Archive for 2011 April

L.A. Times takes home two Pulitzers, much pride

A team of reporters from the Los Angeles Times, reporting on the tiny town of Bell and its corrupt leadership, has taken home virtually every big award given out in journalism, including a Pulitzer. 

Reporter Jeff Gottlieb, who worked the story with Ruben Vives, recounted the story's genesis: 

Gottlieb, 57, recounted the moment he and Vives discovered Rizzo's inflated salary. They were sitting in a community room in Bell's Little Bear Park, with Rizzo and nine other Bell officials.

"I said to Rizzo, 'So how much money do you make?' And he coughed out, '$700,000.' And I wasn't sure I heard him right, and I said, 'How much?' And he said, '$700,000.' And Ruben goes, 'Jesus Christ!' "

Vives, 32, who has been a reporter for three years, added: "At a time when people say that newspapers are dying, this is a day that I think we can say, no not really. I mean, we gave a small town … the opportunity to speak out. And that's what newspapers do."

Amen. An editor proudly went on to hail the team's "gang-tackling" tactics, which he said the Times does better than anyone else. Maybe so!

It's good to read of signs of life at the paper, and interesting to learn that the web version is more tabloid-y than the print version, via this story in GOOD. In that story, the great automotive writer Dan Neil, who also has a Pulitzer, had an idea on how to make the paper work today:

For Dan Neil, going nonprofit is the only answer. The logic is simple: If the need to make a profit is gone, so is the pressure to publish crap. “It has to be put on a philanthropic/foundation footing,” Neil says of the Times. “There’s plenty of ad money around to do the critical work of journalism, but not enough to do that and line the pockets of swine like [former owner Sam] Zell.”

Makes sense to me. For more of the super-quotable Neil, check out my "Back to the Future, Again!" story on electric cars in the VC Reporter

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When I am among trees, by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily. 

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves

and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches. 

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

By Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems

h/t: LoraKim Joyner

Speaking of trees, I'm off to cover a fire ecology symposium in the far north of California, at Soames Bar. I think the phrase "middle of nowhere" may apply…look for it in the upper lefthand corner.


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Are run-on subtitles the flop sweat of publishing?

Bill Morris has a theory:

In a marketplace glutted with too many titles – and in a culture that makes books more marginal by the day – publishers seem to think that if they just shout loudly enough, people will notice their products, then buy them.  In other words, the run-on subtitle is literature’s equivalent of flop sweat, that stinky slime that coats the skin of every comedian, actor and novelist who has ever gotten ready to step in front of a live audience knowing, in the pit of his stomach, that he’s going to bomb. 

For instance: 


But it's not true! As usual, it's the Internet's fault…a bookseller explains: 

“I think it’s driven by Search – with a capital S – whether it’s Google or Amazon or whatever.  A lot of our customers hear about books on NPR, and when they come in the store they can’t always remember the author or the title.  The more words a customer might remember, the more keywords we can use to Google it.  If a word is rather unique, we’re more likely to find it.  With the river of books – with the river of everything – most people want to have more unique words associated with their product.”

Still, kudos to Morris for not only coming up with a theory, but testing it out. 

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The frog metaphor that will not die (alas)

In which Conservation magazine demolishes the deathless metaphor/myth of the frog that supposedly will not jump out of a pot of water brought slowly to a boil. To wit:

Dr. Victor Hutchison, a herpetologist at the University of Oklahoma, has dealt with frogs throughout his professional life. Indeed, one of his current research interests is “the physiological ecology of thermal relations of amphibians and reptiles.” Professor Hutchison states, “The legend is entirely incorrect! The ‘critical thermal maxima’ [the maximum temperature an animal can bear] of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water.” 

The article appears to be a backhanded slap at Wikipedia, which suggests that "some 19th century experiments" found that the idea might be true, if the heat under the frogs was increased gradually enough. Conservation takes a second look at Scripture's 1897 experiment and scoffs: 

Well, the numbers just don’t seem right. If the water comes to a boil, that means a final temperature of 100 degrees Celsius. In that case, the frog would have to have been put into the water at 82 degrees Celsius. Surely, the frog would have died immediately. Scripture also wrote that the frog was found “without having moved.” How do you convince a frog not to move for more than two hours?

The point of the metaphor was to say that we humans can be as dumb as frogs.

If only that were true!


The frog has no problem with denial — but we do. 

[image courtesy of Wikicommons]

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First draft advice from Tennessee Williams

I believe that the way to write a good play is to convince yourself that it is easy to do — then go ahead and do it. 
Don't maul, don't suffer, don't groan — till the first draft is finished. 
Then Calvary — but not till then. 
Doubt — and be lost — until the first draft is finished.
A Play is a Phoenix — it dies a thousand deaths.
Usually at night — In the morning it springs up again from the ashes and crows like a happy rooster.
It is never as bad as you think.
It is never as good as you think.
It is somewhere in between and success or failure depends on which end of your emotional gamut concerning its value it actually approaches more closely.
But it is much more likely to be good if you think it is wonderful while you are writing the first draft.
An artist must believe in himself — Possibly not so passionately as
[D.H.] Lawrence — but passionately. Your belief is contagious. Others say — He is vain — but they are affected. 
I have never had much of that faith — I have been a little too honest with myself and people.
Let us make up some brilliant lies! — No — let's don't — Let's fight it out the old way —

Today I have been writing well. I look in the mirror. My face is fresh and glowing. I look young again… 


[Still from a production of Williams late play Vieux Carre: in this picture we see a young writer character crouching, watching a good girl from privilege, Jane, who for her own desperate reasons has fallen in with a mean stripshow barker. It's as if he's watching himself learn about life.] 

[Quote from Williams' notebooks to himself, dated Sunday, 5 October l941, when he was living in New Orleans as a young writer]

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Go blue! The problem with sports as politics

The play-offs (and Ted Rall) remind me that the sports mindset, as the President might say, has its limits. 

I hear Noam Chomsky also has some views on sports. In Manufacturing Consent, in front of an adoring audience, he marvels out loud at the intelligence with which "Joe Six Pack" types can on the radio analyze these matters of "no importance."

No importance to Noam, maybe… 

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Can nice guys finish first?

The Los Angeles Lakers basketball club were widely expected to sweep the New Orleans this month, on their way to a possible third consecutive NBA championship, but on Sunday were torched by the smallest player on the court, Chris Paul.

Lakers' fans focused blame on the Laker's big man Pau Gasol, who put up a measly eight points, less than half his average. One friend told me Pau was "monitoring" the game.

Pau was roughed up, flagrantly fouled once, and repeatedly hit in the face, but took no offense on Sunday, in his classic nice guy style.


The sportswriters covering the team marveled this morning at his niceness in adversity, writing of how he had been "blamed for everything but the destruction of the Roman Empire," but still stayed kind.  

Can a nice guy finish first? 

It's an enduring question, and the kind of question that basketball, which reveals character in the moment as well or better than any other sport, can actually answer. 

In the last two years, Pau put the question to rest twice. But he'll have to face it again tonight. 

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Surgeon resigns post for encouraging semen for women

The editor of an American College of Surgeon's publication has been forced to resign for remarks considered sexist.

He wrote, from his post atop a bastion of male privilege, on Valentine's Day, that semen is good for women, bodily and emotionally, better even than chocolate. The argument focused on semen's physical powers; as evidence, he cited a couple of studies. 

That's what makes it sexist, surely, the lack of consideration to women themeslves. As if they were just bodies to be manipulated, and not individuals, with their own minds and thoughts. 

But back to semen for a moment. Was the good doctor wrong on the science of semen? 

What did he say? 

It’s been known since the 1990s that heterosexual women living together synchronize their menstrual cycles because of pheromones, but when a study of lesbians showed that they do not synchronize, the researchers suspected that semen played a role. In fact, they found ingredients in semen that include mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%. Delivering these compounds into the richly vascularized vagina also turns out to have major salutary effects for the recipient. Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2002;31:289-93). Their better moods were not just a feature of promiscuity, because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence. The benefits of semen contact also were seen in fewer suicide attempts and better performance on cognition tests.

For the full text of the column, see the Detroit Free Press link above, or this one from RetractionWatch

The Detroit Free Press medical columnist notes that the study cited apparently hasn't been replicated, although it's often discussed in the media.

This well-known column in Scientific American delves into the same study, and others showing helpful results to the organism from application of semen, without disrespecting the science.

It's funnier, though. 

Regarding the 2002 study, one might speculate that the positive effects of the application might have something to do with a relationship, and not a, um, product? 

Yet and still Surgery News not only pulled the column from the web, but then went on and retracted the entire issue! 

Are surgeons sexist, or are we Americans prudes? Or both? 


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Still destroying the climate, but having less fun

Because Americans are driving less, mostly due to the recession (total greenhouse gas emissions are down a pretty stunning 6%, the Energy Information recently reported) the federal government doesn't have the money it needs to fully fund its highway program. But still, all the politicians agree that raising the gas tax is off the table, even though it hasn't been changed since l993

Matthew Iglesias, a famous lefty blogger who usually hides his idealism behind his intelligence, sighs:

You don’t win the future by cutting back on your physical infrastructure out of fear of taxing pollution. Just saying. 

But Toles understands what the politicians — and the public — are thinking: 


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A Streetcar Named Desire, by Thomas Hart Benton

The Notebooks of Tennessee Williams, as compiled, databased, and published by Margaret Bradham Thornton, are one of the most astonishing acts of scholarship I have seen (and I have seen plenty). 

One example: Here's a painting called Poker Night, by Thomas Hart Benton, based on what we know of as A Streetcar Named Desire, given as a present by David Selznick to his estranged wife Irene. 

Just a footnote in this book. 


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