Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Review: Simon Garfield's Fabulous 'Just My Type: A Book About Fonts'

No one can say that the O's roundness appeals to us only because it is like that of an apple or of a girl's breast or of the full moon. Letters are things, not pictures of things.
Type faces dominate our lives, subtly or not so subtly attracting us to everything from underarm deodorants to fast food joints to record album covers, while type faces on signage get us to our destinations without getting lost. And in this age of personal computers and their myriad fonts, type faces dominate our lives as never before, enabling us to be our own graphic artists. How else to explain those kitschy party invitations we all get?

I should make it clear from the jump that I am a font wonk, one of those annoying people who obsesses over type faces, as well as have font fiend friends who named their dog Bodoni. I can trace this affliction/addiction to my early years in the newspaper business when I would stand in the composing room on one side of a turtle (a moveable steel table) while a compositor would assemble a newspaper page from mirror-image hot metal linotype type that would become a readable work of art as the page came off the presses.

I love some fonts -- Garamond, Tempus Sans ITC, Gill Sans (but not the somewhat similar and ubiquitous Arial) and Papyrus, used by James Cameron throughout Avatar -- while sneering at others -- Comic Sans and the crapoid WoodPress for The Moderate Voice headlines and body type to name but two. I'm a sucker for ampersands (a conflation of the Latin et, the more elaborate ones seemingly creature-like, and enjoyed a font feast nonpariel while staying at a friend's flat in New York's East Village last Christmas holiday and wandering the streets ogling store signs.

This brings me to Simon Garfield's just published Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, a quick, quirky, elucidating, pun drenched and often hilarious read that several reviewers have already noted will do for fonts what Lynne Truss's runaway 2004 bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves did for punctuation.

On its (type)face, Just My Type is a history of fonts from Gutenberg in the 15th century through to modern day, and Garfield's primer on the differences between serif and sans serif, ascenders and descenders, kerning, font sizes, legibility versus readability, and so on, is beautifully simple. As well as his explanations of the tricks of typography, one example being that if all letters of a given font were exactly the same height they wouldn't appear so. Because our brain demands evenness but our eyes play tricks on us, round and pointed letters would appear shorter.

"In type, the appearance of beauty and elegance depends on trickery and skill," Garfield notes, calling this "perhaps the most fruitful and longest-lasting collision of science and art."

But Just My Type is much more as Garfield explains why certain fonts can elicit gut-instinct or emotional reactions, which is what the Gotham typeface on Barack Obama campaign posters and bumper stickers did, hurtling the obscure font to sans serif stardom.

Tempus Sans ITC is a personal turn-on (okay, so I'm wired weird, because many professional typographers hate it). I selected Tempus Sans ITC it for the cover type of The Bottom of the Fox, my real-life murder mystery, because it was open and accessible yet stylish. I redesigned the signage at the rare book
and manuscript library where I toil using Bookman Old Style for its historicity and because it's easy on the peepers in the subdued light of our exhibition gallery.

Then there are font controversies such as when Ikea changed its logo from elegant and quirky Futura to modern and commonplace Verdana, eliciting howls of protest
from people who hadn't known that they cared about type faces but suddenly did. (I myself didn't give a fig.)

This brings us back to Comic Sans, which Garfield decimates by comparing it to the following joke:

A duck walks into a bar and says, "I'll have a beer please!" And the barman says, "Shall I put that on your bill?"

How funny is that? Garfield notes that it's quite funny and the sort of joke you can remember even if you're like me and unable to tell jokes anywhere near as well as Joe
Gandelman, who is to jokes what Mel Torme is to crooning.

Comic Sans is unforgettable because it looks as if it was written by an 11-year-old
with good penmanship: Smooth, rounded letters reminiscent of alphabet soup. It is also, as Garfield writes, "a type that has gone wrong. It was designed with strict intentions by a professional man with a solid philosophical grounding in graphic arts, and it was unleashed upon the world with a kind heart. It was never intended to cause revulsion or loathing . . . It was intended to be fun. And, oddly enough, it was never intended to be typeface at all."

What it was intended to be by typographer Vincent Connare was an accessible typeface for Microsoft Bob, a software package designed by a group headed by the future Mrs. Bill Gates with a cute dog barking out instructions that even the most feeble minded computer user could grasp.

Connare came up with Comic Sans too late for use with Bob, which used clunky Times Roman, but it later was added as a font for Windows 95. Comic Sans quickly went global, which is to say viral, and before long had appeared on the sides of ambulances, at porn sites, on the backs of Portuguese national basketball team jerseys, in advertisements for Adidas sportswear, and on too damned many restaurant menus.

"Suddenly, Times Roman didn't seem so bad any more," writes Garfield.

Accessible it was, so loathsomely accessible that it was the beginning of the end of my love affair with Microsoft that accelerated to supersonic speed with the introduction of Clippy, the paper clip with the bug eyes that insisted on barging into my
computing to ask stupid questions. Clippy eventually drove me into the arms of Steve Jobs over at Apple. Which is kind of appropriate because Jobs was the first to offer a computer with a wide choice of fonts in addition to modern type faces like Univers and Helvetica.

I told you that I take this stuff seriously.

Comic Sans walks into a bar and the bartender says, "We don't serve your type."

Book Me A Holiday On San Serriff

As April Fools Day hoaxes go, The Guardian's elaborate and now legendary hoax marking the tenth anniversary of San Serrifee, a republic whose every place name was taken from the world of fonts, was a howler.

Have We Got Some Leaners For You


Happy Halloween, Y'All

Photograph by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Ten month-old twins Rachel (left) and Julia Song hold American flags while they sleep during the naturalization ceremony of their parents Seong Song and Young Kim, from South Korea, at Liberty Island in New York City. One hundred and twenty five citizens were naturalized in honor of the Statue of Liberty's 125th birthday.
Photograph by Michael Nagle/Getty Images

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cain Chaos, Perry Nuttiness, Mitt Flip Flops (Yet Again), Pat's Pissed & More

Those wild and crazy Republican presidential wannabes outdid themselves this week as they scrambled to take the wheel of the GOP clown car.

Herman Cain, who is rising faster in the polls than a French souffle, likes to brag about his management chops, but if the way he has managed his own campaign is any indication, he should go back to business school.

Which the former pizza magnate certainly will have time to do, because judging from a variety of reports the Cain for President operation is in chaos and the man himself shows little indication of taking his own candidacy seriously. Which is appropriate because anyone with two brain cells to rub together and has looked closely at Cain wouldn’t take him seriously given that he has hardly shown up in the two key early battleground states — New Hampshire and Iowa — and has been more interested in promoting his new book than courting wealthy donors.

* * * * *
If Cain's 15 minutes of fame are in overtime, his bubble will burst soon enough, and the logical recipient of the voters that Cain siphoned from Rick Perry is . . . . Rick Perry.

Problem is, the Texas governor's advisers are having trouble getting that spinning pinwheel off his head, as one pundit put it. It is as if Perry is begging to not be taken seriously with his repeated forays into birtherism and his now oft-quoted view that "It’s Fun to Accuse the President of Not Being an American."

Perry has been so unhinged lately that his advisers are whispering that he may sit out the rest of the Republican debates. Given his unenergetic and ill-prepared prepared appearances, that might not be such a bad idea.

* * * * *
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal won re-election by a landslide the other day and the inevitable calls for him to enter the race for the presidential nomination followed despite his endorsement of Rick Perry.

That would be rich for a couple of reasons: Louisiana is about as much like the rest of the country as a crawfish is like a Hereford cow. And Jindal — named Piyush Jindal at birth by his Indian parents — is a target of Perry's birther buddies.

* * * * *
Another week and another flip-flop for Mitt Romney, who were it not for the lunatic fringe Republican base and concerns over whether he has a pulse, should be running away from the field as the only man who stands a chance of unseating our socialist president.

The former Massachusetts governor had vociferously (for him) supported the anti-union rules instituted in Ohio by Governor John Kasich, who faces the backlash of angry pro-union voters in the form of an upcoming referendum to roll back the rules. Then Romney said this week that he would remain "neutral" on the referendum, which he followed up on by apologizing for "confusion," followed by a statement that he supports the rules "110 percent."

Stayed tuned.

* * * * *
Pat Robertson has been a reliable Republican-supporting wack job since forever, so it was shocking to read that, in a rare moment of candor, he described the GOP presidential field as "extreme" on his 700 Club television show.

His Rabidness warned that the party's base is pushing potential nominees to take such extreme positions that they will be unelectable. "Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off of this stuff," he whined. "They’re forcing their leaders, the frontrunners, into positions that will mean they lose the general election . . . They’ve got to stop this! It’s just so counterproductive!"

* * * * *
In a vivid example of the pot calling the kettle . . un, I won’t go there, Herman Cain has blustered about how his 9-9-9 tax "reform" flapdoodle would include a crackdown on tax deadbeats.

It turns out that Cain was one himself in 2006 when he failed to pay Georgia state income taxes. In fairness to Cain, he was undergoing treatment for cancer for much of the year, but nevertheless fought efforts by the state to get him to pay up. He finally did so in 2008.

* * * * *

Although not as over the top as Al Gore's boast in 2000 that he invented the Internet, Mitt Romney's claim that he played a key role in creating the modern American economy -- which is to say the revolution in corporate takeovers, the increase in executive compensation and acceleration of outsourcing -- also fails the sniff test.

There is no question that Mitt made his nut by being among the executives doing those things, but he was by no means in the vanguard. And it's kind of ironic that those things are the very things that Occupy Wall Street protesters are railing about, none of whom it can be safely assumed with vote Republican in 2012.

* * * * *
Andrew Sullivan on the clown car Republican Party:

"I regard Cain’s dominance as just the latest sign of the degeneracy on the American right. He’s the ultimate candidate for a Palinized party: based on talk radio, uninterested in government, ruled by unreason, propelled by resentment, fixated on power. Maybe Cain is the dynamite to reveal this circus masquerading as a political party as the farce it has become."

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Piteous State of These United States

Asked recently if the U.S. could build the Hoover Dam today, historian Michael Hiltzik doesn't hesitate to say that it probably could not.

The Hoover Dam, of course, was built at the depths of the Great Depression, a magnificent monument to modern engineering, the bravery of its fearless hardhat builders and the "Can Do" ethic that not even the depression could vanquish. Today America is not in a depression, far from it, but "Can Do" has been replaced by "Can't Do," and while politicians of all parties and stripes share the blame, it is those obdurate Republicans who once again have led the charge in sucking the life out of a key element of the American ethos.

Virtually all economists agree that the way out of the lingering effects of the Bush Recession is to spend big and think big, and with America's infrastructure literally falling apart (the U.S. ranks 24th, between Malaysia and Taiwan) for the state of its infrastructure) and big projects once on the drawing board now in the dustbin, that is last thing that Congress is about to do.

That is such a pity because millions of unemployed Americans are desperate for work and America today is far wealthier than it was in the 1930s. But, alas, our political class is stricken by cowardice and there are no signs that will change anytime soon.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

How Amazon Changed My Life -- And Yours

It is hard to believe that Amazon is now 15 years old and keeps on growing. No, make that growing relentlessly as it announced this week that its third-quarter earnings were up a staggering 44 percent to $10.88 billion.

I used to feel a bit guilty about spending my dinero at Amazon and not a local mom and pop store, but when you consider that the last half dozen things that I have ordered from Amazon -- 100 feet of network cable, French onion soup bowls, a new printer, printer cartridges, a memory card for one of my cameras and an out-of-print book on Tuscan cooking -- would be tough to find at most stores and the Walmarts of the world long ago drove mom and pop into retirement, you understand why Amazon has been such a hit.

Now if it would only drive Sears out of business, which is not farfetched considering that as a $100 billion company it has about 12 times the value of Sears.

Based on personal experience, Sears is the worst run retailer in America despite competition from Kmart, which it owns. When we purchased a washer and dryer from Sears, picking it up was agonizing and getting it hooked up a nightmare. When we purchased a lawn mower from Sears we bought an extended warranty and maintenance plan that Sears conveniently forgets each winter when we take the mower in for servicing. The one thing that Sears always seemed to be good for was their Craftsman tools with their lifetime guarantees, but the last Craftsman tool I bought -- an impact wrench -- broke the first time I used it.

Amazon, on the other hand, is a walk in the park.

I have never had problems with its merchandise, whether it be a polaroid camera filter or a 35-inch television, and as a member of Amazon Prime I get free expedited shipping (okay, it runs $79 a year). I seldom buy new books anymore, preferring to buy them used from Amazon-approved small business people. When it is claimed a book is in excellent condition, it is, and some of my purchases obviously had never been opens because the dust jackets were immaculate and the spines from-the-publisher tight.

So what's not to like?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cartoon du Jour

Nick Anderson/Houston Chronicle

GOP Candidates' Tax Plans Would (No Surprise) Reward Rich, Screw Poor

If Cain becomes prez, get read to pay more for this stuff
I am not an economist nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I have enough smarts (barely) to understand that the tax proposals being pushed by Republican president wannabes are, for the most part, flapdoodle in service of coddling the rich while further screwing the middle class and poor.

That, of course, is exactly what Representative Paul Ryan's deficit reduction plan would do before it unceremoniously died in its crib when the backlash from the elderly, the infirm, the middle class and poor became too loud for the GOP cowards to take.

The latest candidate to join the tax "reform" scrum is Rick ("It's Fun to Accuse the President of Not Being an American" Perry, who in an effort to steal back some of the flat tax thunder of a former pizza magnate who has zoomed past him in the polls, unveiled a plan this week that would replace the graduated income tax with a 20 percent flat rate. The plan should be especially appealing to that wealthy 1 percent that Occupy Wall Street protesters scream about because it would result in a major tax cut for the wealthy, while also eliminating estate and investment taxes.

Perry's through-the-looking-glass plan actually seems moderate compared to Herman ("I'm Blacker Than the President") Cain's already legendary 9-9-9 plan. No, that's not a new area code, but a "reform" (there's that word again) plan under which a 9 percent business flat tax, 9 percent individual flat tax and 9 percent national sales tax would be imposed. The devil, of course, is in the details: Some 84 percent of American households would pay more than they do now with the impact being felt most heavily by the lowest income groups. Again, the 1 percenters would pay considerably less, while staples like milk, bread and eggs would be taxed.

Then there is Mitt ("I am Not a Member of a Cult") Romney, whose wealth is probably greater than the entire Republican field combined. We don't know that for sure because he refuses to release his tax returns, but what we do know for sure is that his tax "reform" (damn!) plan would protect the super rich like himself at the expense of that beleaguered middle class while reducing the tax rate for those poor, pitiful corporations from 35 percent to 25 percent.

The common thread of these plans is their blatant unfairness, and in the cases of Perry and Cain, the unseriousness of the candidates, as well. No one would accuse Romney of being unserious. He's just another super wealthy prick.

Meet The Groundbot


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

8 Wheels & 8 Paws: What A Way To Go

AT THE MOUNTAIN RETREAT -- Having installed a passive solar power system at the mountain retreat that is paying dividends because our local utility has to buy our surplus electricity and we've got gobs of it, the next logical step in managing our lives more economically and environmentally friendly was to buy a hybrid vehicle.

And so the
DF&C ponied up for a 2011 Lexus CTh hatchback in a color called Fire Agate Pearl, which not coincidentally is a metallic version of the color of Nicky and Jack, our sister-brother chocolate Labrador retrievers.

The purchase was also necessitated by the fact that the DF&C's 2000 Lexus RX3000 SUV (whom we call Rex; get it?) has 310,000 miles on the clock and while we don't plan on getting rid of it anytime soon because it's a great all-wheel drive car during the snowy winters hereabouts, it is getting long in the tooth. It also consumes 20 miles per gallon on the DF&C's fairly lengthy commutes to and from the hospitals where she toils.

Buying another Lexus was a no-
brainer. The RX300 has needed no major repairs, is still squeak free, has run flawlessly and we're treated like family by the dealer. But until the CTh was introduced -- first in Europe where Lexus is going right at Audi, BMW and Mercedes with this sporty but economical vehicle, and then in the U.S. earlier this year -- the hybrid choices ranged from the dinky to the ridiculous.

We've been driving the
CTh, for going on a month now and how, you ask, is it performing?


The area behind the front seats is a little cramped for Jack, who five hands high cannot fully stand when he and his sister are out for a ride, and with the back seats up things aren't exactly roomy for tall people. But other than that minor inconvenience the
CTh has been fabulous. As in averaging between 45 and 50 miles per gallon (that is not a typo) on regular unleaded gasoline but still offering neck-snapping performance when in Sports mode.

The other modes are Normal and Eco, the former for everyday cruising and the latter for when the car is running on its batteries and not its normally aspirated 135 horsepower gasoline engine.

Lexus introduced the Prius, its first hybrid vehicle, in the U.S. in 2001 and has been tweaking the gasoline-electric system over the last decade as it also has been offered in its mid-size, luxury and sport utility vehicles. The system is an Atkinson Cycle-configured motor on which all Lexus hybrids are based.

When starting from a stop under normal conditions, only the electric drive is used. This provides a gentle, quiet takeoff. When a more powerful launch is desired, the electric drive works in combination with the gas engine to provide maximum acceleration. In both cases, the CTh enjoys immediate torque optimization not possible with a gas engine alone.

While cruising, power from the gas engine is allocated to the drive wheels and to a generator that produces energy for the electric drive. This ensures maximum fuel efficiency at all engine output levels. When extra acceleration is desired, the battery provides added power to the electric drive, resulting in a quiet and smooth response. As speed increases, the gas engine provides power while the electric drive operates in harmony with the overall system to maintain precise control of engine output. The result is a smooth and powerful acceleration curve without the jarring shift points experienced in conventional cars bar those with ultra-sophisticated, high-end trannies.

When the CTh slows, the system suspends its delivery of drive power and converts to generating electricity. Thanks to a highly effective regenerative braking system, kinetic energy usually lost during braking is instead converted to electricity and sent back to the battery.

Unlike conventional vehicles, which must idle and consume fuel even at a standstill, the
CTh switches off its gas engine when decelerating and at a stop, saving fuel and minimizing emissions. The electric motor remains on and available for immediate takeoff.

(Incidentally, one drawback to hybrids has been the enormous cost of replacing the battery pack if it fails, but Lexus has us covered here with a 10-year warranty. The Chevrolet Volt, which costs a staggering 10 grand more than the CT and the driving range of a go-cart, has an eight-year warranty.)

Then there are the bells and whistles on the CTh, whom the DF&F has named Percy after her Royal Australian Air Force flying ace grandfather.

Chief among them is the ability to have her iPhone communicate with the
CTh's navigation and stereo systems. This enables her to display her iPhone touchpad on the nav system screen and do hands-free dialing and talking through the speakers closest to the driver or webstream her favorite radio stations through all 10 speakers via an iPhone app.

I drove Audi quattro stations wagons during my salad years. The fit and finish on all of them was superb. The cabin fitments and ergonomics were superb. The performance was spectacular.
The CTh matches those Audis for fit and finish. Ditto with the cabin fitments (including beautiful and cosseting Nubuck seats made not of leather, which Lexus no longer uses, but a synthetic material common in Birkenstock sandals). The performance is not up to Audi's standards, but is still excellent -- especially for a hybrid.
Lexus claims that 90 percent of a CTh can be recycled. It has disavowed leather and embraced hybrid technology, which is not just clever marketing but sensible, as well. I'll report back on Percy when it too has 310,000 miles.

A Tale Of Two Swedish Meatballs

Volvo 1800ES: The most beautious car evah
My newborn children came home from the hospital in Volvos. I put 262,000 miles on one of them and it never failed to start, including one morning when the temperature had dipped below zero. It's marvelous four-cylinder turbo could really crank, and in the late 70s I once did 125 miles an hour on a long straightaway in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. The only reason that I stopped buying them was that Volvo didn't offer all-wheel drive back in the day, which my mix of sea level and mountainous winter driving eventually demanded.

I winced when Ford bought Volvo in 1999 and had chest pains when General Motors bought Saab, Volvo's longtime Swedish competitor, in 1995. I feared that these big foot automakers would bleed them dry and eventually kill them. As it turns out, Ford pretty much let Volvo chart its own course. GM, while keep quirky Saab trademarks like the transmission tunnel ignition key, drove the company into the ground by rebadging Opals and Saturns as Saabs after making a few cosmetic styling changes.

Today Volvo, still on the quirky side styling wise although it has shed its boxy image (the 1800ES was a conspicuous exception) is owned by a consortium of Chinese companies and its Gothenburb plant is working on two shifts to meet global demand. Meanwhile, the Saab plant in nearby Trollhattan has been idle since April and its future is very much in doubt.

More here.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Bill Smith (1936-2011)


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Latinos al G.O.P. -- ¡Muéranse!

Latino voters swung Republican red Colorado to Democratic blue in voting for Barack Obama 2008, and with anti-immigrant rhetoric reaching volcanic levels among GOP presidential wannabes, the party can pretty much write off the Latino vote there and in other swing states in yet another indication that predictions the incumbent will be beaten are premature.

In 2004, 44 percent of Latinos voted for George Bush, who had advocated an amnesty for illegal immigrants that his party went on to reject, while 67 percent of Latinos voted for Obama in 2008.

Latinos are, in fact, the fasting growing bloc of voters, but any chance of a sizable number of them voting for the eventual Republican nominee went up in smoke at the president debate in Las Vegas last week as most of the wannabes piled on immigrants with a vengeance. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain tied for the biggest demagogue awards with their proposals for a 1,200 mile border fence, double walled in Bachmann's case and electrified in Cain's, although the pizza mogul did not propose an alligator-filled moat as he had previously before saying it was a joke.

Mitt Romney is considered by most observers to have the best shot at unseating Obama and his views on immigration have been more moderate than most of his peers, but his criticism of a Texas law that allows some children of illegal immigrants to attend state colleges on in-state tuition means that he too is on the long list of unpalatable nominees for Latinos.

"He can make as many trips to Florida and New Mexico and Colorado and other swing states that have a large Latino population, but he can write off the Latino vote," Lionel Sosa, a strategist in Texas who advised Bush and John McCain on appealing to Hispanics, told The New York Times. "He's not going to gain it again."

In a Pew survey last year, Latino voters ranked education and the economy as their top issues (memo to Republicans: abortion was well down the list), and there was strong support for state-level "Dream" acts like the Texas law and 61 percent disapproved of more border fencing.

There are 50 million Latinos in the U.S. and most are not "illegals," as the wannabes call them, but the GOP has managed the neat trick of insulting all of them as it strives to make the party even less inclusive.

Despite Obama's vulnerability because of the stalled economic recovery, the Republican nominee will be vulnerable on bread-and-butter, environmental and women's issues.

Even Romney, who as Massachusetts governor engineered a largely successful health-care reform initiative, now disavows it, while all of the Republican wannabes oppose ObamaCare. That program, portions of which have not yet been phased in, is extremely popular among the elderly, the poor and infirm, as well as the parents of young adults who can now remain on their health-insurance policies through age 26.

Then there is the Republican coddling of the super wealthy and Wall Street at the expense of the middle class. Not exactly a vote getter, eh?

The wannabes oppose requiring the super rich to pay larger taxes and close tax loopholes and most of them, in addition to opposing health-care reform, want to abolish Social Security and Medicare.

The contrast between Obama and the wannabes on the environment is especially stark. Beyond global warming denial, they want dirtier air and water by defanging the Environmental Protection Agency. And fuggedabout underwriting non-fossil fuel alternatives that will create jobs and reduce reliance on Big Oil and Big Coal.

Women, who voted for Obama by a 56-43 percent margin in 2008 (men split their vote more or less equally) represent potential swing voters, but the party's record and the wannabes' stands on issues of concern to women who do not walk two steps behind their men are draconian, so that's another likely write off.

Which pretty much leaves white men, who already make up a large portion of the Republican voter base. The only problem for Republicans is that there are not enough of them, and when you factor in Democratic male loyalists, as well as blacks, Latinos and women who will vote for Obama, the idea of retaking the Oval Office would seem to be illusory.

As it is, the Republicans are more than capable of blowing an history opportunity. Beyond Romney, they have John Huntsman, an eminently likeable (which Romney is not) former two-term governor and former ambassador to China.

But Huntsman is barely on voters' radar in the latest Iowa poll with only 2 percent of respondents saying that they would support him. Meanwhile, a motivational speaker who made his nut offering free pizza toppings leads at 28 percent.

Cartoon du Jour

Chris Britt/Westchester (N.Y.) Journal News

The Insidious Creep Of Birtherism

One of the more perverse by-products of the vitriol that too often passes for politics today is the birther movement, and even though President Obama has proven beyond a doubt that his was born in the U.S. and not a hut in Kenya or a madrasa in Indonesia, birthers are still casting their nets.

Their latest target is Senator Marco Rubio of Floria, a rising star in the Republican firmament.

On May 27 of this year, retired Navy commander Charles Kerchner, who runs a birther blog mostly aimed at Obama, posted a story that claimed that according to naturalization documents, Rubio’s parents had come to the U.S. from Cuba in 1956, not after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, as Rubio's Senate biography claimed.

The story finally broke in the mainstream media earlier this month and could prove to be extremely damaging to Rubio, a favorite of many Republicans to be the 2012 vice presidential nominee. This, according to birthers, is because Rubio might not be eligible for higher office if his parents were not U.S. citizens when he was born in Miami in 1971.

The problem is, neither Kerchner nor a story earlier in the month in The Washington Post presented any evidence that Rubio's parents weren't citizens, which they may well not have been, but it is not in dispute that Rubio was born in Miami in 1971, which in any event would make him a citizen.

What is possible is that Rubio has embellished his family history since claiming that your parents fled Cuba in 1959 to escape Fidel Castro and Communism is far sexier than your parents emigrating to Florida from Cuba in 1956, which according to a story in The St. Peterburg Times happens to be the case.

There is a certain irony to the Rubio story because of on-again, off-again efforts by some of the very conservative Republicans who embrace Rubio to repeal the 14th Amendment, which grants automatic citizenship on anyone born in the U.S. regardless of whether their parents are non-citizen immigrants or spiders from Mars.

At least birthers don't seem to be partisan since some of them also are going after Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who is being talked about as a future Republican presidential candidate. Jindal was born Piyush Jindal.

Meanwhile, new comments by Rick Perry in Parade magazine have revived the issue of whether the Texas governor believes that Obama was born in the U.S.

Perry was asked in an interview with the magazine if the president was born in the U.S. He replied, "I have no reason to think otherwise," but in yet another instance of not knowing when shutting his pie hole might be a good thing, he added, "Well, I don’t have a definitive answer" when pressed.

The Texas governor plunged boldly ahead and noted that he recently had din-dins with Donald Trump, who who has beaten the birther drum hard in an effort to cast doubt on the authenticity of Obama’s citizenship, and that they they discussed the issue.

Then perhaps realizing that he had dug yet another hole for himself, Perry added that "It doesn’t matter. He’s the president of the United States. He’s elected. It’s a distractive issue.”

I'll say.

Obama & Americans: 'We Can't Wait'

As inured as I should be to Republican obstructionism at this point, it still boggles my mind that with 14 million Americans unemployed and the economy taking only baby steps toward a recovery, the GOP continues to block President Obama's job creation bill despite its overwhelming popularity among voters.

With that in mind, the president sets out today on a three-day tour of Western states with a new mantra to replace the now shop-worn "Pass This Bill!" with "We Can't Wait!" As in "We can't wait for lawmakers to act."

The new offensive will begin in Las Vegas, which is the poster city for the housing bust with the highest number of foreclosures per capita in the U.S. Obama will promote new rules for federally guaranteed mortgages so that more homeowners, those with little or no equity in their homes, can refinance and avert foreclosure.

Then on Denver tomorrow where the president will announce policy changes to ease college graduates' repayment of federal loans.

The $447 billion jobs package includes expanded tax cuts for workers and employers and funding for infrastructure projects and state aid to keep teachers and emergency responders at work. But Republicans oppose the package and in particular provisions in it that would offset its costs with higher taxes on the wealthy.

Even if the bill fails, the Democrats still have a trump card: Exploiting Republican obstructionism during the 2012 campaign, which they hope will help offset the generally gloomy long-term economic outlook of many economists.

Swami Bhaktipada (1937-2011)


Photograph by Mike Appleton for The New York Times

Monday, October 24, 2011

Obama's Military & Foreign Policy Successes: How Did He Do It?

In three short years, President Obama has been able to do what President Bush could not do in eight: Destroy the leadership of Al Qaeda, get the last U.S. troops out of Iraq, and assist in toppling two Middle Eastern dictators. Were it not for the albatross of Afghanistan bequeathed by his predecessor, Obama would pretty much have a clean sweep.

So how did he do it?

It has taken a combination of:

* Consensus building between the White House, Pentagon and State Department that sometimes takes months before decisions are reached.

* Carefully calibrated responses rather than massive troop deployments.

* An emphasis on multilateralism and not unilateralism, including the involvement of NATO countries.

* When and where possible, diplomacy over bellicosity.

* Good old-fashioned police work in sniffing out domestic terrorism.

* Avoidance of the kind of triumphalism in which the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis reveled.

* While Republicans were once the leaders in foreign policy, they have for the most part been struck deaf and dumb, allowing the president to chart his own course.

Obama also has been incredibly lucky insofar that Iran has pretty much minded its own businesses, Israel and Palestine remain stalemated but not at war, and other potential hotspots have not boiled over.

"Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end," Obama said as he took a muted victory lap after the death of Colonel Moammar el-Qaddafi. "We've demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century."

Some Republicans, trapped in the party's echo chamber, still claim that Obama is weak on terrorism and leads from behind, while an aide to presidential candidate Mitt Romney had the temerity to say Quaddafi's death "does not validate" the president's approach to Libya.

Senator John McCain was been one of the few to praise the president.

"I think the administration deserves great credit," McCain said in an interview on CNN. "Obviously, I had different ideas on the tactical side, but the world is a better place."

It was Obama's future secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose memorably called the future president's ability to be decisive on foreign policy in a television ad that questioned whether voters could trust him to take a 3 a.m. call in the Oval Office about a world crisis.

"It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep, but there's a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something is happening in the world," the ad said. "Who do you want answering the phone?"

Those doubts have been all but erased, but for all of the successes, the future of what I call the Obama Doctrine is fraught with peril.

Chief among them is turning over security in Afghanistan to the Afghans.

Largely unnoticed, Obama quietly ordered 100 armed military advisers to Uganda earlier this month where they will help regional forces fight the Lord’s Resistance Army, a renegade group that has gone on rape and murder sprees in central Africa, and similar limited interventions are said to be in the planning stages elsewhere.

Some or all of those interventions could go wrong.

Photograph by Amru Salahuddien/Xinhua/Newscom

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Friday, October 21, 2011

Iraq War Finally Over As President Declares: 'Mission Not Accomplished'

After eight and a half deeply tragic years highlighted by the deaths of nearly 4,800 U.S. and coalition forces, at least 100,000 Iraqis and millions of people displaced, the Iraq war finally is over.

President Obama, on a military and foreign policy roll, today announced a complete drawn-down of U.S. troops at year's end after he failed to reach agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that would have left a force of 3,000 to 5,000 training troops and some special operations forces in the country.

"After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over," the president declared in the White House briefing room shortly before 1 p.m. "Over the next two months, our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home."

"The last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in their support for our troops," the president added. "That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end."

Obama's lofty words aside, Iraq will inevitably slide into chaos if not another civil war, although the president appeared to leave the door ajar to possible future negotiations over military trainers.

The majority Shiites, minority Sunnis and independence-minded Kurds have been unable -- I would say unwilling in the case of Al-Maliki and the Shiites -- to reach anything even vaguely resembling political and social rapprochement, while the long and malevolent shadow of Iran will insinuate itself ever deeper into Iraq.

Long story short, the president might as well have declared "Mission Not Accomplished" in bringing to an end the fool's mission fueled by neocon hubris that began with a March 2003 invasion on the dubious grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and a fledgling nuclear weapons program, and when those turned out to be bogus, the inane assertion that he was directly involved in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks.

By my rough estimate, I have written about 500 posts on Iraq, and it was the war itself that compelled me to begin blogging in November 2005. For the following two years a detailed map of Baghdad and its crazy quilt of neighborhoods hung over my desk so I could quickly identify the location of the latest suicide bombing or attack on American troops. And there were plenty.

I frankly didn't think that I would be writing this post anytime soon, but Obama is determined to reduce the U.S.'s global military commitment and his announcement today was made in that broader context.

The war resulted in exactly the opposite of what the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis had predicted.

American troops were not greeted as liberators. The war was not over by Christmas 2003. Not only did democracy not take root, but the American occupation triggered a civil war and the emergence of an Al Qaeda insurgency in a land where Saddam never would have allowed the terrorist group to become established. And an already unstable region was further destabilized, giving the upper hand to Iraq.

Every military strategy was driven not by realities on the ground but by political expedience as dictated by the White House. This resulted in a war that would be fought on the cheap with not nearly enough troops. Generals who disagreed with that shortsighted decision were transferred or sacked.

By 2006, deeply despairing of the manifold failures of his war, President Bush reluctantly agreed to the so-called Surge Strategy engineered by General David Petraeus.

Taking a page from the insurgents themselves, Petraeus engineered a stunning series of military victories based on counterinsurgency tactics that in theory would give the Iraqis enough time to sort out their differences and be able to go it alone. That never happened, the window of opportunity soon slammed shut, and while the bloodshed has abated it has not ended.

By the most conservative estimates, the war cost in excess of $1 trillion, drained precious troops and resources from the right war -- the war in Afghanistan -- for the wrong war, and combined with tax cuts for the rich, ran up the federal budget deficit to dizzying heights and left the U.S. ill prepared to deal with the recession that began in 2008. Today a staggering one-quarter of the record national debt is directly attributable to the war.

Meanwhile, Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics have been flooded with thousands of returning GIs suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, many of them no doubt because their mission in Iraq was never clearly defined.

On the home front, Iraq will not be remember as were Vietnam, Korea and the world wars as the war that shaped a generation.

In fact, to use a phrase I believe I originated and that later turned up as graffiti on the wall of at least one Marine outpost in Iraq, "Americans would rather be shopping at the mall."

Bush's efforts to sanitize the war by never asking for sacrifices on the homefront were helped considerably by a compliant news media. The New York Times' abrogation of its responsibility to find out what really was going on in Iraq ranks, in my view, as its darkest hour along with reporter Judith Miller, who was played like a cheap violin by Vice President Cheney, insisting that WMDs did exist long when it had become obvious that they did not.

It wasn't until five years into the war that the Gray Lady stirred and began to dig into what was going on despite the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison revealed in April 2004 not by a major newspaper but by 60 Minutes and Seymour Hirsch in The New Yorker, as well as other atrocities reported on by reporters for smaller newspaper embedded with American troops.

Thanks to our commander in chief for another promise kept as a long national nightmare is finally over.

The few reporters and mainstream pundits, as well as bloggers like myself who kept nipping at Bush's heels, can go to bed tonight with a sense of relief. As can the loved ones of the relatively few remaining troops on the ground in Iraq.

I myself plan to first get drunk with my Vietnam War buddies.

Photographs (top to bottom) by Chris Hondros/Getty, STR/
Agence France-Presse/Getty
Michael Macor/The Chronicle

10 Observations On Quaddafi's Death

Yemeni boy watches the funeral of people killed this week in protests
Observations in the wake of the death of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi:

* The victory of middle-class professionals, rag-tag militias and tribal forces over a well-equipped, well-trained military in a relatively brief civil war is enormous.

* Given the many conflicting stories, a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding the despot's death is mandatory.

* Lost in the hubbub was that Gaddafi's feared son Mutassim also was killed.

* Beyond divvying up the spoils of civil war and sharing the oil wealth, the most important job of the transitional government will be to reconcile the many factions, including the Islamists and secularists.

* While the road the Arab Spring takes will remain rocky, new energy has been injected into the movement to replace kings and despots with democracy.

* Yemen, which has been wrenched by crackdowns on protesters, may be the next Middle Eastern country to fall because, like Libya, it has a weak state and strong tribal loyalties. Jordan is likely to follow Yemen.

* European power, too often absent in the war on terror and regional conflicts requiring international intervention, was felt, with France and Great Britain taking leadership roles.

* The Republican Party, once the dominant voice in foreign policy matters, stood silently on the sidelines except when criticizing the commander in chief.

* The contrast between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who seems to be everywhere, and her Bush administration predecessor, who seemed to be nowhere, is striking.

* The Obama Doctrine, a hybrid of limited intervention and conventional warfare with collective rather than unilateral actions and heavy reliance on drones, succeeded admirably. There was not a single American death.
New York Times photograph

Call For Photos For A Worthy Cause

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has launched a huge undertaking -- a nationwide campaign to collect a photograph for each of the 58,272 men and women whose names are inscribed on The Wall in Washington, D.C., which has become the single most-visited memorial in the capital.

The photographs will be displayed in a future education center at The Wall and also will appear online on the memorial fund's virtual Memorial Wall.

As it is, I shepherded a Pulitzer Prize-nominated project at the Philadelphia Daily News in 1987 to put together a special section with biographies of the 630 men from the city who died in Vietnam. We managed to find photographs of all but 62 and that effort will now be reopened with the Call For Photos campaign, which is underwritten by the History Channel and in which Yours Truly is involved.

Call For Photos events will be held in Atlanta on October 25 and Chicago on November 3.

Click here for more information.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sussing Out The California Pot Crackdown

The Obama administration is once again cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries in California despite the fact the the benefits of medical marijuana are indisputable, they are well within California law and support for medical marijuana legalization -- as well as legalization of marijuana for person use is growing exponentially across the U.S.

Federal prosecutors have sent letters to landlords and owners of dispensaries across California warning them to halt sales of marijuana within 45 days or face property seizures and other legal backlash, though some raids have already commenced.

The Justice Department asserts, as it did during the Bush administration and earlier in the Obama administration that federal drug laws trump state drug laws. While may be true in some cases, the assertion is constitutionally dubious in the case of marijuana that's grown, sold and used within the state of California.

This is because of a qualifier clause known as the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution that states only laws made "in pursuance" (that is, the following or carrying out) of the Constitution take precedence over state laws. A federal law that is not made "in pursuance" of the Constitution is unconstitutional.

The Supremacy Clause states: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding."

Meanwhile, some anti-medical marijuana supporters argue that the federal government has unlimited power in this area, but that assertion doesn't pass muster because the entire Constitution is an exercise in prohibiting federal government from exercising unlimited power.

All of this makes the Justice Department crackdown all the more puzzling.

It's not like the feds don't have anything better to do with their time and money, and as priorities go shutting down a bunch of dispensaries that provide a modicum of relief for cancer, HIV/AIDS and glaucoma sufferers should be very low on the list.

"How can the Obama administration say that it’s fine for sick people to use this proven medicine, and yet tell them they can’t have any legal place to get it?" asked Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "Medical marijuana isn’t going away. Over 70 percent of Americans support making medical marijuana legal, and 16 states allow it."

Oh, and by the way, Mr. President, more people support the legalization of marijuana than support you.

Los Angeles Times photograph

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: Winters Cook's 'Nozuko's Story: The Story Of An African Family'

Nozuko and family bury baby Yanga in their vegetable garden
American ex-patriot Susan Winters Cook is that rarest of contemporary photojournalists because she still shoots in black and white.

"I believe color distracts from the image unless it has a direct role in the message," she tells me, and that is abundantly clear from her newly published Nozuko's Story: A Story of an Africa Family.

Nozuko's Story is the story that Cook was born to write and I can say that with authority. She a
and I worked together for 15 or so years at the Philadelphia Daily News. I was a demanding editor and she a demanding shooter, and she pretty much single-handedly convinced our bosses to underwrite several trips to South Africa where she ventured into the squalid townships where few white journalists would go for a series of photo essays that were to win her a Robert F. Kennedy Prize, the Pulitzer for photojournalists, and later chronicled the end of apartheid with the release of future President Nelson Mandela from prison. No newspaper covered that pivotal era in South African history better than the Daily News or more eloquently than Cook.

Cook fell in love with South Africa, its enormous problems and all, and from the vantage point of her farm in the Eastern Cape has tirelessly documented the nation's staggering HIV/AIDS epidemic through magazine articles, public health booklets and now Nozuko's Story.

With 5.7 million people with HIV/AIDS -- about 12 percent of the population -- South Africa is believed to have more sufferers than any other nation. Between 42 and 47 percent of all deaths are due to HIV/AIDS, according to the United Nations. This situation has been made considerably worse by a national government that refused to acknowledge the existence of the epidemic for years and refused to allow international pharmaceutical companies to provide free or cheap anti-retroviral drugs.

Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded apartheid buster Mandela as president, didn't help matters, while his Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang advocated a bizarre diet of garlic, olive oil and
lemon to cure the disease. Although many scientists and political figures called for her removal, she was not ousted until Mbeki himself was removed from office.

Nozuko's Story chronicles in words and photographs the young woman's journey through sickness and survival, hope and despair, and brave activism on behalf of HIV/AIDS sufferers. In the process she discovers herself.

Susan met Nozuko Ngcaweni at her home in a remote Xhosa village in South Africa's Eastern Cape in 1999 after the 23-year-old daughter Nqobile (photo, above left) were diagnosed with HIV. Nozuko's son Azola remains disease free, while a third child, Yanga, born after she was diagnosed, died at six weeks of a cause that remains unknown because Nozuko's family could not afford mortuary fees.

"Yanga's grave is as rural as the life she left," Cook writes, "a mound of freshly turned soil surrounded by dry winter grass and harvested mealie [maze] stalks."

Yanga's death plunged Nozuko into depression and she soon was hospitalized with fever, cough and diarrhea -- all HIV symptoms. She was barely able to walk. She later was felled with tuberculosis, South Africa's other serial killer, but although the TB is contained the medications she takes would raise hell with her liver in the future.

Her health eventually restored, Nozuko returns home a shadow of her former self after a visit from a Department of Health official who inspires her to turn everyday tasks into goals.

"I'm sick and tired of this," Nozuko tells Cook. "I want to wake up. I have many things to do. to go to see others who have HIV, and to teach those who do not have HIV."

She adds, "I see that I'm going to get better."

A year after flirting with death, Nozuko is her plump and sassy self again and she resumes her work as a member of the Disclosure and Acceptance Campaign run by the National Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS (NAPWA).

"The cavernous belly has become round again, the once bony thighs now support a determined stride, the sagging breasts transformed into the full figure of a woman.

"A friend has brought hand-me-down clothing to Nozuko and her sisters (photo, above). Girlish sounds fill the room; giggles, oohs, and jesting rudeness as the chaotic contest consumes the young women. Nozuko struts a new outfit in front of her cheering sisters and auntie. She assumes runway-like poses, thrusting a shoulder, then a hip, the toss of her head says, 'I am woman, I am alive!' "
Nouko's luck begins to turn. She does a radio interview for South Africa Broadcasting Company that is heard by a woman in Pretoria who is drawn to Nozuko's deep voice and the story of survival and inspiration that she tells. The woman contacts and says that she and her husband will pay for the anti-retroviral drugs that Nozuko cannot afford. She is speechless for probably the first time in her life.

By 2004, Nozuko (with fellow activist Nonjamulo in photo, above right) is receiving a salary for her counseling of HIV patients at a hospital.

There are the inevitable questions when Nozuko visits villages for NAPWA, first as a volunteer for group meetings and then doing one-on-one counseling.

"What do I do when my husband returns from Joburg and doesn't want to use a condom?" is typical of frequently asked questions.

Nozuko advises calm discussion between partners. "If you have a condom, just don't throw it across the room at him, but talk to him about HIV."

The year 2006 is huge for Nozuko. She takes up with Lawrence (photo, above) whom she marries the following year. Cook visits the U.S. and Texas State University, which has mounted an exhibition of her photographs. She brings the survivor along so that students "could encounter the real Nozuko."

Her HIV status requires a special waiver and it takes the intervention of a Texas congressman to get one. After a missed flight and several airport marathons over 39 hours and eight time zones, Cook and Nozuko arrive in Austin. "Nozuko settles into a porch swing wearing a cowboy hat. She eats a few bites of chilli and then she sleeps for two days."

After a lecture to 350 journalism students that ends with sustained applause, Nozuko and Susan fly to Rhode Island where she sees the Atlantic Ocean from the other side of the world for the first time (photo, below).

"At first she walks to the water's edge and huddles down against the cold wind, fingering the stones brought in by the tide. I explain to her, this beach has been steadily eaten away by the sea, now being only a fraction of what it was in the past. . .

"She finds a shell and holds it up like a prize and dances away from the waves pushing toward the top of the dunes. We walk past an old concrete piling submerged in the sand. This was part of the foundation of a beach house built by my grandmother that was destroyed by a hurricane in 1938.

"There is little similarity between this place and the home of Nozuko's ancestors, the difference being between mountains and sea, northern and southern hemispheres, ancient and upstart cultures.

"The ancestors and the storms are the common ground we share."
In August of this year daughter Nqobile (Zulu for warrior) has to fight yet another battle with HIV.

On a bitterly cold night when Lawrence is away in Durban searching for work, Nqobile takes ill and Nozuko knows that she has to get her to a hospital. Son Azola, now on the verge of manhood, carries his sister 500 yards to a road where they can take a bus to a hospital in Durban 38 miles away.

"Would this be the time when Nqobile's body simply will not be able to rally again?

"Nozuko has seen enough to know what's going on. Yet there has been no acceptance in those around her of the concept that Nqobile will never get better. Although Nozuko has raised the subject with them a number of times, her family -- son, sisters, mother, husband -- will not entertain the idea that they could, and eventually will, lose Nqobile.

"I believe some of this is cultural," Nozuko reflects, "because death is something we do not discuss."
Nozuko's Story concludes with a sister going into labor. Nozuko delivers a baby daughter (photo, above) after being told that it would be seven hours before an ambulance could arrive.

"Babies come into this world on their own schedule and Nozuko knows just what to do," Cook writes. "She had delivered her own baby 14 years earlier when Azola was born; once again, an early birth in a remote area.

"Gloves, scissors, a towel and thread; another girl joins the family already wealthy with women."

* * * * *

Nozuko's Story is pricey whether in hard or soft cover, but it is a gem. You can order a copy here.

All photographs
Copyright Susan Winters Cook