’24’: Week in Review

Earlier in the season, “24” was getting some heat for its depiction of Middle Eastern Muslims as remorseless though very clever killers. The show, and the Fox network, responded with some public-service announcements informing viewers that not every Muslim is bad. And one episode portrayed a pair of young Arab-American sporting-goods store owners fighting alongside the show’s hero against a team of bad guys deployed by a ruthless U.S. defense contractor.

Last night’s episode introduced a new group of cartoonish evil-abetters.

The terrorists hijack a nuclear weapon in an ambush described as happening variously “in Iowa,” “in mountainous terrain” and at latitude 37 degrees north and longitude 115 degrees west, a point that happens to be a scrubby patch of desert about 60 miles north of Las Vegas. The geographic niceties aside, the bad guys have a bomb and appear to be heading for a big city — Chicago? — to set it off. The U.S. counterterrorism force has one chance of finding the mastermind and stopping the attack, though — a bad guy they’ve captured at an L.A.-area marina. To get the information they need to avert the attack, it’s clear they’re going to torture the suspect.

But the terrorist leader is one step ahead of them. He actually has one of his henchmen call a liberal civil-liberties lawyer (working for a group called Amnesty Global). The lawyer manages to wake up a federal judge, present his case that the government is about to abuse an upstanding U.S. citizen, get an injunction, and hightail it down to counterterrorism HQ to stop the torture session — all in 10 minutes on the show’s real-time clock. Of course, none of that process happens on camera. All we know is that, just as the interrogators are about to do their stuff, they’re halted by an insufferably smug attorney spouting some Bill of Rights crap. Of course, no one, including the president of the United States, is willing to contravene the court order halting the interrogation, even though millions of lives are at stake; and though the civil-liberties lawyer managed to get a judge to turn handsprings in the middle of the night and get an order in a millisecond, the script explains the government is powerless to appeal the order until the following day.

Luckily, it turns out that there’s one man willing to defy the misguided application of constitutional protections: Jack Bauer, who gets hold of the suspect and, after an agonizing couple of minutes and several shattered suspect fingers, finds out everything he wants to know.

Like I said — the civil-liberties lawyer is just a cartoonish dupe. Just as the greedy, amoral defense-firm execs were earlier in the show. But you have to wonder how many people are watching this, saying, “Goddamn liberals!” and cheering for the torture. Lots and lots, I bet.

One Thousand and One Vacuum Nights


The vacuum’s still there.

Kate and I walked past its corner this evening, this time as empty-nesters-in-training going out to get a sandwich (Tom was out rowing with the Sea Scouts). I was kind of surprised that the kids from the nearby middle school hadn’t taken matters into their own hands, but maybe they’re trying to fit the vacuum cleaner into their own little universes, too.

Tonight’s appliance-centric reverie — this time mine — revolved around rewriting "The Velveteen Rabbit" (I recommend the Meryl Streep-George Winston version) with the vacuum cleaner standing in for the story’s title hare. It almost works:

Much-loved and overused object of attention falls by the wayside as newer appliances appear on the domestic scene. The owner is taken ill — instead of scarlet fever, I see him going off his meds and getting involuntarily committed as bipolar. His hard-hearted landlord puts his belongings out on the street. Everything is snatched up but the forlorn vacuum cleaner, which has learned from a Miele HEPA-vac, a NordicTrac home treadmill, and a KitchenAid mixer that it’s of no use to anyone. Alone on the street and coming apart at the seams, the little vacuum hopes one of the kindly passing pedestrians will put it out in the middle of the intersection, or throw it in a Dumpster, anything to put it out of its ownerless misery. Instead, a magic fairy appears, restores it to like-new condition, and whisks it to a local flea market. There, its former owner, on a day pass from the ward, sees the little vacuum and is struck with an overwhelming sense of fondness for it. He assumes it’s a sign that he still has issues to deal with, and walks quickly away, leaving the little vacuum with all the other refurbished appliances. 

Pope Ratzo the Temporary

I haven’t been following the ins and outs, but suddenly Joseph Ratzinger, the ultra-orthodox-sounding German cardinal who under JP2 was officially in charge of putting the fear of (G)god into the faithful, is suddenly looking like a serious pope candidate. In fact, he’s moved up to the No. 2 position on the PaddyPower betting site, listed at 9-2 to become next pope after Nigeria’s Francis Arinze, the persistent favorite at 3-1. That’s great news for church onlookers because no matter what name Ratzinger might take as pope, he’ll be known as Pope Ratzo the First (or maybe it should be “Ratso,” to conform with the name of the Dustin Hoffman character in “Midnight Cowboy”; that’s a matter for higher religious authorities than myself).

What I like about Ratzinger is his return to an old way of Roman Catholic thinking: If you want to be drinking Slurpees and playing videogames and driving Boxsters in the afterlife — or doing anything besides wading eternally in a lake of molten lead, for that matter — The Church is your only choice. It reminds me of the nun who told me in second grade that it would be a sin for me, as a Catholic, to attend services at a Lutheran church — the church in which my dad was raised and in which my grandfather was a minister. That’s one way to keep your customer base: Tell your customers they’ll go to hell if they switch brands and warn them they’re at risk if they even look at the label.

Ratzinger gave the homily at this morning’s pre-conclave Mass at St. Peter’s. Here’s how The New York Times summarizes it:

“In his writings and public statements, he has often sought to uphold the primacy of Catholicism, saying no other religion offered a path to salvation. ‘Relativism,’ he has said, implies that other faiths are equally – and wrongly – valid. The idea was strongly expressed in a document the congregation issued in 2000, Dominus Iesus, which provoked angry responses from other religious leaders.

In his homily, Cardinal Ratzinger said that Christians were tossed on the waves of Marxism, liberalism and even ‘libertinism;’ of radical individualism, atheism and vague mysticism. He also decried the creation of ‘sects’ and how people are seduced into them, using a term church leaders often employ to refer to Protestant evangelical movements.

” ‘Having a clear faith, according to the Credo of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism,’ he said. ‘Yet relativism, that is, letting oneself being carried “here and there by any wind of doctrine,” appears as the sole attitude good enough for modern times.’

“Many of the cardinals, draped in bright-red vestments and wearing white mitres, watched intently as Cardinal Ratzinger spoke on a platform underneath Bernini’s bronze baldacchino. Several others among them – two thirds of the cardinals voting for pope are septuagenarians – appeared to doze.”

The Times notes one other aspect of the performance that might suggest Ratzinger is not the shoo-in some think:

“Cardinal Ratzinger spoke Italian in heavily accented German, his voice creaky at times and interrupted by coughs. Several church officials said he has been suffering from a cold.”

The Catholic world just got done watching a pope go through a long, painful decline. Are the cardinals really going to elect somebody who sounds like he’s hacking up a lung at his coming-out party? (The bettors are asking this question, too: Ratzinger’s post-homily odds have dropped to 5-1).

Lonely Vacuum


Kate and I went for a walk after dark. A few blocks from home, we passed an abandoned upright vacuum cleaner, standing forlorn on the corner. Cord unraveled, bag flaccid, partially detached and flopped on the sidewalk. You could almost read its life history: from youthful vigor as a partner in the war on household grit, leaving behind no donut crumb or sinsemilla seed; through wheezing middle age that saw it sometimes leave flecks of granola embedded in the living room carpet, even after half a dozen passes; to tired, inefficient old age in which even wayward Cheetos and carelessly sprinkled Baco-Bits scoffed at its feeble sucking powers.

I saw the discarded appliance and my first impulse was to take it and stand it up in the middle of the intersection. It’s not a busy corner, and I don’t think it would be a significant safety hazard. But I just liked the idea of drivers encountering this thing in the middle of the street. The one flaw I could see in my idea was that I’d have to hang around for a while to watch the fun begin. I didn’t have the patience to wait around for my brainstorm’s possibly Letterman-esque consequences. Also, Kate didn’t wholly approve of the concept.

Her response was to imagine posing the vacuum cleaner on different corners in town; sort of an instant interactive “found art” piece. She thought about hanging a sign on it, asking passersby to pick it up and take it someplace interesting, take a picture of it, and send it to us; then we could publish the pictures online. She spun the whole idea out in about half a block, to the point we were imagining the vacuum cleaner riding BART for the day, appearing in a grocery line, getting set up at a public phone.

We didn’t do it, though. Later, I did manage to go back to the corner and snap the vacuum’s picture.

Saturday Agenda

Away from the keyboard, riding a 300-kilometer (188 mile) brevet as part of my qualifying for this summer’s Gold Rush Randonee. If I’m back in time Saturday night, I’ll post something about it. Later. (And yes, I’m cheating with the dates on this post, writing late Friday night and putting a Saturday tag on it).

Tax Day

Well, it’s here. And for once, I can say — not as complaint, just as an observation of the bottom line — I’m really getting murdered. Where is all that dough going? Don’t want to delve into it at this late hour.

I will commend today’s Writer’s Almanac, though: It’s got a nice short history of taxes, introduced by a lovely and appropriate poem about depression, which starts:

“When in a deep depression of the self,

I see on every side, on every hill,

like the lit mansions of the rich, success

of others, hear the echoes loudly praise

my rivals, feel my plodding soles sink deeper

in the cold ashes of hope, and feel

the tepid drizzle of self-pity stain

my cheeks …”

Double Zero, Double Ought

The topic was ear gauging. The Resident Teen was telling me he intends to gauge his ears. What that means, in brief, is stretching out an ear piercing so that you can fit a piece of jewelry into the enlarged hole; one piece of jewelry inserted into a gauged ear is a colored plug. It’s a modest piece of body modification, really, and one that the Teen’s mom and dad can live with a little more easily at this point than a tattoo, say, or rings or spikes of various descriptions inserted into various vicariously painful body locales.

In talking about the size of earlobe hole that he desired to produce through gauging, the Teen described the largest diameter typically done as “double zero” and held up his fingers to indicate about a quarter-inch. Hearing “double zero,” I immediately thought of “double ought,” one of the largest sizes of buck shot (it turns out there is a larger size — “triple ought”). I wondered if the double-zero gauge for ear piercing was the same diameter as double-ought shot.

Not to keep anyone in suspense, I still don’t know. But I started looking for information on the size of double-ought shot. The non-precise answers I came up with suggested a range equivalent to .30-caliber to .38-caliber bullets — that is, .3 to .38 inches.

I didn’t hunt long, because one of the first references I consulted, with a page title of “Firearms Tutorial,” was a discourse on wound ballistics — the study of damage caused to human tissue by different types of gunshots. I was slow to realize the subject, because I was focusing on finding the diameter of buckshot. The Google entry for the page suggested I’d find the information there. When I hit the link, I searched forward to “double-ought,” and found the statement, “A 00 or ‘double ought’ pellet is essentially equivalent to a low velocity .38 handgun projectile.”

Then I considered the context. In the next paragraph, I encountered this:

“At close range, the pellets essentially act as one mass, and a typical shell would give the mass of pellets a muzzle velocity of 1300 fps (feet per second) and KE (kinetic energy) of 2100 ft/lb. At close range (less than 4 feet) an entrance wound would be about 1 inch diameter, and the wound cavity would contain wadding. At intermediate range (4 to 12 feet) the entrance wound is up to 2 inches diameter, but the borders may show individual pellet markings. Wadding may be found near the surface of the wound. Beyond 12 feet, choke, barrel length, and pellet size determine the wounding.”

It turns out the “Firearms Tutorial” is a resource for forensic pathologists, giving an introduction to the world of guns and everything they can do to the body, with special attention, it seems, on close-range effects. Living in a place where the number of people who die each year of gunshot wounds rivals the total of deaths during the entire Iraq war*, it’s good to have such a resource at the ready.

(*On the statistics: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control report, “Deaths: Final Data for 2002,” (PDF file) puts the total number of U.S. firearms deaths for the year — the most recent the CDC has covered — at 30,242. (I was surprised to see that more than half of those deaths — 17,108 — were suicides.) It’s hard to know the real toll in Iraq since our war began in March 2003, but the Iraq Body Count site, which bases its estimates on an analysis of press accounts, puts the number of Iraqi dead so far at a maximum of about 20,000. The Iraq Coalition Casualties site puts the number of U.S. and allied troops killed so far at 1,726, and notes that at least 210 foreign contract workers have died, too). The big unknown in the total Iraq numbers is how many Iraqi troops and insurgent fighters have died since the fighting started. Ten thousand? Twenty thousand?)

Pope Hopefuls vs. Spread

We’re all stocking up on beer and chips and cases of altar wine for next week’s conclave and celebratory smoke signals. How to while away the hours till the college of cardinals gets together Monday to pick a new pope? Well, you can dip into the beer and chips early, or you can place online bets on the outcome of the papal election. Or both.

Paddypower, an Ireland-based wagering site, is taking bets on which cardinal will become the next pope. The current favorite (now at 7-2, down from earlier quotes of 11-4 and 3-1) is Francis Cardinal Arinze (to use the traditional R.C. title) of Nigeria (he’d be the first pope from Africa in 15 centuries). Interesting that of the top 10 on the Paddypower list, just three are from Italy (and five of the top 13 listed candidates are Italian). The non-Italian betting favorites are from Honduras (No. 2 on the list), Germany (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a conservative Vatican insider), Brazil, Argentina, France, and Portugal. Personally, I think the next pope will be Italian; the Vatican has had its fling with flamboyant outsiders for awhile. If you’re looking for a long-shot to fund the kids’ education, try Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Vietnam, one of several cardinals listed with the longest odds of 125-1. Hey, that’s better odds than the lottery, at least in California.

Paddypower also has some side propositions if you’re really determined to lose some money: what name the next pope will take, how many days the election will take, and — best of all — will the next pope fulfill a medieval Irish prophecy foretelling the end of the papacy?

Opening Night

The Infospigot household, plus special guest (and friend of Thom) Jane, took in the Oakland Athletics home opener tonight. The final score found the hometown nine at a steep deficit to the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, a result that left the 44,000 witnesses chilled and uncharmed. (Just a second and I’ll be done with what I believe is a bad Roger Angell impression.) But the team has 80 more home games to play, so hope abounds.

I’ll say this, though: Everything was close to OK before the umpire went and wrecked things by saying “play ball.”

The A’s stadium, which now goes by the name of McAfee Coliseum or something like that, is impersonally massive since its reconstruction a few years ago to accommodate the East Bay’s professional football team. The main charm the big concrete bowl had before the remodeling was a view over the top of the outfield bleachers to the Oakland Hills. There’s still just a sliver of that vista visible from the cheap third-deck seats (ours came with an unadvertised obstructed view), and the evening sunlight on the ridge — even with a hillside stripped by a gravel quarry — is always striking. Just before the anthems were played — Canadian first, then ours — I noticed a couple of big birds soaring just over the rim of the stadium to our left. I thought they were turkey vultures at first silhouetted glance — an addition to the pigeons, California gulls, and barn swallows that claim the Coliseum as home roost — but as we kept looking, we realized they were red-tailed hawks. Both swayed and wheeled around a light tower on the third-base side of the stadium, and both eventually settled onto the white-painted grating of a workers’ platform at the base of the lights.

Then the anthems. Even though a Canadian guy I met in Ireland in 1973 pointed out that “O Canada” is a militarist hymn (“Listen to what they’re saying — ‘O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.’ On guard!”), I’ve always liked it, and Kate and I sang the few words we knew. Then a singer started into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a performance punctuated by loud fireworks. We sang along to that, too, despite my dislike of the current manifestation of our flag and patriotism cult.

But while we sang, both Kate and I kept scanning the sky around the stadium. Roy Steele, the public address announcer, alerted the crowd to expect a flyover from a pair of FA-18 jets from Lemoore Naval Air Station in the Central Valley (here’s a question: How much do those flyovers cost, and who pays?) when the anthem was done. Somewhere in the song’s last few bars, Kate said, “There they are.” And off to the southeast, a couple of tiny shapes trailing smoke headed for the rim of the stadium opposite us — heading straight for us, in other words. I said, “Stay way up there, you two.” There was just a dull roar till they climbed into the west behind us, then we were engulfed in a prolonged peal of thunder. I love seeing the big, fast planes. Too bad we can’t put them on permanent amusement duty.

Then the game started, and things went downhill from there. At least until the postgame scrambled eggs back here in Berkeley.

‘Please — Please! — Don’t Look’

An immortal moment of broadcasting conscience on ESPN’s “SportsCenter”: The show was reporting on the death of Al Lucas, an arena football player who died in a game tonight after trying to make a tackle. One of the show’s anchors, Fred Hickman, read the item. As they got ready to show the clip of the play in which Lucas was fatally injured, Hickman said, “in the interest of decency, we invite you to look away.”

Then they played the tape.

The content of the video aside — uninterested as I am in ESPN’s notion of decency, I did not look away; the angle of the play they showed was just generic football rough stuff, a tangle of players hitting each other during a kickoff return — what a nauseating display of false piety and pandering: “Oh, we hate to do what we’re about to do; and you’ll hate us for it too — especially if you stoop to our level and watch what we’re about to put on the screen. For heaven’s sake, don’t watch this. It’s just horrible. Isn’t it? We’ll have a replay in 15 minutes. In the name of all that’s holy, please avoid it.”

I’m not saying ESPN or anyone else should refrain from showing the tape. Quite the contrary. The poor guy died in a public venue in the conduct of a sport that puts a premium on violence, even crippling violence, and ESPN promotes the voyeurism along with the rest of the media. So go ahead and roll the tape. Just spare us the solemnity. If ESPN had really wanted to make the kind of “in the interest of decency” statement it was pretending to make, the producers could have shelved the footage. What are the chances of that happening?