Thursday, October 27, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/27/05)


Recipe for disaster. Want to diminish America's stature in the world? It's easy. Here are some do's and don'ts to make it happen:
1. Start by having no knowledge of the long colonial history of the Middle East, its nationalities, languages, cultures, religions, or fierce tribalism.
2. Take sides in an eight-year internecine war between neighboring countries Iraq and Iran that will cost a million lives on each side by supporting and propping up Iraq and its dictator, Saddam Hussein.
3. After evicting Saddam from Kuwait in the Gulf War, wear down your former ally with ten years of sanctions, in essence starving its children with limited access to food, medicines and health care.
4. In response to a surprise aerial strike on the U.S. by a relatively small band of religious zealots, mostly Saudi citizens, allow a group of unelected neocon chickenhawks who never served in the military to make a case for a preemptive attack on Iraq based on the unproven presence of weapons of mass destruction. Chief among these, Dick Cheney. When asked about his succession of deferments and failure to serve in the military, his response was, "I had other priorities."
5. Attack your former ally and invade it with a "coalition force" largely made up of American troops.
6. Do not heed your military experts' advice on the size of forces necessary to achieve military victory and to occupy a vast country.
7. Upon gaining victory over an inferior army, fail to anticipate inevitable armed resistance. Attempt to fight a guerrilla war with an army designed and equipped to engage Soviet forces in giant set-piece battles on the plains of Central Europe.
8. Neglect to secure ammunition depots and do not prevent looting of the country's infrastructure.
9. Fail to equip your troops with armored vehicles and the latest body armor.
10. Upon finding no weapons of mass destruction, create the fiction that the purpose of the war was to democratize Iraq, a fractionated country that has never known democracy.
11. Disband the Iraqi Army, which could have formed the core of new Iraqi defense and security forces. Allow Iraqi soldiers to return home with their weapons and join the ranks of the unemployed.
12. Take over Saddam's infamous prison at Abu Graib and instead of bulldozing it, staff it and operate it. Allow enlisted guards to humiliate and torture prisoners. Blame and punish the enlisted personnel but not their officers.
13. Have your officers occupy Saddam's luxurious and ostentatious former palaces as living quarters and offices.
14. Hunker down behind sandbags in fortified complexes, creating "Little Americas" offering the amenities of American life in sharp contrast with the poverty surrounding them.
15. Install in power wealthy expatriate Iraqis who chose to live abroad during Saddam's rule, including Ahmed Chalabi, the CIA's favorite misinformation source.
16. Dawdle on rebuilding the infrastructure in Iraq you destroyed or allowed to be looted.
17. Instead of creating jobs for millions of unemployed Iraqis, award lucrative no-bid contracts to American contractors in a process so rife with malfeasance and corruption that billions of dollars will be lost and unaccounted for.
18. To guard favored American contractors, lease a heavily armed and highly paid private army of soldiers of fortune from security companies like Blackwater and allow them to make their own rules.
19. As the number and severity of incidents increase, release statements claiming that the situation is under control.
20. Arbitrarily extend tours of duty and degrade morale, especially among Reserve and National Guard units.
21. In the face of mounting casualties and the increasing number and severity of attacks on your forces, close your eyes to grim reality and issue upbeat statements about the imminence of victory.
22. Ride herd on an "elected" government and help it to write a "satisfactory" constitution.
23. Fail to change tactics to fight a fourth-generation war. Remain unmoved by two thousand American dead and tens of thousands of American wounded or that you have killed and wounded many times that number of Iraqi civilians.
24. Have no exit plan for disengagement from Iraq.
25. Refuse to concede that you may have made a mistake.

Death of a friend. As were readers all over the world, I was shocked to learn of Isaac Asimov's death on April 6, 1992. Years before, as the editorial director of a book club, The Library of Science, I came to know this prodigiously prolific writer. Choosing his books as book club offerings was easy; they always became bestsellers. When I wrote a book about how to set up and operate a home office, he generously wrote a cover blurb for it. His phone number was in the Manhattan book--but not under his own name. It was listed under the single name, "Nightfall"--the title of one of his most successful science fiction stories.

I knew that Isaac was ill with an increasingly debilitating disease, yet the nature of it was mentioned. He had been hospitalized for triple bypass surgery in December of 1983 and came through the operation with no loss of brain power, his greatest fear. The only worrisome incident was an unusually high fever the day after the operation, but that soon passed.

By 1990, he developed a heart murmur and was scheduled to have mitral valve replacement. In tests before that operation, he tested positive for HIV, with only half the number of normal T cells. The operation was canceled.

Suddenly, it became clear. The culprit was the blood given to him during the bypass operation. It was neither autologous blood previously taken from him, nor blood from known donors. No HIV screening tests had been done on it. On the advice of the doctors treating him, the news was withheld from the public, possibly to protect their reputations. His wife, Janet Jeppson, herself an M.D., reluctantly agreed to keep the news secret.

Despite his illness, his output of books barely slackened. Growing increasingly weak toward the end, Isaac accepted the inevitable with courage. "It's been a good life," he said, "and I'm satisfied with it." He had made it past the biblical "three score and ten."

There's a troubling "what if" that goes with this anecdote. His blood type was Type B; my blood type is the same. Had he but known that the transfused blood would not be screened! He joins Arthur Ashe and perhaps thousands of others who were infected by tainted blood during surgery.

And so I say, "Ave, Ike"--the name he permitted only a few friends to call him.


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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/20/05)


Your tax dollars at work. In spite of their experience in last year's very active hurricane season, when Katrina struck in August it came as no surprise to learn that FEMA had no standing contract to supply standard items such as the plastic tarps to cover damaged roofs. And if the failed response by Michael Brown's FEMA didn't cause concern, consider these latest disasters:

To house some of the hundreds of thousands of homeless families displaced by the flood water, FEMA made a $236 million agreement with Carnival Cruise Lines for three ships. Two of them, Sensation and Ecstasy, each capable of holding 2,606 passengers, now lie more than half empty in the Mississippi River. The third, the 1,800-passenger Holiday, is anchored in the harbor of Pascagoula, Mississippi, only one-third occupied.

The ships now house nowhere near the numbers FEMA projected. Evacuees saw the ships not as a haven but as a hindrance to finding new jobs and making a new life. If the ships were at full capacity with 7,112 evacuees for six months, the full term of the contract, the cost per person would be $1,275 a week. With less evacuees, costs are about $2,550 per person per week. If the government had sent evacuees on cruises, it could have reduced the cost to a quarter of the amount it spent for the three immobile ships. A basic seven-day cruise of the western Caribbean out of Galveston costs only $599 a person--and that includes entertainment and the cost of the fuel oil to propel the ships. Yet Carnival insists that it is losing money on the deal.

Carnival Cruise Lines, headquartered in Miami but incorporated in Panama for tax purposes, is extremely profitable. It paid an infinitesimal $1.3 million in income tax last year on pretax income of $1.9 billion, claiming that its operations are not in the U.S. but on the open waters of the high seas. U.S. companies average about 25 percent in taxes, which means that without its tax dodge Carnival would have owed $475 million in taxes.

To further underscore FEMA's ineptitude, relief officials revealed that nearly 600,000 evacuees had been moved from shelters to hotel rooms--192,424 rooms in 9,600 hotels in cities scattered across the United States. The cost to the government for this hotel housing is a whopping $11 million a day.

Nevertheless, last week more than 22,000 people remained in shelters. Critics blasted FEMA's passivity and slowness in finding apartments or setting up temporary trailer parks. Others charged that neither ships nor hotel rooms represented a long-term solution for families attempting to reestablish themselves. One former HUD official now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, said, "This is not incompetence; this is willful." Heaven help the victims of the next big disaster whose fate will be in the hands of such bumblers.

Word laundering. Gunsel, a word commonly heard these days in movies and on TV to describe a gunman, was first used by Dashiell Hammett in The Maltese Falcon. The now-classic novel first appeared in five installments in the pulp magazine Black Mask between September 1929 and January 1930. Later published by Alfred A. Knopf in hardcover in 1930, Hammett's gallery of rogues, thieves and liars remains his masterwork. Members of the Mystery Writers Association voted it "the greatest crime book written by an American."

Private detective Sam Spade uses the word gunsel referring to the boy Wilmer, Kasper Gutman's young companion, telling the fat man in a tense moment, "Keep that gunsel away from me or I'll kill him." It was definitely not a word used in polite society. Readers familiar with the slang of the hobo jungle were surprised to see the word in print. Although Black Mask favored hardboiled detective heroes, legendary editor Joseph T. Shaw allowed no words with sexual overtones in his magazine. This being a family newspaper, I can only describe gunsel as a young boy kept for sexual purposes.

To divert Shaw from cutting a word meant to identify the relationship between Gutman and Wilmer, Hammett had Sam Spade ask Wilmer as they are going to see the fat man, "How long have you been off the gooseberry lay?" Shaw took the bait and blue-penciled the innocuous question. In tramp slang, gooseberry lay merely meant stealing newly washed garments from clothes lines, a favorite hobo method of renewing a wardrobe. Today, the overlooked word gunsel has come to mean gunman, a sense that Joe Shaw probably thought it had when he left it in the manuscript.

Double standard. When asked by reporters about Judge John Roberts' Roman Catholicism, President Bush rejected such inquiries. Yet when questions were raised about his nominee Harriet Miers' qualifications to be a Supreme Court Justice, President Bush cited her membership in a Protestant evangelical church. Apparently, he conveniently forgot that Article 6 of the Constitution says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office."

Pickup lines. In September of 1952, I sailed from New York to Le Havre on the French liner Liberté. I was on my way to Algeria by way of Paris. I had booked first-class passage with its sumptuous cuisine as recompense for an expected long stay in the desert. Before the ship sailed, I noticed flashbulbs going off on the promenade deck, where Hollywood actor-singer Bing Crosby and makeup artist Wally Westmore were being interviewed by reporters. They were on their way to France to make a motion picture titled Little Boy Lost. In this film, made with a mostly French cast, Crosby plays a former war correspondent who had married a French girl, later killed by the Nazis. He returns to France after the war to find his son, believed to be in an orphanage in Paris.

Following dinner the first night out on the Atlantic, I went to the ship's first class library, all dark mahogany and rich brown leather. I had just started to inspect the books, mostly leather-bound French classics when Messrs. Crosby and Westmore strolled in. Immediately recognizable, the balding Crosby was not wearing the hairpiece he always wore in films. They sat in a leather couch and ordered brandy and cigars. Sitting opposite them on a similar leather couch were two attractive young women, their slightly nervous manner hinting that they were not first-class passengers.

Probably because first-class passengers tended to be older, French Line boats were relaxed about passengers, especially female passengers, venturing into first class from other classes. In fact, they almost encouraged it since female presence in the ship's night club made it livelier. British boats, on the other hand, were strict about this, even erecting portable barriers to keep classes from mixing.

The two young women tried to appear nonchalant as they chatted, stealing sidelong glances at Crosby. After a while, Wally Westmore got up and walked over to the women. I eavesdropped, striving to appear attentive to the book I held. Like a fly on the wall, I was getting a unique chance to observe pickup techniques, Hollywood style.

Obviously, old standards--lines like "Haven't we met before?" or "Do you come here often?"--would have been inappropriate. Standing before them, Westmore cleared his throat, smiled and said, "Excuse me, ladies. My friend over there and I are having an argument. I wonder if you would settle it for us. He claims you two girls are sisters; I say you're not. Which one of us is right?"


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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/13/05)


Man vs. the animals. In New York's Bronx Zoo is a large mirror in the Great Apes House. When a visitor looks at this mirror--through the realistic bars of a cage--this legend can be seen: "You are looking at the most dangerous animal in the world. It alone of all the animals that ever lived can exterminate (and has) entire species of animals. Now it has achieved the power to wipe out all life on earth."

Stone Age man both worshipped and exploited animals. Through homeopathic magic, early man hoped to acquire the admired traits of animals by eating their flesh: the deer for its swiftness, the dog for its tracking ability.

The ancient Greeks lavished affection on animals, especially dogs, horses and birds. Aristotle produced the first great zoological encyclopedia, his History of Animals, in which he wrote with remarkable insight that animals possessed many of the psychical attributes found in man, the difference being only one of degree.

By contrast, Roman law was harsh when applied to animals. Beasts were private property and regarded as things to be used, or used up, at the owner's discretion--a pagan attitude that was incorporated wholesale into Christian theology. The Romans made the discovery that voyeurism and cruelty had enormous mass appeal. The entire known world was scoured for animals to be used in spectacular contests. The form of combat that stirred the masses most was that between a captured Gaul, a criminal or a Christian and a wild animal.

Although Judaism sanctioned animal sacrifice, the dignity of the animal was recognized and its ritual slaughter was regarded as a tragic necessity--an instance of the distinction that humanitarians still insist on between the ethics of killing and the ethics of hurting.

No subject in the history of man's relationship with animals is more fantastic than the jurisprudence that evolved in medieval times with regard to animals. Bugs, birds, small mammals and the larger domestic animals were supposed to live according to the law and to be familiar with the statutes--a kind of back-handed acknowledgment that animals had a place of sorts in the society of men.

This attitude reached an apex of ridiculousness in the trials of animals accused of violating human law. Such trials took place in France and every other "civilized" country in Europe. Hogs were the principal defendants because they roamed so freely, but other prosecuted animals included ants, asses, bulls, cows, eels, goats, sheep, wolves and worms. Animals were brought to the bar of justice over a long period of time--from A.D. 824 when moles were prosecuted in the valley of Aosta in Italy to 1906 when a dog was sentenced to death in Switzerland.

Ever since human life first appeared on the planet, man has exploited and killed every life form, destroying their habitats and exterminating some species completely, thus diminishing the rich diversity of creatures that inhabited the planet. Even the mightiest of animals is helpless and vulnerable under our onslaught. Through our arrogance and ignorance we have altered the balance of nature. More than that, we may have foolishly destroyed sources of life-saving enzymes and pharmaceuticals that could be saving human lives today.

Uncanny predictions. In August of 2001, a FEMA training session concluded that three major disasters might strike the United States: (1) a terrorist attack on New York City; (2) a hurricane striking New Orleans; (3) a strong earthquake near San Francisco. The first occurred the following month; the second four years later. How long will it take for the third to happen?

Clouded crystal ball. Before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast ports, they handled much of the oil, coffee and bananas imported into the U.S. as well as the corn, wheat and soybeans floated down the Mississippi on barges and exported. Much of the oysters, chickens, cotton and sugar we consume are also produced in the Gulf Coast region. Katrina shut down nine of 14 refineries--one-eighth of U.S. refinery capacity--and reduced its offshore oil production by 20 percent and knocked out a big chunk of its natural gas production. Rebuilding the devastated area as promised by President Bush will be the greatest reconstruction project ever attempted in this country.

The name Ben Bernanke may not ring a bell with you. As Katrina struck, Dr. Ben Bernanke, 51, Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers since April 2005, claimed reassuringly, "the effects of Hurricane Katrina will be relatively modest."

What makes this statement so scary is that Ben Bernanke heads the short list of candidates to replace Alan Greenspan when his term as head of the Federal Reserve expires early next year. Adding a city's population scattered to 48 states without jobs and vowing never to return the Gulf coast to the staggering cost for rebuilding the region approaching $200 billion doesn't yield a "modest effect" in my arithmetic book. The demographics and the voting patterns of many communities may see significant changes.

Disappearance solved. Remember those nodding little figures you used to see in the rear window of the car in front of you? Know where they've all gone? To the Weather Channel, where two meteorologists sit before a weather map, one reading the weather forecast and the other looking at the first and silently nodding in agreement. Then they swap roles, and the first speaker becomes the nodder for a while and the other becomes the card reader.

Ghost words is a term coined to describe words that never actually existed, but were created by a typographical error or misreading of a handwritten manuscript and perpetuated in error. The most famous is "dord." Early printings of the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary in 1934 carried this entry: "dord n. Density." What had happened was that an entry ("D. or d. Density") intended for the section on common abbreviations somehow found its way into the slips for the main body of the dictionary. It was edited and styled as an entry and labeled "n." for noun. The editors eventually discovered what had happened and removed the ghost word.

Another common ghost word is "Ye," seen in names like "Ye Olde Antique Shoppe,” which should be pronounced with a "th" sound and not a "y" sound. It comes from a substituting "y" for the runic letter that stood for the sound "th," no longer in our alphabet. So "Ye" really has been "The" all along.

Sexist fashion statement. Why are male fashion models showing designers' latest collections told to shamble down the runway while female models are forced to adopt an unnatural cross-legged gait? The women resemble nothing more than motorists suspected of DUI ("driving under the influence") who are required to demonstrate that they can walk a straight line.

Sticky business. I used to be a postage stamp collector in the days when you pasted tiny "hinges" to the back of stamps and affixed them in albums. Now that stamps are almost universally self-adhesive, would someone please tell me how one collects them in albums today?


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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/06/05)


A tale of two cities. Anguished residents watched as water relentlessly rushed through breached levees, poured into city streets and began to rise, inundating whole neighborhoods. Those who had not evacuated perched on rooftops holding makeshift signs to attract rescuers in helicopters. Fires broke out, sparked by broken electrical wires and fueled by ruptured gas lines. Thousands of residents crowded into shelters.

New Orleans in August of 2005? No, Grand Forks, North Dakota, in April of 1997. The Red River of the North, which forms much of the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota, became choked with melting snow. One of the few U.S. rivers that flow north, it was so named to distinguish it from the tributary of the Mississippi, which rises in the Texas Panhandle.

An error in the hydrological model created by the National Weather Service (NWS) based on the height reached in a 1979 flood combined with freakish weather to cause the near destruction of Grand Forks, Nebraska, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, its twin across the river. The NWS had foreseen a height of 49 feet; the river crested at 54 feet and forced the largest evacuation of an American city since Atlanta in the Civil War. At its widest extent, water covered everything up to two miles from the river. Angry with the faulty NWS prediction, one citizen spray-painted a message on the side of his flooded house, "49 feet my ass."

What a difference eight years--and a different FEMA--can make. Even before the flood struck, FEMA officials had been in Grand Forks months before the disaster, advising residents to take out insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program. During the flood, in the words of one writer, the FEMA staff performed, "like a well-oiled machine," not only in Grand Forks but in the entire Red River Valley. Moving in the moment the NWS warned residents to expect more water than the levees could hold, they brought with them a state-of-the-art headquarters trailer, dubbed "Red October." One of FEMA's mobile command centers, it contained a dozen computers linked to the Internet, a satellite communications system, a radio system, and 48 phone lines, including dedicated lines to the White House and the Pentagon.

On the very day the river reached its crest, President Bill Clinton arrived in Grand Forks, bringing with him the director of FEMA, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Army, Health and Humans Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and the head of the Small Business Administration. At the Grand Forks Air Force base they met with the governors of North Dakota and Minnesota, the states' congressional delegation, and the mayors of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Before leaving the White House, Clinton directed FEMA to raise federal aid to 100 percent instead of the usual 75 percent. Impressed with the massed expertise, Patricia Owens, Mayor of Grand Forks, tearfully told Bill Clinton, "You bring us hope." Remarkably, when the water receded and casualties were totaled, not a single life had been lost in the flood. Grand Forks has been largely rebuilt. Acting on the advice of the Army Corps of Engineers, he flood plains have been returned to the river.

Since its creation in 1979 by the Carter administration, FEMA had been a political dumping ground for political hacks. Its first director, John Macy, was a longtime civil servant with experience in defense. Next came a close friend of Edwin Meese, later Reagan's attorney general, Louis O. Giuffrida, who resigned amid allegations of misconduct. Julius W. Becton, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, replaced him. On the heels of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina called FEMA "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever worked with." President George H,W. Bush appointed Wallace E. Stickney, a protege of White House chief of staff John H. Sununu, in 1990.

A 1992 House Appropriations Committee report described Stickney as "a weak, uninterested executive who has little interest in the agency's programs." The report called the agency "a political dumping ground, a 'turkey farm.'" It said that FEMA was "filled with inexperienced appointees who mismanaged the agency, misled Congress, and funneled consulting contracts to their friends."

Confronted with this shabby history, Bill Clinton selected in 1993 someone from Arkansas he could rely upon. As Governor, he had put James Lee Witt in charge of reorganizing the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. People in Washington assumed that since Witt came from Arkansas and they had never heard of him, he must be another hack. He weeded out most of the incompetents and honing the agency to a fine edge. Recognizing its importance, Clinton raised the agency to cabinet status.

A 1996 editorial in the Atlanta Constitution noted that Witt was the first director of the agency to have emergency-management experience and praised him for stopping the staffing of the agency by political patronage. "He removed layers of bureaucracy. Most important, he instilled in the agency a spirit of preparedness, of service to the customer, of willingness to listen to ideas of local and state officials to make the system work better."

Witt's firm hand and contagious management philosophy succeeded. A year after the flood, a Grand Forks police lieutenant who had lost his home described his own experience: "The main thing I got from dealing with FEMA was the courtesy, the compassion they showed. It was truly unbelievable and helpful for us and my family and the town."

Contrast this record with the Administration's feeble performance in Hurricane Katrina: A floundering FEMA director praised on TV by President Bush for "doing a heck of a job" when millions of TV watchers could see otherwise. Or President Bush's insensitive joking on the first of seven photo-op visits to a desolated New Orleans about the boozy times in the French Quarter when he had "sometimes too much fun."

Yet, in 2000, George W. Bush had nothing but praise for James Lee Witt. During the first presidential debate with Al Gore, he described the fires and floods that had swept Texas and said, "I have to pay the [Clinton] administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis." Bush would have been wiser to keep him instead of that other Clinton holdover, CIA director George Tenant. But in 2001, Bush returned FEMA to the cronies and hacks, first Joe Allbaugh, his campaign manager, who left to become a lobbyist for Halliburton, and then to clueless Michael Brown, he of the inflated resumé.

Today FEMA, of crucial importance in any emergency, is only a tiny cog in the unwieldy huge machine called the Department of Homeland Security. Why should the competence of the head of FEMA be a concern in this corner of Westchester, historically so tranquil and devoid of natural disasters? What's the worst that could happen? Let me count the ways: First, our two aging atomic energy plants, inviting targets for terrorists. They are also nearing the end of their useful lives and increasingly prone to leaks and shutdowns. Add an unreliable siren system plus a flawed, untested evacuation plan, best described as another stalled Houston highway exodus waiting to happen. Need I say more?


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