December 29, 2002


Don't blame me if you get addicted to this.

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December 28, 2002


Behold the power of a truly great cartoon.

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I wish I was having as much fun as this dog.

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I don't want to look for conspiracies that don't exist, but doesn't the doctor who oversaw the cloned baby look a lot like Midge?

You be the judge.

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I know the holidays are nearly over and that everyone is suffering from Christmas fatigue.

But there's no denying the allure of this site, which lets you
cut your own snowflake patterns and e-mail them to friends.

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My whole argument about human cloning hasn't been that it was morally wrong or that it was a freak experiment with the powerful forces of nature.

My criticism has focussed on the fact that I've only met a few people whom I'd care to have another copy of roaming this earth.

Are these really the kind of people you want sitting on the genetic Xerox machine?

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I’ve been reading a fascinating story in New Yorker magazine about a gentleman named Joe Nickell. Calling himself a paranormal investigator, Nickell romps around the world trying to verify whether certain phenomena qualify as authentic miracles. Not debunk. Not disprove. He verifies. True, most of his inquiries end in disqualifications, but there is a difference.

In the story, (I should say, in the story so far. New Yorker features can take a lifetime for me to read, since most of my scholarly
work takes place in a vulnerable position atop the toilet.), the author finds Nickell in Lilly Dale, N.Y., a village known as the
world’s largest center for the religion of Spiritualism.

Author Burhkard Bilger – a name as equal in greatness as Joe Nickell – describes Nickell as “”tall and bulky, with dark shades and a battered straw hat,’’ with “his lips pursed beneath a trim gray mustache.’’ Seems he had to change his look in the car so that the mediums and psychics wouldn’t recognize him. He’s become a fixture on the Dateline/Oprah/Larry King circuit, a media phenomena strange enough on its own merits to merit investigation if you ask me. So many false miracles are being perpetrated and his services are in such demand that his appearance on-site is a sign to psychics and scam artists around the globe that their livelihoods are about to suffer a serious blow.

As a consequence of his very sober studies, Nickell during the course of his life also has become a noted scholar on the paranormal
and a famous authenticator of everything from the Gettysburg Address to what is believed to be the first novel written in America by a black woman.

His boyhood fascination chemicals and their reactions with the world around them led him to explain that the venerated and allegedly holy Shroud of Turin could have been created with powdered pigments and a bas-relief sculpture. To illustrate the ease with which such a relic could be duplicated, he created a Shroud of Bing Crosby.

The passage in New Yorker that caught my eye reads, “”Nickell calls himself a skeptic, but he means the word more as a term of affiliation than a habit of mind.’’

Skeptic as an affiliation? Hmmm.

To me, that turn of phrase would seem to indicate that someone who questions supposed truths is not someone who is a destroyer of mythology or an attacker waging war on the power of mystery. Instead, a guy like Nickell becomes not unlike a crusader for fact; he proves positives, not negatives. The byproduct of his investigations: he makes the truly wondrous occurrences in our world seem even more astounding because he is able to peel away the skin of falsehoods and show them for the shams that they are.

Metaphorically, he makes the Grand Canyon appear more astounding by showing that the parking lot pothole shaped like Bea Arthur really is more of a coincidence of chance than a divine creation.

And, to me, he restores the eroded earth that surrounds the word “miracle.’’ If, as a friend tells me, that purple has become “the new black,” then miracle has unofficially replaced “jumbo shrimp” in the Dictionary of the Culturally Overinflated.

The word miracle caught my eye while I was watching TV the other night. Apparently there’s a new show coming on named “Miracles” that features a main character who goes around investigating odd occurrences. You can imagine that some producer marched into NBC and pitched a “Night Stalker redux with parts of The X Files and Twin Peaks thrown in for good measure.” The angle of the show appears to take the opposite of Nickell’s approach, or even that of X Files; namely that life is full of cruel hoaxes that must be batted away by a lone crusader for the benefit of those who are easily duped. At least X Files had a faint whiff of hope surrounding Mulder and Scully’s investigations. At least Twin Peaks had a cool Duane Eddy-like score.

I haven’t known any true miracles in my life. Most everything can be explained in a rational way. I tell people that the birth of my son
is a miracle, but deep down I know it wasn’t. Was it biologically complex? Absolutely. A freak of procreational probability – considering my goofball personality traits and the number of possible suitors available to my gorgeous, brilliant and talented wife? Without a doubt. But he is not a miracle. His creation can be explained in one simple, crude, non-verbal gesture.

To gauge how devalued has the miracle become, look no further than Cinemax.

In the movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo’’ the neighborhood activities center operated to keep kids away from crime was “Miracles.” I know what the intention was there. In an effort to prop upright an improbable sequel of a break-dancing movie, they created a plot device that was a metaphor for getting out of the drug and crime-filled neighborhood. “Miracles” was a much catchier – and seemingly inspirational – name than, say, the Beverly Bevis Jones Rec Center.

But even that use of the word miracle is incorrect – and borderline racist.

Miracle in that context would mean that nothing you do, no effort you take, no achievement you accomplish would benefit your existence or further your pursuit of a dream. Only a miracle – a divine happening beyond your control and related to nothing tangible or attainable – could elevate a ghetto or barrio child from his humble beginnings. Only Ice-T rapping at a benefit telethon performed to subvert a wealthy land developer would qualify as a miracle, the movie suggests. Something that stupid is enough to make you wanna go Rodney King on the film’s producers. Then again, you have to consider that the movie featured a man named
Shabba-Doo depicting a character named Ozone, whose sidekick Turbo was portrayed by a slender gentleman named Boogaloo Shrimp. Intellectual pursuit and verbal accuracy were not at the forefront during story conferences.

But to get back to our paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, again I’m taken with his notion that skepticism is an affiliation. The idea has resonance for me mostly because I work in a business that uses the concept of skepticism almost as a calling card. Journalists are said to be born skeptics. I’m not sure if that’s entirely accurate. (I know, I’m being skeptical of skeptics. Stay with me on
this one.)

I would agree that the colleagues I've worked with at newspaper are suspicious. That word indicates that they suspect things are not what they seem. I’d agree that most are pessimists by experience because most of the people and instances they cover are negative (car crashes, economic calamities, sports defeats, political downfalls). If there is a bias in the news – and trust me,
there is unavoidable bias oozing from pores of every human body – it is a bias against believing. To believe is to join a cult of similar opinion. Beyond groups like the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Press Club, the occasional newsroom union and The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, there are few organized cabals with which reporters and editors want to associate.

We are nothing if not hypersensitive to accusations of Bias By Proximity.

But skepticism would seem to infer an active pursuit of separating truth from fiction. I don’t think a lot of shoe leather gets expended today. Information comes flying at light speed these days. Data is spoonfed, handed over on trays for the most part. Too many reporters and editors today, unfortunately, have become collators. We grab handfuls of what think is reliable information. We arrange it in a form we think and pray readers want to consume. We move on to our next target.

If there is a dying art in our business, it might well be in the practice of the follow-up story. Just as the follow-up question is integral as an interviewing technique, so is the comeback story. We’re like a tournament of golfers who only hit tee shots before moving to the next hole. We hit our initial story, occasionally go after a second shot in the fairway. We think getting quotes from opponents who spar over an issue qualifies as balance. And then we drop it and move on to new prey. Joe Nickell follows up. He returns to the place of origin where momentous things occur. He pries. He investigates.

My business, however, is tilted heavily toward organized regurgitation, not verification. I really am in an industry clotted with dunces.

This thought - echoed in a well-written and wonderfully brief Slate story - occurred to me when a story about disappointing Christmas revenues was pitched during a news meeting I was at on Thursday. To me, this kind of lazy thinking is why people have every reason
to hate the media:

Journalists who write about government spending get clobbered on a regular basis for using the term "budget cut" to describe a smaller-than-expected rate of increase. Why don't business writers get clobbered for doing the same thing when they tally holiday spending?

"Retailers Face Worst Holiday in 30 Years," proclaimed the Washington Post on Dec. 24. "Shoppers had told polling organizations earlier that they would spend less this year than last year, and they probably did," reported the New York Times on Dec. 25. Even the financially sophisticated Wall Street Journal ran a Dec. 26 Associated Press story with the misleading headline, "Retailers Fear Weakest Sales in Decades as Final Rush Fades."

A close reading of any of these stories makes clear that more U.S. dollars were spent buying holiday gifts this year than in
any previous year since the birth of Jesus Christ. Or at least, that's what the estimates given most credence by these newspapers say.

The AP and the Post cite the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd., as estimating a 1.5 percent increase. The Times cites Charles Hill, research director at Thomson First Call, as estimating a 1 percent increase.

The business press pegged the 2002 holiday shopping season the "worst in 30 years" not because sales declined, but because sales increased by a smaller-than-expected percentage. A survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers found a median expected increase of 2 percent.

Compared to that, 1 percent or 1.5 percent is obviously disappointing. Last year, holiday sales increased 2.3 percent over the previous year's. One or 1.5 percent is clearly a smaller rate of increase than 2.3 percent. But it's inaccurate to call a smaller rate of increase "less" spending.

It is true that this year's holiday spending didn't keep pace with this year's overall rate of inflation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index rose about 2 percent over the past year. Corrected for inflation, then, holiday spending declined somewhere between 0.5 percent and 1 percent. Maybe people are spending less on presents so they can spend more on health care, whose cost rose 5 percent over the past year. At any rate, if people this year spent 0.5 to 1 percent less in
"real" (i.e., after-inflation) dollars than they did in 2001, an accurate way to summarize that would be to say, "People spent about as much this year as they did last year buying Christmas presents."

Update: On Dec. 27, the New York Times made "holiday sales tank" the lead story on Page One.

The difference? I'd say that it’s the shades of grey that differentiate between skepticism and suspicion.

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December 05, 2002


Is it true? Who cares. This from the New York Post's gossip page:

Wardrobe folk claim Pierce Brosnan gained a bit during filming. "We had to let out his pants," said one. "We were calling the shoot, 'Diet Another Day.' "

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Jerry Seinfeld is coming out with a new comedy documentary about how he puts together a standup act.

I hope it's as entertaining as this trailer for the movie.

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I don't have many pure pleasures in my life, but I have to admit that I live for obituaries like this

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