly allowed the Taliban to take over. Pakistan's politicians must "recognize the real and immediate danger of the Islamist threat," writes French. "If they do not, their country risks becoming a nuclear-armed Afghanistan."

today's papers
AIG Writes a Receipt
By Daniel Politi
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 6:41 AM ET

The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times lead with American International Group releasing the names of trading partners that got a big chunk of the federal bailout money the ailing insurance giant began receiving six months ago. Members of Congress have been demanding to know the names of the institutions that got money from AIG, a company that has received more than $170 billion and is now about 80 percent owned by U.S. taxpayers. After arguing for weeks that it couldn't release those details due to privacy considerations, AIG unexpectedly released a list of nearly 80 trading partners that received nearly $100 billion in the final months of 2008. (The WSJ says $120 billion.)

The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with, and almost everyone else fronts, news that the Pakistani government has agreed to reinstate the former chief justice of the Supreme Court. The "stunning concession" (NYT) ended a political showdown between President Asif Ali Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who was heading to the capital for what was expected to be a huge protest. USA Today leads with a look at a series of reports that say the U.S. missile-defense system that has been proposed for Europe would cost billions to deploy and may not work. More than $100 billion has been used to develop the system, but it continues to fail some basic tests. It could cost as much as $13 billion to deploy in Europe, and some analysts insist it would be relatively easy for anyone to get around the system.

The list of companies that received payments from AIG "reads like a who's who of global finance," notes the WSJ. Some of the biggest U.S. financial institutions are on the list, including Goldman Sachs, which got nearly $13 billion, and Merrill Lynch, which received almost $7 billion. There are also major foreign banks on the list, including Société Générale of France and Germany's Deutsche Bank, which received around $12 billion each. The insurance giant also reported that municipalities in dozens of states received $12 billion.

The government had always said that it was necessary to rescue AIG because its failure could lead to a series of other collapses, since the insurance giant is so interconnected in the financial system. The NYT points out that the list released yesterday "could bolster that justification by illustrating the breadth of losses that might have occurred had A.I.G. been allowed to fail." At the same time, there are "political risks to the disclosures," notes the WSJ. It's not just that AIG is serving as a funnel to save numerous private businesses. That some of the institutions have received bailouts of their own and that some are based overseas won't make it any easier for taxpayers to accept the situation.

The long-awaited disclosure came on a day when the airwaves were filled with public outrage over the revelation that AIG paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses. AIG executives said they had no choice but to fork over $165 million in bonus payments that were due Sunday for executives at its Financial Products unit, which lost $40.5 billion last year. Although much attention has been paid to that number, it is hardly the whole story. The WSJ breaks down the numbers and says that employees at the troubled unit had been promised $450 million in bonuses before the government rescue. In addition, the company will be paying $121.5 million in incentive bonuses to 6,400 employees as well as $619 million in retention payments to 4,200 employees. In total, "the three programs could result in roughly $1.2 billion in retention and bonus payments to AIG employees."

AIG and government lawyers say that the company is obligated to make payments. "The easy thing would be to just say ... Off with their heads, violate the contracts," Lawrence Summers, Obama's top economic adviser, said. "But you have to think about the consequences of breaking contracts for the overall system of law, for the overall financial system." Others weren't quite convinced by that argument. "We need to find out whether these bonuses are legally recoverable," Rep. Barney Frank said.

Even as it described itself as having no choice but to accept the bonuses, administration officials brought on full-on outrage about the situation at AIG during the Sunday talk shows. In a front-page analysis, the NYT says it was the administration's latest effort "to distance itself from abuses" in the financial system as it grows increasingly concerned about a "populist backlash against banks and Wall Street" that could turn into anger at Congress and the White House. This could make it harder for Obama to get any additional bailouts through Congress and prevent him from pursuing other big-ticket items in his agenda. "Never underestimate the capacity of angry populism in times of economic stress," warned Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Bill Clinton.

The WSJ goes high with word that the Obama administration has started to outline its plan to overhaul the oversight of the financial markets. "We want to accelerate the pace of change on the reform agenda," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said. The administration wants to give more power to the Federal Reserve to police the system and require banks to hold more capital during good times so they have a bigger cushion if there is a downturn. The White House is also likely to ask Congress to give regulators the authority to take over a large financial company that is failing.

The WP points out that the Pakistani government's decision to reinstate the chief justice, along with other deposed judges, "marked an extraordinary victory for Pakistan's legal community." A lawyers' movement had been campaigning for two years to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry but it became stronger after opposition leader Nawaz Sharif joined the protests. There was a widespread belief that Zardari didn't want to reinstate Chaudhry out of fear that he would reopen old corruption cases against him. Zardari's reversal appeared to be further evidence that he is losing his grip on power and cemented Sharif's role as the main face of the opposition.

The WP notes that newly released excerpts from a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross reveals that the humanitarian group concluded that the way al-Qaida detainees were treated inside CIA "black site" prisons "constituted torture." The Red Cross was given access to 14 "high-value" detainees who were transferred to Guantanamo in 2006 and they all gave very similar accounts of the rough interrogation practices they had to endure. A piece by Mark Danner published yesterday by the New York Review of Books quotes extensively from the report, which was given to White House officials in 2007. Although many of the details were already known, "the ICRC report is the most authoritative account and the first to use the word 'torture' in a legal context," says the Post. "It could not be more important that the ICRC explicitly uses the words 'torture' and 'cruel and degrading,' " Danner said in an interview. "The ICRC is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, and when it uses those words, they have the force of law."

The NYT fronts word that European countries are raising doubts about taking in prisoners from Guantanamo. Several European government officials have been emphasizing that they can't make a commitment to take in prisoners until they're clear on the security risks and whether the Obama administration will also commit to resettle some detainees in the United States. The White House and European Union officials will hold today a first round of talks on these issues that everyone says will be critical to begin answering some key questions about Obama's plan to close the prison.

USAT reports that computer scientist J.F. Crook has published what he describes as a foolproof way to beat Sudoku puzzles in the current Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Although some strategy guides have outlined similar steps to what Crook proposes, "he says his study offers the first mathematically guaranteed way of solving the puzzles," notes USAT. "Sudoku has become the passion of many people the world over," Crook wrote. "The interesting fact about Sudoku is that it is a trivial puzzle to solve."

today's papers
Bonuses for Ruining the Economy
By Roger McShane
Sunday, March 15, 2009, at 6:10 AM ET

The Washington Post broke the story, but it's the only paper not to lead with "bailout king" AIG's plans to pay out about $165 million in bonuses to 400 employees in its financial products division. Yes, the New York Times reminds us, that is "the same business unit that brought the company to the brink of collapse last year." Or, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, the division that "created trillions of dollars in murky financial obligations," leading to government fears that "the entire financial system might collapse." A commenter on the NYT's Web site sums it up well: "This is so outrageous it is almost humorous."

While fronting AIG, the Post leads with the startling news that at least 3 percent of Washington, D.C., residents have HIV or AIDS, "a total that far surpasses the 1 percent threshold that constitutes a 'generalized and severe' epidemic," according to a report to be released on Monday. That leaves it on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya, says Shannon Hader, director of the District's HIV/AIDS Administration.

The NYT and WP begin their articles on AIG with anonymous accounts of the Obama administration's "deep consternation" and "outrage" over the bonuses, resulting in a "confrontation" between the firm's chief executive and Tim Geithner on Wednesday. Only the LAT gives early mention to the fact that the payments have "the grudging consent of the Obama administration." Geithner may have thought the bonuses were "unacceptable" last week, as the WP and NYT dutifully report, but he eventually came around to the opinion held by Edward Liddy, AIG's government-appointed chairman, that the company was legally bound to make the payments.

In a letter to Geithner, Liddy justified the bonuses by arguing that AIG would have trouble attracting and retaining talent "if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury." Aren't most Americans now accustomed to continued and arbitrary adjustments to their wealth? The LAT notes that Liddy's statement amounts to an anger-inducing yet logical concern that "AIG's losses … could spiral enormously if the only people who understand the company's convoluted dealings are not around to 'unwind' the damage they have caused."

If AIG's financial employees did seek employment elsewhere, there's a good chance it would be at one of the firm's trading partners. Ironically, these companies are only still in business thanks to the government's rescue of AIG. But, despite repeated inquiries from Congress, the government won't say which companies received bailout money via AIG. The NYT says "the secrecy is unacceptable."

Meanwhile, in an effort to get the world economy moving again, the NYT and WP report that G-20 finance officials agreed on Saturday to take "whatever action is necessary." Then they disagreed over what action is necessary.

When John McCain proposed the idea, Barack Obama called it "the largest middle-class tax increase in history." But now the NYT is reporting that Barack Obama "could support taxing some employee health benefits" to help pay for health care reform. Once again, Obama will let congressional Democrats take the lead—"several advisers say that while he will not propose changing the tax-free status of employee health benefits, neither will he oppose it if Congress does so."

Some have pointed to Obama's push for universal health care as proof that he is a socialist. But the editor of Socialist magazine writes in the WP that his kind "know that Barack Obama is not one of us." He then thanks Mike Huckabee and John McCain for being the Socialist Party's "most effective promoters."

Having dropped Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama now turns to five pastors for support, reports the NYT. One, the Rev. Jim Wallis, says he hit it off with Obama because they're both progressive Christians—"We didn't think Jesus' top priorities would be capital gains tax cuts and supporting the next war."

An estimated 76 million Americans are made ill by contaminated food each year and Barack Obama is sick of it. The WP and NYT report that the president promised to bolster America's food-safety system yesterday, while saying he would nominate Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a former New York City health commissioner, to be commissioner of the F.D.A.

The WP reports that on Saturday morning former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif told a group of journalists, "I am ready for reconciliation with [President Asif Ali Zardari], as long as he is also ready." He's not ready. The NYT reports on its Web site the late-breaking news that police detained Sharif early Sunday morning, hours before he was to address his supporters in Lahore.

In Iraq, the NYT and WP report that Jalal Talabani will not seek another term as president. "When he steps down there is all but certain to be sharp competition between Sunni Arabs and Kurds for the post," says the Times.

Also from Iraq, the NYT reports a (saddening) sign of progress: There have been some 10,000 killings in Baghdad since December. The unfortunate victims are all members of the same Canidae family.

Going with the flow ... The NYT reviews a book that compiles women's memories of their first menstrual period. The Times somewhat regretfully predicts that the "distinctive" compilation "is bound to provoke snickers, if not sneers." Of course, it doesn't help if you name the work "My Little Red Book" and title the review "There Will Be Blood."

today's papers
Beijing Gets the T-Bond Blues
By Ben Whitford
Saturday, March 14, 2009, at 6:01 AM ET

The Washington Post and the New York Times lead on Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's demand that the Obama administration guarantee the safety of Beijing's trillion-dollar investment in U.S. Treasury bonds. "We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S.," Wen said. "Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets." The Obama administration rushed to assure Beijing that its investments were secure; analysts say that any move by China to dump its vast U.S. debt, or even merely to cease purchasing Treasuries, would drive up the cost of U.S. government borrowing and cause a spike in mortgage rates for millions of U.S. homeowners.

The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox, at least online, with some rare economic good news: This week was the stock market's best since November, prompting speculation that the economy could finally be close to bottoming out. "There is a real economy out there, and it has a chance of doing better," said one relieved trader. The Los Angeles Times leads on news that a recently adopted plan to fill gaping holes in California's state budget is already seriously out of whack; one analyst says the state is on course for a shortfall of more than $8 billion.

Speaking at a rare meeting with Chinese journalists, Wen said that he was "definitely a little worried" about the security of China's vast holdings of U.S. debt. Economists say his concerns are reasonable: Efforts to boost the U.S. economy by taking on more debt and printing more money could weaken the dollar, diluting the value of Treasury bonds. Still, there's little sign that China will reduce its U.S.-debt investments, or slow its purchase of T-bonds; any sell-off would risk flooding the market, devaluing China's investments still further. Besides, analysts say, a Chinese sell-off would make it far more difficult for the United States to spend its way out of the current recession—and that, in turn, would take a heavy toll on the already-flagging Chinese export market.

Wen's words were widely perceived as economic fighting talk, perhaps aimed at dissuading U.S. policymakers from adopting a "buy American" strategy that could endanger Chinese exports or at heading off U.S. efforts to challenge Beijing on currency issues. Still, reports the WSJ, the Obama camp moved swiftly to assuage Beijing's concerns, with senior economic officials declaring that U.S. bonds were secure and that America's fiscal policies were sound. "There's no safer investment in the world than in the United States," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

The NYT off-leads with word that, in an attempt to signal a break with the Bush years, the Justice Department has declared that it will no longer use the term "enemy combatant" to describe the 241 detainees being held at Guantánamo Bay. But the department also reasserted its right to detain terror suspects without charges and provided a definition of those who could be held that was not substantively different from the framework offered by the Bush administration. Lawyers for the detainees said they didn't expect the revised terminology to help their clients; still, the WSJ notes that the shift in emphasis hints at the Obama administration's likely use of civilian courts, rather than military tribunals, to try those being held at the camp.

In a front-page report, the WSJ finds evidence of lingering tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, where a policeman and two soldiers were murdered this week. By contrast, the NYT reports that the killings brought the country together in protest; at the police officer's funeral, the priest declared the violence "an attack on the whole population of Northern Ireland".

With the stock market finally having a good week, the administration sounded a cautiously optimistic note about the overall health of the U.S. economy. Obama—who, the Post notes, has lately appeared increasingly eager to blame the financial crisis on his predecessor—declared himself "confident about America," while his chief economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, said there were "modestly encouraging" signs that consumer spending was stabilizing. The Post reports the stock-market rally on the front of its business pages—along with news that to cut costs the paper is to scrap its stand-alone business section and merge business coverage into the main A-section.

All the papers pick over the fallout from the economic crunch. The NYT reports that recessions encourage entrepreneurialism but also that hard times are leading some to delay nonessential medical treatment. The Post reports that the barter economy is booming as companies and consumers struggle to make ends meet; the WSJ notes that analysts are revising their views of the underground economy and now believe that informal trade may help stave off urban decay and unemployment. The Post reports on an airfare war that's making travel remarkably cheap for those who can still afford it; the NYT profiles an airplane repo man, who's earning big bucks repossessing private planes. Even America's landfills are feeling the pinch: Garbage-collection levels have dropped by as much as 30 percent as U.S. consumers buy—and throw away - less stuff.

Jim Cramer got roasted this week by Daily Show host Jon Stewart for failing to warn the public about the impending financial crisis; the Post writes enviously of Stewart's ability to puncture "the balloons of the powerful with a caustic candor that reporters cannot muster." The NYT compares the episode—apparently favorably—to a Senate hearing: "Mr. Stewart treated his guest like a C.E.O. subpoenaed to testify before Congress: his point was not to hear Mr. Cramer out, but to act out a cathartic ritual of indignation and castigation."

And finally, bad news for mosquitoes: The WSJ reports that rocket scientists are building Star Wars-style smart lasers capable of recognizing the blood-sucking bugs and shooting them out of the air. The aim is to use the death-rays—perhaps mounted on unmanned drones—to keep mosquito populations at bay and help prevent the spread of malaria. "You could kill billions of mosquitoes a night," says one excited researcher. "Slay them all!"

tv club
Friday Night Lights, Season 3
Week 9: Pole dancing as feminist liberation.
By Emily Bazelon, Meghan O'Rourke, David Plotz, and Hanna Rosin
Monday, March 16, 2009, at 6:17 PM ET

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 1: Mass Amnesia Strikes Dillon, Texas

Posted Saturday, January 17, 2009, at 7:01 AM ET

As anyone who has talked or e-mailed with me in the last couple of months knows, my obsession with Friday Night Lights has become sort of embarrassing. My husband, David, and I came to the show late, by way of Netflix, but were hooked after Episode 1. We started watching two, three, four in one sitting. It began to seem to me as if these characters were alive and moving around in my world.

David was happy with the football. I was into the drama. I worried about Smash, the sometimes-unstable star running back. I dreamed about Tyra, who was being stalked. When I talked to my own daughter, I flipped my hair back, just as Coach's wife, Tami Taylor, does and paused before delivering nuggets of wisdom. Once or twice, I even called David "Coach."

I was all set to watch Season 3 in real time when I heard, to my horror, that it might not get made. But then NBC cut a weird cost-sharing kind of deal with DirecTV, and the Dillon Panthers are back in business. The episodes have already aired on satellite, but I don't have a dish. So I'm just now settling in for the new season.

But did I miss something? The field lights are on again in Dillon, Texas, but the whole town seems to be suffering from a massive bout of … amnesia. The previous season ended abruptly, after seven episodes got swallowed by the writer's strike. For Season 3, the writers just wipe the slate clean and start again. Murder? What murder? Landry is back to being the high-school sidekick, and we can just forget that whole unfortunate body-dragged-out-of-the-river detour. Tyra got a perm and is running for school president. Lyla Garrity's preacher boyfriend, rival to Tim Riggins, has disappeared.

Over the last season, the show was struggling for an identity. It veered from The ABC Afterschool Special to CSI and then finally found its footing in the last couple of episodes, especially the one where Peter Berg—who directed the movie adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's book Friday Night Lights and adapted it for TV—walked on as Tami Taylor's hyper ex-boyfriend. In Season 3, the show is trying on yet another identity. Mrs. Taylor has suddenly turned into Principal Taylor. With her tight suits and her fabulous hair, she is Dillon's own Michelle Rhee, holding meetings, discussing education policy, and generally working too hard. Meanwhile, Coach keeps up the domestic front, making breakfast for Julie with one hand while feeding baby Grace with the other.

This strikes me as a little too close to home, and not in a way I appreciate. The beauty of Friday Night Lights is that it managed to make us care about the tiny town of Dillon. It drew us in with football but then sunk us into town life. The show took lots of stock types not usually made for prime time—a car dealer, an arrogant black kid, an ex-star in a wheelchair, a grandma with dementia, a soldier, lots of evangelical Christians—and brought them to life. It was neither sentimental nor mocking, which is a hard thing to pull off.

Now I feel as if I'm looking in a mirror. Tami is a mom juggling work and kids and not doing such a good job. Coach is trying his best at home but screwing up. The only town folk we see in the first episode are Tim's brother and Tyra's sister, drunkenly falling all over each other in a bar—the sorriest, white-trashiest bar you can imagine. Our heart is with Tyra, who, just like the children of the show's upscale fans, is trying to go to college. The final, inspirational scene of the episode takes place in a racquetball court. At least Smash has the good sense to note that it's the whitest sport in America.

That said, Friday Night Lights would have to do a lot to lose my loyalty. Just the fact that there was a high-drama plotline centered on the Jumbotron is enough to keep me happy. It's one of the show's great gifts, humor in unexpected places. Like when Tim's brother, looking half drunk as always, tells him Lyla will never respect him because he's a "rebound from Jesus." I'll give this season a chance.

Click here to read the next entry.

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Hanna Rosin and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 1: Why Doesn't Tami Taylor Have Any Girlfriends?

Posted Monday, January 19, 2009, at 6:58 AM ET

Hey there, Hanna and Meghan,

While we're complaining, isn't this the third year that some of these characters—Tim, Lyla, Tyra—have been seniors? The producers seemed to be dealing with this small lapse in planning by bringing on the soft lighting and lipstick. Tim looks ever more like Matt Dillon in The Outsiders (not to sound like that thirtysomething mom who was shagging him in the first season).

But I'm letting these objections go. I fell for this opener once Coach and Mrs. Coach had one of those moments that make their marriage a flawed gem.

You're right, Hanna, that the Taylors seem more like a typical two-career family as we watch Eric tending the baby while Tami comes home at 9:45 at night, tired from her new job as principal. Also, her sermon about how broke the school is descended into liberal pablum (real though it surely could be). But it's all a setup for a sequence that makes this show a not-idealized, and thus actually useful, marriage primer. He tries to sweet-talk her. She says, with tired affection, "Honey, you're just trying to get laid." Then she realizes that he's signed off on a bad English teacher for their daughter Julie and starts hollering at both of them. Oh, how I do love Tami for losing her temper, snapping at her teenager, and yelling loudly enough to wake her baby. And I love the writers for bringing it back around with a follow-up scene in which Mrs. Coach tells her husband she's sorry, and he says, "I could never be mad at my wife. It's that damn principal." Way to compartmentalize.

Much as I appreciate Tami, I'm puzzled by a weird gap in her life: She doesn't have girlfriends. I know that her sister showed up last season, but that doesn't really explain the absence of female friends. In fact, it's a pattern on the show: Julie's friend Lois is more a prop than a character, Lyla never hangs out with other girls, and although Tyra occasionally acts like a big sister to Julie, she doesn't seem to have a close girlfriend, either. Does this seem as strange to you as it does to me? In Lyla's case, I can see it—she often acts like the kind of girl other girls love to hate (and I look forward to dissecting why that's so). But Tami is the kind of largehearted person whom other women would want to befriend. The lack of female friendships on the show has become like a missing tooth for me, especially when you consider the vivid and interesting male friendships (Matt and Landry, Tim and Jason, even Coach and Buddy Garrity). It's revealing in its absence: No matter how good the show's writers are at portraying women—and they are—they're leaving out a key part of our lives.

A question for both of you: What do you think of the surly version of Matt Saracen? I'm starting to feel about him as I felt at the end of the fifth Harry Potter book: past ready for the nice boy I thought I knew to come back.


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From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 1: Why Matt Saracen Got Surly

Posted Monday, January 19, 2009, at 12:33 PM ET

Hanna, Emily,

For me, the genius of Friday Night Lights is the way it captures the texture of everyday life by completely aestheticizing it. The handheld camera, the quick jump-cuts, the moody Explosions in the Sky soundtrack laid over tracking shots of the flat, arid West Texas landscape all add up to a feeling no other TV show gives me. And very few movies, for that matter. Then there's the fact that FNL, more than any other show on network TV, tries hard to be about a real place and real people in America. This is no Hollywood stage set; it's not a generic American city or suburb; the characters aren't dealing with their problems against a backdrop of wealth, security, and Marc Jacobs ads. Most are struggling to get by, and at any moment the floor might drop out from under them. In this sense, the show is about a community, not about individuals. Football is an expression of that community.

That's why, Emily, I don't find surly Matt Saracen annoying; I find him heartbreaking. After all, his surliness stems from predicaments that he has no control over: a father in Iraq (how many TV shows bring that up?) and an ailing grandmother he doesn't want to relegate to a nursing home. Like many Americans, he finds himself acting as a caretaker way too young. And because he's not wealthy, when his personal life gets complicated—like when his romance with his grandmother's sexy at-home nurse, Carlotta, goes belly up—he loses it. (OK, I thought that story line was kinda lame; but I was moved by the anger that followed.) But your point about the lack of female friendships on the show is a great one. It's particularly true of Tami. (We do get to see a reasonable amount of Julie and Tyra together, I feel.) Like Julie, I had a principal for a mother, and one thing I always liked was watching all her friendships at the school develop and evolve.

It's also true, Hanna, that the first episode of this season hammers homes its themes—Tami's an overworked principal with a funding problem; Lyla and Riggins are gonna have trouble taking their romance public; and star freshman quarterback J.D. is a threat to good old Matt Saracen. But for now I didn't mind, because there were plenty of moments of fine dialogue, which keep the show feeling alive. Like the scene in which the amiable, manipulative Buddy hands Tami a check and says in his twangy drawl, "Ah've got two words for you: Jumbo … Tron!" (Tami, of course, has just been trying to meet a budget so tight that even chalk is at issue.) Later, at a party, Buddy greets Tami in front of some of the Dillon Panther boosters—who are oohing and aahing over an architectural rendering of the JumboTron—by exclaiming, "Tami Taylor is the brain child behind all this!" Ah, Buddy. You gotta love him. He's almost a caricature—but not.

What keeps a lot of these characters from being caricatures, despite plenty of conventional TV plot points, is that ultimately the show portrays them in the round. Coach Taylor, who has a way with young men that can seem too good to be true, is also often angry and frustrated; caring and sensitive, Lyla is also sometimes an entitled priss; Tim is a fuckup with a heart of gold (at least, at times); and the raw and exposed Julie can be a whiny brat. In this sense, ultimately, I think the story FNL is trying to tell is fundamentally responsible, unlike so many stories on TV. When the characters make mistakes, they suffer real consequences. Think of Smash losing his football scholarship. I sometimes think the weakest feature of our entertainment culture is a kind of sentimentality about pain, if that makes sense—an avoidance of the messiness of life that manifests itself in tidy morals and overdramatized melodramas.

But what could make FNL better? I'm hoping for more football and atmosphere and fewer overwrought plotlines. Will the J.D./Matt Saracen face-off help this story, do you think? And, finally: Can the writers of the show figure out how to dramatize games without making them seem totally fake? It feels like so often in the last five minutes of an episode we cut to a game-that's-in-its-final-minutes-and-oh-my-God-everyone-is-

biting-their-nails …


Click here for the next entry.

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 1: The Perfect Chaos of Tim Riggins' Living Room

Posted Monday, January 19, 2009, at 3:59 PM ET

That's it, Meghan. What the Sopranos accomplished with tight thematic scripts and the Wire accomplished with a Shakespearean plot, FNL pulls off with moody music and some interesting camera work. It's not that these shows transform brutal realities into beauty. They just make them bearable by packaging them in some coherent aesthetic way that calls attention to itself. And the result is very moving.

The inside of Tim Riggins' house, for example, is a place that should never be shown on television. It's a total mess, and not in an artsy Urban Outfitter's catalogue kind of way. There's that bent-up picture of a bikini beer girl by the television and yesterday's dishes and napkins on every surface and nothing in the refrigerator except beer. This is a very depressing state of affairs for a high school kid if you stop to think about it. But whenever we're in there, the camera jerks around from couch to stool to kitchen, in perfect harmony with the chaos around it. So it all feels comfortable and we experience it just the way Riggins would—another day in a moody life.

I think part of the reason Peter Berg doesn't see these characters from such a distance is that he seems deeply sympathetic to their outlook on life, particularly their ideas about the traditional roles of men and women. The men are always being put through tests of their own manhood and decency. The boys have Coach, but hardly any of them has an actual father, so they are pushed into manhood on their own. Almost all of them have to be head of a household before their time, with interesting results. Matt is decent but can't fill the shoes. Riggins is noble but erratic. Smash is dutiful but explosive.

Emily, that insight you had about Tami is so interesting, and it made me see the whole show differently. At first I thought Peter Berg must love women, because they drive all the action and make all the good decisions. Then, after what you said, I realized that for the most part, the women exist only to support the men. They are wives or girlfriends or mothers but don't have many independent relationships outside their own families. Judd Apatow's women are a little like this, too. It's a male-centric view, and helps explain why a Hollywood director would be so in tune with the mores of a small conservative town.

It's also why this season could get interesting. As the principal, Tami is stretching the show in all kinds of ways. Buddy has shed his vulnerability and is back to being the town bully. Coach is stuck in the middle. All kinds of potential for drama.

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Meghan O'Rourke and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 2: Would You Let Your Kids Play for Coach Taylor?

Posted Saturday, January 24, 2009, at 7:04 AM ET

Meghan, thank you for reminding me of all the good reasons why Matt Saracen is a heartbreaking nice boy rather than a feel-good one. And now Episode 2 reminds us as well. Matt's grandmother doesn't want to take her medication, and the only way he can make her is to become an emancipated minor so that he can be her legal guardian, instead of the other way around. And then what exactly happens when it's time for him to go to college? No good answer. As, indeed, there wouldn't be.

One of the luxuries of adolescence is that you don't have to assume responsibility for the people in your family. Matt knows what it means to take this on. In the first season, he let Julie see him pretend to be his grandfather so he could sing his grandmother to sleep. Now when she asks whether emancipation means that he gets to "vote and drink and smoke," he brings her down to earth: "No, it means I get to take care of old people."

This is one of the moments that, for me, capture the strength of this show: In Dillon, kids with hard lives and kids with easier ones get a good look at each other, which doesn't happen all that much in our nation's class-segregated high schools. Lyla, Tim, and Tyra had one of those across-the-class-divide moments in this episode, when Lyla tried to get Tim to help himself with his college prospects at a fancy dinner and failed. Tim then came home and sat down in boxers to TV and a beer with Tyra while his brother and her sister snuck in a quickie (off-camera in the bedroom).

I was glad to see that the writers are back to making Tyra and Tim and their weary, beery sense of their own limitations the center of our sympathy. Maybe Tyra will make it out of Dillon, but not by acting like the Zeta girls in The House Bunny. And it seems entirely in keeping with Tim's fragile nature that Buddy Garrity could destroy his confidence with a few slashing sentences. Speaking of, one of the honest and realistic assumptions of this show is that when teenagers date, they have sex. So I gave Buddy points when he warned his daughter away from Tim in a speech that ended with "Lyla, are you using protection?"

But enough about character development. Let's talk about some football. I entirely agree, Meghan, that FNL generally gives us too little gridiron, not too much. But in this episode, there is a lovely sequence on the field. Coach Taylor is testing Smash before a college tryout, and the former Panther star is cutting and weaving just like old times—until Tim levels him. We hear the crack and thud of the hit, and, for a moment, Smash lies heavy and still on the ground. In this show, when a player goes down, the dots connect to the paralyzing hit that put Jason Street in a wheelchair. But Smash gets up, his rehabilitated knee sound, and it's a moment of blessed relief, because now we can go on rooting for him to regain his chance to … play in college and turn pro? To write the sentence is to remember how long the odds are for such an outcome and to rue the role that the dangled dream of professional sports ends up playing for a lot of kids.

Given Jason's broken spine, you can't accuse Friday Night Lights of pretending otherwise. But what do we think about the way its best characters revel in the game and make us love it, too? I ask myself the same question when I watch football with my sons knowing that I'd never let them play it. In the nonfiction book on which the show is based, author Buzz Bissinger writes of a player who wasn't examined thoroughly after a groin injury: "He lost the testicle but he did make All-State." There are also kids who play through broken arms, broken ankles, and broken hands and who pop painkillers or Valium. Across the country, high-school football is also associated with a frightening rate of concussions. Would you let Coach Taylor anywhere near your boys?

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 2: The Indelible Image of Buddy Garrity Doing Yoga

Posted Monday, January 26, 2009, at 6:31 AM ET

Indeed, Emily. It's a hallelujah moment when we're back to Tim, Tyra, Matt, the lovable, evil Buddy, and all the other things I treasure about FNL. This episode made me very hopeful about the rest of the season. I especially liked the Smash subplot and how it ties together what happens on the field with what happens off. Smash, who graduated but lost his college scholarship, is having a hard time remembering how to be Smash. Without the Dillon Panthers, he's just a kid in an Alamo Freeze hat who goes home every night to his mom. And that just about summarizes the driving theme of the show. On the field, class, race, and all the soul-draining realities of life in a small Texas town get benched. But off the field, you can have clear eyes and a full heart and still lose.

Despite their best efforts, Matt, Tyra, and Tim just can't seem to transcend. Instead of gender differences, what's emerging strongly this season is, as Emily points out, class differences. All the couples in the show are divided along class lines, setting up lots of potential for good drama. There's Tyra and Landry, Lyla and Tim, and possibly Julie and Matt again. Emily, you pointed out that great moment in the car where Julie and Matt have such different ideas about what the future holds. Buddy gives us another such moment, when he lectures Lyla about dating Tim: "Tim Riggins going to college is like me teaching yoga classes." (I'm having trouble getting that image out of my mind, of Buddy Garrity teaching yoga classes. Buddy in downward facing dog. Buddy ohm-ing. Buddy saying "namaste" to his ex-wife in a spirit of love and peace.)

Then, of course, there's the absolutely awful moment when Tim orders squab, rare, at the dinner with the new freshman quarterback J.D.'s posh Texas socialite family. This was reminiscent of one of my favorite scenes in The Wire, when Bunny Colvin takes Namond and the other kids out to a fancy restaurant, after which they feel ever more alienated from their better selves.

I have high hopes for J.D. in this regard. He turns the Dillon Panthers formula on its head. His father is hellbent on mucking up the field with privilege and influence. He's a serious test for Coach and for Matt. Can't wait to see what happens.

One question, though: Does it seem right to you that Tim Riggins would use the word schmooze? Seemed out of place to me. (Ditto their conversations about Google.) It's not that I think he's "retarded," as he puts it. It's just that until now, the show has been intentionally claustrophobic, locking us in the town, never letting us see what's on Tim's TV (unlike, say, Tony Soprano, whose TV is always facing us). So we've been led to believe that Dillon reception doesn't pick up the CW or VH1 or any other channel that might infect teenage lingo.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Hanna Rosin and Emily Bazelon
Subject: Week 2: Is the Show Becoming Too Sentimental?

Posted Monday, January 26, 2009, at 3:19 PM ET

Hanna, Emily,

One thing I've been thinking about is Friday Night Lights' distinctive brand of male sentimentality. This show seems singularly designed to make men cry. Its lodestars are comradeship on and off the field ("God, football, and Texas forever," I recall Riggins toasting with Jason Street in the very first episode); a modern blend of paradoxically stoic emotionalism (epitomized by Coach Taylor); and a recurrent, choked-up love of the tough women who make these men's attachment to football possible. This may be the West, but in Dillon, Texas, John Ford's American masculinity has been diluted with a cup of New Man sensitivity.

Take this episode's key scene between Matt Saracen and his grandmother: Debating whether to take his ailing grandmother to an assisted-living home, Matt is shaken when she suddenly tells him how great he was in his last game. She spirals into loving reminiscence:

"You've always loved football, Matty. I remember when you were two years old you were trying to throw a football, and it was bigger than you were. And you were such a sweet baby, such a sweet, sweet baby. But here you are all grown up and taking care of everything. I don't know what I'd do without you. I don't know. Matthew, I love you."

"I know. I love you too, Grandma."

"You're such a good boy."

"If I am, it's only because you raised me."

The scene is very well-played—we haven't talked much about the show's acting yet, it suddenly occurs to me—replete with pauses and tears and a final hug between the two. But the emotion derives from a move in the script that occurs again and again in this series: A man is having a difficult time when his mother, his grandmother, or his wife describes how much it means to her that he is taking care of her, or accomplishing brilliant things on the field, or just plain persevering. Smash has had moments like this with his mom. Coach has moments like this with Tami. And here Matt is reminded of his duty—to take care of his grandma, even though he's 17—when she speaks about his masculine prowess, first as a tough little boy throwing a ball "bigger than you were" and now as a tough teenager trying to navigate another task much bigger than he is.

Friday Night Lights has gotten more sentimental over the years, I think, not less, and it has also embraced its women characters more than ever. (I'm not sure I think they really play second fiddle to the men, Hanna—though they once did.) The show is about relationships now; its investigation of male honor has made a quarter-turn to focus largely on male honor as it pertains to women. (Even wayward Tim Riggins has been domesticated.)

In this regard, the show is far more incantatory than realistic (to borrow Susan Sontag's labels for the two main types of art). That is, it trades on magic and ritual more than on gritty realism, even while it often pretends to be grittily realistic. And so while it does talk about class, unlike many network TV shows, and while it does portray a place that's geographically specific, as I mentioned in my last entry, it's also offering up a highly stylized story that is intended, I think, to serve as an emotional catharsis for men, while winning women over by showing that men really do have feelings, and it's going to translate them into a grammar we can begin to understand.

I like this episode, but it strikes me that we've come a long way from season one, when there was a bit more edge on things. (Remember how it almost seemed that Riggins was racist?)

And we're definitely a long way from Buzz Bissinger's book Friday Night Lights, on which the series and the movie are based. That book—so far, at least; I'm only 150 pages in—has plenty of sentimentality about the power of athletic glory to alleviate the mundanity of life off the field. But it also stresses the meanness and nastiness that fuels the talent of so many of the actual Panthers Bissinger met. Not to mention the racism that pervaded the town. On this show, we rarely see that meanness; Riggins used to embody it, but now he's a pussycat, trying on blazers to keep Lyla happy. On the field, it's the team's pure-hearted sportsmanship that makes it so lovable, not any player's manly violence. After all, their locker-room mantra is "Clear eyes, full hearts can't lose." And in Matt Saracen they had a scrappy quarterback underdog who really wanted to be an artist. Even J.D. is small and—can't you see it in those wide eyes?—supersensitive.

I love FNL, but sometimes I wonder: Is the show becoming simply too sentimental about its characters?


From: Emily Bazelon
To: Hanna Rosin and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 2: Where in Tarnation Is Jason Street?

Posted Monday, January 26, 2009, at 6:06 PM ET

You're right, Meghan, to call FNL on its spreading dollop of sentimentality. Doesn't this often happen with TV shows in later seasons? I'm thinking of The Wire (at least Season 5), and probably The Sopranos, too. You can see why the writers would be pulled in this direction. The friction of the initial plot line has been played out. As the writers—and the audience—get to know the characters better, do we inevitably want them to become better people? Even if that comes at the price of narrative tension and edge?

The best way out of the mush pit, I suppose, is to introduce new characters, who in turn introduce new friction. That's what J.D. is all about this season. If you're right that there's a puppy dog lurking behind his wide eyes, then the show is in trouble. On the other hand, if he's merely a two-dimensional touchdown-throwing automaton, that's going to be awfully pat—the Matt vs. J.D. contest will be good, humble working-class vs. evil, proud, and rich. I hope we get something more interesting than that.

In the meantime, a complaint from me that I see a reader in "the Fray" shares: Why does this show keep flunking TV Drama 101 by tossing characters without explanation? First Waverly, Smash's bipolar girlfriend, disappears. Now Jason Street, whom we last saw begging an appealing waitress to have his baby after a one-night stand, is AWOL. What gives? Will Jason show up later this season, child in hand?

One more thing for this week: Another Frayster who says he (I think he) wrote for the show in the first season reports that Tami initially did have a girlfriend, played by Maggie Wheeler. But she got cut. More here. And more from us next week.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Hanna Rosin and Emily Bazelon
Subject: Week 3: The Small Muscles Around Kyle Chandler's Eyes and Mouth

Posted Saturday, January 31, 2009, at 6:45 AM ET

I'm glad that you pulled out that comment from the "Fray," Emily. I've wondered the same thing about why the show so baldly ditches characters. Another one to add to the list: Landry's nerd-cool girlfriend. Whatever happened to her? Meanwhile, we know from entertainment news that the actors who play Street (Scott Porter) and Smash (played by Gaius Charles Williams) are going to leave the show, but I presume the writers will stage their exits with more grace.

At last, though, the season is swinging into gear. There's conflict. Tami and Eric's strong bond is fraying under the pressure of balancing work and home. He: "You know who I miss? The coach's wife." She: "You know who I'd like to meet? The principal's husband." There's love. How sweet are Matt Saracen and Julie? Somehow their romance got more real this time around. I find her much less annoying and more credible in her big-eyed, pouting awkwardness. E.g., that moment where she timidly says "We don't have to talk about football… or not." There's football. Again with the game being decided in a close call in the last 20 seconds?

Plus, Tami finally has a friend. Or does she? At the butcher counter of the supermarket, she's befriended by Katie McCoy, J.D.'s mother, wife of Joe—the man I love to hate. (I think I'd watch this season just for the catharsis of watching Coach Taylor stick it to Joe. Kyle Chandler is brilliant in these scenes—check out the way the small muscles around his eyes and mouth move.) It's not clear whether Katie is working Tami just as Joe has been trying to work Eric, plying him with scotch and cigars to no avail. Eric takes the cynical view; he thinks Tami's being "played." Tami protests. Hanna, Emily, I wonder what you two think—is this a friendship in the bud, or a cynical play for power?

In either case, what's interesting to me is that it does seem more plausible for Tami and Katie to develop a friendship than for Joe and Eric to. As unalike as they are, Tami and Katie have something to offer each other. The women may be divided by class, but they connect subtly and intuitively, it seems, over understanding just how the other has to negotiate delicately around her husband to get what she wants for herself and her kids. As different as these marriages are, this, at least, seems alike. Even Tami, who has so much authority with Eric, has to push back in all sorts of ways. Take their argument about the football team's barbecue. It reminded me how new Tami's life as a working mom is: She complains to Eric about the team coming into the house and "messing up my floors" and "clogging up my toilet." That my is so telling. The long shadow of domesticated female identity falls over it. … Or am I reading too much into it?

Finally, I was struck by how many scenes in this episode take place between two people. The party scene, the football game, and the fabulous, cringe-inducing scene when Lyla laughs at Mindy for using Finding Nemo as a bridal vow are exceptions, of course. But otherwise the show takes place in dyads, as if homing in on relationships rather than community as a whole. I wonder if this will extend through the show.

Curious to hear your thoughts.


From: Emily Bazelon
To: Hanna Rosin and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 3: Deciphering the Bronzed Diaper

Posted Monday, February 2, 2009, at 7:18 AM ET

Yes, Meghan, Tami is being played by Katie McCoy. In part because she wants to be. I found their pairing off all too recognizable: They have that spark two women get when they see something in each other that they want and don't have. Their friendship, or maybe it will prove an infatuation, is a trying-on of identity. So, yes, Katie is using Tami to entrench her son's status on the team and to show off her wealth. And Tami refuses to notice, because it suits her purposes not to. A party at Katie's house means no clogged toilets at Tami's (and, oh yes, that my rang in my ears, too). I particularly loved the moment when Tami enters Katie's glittering, ostentatious house and her new friend and hostess puts an arm around her waist and they sail off together into the living room in their evening dresses, husbands trailing after them. It captured exactly how women are made girlish by mutual crushes.

Tami's falling for Katie would be harmless enough if it weren't clashing with her husband's interests. It's that willingness to clash that's new, isn't it? And captured so well by that great exchange you quoted. The Taylors haven't just become a two-career couple. They're a couple with jobs that are at loggerheads.

The Tami-Katie spark was connected, for me, with the Lyla-Mindy debacle, in part because both of these dyads cut across class, a theme we've been discussing. Tami and Katie are flirtingly using each other; Lyla and Mindy miss each other completely, in a way that causes real pain. How could Lyla have laughed at those poor, sweet Finding Nemo wedding vows? I mean, really. Then again, Lyla is completely out of her element, sitting there with two sisters and a mother who present a fiercely united front, at least to other people. Maybe she was nervous and blew it. Or maybe she wanted to hurt them because she envies their sisterhood.

And now a few questions, for you and for our readers. What happened at the end of that football game? Did Matt really fumble, or did he get a bad call—after all, it looked to me like he was in the end zone with control of the ball before he was hit. And was the pounding Matt took during the game just the show's latest realist depiction of the perils of football, or were we supposed to suspect that J.D.'s father had somehow induced the other team to take out QB 1? (I'm probably being paranoid, but the camera work had a sinister element to it.) Last thing: When J.D. catches Matt and Julie making fun of his trophies and comes back with that too-perfect zinger about how his parents also bronzed his diapers, is he just trying to make them feel small and stupid? Or is he also distancing himself from his parents and their pushy football worship? I couldn't quite decide how to read him in that moment.

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 3: Malcolm Gladwell Comes to Dillon

Posted Monday, February 2, 2009, at 11:01 AM ET

I read the relationship between Tami and Katie differently. Katie is obviously awful, with her blather about the Atkins diet and being a "connector." She is obviously playing Tami, as much for her husband's sake as for her own. And the fact that Tami doesn't see this is a sign that her judgment is off. Until this season, Tami has been the moral compass for her family and for the show. But now she's distracted. She's cutting corners, ducking out of her domestic responsibilities. She's worried about those clogged toilets, because her cup is full, and she can't handle one more thing.

I empathize. When I'm in that too-much-work-too-many-kids-mode, I, too, lose it over minor housekeeping infractions. But it does not bode well for Dillon. When Tami is off, so is everything else. I read this episode as not so much about friendship, expedient or otherwise, as about missed connections. Tami is not picking up on Katie's cues. Lyla can't connect with Mindy and Billy. Tim Riggins does not make it on time to meet his date. And Saracen doesn't quite get that touchdown. The center is not holding in Dillon.

In David Simon's scripts for The Wire, money always crushes love, loyalty, family, neighborhood, and everything in its path. Something like that is going on here. Money is wreaking havoc in Dillon: the boosters' money for the JumboTron, the McCoy money, those copper wires that are hypnotizing Billy and making him corrupt poor Tim. (In The Wire, Bubs was always hunting down copper.) The result is the closing scene, which shows the very un-neighborly Dillon ritual of planting "for sale" signs on the coach's lawn after he loses the game.

I don't know what will triumph in the end: money or love. Emily, I couldn't tell either whether J.D. was pissed or chagrined or ironic in that last scene, so I can't tell if he's our villain or just a victim of his overbearing father. I'll bet on one thing though: Things do not end well for Billy Riggins.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 3: Helicopter Parenting

Posted Monday, February 2, 2009, at 4:05 PM ET

Hanna, Emily,

I thought J.D. was trying to make a joke that didn't come off. It's my guess, too, that we're not supposed to be able to read his reaction, because he's not sure himself. He's angry, but he also sees the ridiculousness of his parents' shrine to him. One thing we haven't discussed: With the McCoys comes the FNL's first depiction of that modern affliction known as helicopter parenting. I suppose, to be accurate, that Joe is actually a more specific type: a form of stage parent, the obsessed parent-coach. Here is a parent who is helping drive his son into developing his talents but who also just might drive him crazy by pushing too hard.

This introduces a new theme for FNL, right? Until now, over-involvement wasn't a problem for any of the parents on the show. In fact, the parenting problems all had to do with moms and dads who were notably absent (in the case of Matt and Tim, say). Tami and Eric are attentive parents. So is Smash's mom. But you couldn't call them helicopter parents, that breed of nervously hovering perfectionists who busily cram their children's schedules with activities and lessons. In this case, that finicky sense of entitlement projected by Joe is associated, we're meant to feel, with his wealth, to get back to what you brought up, Hanna, about money and love. Katie, too. I'm curious to know how far the sports parenting issues will go. Is J.D. going to crack up? Or is Joe creating a sports equivalent of Mozart with all his proud pushing? I suspect the first, mainly because Joe is portrayed as such a jerk. (This dilemma might be more interesting if the writers had let Joe be a more complex figure—but maybe the whole point is these types are caricatures, almost.)


From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 4: Eric Taylor, Molder of Men

Posted Saturday, February 7, 2009, at 7:11 AM ET

This opening comment is aimed more at the producers of Friday Night Lights than at both of you: Tami is a stabilizing force in this crazy world, and there is only so much more of her fumbling and humiliation I can take. This episode ruminates on the ancient male art of mentoring, and particularly being a "molder of men," as Tami puts it to her husband. Tami tries to access this secret world with disastrous results. She knows that Buddy Garrity just played golf with the superintendent of schools, who is making the final decision on what to do with the JumboTron money. So on the advice of the wily Katie McCoy, she finds out where the superintendent has breakfast and pays a visit. "Wear your hair down," Katie tells her. "Wear it down."

Tami shows up in a fetching sunset-colored tank with her fabulous hair down. The superintendent is friendly enough but not overly so, and Tami pushes her luck. She scooches into his booth and immediately starts hammering him about having all the "information" and being "understaffed" and drill, drill, drill. This is not the giggly seduction scene Katie was hinting at. The whole exchange goes south quickly, and a few scenes later, the new JumboTron is announced. My husband and I had a very Venus/Mars moment over this scene. David says the superintendent was against her from the start. I say he was just friendly enough that she could have turned him if she'd played it exactly right. But I can't be annoyed at her, because playing it right—Katie McCoy's way—would have meant smiling coyly and batting her eyelashes in a very un-Tami fashion.

David, meanwhile, choked up at a scene that played out exactly the opposite way. Eric brings Smash to a big Texas university for a walk-on, but then the coach there says he doesn't have time to see him that day. Eric plays it perfectly. He finds just the right words to win over the coach and just the right words to send Smash soaring onto the field. David was so moved by the speech aimed at Smash that he watched it two more times.

In a show that so highly values male honor, being a "molder of men" is a serious compliment. Actual fatherhood in this show is secondary to the art of shaping a fine young man. We get a glimpse into the fragile nature of male bonding when Eric asks J.D. to say something about himself, and J.D. comes up with résumé boilerplate—"I set goals and I achieve them"—making it hard for Eric to connect.

It's a delicate process, and also one that traditionally excludes women. When, last season, Julie tried to make her young smarmy English teacher into a mentor, Tami almost accused him of statutory rape. You are right, Meghan, that the women are quickly domesticating the men on this show. But that dynamic is not buying them any more freedom. As principal, Tami can't find her bearings. She still seems herself only in that moment when she's in the bar with Eric, telling him he's a molder of men and how sexy she finds that. To which he responds: "I'll tell you what. I'll have to ruminate on that a bit longer, because you find it so damned sexy."

I want more for Tami, but in that moment I can't help but feel that some kind of order is restored.

A question for both of you: Are you buying Matt Saracen's mom as a character? She seems so improbable to me.

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Meghan O'Rourke and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 4: What's the Deal With Saracen's Mom?

Posted Monday, February 9, 2009, at 6:52 AM ET

I'm on Mars with David: I think the superintendent was dead set against Tami, too. The battle over the JumboTron is a fight she shouldn't have picked—not as a new principal who clearly has no political capital, because it's a fight she couldn't win. There's a practical reason for this that in my mind blurs her moral claim here: The donors gave earmarked funds, whatever Tami's technical authority to ignore their wishes. And there's also, of course, the larger metaphorical meaning of the JumboTron: Dillon is about football first. In Friday Night Lights the book, this primacy makes itself similarly felt. The real school that's a model for Dillon High spends more on medical supplies for football players than on teaching supplies for English teachers. And the head of the English department makes two-thirds the salary of the football coach, who also gets the free use of a new car.

Hopeless as Tami's plea is, Katie coaxes her to try by instructing that "nobody likes an angry woman." It's Tami's anger that's making her fumble and bumble. That's hard for us to watch, I think, because it brings up a lot of baggage about women in authority being seen as bitches. Tami remembers Katie's words and tells the superintendent, "I'm not angry," but her voice is full of righteous indignation, so he can't hear her.

Before my inner feminist erupted, however, I reminded myself that Tami was to blame, too, for playing the politics wrong. She blew her honeymoon on a lost cause. (Here's hoping Obama doesn't make the same rookie mistake.) That's why it rings false when Eric tells her that she was right, unconvincingly contradicting himself from a couple of episodes ago.

I don't share your despair, though, because Tami is already bouncing back. She used the JumboTron announcement to do what she should have done from the get go: co-opt Buddy Garrity into raising the kind of money she needs by making him host a silent auction for the school at his car dealership. You can't beat Dillon's football fat cats if you're Tami. You have to join them.

Meanwhile, even as Eric is being valorized in this episode—that lingering shot of the "Coach Eric Taylor" sign on his door was for anyone who missed the theme—he doesn't entirely live up to his billing. Yes, he gets big points for getting Smash to college. (Since I am still caught up in the glory of last Sunday's Super Bowl—how about that game!—I'm feeling kindlier toward the idea of Smash playing college ball, though I reserve the right to come to my senses and start worrying about his brain getting battered.) But what is Eric thinking by dividing quarterback duties between Matt and J.D., and running a different offense for each? It's baby-splitting, and it bodes badly. I'm betting against the Panthers in the next game. Related point of ongoing frustration: The writers seem to have settled back into portraying J.D. as robotic and empty-headed, the boy with Xbox between his ears.

Matt, by too-obvious contrast, is ever the thoughtful, winsome struggler. You're right, Hanna, that his mother is a disappointment. I was happy to meet Shelby because she's played by one of my favorite actresses from Deadwood. But I don't believe in her character, either. Where's the sordid underbelly—the lack of caring, or mental illness, or selfishness that would help us understand why she left her child? Knowing that Matt's dad is a jerk only makes her act of abandonment less explicable. And so I'm waiting for the bitter reality check: I was ready for Shelby to start to disappoint by not showing up as promised to take Matt's grandmother to the doctor. But there she was, right on time. I don't buy the pat self-redemption, and I hope the show goes deeper and darker.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 4: Can a Boy Who Doesn't Eat Chicken-Fried Steak Really Be QB1?

Posted Monday, February 9, 2009, at 12:28 PM ET

After reading your entries, Hanna and Emily, I am left with a big, unanswerable question many others have asked before: Why is this show not more popular? It's smart and sharp. Yet it's also extremely watchable. (In contrast, say, to The Wire, another critical darling that never quite made it to the big time. That show required a lot more of the viewer than Friday Night Lights does.) Over the past two seasons in particular, FNL has made an effort to reach out to both male and female viewers: It may address male honor and epitomize modern male sentimentality, as you and I have both mentioned, Hanna. But it also offers up a buffet of romantic conflict that ought to sate the appetite of the most stereotypically girly viewer. A good chunk of the show is about teenage amour, bad cafeteria food, and cute boys, for God's sake! Just see the Tyra-Cash-Landry love triangle this week.

Does the mere mention of football turn viewers away? Is the show trying to be all things to all people—and failing in the process? Or has NBC just flubbed it by scheduling it on Friday nights? I have another theory, but there's absolutely no evidence for it. Sometimes I think FNL hasn't reached a huge audience because it doesn't appeal to the ironic hipster sensibility that turns shows like Summer Heights High or Flight of the Conchords into word-of-mouth hits—it's too earnest to ignite that YouTube viral transmission. Anyway, I'm curious to know what you (and our readers) think, because in general it seems to me that good TV has a way of making itself known and getting watched.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming: Yes, Hanna, I find Matt's mom too good to be true. And the writers seem to know it, because they are hardly even trying to give her interesting lines. She's like a relentless optimist's idea of a deadbeat mom. And, Emily, I agree with you about Tami: She flubbed the JumboTron wars by choosing to wage the wrong skirmish in the larger battle. Those were earmarked funds. She's got to figure out a way to guilt the boosters into giving her money; she can't just demand it.

Meanwhile, I find myself in agreement with Mindy for once: That Cash sure is a fine lookin' cowboy. In this episode, Tyra's a kind of parallel to Tami: Both are struggling and making some bad decisions. In Tyra's case, it's ditching geeky sweetheart Landry—who clearly adores her—after his dental surgery in order to make out with Cash, a bad boy with big blue eyes and a love-me attitude. Cash doesn't wear his heart on his Western shirt sleeve as Landry does; he wears his charm, whirling into town with the rodeo and impressing the audience with his staying power in the prestigious bronc event. (Rodeo neophytes: Check out the wonderful chapter about it in Gretel Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces, a stunning meditation on the West.)

Tyra falls hard for Cash's routine. "Billy never mentioned that Mindy's little sister turned into a goddess," he whispers to her at the bar. Cash is an archetype, but the writers sketch him well, refusing to let him seem too obviously dangerous. Even I fell victim to his spell, wondering fruitlessly whether—this time!—the bad boy might be tamed. If we need a warning that he won't, I think, it comes in the barbecue scene at Tyra's house. Billy Riggins—an old friend of Cash's—is recalling what a good baseball player Cash was in high school. Cash laughs it off, turns to Tyra, and, with a devil-may-care drawl, says, "Baseball's too slow and boring … right now I like to ride broncs in the rodeo. Yee-haw!" Like any good come-on line, the charge is all in the delivery, and it works on Tyra. But (just like Tami) she's misreading the politics of the situation—in this case, the sexual politics. Right?

Meanwhile, Emily, I don't think I agree that Taylor's embracing the spread offense is a form of baby-splitting. It seems pragmatic, if perhaps a little softhearted. But how can Eric not be softhearted about Matt? He is so winsome, and he's worked his ass off. The other thing is that J.D. is such a wuss, still. Part of being a quarterback, on this show, is being a leader—and how can J.D. be a leader when he's still a follower? He's not even rebellious enough to eat fried food, for Christ's sake. ("My dad won't let me," he says.) How's being Daddy's Little Boy going to inspire his teammates? J.D. may have the skills but is going to have to get some gumption before he takes this team as far as it can go.

Though, yeah, it'll probably go wrong. For the sake of drama, at least.

Curious to hear your thoughts …


From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 4: I'll Take the Brooding Drunk Over the Sweet-Talking Pill-Popper

Posted Monday, February 9, 2009, at 5:56 PM ET

Meghan, I agree with your wild-card theory. I've always thought the show doesn't touch a nerve because it's too straightforwardly sentimental. Or, at least, it's a strange hybrid of sentimental and sophisticated. The themes are not so different from middlebrow dreck like, say, Touched by an Angel—honor, heart, the power of inspiration, staying optimistic in the face of bad odds. The show is hardly ever knowing. Hannah Montana is also a TV teenager, but she would be an alien dropped into this version of America. And when the show goes dark, it's on Oprah's themes—missing fathers, serious illness, divorce. Yet, there is something about the show that transmits "art" and makes it inaccessible. It's not tidy, for example, either in its camerawork or the way it closes its themes. It insists on complicating its heroes and villains, as we've discussed, which is why we like it.

I demurely disagree about Cash, however. He's an archetype, but one that Brokeback Mountain has ruined for me forever. To me, Cash just screams male stripper—the name alone conjures up visions of dollars tucked in briefs. I did not fail to notice that the episode pretty much ditched Tim Riggins, as if there were only room for one male hottie at a time. And I'll take the brooding drunk over the sweet-talking pill-popper any day.

On an unrelated note, anyone notice how much actual cash is floating around Dillon? Lets start a running list of the items the good citizens of a real Dillon could probably never afford. I'll start:

  1. Lyla's wardrobe
  2. Julie's wardrobe
  3. Tami's fabulous hair
  4. The McCoy house, located in Dillon's fashionable McMansion district
  5. Landry's 15" Mac laptop (with wifi hookup)
  6. Landry's electric guitar and amp

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 4: Dillon's McMansion District Located!

Posted Tuesday, February 10, 2009, at 10:30 AM ET


Well, if I had to choose between Tim Riggins and Cash, I'd go for the brooding drunk, too. In any case, your Brokeback Mountain reference has shamed me out of my crush. I always fall too easily for the glib talkers.

Meanwhile, though, it looks like Dillon's real-life counterpart does have a McMansion district. Welcome to the McCoy home. It even has a hobby room for his trophies.


From: Emily Bazelon
To: Hanna Rosin and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 5: It's Official—Matt Saracen Has Broken My Heart

Posted Saturday, February 14, 2009, at 6:51 AM ET

Smart mail from a reader named Josh about FNL's popularity, or lack thereof: He points out that the show got not a single ad spot during the Super Bowl, when NBC had a captive audience of many millions of football fans. If you're right, Meghan and Hanna, that on-screen complexity and the taking of hard lumps explain why FNL hasn't found a mass audience, then the character who is most to blame is Matt Saracen. Watching him in this last episode nearly broke my heart. The QB baby-splitting went poorly, as threatened. Dillon won the game, but barely, and when Matt walks off the field and the world around him goes silent, as if he were underwater, we know that he's done.

Coach Taylor drives to Matt's house (plenty of peeling paint here, to contrast with the McCoy mansion) on the painful errand of demoting him. Coach doesn't say much, and nothing at all of comfort: For all the ways this show adores Eric, he regularly comes up short on words and compassion at crucial moments. (Another bitter, not-for-everyone layer of complexity.) Matt doesn't say much, either. He just looks stricken. When his grandma and Shelby ask Matt whether he's OK, he tells them yes. Then we watch him stand by the door outside, 17, alone, lonely, and cut up inside. It's a scene that makes me want to wall off my own smaller boys from adolescence.

As I muttered curses at Coach Taylor, my husband reminded me that players don't have a right to their spots. J.D. has the magic arm. Matt just has heart and a work ethic. State championship or not, he's been revealed as the kid who only made QB 1 because of Jason Street's accident. Matt sees it this way himself: He tells Shelby as much in a later scene. What kills me about this narrative is that it's too harsh. Matt has been a smart, clutch quarterback. And yet his self-doubt is inevitable. By stripping Matt of his leadership role in the middle of his senior year, Coach has called into question the whole arc of Matt's rise. (Even as Coach knows as well as we do that this is a kid who's got no one to help see him through the disappointment.) Ann, I love your points about Eric and Tami over on XX Factor, but though Eric is prepared to lose the JumboTron fight, he sure isn't prepared to risk his season. Or, more accurately perhaps, the Wrath of the Boosters that would come with benching J.D., win or lose.

The big question now is whether Matt has lost his job for good or whether there's a cinematic comeback in his future. The realistic plot line would be for J.D. to succeed at QB 1—or succeed well enough to keep the job. That would make Matt's story that much more painful but also pretty singular. I am trying to think of a sports icon from movie or TV who falls and stays fallen so that the drama isn't about redemption on the field but the quotidian small moments of going on with life. The Wrestler might be such a movie, though I doubt a grown up Matt Saracen will have much in common with Randy "The Ram" Robinson. At least I hope not. A parlor game: Who are these FNL teenagers going to be when they grow up, if the show's ratings were ever to let them? Does Tim stop drinking long enough to open his own construction company? (He's got Buddy's sales line down, anyway.) Does Lyla leave Dillon for college and become a radio host? And what about Matt, whom I mostly picture as a gentle father throwing a football to his own boys?

If I'm being sentimental—and I realize I'm so absorbed by Matt's troubles that I've ignored Julie's tattoo and the four stooges' house-buying—the show this time isn't. After Eric's visit, we see Matt and Landry pulling up to school in the morning, just as they did when they were sophomore losers in the beginning of the first season. Matt looks out his window and sees J.D. Landry looks out and sees Tyra with Cash. They're back where they started two years ago.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 5: Jason Street Is Back—and He Needs To Make Some Money, Quick

Posted Monday, February 16, 2009, at 7:05 AM ET

I agree, Emily: This episode is pretty unsentimental. In fact, it's probably the best of the season so far. Partly that's because it begins with football rather than ending with it, loosening up what had come to seem like a predictable structure. One key result is that the episode can follow out plot points having to do with the team: In this case, it follows Matt's sense of failure and disappointment and Coach Taylor's need to address the fact that, as the game announcer put it, J.D. McCoy has turned out to be "the real deal." I'm always happiest when the show has more football and less necking on it.

I liked how the writers intertwined Matt's disappointment with the reappearance of Jason Street. Street is suffering from a disappointment, too, reminding us that even great quarterbacks go on to suffer. Street, of course, was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident that the first season revolved around; now he's had another accident: He got a girl pregnant in a one-night stand. He has a son. It's turning out to be the central joy of his life. And unlike so many guys his age—who'd be in college—he's facing the concrete pressures of needing to make money. You called Street and his pals the "Four Stooges," Emily, and I get why, because this episode treats them as goofballs: Riggins, Street, and Herc sit around trying to figure out how to make some bucks quick. I love the scene in which Jason is trying to think of something simple that everyone needs. ("A sharp pencil," Herc says unhelpfully.)

It's almost shticky, but what keeps it from being too much so is the quite poignant reality underlying the slacker riffing. They don't just want money; they need money. And it's not all that clear that they can get it. The scene at the bank when Street and Herc are trying to get a loan and Tim and Billy fail to show up—because they don't have the cash they promised they have—is brutal. Street uses the word dumbass to describe Billy and Tim, but that's putting it gently. You see how people with good intentions easily cross to the wrong side of the law.

Meanwhile, Matt's mom is driving me crazy, but I guess the poor guy needs something good in his life. She's eerily thoughtful just as Tami starts to flip out and become oddly uptight—coming down hard on Tyra in ways that alienate her and flipping out at her daughter, Julie, for getting a tattoo on her ankle. The writing here is excellent: I flashed back to when I got a second ear piercing without telling my mom and she flipped out. I think she said exactly what Tami did: that I'd ruined and disfigured my body. Twenty years later, I can see the scene from both mom and daughter's perspective: to Julie, who's desperately seeking autonomy, her mom's nervousness looks square and hypocritical—from her perspective, it's just a tattoo and "it doesn't mean anything." But for Tami, Julie's mini-rebellion seems as if it's part of a larger slide to … she doesn't know what, and that's precisely what's terrifying. She has to assume it does mean something. Or does she? This was a moment when I wished we could see Tami with a friend, because you kind of think the friend might give Tami a hug and say, "Your daughter's going to be OK." Because Julie is: She isn't giving off all the other signs of unhappiness that would seem to trigger real concern. She just wants to feel that she's got some control over her own life—even if she doesn't fully.

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 5: As Dark as the Bloodiest Sopranos Episode

Posted Monday, February 16, 2009, at 10:28 AM ET

I also loved this episode, but boy, was it dark. I continue to marvel at how subtly the show ties what's happening on the field to what's happening off it. Emily, I too was struck by how Eric, for maybe the first time, consistently came up short in this episode. Usually he can pull out just the right words to smooth over a painful situation. But with Matt, as you point out, it's not working. He tries to comfort Matt, but first Mom interrupts, then Grandma interrupts. Later, in the locker room, Matt himself makes it clear he isn't having it. "Good talk, coach," he says sardonically.

In fact, the "good talk" in this episode is the one Riggins keeps delivering in a cynical salesman mode. Like a character from a George Saunders story, Riggins spews some weird sales line he picked up from Buddy, about how when the rats leave a sinking market, "the true visionaries come in." Riggins seems surprised to hear the words coming out of his mouth and even more surprised that they work. "I'm a true visionary!" Billy says and then hands over the money for the house that the Four Stooges want to flip. And, of course, we all know, although they don't, that this will lead to disaster. The boys just fight over the money and the house, and the mother of Street's child is horrified, not comforted. Plus, they'll never sell that house. It's as if when Eric chose money and success (J.D.) over heart (Matt), the consequences of that decision rippled all over town.

The whole episode had a very Paul Auster feel. One fleeting thing—an unearned pile of money, a one-night stand, a tattoo, a suddenly paralyzed teammate—can change your entire life. Accident and coincidence are more powerful than any God-driven holistic narrative. My favorite moment is when they cut from the meth dealer shooting at the Riggins truck straight to Jason babbling to his new little boy. There is no happy script. Life can be a little random and scary, and it can all turn on a dime. This is why those ominous radio announcers—"If they lose this one, they can kiss this season goodbye"—really get under your skin. One missed pass by one 17-year-old should never mean so much, but in Dillon, it does.

The episode almost felt as dark to me as the bloodiest Sopranos episode. Except for the Touched by a Mom subtheme we've all complained about. Thank God for Herc, who's man enough to handle anything. I love when he calls everyone "ladies." Also: "Babies love vaginas. It's like looking at a postcard." Who writes those great lines?

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Hanna Rosin and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 5: A Coach's Theory of Coaches' Wives

Posted Monday, February 16, 2009, at 1:50 PM ET

Hanna, that's such a good point about the power of random and fleeting moments to wreak havoc on this show. I think that's a theme common to many of the best HBO dramas as well. Maybe it's a life truth that a TV show is particularly well-suited to reveal. There's much more pressure on movies, with their two-hour arcs, to depict larger-than-life incidents and tell a story as if it's complete and whole. And often that constraint gives short shrift to the power of the random and to the frayed threads that make up so much of lived experience.

But I don't really buy your idea that on FNL the central conflict between good and evil is also between heart vs. money. That seems too simple. J.D. isn't a potentially brilliant quarterback because he's rich. Yes, his parents paid for extra coaching, but mostly, J.D. has God-given talent. Smash's similar talent comes with working-class roots, and it looks like he's on his way to success, and we're meant to celebrate that. Money is a source of corruption—Tim and Billy's copper wire theft—but it's also the vehicle for redemption—Jason's attempt to channel those ill-gotten gains into his house-buying scheme. If he fails, I don't think it will be because the show treats money as inherently corrupt. It'll be because money is painfully out of reach. And money vs. heart leaves out other deep currents on FNL—like athletic prowess and also the religious belief represented by all those pregame prayer circles.

A couple of observations from readers before I sign off. My friend Ruben Castaneda points out that for all its subtle treatment of black-white race relations, FNL has had only a few, not wholly developed, Hispanic characters. That's especially too bad for a show about Texas. From reader Greg Mays, one more thought about why Tami has no girlfriends. He writes, "As the husband of a coach's wife, I have a theory: It's tough to have any real friends in the school-student circle as the coach's wife because you have to be watchful of their intentions to influence your husband. … Also, if my wife is representative, there is a population of coaches' wives who are coaches' wives because they are more likely to have male friends than female." I'm not sure that last part describes Tami, but I could imagine it does other Mrs. Coaches.

And hey, Meghan, I have the same double pierce story, from seventh grade. My parents drew a straight line: earring to mohawk to drugs to jail. They didn't come to their senses as quickly as Tami, either.

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 6: The Best Awkward TV Teenage Kiss I've Ever Seen

Posted Saturday, February 21, 2009, at 7:18 AM ET

FNL has always operated on the opposite principle of most teenage shows. It's about teenagers, but it isn't actually written for them, which might explain why it's not more popular, as fellow fan and writer Ruth Samuelson pointed out to me. Take the role of parents, for example. In most American shows about teenagers, the parents are not really relevant. They might leave a ham sandwich on the table or some milk in the fridge, but basically, their role is to let the kids wallow in their own histrionics. But in FNL, the parents drive all the action. When they are absent, they are really absent, as in gone off to war, or deadbeat, turning their kids into old souls who have to endure alone.

Finally, in Episode 6, we get a break from all that. This one is all about teenagers letting go, which results in some fine OC-style interludes. Riggins cruises around town in a Dazed and Confused mode, showing J.D. all the hot spots in Dillon where he can get laid. J.D. gets drunk, and Julie and Matt go to the lake—all the way to the lake, if you know what I mean. "This is the first Saturday I can wake up not having to think about everything I did wrong," he says. Then, after some splashing and rolling around, Julie gets home after the newspaper boy has already made his rounds and sneaks in the door. We're bracing for Tami to march out of her bedroom screaming and yelling and waving a jilbab in her daughter's face, but nothing like that happens. Tami does not even stir in her bed, for all we know. The tattoo caused an uproar, but the virginity left in peace.

Let's just linger here some more since Emily, you particularly have worried so much about Matt Saracen. Matty shows up at Julie's house in Landry's car. He and Julie share the best awkward TV teenage kiss I've ever seen, followed by a most convincing stretch of post-coital bliss, which carries through to Sunday morning church. And Matt's improbable mother is nowhere to be seen. For one dreamy weekend, being orphaned and benched has its benefits.

The ur-parent of the show, meanwhile, goes off the deep end. First, J.D.'s dad whisks his son out of the locker room after a victory to go celebrate with mom at Applebee's instead of letting him celebrate with the team. Then, after J.D. gets drunk, his dad forces him to apologize to Coach Taylor in church for disappointing the coach and the team. He is proving himself to be the stage parent from hell and making the option of having no dad at all look better and better.

The show has always been thoughtful on the subject of parenting, contrasting the coach's tight family with the lost orphans of Dillon. The addition of the McCoys complicates things, since they make concerned parents look like nightmares. And here, we get the final twist, where the Dillon orphans get to shine.

Actually, the final twist comes with the very sweet scene where Jason Street sings "Hole in My Bucket" over the phone to his son, who is at that very moment driving away from him. This is imperfect, patch-it-together parenting (like the song says). And it's not really working, but it might someday. (Pay attention, Bristol Palin.)

So, speaking of imperfect, is that kid Cash's son or not?

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Hanna Rosin and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 6: A Defense of the Most Overbearing Dad Ever

Posted Monday, February 23, 2009, at 7:03 AM ET

Yes, the kids took over the show this week, and what did we get? Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Sex. I also loved the Julie and Matt kiss and actually the whole thing: the unceremonious, post-hotdogs roll by the campfire and the blissful aftermath. For one thing, Matt deserves a weekend of sweetness. For another, I'm happy to see teenage sex as neither airbrushed and eroticized nor an emotional crack-up. Sometimes, 16- and 17- year-olds just lovingly sleep together. Maybe Tami didn't wake up and freak out because she doesn't have to. Though she did pick up on the shy, pleased Sunday-morning glances that Julie and Matt exchanged in church, which signaled to me what you suggested, too: Dream weekends don't last.

Drugs. Can I stick up for J.D.'s dad for a minute without sending myself to Dillon detention? He is indeed the smarmy, overbearing stage dad, so caricatured I can barely watch him. But if Tim Riggins wanted to take my ninth-grader out to get drunk and who knows what else, I might cart him home, too. It's all well and good for Coach Taylor to encourage Riggins to mentor J.D. To loosen this kid up, Eric is willing to keep quiet about J.D.'s naked mile sprint and whatever hijinks Riggins comes up with, it seems. I'm not sure I can blame Annoying Applebee's McCoy for resisting. If acceptance on the football team means getting shitfaced at age 14, then maybe that's a reason unto itself that a freshman shouldn't be quarterback. Best part of the J.D. party scene, however: Lyla as Tim's long-suffering sidekick, shouldering J.D.'s weight so she can help drag him out of harm's way.

Rock 'n' roll: Landry and his band light up the garage. Or rather, they fail to light it up, in spite of their acned-splendor, until Devin, the cute freshman, comes along. She's got the guitar skills, the green cardigan, the sneakers, and the pink lip gloss. And she's got Landry's number. She tells him all his songs are about the same thing, the same girl. It's time to get over that Tyra, for the sake of the music. Hanna, what do you make of it that in this teen-driven episode, the character keenly passing judgment is the ninth-grade upstart?

You asked, meanwhile, about Cash and his baby mama and their sad toddler. Yep, that's his kid (don't you think?), and Tyra is demonstrating a willful detachment from reality by believing otherwise. I'm sorry Meghan is out this week (don't worry, readers; she'll be back next week), because you are both more interested in Cash than I am. I just can't get past how much he looks like Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy. And besides, don't we know how this story comes out? Won't Tyra fall out of this relationship bruised, callused, and less likely to make it to college? The only glimmer of brain activity I saw in this plotline was the moment in which Julie made fun of her, and Tyra remembered that was the kind of joke that Landry used to make. Ditch the lying cowboy already.

The contrast to Cash comes when Jason sings to his baby, in that scene you've already mentioned. I loved the cuts to Herc and Billy and Tim while Jason cooed. It reminded me of a point Meghan made a few weeks ago about FNL's distinctive brand of male sentimentality. There's Jason, putting himself on the line for his kid even as that child moves farther from him, mile after mile. Jason is the show's tragedy. Can he also somehow pull off its redemption? Or would that be unworthy of this show?

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 6: I Would Rather Raise a Kid Like Riggins Than One Like J.D.

Posted Monday, February 23, 2009, at 1:02 PM ET

This is an argument we have in my household all the time and which will come to full boil when our children are teenagers. I would rather raise a kid like Riggins than one like J.D. In my book, parental oppression is a crime, not quite on order with negligence—but still. (My mother calls me like five times a day, just to give you the source.) As I was relishing the awkward teenage sex scene between Matt and Julie, which we've discussed, David (my husband) was having a very overprotective paternal reaction: His view is that Matt slept with Julie to get back at Coach. Coach took away what mattered most to Matt, so Matt got his revenge by doing the same. I think this is crazy dad talk—teens in love don't need any extra motive to have sex, especially not on a sunny day by the lake—but it gives you a window into our differences.

As for Devin, what an excellent point. I hadn't quite noticed that Devin had become Tami in miniature, dispensing wise looks from behind her hipster glasses. Like any city girl, I have a soft spot for these cute misfit girls with a heart of gold (we just watched Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist last night—Norah is one, too). But I do have one complaint. Every few episodes, the show introduces a character who looks like she strolled straight out of a walk-up in Park Slope, Brooklyn (the Riggins' old neighbor, Landry's last girlfriend). I know, I know, Texas is cooler than I think. But can't we aim for a little authenticity?

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Hanna Rosin and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 6: Sad, Lonely Tim Riggins

Posted Monday, February 23, 2009, at 3:12 PM ET

But, Hanna, you're defending Riggins' leading of J.D. down the drinking path by talking about Matt and Julie sleeping together. With the emphasis on together, because it all looked completely mutual to me. (If David really thinks otherwise, then I hear you about your upcoming battles; maybe my husband didn't have that crazy dad moment because we don't have girls.) But my main point is that sex and drugs are different. For teenagers as well as for adults. I mean, I love Riggins, and I'd pick him over J.D., too. But then I'd work on his six-pack habit, which looks like a symptom of loneliness and depression most of the time. Whereas Matt and Julie—that looks like a good thing in need only of the intervention of a condom.

One more point: Last week, I wrote about a reader's frustration with the show's lack of Hispanic characters. Reader Sean Mabey points out another lapse: "During the first season, Smash's friends were exclusively black and he was at odds (to put it nicely) with Riggins. Fast forward two years, and you don't see Smash in the company of another black guy for the entire third season and who's in the car with him on the way to A&M? Riggins." Hmm.

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 6: All the Boys on This Show Have Gone Soft

Posted Monday, February 23, 2009, at 4:09 PM ET

You're right to distinguish between Julie and Matt's roll in the hay and Riggins' drinking. But let's forget about his bad habit for a moment and concentrate on what he was trying to accomplish that night with J.D. The way J.D. and his dad are operating, J.D. is a menace to the team. His dad is in it only for his son and does not want him to be contaminated by the rest of them. This is ugly, mercenary behavior and the worst of football. It's the opposite of what Coach Taylor wants for the team. So Riggins was subverting Mr. McCoy's influence in the only way he knows how. And there's precedent in Riggins' humanitarian party missions—remember the time he saved Julie from that skeazy guy at a party? Once again, Riggins is sacrificing himself for someone else's sake and getting no credit.

As for Smash and Riggins—you are absolutely right. This is more proof of the point Meghan has made. Riggins used to have a dangerous, almost racist edge. Now he's gone soft, as have all the boys on the show. Matty kicking those boxes is the most male aggression we've gotten this season.

From: David Plotz
To: Emily Bazelon, Meghan O'Rourke, and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 6: The "Matt Slept With Julie To Get Back at Coach" Theory—a Rebuttal

Posted Monday, February 23, 2009, at 5:33 PM ET

Allow me a brief rebuttal to my beloved wife's post about Matt and Julie's trip to the lake. Hanna wrote of me: "His view is that Matt slept with Julie to get back at Coach."

Uh, no. A few nights ago when we were discussing the episode, I said, in the spirit of marital helpfulness: "Hey, Hanna, don't you think that one possible interpretation of that scene is that subconsciously, Matt sleeps with Julie in order to take the thing most precious to Coach Taylor, his daughter's virginity, because Coach Taylor has taken a thing precious to him, the job as QB1?"

Note: I did not say that that was what I believed, because I don't believe it. I happen to think the lake tryst was lovely. It didn't set any of my paternal protectiveness neurons ablaze. That revenge scenario was merely speculative and playful. I thought Hanna might throw it out there to enliven the dialogue. Instead, she exploited it to slander me, her innocent husband.

And while I'm fixating on that paragraph, Hanna, please tell me you were kidding when you wrote: "I would rather raise a kid like Riggins than one like J.D."

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 7: Is Joe McCoy Making His Son Into the Next Todd Marinovich?

Posted Saturday, February 28, 2009, at 7:28 AM ET

I have tons to say about this rich and textured episode—how could you not be moved by Landry baring his soul to Tami after Devin tells him his kiss just proved to her she's a lesbian? ("I seem to have some kind of repellent," he stutters.) Or by the Four Stooges' ongoing adventures—and misadventures—in house flipping?

But first I want to pose a question one of my friends asked about J.D.: Is FNL setting him up to be a future Todd Marinovich? Marinovich, as football fans will remember, was a vaunted quarterback who was micromanaged by his dad from birth. Like Joe McCoy, Marv Marinovich scheduled his son's every minute and meal. "I had a captive audience. … I told him when to eat, what to eat, when to go to bed, when to get up, when to work out, how to work out," Marv told Sports Illustrated. Here's a passage from an earlier SI piece about Todd:

He has never eaten a Big Mac or an Oreo or a Ding Dong. When he went to birthday parties as a kid, he would take his own cake and ice cream to avoid sugar and refined white flour. He would eat homemade catsup, prepared with honey. He did consume beef but not the kind injected with hormones. He ate only unprocessed dairy products. He teethed on frozen kidney. When Todd was one month old, Marv was already working on his son's physical conditioning. He stretched his hamstrings. Pushups were next. Marv invented a game in which Todd would try to lift a medicine ball onto a kitchen counter. Marv also put him on a balance beam. Both activities grew easier when Todd learned to walk. There was a football in Todd's crib from day one. "Not a real NFL ball," says Marv. "That would be sick; it was a stuffed ball."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marinovich started to fall apart when he got to college—and out of reach of his father. His performance was inconsistent. Eventually he was arrested for cocaine possession. He left USC for the NFL but didn't make good there, either. He ended up in all sorts of legal trouble. In one detail that strikes me as particularly sad, he was arrested for suspected possession of drug paraphernalia, after trying to make his escape on a kid's bike, and told the police that his occupation was "anarchist."

And who wouldn't be one, if your dad had been flexing your hamstrings in the cradle? (Being called five times a day suddenly may not look so bad, Hanna.) Is this where we're supposed to think J.D. is headed?

Because, certainly, he's being squashed under his father's thumb—or fist. If Joe began to lose it in the last episode—and I can't agree, Emily, that hauling his son out the way he did is good parenting; kids fuck up, especially kids under as much pressure as J.D.—then he really lost it in this episode. Early on, Joe pulls J.D. off the practice field to yell at him, causing Coach Taylor to intercede and ask him to leave J.D. alone. And then during that week's game, Joe gets worked up as J.D. throws some incompletes and at halftime flips out at his son. Taylor intercedes again, telling Joe, "You yelling at him is not going to help. … Give him some breathing room." Then Taylor tries to perk J.D. up with some well-meaning exposition about how his own dad used to expect a lot from him on the field. It doesn't work. J.D. has Stockholm syndrome. He looks blankly at Taylor and says: "My dad—he just wants me to do my best. He just wants me to succeed is all."

This is another way football can hurt—not through concussions but through repercussions: the repercussions that come when a parent can't see how his ambitions are warping his child's own sense of adventure and risk. I feel for J.D. And I feel for Taylor, who hasn't figured how to handle this situation—and whose professional life may be threatened if he speaks honestly. Joe has the power of money and influence behind him.

Meanwhile, I wanted to talk about Buddy and his brood; their aborted road trip was perfectly pitched. Buddy is annoying in all the recognizable ways an affectionate but clueless dad can be ("You look like a hippie!" he says to Tabitha in the airport), and the kids are annoying in all the ways that clueless kids can be, whining and kvetching at all moments. And: Street is heading to New York; Riggins is applying to college—what do you make of all this change in Dillon?

(P.S.: I totally cried when Riggins was watching Coach Taylor and Billy describe his toughness and fortitude. Talk about male sentimentality.)

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 7: "She Uses V-a-a-a-a-seline …"

Posted Monday, March 2, 2009, at 6:43 AM ET

Teethed on frozen kidney? Wow, that is stunning, and it makes my hair stand on end. In my friend Margaret Talbot's great story about prodigy athletes, she concludes it's mostly cold corporate sponsors piling on the pressure. And one imagines the old Soviet Olympic mill (and now the Chinese one) would eat kids alive. But there's a particular pathos when it's the parents doing the pushing. The stories about those young Chinese gymnasts who didn't make the cut were heartbreaking. But at least they had parents to go home to. In J.D.'s case, the parental love is entirely contingent on his performance, or at least he perceives it that way. "He's not mad at me?" J.D. anxiously asks his mother, because her smiling face is no comfort if he can't answer that question.

One reader suggested that Riggins may be jealous of J.D.'s relationship with his dad. And there may be a hint of that in his disdain. But it's hard for me to imagine. In answer to my husband's question of last week: Yes, I would absolutely rather raise a son like Riggins than one like J.D. It's just too painful to watch that empty performance machine of a boy, one who's afraid of his own shadow. And as Meghan points out, those boys with no center spin out of control eventually. David, remember who else in our life used to endlessly ask a version of that question: "Are you mad at me?" (Answer: Stephen Glass.)

So, yes, football can destroy men. But this episode also ran in the opposite direction, reminding us of the many ways in which football can make heroes of losers. Fullback Jamarcus never told his parents he plays football, because he knows they won't let him. Then he gets into trouble at school and, in speaking to his parents, Tami lets it slip. Until this point Tami has been telling Coach to butt out, this is the principal's prerogative. But finally she realizes how her husband can impose the discipline better in this case. She explains to Jamarcus' parents how she's seen her husband "empower" and "inspire" boys through football. And also how her husband will make Jamarcus "regret the day" he ever set another kid's hair on fire or misbehaved in school. The parents had been thinking of football as a frivolous distraction, and Tami successfully reframes it as Jamarcus' salvation.

Then there's the moving scene with Riggins that you mentioned, Meghan. Riggins' life, which always seems so chaotic, turns into one of those Olympic athlete fables on screen. Billy is so articulate in praising his brother, and Coach uses that word I love hearing him say—"fortitude." We are reminded that football can make these boys into their best selves. In Riggins' case, it's his ticket out, but not in a crass way. He's using it reluctantly, so he won't get burned the way Smash did. Football even works magic on those bratty Garrity kids, who finally get into the game and stop torturing Buddy.

As for everyone leaving Dillon: They make it seem so far away and impossible. Street is going to New York? Why not stop in Austin first, just to acclimate? And then Landry, who's going to that mythical college where all the hottest co-eds fall for nerds. It's so dreamy, it just perpetuates the sense that life after the Dillon Panthers is a fantasy.

Except for Devin. Boy, do I love that girl. "She uses V-a-a-a-a-seline." That's a great song she steals, and it's nice to hear a girl sing it. And I love the way she delivers those platitudes—"Tomorrow's a brand new day"— in that flat nasal voice of hers. I'd follow her out of Dillon.

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Meghan O'Rourke and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 7: Why Is Lyla All Blush and No Bite This Season?

Posted Monday, March 2, 2009, at 12:57 PM ET

Well, you have together so thoroughly thumped J.D.'s dad that there's not much left for me to lay into. He is written to be indefensible, and you're right that there are real sports dads who spin completely out of control and damage their kids. (They don't restrict themselves to sons who play football, either: In women's tennis, there's the unforgettable father of Jennifer Capriati.) Nobody sympathizes with these people because they are parental wrecking balls.

I will say, though, that I think child prodigies pose a real dilemma for families, one that I'm glad to be spared. When kids have outsize, amazing talent, parents can nurture it and deprive them of being normal, or they can shrug it off and leave their children's potential untapped. Mr. McCoy is clearly mixing up nurture with self-deluded suffocation. Still, I read J.D.'s line about how his dad just wants him to do his best a little differently than you did, Meghan. On some level, J.D. is right—his father does want him to succeed. It's just that he wants it in a way that's utterly self-serving. I wish the character had some hint of subtlety so we could do more than just whack him. And J.D. still just seems like a blank.

Meghan, I'm glad you brought up Buddy and that sad little divorced-dad road trip. Here's a dad who over three seasons has gone from buffoon to repentant loser to make-amends struggler. The moment in which he lashes out at his kids and then flees weeping down the road should melt the heart of even a bitterly divorced mom, I would think.

But I had mixed feelings about the scene between Buddy and Lyla that follows. It was written to be touching. She says, "Dad, you've still got me," and he tells her that means a lot. But what's up with how Lyla is all blush and no bite this season? She patiently helps Riggins with the once-and-nevermore drunken J.D. She nobly stands by her father while her siblings refuse to forgive his previous sins. And then at the end of this episode, there's that close-up, wide-eyed scene between her and Jason, in which she selflessly tells him how great he'll do as a sports agent in New York as their knees touch and they sway together in the night.

I was taken with that shot for what it says about the capacity of post-breakup friendship. In fact, one by one, I went for each of these scenes of stalwart, good-girl Lyla. But rolled together, they made me miss her sharp, smart, and smug side. I wonder, too, about turning this strong and flawed female character into the beloved helpmate of every man in her life. When was the last time we heard about Lyla's college plans? Is the turn her role has taken part of the rose-colored softening Meghan has legitimately complained of—FNL maybe anticipating its own sunset by rubbing out its mean streak? I dunno. But I sure am grateful for Devin and her not-melodic Vaseline lyrics. (Though I have a reality-check quibble like the one you raised, Hanna: Would a 14-year-old in small-town Texas really come out as a lesbian without missing a garage-band beat?)

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 7: Was That Scene Between Lyla and Street Maudlin or Touching?

Updated Monday, March 2, 2009, at 2:55 PM ET

Emily, you're totally right that Joe McCoy wants "the best" for his boy in a ham-fisted way. Check. The problem is that he is convinced he knows best—and we all know what happens when father knows best: Children rebel.

Meanwhile, Lyla. I haven't until now minded Lyla's good-girl shtick—in part because she and Tim have had their flare-ups. She seems to be in one of those calm phases teenagers do sometimes go through. She's got a boyfriend. She's waiting to find out about college. (Or is she in? I can't remember. I guess that's a bad sign.) She does seem to have no real female friends—which reminds me of the apt point you made about the relative friendlessness of her adult counterpart, Tami. And it reminds me, too, of how much sharper the bite of this show was early on: Remember when all the girls in school were mean to Lyla because she was sleeping with Riggins after Street's injury? But when you think about it, back then, Lyla was striving even harder to be a helpmeet. She was saccharine in her desire for things to be "all right" after Street's injury; I think back to all those heartbreaking scenes in the hospital where she was coaxing him to be chipper about the future, and his surly face showed us that he knew the future she imagined would never come.

But that's exactly why the scene between her and Street, sitting together in the twilight, touched me. It did have that post-breakup sense of loss—the loss that accompanies getting used to things, accommodation, and plain old growing up. Just a few short years ago, they couldn't even look at each other: Street was so mad at her, and Lyla was so disappointed that her fantasy of their life together had fallen apart.

It would be kind of funny if now she ditched Riggins to sleep with J.D. Somehow, I doubt that's going to happen.

And, yes, Emily, I did wonder if Devin would feel comfortable coming out to Landry. Then again, she referred to it as her "secret." So I assume it was Landry's goofy, sincere openness that made her feel safe.

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Meghan O'Rourke and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 8: Jason Street Makes a Brand-New Start of It—in Old New York!

Posted Saturday, March 7, 2009, at 6:30 AM ET

The can't-miss theme this week is the journey. Jason and Tim hit Manhattan. Tyra takes off for the rodeo circuit with Cash. Tami journeys to a new house, at least in her imagination. The bundling works, I think. The contrast between Tim as loving sidekick and Cash as casual no-goodnik points up the worth of each relationship. The line that captures the bond between Jason and Tim: "Texas forever." I knew it was coming, and I wanted to hear it, anyway. Less welcome is "He's a cowboy," which Tyra's mom says to send her off with Cash, when really it's the reason she shouldn't leave her college interviews behind. What kind of boyfriend talks you into going away with him by saying he'll try to be faithful?

A second, underlying theme this week is about making the big pitch. Tami (egged on, of course, by Katie McCoy) tries to sell a new, grand house to Eric. Matt tries to convince Coach to let him play wide receiver, with Julie's help making the case. These bids build to Jason, who pulls off the sale of his young lifetime. Actually, it's Tim's idea to persuade Jason's former teammate to sign with the sports agent Jason hopes to work for. Since the guy has just summarily dismissed the boys from his office, Tim's plan is a display of the fortitude Eric praised on the football field, translated to the world of business. Maybe this kid will make it in college.

When Jason wins the job and then shows up at Erin's door and asks, before anything else, to hold his baby—well, it sounds soapy as I write it out, but in the moment, it felt to me wholly earned. We've seen Jason as savvy salesman before, on Buddy's car lot and in the house-flipping deal. Now he's performing in a bigger venue with the same blend of naivete and determination. I appreciated the acting—the set of Jason's chin, the veins in his forehead and neck. I also liked the way the script deals with his paralysis. We've grown accustomed to the shots of Jason sitting when everyone around him is standing. In this episode, we see a shot of Tim helping Jason out of the car into his wheelchair, and the camera lingers on his dangling legs, just long enough. It drives home Jason's own analysis, in a bad moment on the New York sidewalk, of the pity his wheelchair evokes. What did you guys make of the New York visit? Is it one of the more ingenious moves of the season, or am I falling for melodrama?

I was also taken with Tami and Eric and their house-buying tempest. It seemed prescient, even, as recession fear deepens around us. Tami wants a nicer, bigger house for all the natural reasons. She keeps pointing to the backyard that Gracie Bell would have to play in. Since yards have factored heavily into every home-buying or rental decision my husband and I have made since our kids were toddlers, I sympathized.

But I sympathized more with Eric when he told his wife that much as he would love to give her and their kids and himself this house, they can't have it. Maybe the mortgage is straight-up too high—it's not entirely clear. Instead, what's unmistakable is the anxiety Eric knows he would feel by making a purchase that would give his family no financial wiggle room. We see his internal conflict, and it's laced with gender politics. Eric frames the decision in terms of what he can and can't give Tami, even though she's working now, too. He clearly wants to be a husband who can fulfill his wife's material desires. At the same time, he calls her back to what really matters to their family. They are together, whether they live in a three-bedroom split-level or have a kitchen with granite countertops and a stone fireplace. "I don't need this house," Tami tells him, like a woman sprung from a trance. They take each other's hands and dance away from the real estate agents, like escapees. I see the father-knows-best aspect of their marriage. But as ever, I care so much more about the spark (after all those years!) and their evanescent, playful spirit. They're a walking rejoinder to the excesses of feminist dogma.

Cash and Tyra, on the other hand, are a reminder of the continuing relevance of that old story: the girl who is reaching higher, only to be yanked back to earth by her cowboy man.

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 8: The Mother of All Crying Scenes

Posted Monday, March 9, 2009, at 6:52 AM ET

Emily, the current I saw running though all the plot twists you describe is the different ways men and women make decisions. In this episode, the two key women—Tami and Tyra—are focused on relationships, pursuing conversation and connection above all else. Meanwhile, the men—Jason, Matt, Eric—go for hard results. In the end, the women don't exactly get what they want, while the men do.

Tami keeps pestering Eric to have a "conversation" with her about the house. "We are having a conversation!" Eric answers. By which he means she asked and he told her "No!" But she keeps it up, waking him in the middle of the night. "OK, can I turn the light off?" My favorite moment is when they are all sitting around the dinner table with Matt. Julie is haranguing Eric about making Matt wide receiver. Tami is haranguing him about the house. Finally, he gets sick of it. "All right, let's go," he says to Matt, who has just proposed they run 10 plays outside to test him. If he gets them all, Eric has to think about making him wide receiver. The boys skip out of all the talk and solve their problems with cold, hard stats and football.

Now, you can reasonably argue that Eric was right about that house. Maybe they couldn't afford it. But the point is how quickly Tami caved during the second visit. She blinked once then said, "I don't need this house" and declared her life full enough with Jules and Gracie Bell and her husband. It's as if all along, all she wanted was for Eric to hear her out and walk through the process with her, and that was all.

Meghan, you've outlined this dynamic before: A man is having a hard time, and then one of the show's tough women describes how much it means that he is taking care of her. The result is that she creates a safe space for his emotions—the "show's distinctive brand of male sentimentality," you called it. A version of that happens here. Tami is suddenly called back to her responsibility as wife and mother, and that soothes her, and him. In Tami's case, she doesn't sacrifice much. She still does have a great family and a pretty decent house. But Tyra is doing the same thing, no? She, too, is opting to take care of Cash, who has convinced her what a tough time he has alone on the road. But in her case it's fatal. Maybe Tami was telling Tyra one lesson but showing her another. This is why the validating of the wifely duties on FNL always grates on me.

Now as for male sentimentality, this episode wins the prize.

Here we have the mother of all crying scenes. Tim Riggins' lovable mug, usually adored by the camera, is in this episode contorted into a blotchy mess as he watches his friend finally get his lady. He is sad and happy all at once, but mostly he is mush. Yet his male sentimentality is acceptable because he has, throughout the episode, acted in a manly, honorable way. Tim is what you want in a wife. He doesn't wake up Jason in the middle of the night. He doesn't want conversation; in fact, he mostly speaks in three-word sentences. But what he does do is deliver concrete solutions: Go to Paul Stuart. Leave Paul Stuart. Buy two suits, two shirts, two ties. Get Wendell to sign with the agent. Now go get your girl. And, unlike Tyra, Jason doesn't have to choose between the girl and his future; he gets them both.

As for whether I liked the New York diversion: It's always good when characters get pushed into a new location. The famous Sopranos Pine Barren episode, when Christopher and Paulie go to the woods to kill the Russian, set the bar really high on this kind of plot twist. The New York diversion wasn't that good, but it did take on the question of Life after Dillon. And at least they didn't just drop Street.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 8: Will Tyra End Up Dancing at the Landing Strip?

Posted Monday, March 9, 2009, at 2:48 PM ET

It's funny, I'm less bothered by the "father knows best" (as Emily aptly put it) aspect of Eric and Tami's marriage than either of you. Hanna, you say that the quickness with which Tami caved to Eric grated on you. You connected it to Tyra's wishy-washiness. And I take the point, but I read this scene differently: The episode, I thought, was trying to draw a distinction between Tami's compromise and Tyra's. After all, a feminist marriage/partnership isn't one in which the woman gets her own way all the time or even digs in her heels to make a point. It's one where you learn to hear when your partner is giving you good advice—acting as a counterweight. And Tami was getting overexcited about something impractical. This is what's so hard about relationships: learning when a "we" is more important than an "I."

In this case, there was no way Eric could feel like part of the "we" if they bought the house, because, as he sees it, he has almost no job security. At the same time, though, he doesn't handle it well at first, going rigid instead of just trying to talk to Tami. I actually like this scene, because Tami got what she really wanted: Eric's attention, his willingness to enter the fantasy with her for a second, his ability to make her feel it is a partnership even when he can't give her what she really wants. If she says she doesn't "need" the house to make him feel better—well, that's part of what keeps their spark alive, isn't it? And he does it too, at least a bit.

Meanwhile, on the N.Y.-Texas front—the Riggins/Street trip to the Big Apple has a gimmicky feel, but the show pulls it off. The sequence about trying to buy a suit at Paul Stuart illustrates so much about how easy it is to feel like a pie-eyed outsider in moneyed New York. I remember feeling similarly as a teenager sometimes, even though I grew up in Brooklyn. My parents were teachers, and I went to few fancy stores until I was an adult; sometimes I still get nervous in them, and I love how the show brought that feeling to the fore.

"Why would you want to leave Texas?" Riggins asks Street in disbelief after Jason reveals his grand plan to head to the Big Apple. It's a measure of the show's success that the statement can be taken at face value (who would want to leave this place with its deep comradeship and warm football-filled nights?) and heard from an ironic distance (who wouldn't want to leave this place, with its flat landscape and its sense of being isolated from larger opportunities?).

Tyra is in danger of falling subject to that isolation. I think the writers are going to save her in the end, but it would be Wire-like of them to sacrifice her to apathy and lassitude; if this were The Wire, we'd see her three seasons from now dancing at the Landing Strip, unable to excavate herself from the world where she grew up, despite her smarts and her desires.

Ugh, how annoying Joe McCoy is! He defines smarmy and pushy. Most Joes come in a less obvious form, but from now on I'm going to be playing a parlor game with my acquaintances and colleagues. Which ones are Erics, and which ones are Joes? Eric, after all, is the model of cooperation underneath all that brusqueness. Joe, by contrast, epitomizes self-serving deafness to the needs of others.

Meanwhile, anyone notice how tall all the women on this show are?

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Meghan O'Rourke and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 8: Tim Riggins Would Make a Great Wife

Posted Monday, March 9, 2009, at 4:06 PM ET

Hanna, yes, Tim is like a wife, but of the rare sort who knows when it's time to be an ex-wife. Like Lyla in the previous episode, he is helping Jason by letting him go. His mush face is what it feels like to watch an old, irreplaceable friend walk away from you. For the first time, the show is recognizing that these teenagers have to grow up. Meghan, I can totally see Tyra gone bad at 20, swinging around a Landing Strip pole. When I was ruing her decision to ditch school, my husband pointed out that what the show got right was why. In her FNL world, it's a choice that makes sense. Tyra's mom is the ultimate underminer: She is constantly upping the man-pressure and tearing down college. Tami is there for Tyra, but in this episode, she was a realist about the results of that college interview at a moment when Tyra needed a cheerleader. Then there was the interview itself. Am I being an adult scold here, or did Tyra blow it the minute she kept the college counselor waiting by saying she had to take a call on her cell phone (from Cash, natch)? Big forces, little choices—they add up to more than Tyra can push up the hill.

Meanwhile, Julie. A friend of mine has been ranting that she's a "whiny self-indulgent twit." Hanna, you make her part of your girl-talky-talk trope for telling Eric to let Matt try wide receiver. But I like Julie this season. In that dinner-table scene, I thought she pulled off assertive rather than whiny or petulant. Plus, she's right. Eric's brusqueness was too brusque. He needed his women to reel him back from the brink of unreasonable. OK, maybe the male-female power dynamic wasn't quite even-steven this episode. But if you take Tyra out of the picture for a sec, it's close.

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 9: Is Matt Saracen's Grandma Like Tony Soprano's Mom?

Posted Saturday, March 14, 2009, at 7:18 AM ET

There is rock bottom, and then there is drunk and half-naked on the couch with only the cardboard beer fraulein as his companion. Yes, Mindy dumped him, so Billy was forced to fold beer lady in half and seat her at the coffee table, no doubt having poured out his heart to her before he fell asleep. This episode features a few such postcards from the underside. The saddest is Tyra as Lolita, trapped in the Tropicana Motel in Dallas, sitting poolside in the rain, trying not to cry on the phone with Landry.

Back at Dillon High, Buddy has announced some good news: a national TV network (NBC—ha!) has chosen to broadcast the game on Friday night. The development allows for some nice comparisons between life on TV and life lived in Dillon. The TV type who shows up at Dillon High has slicked-back hair and speaks in a sportscaster patter, even when the cameras are turned off. Meanwhile, Lorraine Saracen's house is looking especially like the set of a Horton Foote play. Matt falls asleep on the couch watching a cooking show that could not possibly be aired in the year 2009. The screen shot shows some flat dull brownies baked in the kind of dented pan I sometimes borrow from my mother-in-law. The camera lingers on the tinfoil holding together the antennae on Lorraine's wood-paneled TV.

We've discussed before how the show intentionally locks Dillon out of pop culture or any TV references. This episode plays that up. Coach is annoyed the network is showing up, because he knows it will make the fans act like baboons and his players lose focus. Of course, they pull through in the end, only because of the commitment and fortitude of the honorable Matt Saracen.

The life in Dillon/life on TV contrast reminded me of a point Susan Faludi makes in Stiffed, her 1999 book about American manhood. The men of the World War II generation were raised in what she calls the "Ernie Pyle ideal of heroically selfless manhood." They were taught to be brave and heroic and take one for the team. But for various reasons, they failed to pass these lessons on to their baby boomer sons. Instead they got their models from "ornamental culture"—TV, movies, and celebrity culture, which peddle a primping cartoon of manhood, unmoored from the old patriarchy.

In this episode, the Dillon Panthers and especially Matt represent the prelapsarian age, when men knew how to be men. Matt, who knows how to sacrifice, takes hit after hit, and it pays off. Those TV trucks parked outside the school and the slick newscaster represent the world outside, where everyone just wants to be famous. Eric sees them, and he rolls his eyes.

Overall, this episode was a little soap operatic and heavy on relationship drama (Tyra and Cash, Billy and Mindy, Lyla and Tim). But what saves it, as always, are the small moments—Tyra walking out the back door of that saloon, Mindy teaching Lyla how to dance. In an interview with the AV Club, Taylor Kitsch, who plays Riggins, talks about how much the actors improvise. This gives a certain spontaneity to the show, so that even when the soap plot veers into its happy ending, the show can breathe.

Buddy hears the knock at the door: "Let's see. It's not your mother, and I don't have any friends," he says to a hidden Lyla. "I bet I know." Then Riggins apologizes to Lyla, sweetly, wholeheartedly, four times (most women would have buckled after three). Whether or not these particular lines were improvised I have no idea. But they pass in such a funny, lighthearted way that we let Tim's dubious redemption slide.

The one character I'm having increasing trouble with is Lorraine. What are we supposed to make of her? Is she selfish? Manipulative like Tony Soprano's mom? Really losing it?

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Meghan O'Rourke and Hanna Rosin
Subject: Week 9: Loser Boyfriends, Now in Three Convenient Sizes: Small, Medium, and Large

Posted Monday, March 16, 2009, at 6:48 AM ET

Hanna and Meghan,

The problem with Lorraine Saracen is that she moves in and out of her dementia expertly. Alzheimer's does cloud the brain at some times and not others, but not on a schedule that dovetails with a TV show plot. I believe Lorraine's anger and discomfort with Shelby. Paranoia and fear of a particular person—in my experience, especially an unfamiliar caregiver—often accompany the disease.

But I didn't believe in Grandma's utter lack of sympathy this week with Matt's bid to go to college. That's a trump card when played against any grandparent who is in her right mind and most who are not. A grandmother might manipulate her way into persuading her grandchild to stick around, but Lorraine goes right at him. I guess the show gets points, in an after-school-special sort of way, for dramatizing the plight of a teenager whose future is constrained by his family responsibilities. But Lorraine is being written too as selfish and Shelby too virtuous. I had the same thought about Mickey Rourke's character when I saw The Wrestler. When deadbeat parents are portrayed as only kind and decent, if bumbling, one wonders about how they managed to walk away from their kids in the past. I know, I know, people change. But do they really go from abandonment to being entirely upstanding and reliable? Rourke, at least, fails his daughter once in the movie; Shelby, so far, is all saccharine concern for Matt.

Meanwhile, this episode is a meditation on the loser boyfriend, in sizes small, medium, and large. Riggins, of course, is the minor, forgivable version. His transgressions are really only against himself, and then he still offers Lyla his Apology in Four Movements. Riggins' trajectory on this show can be measured in the distance he has traveled since the last time Lyla kicked him out of her car. (Remember, first-season loyalists? Hint: His devotion to Jason wasn't foremost in his mind.)

The midsize loser boyfriend is Billy. He peels himself off the couch, blotchy and blurry-eyed, and raps on Mindy's window to tell her that she can go back to work at the Landing Strip, no questions asked. Is her fight for the right to pole dance a victory for womanhood? Well, yes, maybe it is. Mindy won't be one of those wives who takes the off-ramp out of her career and into dependency on a man who can't stay employed. She'll get to dance into her dotage. Hmm, now I am back to The Wrestler, and Marisa Tomei trying to sell a lap dance to a bunch of barely of-age boys. Clearly, I need to see more movies.

Cash, of course, is the rotten louse of the episode. This all felt a little staged to me, and, Meghan, you were right that FNL is too soft-hearted to rub Tyra out like The Wire would have. A couple of moments mollified me, though. The first was Landry's face when he hears that Tyra's excuse for skipping school is that her aunt is sick: He's heard that one before—the night he got his wisdom teeth out and Tyra was a no-show—and it underscores the degree to which he is her forever crushed-out keeper. Also satisfying: Eric's deft handling of Cash at the crucial moment, standing between him and Tami as she helped Tyra into the car. My husband thought Cash would have taken a swing, but I disagreed, because of the way Eric fills the screen. He's one bull that Cash won't ride.

Hanna, your analogy between Tyra and Lolita threw me at first, because our Tropicana Motel girl is 17 and looks 20. Pre-rescue, as she sat alone in the bar where Cash left her surrounded by skanky men, I flashed unwillingly to Jodie Foster in The Accused. But Tyra does shrink into a younger girl in the back of the Taylors' car, with her teary "yes, ma'am" in response to Tami's questions. It's all very sobering, I know, but I couldn't let go of Tami and Eric's lost night away together. Those fluffy white hotel robes! No wonder good principals are hard to find.

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Hanna Rosin and Emily Bazelon
Subject: Week 9: Don't You Miss Smash?

Posted Monday, March 16, 2009, at 12:33 PM ET

Yes, Dillon, Texas, has succumbed to the spell of a bad moon. Things get screwy and sad in this episode for pretty much everyone, from Eric and Tami to the kids—Tyra and Lyla and Mindy and the hapless "men" in their lives. In this episode, men fail and women turn their backs, one way or another. Even Matt is "failing" his grandmother, who suddenly wants assurances he'll be around to take care of her. (Emily, I agree: This new selfishness seemed a stretch; though I don't know much about dementia, and perhaps it could take this form.)

From a certain perspective, you could read this as an inverted object lesson in the danger of attachment. The object of your affection will never conform to the mood lighting of your inner fantasies. Of course, then there's "Sunny," as I now call Matt's earnest mom. Blond, elfin, soft-spoken, she's like the dream-mom lonely kids conjure up before they go to sleep, hoping she'll come rescue them from the dreariness that is life.

Which makes me wish we could see or hear from Matt's dad again. The show was brave to introduce Iraq as a topic in an earlier season (when we met Matt's dad in between tours overseas). And it's too bad the show won't make good on that introduction by letting us really get to know Matt's enlisted father. According to Faludi's theories of masculinity, he's the real deal, not an example of "ornamental bravery." Someone who looked male but turned out to be ornamental is Cash, that pill-popping, smile-flashing fraud. There's a lot of latent old-fashioned chivalry in the writing of this episode: Cash's big crime is letting other guys leer at his gal while he goes after money. (I wonder if this, too, is not an object lesson—a subliminal message to all the male breadwinners who privilege work and forget to spend any time taking care of the little lady. OK, probably not, but we could read it that way.)

This episode is certainly soap operatic—it's positively sudsy, in fact. But I did like the depiction of that awkward car ride home with Tyra, silence settling over everyone like a toxic cloud, all the shifting and twitching of being in a speeding vehicle eager to get home. You can see Tyra is shaken and will still grimace years later when, crossing a street, she happens to think back to this moment.

It's this moment, though, that also led me to suspect teenagers may hate this show. I have an enduring belief that I would have loved it back when I was 14. But I'm beginning to suspect I would've just thought it was "dumb." Not that I actually would have had any opinions, because my parents were busy making sure I was a permanent nerd: We had no TV at home. And this, it occurs to me some nights, must really be why I love Friday Night Lights. The show puts me in touch with an imagined teenage self I can relate to better than I now can to my real teenage self. In other words: Does this show capture something about being a teenager that a real live teenage girl can relate to? (Yes, and its name is Tim Riggins, says a little voice in my head.) Or does it cater to nostalgic adults like me, who want, for a moment, to feel that old sense of yearning entwined with the promise of old ideas like honor and grace?

Hanna, Emily, what do you think?

I confess: For me, the show lost something—a levity, a playfulness, a social depth—when it lost Smash.

From: Hanna Rosin
To: Emily Bazelon and Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: Week 9: Pole Dancing as Feminist Liberation

Posted Monday, March 16, 2009, at 6:17 PM ET

Definitely nostalgic adults, I would say. With its teenagers burdened by heavy responsibilities, the show conforms to a line Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, once used to describe Al Gore: "an old person's idea of a young person." One fan, Ruth Samuelson, wrote to say she interviewed football players from the school where the show was originally shot. They were all pretty lukewarm about the show and preferred MTV's Two-A-Days. Also, FNL is apparently one of the most popular among "affluent viewers," which can't be teenagers.

That said, I love your point, Meghan, about Shelby/Sunny—that she is an orphan's fantasy of a mother. This would explain her flatness, her angelic nature, and Matt's near-muteness. It would also attribute to the show a genuine child's-eye view.

One thought I had reading your descriptions of Mindy and Tyra: For the first time, Tyra fails where Mindy succeeds. Tyra is a victim in that skeevy dive of a bar, the terrified object of threatening male attention. Mindy, meanwhile, is using the skeevy bar as the source of her feminist liberation.

Now, all you die-hard fans, check out these rumors of two more seasons, and begin to ask yourselves the relevant questions: Can Tyra, Riggins, and Lyla all flunk senior year? Can they really shoot half of the next season in San Antonio, where Riggins apparently will be? Is J.D. man enough to inherit the drama?

war stories
Don't Be Afraid To Kill the F-22
Why Pentagon program cuts won't necessarily bring job cuts.
By Fred Kaplan
Thursday, March 19, 2009, at 6:19 PM ET

Word is that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates plans to slash or kill several big-ticket weapons programs when he rolls out the full details of the Pentagon budget next month. The contractors for some of the projects on the chopping block are fighting back pre-emptively with the most potent slogan in politics today: Jobs!

Many lawmakers and commentators who are otherwise critical of excess military spending wonder whether it's a good idea to swing the ax at a time when the government is spending more than a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy.

Lockheed-Martin is milking this sentiment, most blatantly with a full-page ad in the Washington Post warning that halting production of its F-22 Raptor fighter jet—believed to be a top candidate for cancellation—would mean the loss of 95,000 jobs. The advertisement's photo features not the sleek supermodern plane itself, as similar ads have in the past, but rather a blue-collar worker in a Chicago foundry, one of more than 1,000 factories in 46 states that share a piece of the Raptor's action.

But there's something wrong with this picture (apart from the irony of a major corporation appearing to support Lenin's claim that capitalism requires ever-expanding production for war). The fact is, Gates could kill the F-22 and a bunch of other programs like it—and cause very little, if any, economic damage, at least in the next couple years while the recession still lingers.

Here's why.

There are two measures of the federal budget. One is "budget authority"—how much money is requested and allocated. The other is "outlays"—how much is actually spent in a given year. For much of the budget, in the Pentagon and elsewhere, the two measures are nearly identical; most of the money goes for salaries, which is spent right away. But weapons programs are large-scale capital projects. They take years to build, and therefore it takes years for budget authority to translate into outlays.

Precisely how many years is spelled out in a voluminous document called the National Defense Budget Estimate (also known as "the green book"), published each spring by the Pentagon's comptroller. The relevant chart (on Pages 48 and 49 of last year's edition) is labeled "Outlay Rates To Be Used for Incremental Changes in Budget Authority," and it reports the rates for each category of military spending over a seven-year period.

For instance, for Air Force aircraft procurement, only 23 percent of the money authorized in a budget is spent in the first year. Another 32 percent is spent in the second year, 26 percent in the third year, 11 percent in the fourth year, 5 percent in the fifth year, 1 percent in the sixth year, and 1.7 percent in the seventh year.

With this in mind, look at the F-22 Raptor. Last year, for the fiscal year 2009 budget, Congress approved $3.6 billion to buy 20 more planes. By the green book's calculation, just $828 million of that sum is being spent during 2009 (the first year of outlays). Almost $1.2 billion of it will be spent next year, another $1 billion in the year after that, and so forth.

In other words, the Pentagon pays out more money to the contractors in each of the two years after the budget goes into effect that it does in the initial year.

Money flows more slowly still in the Navy's shipbuilding accounts, where a number of projects—most notably the Elmo Zumwalt DDG-1000 destroyer—are thought to be in danger. According to the green book, just 18 percent of the money budgeted for shipbuilding gets spent in the first year, 25 percent in the second year, 20 percent in the third year, 15 percent in the fourth year, 12.5 percent in the fifth year, 8.5 percent in the sixth year, and 1 percent in the seventh year.

Three years ago, in the budget for fiscal year 2007, Congress authorized $3.57 billion to build two DDG-1000s. In FY 2008 and 2009, it added $2.76 billion and $2.5 billion, respectively. Without reciting the math, it's clear that Gates could put an end to the program now—and the money for those two destroyers will keep coming in for a few years to come. Navy officers have testified that the second destroyer won't be delivered until 2014.

If there were a clear military need for these weapons systems, all these calculations would be irrelevant. But the 187 existing F-22s—a plane designed during the Cold War, built at a cost of $65 billion to date, and not used even once in any of the wars we've actually been fighting the past few years—seem more than adequate for any plausible mission. And even Navy officers testified last summer that they would rather cut short their purchase of DDG-1000s—on which they'd planned to spend another $12 billion over the next four years—and restart production of older Arleigh Burke DDG-51s instead (though we seem to have more than enough of those ships, too).

There are two main arguments keeping the military budget at a record high: the war on terror and jobs. Nobody pretends that the Raptor or the Zumwalt has anything to do with battling al-Qaida. And the Pentagon's own numbers show they don't have much to do with jobs.

xx factor xxtra
Are prominent conservative pundits really in a catfight over body fat?
By Dahlia Lithwick
Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 6:21 PM ET

At first, it just made you go hmmm: Here was Meghan McCain, 24-year-old daughter of the former Republican presidential contender, blitzing the airwaves with her thoughts on what ails the GOP and using her column in Tina Brown's the Daily Beast to pick fights with Ann Coulter. In a deliberately controversial column that decried Coulter's tendency to deliberately court controversy, McCain wrote: "I straight up don't understand this woman or her popularity. I find her offensive, radical, insulting, and confusing all at the same time." That earned her a week (now spilling into two) of prime time television spots including The Rachel Maddow Show and The Early Show.

But the blonde-on-blonde catfight spiraled into a third dimension of lowlights when conservative radio show host Laura Ingraham—perhaps feeling left out—mocked McCain on her show last Thursday (listen at link) for being, among other things, cute, liberal, and, er, "plus-sized." Meghan, forced now to defend her weight as well as her politics, posted what she termed a "thoughtful" response at the Daily Beast, criticizing Ingraham for making her size an issue, then took the fight to The View yesterday morning, winningly telling Ingraham—while, of course, channeling Tyra Banks—to "like, kiss my fat ass."

In case you're still scoring all this in the margins of your seventh-grade Brenda Walsh yearbooks, Ingraham then took yet another swipe at McCain on her blog, calling her a "useful idiot" and "flavor of the month."

You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. This is the female version of the Rush Limbaugh-Michael Steele-David Frum smackdown for the soul of the GOP? One skinny blonde attacking another skinny blonde who is angrily defended by a third skinny blonde, after which everyone retires in a huff to their favorite health blogs to angrily discuss the importance of a positive body image and the need to support a healthy body mass index?

Ever wonder why some men think women are less than serious political thinkers? It certainly helps explain why so many men continue to believe that when it comes to "political discourse," women are all long, sprawling legs and silky blond hair in a tangle on the dessert cart. It's one thing to air your dirty laundry. But are we really stupid enough to be having a front-page battle over a plus-size thong?

Can you imagine the Y-chromosome version of Meghan McCain's recent appearance on The View? With Rush Limbaugh sitting at a round table surrounded by four supportive men, lamenting that men should help one another out more and that weight is the "last socially accepted prejudice" in America? Can you imagine David Frum sneering about Limbaugh or any other well-known political critic, "I've never heard of him before" as Meghan McCain giggled yesterday about Ingraham? (And can you imagine any serious television hosts chortling in girlish solidarity that "Laura Ingraham" was "the lady from Little House on the Prairie?" Grow up, View!)

If you're going to fight about politics, fight about politics. Here's a useful litmus test: As long as the media continue to cover women's political differences in their "Health" sections, we are probably doing something wrong. Just as Michelle Obama has been reduced to a perpetual fashion story, the fight for the future of young women in the GOP has now become a body-image story. Well done, ladies! Way to get your thoughts and preferences taken seriously!

Michelle Cottle suggests that Ingraham's mistake lay in the criticism by one leggy, blond sex kitten of a younger leggy, blond sex kitten. Perhaps. But I'm uncomfortable taking Anne Baxter's* side over Bette Davis' or vice versa where spectacularly pointless catfights are concerned. My view is generally that an eyelash for an eyelash leaves the whole world blind.

Were Ingraham's comments about McCain's weight thoughtless and stupid? Of course. Are McCain's hands lily white in the catfight rules of engagement? No. Don't believe me? Consider that her first column on Coulter attacked the Republican pundit for, among other things, her "voice." It reminded me of nothing so much as Sarah Palin's claim that she couldn't stand Clinton's "whining." When women, or men, criticize women's voices—whether we're going after Michelle Obama's allegedly angry one or (forgive me, Tina Fey!) Sarah Palin's allegedly crazy one—it's not all that different from going after their weight. It's a way of reducing what they have to say to what they sound like. It's a way of questioning their entitlement to speak at all. Which is why it's not something men typically complain about in other men.

Then there was McCain's nasty little zinger about Ingraham's age. Maybe you missed it amid all the fat chat. But in her column asking Ingraham to lay off the gratuitous weight comments, McCain dug deep and landed this little gratuitous snot-bomb: "Unfortunately, even though Ingraham is more than 20 years older than I and has been a political pundit for longer, almost, than I have been alive, she responded in a form that was embarrassing to herself and to any woman listening to her radio program who was not a size 0."

Get that, readers? Laura Ingraham is really, really, really old. She's so old she's been a pundit for longer (almost) than McCain has been alive. Classic girl-on-girl smear. And not something, say, David Frum would try on Rush Limbaugh because in man-world, being old and experienced is deemed a good thing. McCain has to know that when twentysomethings call fortysomethings old, they really mean it's time for Botox and a good divorce attorney because I'm coming to take your husband. There's a lot of snark in McCain, which will doubtless make her a brilliant heiress to the Coulter-Ingraham crown someday, but it makes her cries of mistreatment somewhat more difficult to tolerate.

And that's the problem. Meghan McCain just hasn't been doing this punditry thing long enough to understand that you can't suck and blow at the same time. The single most baffling line penned in the current catfight comes in McCain's latest salvo against Ingraham:

I also thought the media outlets that reported on Laura's comments about me were out of line. I don't listen to Laura's show, so if journalists hadn't picked up on it and reported on it, I never would have known what she said. I wonder how Laura would feel if at some point someone were to criticize her daughter's weight and broadcast it nationally on the radio.

Now, I don't want to expend a whole lot of energy here close-reading Meghan McCain, but is she, in fact, claiming that the media outlets that joyfully reported on her Coulter claims, interviewed her about them, and then reported on those interviews were "out of line" for covering Ingraham's remarks as well, because such widespread media coverage allowed McCain to hear unpleasant things about herself?? Is the problem here that only Meghan's complaints about others are fair game or that claims about weight are not news? Oh, Meghan. Go out and buy a copy of US Weekly. Weight is always news.

McCain's problem isn't her weight, or her views, or even the fact that she doesn't know a lot. It's that she suddenly holds a rather enormous megaphone without understanding that the person most likely to be smacked on the head with it is herself. I am about to write a sentence I never believed myself capable of writing: I score this game, set, and match to Ann Coulter, who has never met an opponent she won't destroy—including myriad imaginary ones—and yet has remained silent in the face of Meghan's wrath.

Last week, McCain told Maddow "If it was too hot in the kitchen, I'd get out. …" Yesterday, Ingraham retorted that "you know, sometimes the kitchen gets a little hot." The problem with the whole hot-kitchen metaphor is that it's as archaic as these women who keep flinging it around. Women can fight in the kitchen if they want to, and they can crank up the heat if they so choose. But until we remember to argue on the merits, avoid the tired Mean Girls clichés, and speak as though what we have to say matters to men as well as to the viewers of America's Next Top Model, we'll never be taken seriously, in the kitchen or anyplace else.

Correction, March 17, 2009: This article originally misattributed Anne Baxter's role in All About Eve to Anne Bancroft. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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