Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Photo Ops

I read the paper daily yet never watch the nightly news on television. I find the blink-of-an-eye coverage offered by the electronic media to be infuriating; I get, at most, a vague and frustrating retinal image of history, a useless hint of vast events. I  certainly don’t get information.

The same is true of photo coverage in American dailies. There are, I’ve discovered, about a dozen stock images trotted out to fit a hundred stories. We are stuck with the blatantly overused:

  • The Grieving Woman. A mother/daughter/neighbor caught in a public moment of abject misery. Particularly popular to display the horrors of war, floods and tornadoes, and a foreign government’s nasty treatment of demonstrators against the regime.
  •  In the same genre we have The Wounded Fighter/Protestor, generally found in a Third World country, but on occasion in France, the UK or for some inexplicable reason, Guatemala.
  •  The Big-eyed Child.  Imagine 1970s artist Margaret Keane armed with a camera and sent to gather news. (And by the way, it is Margaret, and not her husband, who painted the sad-eyed waifs.)
  •  The Shouting Soldier/Dissident.  Very big in African and Middle Eastern coverage, and particularly handy for its generic qualities. Can you tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi? A Sudanese and a Libyan? I can’t either.
  •  The Coffin-carrying Crowd. Known among the cognoscenti as the Three C photo. Again, generic, and of particular use when portraying Pakistani/Iranian/Iraqi/Afghan anger, usually at Americans.
  •  The US corollary to the above is The Stars and Stripes-bedecked Coffin. Self-explanatory.
  •  The Flattened Trailer Court which in the wake of this season’s extreme weather has given way to The Flattened Small Town.
There are more, of course, photos of people, places and things that evoke immediate reactions. Some photos have vanished—the baby-kissing politician—and been replaced with updated versions—the politician caught in a sexual misdeed announcing his decision to go to rehab. 

Compared to its European cousin, the American photo media is quite squeamish. There’s no blood, no dismembered arms or legs, no evidence that the tornadoes and floods have actually killed people. Where Paris Match will show machete-wielding fighters hacking heads off, the Post or Times might have a horror of another kind, an intent child soldier perhaps, a starving woman in a refugee camp, the site of a mass grave in some forgotten nation. We did not show the execution of Saddam Hussein, nor Bin Laden’s body.

I’m not sure I understand this. I suppose its because we like our news, but we don’t want it to spoil breakfast.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Peter Principle Revisited

It’s an overcast Virginia afternoon under a sky that promises rain but reneges. We are having lunch, a dozen or so work friends and their spouses, most of us former employees of a UN organization that in decades past made a difference.  These are informed people from a variety of lands, well-traveled and still traveling, civil servants whose careers involved working with a plethora of cultures. 

It’s been a few days since Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested for sexually assaulting a maid at a Sofitel in New York. DS-K, up until that moment, was being groomed to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency of France. A top player in the rarified atmosphere of highest-level financial wizardry, DS-K was credited for making the Washington, DC-based IMF a player again after the institution was largely marginalized during the Bush years. In recent times, his organization has played a large role in dealing with the economic debacle that has shaken both the developed and developing world.

Following the arrest as he was headed back to Paris in a first-class Air France seat, DS-K was refused bond as a flight risk, and spent a couple of days on Ryker Island like a common convict.  

Think of it: powerful men seeking thrills... DS-K, Clinton, Kennedy, Gary Hart, Schwarzenegger,  too many Congressmen to bother mentioning and more preachers and televangelists than could fit on the head of a pin, all taking incredible career risks for a chance at quick and, of course, tawdry, sex.

Personally, I think we’re back to the Peter Principle.

You remember the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”  The Principle was formulated more than 40 years ago by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in a book of the same name, and while the authors at the time were talking about commerce and business, there is no reason to believe the notion can’t cross boundaries and find a home in politics, high finances, sports, and entertainment. Peter’s Corollary states that, “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out (his) duties.”  Humans, we know, are promoted based on their performances in their current jobs, as are politicians and other power-wielders. But often, the promotion (or election) is granted without the additional training needed to successfully perform new tasks and duties. That means a state legislator is not necessarily fit for national office, nor is a mayor ready to assume a state governorship.

Add to this the trappings of power—money, sexual opportunities, vast influence and a nascent feeling that one is above the rules of mere mortals (after all, one wouldn’t be where one is if one were not a superior being)—and you have the recipe for a debacle.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no solution.  In some instances, abuse of power may injure individuals with little impact on the whole. That, in itself, is also dangerous as it fosters an atmosphere of behavioral laissez faire. Maybe there should be moral IQ tests for anyone above a certain level, say, directorship or alderman. But then you’d have to test the testers too… I guess we’re stuck.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Newt and Callista--A Private Moment

I wonder if on occasion Callista Gingrich turns to her husband and asks, “Newt, honey, don’t you sometimes feel like, well, a slime ball?”
Newt, lost in thoughts of media conspiracies to rob him of the presidency, looks up,   “Whatever do you mean?”

“Well,” says Call, “you remember before we were married and you were still married to Marianne and we were already sleeping together and you went out after Billy Clinton for being an immoral man because of that thing with the intern?” She pauses, waiting for a response.

Newt, lost in thought about how the Democrats will use a quote where he clearly misspoke talking about healthcare, is also worried about that pesky half-million dollar bill from Tiffany’s. How did they find out about that? He couldn’t remember if he and Callista had paid off that bill or not on their revolving charge account.

“What’s your point, Call?”

“Billy didn’t even sleep with the girl, Newt, and you and me, well, we were already doing it, and didn’t that bother you, keeping a straight face while you demanded his impeachment?”

“And your point would be?”  Now Newt is worrying about what the East Coast establishmentarian left-wing intellectuals at the Washington Post and New York Times will write about his conversion to Catholicism.  It wasn’t self-serving.  He really felt the calling of Christ, another misunderstood leader of men.

“And while we’re on the subject of marriage,” Callista says, “someone asked me again about Jackie—you remember Jackie, your first wife?—being in the hospital for cancer and you proposing to Marianne at the same time while you still hadn’t told Jackie you wanted a divorce. I told them all I knew about that was that you met Jackie in high school and she was your geometry teacher. I still think that’s kind of cute, you being 16 and she was 25 and you ended up marrying her!”

This is all old news and Newt wishes people would just forget about it. Isn’t a man allowed some privacy?

“Well,” says Callista, “I was just thinking about all this stuff. Sometimes it bothers me a little.” She puts on her coat, pecks him on the cheek. “Bye now. I have to go to choir practice.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


One buffoon down, one to go. Yesterday, Donald Trump announced he would not seek the presidency, not because he felt he might lose (Trump does not lose) but because he basically had other, more interesting and profitable things to do. Which, all in all, makes him less of a buffoon than Newt Gingrich in whose eyes a  run for office has become a patriotic necessity. It seems no one else can save the nation and so the former speaker of the House feels it incumbent to do so. The hubris involved here is breathtaking.

In other news of great men doing foolish things, the head of the International Monetary Fund, an organization that lends vast sums to economically troubled nations, was accused of molesting an African chambermaid while nude in a $3,000-a-day New York hotel. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I hate to say it, is French, and part of that tribe of super-achievers who feel the daily rules of existence do not apply to them. His alleged post-assault behavior, however, puts him in the league of a local low-life thief who left his cell phone in a house he had robbed. D S-K thought he might have left his cell phone in the hotel. He called the concierge who had been alerted of the alleged assault and found out the IMF chief was at an airport and headed for Paris. Police removed him from the plane shortly before take-off and Le Chef spent the night in prison.

I am thinking that Newt and Dominique would make fine bedfellows. Newt wants to be President of the US. Dominique was rumored to be a strong Socialist candidate for the French presidency, challenging incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

I can’t help but fantasize on an initial meeting between Gingrich and Strauss-Khan should both have their political wishes granted and become el hombre numero uno of their respective nations.

Gingrich: “So, Dom, congrats! You beat the rap too!”

Strauss-Kahn: “Ah, Newton… All those petty people and their petty rules!”

Gingrich: “Tell me about it! You can’t imagine what I had to endure just because I had an affair and dated my third wife while still married to my second.”

Strauss-Kahn: “Mais oui. Or maybe mais non ! I was criticized for having an affair too, years ago! And then they charged me with attempted rape! Criminal sexual act! Sexual abuse! Forcible touching! Touching! Who would think that would matter? People!”

Gingrich (with apologies to Seinfeld): “People! They’re the worst!”

No doubt a new era of Franco-American friendship would blossom.  Almost makes me nostalgic for freedom fries…

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Newt! Newt! Newt!

Let us, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, nip this notion right in the butt. Newt Gingrich will not become the next—or any—President of the United  States. If he did, I would have to leave the area, if not the country.

Let me explain. I live in Northern Virginia, a few miles from the Nation’s Capital, close to—but not in—a highly exclusive neighborhood called McLean. Very rich people live in McLean, as does the Secretary of Defense, several congressmen, plastic surgeons, attorneys and other worthies without whom the country would certainly not survive. Newt lives in McLean as well. I occasionally run into him at the McLean Family Restaurant, a township icon venerated for its baked tilapia. Newt and a couple of bodyguards with thing in their ears show up there so he can presses the flesh, though I am
happy to say he has never even attempted to press mine. A vast relief, that!

I am sort of fanatical about Newt.  I think he’s a very smart man, perhaps an intellectual giant and certainly taller than one might expect for a moral midget. As a master of the double- and triple-speak he has come to define the concept of ‘Ready, fire, aim.”  This is not what you want in a Chief Executive.

Here, courtesy of The Nation magazine, are eleven Newt quotes that should leave both liberals and
conservatives scratching their respective (or each other's) heads. 

(1) “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren are] my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.” [Address to Cornerstone Church in Texas, March 2011]

(2) “The idea that a congressman would be tainted by accepting money from private industry or private sources is essentially a socialist argument.” [To Mother Jones magazine, October 1989]

(3)  “All I would say is, why did it take so long? The whole thing is strange.” [Speaking about the recent release of President Obama’s long-form birth certificate, April 2011]

(4) “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.” [To the National Review, September 2010]

(5) “It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.” – [Newt’s explanation for why his multiple affairs won’t damage his political fortunes, as told to his jilted wife.]

(6) “The secular socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” [In his book To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, May 2010.]

(7) “This is one of the great tragedies of the Bush administration. The more successful they’ve been at intercepting and stopping bad guys, the less proof there is that we’re in danger…. It’s almost like they should every once in a while have allowed an attack to get through just to remind us.” [At a book
signing in Huntington, NY, April 2008]

(8) "A mere 40 years ago, beach volleyball was just beginning. No bureaucrat would have invented it, and that's what freedom is all about.” [At the Republican National Convention, August 1996]

(9) “I want to say to the elite of this country—the elite news media, the liberal academic elite, the liberal political elite: I accuse you in Littleton…of being afraid to talk about the mess you have made, and being afraid to take responsibility for things you have done, and instead foisting upon the rest of
us pathetic banalities because you don’t have the courage to look at the world you have created.”  [Speaking about the Columbine shootings, May 1999]

(10) “How can you have the mess we have in New Orleans, and not have had deep investigations of the federal government, the state government, the city government, and the failure of citizenship in the Ninth Ward, where 22,000 people were so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn't get out of the way of a hurricane.” [Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, March

(11) “I’m running for President.” [5/11/2011]

‘Nuff said.

Friday, May 6, 2011


I wish I could say I am the writer of this but I’m not.  A friend sent it to me and it’s simply too good to pass up.  Enjoy.

This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the news for today, May 1st, 1945, read by Alvar Liddell.

Confusion continues to surround the last moments of Adolf Hitler, who died yesterday in his bunker in Berlin.

Incredibly, the world’s most-wanted man had been living in the heart of the capital of the Third Reich, in plain sight of millions of Germans who maintain they were not supporters of the Nazis and had no knowledge of the Fuhrer’s crimes again humanity.

First reports suggested that Hitler had been shot through the head in a fire-fight as special forces from the Red Army stormed the building. It was also claimed that he grabbed his long-term mistress Eva Braun, whom he had married in a secret ceremony, and used her as a human shield. Miss Braun was initially said to have suffered a flesh wound, but is now known to be dead. Subsequent statements from Supreme Allied Command indicate that the Fuhrer may have swallowed poison, before shooting himself between the eyes. The conflicting reports are attributed to ‘the fog of war.’

Hitler’s body was burned in the garden of the Reich Chancellery, although the Allies are refusing to release photographs because they are ‘too gruesome.’ Russian troops filmed the corpse, but it is feared that publication could inflame the excitable Nazi ‘street’ and lead to reprisal attacks.

A picture apparently showing Hitler lying on his back with a bullet hole in his forehead has been dismissed as a crude forgery. Conspiracy theorists claim that the body in the bunker was one of half a dozen Hitler-lookalikes recruited to throw the Allies off the scent.

But a spokesman for the Prime Minister said Mr. Churchill was satisfied it was Hitler. Although DNA testing has not yet been discovered, the Fuhrer was identified by a well-documented deficiency in the trouser department — a technique which also confirmed the identity of the propaganda minister Dr Goebbels, another who died in the bunker. The Allies say Hitler’s remains were disposed of in accordance with established Christian practice. But Hitler apologists and fifth-columnists have complained that he should have been given a proper burial, with full Nazi ceremonial honors, not chucked on to the back of a Red Army truck. There are also concerns about the legitimacy of the military operation which led to Hitler’s death. Pacifists want to know why the Fuhrer couldn’t have been captured alive and put on trial.

Some have claimed that the invasion of Germany was a clear breach of international law. Marshal Petain, formerly head of the Vichy Government, protested that Allied forces had illegally violated the borders of France, Italy, Germany and the Low Countries in their six-year pursuit of the Nazi leader.

The leading human rights lawyer, Sir Geoffrey Robertson QC, said the death of Hitler set a dangerous precedent. If a notorious despot, with the blood of millions on his hands, could be ‘assassinated’ in the bosom of his family, while in the comfort of his own bunker, then no one was safe.

Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, called the death of Hitler a ‘war crime’. He said the evidence against the Fuhrer, including the murder of six million people in concentration camps, had been fabricated by the ‘International Zionist Conspiracy’ as part of its campaign to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.

Sir Oswald also alleged that the carpet bombing of Coventry, Plymouth and the East End of London was carried out by MI5, on the orders of Mr. Churchill, simply to discredit the Nazis. He called on all Nazis to rise up and avenge their Fuhrer, before being led away by warders for a nice lie down in his padded cell.

Meanwhile, the Allies are planning to raze the bunker to the ground to prevent it becoming a tourist attraction and a shrine to Hitler.

Questions have also been asked about the source of the information which led the Allies to Hitler’s lair. Did one of his trusted aides betray him in exchange for a huge reward, a false identity and a new life in South America? Or was it the ruddy great Swastika flag on the roof and engraved gold ‘Fuhrerbunker’ nameplate on the front door? We may never be sure.

Despite the continuing confusion and speculation, there is no doubt that Herr Hitler’s death and the prospect of an end to the war in Europe has given Mr. Churchill a considerable boost in the opinion polls and he is now on course for a landslide victory in the forthcoming general election . . .’

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Aging, Part I

Back in the day when I still enjoyed alcohol and other things that altered my inefficient consciousness, I honestly liked getting sick.  A three- or four-day flu was my specialty—the sore throat, achy chest and runny nose enabled me to legitimately take stuff like Robitussin and Nyquil, along with a variety of antihistamines, and almost knock myself out. The alcohol in cough syrups is designed to speed the medicine through the system, and it does this wondrously well. I could not be accused of being under the influence, I was ill, and anyone criticizing my way of dealing with my wretchedness was simply heartless and mean.

Things have changed. I now take great pains to avoid alcohol in any form, including medicine, and I have developed an intense fear and dislike of pills of all kinds. I no longer trust the prescriptions I am told to take and look them up on the Internet before I do. Are they addictive? Are they opiates or derivatives? What are the side-effects? I am, at best, a recalcitrant patient.  Unfortunately, I also seem to get sick a lot more often now than I did two or three decades ago.

The aging process, we know, depends on a combination of both genetic and environmental factors, and it will occur at different rates in different people. Overall, genetic factors seem to be more powerful than environmental factors. Aging causes functional changes in cells; the rate at which cells multiply tends to slow down, and T-cell lymphocytes, important for our immune system to work properly, decrease with age. In addition, age causes changes in our responses to environmental stresses or exposures, such as ultraviolet light, heat, not enough oxygen, poor nutrition, and toxins.

Age also interferes with apoptosis, which programs cells to self-destruct or die at appropriate times. This process is necessary for tissues to remain healthy, and it is particularly important in slowing down immune responses once an infection has been cleared from the body. Cancer, for example, results in a loss of apoptosis. The cancer cells continue to multiply and invade or take over surrounding tissue, instead of dying as originally programmed. With Alzheimer’s, amyloid builds up and causes the early death of brain cells, which results in a progressive loss of memory and other brain functions. 

And here’s unhappy news for all dieters: The proportion of the body that is made up of fat doubles between age 25 and age 75 and this change in body composition has an important effect on how the body handles various drugs. For example, when our body fat increases, drugs that are dissolved in fatty tissues remain in the body much longer than when our body was younger and more muscular. On a more positive note, body weight in men generally increases until their mid-fifties then decreases, with weight being lost faster in their late sixties and seventies. In women, body weight increases until the late sixties and then decreases at a rate slower than that of men. 

We can also look forward to progressive changes in the heart and blood vessels that interfere with the body’s ability to control blood pressure. Nor does the body regulate its temperature as it could when younger. This can result in dangerously low body temperature from prolonged exposure to the cold or in heat stroke if the outside temperature is too high. There will be aging-related changes in the body’s ability to develop a fever in response to an infection. Another issue: The regulation of the amount and makeup of body fluids is slowed down in healthy older persons and problems in fluid regulation commonly develop during illness or other stress.
 All this explains why getting older is not a particularly fun process. Want to see what you’ll look like when you’re old?  Go to http://morph.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Transformer/

Monday, May 2, 2011


Quantity or quality? What’s your choice: a long life, say, well into your 90s, with the concomitant deprivations and mental and physical diminutions , or a lifespan shorter by perhaps 15 to 25 years, where you will eat, drink and partake of semi-licit substances, cross against the lights, walk in storms sans ombrelle,  and challenge waterfalls in a barrel?

I’ve already had two almost-bought-it-for-good experiences in my life, both when I was in my 20s. I nearly drowned in the Chesapeake during a storm that swamped the small boat I was sailing. I went overboard, the boat turned over on me and I was trapped beneath it for what were seconds but seemed like hours. I went under twice, kicked back to the surface and hung on to a halyard that had broken loose. Other boaters came to my rescue but the water was rough enough that it took almost 20 minutes to get me to safety.  The second instance happened when I was riding my motorcycle back from a trip to Canada with a friend. We were in upstate New York near the Finger Lakes, cruising through one of the national parks. It was dark and I hit a deer, an eight-point stag that leaped into the road from nowhere. I flew over the bikes, landed on my side and skidded about twenty yards. The bike followed and sparks ignited the gas tank which was mercifully almost empty. I saw myself (a common near-death phenomena) arcing through the air, landing with a thump. I saw my helmeted head bounce off the pavement, my eyes wide and strangely nor frightened.  My friend pulled me away from the bike and miraculously managed to hail a passing car. I ended up in Ramapo General Hospital, no broken bones but scraped and seriously bruised. The bike was totaled and the deer was butchered and sent to an orphanage, or so I was told. The cop who investigated the accident told me about a dozen or so bikers had died on that stretch of road in the last decade.

So me, I don’t know. Basically, at the very least seventy-five percent of my life is done, and I am entering that phase where I am told I should really take care. Cancer, cholesterol, diabetes, back issues, psoriasis, chronic sneezing, high blood pressure and God knows what other vagaries are lurking, still in the shadows but no longer fully hidden. Additionally, we (I use the term generically) have entered an interesting period in gustatory history where essentially almost everything we eat, drink and breathe has been declared partially or fully noxious. If sugar were to be created now, I have been told, the FDA would probably classify it as a dangerous substance.  Wheat and gluten are bad, as are all white foods such as rice, flour and potatoes. Meat, particularly cooked on charcoal, is dangerous, and fish carry mercury. According to a recent study, a frightening amount of the chicken we eat is so full of the noxious e coli bacteria that it’s a wonder we haven’t all keeled over with our faces in KFC buckets. Most oils are bad. So are the additives, colorings and sweeteners we ingest by the gallon because we like pretty and syrupy foods. Canned foods are aswim in preservatives, hydroponic veggies never make contact with soil, dairy products are hell on the lactose-intolerant, and peanuts cause anaphylactic shock.

In the past few months I have given up (mostly) white bread, rice, sugar, and artificial sweeteners. I don’t smoke or drink alcohol of any kind, and I verge on the ridiculous when it comes to avoiding drugs, be they over-the-counter, prescription or illegal. I am not a vegetarian, and don’t plan to become one even though my intake of meat is sparse. Once a week I have breakfast with friends and eat far too much pork products, but that’s about it. I go through a bag of radish every three days or so and regularly eat apples and oranges. I have not given up cheese. I am, after all, French. I have discovered that brown rice and pink (yes, pink) beans with a dash of sour cream makes a great meal. I no longer have a motorcycle as I’ve realized my reflexes are not what they once were, and I doubt I’ll ever again speed along at 30 miles per hour on a pair of inline skates. The idea of a crash at that speed makes me shudder, which it did not ten years ago.

I suppose the question is how much we are willing to give up—on any level—before we realize that it ain’t worth it anymore. It’s going to be an interesting choice!