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Thursday, August 25, 2005

What The Sims Has Taught Me

Several years back, when I first started this little mailing (October 2001), I wrote about how members of the online community were dealing with our inability to bring Osama bin Laden to justice; to wit, by destroying him digitally. Here’s a snippet:

“Thus, the proliferation of fantasy bin Laden destruction sites. As John Ashcroft announces that we may never find him, how best to vent our frustration at the terrorist bagman then to blow him up on the Net. In flash movies, he gets into fart wars with George Bush, shot up by Kumbaya-singing GIs, and decapitated by the Power Puff Girls. Games like “Yo Mamma Osama” give players a chance to shoot, bomb and bazooka the little devil into oblivion. CyberExtruder provides “skins” for Osama so you can import him into such games as Unreal Tournament and Quake3 and “frag that miserable excuse of a mongrel dog” or “nuke the flea bitten dung-eater.” Vicious rhetoric courtesy of the good folks at

“While there is a certain impotent joy to blowing up our current personification of evil, I prefer simpler means. Import Osama into The Sims, EA’s human-simulation game that allows you to manipulate the little lives of your own pet people. Instead of sending him to death and glory, move him into a suburban tract development where all his neighbors hate him. Give him a pot belly, dress him in tacky clothes, and stick him into a dead-end job. You can make him pee on himself (probably an unusual experience) or prevent him from bathing (probably not). When you tire of his antics, you can always starve him to death or drown him in the pool. I’ll take quiet desperation over total annihilation any day.”

Remember John Ashcroft? Remember when we were trying to capture bin Laden? Remember fighting terrorists instead of insurgents? Good times, good times.

[Speaking of Ashcroft, you may be interested in learning – if you haven’t heard – that this June, Alberto Gonzales removed the blue drapes that Ashcroft had installed – at a cost of some $8500 – to cover the naked breast of the statue of Justice in the Department of that name. First stem cells, now naked titties! Actually, in politics as in life, naked titties preceded stem cells. The world is going to the dogs!]

But this isn’t about Osama, or Iraq, or even John Ashcroft. It’s about The Sims 2.


First, a little about The Sims. Once upon a time there was a little game called SimCity. In playing SimCity, you are a combination city planner and mayor as you build roads, zone for construction, and tend to the daily details of your own city, trying to raise money, encourage growth, and keep your people happy. Along the way, you deal with such natural disasters as fire, flood and attacks by Godzilla. Really. Whodathunkit, but the game was a huge success, leading to such follow-ups as Sim Farm, Sim Tower, Sim Earth, and yes, Sim Ant. While SimCity and its offspring inspired the “Tycoon”-style games (Railroad, Rollercoaster, Theme Park, et al), SimAnt led to The Sims.

You do realize this is a greatly simplified history, don’t you?

In The Sims, rather than controlling a city, you control the people who live in it. Or at least, in something resembling a suburb of it. Your little world is called a Neighborhood, and within the Neighborhood you can build, decorate, and yes, destroy houses. You people these houses with families of characters you build from scratch (or pull from the Family bin), determining not only their appearance, but their personality (Simology) in terms of Neat vs. Sloppy, Active vs. Lazy, and so on. You the pilot them through their little lives as they meet, socialize, build skills (cooking, charisma) and go off to work, with the goal of achieving greater success and buying more and nicer things.

Welcome to America.

The Sims was a huge hit. There are a lot of obsessive compulsives out there. Among whom I must number myself, because I found the game addictive. This game is to adventure games what Big Brother is to Survivor. Nothing really happens. You don’t even see your Sims at work. So what you’re dealing with is a lot of eating, reading, sleeping and pooping, with some TV watching and pinball playing thrown in for good measure.

It’s a lot like life.

Maxis – the company which created SimCity and was later acquired by Electronic Arts Games – released a series of expansion packs that built on the basic Sims game. Some of these featured new objects, characters and careers (based, in many cases, on things game players had developed on their own and posted online). Later expansion packs got your Sims out of the house, going downtown or on vacation. Eventually, EA created The Sims Online, which allowed your Sims to interact with those created by other players. (In a word: disastrous.) But through it all, the Sims remained terribly stagnant. It was a case of SSDD: Same Sim, Different Day.

Not any more.

In early 2003, EA/Maxis announced the release of The Sims 2. Though look and game play would remain substantially the same, the Sims would age, growing from a baby to an Elder. In addition, while players could create Sims of any age, when Sims had sex (a later development in the original game, wherein you could direct two Sims to “have fun” in bed), they could create an offspring which would combine the genetics (Simetics?) of the parent Sims. (This only happens if you choose “Try for baby.” In Simland, birth control is strong. And everyone is on it unless they choose not to be. The Sims are not Catholic.)

The Sims 2 was not released in early 2003. Nor in late 2003. And certainly not in March 2004, which is when online sites such as Amazon said it would be shipped. Or maybe July. But come late September 2004 – or most certainly some time in October – The Sims 2 was on the shelves.


In my house, The Sims 2 was not on the shelf until January 2005. Which is when I got a new computer. My old computer was a workhorse which had served me well since November of 1999. When I retired it, the old girl still had plenty of life in her. But she was showing the strain of advancing technology. Since Moore’s Law suggests that computing power doubles every 18 months, my girl was more than 3 cycles old. And since developers design programs to run on the best systems, there were precious few upgrades left for her. Even the Net was starting to slow her down.

So I bought a new computer. Pentium 4 chip, 3 GHz processor, 512 megs RAM (upgradeable to 2 gigs), big fat hard drive, the works. And I bought Sims 2, ‘cause I had had such a good time with Sims 1. And I installed Sims 2, and my shiny new computer immediately crashed. Because the top of the line Intel graphics card wasn’t nearly top of the line enough for the needs of this fat new game which is a graphics whore. Now, I am not a total fool. I went into this computer purchase knowing I was not buying a “gaming machine.” But it’s the freaking Sims. It’s not some fast paced action game in which monsters are constantly leaping out at you or you’re racing through LA in a stolen car. It’s making dinner and playing darts. It’s the tortoise, not the hare.

Blah blah blah, new drivers, I won’t bore you with the details. Eventually it worked well enough, though it still has a nasty tendency to crash, just when you haven’t saved your game. Or you’ve saved too often. Or it gets cranky. In any case, I didn’t really get into the game until this summer, when I was unemployed enough to have some free time.


As you play the game, you learn how to deal with the vagaries of Simish behavior. Most of which is a slight exaggeration of human behavior. Often very slight. Sometimes, just like me.

As in the original Sims, your Sims have needs. They are simple needs: hunger, hygiene, bladder, fun, comfort, social, energy and environment. Among your tasks, you need to keep them fed and keep them empty, keep their homes and bodies clean, give them things to do and people to do them with, sit them down and send them to bed. You monitor these needs through progress bars which proceed from green to yellow to orange to red red red. When their needs aren’t being met, Sims will let you know. Unfortunately, they don’t speak English. They do have language, though, a sort of English cadenced version of something from the Baltic States. And it’s not completely random. For example, if they can’t do something because an obstacle (chair, wall, other Sim) is in their way, they say something like “No dish.” At the same time, a thought balloon above their head displays the object (person, abstract concept) which is thwarting them. After a while, when you hear “no dish,” you think, like the mother of an impossible child, “What can be problem this time?”

The thought balloon – or speech balloon, if they’re in conversation – is your key to your Sims’ concerns. Sometimes it is obvious – another Sim, a ghost, a downhill skier. Other times, less so. Scratchy lines? A misshapen head? A burnt scone? I recognized the symbol for “bad environment” long before I was able to translate it into a broom and dustpan.

The Sims of S2 are much better at taking care of their needs: they are more autonomous than S1 Sims. In general, they will eat before they starve and pee before they explode. But such is not always the case. If a need is pressing, it will appear in a blue thought balloon. If it is extreme, it will appear in a jagged red thought balloon, and the Sim will scream at you, in a voice which suggests it is saying, “Mom! Don’t you know anything!” This is when you want to drown your Sim in the pool.

Sims are easily distracted. When you take your Sim out shopping – by the way, you can take your Sim out shopping – the first thing he or she is likely to do is go into the public restroom and look at the sinks, with a thought balloon which translates as “What’s this?” If they are at home, they can be in a room with toilets every three feet, and when they have to pee they will scream at you instead of using one. Frequently, they will fall asleep standing up rather than going to bed. Or they will scream at you to send them bed – even when they’re not doing anything else. This behavior is not as pronounced as it was in S1, when you had to micromanage every aspect of their lives. But it’s still maddening. Although the Sims in S2 grow up and age, in many aspects of their lives they remain 10 year old children. Just like your spouse.

Though Sims tend to suffer from ADD, at times they have a one-track mind. If they are playing chess, they will continue to do so until it is time to scream at you to feed them or send them to bed. If you have an espresso machine, they will drink coffee all night long instead of going to bed. This gives them the jitters, so its kind of funny, but it also makes them have to pee, so here comes the screaming. And if you have a hot tub, forget about it. Visitors will make a beeline for that tub. On one lot, I was forced to put the tub in a place that was inaccessible in order to get my Sims to do anything else. And I still hear complaints of “Heet way. No dish!” from visiting Sims.

Despite this, Sims will often satisfy their needs on their own. They will rarely satisfy them in an appropriate manner. When a Sim is dirty, it emits a cloud of green gas which they and others react to. (The same stink cloud appears above dirty dishes and when they fart. Yes, they fart. And think it’s funny.) Instead of screaming at you, sometimes they will wash up. I prefer my Sims to shower. It’s efficient, it takes less time, and gets them on with their day. Given their druthers, Sims will take bubble baths. They like bubble baths because they satisfy both hygiene and comfort. Unfortunately, they take forever, and the little suckers have a limited lifespan.

Sims will generally eat when they are hungry, assuming there is food in the fridge. In fact, if a Sim is both hungry and a little crazy – it happens; their emotional states are precarious – he or she will stand in front of an open fridge and binge. Even if a Sim is emotionally stable, it will not always make a wise choice. Sims can both “have” a meal – prepare a single serving – or “serve” a meal – prepare enough for six. Since Sims have families, and since even the most confirmed bachelor has to develop a shitload of friends in order to advance in his career, and thus must have frequent visitors, the “serve” function comes in handy. But a Sim can have a houseful of people, and he they gets hungry, he thinks of no one but himself. Unless you catch them in time, they will inevitably “have” dinner instead of “serving” dinner. I feel like a grade school teacher, asking if they brought enough for the entire class. On the other hand, I had an elderly grandmother – now sadly passed on – who, whenever she felt the slight bit peckish, would always prepare Lobster Thermidor for six. Even if everyone else was in bed or at work or school. It was a nice gesture, but I don’t need to waste all that cash.


As a new addition to Sims 2, Sims now complement their Needs with Wants. Sims have an overarching Aspiration – Friends, Money, Romance – that affects all of their wants. So a Family Sim wants to get married and have children, while a Fortune Sim wants to earn more money and buy more things.

Sims are slaves to their wants. And they are compulsive. A Romance Sim wants to be in love. Then he wants to be in love with 3 Sims. Then 5. Then he wants to Woo-Hoo – Simish for sex. Then to Woo-Hoo with 3 Sims at once. (Not simultaneously, which is impossible (in the game), but concurrently.) Then to Woo-Hoo in a public place. And on and on and on.

Sims will not satisfy their Wants on their own, except accidentally. And their Needs and Wants frequently conflict. A Sim may Want a promotion at work, and the only way to get that promotion may be to Study. But if he Needs to have Fun, there’s no dragging him away from the television. Some objects can satisfy both Wants and Needs. The piano, for example, increases Creativity while it satisfies Fun. But if your Sim is cranky, you cannot convince it that playing the piano is Fun.

In part, this problem arises because Sims are victims of their personalities. A Popularity Sim craves becoming friends, and then best friends, with as many Sims as possible. Very similar to the Romance Sim, but without all the Woo-Hoo. But if they’re cranky, they may choose such interactions as Brag or Tease or Insult. Despite the fact that these choices are in direct contradiction to their greater Aspiration. Doesn’t matter to the Sim. They are creatures of the moment. They will play computers games rather than prepare for class.

Oh, no. That’s me.

[Sims will play computer games. Their favorites include such EA hits as SSX 3 and Sim City 4: Rush Hour. Need I say these games provide more Fun than anything else around?]

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Nothing Sacred

Lots of folks have gotten their knickers in a twist – and rightly so – about Pat Robertson’s personal fatwa against Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. I’m skipping that one, for much the same reason I skipped the Cindy Sheehan affair: it all seems like business as usual. Every day there’s a new cause célèbre, and I can’t keep them all straight.

[For an in depth view of the cluttered closet Pat Robertson calls his mind, have a look at what my friend Todd has to say about Robertson's hit list.]

I am pissed off, however, about the desecration of Arlington National Cemetery by the government.

Arlington is, of course, the nation’s second largest and most prestigious national cemetery. Established during the Civil War, Arlington serves as a resting place for veterans of all our nation’s wars, from the American Revolution through current actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Dead from before the Civil War were reinterred in the 20th century.) The cemetery also houses the remains of John and Robert Kennedy, as well as memorials to the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger and those killed in The Pentagon on September 11.

Even if you’ve never been to Arlington, you’ve no doubt been moved by photos of the rows and rows of white headstones. Traditionally, these marble markers are inscribed simply, with the name, rank, military branch, dates of birth and death, and the war or country in which the person served.

Not any more.

For the first time in history, most of the gravestones for troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan have been inscribed with the advertising slogans – "Operation Enduring Freedom," "Operation Iraqi Freedom" – the Pentagon dreamed up to promote the wars. Not only that, but families who have received headstones from the government for burials outside of Arlington have found these slogans inscribed as well.

In theory, families are being told they have the right to have the motto engraved. But it seems to be like the phone company – you have to request not have the engraving, just as you have to request an unlisted number. As a result, a number of families have experienced a nasty surprise. According to an AP account, Nadia and Robert McCaffrey, whose son Patrick was killed in Iraq, discovered "Operation Iraqi Freedom" inscribed upon his government-supplied headstone without their approval. "In one way, I feel it's taking advantage to a small degree," McCaffrey said. "Patrick did not want to be there, that is a definite fact." Even the stoneworker who supplies markers to Arlington and other national cemeteries is uncomfortable with the practice, saying "It just seems a little brazen that that's put on stones. It seems like it might be connected to politics." Ya think?

Why, you may ask, does it matter? Why get into a huff about this?

It’s about respect.

Once upon a time – prior to the 1980s – the Pentagon devoted its efforts to fighting wars, rather than selling them. Okay, that’s an oversimplification: the military has always put some effort into public relations. After all, they hired Frank Capra to make the “Why We Fight” series of films during World War II. But they didn’t come up with the name World War II. Or the Great War. Or the War of 1812 – a moniker which would certainly not fly today. Not until the late 80s did the Pentagon start creating operation names designed to generate public support. The 1989 invasion of Panama represented their first big hit, with “Operation Just Cause.” (Rather than “Operation Overthrow Noriega,” a discarded effort.) According to a publication of the Army War College, this initiated the practice of naming operations "with an eye toward shaping domestic and international perceptions about the activities they describe." Since then, every military effort has had a public “Operation” name, from “Desert Shield” (the precursor to “Desert Storm”) to “Power Geyser” (the largely unknown and possibly unconstitutional protection of George Bush by armed commandos). (Possibly unconstitutional because the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits using the armed forces for law enforcement within the United States. Possibly not unconstitutional because the President can waive this law in an emergency, and I’m sure George Bush considers his well-being an emergency.)

I appreciate the need of the Pentagon to sell their largely distasteful product. And I understand the belief that the best way to capture the support of the public is through a catchy and largely untrue slogan. But I believe that at death, all advertising should stop. Just as I would hope that my loved ones would balk at installing a convenience store-style television monitor in my tombstone, the Administration should combat their unseemly desire to promote their war through soldiers who have given their last full measure of devotion.

This, after all, is Arlington. If any place in the country should remain apolitical, it is the home of our war dead. The rows of identical markers are a reminder that death, like war, is egalitarian. (Unless you’re gay, or until the latter half of the 20th century, female or black.) A simple “2005” and “Iraq” would tell enough of the story for any visitor.

To quote Abraham Lincoln once again, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” It is ironic that to this Administration, which traces its roots back to the Lincoln presidency and which revels in its Christianity, nothing is sacred.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Slow News Week

Talk about irony. No, really, talk about irony.

Today's issue is called "Slow News Week." My intention was to write about how there's not much to write about. Then I intended to launch into a discussion of stories that haven't gone away -- such as Karl Rove and Valerie Plame and recent Supreme Court rulings and upcoming Supreme Court rulings -- to make the point that because they aren't breaking news, we tend to forget they exist. Until they are breaking news again, by which time it's too late to do anything about them.

There was some discussion early this summer about Mark Felt's motives for becoming Deep Throat. (Was he Deep Throat? Was he the only Deep Throat? Am I Deep Throat?) The point was made that DT helped keep the Watergate break-in on the front page of the Washington Post, for a long time the only paper covering the story. One reason the current Administration gets away with as much as it does is that US journalists are complicit with US audiences in their short attention span. They and we are easily distracted from tales of corruption in the White House by the next shiny thing that comes along. And during slow news weeks, it's important to bring those stories back to the forefront, because they haven't really gone away. People are still dying in Iraq because we were told Saddam Hussein bought uranium from Niger.

So I planned to breeze over recent stories, and then delve into older ones that are still on my mind. Next thing I knew, I was at 3500 words, and I hadn't touched Karl or Valerie or The Supremes. Slow news week indeed.


It had to happen. After a summer of high profile stories, from Cruisapalooza to Robertsmania, August has entered, not with a bang but a whimper. There's a heat wave sweeping the country, but it's at least the third one this summer, and people are tired. The killer sharks have played themselves out. Here in Chicago, there's an investigation into corruption at City Hall. I could write that line any time.

The only Roberts in the news is Julia, who's getting ready to make her Broadway debut. Woo hoo. It's not even a new play, nor a classic, but a 12 week run of Richard ("Take Me Out") Greenberg's 1997 family dramady "Three Days of Rain." It's directed by Joe Mantello, who used to do legitimate work but is now directing a revival of "The Odd Couple" starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Both of whom should be playing Felix.

Lauren Bacall is the latest celeb to diss Tom Cruise, telling Time that "When you talk about a great actor, you're not talking about Tom Cruise," and "It's inappropriate and vulgar and absolutely unacceptable to use your private life to sell anything commercially." Apparently Bacall has forgotten that much of her early career was fueled by stories about her relationship with Humphrey Bogart. But that selling was done primarily by studio publicists. No one jumped on Hedda Hopper's couch.

Time magazine has given in to this late summer ennui. Last week's cover story, "Eyewitness to Hiroshima," at least featured John Roberts in an insert ("How He Could Change The Supreme Court"). This week? "Special Report: Being 13."

Meanwhile, South Korean scientists have cloned a dog, an Afghan puppy named Snuppy. Officials say the animal appears to be "delicious."

Despite the faux-frantic coverage, there is little doubt that space shuttle Discovery will return home safely. Discovery's crew took time Thursday to remember the astronauts killed in the 2003 Columbia disaster. Then they read excerpts from Richard Greenberg's 1997 family dramady "Three Days of Rain."


I can't even get my knickers in a twist about the recess appointment of John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN. Yeah, that was just this week. First, we all knew it was coming. Second, there is little the US can do to ruin its reputation any further in the international community. Sure, Bolton's a hothead who called for losing the top ten floors of the United Nations building and a petty tyrant who takes revenge on those who disagree with him. But while his predecessor, John Danforth, is fairly moderate (he recently wrote two pieces for the New York Times criticizing the blurred distinction between church and state brought about by some Christian conservatives), he served less than seven months. Danforth replaced John Negroponte, whose prior claim to fame was the part he played in the Iran-Contra Affair while serving as Ambassador to Honduras. (For other activities, Negroponte was later accused of human rights violations by the Honduras Commission on Human Rights.) Negroponte was rewarded by bring named Director of National Intelligence this past February. The worst you can say about Bolton is that he will be ineffective. And since he sees the UN as an ineffective organization, it should be a perfect fit.

Nor do I care much about Bush making a recess appointment. It's nothing new. Bush used this option 105 times before appointing Bolton, primarily in order to appoint judges. One appointment went to Eugene Scalia, son of Fat Tony Scalia, who Bush named Labor Department Solicitor in 2002. Clinton made 140 recess appointments during his two terms, and Ronald Reagan made 243. President Eisenhower made three recess appointments to the Supreme Court: Chief Justice Earl Warren and Associate Justices William Brennan and Potter Stewart. The first recess appointment was made by George Washington, who appointed John Rutledge Chief Justice in 1795. Heck, even "The West Wing" did a show about recess appointments. In any case, Bolton's appointment will only last until the end of 2006, when this two-year session of Congress comes to an end. Then he has to be reconfirmed.

Think of it as a reason to vote in 2006.


The Bolton appointment highlights the growing strain between George Bush and his party. Even that old party regular, Trent Lott, gives it a bad review. Last week, he said he suspected Bush would appoint Bolton, but that, "it's a little bit of a thumbing of the nose at the Senate, which will cause you more problems down the road. We are a coequal branch; he doesn't get to make his choices in a vacuum." For those of you whose teeth itch at the use of "coequal" to mean "equal," Lott's usage goes back to the Federalist Papers, written when he was a mere boy. In that case, though -- and in most "approved" cases -- "coequal" refers to more than two ("The Senate ... will derive its powers from the States, as political and coequal societies" -- James Madison). Lott went on to say that Bolton would be "weakened and temporary" and "could serve what, 17 months, unless he was subsequently confirmed, which I don't see any chance of."

Not what you want to hear from your own party.

Meanwhile, Bill Frist, Trent Lott's replacement as Senate Majority Leader, has broken with the President on stem cell research. In a speech on the Senate floor last Friday, Frist called for an expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, beyond the 22 lines which are now officially approved. In particular, Frist is in favor of opening up to research the hundreds of thousands of embryos currently in storage in fertility clinics, left over from in vitro fertility treatment. Frist's statement represents a return to the stance he held in 2001, before George Bush's decision to limit federal funding to existing stem cell lines.

Frist's announcement puts him in the odd position of receiving praise from Democrats and rebuke from Republicans. Some Republicans have offered their support, such as Arlen Specter and Nancy Reagan. Specter, as you probably know, is undergoing treatment for cancer, and Reagan, of course, was widowed by Alzheimer's disease. It is easy to support a cure once you have become a victim of the disease. In a similar vein, those on the far right call for harsh jail terms for all drug abusers, yet see Rush Limbaugh's OxyContin addiction as a personal tragedy. The President has not evidenced any ill will toward Frist, reportedly telling him "You've got to vote your conscience," and seeming jocular during an appearance by the two men at a bill-signing ceremony later in the day. At the same time, Bush is expected to veto any bill which opens up new stem cell research. The majority of the responses fell along party lines, with Democrats such as Harry Reid ("a large step has been taken by the majority leader today ... and I admire the majority leader for doing it"), Ted Kennedy ("I applaud his courage in putting patients over politics.") and Dianne Feinstein ("My heart jumped a beat when I heard Senator Frist's speech this morning.") speaking in favor of Frist, while Republicans offered criticism ranging from mild (Tom Delay: "Senator Frist is a good man, he's simply advocating a bad policy.") to severe ("He cannot be pro-life and pro-embryonic stem cell funding. Nor can he turn around and expect widespread endorsement from the pro-life community if he should decide to run for president in 2008." --Patrick Mahoney, Christian Defense Coalition).

Bill Kristol and Eric Cohen take the "slippery slope" approach in a slightly mad, and somewhat maddening editorial in The Weekly Standard titled "Frist's Stem Cell Capitulation." According to Cohen and Kristol, allowing federal funding of research on embryonic "spares" opens the door to "the mass creation of genetically tailored embryonic stem cells, produced by creating and destroying cloned human embryos" and "harvesting human fetuses in animal wombs." They go so far as to invoke "Brave New World." This approach is particularly odd because the men open their article by saying that federal funds for stem cell research are unnecessary because there is plenty of state and private money available. If you're afraid of the brave new world ("no limits on human cloning, no limits on fetal farming, no limits on the creation of man-animal hybrids"), banning, not limiting funding, should be your concern.


So why has Frist chosen to take this controversial stand? Hard to say, though I'm sure the pundits have. Frist wants to be president, and despite warnings by the Christian Defense Coalition and others ("Treating living human embryos as mere fodder for experimentation crosses a vital ethical line and contravenes the sanctity of human life." -- David Stevens, Executive Director of the Christian Medical Association), he apparently sees this as the best way to go about it. As great as the fear of the Christian theocracy is on the left, I believe it's even greater on the right. For every pragmatist like Karl Rove, who believes in winning at any cost, or true believers like Representative Mike Pence of Indiana ("This will result in millions of Americans realizing we have a Republican majority in Congress but we don't have a pro-life majority in Congress."), there are a hundred rational Republicans who feel squeamish about having to support the crazy party. I'm not saying the bubble is about to burst on the Religious Right, much as I wish it would. But it's a mere three months since Frist participated in "Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith," and now he's taking a stand which has former supporters in a tizzy. He knows something I don't.

At the same time, he has to salvage some credibility. If you know anything about Bill Frist, you know that he's a doctor -- a transplant surgeon, to be exact. (His family is also involved in a host of insurance scams, which I've mentioned before.) George Bush likes to introduce him as Doctor Bill Frist. It's more respectable than Senator, I suppose. Yet increasingly, Frist has been forced by his party affiliation to be on the wrong side of medical issues. He said last March that Terri Schiavo was "not somebody in a persistent vegetative state," based on what he had seen and read. After her autopsy was released, he made a round of all the morning news shows, saying his statement was not meant as a diagnosis. As it turns out, his opinion was based on the edited video footage we all saw, plus a conversation with one neurologist. But that was enough for him to lead a Senate fight over one person's future. (I should be so lucky.) (Or not.) At least he admitted he was wrong about Schiavo, saying after the autopsy, "She had devastating brain damage, and with that, the chapter's closed." This is better than his record on AIDS. Last December, during an appearance on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," he was questioned about federally funded abstinence programs which were teaching false information. When asked if HIV could be transmitted through sweat and tears, as these federally funded educational materials stated, Frist's first response was "I don't know." Granted, this is not his field of specialty, but even I know the answer to that one. When asked again ("you believe that tears and sweat might be able to transmit AIDS?"), his response was "Yeah, no, I can tell you that HIV is not very transmissible as an element like, compared to smallpox, compared to the flu." Later in the segment, Stephanopoulos returned to the question ("Do you or do you not believe that tears and sweat can transmit HIV?"). Frist's reply was an unqualified "It would be very hard for tears and sweat, I mean, you can get virus in tears and sweat but in terms of the degree of infecting somebody, it would be very hard." By the way, according to the Centers for Disease Control, "Contact with saliva, tears, or sweat has never been shown to result in transmission of HIV." All Frist had to say was "No." "No, I'm sorry, those materials are incorrect, tears and sweat do not transmit HIV." As a doctor, that was his responsibility. As a politician, his duty was to support the party. He chose poorly.

(I do not suggest that a Democrat politician would necessarily have chosen wisely. But Frist is our subject here.)

All this talk of stem cell research makes me nostalgic for August 2001, when this was supposed to be the defining issue of the Bush presidency. Rather than fear. Which is different than terror.


So how long before Frist comes out in favor of Intelligent Design?

For those of you who have not been paying attention, intelligent design is the new name for creationism. It's all the rage. It sounds scientific -- it even has "design" in the name! Plus "intelligent," so it can't be as stupid as it sounds. Intelligent Design. It's like something Lexus would push.

But instead it's just God, in new clothes. Like Carrie Donovan in those Old Navy ads.

George Bush, who is proof positive that men and monkeys have a common ancestor (No, not Barbara. Even older.), has come out in favor of teaching schoolchildren intelligent design along with evolution. And, though unsaid, eventually in place of it. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," according to Bush, "so people can understand what the debate is about." To my knowledge, this is the first time Bush has ever acknowledged that an issue might have more than one side.

The main problem with intelligent design -- beyond the fact that if you don't believe in Judeo-Christian mythology, you're screwed -- is that it's not scientific. The basis of the scientific method is observation, followed by hypothesis, or an idea of what you think is going on. Hypotheses are then tested through experimentation. Hypotheses which predict results which can be verified through further experimentation become theories. Given this description, I have no problem with people who refer to evolution as an hypothesis rather than a theory, because it hasn't necessarily been proved. Intelligent design isn't even an hypothesis, because it can't be tested. It is, as one professor noted, "creationism in a cheap tuxedo."

The other problem with intelligent design is that in order to make it make sense, you have to take everything we know and twist it in order to fit the program. Here's an example. Let's say God created humankind (we'll skip Adam and Eve for now) in its modern, Homo sapiens form. We have not undergone evolution. That means God also created the fossilized remains of a whole slew of protohumans, and buried them in the earth. Like the tripods in "War of the Worlds." In His tricksy, Godlike way, He created the earth in layers which suggest various eons in time, and not only buried remains, but infused certain carbon atoms with a varying number of neutrons, corresponding to how deep they were buried, so that we could test them through carbon-14 dating and get a false sense of how old they were. To take it a step further, He did the same thing with literally billions of other fossilized remains, in order to create a fairly complete but completely false fossil record of life on Earth. Cool! And this isn't even getting into the distinction between "young Earth" and "old Earth" followers of intelligent design: "young Earthers" believing that everything in Genesis is literally true, and that a day is a day, and the Earth is a little more than 6,000 years old, and "old Earthers" believing that a "day" in Genesis might cover millions of years.

In the words of Anna Russell, I'm not making this up.

I've done some reading on intelligent design, and once you get past the simple creation myth of Genesis (make that myths -- there are two, and they conflict), it gets incredibly complex. Perhaps George Bush believes school children can follow this. I'm not so sure. Evolution is easier, and it makes more sense.


There's a simple example which compares evolution and intelligent design. And it has the added advantage of being true.

Once upon a time, people believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. The Sun and Moon and planets revolved around the Earth, and far away was the sphere of fixed stars, which revolved as a whole. And everybody was happy. Then people -- let's call them scientists -- started observing the movement of the planets. And they saw strange things. For example, sometimes some of the planets seemed to move backwards. And none of the planets moved at a completely steady rate. And so they changed their view of the universe. They didn't come to the belief that the Earth and planets revolved around the Sun -- that was hundreds of years away. Instead, they invented things called epicycles. These were little orbits on top of the regular orbits of the planets, which reconciled their movement with observation. The more observation, the more epicycles were required, until models of the universe requires wheels within wheels within wheels.

Then Copernicus came along, and said, "Duh. If you put the Sun at the center and have the Earth and the planets revolve around that (while having the Moon revolve around the Earth), it simplifies the whole magilla." Well, Copernicus probably didn't come up with this completely on his own, and certainly didn't say "magilla," but it's close enough.

Intelligent design advocates will tell you that theirs is the simpler system. What could be more simple than an Intelligent Designer? To my mind, a designer who creates a universe and then plants myriad clues intended to give His creations mistaken ideas about their universe -- not just in evolution, but in physics, astronomy, chemistry, cosmology and nearly every field you can imagine -- not only that, but clues they won't be able to understand for thousands of years -- to me, such a designer is not intelligent, but obsessive compulsive. You can have Him.


One person who has come out against teaching intelligent design is ... are you sitting down? ... Rick Santorum. That's right, Crazy Rick Santorum.

Crazy Rick is the senator from Pennsylvania who said "If the Supreme Court says that you have a right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything." Most newspapers inserted the word (gay) between "consensual" and "sex," but Santorum didn't say it. Maybe he meant it. But Santorum seems to think all privacy is a bad thing. "If you make the case that if you can do whatever you want to do, as long as it's in the privacy of your own home, this 'right to privacy,' then why be surprised that people are doing things that are deviant within their own home? If you say, there is no deviant as long as it's private, as long as it's consensual, then don't be surprised what you get. ... And that leads to a culture that is not one that is nurturing and necessarily healthy." Remember, for Crazy Rick, "deviant" includes voting Democrat.

In recent months, Santorum has blamed liberals for sexual abuse within the Catholics church and feminists for ruining the American family.

Crazy Rick was a bit more even tempered on the issue of intelligent design, but did tell NPR, "I think I would probably tailor that a little more than what the president has suggested. I'm not comfortable with intelligent design being taught in the science classroom."

You just can't count on Republicans to be crazy these days!


On a lighter note, Robert Novak, the columnist who outed Valerie Plame as a covert agent, has been suspended indefinitely from CNN after he swore and walked off the set of "Inside Politics" during a discussion with James Carville. Granted, the curse was "bullshit," which is nothing compared to what Carville generally deserves. And surely Novak's nerves are frayed, what with not being investigated in the Plame probe, having "Crossfire" cancelled from underneath him, and not getting the sweet deal his panelmate Tucker Carlson is getting at MSNBC. Carlson's got a new show called "The Situation with Tucker Carlson," which is short for "What the Hell is the Situation with Tucker Carlson?" In terms of hard news, the show ranks somewhere between "Countdown" and "The Daily Show."

A CNN spokesperson simply said, "We've asked Mr. Novak to take some time off."