Please help Ayaan Hirsi Ali

November 27th, 2007

One of the most courageous people of our time, or any time, is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The guy who killed filmmaker Theo Van Gogh planted a note on Van Gogh’s body that said Hirsi Ali was next. And death threats continue to come in from all over — all to stop her from speaking her mind.

The Dutch government encouraged Ms. Hirsi Ali to run for parliament, promising her a security detail if she did so. Now they’ve announced they plan to stop paying for it. Amsterdam is a great town — they tolerate everyone. But this stance dims my enthusiasm for the Netherlands.

Filling the void, the great writer Sam Harris has started a fund to pay for Ms. Hirsi Ali’s security. I had the honor of shaking Ms. Hirsi Ali’s hand after a debate at the New York Public Library, and am happy to contribute ten bucks a month. I wish I could give more. If you care about the status of women in the Muslim world (i.e., the entire world), or just don’t think people should be told to shut up under threat of death, then please help Ms. Hirsi Ali stay alive.

PKD is important, of course. But so is the life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Entertaining voice mail

November 1st, 2007

The following is a word-for-word transcript of a voice mail I got from a friend:

“Hey, Bill – it’s X. Um, I just wanted to say that what we talked about today probably shouldn’t be, uh, commented on … not that I even really said anything, but um, just — you know, if you do end up talking about it, maybe … not that you would, but, you know — obviously I’m not involved, so … I shouldn’t be. All right, uh, just wanted to talk you about that. If you get a chance, call me back.

Johnny, Have You Ever Hung Around in a Turkish Prison?

October 15th, 2007

I finally saw “Midnight Express” last night – the 1978 movie about the American kid who tries to smuggle hash out of Turkey and ends up in a tough prison with a life sentence. When I was in high school my classmates cited that movie as *the* reason not to ever try to smuggle drugs out of a foreign country. (I’m sure there are other reasons, too. But when you’re young, concrete penalties really stick out.)

Two things struck me. One was that aside from John Hurt, the acting was terrible. Brad Davis just wasn’t convincing, which was a problem because he was on camera almost the whole time. Even Randy Quaid, who went on to do some decent work, seemed able to inhabit his character only for brief snatches of time; the rest of his performance felt very actor-ish. So that was a shame.

Much more important than the acting, though: When “Midnight Express” was made, torture was something *other* countries did. The whole tone of the movie was “Wow — some countries are really primitive. Look how the Turks treat this naïve American boy.”

In the five-minute “featurette” accompanying the movie on the DVD, also made in 1978, this tone was made explicit. Over pictures of a crowded Manhattan street, the narrator said that none of these people would be imprisoned without due process. With amazement in his voice, he said that other countries sometimes imprisoned people after shoddy trials, and even — gasp — *tortured* people.

As Frank Rich noted yesterday, the United States under George W. Bush has become a nation that tortures people. Most of its citizens look the other way. We think extreme measures are necessary, just as the citiznes of Turkey undoubtedly did in 1970. Just as the citizens of Germany undoubtedly did during the Second World War.

It would make little sense to make “Midnight Express” today. Americans wouldn’t be shocked by the rough way justice is meted out in other countries — or shouldn’t be. We’ve seen the photos of Abu Ghraib, and have heard about Guantanamo. We know that our own people, in U.S. uniforms, paid with our tax dollars, are capable of everything that was done in the movie’s Turkish prison — and worse.

How Baseball’s Steroid Scandal Is Like the War in Iraq

August 8th, 2007

Barry Bonds now owns the home-run record, much to the chagrin of Hank Aaron and most non-Bay-Area baseball fans. It’s pretty clear that Bonds took steroids, whereas Aaron got those amazing wrists carrying large blocks of ice as a boy. Who wouldn’t prefer the non-drug-aided hero?
But when the role of steroids in baseball first became clear, pointing it out seemed like negative thinking. When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing Roger Maris in 1998, it felt like Christmas in July. When androstenedione was found in McGwire’s locker that year, most people decided that because this testosterone precursor was legal in Major League Baseball, it was hardly worth worrying about. There was reason to worry about steroids, too, with both McGwire and Sosa, but it seemed churlish to dwell on the possibility. Much more fun to watch those baseballs fly out of the park.

Likewise with Iraq. As George W. Bush made his big push to invade, most Americans supported him. Saddam Hussein was a bad man, and the U.S. military is strong; it seemed churlish to point out that Hussein was far from an imminent threat to the United States, or that Iraq was a sovereign nation, or that removing him was likely to bring chaos. Many people did point these things out, but they were not listened to, even those who worked in the State Department; they seemed like negative thinkers.

Now the crowd, the great slow-moving mass, has moved on both issues. After McGwire’s evasive performance in Congress on March 17, 2005, no one could feel safe anymore with the idea that baseball remained pure. And nearly 4 1/2 years after invading Iraq, most Americans now feel uneasy with the whole idea.

It’s not that we have more information now. But the information we had before, which seemed excessively negative, has spread. It no longer looks like negativity. It looks like reality. But in both cases the damage has been done. Obviously, the damage in Iraq is incalculably worse. Horrific civilian casualties — tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis killed for our mistake, and thousands of American soldiers killed long after we thought we’d “won.”

Eventually the majority catches up to reality. But sometimes it catches up too late.

My friend Matt needs a kidney

April 21st, 2007

Great, short piece about him and his family in the NY Daily News.

Matt and his wife Mamie are terrific people. Matt chaired the most recent PKD Gala in New York, where he spoke movingly of his hope that his sons haven’t inherited the disease that took his mom’s life and now threatens his. He’s worked hard to raise awareness of PKD. It’s too late for him to benefit from experimental drugs like Tolvaptan; his kidneys are too far gone.
If you know anyone who might want to donate a kidney, please let me know. We want Matt to stick around. He’s only 41, for heaven’s sake …

Preventing Future Massacres

April 21st, 2007

After each horror like the one at Virginia Tech, we wonder how we might prevent the next one. Even as we do so, though, we know at some level how hard it is to prevent a person like Seung Cho from killing. He bought guns and ammo at a store. We could make that transaction more difficult — today, in fact, the NY Times has reported that federal law should have made it impossible for Cho to obtain those guns — but every time we make it harder to purchase guns we increase the burden on many thousands of unthreatening gun buyers and dealers, without measurably reducing the threat posed by men like Seung Cho.

According to a NY Times column this week, there are 200 million guns floating around the U.S.; he would have been able to get guns somewhere.

Meanwhile, all the university and the police knew about him was that Cho had been accused of stalking, and had written two bad plays that relied on profanity and violence as their theme. While stalking is reprehensible, most stalkers do not go on to massacre people, and our society have decided not to regard stalking as an offense worthy of years of imprisonment. Nor would imprisonment necessarily protect us, if we used it; it could easily embitter a man like Cho further, while enhancing his criminal skills, making him all the more dangerous by the time he left.

So we are faced with bad choices: Imprison all those we deem ‘scary,’ commit them to psychiatric hospitals for indefinite periods, or do nothing. A glance around most major metropolises would reveal a number of people who seem ‘scary’; locking all of them up would be as immoral as it would be impractical.

And yet, as attorney Marcel Florrestal and I were just discussing, technology gives us an option. We could do something that is both practical and moral — something that would protect innocent victims without locking up those who have committed no crime.

Here’s how it could work:

Each new gun could be equipped with a chip that would awaken only in the very near proximity of an electronic bracelet/RFID tag. When awakened, the chip would prevent the gun from firing.

For everyone who wasn’t wearing such a bracelet, the gun would work just fine.

Thus, young children could wear such bracelets, preventing them from firing their parents’ guns.

Parolees could wear them, until such time as they had proven themselves capable of acting in self-defense only.

Such a system would also give us a way to reduce the likelihood of massacres like the one at Blacksburg. It would not prevent them all, but it would surely prevent some.

Today, if you suspect that someone is dangerous, there’s very little you can do. You can notify someone of your fear, and the police or a psychiatrist may talk with them. But unless the person is deemed to be an imminent threat, the state is not permitted to lock them up. And in many cases, even the most suspicious person is not ready to ask that a ‘scary’ person be locked up. We just want to know that he or she, but usually he, is not allowed to harm us. As of today we have no way of reducing that threat without infringing on civil liberties.

Here’s what we could do instead: If an institution, whether a university or a place of employment like a post office, decided that someone might be dangerous, it could ask that person to submit to an evaluation by two trained professionals. If the professionals agreed that the person was a threat, the bracelet could be put on, with the force of law.

The suspect would be otherwise free to conduct his or her, but usually his, business. The bracelet could be made sufficiently unobtrusive so that there would be no social stigma. Its removal, however, would signal the police department to respond immediately. And as long as he wore the bracelet, the suspect would be unable to fire any new weapon.

Retrofitting old weapons would be expensive — perhaps too expensive for the law to require it. Such a system would still allow some killers to kill; no system can prevent murder. But it would make it harder, while preserving the rights of law-abiding, non-threatening citizens to bear and use arms.

To reduce the likelihood that such a decision would be influenced by racial bias, at least one of the two professionals would have to share the same race as the suspect.

Some may take an odd comfort in the notion that there’s nothing we can do to keep scary people away from weapons. But advances in technology have made it possible for us to do more than we were able to do before. It’s worth a shot.

Meeting Scott Beale

February 13th, 2007

Sooo late on this, but I was very glad to meet Scott Beale of Laughing Squid when he came by the FM office on February 1st. In addition to his primary role of hosting my blog, Scott also posts photos of me (well, one), writes his own blog — about other people of note, in addition to me — and hosts blogs for other, less important people than myself.

That night a few of us FMers (Joe Kressaty, John Shankman) attended a book-signing-and-prank-video event at Bluestockings, and I allowed Scott to sit down and have a beer with me. He seemed to enjoy it. People usually do.

198 years ago today …

February 12th, 2007

… were born not one but two great men. Their work reverberates today, and the controversies they tried to solve sometimes still feel unsolved — but not because they didn’t solve them.

One was born in a log cabin, the other in relative luxury. The log-cabin boy lost his mother to milk sickness when he was just nine years old; the other had lost his own a year earlier, when he was only eight.
These two motherless boys grew up outside the embrace of conventional religion, and made only token gestures toward it as they aged. Yet each became a cultural deity. Today, the face of each graces a commonly used monetary note in their native lands.

The influence of Abraham Lincoln is obvious and great, and America and many other nations have absorbed it. But the human race may never fully comprehend the influence of Charles Darwin. It may be that we have not evolved far enough from the apes to be able to accept them as our cousins.

Though no one could know it then, February 12, 1809 was quite a day.

An Unreasonable Man

February 1st, 2007

Last night I saw an early screening of the new documentary about Ralph Nader, “An Unreasonable Man.”

At 38 I’m too young to remember the years when Nader rose to fame. It was fascinating to learn that General Motors had spied on him and sent a babe to seduce him in the supermarket (she failed), and to watch footage of Sen. Bobby Kennedy castigating GM’s CEO, who ended up apologizing and ensuring not only that Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” would sell, but that Congress would act on its recommendations.

One of the doc’s ‘talking heads’ said something to the effect of, “Imagine if every seatbelt, every airbag said ‘Nader’ on it, the way Trump’s buildings have his name on them. Imagine if every time you went to the supermarket, a sign told you ‘This produce is safer because of Ralph Nader.’ Imagine if airplanes wrote his name in the sky, saying, ‘This air is cleaner because of Ralph Nader.’ Then maybe people would understand some of what he’s done.”

It was quite moving to see the statistic on how many lives have been saved by seatbelts and airbags. Ralph made that happen far sooner, and far better, than it would have without him.

The second half of the movie focuses on his run for President in 2000, and then again in 2004. The movie shows Nader’s growing frustration with the Democratic Party, and makes it easy to see why he would make such a decision. I can even understand how, once you’ve started down that path, you would want to keep going. Nader’s zeal, and that of his supporters, makes a lot of sense. (And Pat Buchanan, much to my surprise, came off quite well in this movie. Kept his sense of humor, and seemed genuinely to like Ralph. I wouldn’t have guessed.)

But you see the results in Florida, where Bush “beat” Gore by fewer than 600 votes. And you see that Nader got more than 97,000 votes in Florida that year. And the film glosses over that, by noting that other ‘third-party’ candidates also got more than 600 votes. True. But none of the rest got anything close to 97,000, Buchanan very much included.

And then Bush’s proud neocons invaded Iraq, and the numbers of dead Iraqi civilians began to pile up. And you wonder if Ralph and his followers might decide that there really had been more than “a dime’s worth of difference” between Bush and Gore, as Ralph had once insisted there had not been.

And some of his followers did decide that. But Ralph did not, and some of his key supporters stayed. And helped him run again in 2004.

And Ralph spoke to the audience at the IFC Theater before the 9:55 pm screening last night, urging young people to keep their idealism. And I withheld judgment. And then we watched the movie. And the guy who had run Ralph’s “field campaign” in 2004, a 28-year-old man who was still clearly very proud of himself, spoke after the movie about the importance of activism, and said that Ralph’s campaign in ’04 had planted “seeds” of activism that would grow and become incredibly valuable over the next 70 years.

And maybe that’s true. But all I could think of were the seeds of death that George W. Bush and his advisers had sown in Iraq and elsewhere. Seeds they would not have had the chance to sow, had Nader thrown even some of his votes to Gore in 2000.

How many innocent Iraqi civilians are dead today because of the United States? Is it 40,000? 80,000? Whatever the actual figure — a number we will never know for certain, unless God tells us in the hereafter — and whatever the number of maimed and homeless and widowed and orphaned — none of those violent deaths would have happened, had Gore become President. Nor is Bush finished yet.
The movie did a good job in many ways. But even at more than 2 1/2 hours, it couldn’t find time to talk about Iraq. And that is what made it in that respect, it was a failure.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

January 31st, 2007

So says Michael Pollan in this terrific piece, the cover story in the Sunday NY Times Magazine.

Great lede. It’s been playing in my mind like a mantra ever since. And great story, all about the way farmers, nutritionists and journalists have made the question of what we should eat waaaaay more complicated than it should be.