Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Get the Blues at Bouchercon!

If you're going to Bouchercon in Baltimore, be sure to stop by the CHICAGO BLUES party on Saturday at 3:30 pm in one of the Karaoke rooms. Nearly 10 of the authors --in the anthology (and the publisher... and the editor) will be there, along with drinks, snacks, and, of course, music!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sex in the White House

by Libby Hellmann

Those of you who read The Huffington Post might have come across this article about Barack and Michelle Obama’s relationship. It is the Huffington Post, of course, so it was highly complimentary. It talked about how they touch each other in public, how you can see their obvious love and respect for each other, etc.

My reaction? B-O-R-I-N-G. In fact, the Obamas may become the first Democratic occupants of the White House in years who are as boring as the Republicans in the bedroom.

Think about it. How many times did we see Nancy Reagan’s adoring gaze when she looked at Ronnie? Do we really want more of that? Remember all those love letters with the saccharine nicknames?

Excuse me, let me out.

What about Bush 41 and Barb? Be honest -- can you imagine them .. well.. you know? Or Nixon and Pat? Please. George and Laura? Well, maybe, when they were young. And yes, there was Eisenhower and Kay Summersby, but that happened During The War.

It’s much more fun to gossip about what went on behind the Clintons’ closed doors: the temper tantrums… the lamps being thrown… the Monica problem. And what about Jack Kennedy? Everyone knew he was a philanderer. Even LBJ was known to be a stud, when he wasn’t revealing his scars or his dogs’ ears. Okay, admittedly, Jimmy Carter and Harry Truman were boring, but what about FDR?
We still read all sorts of stories about his escapades, and, occasionally, even Eleanor’s.

Frankly, up until recently, the Democrats’ sex lives have just been more colorful. Maybe they took the call to “go to the mattresses” more seriously.

But now everything’s changing. First there were allegations that John McCain had an affair (in addition to the one with Cindy which broke up his first marriage). Then the National Enquirer claimed Sarah Palin had an affair with her husband’s business partner. Are the Republicans trying to play catch up, libido-wise?

Democrats acting like Republicans...Republicans acting like Democrats... And if Obama wins, he and Michelle may bring something approaching stability... even (gasp) love... into the White House.


Actually, given everything else that's going on in the world, boring's probably not so bad.

What do you think?

Friday, September 26, 2008

If You Think Too Hard It Only Makes You Mad

By Kevin Guilfoile

It was less than a year ago that we chronicled the trial of Jeanette Sliwinski, the former stripper and trade show model who ran her Mustang at 90 miles an hour into the back of a Honda Civic, killing three Chicago musicians. She was found guilty but mentally ill of reckless homicide and was sentenced to just eight years in prison.

And this Thursday she will walk out of jail.

To understand how eight years became ten months, you have to accept that prison math is all about subtraction. There was time served. Time off for good behavior. Time credited for counseling. It's a fact of an overcrowded prison system.

But I wonder if the original sentence--eight years for taking three lives--was as light as it was only because Sliwinski chose a car as her weapon.

We have a habit of calling any collision involving an automobile an "accident." No doubt if you had been listening to AM radio in Chicago on July 14, 2005, the traffic report would have warned you of an "accident" at the intersection of Dempster and Niles Center Road. Somebody missed a red light. Somebody was texting while driving. Just an accident.

But what happened on that spot that day was no accident.

If on July 14, 2005, Sliwinski had walked into that intersection with a gun or a bomb and, in an attempt to take her own life also killed three other people, she would not have received a prison sentence of only eight years. I guarantee you she would have been committed for life. She would have been called a danger. A threat to society. But what is the difference between that and steering a 2,000 pound missile into the back of another car at almost 100 miles an hour?

The difference is John Glick, Michael Dahlquist, and Doug Meis might have survived if Jeanette Sliwinski had only shot them.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

And Tango Makes Three

This past Saturday, September 20th, Mary Dempsey received the Harry Kalven award from the ACLU for her commitment to books and free speech. Ms. Dempsey is the Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library, and no one deserves such an honor more. In her remarks, Ms. Dempsey said that our library is open to everyone. You don't need a passport. You don't need a job. You don't need to be tall enough, short enough, blonde enough, black enough, or anything else enough to use the library. When you walk through those doors, you walk in to the world of words, and the words you choose to read are your private business. No one else gets to know about them.

The Chicago Public Library is one of the great city library systems in America. It's open every day of the week, which isn't true in a lot of places. Public library budgets in real dollars are thirty percent of what they were twenty-five years ago, so a lot of cities have trouble keeping the doors open, let alone keeping the shelves stocked. That's why we feel exceptionally fortunate in Chicago to have Commissioner Dempsey and the strong support of the Mayor for our library system (see, Guys, I did think of something good to say about this town. And since the impetus for the library comes from the Mayor, I can even say something good about him on this page).

This week is banned books week where libraries all over the country, in support of our First Amendment freedoms, celebrate and read from banned or challenged books. In Chicago, we'll be doing this on Saturday, September 27th, in the big plaza outside the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. My favorite banned book of recent years is And Tango Makes Three. This is the lovely -- and true -- story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who fell in love with each other, built a nest together, and hatched and raised a chick from an egg abandoned by its (heterosexual) birth mother. The book has been challenged more than any other recent children's book because it's -- you can't believe how hard it is to type these words without falling off your chair in either laughter or disbelief -- anti-family. Go figure. The authors, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, are going to be at the Tribune Plaza reading the book around 2:30 on Saturday. I love this book! If you're anywhere near downtown Chicago on Saturday, stop by and listen to the authors tell this wonderful heart-warming anti-family story.

Sara Paretsky

Monday, September 22, 2008

Writing Through It

by Barbara D'Amato

Quite a few years ago, I was about 70 pages into a new novel when one of my children, then ten years old, got sick. Now, young children get sick a lot—colds, flu, stomach upsets, it’s a fun time for parents. But this was different. He was totally tired, and this was a kid who could have a bad cold and still be up and running around. He had a headache, chills, a severe sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes, symptoms that could easily have been leukemia. I took him to the doctor.

[Don’t get too worried. This has a happy ending.]

The doctor was worried, too, and wanted to do a blood test. Oh. Oh, gee.

Now why do they send in blood on Thursday or Friday, and the stupid lab can’t get to it or get it done right away, so you worry all weekend, and then the results get to the doctor after he’s left the office on Monday so you don’t hear until Tuesday? But don’t get me started.

Something went wrong with the first test. They needed more blood. I hoped there was no more sinister reason. My son wasn’t pleased. Another three days went by. Results!

The good news was that it was mononucleosis.

So, I went back to my book in progress. Mind you, this whole event took only two weeks. But the book was dead. I couldn’t remember who the characters were or why they were acting this way. I didn’t care what was happening to them. I started a different book.

I am mentioning this experience because it was one in which work didn’t help. There have been other times with other problems when I was able to write through them. The major book-killers, other than this one, have been when we were moving. Moving is ghastly.

Sometimes writing helps you get through difficulties; sometimes the problems triumph. I’m wondering what experiences other people have had in writing through problems. How did you deal with them? I’d like to hear.


Friday, September 19, 2008

David Foster Wallace, RIP

by Marcus Sakey

As you can't possibly not have heard by now, last Friday David Foster Wallace hung himself.

The thing about the death of a famous person whose work you admire — or, in the case of DFW, flat-out love — is that it's a loss at once personal and abstract. I'd never met Wallace. I don't really have the right, the emotional props, to grieve for him as though he were a friend.

And yet at the same time, I knew one part of him better than I know the inner minds of some of my nearest and dearest. There are plenty of writers out there whose novels don't betray what's under their own hood, but he wasn't one of them. Reading Wallace was a singular experience, an exhilarating brush against a brain of staggering capability, that was trying, always, to reach you and tell you something about the world, maybe something deeply true and important.

His second novel, INFINITE JEST, is generally considered his masterpiece. As it would have to be; it's 1079 pages long, including about 100 pages of footnotes. It's a staggering work, satirical in the extreme, often laugh-out-loud funny, and yet also unrelentingly sad. Wallace was one of those rare writers who could short-circuit your emotions, have you swinging from misery to hilarity and back again in the space of a page. It's not an easy book, and it's one I've stopped recommending to people because it's not everyone's taste. But while it isn't easy, it's also not challenging in a force-yourself-through-it way. No, the challenge is in trying — and failing — to keep pace with a genius.

I've read INFINITE JEST twice. The first time in 1998, when I lived in Atlanta, worked in television, and the woman who is now my wife was my girlfriend. Again in 2003, when I had built and then lost a million-dollar graphic design company, and was unemployed in a Chicago studio apartment, toying with my old dream of writing a novel.

  • The L.A. Times Obit
  • My favorite tribute article, in Newsweek
  • DFW on Charlie Rose
  • The Howling Fantods fan site
  • Wikipedia's DFW entry
  • His commencement speech to Kenyon University

  • When I heard about his suicide, I picked it up again. Again, my life is wildly different; I'm married, and as of this afternoon, 229 pages into my fourth book. But I remain astonished by everything it accomplishes, and I'm loving it more this time around than any other.

    I can't really give you a synopsis. It's just not possible. Let me say that it's a near-future novel about the pursuit of happiness and the near impossibility of communication. It's a wicked satire filled with joy and sadness and gleefully prescient dread.

    An example.

    In the book, most of which takes place in the corporate-sponsored Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, America has "given" Canada large chunks of the north of our country, and then proceeded to use those areas as our literal garbage dump, packing waste from every corner of the country into canisters and slinging it via massive catapults into a festering heap of filth and disease, around which we have built a Lucite wall topped with massive "bladed air redistributors" to blow the clouds of toxic waste back where it belongs. As a consequence of which, besides rapacious packs of feral hamsters, a notable portion of children near the Concavity, as it's called, are born without skulls, which makes life and love a little difficult. But not impossible, as a legless Quebecois terrorist, member of a much-feared organization known as the Wheelchair Assassins, discovers when he falls in love with one, and in order to get proper medical care for his skull-less wife, he works as a triple-agent betraying his comrades to the very nation that caused his wife's condition in the first place.

    This is one minor thread of a very big tapestry.

    Taken on its own, the above probably just comes across as silly. And there is whimsy to it, no question. But Wallace injects so much social commentary and exploration of the human condition into these ridiculous premises that as you read, his world becomes more real than your own.

    I'm 200 pages into this third read of IJ, and I'm in love all over again, and it breaks my heart, because there's no more coming. Sure, there are essays that I haven't read, and a short story collection. But there's not another grand masterpiece, another cultural earthquake of a novel. And the kicker is, as brilliant as his work was at 32, can you imagine what it might have been at 60?

    We lost a giant last week.

    New York Magazine: Can The Book Business Be Saved?

    Was just in the Big Apple. It seemed everybody I talked with was buzzing about the article in New York magazine.

    Read it here, if you are so inclined.


    Tuesday, September 16, 2008

    Perfect Stranger(s)

    by Michael Dymmoch

    I recently watched two movies with nearly identical titles. Both were billed as thrillers. Both had the requisite set pieces and reversals, talented direction and great casts. Filmed in NYC, Perfect Stranger (James Foley, 2007) featured Halle Berry and Bruce Willis. The film was a slick, well crafted Hollywood product that delivered on the promise of its trailer, but I’m glad I didn’t pay ten bucks to see it in a theater. I got the impression that the final outcome was determined by test audience reactions rather than character development. I doubt that I’ll remember the film six months from now, or bother watching it again.

    Perfect Strangers (Gaylene Preston, 2003) starred Rachael Blake and Sam Neil and was made in New Zealand. Beyond budget and setting, it couldn’t have been more different. Though it starts predictably—girlfriends heading to a bar after work, it takes a turn for the bizarre when Neil asks Blake, “My place or yours?” After watching it, I felt that getting the DVD on Amazon was like finding an Ivan Albright at a garage sale.

    The test of a great story is how it resonates after the fade-out. Do the images linger? Are the characters people you’ll continue to wonder about? Was the ending inevitable and satisfying? Do you feel you got a little something more?

    If you’ve seen these films, how do you think they compare?

    If you haven’t seen them, check ‘em out.

    Monday, September 15, 2008

    Weapon of Choice (a politics-free post). . .

    by Sean Chercover

    Okay, folks, nothing heavy today. Before we begin, how about a little palette cleanser?

    The following video is Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice, starring the incomparable Christopher Walken. Crank your speakers...

    How's that for funky?

    Now, let's talk about our writing weapons of choice. Mine is, primarily, a computer. I use a Mac, because they're best. Right, Marcus? Of course they are. (That might ignite more acrimony than any political post, but what the hell...)

    On my Mac (the best computer in the world) I run Microsoft Word. Like everybody else in the world.

    But in recent years, I've been hearing more and more about a program called Scrivener. Many writers swear by it, and none seem to swear at it. Anybody out there use this thing? Opinions? Please share.

    Anyway, I write on a computer. (I should say, I write using a computer. I don't write on the computer, although I occasionally put a sticker on it.) Fingers on the keyboard just seems to work best for me.

    Except when it doesn't. Occasionally, when the writing just isn't flowing, I put my keyboard aside and pull out the old typer.

    I love the clackity-clack-clack-ding! of the thing. I have more than a few old typewriters (by "more than a few," I mean, slightly fewer than a dozen. It probably won't shock you to learn that the woman who sleeps beside me wishes I had fewer. I usually use my grandmother's old Royal portable.

    Sometimes, when I'm feeling modern, I pull out the IBM Selectric. An awesome beast. The thing weighs a ton. Makes me feel like Raoul Duke. Of course, if I really wanted to feel like HST, I'd wolf down some mescaline before I hit the keyboard, but that might be taking things a bit too far.

    I have two Selectrics. I couldn't tell you why. I keep telling myself that I'm going to sell one of them. I say the same thing to the woman who sleeps next to me. I rationalize. John Irving has six (6) Selectrics, so maybe if I get four more, I'll be a better writer...

    Where was I? Oh, yeah. Weapons of choice. I do most of my brainstorming with a pen. Don't know why, but I write better with a keyboard and I brainstorm better with a pen.

    I'm partial to fountain pens (Guyot? You there?), and (you guessed it) I have more than a few. Back in January 1988, I wandered into a pawn shop under the El tracks on Van Buren to get out of the cold. The guy had a bunch of Eversharp Skyline fountain pens from the 1940s. 14k nibs. Never inked. "New Old Stock" - they still had the orignal tags and stickers on them. He was selling them for eight bucks a pop. I bought a handful or two.

    I'm even more fond of my green Pelikan demonstrator. A demonstrator is a clear pen that shows all its inner-workings. Like this:

    But the fountain pen I seem to be using most often, these days, is made by The Sailor Pen Co., of Japan. Mine looks like this:

    Okay, that's enough pen porn to satisfy Guyot...

    I'm not saying that using a fancy fountain pen or an old typewriter or the best computer in the world makes my writing any better. Not at all. But it makes me feel better, and we all have our quirks.

    Let's hear about yours. What is your writing weapon of choice?
    PS: My two favorite fountain pen shops... In New York: The Fountain Pen Hospital (just down the street from Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookshop). In Chicago: Ed Hamilton's Century Pens.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    Not My Job

    by Libby Hellmann

    You remember the expression “Not My Job?” I do. I even remember using it -- sometimes in a dismissive, patronizing way; sometimes to challenge anyone nervy enough to burden me with extra responsibilities.

    I get the sense that’s what’s happening today – in a larger sense – when the topic turns to Mexico and the drug cartels. From the administration to Congress to federal and local law enforcement, the efforts to deal with the issues are half-assed and weak. It seems as if everyone is passing the buck… Not my job. Meanwhile, the situation becomes more desperate.

    First, I want to make a distinction between the issues of illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Yes, they’re related, sometimes inextricably, but they’re not the same -- something few politicians who raise the issue point out. Indeed, many of the Mexicans trying to cross the borders, including Mexican police officials, are fleeing the anarchy, lack of jobs, and danger caused by the cartels. The problem is that “securing our borders,” the political catch phrase for dealing with illegals, does nothing to address the more fundamental problem.

    Which is that our southern neighbor is in trouble. Law and order have broken down. The drug cartels – four major ones and all sorts of offshoot gangs – have become the prime supplier of heroin, meth, grass, and cocaine for the U.S. The cartels have infiltrated the local police, the Federales, and have wreaked such havoc through kidnappings, extortion, and murders that one journalist says Mexico hasn’t faced such danger since the Mexican Revolution. By a 2 to 1 margin, even most Mexicans think the cartels are winning the “war against drugs.”

    And now the carnage is seeping across the border. Attacks on U.S. border agents are up. Over three dozen kidnapping cases of US citizens are on the books. In Phoenix we’re seeing tragic evidence of human smuggling rings that purport to finance the drug trade.

    Whose job is it to deal with all of this? Well, the Bush administration has sent millions of dollars money to Mexico to equip their police. And they’ve beefed up the number of border patrol agents. And we’re supposedly building a fence from California to Texas to keep undesirables out.

    Except it’s not working.

    See, at the same time it’s supposedly protecting our borders, the administration, in true Nafta spirit, is encouraging open highways for transit back and forth from Mexico to the US. The money sent to equip the Mexican police, if it even gets to them, has been as effective as bailing the Titanic with a sieve. Reports come in about the bribing of US border agents. And now we learn that building the fence has been too expensive and cumbersome, and construction may stop.

    The result? Little has happened to stem the drug trade or protect citizens. Indeed, as Paul Begala said on the Today Show Thursday, the Bush administration cant even protect us from jalapeƱo peppers.

    Even more worrisome, there’s concern that the corruption is leaking into our civil institutions. Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo claims that Mexican drug cartels are buying legitimate US businesses to launder money and using some of the proceeds to help elect local politicians who hold sway over their police force. Admittedly, Tancredo is probably the most right wing politician in the country. Rolling Stone calls him one of the 10 worst Congressman, and the National Review calls him an “idiot.” But his claims, if at all true, are unsettling.

    So if the Mexican government can’t control the cartels, and our government is reduced to building partial fences, hiring border agents who themselves are corruptible, and Customs, DEA, the FBI, and local police aren’t making a lot of progress, whose job is it?

    Well, apparently we are outsourcing.

    Eric Prince, the head of Blackwater, has said the next challenge for his paramilitary organization will be
    fighting narco-terrorism. And guess what? The government has responded with some heavy duty contracts.

    Excuse me, but isn’t this the same company that’s under investigation for alleged arms smuggling and for killing Iraqi civilians?

    And while we’re on the subject, let's not forget the Zetas, a homegrown Mexican paramilitary group, who were once hired to fight the drug cartels. Ten years later they themselves are one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico and are now reportedly making inroads into the U.S.

    Blackwater aside, what do we do when the Zetas decide to protect their routes all the way to end-user cities like Chicago and New York? (Some say they’re already doing that). Does Blackwater face off against the Zetas? Do they throw down their arms and join them? How about the rest of us who are caught in the middle?

    Don’t get me wrong… this is great fodder for crime fiction, and the book I’m working on deals with this. But when I realize that it’s really not fiction at all, I get concerned. And not a little scared. It's just getting too close.

    What do you think? Whose job is it? Is it even possible to contain the cartels? And why aren’t we hearing more about this from the candidates? Isn’t this worthier of discussion than lipstick?

    Tuesday, September 09, 2008

    Of Fallible Heroes and Infallible Technology

    Editor's note: If The Outfit ever held a monthly dinner party with Chicago's most interesting people (and that's actually a really good idea) Lori Andrews might be the first person I'd invite. Lori is an attorney, law professor, historian, and novelist who advises government agencies around the world about genetic technologies. She also chaired the federal advisory committee on the legal and ethical implications of the Human Genome Project. In her terrific new thriller, Immunity, set during a provocative presidential race, geneticist Alexandra Blake and a rogue DEA agent track the killer behind a lethal new biotoxin. When she told me she was speaking a lot lately about the effectiveness of DNA testing, I asked her if she would guest blog here at The Outfit. If you want to hear more, Lori will read from the book tomorrow (Thursday, September 11) at 12:30 PM at the State Street Borders (150 N State) in Chicago. -kg

    By Lori Andrews

    I’m one of the people least dazzled by technology of anyone I know. I don’t have an iPhone, iPod, or Blackberry. I still have a VCR. In my day job as a law professor, I undertake extensive government-funded studies of the effects of technologies on consumers and society. Will nanotechnologies lead to lung damage, like a new asbestos? Will use of sperm from the Nobel Prize sperm bank cause parents to reject their child if “E=mc2” isn’t the first thing out of his mouth?

    But in my crime fiction, I fall into the same trap as CSI, Law and Order, and many other mystery writers who make it seem like crimes can be solved with the flip of a switch. In my latest book alone, a new date rape drug is identified by its chemical components, surveillance tapes finger the criminal, and a smack-talking computer that runs on DNA rather than the binary code helps solve the crime.

    So I wonder: Why do we make our characters fallible and our technology infallible? And, is there anything we can do to change that?

    We’ve made great strides making the city of Chicago a character in our books, pointing out its dark underside, as well as its heart-wrenchingly beautiful traits. But other than in a few cases (Kevin’s book dealing with cloning, Cast of Shadows, for example), we don’t treat technology as a character, subjecting it to our scrutiny and cynicism.

    But maybe it’s time we started. There’s certainly plenty of material.

    DNA forensics is not as reliable as most people think. We each have a 3 billion-character long string of DNA, which includes within it around 25,000 genes. If DNA forensics tested all 25,000 genes, then it would be a great way to identify people. But it only tests 13 snippets of DNA, called loci (and it used to test only 9). A variety of people might have similar genetic profiles when only 9 or 13 segments are looked at-–if they are relatives, for example, or if they belong to the same ethnic group, like the Native Americans in my latest book.

    In July, the Los Angeles Times caused a panic in the forensic community with its article, The Verdict is Out on DNA Profiles. The FBI claimed that a match between a crime scene sample and DNA in CODIS had the odds of one in 113 billion. But a technician working in the Arizona Department of Public Safety Crime Laboratory, Kathryn Troyer, found 122 men in the Arizona database that matched at 9 loci, 20 at 10 loci, one match at 11 loci, and one match at 12 loci. Laboratory workers from other states claimed to have seen similar matches in their own crime labs.

    In the wake of the Troyer discovery, criminal defendants have tried to compel crime labs to disclose how many other people in the forensic databases have DNA matching theirs at a significant number of loci. The FBI’s response to such court orders has been to intimidate labs by threatening to take away their National DNA Index System privileges if they comply with the request. In essence, the FBI is trying to prevent defendants from learning if there are flaws in the technology that is being used to convict them.

    Plus, DNA forensics can be thrown off by human error and technological shortcomings. In one study, 45 laboratories were asked whether particular DNA samples matched. The labs were presumably using their best techniques since they knew they were being studied. Yet, in the 223 tests, matches were identified in 18 cases where they did not exist. Mistakes do occur in forensic DNA testing, yet jurors are often told that errors are nearly impossible. This means they might be convicting innocent people—or letting guilty ones off the hook.

    The fallibility of technology could be an exciting subplot in a crime fiction. I think we shy away from it because it is hard to explain science. And the glitz of gadgets, the seduction of technology, is just too strong. We ooh and aah when Q in the James Bond movies unveils a pen that converts into a lethal stun gun or a car that can fire a missile. And if the right technology is not at hand, we pin our hopes on a hero like MacGyver who can fashion his own.

    Sunday, September 07, 2008

    Guns don't kill people, books do

    Sarah Palin wanted to fire her town librarian when she was mayor, because the librarian wouldn't help her ban books. Bringing up this fact has the Palindrone blogosphere furious: it's a smear campaign to mention the mayor's effort to fire her librarian. But Palindrones should be pleased and proud: Palin stands in the Ashcroft-Gonzalez tradition, after all: everyone should have the right to own many guns, and gun ownership should be completely unregulated. But we need to know who is reading what and we need to have the full force of law to investigate readers and even imprison them for reading.
    I think this proves conclusively that if the pen is not mightier than the sword, the word processor is at least more threatening to the Republic than the gun.

    And the failure to read is a big threat to the Republic as well. I'm not talking just about an informed citizenry, but what happens to us when the citizens are illiterate. 85 percent of juvenile offenders are functionally illiterate. And in many states, such as California, the department of corrections projects the number of prison beds it will need ten years down the road based on how many kids entering fourth grade CANNOT READ at grade level. Read or go to jail, if you are an inner-city youth. Read and go to jail if you live under the Patriot Act. I have no answers, only a deep sense of outrage. If you know what to do, go do it. As Mario Savio said, there are times when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, that you must put your body on the gears. Are we at that point?

    Sara Paretsky

    Friday, September 05, 2008

    How Now Mad Cow

    by Barbara D'Amato

    There I was, minding my own business as I always do, reading the news, running my eye down the headlines. A story said COURT: US CAN BACK MAD COW TESTING. Fine, I thought. My government is protecting me. I went on to the next story.

    Wait! That didn’t seem like what I had read. No, it was


    A federal court of appeals has decided in a case brought by Creekstone Farms Premium Beef that the administration can forbid meat packers from testing their beef animals for mad cow disease.


    The US Department of Agriculture tests one per cent of US beef animals for mad cow disease. Mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is an always-fatal neurological illness contracted from eating infected meat. Just three cases of mad cow have been reported in the US, all in cows, not people. There have been a hundred and fifty human deaths worldwide. So this is not exactly a huge health issue. However, much of the world refused for a while to import US beef after a 2003 case here. While trade has largely been restored, this is a potentially big economic problem, I’m sure.

    Creekstone Farms is a small Arkansas-based producer of premium beef, particularly black angus. It claims humane treatment of its animals and has a line of “natural” beef, raised without hormones, antibiotics, or animal scraps in feed. Their products are accepted for EU export. They wanted to add that their beef had been tested for mad cow.

    Creekstone claimed that the Agriculture Department can only regulate treatment, and since there is no cure and no treatment for mad cow disease, they should be permitted to test. The court of appeals, saying testing is a part of treatment, denied the permission. If you don’t understand why testing is a part of nonexistent treatment, I don’t understand either.

    Anyway--why doesn’t your government want testing, even when the company, not the government, is paying for the test?

    Well, big meat packers claimed that if little Creekstone tested, then they would have to also.

    In fact, if a lot of meat packers didn’t want to test, and marketed their beef at lower prices, I would think that cheaper meat would probably appeal to a lot of consumers. And given the extremely low level of risk, they’d be making a reasonable bet.

    Is the government afraid that tested beef in the market makes the supply of untested beef look bad?

    Are they afraid some mad cow cases will turn up in the cattle and cast all beef in the US into disrepute?

    Are they afraid their test will fail to uncover actual mad cow cases, that the infected beef will be marketed abroad, and cause illness, and then shut down all beef sales from the US?

    Would they prefer cases not to be found?

    So let’s suppose you want to buy meat that has been tested. You realize the danger is minuscule, but you’re willing to pay a premium for the beef. You can’t. Your government won’t let you.

    Oh well, let them eat fish.

    Wednesday, September 03, 2008

    Gender Politics Piss Marcus Off

    by Marcus Sakey

    I'm a diehard feminist.

    Because that's a trigger-word these days, I guess I better tell you what it means to me. Simply put, it's the belief that men and women should be afforded the same rights and opportunities. Everybody gets an equal shot, everybody gets treated with basic respect and dignity. Period.

    What the word does not mean is that men and women are the same, that our differences are something we should ignore. I understand the ideological basis for the argument, the idea that we are people first and gender second, and that acknowledging gender gives rise to hierarchy. But that's rhetoric, and it's crap. We aren't people first. Our identities are inextricably linked to our gender, with all the biological and sociological differences that entails.

    And I think that's great.

    The reason I bring that up is that I gotta say, I've been startled by the sexism I've witnessed lately. The topic? Sarah Palin, of course.

    Sean raised a number of interesting points about her selection as McCain's running mate. I tend to agree with him; I can't imagine why someone who supported Clinton would vote for McCain, and I'm stunned at the suggestion that a significant portion of America is so fevered in their enthusiasm for having a woman in the White House that they will vote for a uterus instead of a policy. To me, that's as sexist as it comes.

    Maybe I'm missing something, and if you feel like I am, I hope you'll try to explain it to me. But the idea of voting for someone primarily because of their gender seems the equivalent of being friends with someone because they're black. The idea is offensive. You don't pick your friends by skin color, and you don't pick your leaders by gender.

    I have posted before about my frustration with the campaign Clinton ran. But it would never have occurred to me, had she won, to vote for McCain because of his gender. So why is the opposite an okay sentiment?

    Hell, why is it even okay to say in public? Imagine the reverse.

    And while we're on the topic of sexism, how about the media coverage of Palin? Yeah, I get that she's a little thin on credentials, that there isn't a lot of political backstory to dig into. But is anyone else offended that every news story seems to mention, within the first two paragraphs, that she's a wife and a mother of five?

    So what?

    Should that information be in the story somewhere? I suppose. But stories about Obama don't generally mention his wife and daughters above the fold. More like the last paragraph, which is where that kind of information belongs.

    Worse, I've seen a number of opinion pieces that suggest that the fact that she is a mother has some bearing on her job performance. Some think it a positive thing, some a negative. Me, I gotta wonder--when she's on a diplomatic mission to Iran, how do her children come into the equation? And if they do, do Obama's as well? Should we vote based on whose are better dressed, better behaved?

    What do you think, folks? Am I crazy to be wound up by all of this? Am I looking at it the wrong way?

    Monday, September 01, 2008

    Some days I wish I were a vampire...

    by Michael Dymmoch

    One of the first things I learned in college was not to let classes interfere with my education. Any time someone offered to let me audit a class, join a field trip, or attend a free program, I was right there. Which is why I had Abnormal Psychology before I’d mastered General Psyc. And how I managed to get into Stateville Prison without committing a felony. Lectures by Charles Percy, Eartha Kitt, and the local president of the WCTU , I sat in. (It was hard not to hoot.) Anti (Vietnam) war marches, I was there. Earth Day 1970 at Northwestern University, ditto. The recent marches in Chicago for immigration reform, I’ve got pictures. And since I was in D.C. when the 1993 Gay Rights march was held, I marched too. (Actually it was more of a stand in. Contrary to national news reports, so many people showed up that the National Mall and parade route were completely filled—there wasn’t room to actually march.)

    All of which got me into the bad habit of putting off writing assignments till the last possible minute. (Still a problem. I dashed this off just now, even though Libby sent out the blog schedule in June.) It’s also why I’ve ended up with 3000 books and 400 movies and so many things to do I’ll probably never read/watch them all.

    Which brings me back to wishing I were a vampire (like Angel, not Angelus). Vampires live forever if they avoid stakes and fires and stay out of the sun. I’m already on a 2:00 am to 10:00 am sleep schedule. And I’ve had to start wearing SPF 45 sunscreen to keep from looking like a bald Shar-pei.

    So maybe if I were a vampire I’d have time...

    Anyone else have this problem?