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Friday, October 28, 2005


Monday is Halloween. This doesn’t mean as much to me as it did when I was a child. Back then, there were only three TV networks, plus a handful of local VHF and UHF outlets. But you could count on scary movies all through October. Now he have 500 cable channels and what have you got? Jeepers Creepers on SciFi. Even AMC's Monsterfest is reduced to a week this year.

I won’t be watching Jeepers Creepers, but I will tune in afterwards (9pm in Chicago) for the "Ghost Hunters Halloween Special." "Ghost Hunters" is one of my guilty pleasures. I've been meaning to write about it for weeks now, and suddenly the show is on hiatus until January. Damn you, unpredictable cable TV schedules! Since the show is on SciFi, it will probably continue to turn up somewhere on their schedule. And season one is available on DVD. (Season two just concluded, with a bang-up season finale.)

"Ghost Hunters" is an example of what has been recently dubbed a "docu-soap." It is essentially reality TV, in that we follow the adventures of real people which are documented by TV cameras. But it is not a game show, like "Survivor" or "The Amazing Race." (I just typed that as "Survivor of the Amazing Race," which I think would be a more interesting program.) The "soap" part has to do with the fact that there is a continuing story line, although unlike a show like "The Real World" (the original docu-soap), each episode is self-sustaining. It’s like "Road Rules" with ghosts.

Well, not always ghosts. The show follows a group of paranormal investigators called The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or TAPS. Get it? They are based in Rhode Island, of all place, and used to be known as Rhode Island Paranormal, or RIP. The show is not this jokey, but this gives you an idea of the level of the material.

What makes TAPS different is that they go into an investigation assuming that a location is not haunted, and attempt to debunk whatever experiences the homeowners – or whoever – have experienced. They come loaded for bear, with a slew of video cameras, microphones, EMF (electromagnetic frequency) detectors, and more. Plus, of course, the cameras which are following them for SciFi. Although they depend on their own experiences, the only evidence they hold as legitimate is what they can capture on tape (or DVD, as the case may be). Any evidence they cannot explain, they hold as possible proof of a haunt.

TAPS' founders, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson (no relation to Joe), are especially suited for this debunking by their day jobs as Roto-Rooter men. This is what sucked me into the show to begin with, and is, I'm sure, what sold SciFi on the concept. Jay and Grant are ordinary, blue-collar kinda guys who just happen to chase ghosts in their spare time. And have been doing so for more than ten years, long before SciFi came along. Jay is a big bear of a guy, with a shaved head and a no-nonsense attitude. Grant is the sidekick, a bit more of an intellectual, but still a very practical problem solver. Their background as plumbers helps them recognize when mysterious noises are due to expanding pipes or drafts in the walls. In a recent episode, investigators linked a room which was unnaturally cold to a blocked heating duct. Let’s see your "Poltergeist" gang do that!

Part of the fun of "Ghost Hunters" is watching the interaction between the members of the TAPS crew. Bumbling tech director Brian Harnois, who ran out of a haunted prison because of a close encounter, left the crew after his personal life started affecting his work. (He was constantly on the phone with his unseen girlfriend.) His conflicts with Andy Andrews, whose unfortunate name only adds to the problems of his ferret-like visage and the voice of a young Woody Allen, led to Andy leaving the tech department and becoming an investigator. Brian's departure cleared the way for the ascendance of Steve Gonsalves, a heavily tattooed monobrowed techie who feels he don't get no respect. Dustin, the new guy, is scrawny and gawky with spiky, over-producted hair. He considers himself the sex symbol. Heather considers herself a "sensitive," and uses her dowsing rods to detect energy fields. Fortunately, Donna, the even-keeled case manager, is able to keep all these personalities in line. To give the show credit, it doesn't play up any of these characters as caricatures (despite my one-line descriptions), and after a few episodes, you view them as old, if somewhat erratic, friends.

Which is not to say that Jay, Grant and the gang don't occasionally uncover some truly spooky phenomenon. Most of this is in the realm of EVP, or electronic voice phenomena. Investigators carry tape recorders with them, and ask questions in "empty" rooms: "Why are you here?" "Are you the woman in the painting?" Sometimes voices turn up on the tape which were not audible to human ears. (Obviously, for this sort of evidence to be effective, the audience has to believe that everything TAPS is doing is above board, and that they are not screwing with the evidence. I'm down wit dat.) Generally, it takes some effort to decipher what these "voices" may be "saying," and that is dependent on the natural instinct to make sense out of chaos. But sometimes these voices are quite clear, and quite chilling.

At other times, evidence is caught on video. Generally, this consists of an object moving inexplicably, often over some period of time, during which such movement might not be visible (or at least obvious) to the naked eye. Sometimes the video evidence helps debunk a case, as with two cases involving children. In one, a little girl was being woken up in the middle of the night by a spirit which would poke her. Video revealed the "spirit" to be her older brother, who slept in the room with her and walked in his sleep, returning to bed before she was fully awake. Another boy was being taunted by a ghost who shook his bed and pulled off his covers. Video showed the boy was a restless sleeper, possibly due to playing video games before going to bed. When his mother viewed the video of him tossing in bed, she asked, "Is this over several hours?" "No, it's several minutes."

And sometimes evidence is captured by a thermal-imaging digital camera, which records heat fluctuations. You've seen these sorts of images before. Think Predator. The thermal cam stuff can be really creepy. This is what was captured on the season finale, and which is displayed on the "Ghost Hunters" page at SciFi under "Exclusive Case File Video." For more evidence from the show, check out the TAPS site. There are other samples of evidence under "Evidence," on the navigation bar at the left. Oooh, scary stuff.

I’m a sucker for this show because my philosophy is similar to the official TAPS line: I believe in everything and nothing. Even if you believe in nothing, it's a fun ride.


The structure of the show is pretty predictable: the guys do two investigations; the first is a bust, the second has some payoff. This is especially true of the second season, which focuses more on "most haunted" places (the Winchester Mystery House, the Lizzie Borden House) than personal homes. There's a nice episode on the Queen Mary, in which someone tampers with their equipment to show a bed "unmaking" itself. The TAPS guys do a nice job of catching it.


One thing that I've just recently noticed about this show is that it's one of the few accurate presentations of straight guys in the media. Most characters on TV and film live lives which are, by necessity, much more wrought with drama than those of your average straight man. (As we know, "wrought" is an understatement for the amount of drama in the lives of women and gay men.) And these male characters are played by actors who are pseudo-straight at best. Straight men on other reality shows don’t count: they are so busy primping for the cameras they might as well be A&F boys. The producers of "Ghost Hunters" also produce "American Chopper," and while amusing, no one would mistake those guys for straight. The TAPS crew are just guys (and some women), and it's a nice change.


Another Scary Thought

Speaking of life after death, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association announced yesterday that they won’t grant the Kansas board of education permission to use their copyrighted materials in the state’s new science standards because of their approach to evolution. Copyrighted material appears on almost all of the document's 100 pages. A joint statement by the two organizations read, "Kansas students will not be well-prepared for the rigors of higher education or the demands of an increasingly complex and technologically-driven world if their science education is based on these standards. Instead, they will put the students of Kansas at a competitive disadvantage as they take their place in the world." A third organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, went even further, saying, "Students are ill-served by any effort in science classrooms to blur the distinction between science and other ways of knowing, including those concerned with the supernatural." I'm happy to see someone refer to creationism as "the supernatural."

Thursday, October 27, 2005

An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle

Waiting for the results of the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case has me feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve. By the time you read this, you may know the results, but for me, they are still under wraps. All the pundits were abuzz Tuesday with the news that indictments could come down the next day. By the time I got home from class on Wednesday, the jury had adjourned for the day, with no results in sight. The term of the grand jury ends today (Friday), so prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald either goes public or goes with a new grand jury. Fitzgerald met with Judge Thomas Hogan on Wednesday, and while it seems unlikely he is seeking to extend the investigation, he may seek to have his indictments sealed. Which means what, I'm not exactly sure.

The unsettling thing about this case is that I realize I may get nothing but socks and underwear. Sure, I'd love to see Karl Rove take the perp walk and watch the White House collapse like a house of cards, but the odds of that happening are very slim. It seems likely that Scooter Libby will have his hat handed to him, but that doesn't have the same satisfaction as seeing his boss, Dick Cheney, spanked on the National Mall with a yardstick. I fear that in the end, the anxiety that this government has about the results of the investigation may prove groundless.


First, a little background on the case, for those of you who have not been paying attention or who may have gotten lost along the way. It all starts back in 2001, when Italian intelligence agents obtain documents that indicate that Iraqi officials tried to buy yellowcake from Niger. This yellowcake is not a Sarah Lee product, but is essentially uranium ore. Eventually the documents turn out to be forgeries, and the agents turn out to be Roberto Benigni and Don Novello. But that comes later.

In 2002, Joseph Wilson, an ambassador under Bush I and Clinton, is sent to Niger to investigate these allegations. Wilson claims the order originated in Dick Cheney's office; Cheney says the order originated in the CIA. In any case, in March Wilson goes to Niger, decides the claims are bogus, and files a report with the CIA. The CIA summarizes his findings in a memo to the White House.

[Note: Cheney says he never asked for such a report and never received such a report. Note also, though, that Cheney receives daily briefings from the CIA, so if there was a memo that essentially said, "Nothing's happening," it could easily have been filed without being read.]

Nearly a year later, on January 28, 2003, George Bush delivers his State of the Union address with the now-famous "16 words:" "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." A week later, Colin Powell addresses the United Nations, but doesn't mention African yellowcake because he doesn't think the evidence is valid. As it turns out, nearly four months earlier, a similar line was struck from a speech Bush delivered in Cincinnati, because of objections from the CIA, which did not consider the claim legitimate. So by that time, the National Security Council, if not the President, knew the assertion to be false.

In March 2003, we invade Iraq. Two weeks before we go, the head of the Atomic Energy Agency reports to the UN that the yellowcake papers are forgeries.

July 6, 2003, Joe Wilson writes an op-ed piece for the New York Times called, "What I Didn't Find in Africa." It is about his trip to Africa and what he didn't find there. Duh.

July 14, 2003. For most of us, this is when the story starts. Robert Novak writes an article about Wilson's trip to Africa. Now here's the thing. The Novak article? Doesn't say much. It's not much more than a half-assed overview of the events. Novak supports Bush, saying he never saw Wilson's report prior to the State of the Union. (Which is probably true. But it doesn't mean no one had seen it. Remember Cincinnati.) But he doesn't slam Wilson, beyond saying the CIA didn't consider his information as definitive.

What he does say, about midway through, is this: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him."

If you didn't know what you were looking for, you wouldn't find it. What we now know is that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA under "non-official cover." She was a NOC – one of the undercover agents on the list that Vanessa Redgrave is trying to buy in Mission: Impossible. NOCs are valuable because they operate in plain sight. To foreign governments and businesses, they are ordinary American citizens and businessmen; they treat them as civilians and don't pay attention to them. But if they are discovered, they have no diplomatic immunity. There's nothing the US government can do for them.

In September 2003, the Justice Department opens an investigation into the leak that resulted in Novak revealing Plame's identity.


On one hand, this case truly is much ado about nothing. By the time Novak outed her, it appears that Plame was no longer working in the field, so she wasn't really in danger of assassination, as would be the case with an active NOC. Novak may or may not have known Plame was undercover; whoever told him about Plame may or may not have known she was undercover. (Hopefully the grand jury report, if there is one, will shed some light on this.) Novak's article has been interpreted as an effort to smear Wilson's credibility. It doesn't really do that. I'm not sure how it's supposed to do that. I assume by portraying Wilson as someone who needed the influence of his wife in order to get work. Or perhaps as showing that Wilson's trip was politically motivated. This may have been the intention of the "Two senior administration officials," but Novak sure doesn't carry it off.

[Side note: I just recently read Novak's article, and saw how empty it was. Until I actually read the article, I assumed Novak had openly outed Plame, and that he had drawn a more distinct connection between her job and Wilson's trip. Instead, it is just so much blather. A Washington Post article says the leakers revealed Plame's name to six highly placed reporters. If that's the case, it's unfortunate that Novak's the only one who ran with it. At the same time, since Novak is the one who actually outed Plame, it's suspicious that he got off so easily, especially when reporters from Time and The New York Times faced prison sentences. I assume Novak cooperated with authorities.]

It is the intention of the leakers that ticks me off, and why I want to see trouble come down. This desire to win at all costs is the most destructive element in modern politics. It is no coincidence that Novak's article appeared within a week of Wilson's. Wilson revealed his experiences and information about the Nigerian uranium, and accused the Administration of going to war in Iraq under false pretenses (something we now know to be true). Rather than responding to his points, the choice of the Administration (officially or not) was to challenge Wilson's integrity. Not only is that underhanded, it is clearly "un-American."

The Administration is on as shaky moral ground in this dispute as the Clinton administration ever was. After saying he would fire anyone who leaked Plame's name, the President now says he will fire anyone who is guilty of a crime. The argument which has been made is that the leakers – Libby, Rove or whoever – didn't know that Plame was undercover, so they're not guilty of a crime. That may be true. But why bring her up at all? Contrary to statements by Fox News, she did not "send" Joe Wilson to Niger – she didn't have that authority. She may have recommended him for the job, but Wilson served as head of African affairs on the National Security Council: no one disputes he had the credentials. Plame was not part of the story. Until someone told Novak, and Novak told everyone.

Perhaps no "crime" was committed in revealing Plame's name. Perhaps, since she no longer seems to work undercover – she sure can't any more – no "harm" was done. But who gets to make that decision? Who decides that it is okay to reveal the identity of this undercover agent, but not that one? Certainly not an unelected official such as Libby or Rove. And if the order came from Cheney, does that make it okay? And if it's okay for this administration, is it okay for the next? When is it not okay?

Here's one case where it should not be okay: when we're fighting a War on Terror, and the agent is "an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." Plame's work was directly related to what, in 2003, was the most important objective to the United States. Surely that was no time to reveal her identity because of a petty turf war. George H.W. Bush said that revealing an agent's identity was treason. If these incidents occurred under a Democratic administration, you can bet that word would be bandied about. If you doubt me, take a quick glance at which popular books of political opinion have the word "treason" in the title.

Finally, the point that never seems to be made: Wilson was right. There is no credible evidence that Saddam's government bought any yellowcake. What Wilson said was true. What Bush said in the State of the Union was not true. Even if Plame was responsible for Wilson going to Africa, what he reported was the truth. Trying to undermine his report was done in service of a lie. It may not be illegal, but certainly is morally reprehensible.


Rumor has it that Karl Rove may face perjury charges in relation to his testimony to the grand jury. For someone like Rove, who is constitutionally incapable of telling the truth, such an accusation is meaningless.


Whoever goes down for this – if anyone does – they don't have much to worry about. Failure is the road to the top in this administration. Remember Michael Brown, the former head of FEMA? Know what he's doing now? Working for FEMA. As a consultant. At his same salary of $3,000 per week. White House insiders say that back before she was a Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers was promoted from Deputy Chief of Staff to the Counsel's Office because she took so long to get anything done that she drove Chief of Staff Andy Card crazy. And Stephen Hadley, the guy who approved the yellowcake reference in the State of the Union over the objections of the CIA, know what he's doing now? That's right, he's the National Security Advisor!


I'm glad that Harriet Miers withdrew herself from consideration for the Supreme Court. I'm sure she's a lovely lady, but answering questions about previous cases by saying "I'm going to have to bone up on that" does not bode well for a future on the Court. Remember her name for future editions of Trivial Pursuit. Maybe it will take your mind off the fresh hell which George Bush is bound to visit upon us with his next nominee.

Shut Out

As you probably know, I don't have a lot of truck with the myth of the liberal press. But I do believe in the anti-Chicago press. Last year at this time, we were deluged with stories about the Boston Red Sox. This morning, if you didn't live in Chicago or hadn't seen the game the night before, you wouldn't know the White Sox had won the World Series. Perhaps Boston's "curse" was more romantic, being tied in with Babe Ruth and all. But not only had the White Sox not won a World Series in 88 years (trumping Boston's drought by two years), they hadn't played in a Series since 1959. During that time, Boston went to three (in 1967, '75 and '86, if you're keeping count).

Granted, the story was swept from the online sources (the ones I track, anyway) by Harriet Miers withdrawing her name from nomination for the Supreme Court. That, and the news that there's no news from Patrick Fitzgerald, and the $2 billion in bribes and kickbacks in the oil-for-food program. But the third story in the New York Times online was about reduced holiday fares on the MTA, while Yahoo focused on long lines for gas in Florida. Top sports story in the Washington Post? The NFL is considering relocating the New Orleans Saints to Los Angeles.

On another front, a news story about Chicago's main contribution to the War on Terror, "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, referred to him as "New York born Jose Padilla." Come on!

The news outlets may just be following the trend of the viewing public. The TV ratings for this year's broadcast of the World Series were down 30% from last year. Although last year's ratings were unusually high, analysts are saying that this Series could hit a record low, besting the previous low ratings record held by the 2002 Series between the Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Final Word on Bill Bennett

This is not the final word on Bill Bennett because what I have to say is so profound that it will put and end to all other discussion. It is the final word on Bill Bennett because I have taken so long to comment on it.

Bill Bennett, as I assume you know, served as the Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan. He later served as the first “drug czar” under George H.W. Bush. Is it just me, or is it odd that the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is called the drug czar? Shouldn’t a drug czar head up an international narcotics cartel? Is there something we should know? Bennett is also the author of “The Book of Virtues,” which is ironic from someone who has lost a reported $8 million gambling. Bennett now hosts talk radio program called “Morning in America.” It might as well be called “I Kissed Reagan’s Ass.”

[For those of you too young or out of touch to remember, “It’s Morning in America” was a catchphrase of the Reagan campaign. During that time, many of us felt that we were mourning in America. We had no idea how bad things would get 20 years later. Bennett calling his show “Morning in America” is the same as Rod Paige launching a radio show called “Compassionate Conservative.” Look it up.]

[By the way, yet another of my gripes against our current president is that he’s ruined the word “compassion” for me. It is now a synonym for “political bullshit.” In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a number of ads have used “compassion” in their copy. I always respond badly. Thanks, George.]

Anyway. Set the Wayback Machine Sept. 28, 2005. I know, it’s not that way back. A caller to Bennett’s program linked the problems with Social Security to abortion. According to the caller, the number of babies aborted since the Roe v. Wade decision would be enough to fund Social Security. Bennett pointed out one of the fallacies in his argument, which is the assumption that these people would all be “productive citizens” (i.e. wage earners). [Another point, which Bennett did not point out, is that not many more than a third of those people would be old enough to be paying into the Social Security fund.] Bennett then made the point that it’s dangerous to use such arguments to oppose abortion because “it cuts both ways.” “It” being, in this case, a scalpel, I imagine. To support his point, he mentioned the book “Freakonomics,” whose authors draw a connection between the decline in crime and the rise in abortion. Bennett said he didn’t think their statistics were necessarily accurate, but then went on: “But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.”

Oh, the hue and cry.

Needless to say, condemnation was quick and furious. Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and representatives from countless civil rights groups demanded an apology. By the next day, even the White House had joined the fray, saying the comments were “not appropriate.”

Bennett refused to apologize. The next day, he characterized his statement as a “thought experiment about public policy,” and went on to say “I entertained what law school professors call ‘the Socratic method’ … I suggested a hypothetical analogy while at the same time saying the proposition I was using about blacks and abortion was ‘impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible,’ just to ensure those who would have any doubt about what they were hearing, or for those who tuned in to the middle of the conversation.” This is the short form of the Socratic Method. In the true Socratic Method, Bennett would have made the argument and led his listeners to recognize that it was “impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible.” But who has time for that on talk radio?

The following week, Bennett issued his own battle cry when he addressed the Bakersfield Business Conference. He began, “I have been slandered, defamed, misrepresented and libeled.” Them is the definition of fighting words. He went on, “So today, although I cannot apologize for what I said and meant, which when understood in context ought not be objectionable, I regret that people have misrepresented my views so that they have been the cause of hurt, controversy, and confusion.”

I understand Bennett’s anger at being characterized as a racist. He does not believe himself to be a racist, and no one likes to be accused of something of which they believe themselves innocent. (Most people don’t like to be accused of things of which they know full well they are completely guilty, but that’s another matter.) And while I don’t believe his words were mischaracterized, I do believe they were misunderstood. And in the case of folks like Reid and Pelosi, willfully so. It should be obvious to even the leftest leftist that Bennett did not call for aborting black babies.

Which doesn’t mean he is not a racist. His comments most certainly are.

Bennett’s statement is racist because it equates blacks with crime. This becomes even more apparent when you look at the conversation in its entirely. Bennett says, “one of the arguments in this book “Freakonomics” that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up.” His caller interjects, “Well, I don't think that statistic is accurate.” Bennett continues, “Well, I don't think it is either, I don't think it is either, because first of all, there is just too much that you don't know.” Bennett clearly says that he does not agree with the premise in “Freakonomics.” He then goes on to say, “But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” I don’t see any way to read this other than, “Abortion is not responsible for a drop in crime, but aborting black babies does result in a drop in crime.”

Granted, this was an off-the-cuff comment. Bennett broadcasts every weekday morning for three hours, and much of what he says is off the top of his head. But that is part of what makes it telling. Bennett doesn’t have to qualify his statement, because to him it is so obviously true. Blacks ate the overwhelming cause of crime: he knows it and so does his audience. When called on to apologize, he points to his statement that, “That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do.” He completely misses the point – as do most of his opponents – that what is objectionable is not a call for black abortions, but the unquestioned assumption that black abortions – versus all abortions – would reduce crime.

A subtle distinction? Perhaps. Apparently too subtle for both Bennett and his foes.