Thursday, August 09, 2007

Two Crimes So Dark, Blurring the Images of Two Towns So Different

A memorial to the three people killed at a Newark playground.

Published: August 9, 2007


Instead of a memorial of bouquets and flowers on a landscaped suburban lawn, there are a dozen candles and as many balloons on the aluminum bleachers by the chain-link fence on an elementary school playground.

Instead of the hand-painted yard signs for flowers and sweet corn, there are the billboards offering up to $500 in a program to buy back guns and $2,000 for Crimestoppers tips.

Instead of stunned friends and neighbors who peer at the seared and boarded-up colonial on Sorghum Mill Drive as if contemplating an unknown world, there’s a stream of weary neighborhood folks and friends who venture down the alley to the playground where three young people were killed and a fourth was shot and left for dead on Saturday night. Three of the victims, including the survivor, were college students; the fourth was to begin classes this fall.

“We didn’t know them, but we’re just here to show some love,” said Ken Harris, a 20-year-old college student from the area, who stopped by the playground behind the Mount Vernon School here on Tuesday with another student, John Cavness. “It’s crazy. Young people doing this kind of thing to each other. We’re just here to show respect.”

There aren’t many places more different than the quiet suburban street in Connecticut where three members of the Petit family were murdered last month in a brutal home invasion and the mean streets of New Jersey’s largest city where four young people were shot execution-style on Saturday night.

But in an awful convergence, you could blur the two images and see almost exactly the same thing — good people who didn’t deserve to die, violence hard to comprehend, crimes so dark they took your breath away.

All murder is awful, but, in truth, not all murders are created equal. So in a town where violent death, tragically, is part of the backdrop of civic life, 17 officials led by Mayor Cory A. Booker showed up for a midday news conference on Wednesday, to speak about yet another murder.

The cameras were not there for the stated reason for the gathering — the arrest of Christopher Alexander, 21, who the police say shot and killed Quintez Waller, 23, on Sunday morning in what they described as a drug-related killing.

It was the 60th murder in Newark this year.

What makes some crimes go from horrors to symbols too glaring to ignore is not a simple matter.

In part, without doubt, it has something to do with the victims, but that’s not entirely simple, either. The Petits, who stood out as a successful and beloved family in the comfortable, largely white town of Cheshire, seemed utterly removed from the standard trajectory of violent crime.

But then the four young people shot in Newark stood out, too — students from good families who had no record of involvement in crime but who still couldn’t escape the violence around them.

In part, it’s a reflection of the extraordinary brutality of the crimes. Regardless of race or socioeconomics, there hasn’t been a crime in Connecticut in decades as brutal as the rape, kidnapping, murder and arson that played out on Sorghum Mill Drive. For all Newark’s history of crime, the execution-style shooting of four young people, in a largely middle-class enclave, left people reeling.

JOHN McCLAIN, whose grandniece, Iofemi Hightower, was one of the students killed, has been working as a Newark police chaplain for 40 years. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “This is like back in the days of Al Capone. This is what happens in Iraq or Afghanistan, not in an American city.”

And both crimes resonated so much because they seemed to carry a message. And that’s where the comparison breaks down.

The extraordinary savagery of the attack on the Petits led to a run on locks and security gear, not just in Cheshire, but far beyond. It was, people said, the most chilling reminder that no place is entirely safe from violent crime. In fact, it’s a worthy reminder. Just check out how common home invasions are on Long Island.

But no one, no matter how comfortable, has ever been given a pass from random malice. Being safety-conscious is always a good thing, but it’s not as if Cheshire and places like it are beset by widespread violent crime. What happened there is more a reflection of sickening, random evil than of something people should reasonably fear.

In Newark, the lesson is far more immediate, which is why Mr. Booker, who has staked his career on curbing violent crime here, has the look of a stricken man. Unlike in Cheshire, violent crime really is a daily, inescapable fact of life in Newark and in many other cities as well. Newark can talk about a renaissance all it wants, but the sad truth is the violence that wiped out three promising young lives on Saturday night, if not contained, will kill the city, too.


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Is There Wisdom in Crowds?

Published: August 8, 2007


'It's the wisdom of the masses that makes up our front page," says Kevin Rose. He is the founder of a Web news site called Digg that rates stories, videos and other content on the basis of how many people like them. Editors need not apply; Digg is proud to have none.

Of course, the "wisdom of the masses" produced a few 20th-century bummers, not least in Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and China. Collective wisdom is often an oxymoron.

But the Internet has made the views of crowds more accessible - "crowdsourcing" is the geek jargon - while rendering them less dangerous. The cacophony can be overwhelming and undiscerning. Give me a serious food critic any day over the agglomerated diners' gibberish of the Zagat guides.

I am no doubt in a minority on that. Zagat has proved a global winner, as has American Idol. We live in an age when people love to know what everyone else thinks and the means exist to convey those thoughts instantaneously online.

Rose, whose background is in computer science rather than journalism, started Digg in 2004. It now has 18 million unique visitors a month. The idea behind the site is that it "surfaces the best stuff as voted on by our users."

By clicking to indicate you like or "digg" an item, you propel it toward page one. An algorithm edits. Citizen journalists rule. Rose, 30, tells me he wants "to give power back to the community."

The results are interesting. Among the "world" stories doing well of late - front pages exist for whatever category of news you choose - is an item about a New Zealand pizza chain using President George W. Bush's image for an advertisement.

Other strong performers include a chart comparing U.S. gas consumption to the rest of the world, how Paris Hilton lost her inheritance, and a piece about 2,500 French citizens forming the words "We will never forget" on Omaha beach last month.

"Funny," says a commentary on the latter, "whenever a French person does something anti-American, we hear about it." But when 2,500 French do something pro-American, it's only news on Digg.

A life spent in newspapering does not endear me to outfits that consign editors to the Paleolithic age. Digg needs content to be dug by its community; it provides none itself. Rather, it relies for "stuff" on my colleagues. Journalists once wrote stories. They now provide fodder for cannibalization.

Still, this is the future - communities jabbering rather than edicts falling. Barriers have crumbled, between states and between producer and consumer. That, on balance, is good for the world, if not necessarily for newspaper companies.

The collective wisdom of Digg produces an intriguing distillation. But it only begs the question: What makes stuff - a story, a book, whatever - a hit rather than a flop?

Until recently, Brent Stinski was a student at Cambridge University doing a doctoral thesis on the psychology of art and entertainment. In prosaic terms, he was looking into why Harry Potter boomed but "Superman Returns" was a bust.

That is an elusive quandary. Most entertainment products, be they books or movies, don't work. About 10 percent of what film companies or publishers or recording studios put out accounts for 90 percent of revenue. The big hit salvages myriad failures.

I once covered the publishing industry - or rather, the publishing lottery. Any price for a book could be justified if a suitably inflated hypothetical sales number was used for a prospective profit-and-loss statement.

Now, Stinski wants to do something about that using collective online wisdom in a slightly different way from Rose. His new Web site, called Media Predict, amounts to a virtual stock market for manuscripts, television pilots, rock bands and the like.

Traders with the equivalent of $5,000 in fantasy cash buy shares in the material they believe in. Whatever rises on this prediction market ought in theory to be the things entertainment moguls should buy and back.

"There's a crying need to link major media companies with the user-generated movement," Stinski says. "Going with your gut is inefficient for media and not very satisfying for viewers." Already, Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, is working with Media Predict to select a manuscript for publication.

I feel queasy about the wisdom of the masses. But Digg and Media Predict give me pause. I may indeed have been hard on the French. More worrying, I have published three books and was grossly overpaid for all of them.


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An Ape Types in Iowa

Published: August 9, 2007

Des Moines

“Des Moines is the most ape-literate city in the United States,” said Robert Shumaker proudly. “People come up to me on the street and start talking about bonobos.”

A bonobo is a small chimpanzee-like ape. Which you would know if you lived here.

Shumaker is the lead scientist at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, which houses seven bonobos, three orangutans and a number of researchers at a sanctuary just outside of Des Moines. The whole place has been underwritten by a wealthy Iowa businessman, Ted Townsend, to the tune of about $22 million.

The central concern here is ape-human communication. The apes seem to be able to understand quite a bit of English, and they talk by pushing symbols on a computer. The rock star of the compound is Kanzi, a 27-year-old bonobo whose mother, Matata, spent years with researchers struggling to learn eight basic symbols, without much success. One day the baby just climbed up on the computer and started communicating away, like a little Mozart bent over the keyboard.

It was a moment one of the staff members here compared to “the discovery of penicillin,” but it would actually be familiar to every middle-aged human who has wrestled helplessly with a TV remote and been rescued by a 6-year-old.

His sister Panbanisha is actually supposed to be the smartest bonobo, although she’s shy. Unlike Kanzi, she is not given to staring back at visitors and demanding, through gestures, that they provide some entertainment by chasing each other around the room.

“Can you see the swans?” asked one of the staff members, pointing to a pair of birds swimming in a lake. “Panbanisha is going to give them names.”

Not anytime soon. At the mention of the swans, Bill Fields, the senior research scientist who works with bonobos, looked pained. “They ate Kanzi’s yellow tomato plants,” he said. “They honk. They don’t care what anybody thinks. It was a shock to find out we don’t love them as much as we thought we were going to. Not. At. All.”

By “we” Fields means himself and the bonobos. The people-ape boundaries here are sometimes extremely fluid.

This has got to be one of the most interesting places in Iowa. The humans talk to the apes with welding masks over their faces to prove they aren’t cheating and sending signals. The apes’ conversations seem very much focused on things to eat, but they clearly have other concerns. Friends. Weather. Swans. Strange that in a state awash in presidential candidates, not one has ever come to visit.

Maybe they’re afraid of the theological implications. If Republicans believe it is politically dangerous to acknowledge that man descended from apes, they’d regard it as suicidal to admit that Iowa houses 10 nonhumans whose ability to remember and match symbols could win them valuable prizes on TV game shows. Kanzi, the staff members say, can also speak a few words of English. “He’ll say: ‘Rightnow,’ ” said Daniel Musgrave, a staff member. “Watermelon, pineapple, Perrier, thank you — he’s very polite.”

And what does it say about animal rights if animals can identify bottled water by brand name and have better manners than most American teenagers?

Everyone at the trust is passionately attached to the apes, and seemed horrified at the idea of doing medical research on them or treating them like ... animals. But they also feel that apes are unique. No one I talked to was willing to advocate a ban on leather or hunting.

“There’s no reasonable comparison between great apes and dogs and cats and deer,” said Shumaker.

Human-ape conversation was a very hot topic back in the late 1960s, when researchers first taught a chimpanzee named Washoe to use sign language. It lost steam once it became clear that while the apes could put together simple statements and requests, they were not prepared to have discussions about their deepest feelings, hopes and dreams. The Great Ape Trust is the only place in America where this kind of research still goes on.

“It was difficult to demonstrate how this was applicable to human welfare,” said Fields. People frequently ask him if the money wouldn’t be better used on cancer research. This is a common question about almost any science not related to deadly diseases, but not a really good one.

You don’t want every scientist in the world working on a cure for cancer. And it’s almost always a mistake to discourage the ones who want to do basic research to push further into unknown territory where their hearts lie. You can’t predict where the next great leap in knowledge will emerge. Conversing with apes is probably at least as useful as the manned space program, and definitely cheaper.

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Bono, Foreign Aid and Skeptics

Published: August 9, 2007

Almost nobody has campaigned so energetically for the poor in Africa as Bono, but when Bono spoke at a conference in Africa recently, he was heckled. Several Africans scolded him for demanding more foreign aid, saying that’s not what Africa needs.

A handful of recent books and studies suggest that aid is sometimes oversold, including the superb new work called “The Bottom Billion,” by Paul Collier, the World Bank’s former research economist (it’s the best nonfiction book so far this year). A forthcoming book, “Farewell to Alms,” by Gregory Clark, a University of California economist, even argues that conventional aid can leave African countries worse off than ever.

And a study by two economists formerly of the I.M.F., Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian, forthcoming in The Review of Economics and Statistics, concludes:

“We find little robust evidence of a positive (or negative) relationship between aid inflows into a country and its economic growth. We also find no evidence that aid works better in better policy or geographical environments, or that certain forms of aid work better than others. Our findings suggest that for aid to be effective in the future, the aid apparatus will have to be rethought.”

So does this mean we should give up on foreign aid?

No, not at all. On the contrary, I believe there is an urgent need for more aid. But this is an important discussion worth having, and the critics (though a minority of the experts) make some fair points. Plus, there’s no doubt that aid can be made more effective.

Just to place this issue in context, consider a family I visited in a malarial jungle in Cambodia. The mother had just died of malaria, so the grandmother was left looking after five children — but she had only one mosquito net that could accommodate three children. So every night the grandmother had to decide which three children to put under the bed net and which to expose to malaria.

I left the grandmother money to buy another net. And since any of us would do the same to a woman in front of us, why shouldn’t we donate a net through a group like

Critics of aid worry that aid can jack up a poor country’s exchange rate and thus undermine local businesses. That’s a legitimate concern, but private aid flows are typically too modest to have an impact.

Another concern is that when aid groups move into a country, they grab all resources — sometimes turning scarce doctors into managers of aid bureaucracies. That’s also a genuine problem.

But this is the 30th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, and it’s worth considering that foreign aid project.

The U.S. invested $32 million over 10 years in the global battle against smallpox. That sum is recouped every two months, simply because Americans no longer need to get vaccinated against smallpox. So that investment has yielded a 46 percent annual return since smallpox was eradicated.

In addition, an estimated 1.5 million people used to die annually of smallpox. So eradication has saved around 45 million lives over the last three decades.

Smallpox was a great success but not a fluke. Among other historical foreign aid successes are immunizations, oral rehydration therapy and the green revolution.

More broadly, when we pay a few hundred dollars for fistula surgery so that a teenage girl no longer will leak urine or feces for the rest of her life, that operation may not stimulate economic growth. But no one who sees such a girl’s happiness after surgery can doubt that such aid is effective, for it truly saves a human being.

Look, it’s true that aid doesn’t always work — any more than other projects do. We spend billions on our military, yet it doesn’t always succeed. But the lesson should be to deploy military power more wisely, not to give up on it.

So how do we make aid smarter? Health and education spending has a pretty good record. Some interventions, like school feedings run by the World Food Program, address both areas: For just 10 cents a day, a child gets a lunch that reduces malnutrition and improves attendance.

And we should commit more aid to nurturing manufacturing and business development, so that countries can grow on their own.

One great U.S. program, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or A.G.O.A., does that and should be expanded. Another excellent U.S. aid program, the Millennium Challenge Account, nudges countries toward better governance — yet a stingy and myopic Congress is balking at funding it.

So let’s accept that getting foreign aid right is harder than it looks — but also remember that 4,110 people didn’t die today from smallpox. Aid can be cause for celebration, not embarrassment.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times; posts for 08 August

Mitt Romney is quickly feeling the heat over this comment at an Iowa campaign event that, while none of his five sons volunteered for military duty, they are aiding the country by “helping me get elected.”

(Rachel Griffiths, who asked the question that prompted the comment, has her recollection of the entire episode at Daily Kos.)

The responses, while predictable, have been pretty amusing: “Mitt Romney, as you’ll recall, avoided combat duty in the rice fields of Vietnam by getting multiple deferments to perform his Mormon mission in the vineyards of France,” writes John Perr, at his Perrspectives blog. “He has deployed his sons to the cornfields of Iowa to aid his campaign. The perfect hair and gleaming teeth of the Romney clan are found on the Five Brothers blog, not with a band of brothers outside of Baquba.”

Chet Scoville at Big Brass Blog was more upset with something else Romney did at the event: saluting a man in uniform. “A salute is something that people in the military give to each other; it represents the bond not only of command but of mutual sacrifice,” insists Scoville. “I would never think of saluting a soldier; it would be presumptuous, disrespectful, and wrong for me to do so. It’s also wrong for Romney to do so.”

Of course, the real Web response we’re all waiting for won’t come from the left, but from the Romney boys themselves on the Five Brothers blog they’ve been writing in service to their father and, apparently, the nation.

Prominent liberal blogger Jerome Armstrong has agreed to pay nearly $30,000 in fines in a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over allegations that Armstrong touted the stock of a software company on Raging Bull, an Internet bulletin board, in 2000, without disclosing that he was being paid to do so.

Armstrong, the co-author of “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics,” with Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, and the founder of the Democratic activist site, consented to a civil penalty of $20,000, plus disgorgement of $5,832, and $3,235 in interest.

Click here to read the S.E.C.’s litigation release on the settlement.

The settlement resolves the S.E.C.’s claims against Armstrong, said Robert Burson of the S.E.C.’s Chicago office.

Under the agreement, Armstrong neither denies nor admits to the allegations.

“It’s good to see the matter finally end,” Armstrong said in an e-mail message to The Opinionator today.

For The Opinionator’s previous coverage of the S.E.C. allegations against Armstrong, see:

Politics As Usual in the Blogosphere

Elite Liberal Bloggers to Themselves: Shhh!

Warner’s Falling Star

The third wheel squeaks: Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution raised a lot of eyebrows last week with their Times Op-Ed article in which they wrote, “we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily ‘victory’ but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.”

Now Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who accompanied O’Hanlon and Pollack in Iraq, has delivered his thoughts on the journey.

“The U.S. now has only uncertain, high risk options in Iraq. It cannot dictate Iraq’s future, only influence it, and this presents serious problems at a time when the Iraqi political process has failed to move forward in reaching either a new consensus or some form of peaceful coexistence,” writes Cordesman, yet “there is still a tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq, and for timing reductions in U.S. forces and aid to Iraqi progress rather than arbitrary dates and uncertain benchmarks.”

Cernig at The Newshoggers feels that while “Cordesman’s report is going to be cast by the mainstream media as cautiously optimistic” anyone who reads it carefully will realize that, “Planning a withdrawal that does not become a rout which would destroy any last vestiges of U.S. prestige should now be a priority.”

Jules Crittenden reads things quite differently: “Another harsh war critic who doesn’t particularly like the situation in Iraq, but likes the Congressional rush to abandonment even less. No wonder Congress was in such a hurry, repeatedly, to pull the rug out from under Petraeus. Political animals must smell something in the wind.”

So does James Joyner at Outside the Beltway:

While less optimistic than the NYT op-ed, the difference is in degree and emphasis rather than substance. Both reports agree that significant progress is being made on the security front and very little movement on the political front. Both agree that precipitous withdrawal would be catastrophic.

Both agree that we could do everything right and still lose. The question remains between choosing least bad options.

Point well taken: but one thing all can probably agree on is we can one receive only so much from the idea of “least bad.”

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With Homer Chase Over, It’s Back to Pennant Races

Luis Castillo after he hit a two-run single with two outs in the seventh to tie Wednesday night’s game.
Photo by Jason Szenes for The New York Times

Published: August 9, 2007

Now that we don’t have to fret about Barry Bonds at the moment — I mean, the next big story should be either retirement or indictment — can we please get back to the business of squirm-inducing pennant races?

The obsession with Bonds’s home runs has obscured the fact that only eight teams will qualify for the postseason, and that Mets fans and Red Sox fans have been sounding a trifle nervous in recent days.

The Mets are still learning to compete with their longtime nemesis from Atlanta. Last night at steamy Shea Stadium, they tied the current series with a 4-3 victory, on Moises Alou’s emphatic homer in the eighth, before Billy Wagner pitched out of all the trouble he had created for himself.

Meanwhile, destiny’s darlings from the Bronx have inserted themselves back into contention, producing a tectonic grinding between the twin needs of Yankees fans to blame Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, and at the same time exult in their team being the hottest one in baseball.

It was fun to hear a Yankees fan calling into WFAN on Tuesday night to note that the Yankees had won as many games as the Mets, 63, before last night. This behavior could definitely be construed as taunting.

After hearing about the inauspicious first rehabilitation start by Pedro Martínez in Florida — three innings, five runs — fans may have to deal with the reality that Petey is not likely to be a factor down the stretch, that this is not last year, and that one of these days the Mets are going to have to learn to beat the Braves.

The Braves were only three and a half games behind going into last night. Manager Willie Randolph had said that a victory was “very important,” so the Mets would have a chance to win a series against the Braves, which they have failed to accomplish this year. And then there are the Phillies, who pulled a half game ahead of the Braves with last night’s victory.

“There are three very good teams in this division,” David Wright said. “The Braves are standing in our way.” Wright added, “although I’ll say the same thing about the Phillies when we meet them.

“The Braves are a great team,” Wright continued. “It’s up to us to prove we can beat them consistently. We just haven’t done that yet this year.”

Even though the Mets beat out the Braves last season, the Braves have improved themselves by trading for Mark Teixeira at the end of July, when most of us were trying to stay awake on Pacific Coast time.

It’s not as if the Mets, the Yankees and the Red Sox are the only teams in baseball — although that is a reasonable conclusion by this East Coast early bird. If there is one thing I have learned from the recent fascination with the slugger-who-cannot-be-named, it is that baseball continues at strange hours in western outposts, long after I have fallen asleep following David Letterman’s opening monologue.

Tracking Mr. 756 has led to learning more about teams — like the Dodgers, the Giants and the Padres — that play in a distant time zone. This is a very big country. I remember a Los Angeles basketball writer once telling me that East Coast types favored Larry Bird over Magic Johnson because they saw Bird far more often than they saw Magic. Fair enough. Lately we have been getting a refresher course in baseball players named Loney, Kouzmanoff and Lewis out on the Far Coast.

At the same time, the Yankees have revived, shucking off a few older players and bringing up younger talent. Why, it almost looks as if Cashman planned it that way. While the nation’s lonely eyes were turned to the aging monument by the bay, the Yankees brought up a young slugger named Shelley Duncan and a young relief pitcher named Joba Chamberlain.

My favorite Yankees fan (he knows who he is) has been fearful that the Yankees would not qualify for the postseason, but Tuesday night they unveiled their latest phenom, Chamberlain, who is of American Indian heritage. My friend is already seeing Chamberlain as the reincarnation of the so-called Big Chief, Allie Reynolds, a name that still frightens old Brooklyn fans like me. Other Yankees fans are proclaiming Chamberlain as the next Mariano Rivera.

My favorite Red Sox fan (she knows who she is) announced the other day that the Sox were “only” seven games up on the Yankees. I chided her for sounding like a Yankees fan, always worried. No, she said, Yankees fans expect to win.

The Yankees were flying under the radar, at least until Tuesday, when Toronto threw at Alex Rodriguez for past sins and then old Roger Clemens saved his retaliation until he was just about done anyway. He would take any punishment, proudly. It’s August and there are pennant races, some of them getting tighter and, with that home run thing settled, we can now enjoy them.


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Last of a Kind Has Some Words for Woods

Published: August 9, 2007

Tulsa, Okla.

He’s the last of a rare breed, the last of the old pros from the Hogan-Snead era, and the last of the golf philosophers to tell it like it really is. Still, Jack Burke Jr., with wavy silver hair and a boyish face at 84, couldn’t understand why he was named to receive the P.G.A. Distinguished Service Award last night on the eve of the 89th P.G.A. Championship at Southern Hills.

“I’ve never given service to anybody,” he said. “To me, service is a military term.”

That’s understandable. Burke served in the Marines before he won the Masters and the P.G.A. Championship in 1956, but as the owner of Champions Golf Club outside Houston for nearly half a century, he has served both golf and golfers. And at Tuesday night’s champions dinner, he served notice that Tiger Woods still had a way to go just to tie Jack Nicklaus.

“I told Tiger, ‘When you have four more kids, tell me,’ ” Burke said, alluding to the recent birth of Woods’s daughter. “To tie Jack, he needs six more majors and four more kids. Jack was a magical person, winning those 18 majors between running around to all his kids’ games.”

In an hour’s conversation yesterday involving a scattering of firm opinions, Burke remembered how Ben Hogan predicted 20 years ago how a “big man with the touch of a violinist” would someday dominate golf. At 6 feet 1 inch and a ripped 185 pounds, Woods has emerged as that big man, winning two P.G.A. Championships and 12 majors at age 31, but Burke sees flaws.

“He doesn’t stay down in his swing; he comes out of it,” Burke said, referring to Woods’s occasional wide-right tee shots. “He doesn’t think his Ryder Cup record will be on his gravestone.”

Yes, the Ryder Cup, another burr under Burke’s saddle. He was a two-time Ryder Cup captain with a 1-1 record, and in 2004 at Oakland Hills outside Detroit, he was Hal Sutton’s assistant as the Europeans routed the Americans, 18 ½-9 ½. Including last year’s victory in Ireland, the Europeans have won five of the last six matches. Woods’s record is 10-13-2.

“The Europeans have a certain recklessness about them now, a feeling of entitlement,” Burke said. “And when you get the commerce side away from the art side, you’re going to get beat.”

To Burke, golf is an art, and all the commerce — the various dinners and functions early in Ryder Cup week — detract from the job at hand for the Americans. He remembered his first Ryder Cup match in 1951, an alternate-shot duel with his partner, Clayton Heafner.

“Heafner was the meanest man in golf; he hated people who could putt,” Burke recalled. “I made a big putt early, and he growled, ‘You knew you could make that putt.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m on your side.’ ”

Burke’s secret to success, and to serenity, is that “I’ve never worked for anybody.” As a touring pro, he was on his own, and he’s been on his own ever since. Long before the Champions Tour was a haven for golfers 50 or older, he and his mentor, the three-time Masters winner Jimmy Demaret, built Champions Golf Club, where Orville Moody was the surprise winner of the 1969 United States Open.

“I’m the president of both the club and the pro shop,” he said. “I’ve got 133 employees. And that word owner — that’s ‘owe’ before the ‘ner.’ ”

He’s not the club pro at Champions, where you need a handicap of 15 or lower to be a member, but touring pros often stop by for his inspection.

“Guys can’t fix themselves, it’s constant change,” he said. “One guy told me he was working on a power fade and I said, ‘What’s that, a sports drink?’ Years ago, John Revolta, Toney Penna, Tommy Armour, if they were on the range, you’d say, ‘Come over here and watch me.’ If a guy was your friend, you’d watch him. One time Hogan asked me: ‘Why are you helping that guy? We’ve got enough guys that can play.’ ”

With Burke, as with any golf professor, the swing is the thing.

“There’s a swing in you,” he said, “but you’ve got to get it out of you. You can have golf thoughts — timing, balance, aim — but you can’t go out there with a manual: what page is this shot on? And one guy said to me, ‘What would Hogan do here?’ and I told him, ‘Before we get to Hogan, let’s stop toppin’ it.’ ”

Even at 84, he’s not about to stop teaching.

“Retire?” he said. “I know one guy who retired, he used to be the head of an oil company. He tells me that screwdrivers are on sale at Home Depot. He has to go make his wife a chair. No thanks.”

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Moment of Stray Voltage, and a Life Upended

Philip Vanaria suffered a brain injury when he was shocked by stray voltage
as he talked on this pay phone in the West Village a decade ago.

Published: August 8, 2007

It was one of the muggiest days of the summer a decade ago. Philip Vanaria had gone for a walk in Greenwich Village, where he had lived most of his adult life. A friend wanted ideas for his birthday, which was coming up. At the corner of Hudson and Morton Streets, he called her from a pay phone.

“Hello,” she said.

Something jolted Mr. Vanaria’s elbow. Then it shot into his arm. Waves of pain ran along his arm. He nested the phone on his left shoulder, cranked his ear down.

“I said, ‘I think I’m having a heart attack,’ ” he recalled this week.

He was just about to turn 47, the hour of life when the body becomes a permanent suspect in acts of treachery. To calm himself, Mr. Vanaria reached for one of the posts next to the phone, and gripped it. He screamed. Someone was shooting him dead, a machine gun, it was the tail end of an era of drive-by killings, he was being riddled with bullets. He looked into the street to see his murderers.

No car. No gunmen. No one.

Then he realized that he could not let go of the post. Panic and pain ripped through his body. His arm fought with his fingers, which were locked onto the post by an invisible force. He unclenched his grip and pulled away.

A man stood nearby. “What’s happening?” he asked Mr. Vanaria.

“You don’t understand,” Mr. Vanaria said. “I was being electrocuted.”

In a daze, Mr. Vanaria walked away. Who do you tell? The police? The Fire Department? He walked to the firehouse of Engine 18 on 10th Street, spoke to a battalion chief, who brought a crew to the corner. Someone touched the phone with a metal tool, and it sparked. The firefighters cordoned the intersection and called Con Edison. The electricity was measured at 90 volts.

The fire chief urged Mr. Vanaria to go to the hospital. Instead, he wandered up to St. Francis Xavier church on West 16th Street. Later, he went to St. Vincent’s. They asked him his date of birth. It took him a while to come up with it.

He had, he learned, suffered a brain injury. He had literally been fried.

“Those first five years were really, really dark,” Mr. Vanaria said. “I wouldn’t call it attention deficit. It was a collision of thoughts, like a car crash.”

He had to give up his job teaching third graders at a parochial school. He stopped dancing in clubs. He used to draw, but felt that his sense of shape and color had seeped away.

He sued Con Edison, which, it turned out, had installed a high-voltage vault beneath the pay phone at Hudson and Morton Streets. The utility had put a pump in the vault to clear water out; the pump burned out, but because it was not equipped with a circuit breaker or a fuse, electricity passed to the pump, then to a drain pipe, a metal grate, up to the telephone and into Philip Vanaria’s body and brain.

There was no question that Con Edison had been negligent, a judge found; only the amount of damages was at issue. The jury awarded Mr. Vanaria $1.9 million. The circuit breaker would have been a few dollars.

HE watched, as the years went by, the outcry when a carriage horse was killed after stepping on a charged manhole. Dogs hopped over electrical hot spots on the street. Jodie S. Lane, walking her dogs in the East Village, was killed in January 2004 when she stepped on a metal service box that had not been properly insulated.

Mr. Vanaria testified at hearings on the dangers of badly maintained utility wires. Some people used the term “stray voltage,” but then engineers would say there is no such thing: Electricity does not escape from a properly maintained system.

After Ms. Lane’s death, Con Edison pledged to spend millions of dollars to find spots where electricity was leaking. Yesterday, people injured in the steam pipe explosion last month said they intended to sue the utility.

Mr. Vanaria lives alone, writes fluid letters in perfect penmanship, and steps carefully through his days. “Ten years this month. I’m better. My attention skates at times,” he said. “I don’t read books, but I still buy them like crazy.”

He has not returned to work. Occasionally, he goes to a club on Sheridan Square. “My doctor says dancing is the No. 1 activity to combat Alzheimer’s,” he said.

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Bonds Leaves Lasting Mark With No. 756 (*)

(The * is mine, not George Vecsey's)

Published: August 8, 2007

It’s his record. Barry Bonds earned it with 756 disciplined swings. Let’s give him a pass the way a thousand pitchers did. For one day, let’s call a truce, the way the generals did in ancient Greece when athletes were headed to Olympia.

Now he can celebrate the awesome feat of breaking Henry Aaron’s career record with his 756th home run, off Mike Bacsik of Washington last night, in front of his family and supportive fans, with a gracious taped congratulation from Aaron on the message board. It was his night.

Nobody — and certainly not some chemist in a white smock — swung the bat for Bonds against objects moving 80 or 90 or 100 miles an hour. He had to do that himself, with the superb reflexes he had as a cocky stripling, and the craft he acquired as a smug and enlarged elder.

No matter what anybody thinks about Bonds as a person, he walked out to home plate with a bat in his hand and some new-wave padding on his arms, and goodness knows what in his system, and he propelled baseballs into the briny deep.

It’s his record. What is baseball going to do, come up with some magic formula to pare down his home run totals? They are all his, every one of them. Victor Conte of notorious Balco didn’t hit them. Greg Anderson, the trainer guarding Bonds’s secrets in a California jail, didn’t hit them. The people who made money off Bonds and the union officials who blocked testing didn’t hit the home runs. Barry Bonds hit them, all 756 of them.

He did not do it with some wild Gorman Thomas-Rob Deer swing-from-your-butt, do-or-die lunge, but with the measured, disciplined stroke of a martial-arts master. He was self-contained. He knew what he was doing. He didn’t go out and get the ball with the jazz-improvisation genius of Yogi Berra (off his shoe tops) or Roberto Clemente (up around his eyebrows). He hypnotized the pitcher. He slowed down time.

Never mind the comparisons to Aaron or Babe Ruth. Bonds set this record with the latter-day arrogance and patience of Ted Williams: My pitches come to me. If you start giving the pitchers an eighth of an inch off the plate, those devious so-and-sos will start taking a quarter of an inch, and you can’t have that.

What a swing. I was reminded of his purposefulness in 2002, when Bonds played in his first World Series. Every time No. 25 came to the plate, like a lion tamer or a horse whisperer, he would concentrate on the essentials. No waving the bat over his head, no flexing, no strutting. Just a short stroke. Look into my eyes.

Seated in the far reaches of auxiliary press boxes, where they stick the likes of me in the postseason, I couldn’t take my eyes off that stroke. Even from deep right field or deep left field, he looked like a master carpenter hammering on expensive wood — thwack, thwack, thwack — no dents, no deviations.

Often the star of a World Series is a decent player who gets hot at the right time, but Bonds dominated that Series as few superstars ever have: seven games, 8 for 17, six runs batted in, three strikeouts and four home runs. He would have hit more, except that the Angels walked him 13 times, 7 of them intentionally.

Pitchers are still working around him, even though his body has thickened and stiffened at 43. He looks nothing like the smart-aleck kid, the son of Bobby Bonds, the godson of Willie Mays, indoctrinated early that the world was against him, carrying that chip of insolence into the Pittsburgh clubhouse, where he challenged Jim Leyland, one of the square shooters. Teammates would roll their eyes, but the kid could play. Then he moved on to his destiny in San Francisco.

The book “Game of Shadows,” by the San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, pretty much describes what a cold, manipulative person Bonds is. The book suggests he committed perjury to a grand jury and perhaps also failed to report cash income from collectible shows. It describes his relationship to Balco, before baseball and the union were finally shamed into accepting testing.

So far the tests have caught mostly fringe guys trying to earn that million-dollar season that will provide for their families. A lot of the positive tests were by pitchers trying to buy some muscle on their fastball. How many of the 756 home run pitchers were juiced? You think Barry Bonds was picking on innocents?

The Giants’ front office painted itself into a corner, using its stash to retain Bonds, and the old man has been laboring in recent weeks. He’s hardly the player who dominated nearly two decades, a first-ballot Hall of Fame no-brainer, no matter what he used.

He will never outdistance all the footnotes and asterisks and doubts and suspicions in our minds, but Barry Bonds hit those homers, all 756 of them. It’s his record.


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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin harshaw and Chris Suellentrop

Hillary ClintonJohn Gress/Reuters

Hillary Clinton, Neocon? The blogosphere is atwitter today with the quote in the Washington Post from Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, that “Hillary Clinton is becoming the responsible Democrat who could become commander in chief in a post-9/11 world.”

Bruce Bartlett, filling in for Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic Online, weighs in: “Now, I think Bill is completely wrong about the war — I’d pull out of Iraq today if it were possible — but he’s a pretty smart political handicapper,” he writes. “So if he’s saying nice things about Hillary it is because he has come to the same conclusion I have about the inevitability of a Democratic victory.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez at The Corner suspects something more Machiavellian: “He obviously figures his endorsement will kill Hillary 2008, making way for a weaker candidate for the Dems, giving the election to any Republican who just doesn’t screw it all up.”

Back in the real world, Bartlett’s compatriot Matthew Iglesias, sees this as being less about political gamesmanship than ideology: “One can try to speculate that Kristol is playing some odd angles here, but I think the record indicates that he’s genuinely more committed to war — criticized Republican critics of the Kosovo War, criticized Bill Clinton for not killing enough people during the Kosovo War, backed John McCain in the 2000 primaries — and based on the evidence thinks Clinton will be more sympathetic to his agenda than the alternatives.”

Further to the left, however, the approval of the Weekly Standard isn’t considered a mark of distinction. Arthur Silber at Once Upon a Time feels a Democrat will be considered “responsible” only “if you think the United States should still have troops in Iraq at the end of your second term as president, which is to say, at least through the end of 2016 — which is, of course, the view of the entrenched foreign policy establishment that believes in a foreign policy of aggressive, neverending global interventionism maintained by an empire of military bases around the world, all to guarantee American hegemony.”

Those on the center-right might laugh at the rhetoric, but it remains to be seen whether scary tales of a thirst for global domination will get serious attention in the Democratic primaries. Let’s just say that we shouldn’t expect to see Kristol’s endorsement prominently displayed on Hillary’s Web site any time soon.


Walking does more than driving to cause global warming, a leading environmentalist has calculated,” according to The Times of London. The article, reporting the claims of Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life,” continues:

Food production is now so energy-intensive that more carbon is emitted providing a person with enough calories to walk to the shops than a car would emit over the same distance. The climate could benefit if people avoided exercise, ate less and became couch potatoes. Provided, of course, they remembered to switch off the TV rather than leaving it on standby.

With such paradoxical findings coming out regularly, Charles Signorile at Constitutionally Right feels “it is difficult to have an intellectual conversation with anyone regarding global warming“:

There are so many “facts” out there, all of them in direct conflict with each other, only a fool would buy into one theory and argue it as if it were undeniable. The study cited in this article will have you believe that the only way to save the world is to stay in your home with the lights off, only eat vegetables you grew in your backyard, and avoid buying anything which needed to be transported to you.


According to NPR’s Weekend Edition, “the newest status symbol for the nation’s most affluent families is fast becoming a big brood of kids.”

While some sneeringly refer to the trend as “competitive birthing,” Ronald Bailey at Reason is thinking of the bigger population picture:

It’s interesting to contemplate what this trend might portend for the future of population growth. Generally, demographers have assumed that fertility rates will continue to decline as more of the planet’s people become wealthier. Falling fertility would mean that world population could follow the trajectory of the U.N.’s low variant population projection which would result in a total population of about 5.5 billion in 2100. That’s 1 billon fewer than the world’s current population. Now consider the case in which the U.S. economy grows by 3 percent per year until 2100. Assuming a population of 400 million, that would mean that average incomes would be over $500,000 per year in real dollars. The demographic inflexion point for more kids is around $250,000 per year. Could we be looking at a new baby boom after 2050?

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Floyd Norris: Notions on High and Low Finance

The closely watched criminal trial of Gregory Reyes, the former chief executive of Brocade Communications ended in a conviction today. He was accused of backdating option grants.

Mr. Reyes’ defense was a classic. His lawyers did not argue that he did not do it. Instead, they argued that lots of people in the company knew it was going on, and that the government had not proved that Mr. Reyes understood options accounting rules. If he did not know what he was doing was wrong, then there could be no crime.

The judge had put off a ruling on whether to dismiss the case, and some thought he had bought the argument. But today he said he had rejected the dismissal motion.

Mr. Reyes’ defense might have had a better chance if he had not denied backdating when questioned by company investigators. And he was hurt when an employee quoted him as saying “It’s not illegal if you don’t get caught.”

The basic CEO defense of “I was too important to worry about accounting details” would have become very popular if it had worked.


A staple of journalism is the noble local business arrayed against the evil national chain. In the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, we learn that Johnny’s Pizza is facing competition from Papa John’s, a chain, and has responded with a petition drive against the chain.

The last paragraph of the article in today’s Times, we learn, from a friendly competitor just how the local Pizza competition was handled, pre-Papa John’s.

“If we get short on cheese or tomatoes, we go to him or he comes to us,” said Gino Campese, the owner of Scotti’s Pizza. “When it’s time to raise prices, we get together. There’s room for everybody. But not for Papa John’s.”

For now, the proprietor of Johhny’s says he won’t be raising the cost of a slice, even though cheese prices are up.

Tomorrow the government will report on productivity figures for the United States. They have not been rising very rapidly of late, adding to economic concerns.

The Times’ coverage of Tom Glavine’s 300th win includes a graphic giving the career records of the 23 pitchers who have won that many games. I got out my spreadsheet and went to work. How, I wondered, has the productivity of pitchers changed?

I ranked those 23 elite pitchers on games started per season, which ignores relief appearances, and on innings pitched per season. By either measure, pitchers worked a lot harder in the 19th century.

All seven who started their careers before 1900 averaged at least 37 starts and 300 innings per season. None of the players who started in the 20th century could match either statistic. Broadly speaking, the number of starts per season by elite pitchers does not seem to have changed much since World War II.

The Iron Man award goes to Charley Radbourn, who managed to win 309 games in just 11 seasons from 1881 to 1891. He averaged almost 46 starts per season, and had a few relief appearances as well.

In his best year, 1884, his record was 59-12, with a 1.38 earned run average. According to his Major League baseball statistics page, he started 73 games that year, and completed every one of them. (That he ended up with only 71 decisions is a fact I cannot explain. Were there two ties?) He also had 2 relief appearances, and appeared in 12 games in which he did not pitch.

Of course, he only lasted 11 seasons — 12 counting his first season, when he did not pitch — retiring at the age of 36. Most of the great 19th century pitchers had relatively short careers, so maybe the current fad of pitch counting really does prolong careers, even if it does mean pitchers pitch less per game now than they used to do.

Cy Young, on the other hand, won 511 games over 22 seasons, starting in 1890. He averaged 37 starts (and 4 relied appearances) per year and won more than 30 games five times.

Thanks to relief appearances, he, Radbourn and Kid Nichols (1890-1906) each averaged more than nine innings per start.

By one measure, it is clear that we ask less of elite pitchers now than ever before. In terms of innings pitched per start, the three lowest figures among 300 game winners belong to the three active pitchers on the list. Glavine has 6.5, while Greg Maddux is at 6.8 and Roger Clemens has 7.0.

Okay, so they put in less effort, on average, per game. And they still get 300 wins. On average, Glavine has gained one win per every 14.3 innings pitched, which puts him in the top half of the 300-game winners — and a little ahead of Cy Young himself.

So remember that rising productivity means getting more output for less input. So if we define productivity as more wins per amount of effort, then pitchers today are as productive as ever.


My column today uses a quote from “Lombard Street” by Walter Bagehot: “Every banker knows that if he has to prove that he is worthy of credit, however good may be his arguments, in fact his credit is gone.”

A reader, Ben Mealey, points out that the end of the paragraph in which that sentence appears is also worth recalling: “Those who live under a great and firm system of credit must consider that if they break up that one they will never see another, for it will take years upon years to make a successor to it.” (That quote is on page 69 of my copy of Lombard Street [the 1999 Wiley edition], or you can read it in context here).

Worries about our “great and firm system of credit” are going to be used to put pressure on the Fed to stop worrying about inflation and start easing. Greg Valliere of the Stanford Group has this to say about the opinions of Lyle Gramley, a former Fed governor who is now an adviser to that group:

“Gramley thinks the Fed may have to send a signal that it stands ready to inject liquidity into the reeling mortgage market. And he thinks the chances of recession have risen so sharply – possibly as high as 45% – that a bias toward ease and an eventual rate cut can’t be ruled out this fall if the housing market doesn’t stabilize.”

When I called Mr. Gramley, I got a voicemail message saying he was out of the country and not picking up messages. So I have not talked to him.

It may be worth noting that Mr. Gramley is also a director of IndyMac Bancorp, a big mortgage lender that disclosed yesterday it will scale back lending because nobody wants to buy mortgage securities anymore, at least unless they come with a federal guarantee.

In my column, I note that Countrywide Credit tried to reassure investors of its credit last night. Today Bear Stearns did the same. Both stocks are down today, for reasons easily explained by the Bagehot quotation above.

During Bear’s conference call, Samuel Molinaro Jr., Bear’s chief financial officer, had this to say: “I’ve been at this for 22 years, and this is about as bad as I have seen it in the fixed income market.”

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Freakonomics: a (new) blog at the New York Times by Steven J. Drubner and Steven D. Levitt

(Note: all of the posts to this blog to date are reposted in this single post.)

After two and a half years of camping out at, after more than 1,300 posts and many thousands of reader comments, this blog is moving. From now on, we will reside here at If you are a new reader, welcome. If you are an old reader, know that you can still get here via our old URL, Whoever you are, thanks for stopping by. Starting now, there is also a separate — and revivified — website for our book, replete with excerpts, FAQ’s, reviews, and a gallery of international covers.

We are excited and flattered to be migrating to the Times — especially because I used to work as an editor and writer at the Times Magazine, and also because Freakonomics began as a Magazine profile I wrote about Levitt. For the past two years, we have also been writing a regular column for the Magazine, which is now freely available here. But don’t worry about homer-ism; because we are housed in the Opinion section, we can still poke fun at the Times when warranted, and we can still say nice things about blood rivals like the Wall Street Journal.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that we recently brought in a site editor, Melissa Lafsky, who’s been doing a great job. She makes sure all ourr typoes get fixxed, and helps curate the sort of content that makes sense for a blog like ours: reader-generated Q&A’s like this one and this one and this one, and Freakonomics Quorum discussions like this one about saving the African rhino.

You will see a number of other new features in the right column of the blog, including (finally!) a proper (sort of) blogroll, a streamlined “FREAK-est Links,” the old “Naked Self-Promotion” box, a new feature called “Stuff We Weren’t Paid to Endorse,” and even a video player, “FREAK-TV.” (Take a look at the inaugural video to see Levitt explain the value of blogging.) And yes, we will still be giving stuff away.

Hopefully you will find most of the changes for the better. If not, I am sure you will let us know: your suggestions and ideas are always welcome, via the contact information in the “About the Authors” box at top right. For those of you who read this blog via RSS, you will find that there is no longer a full feed, but rather a partial feed.

There’s another change you may notice right away: the protocol for commenting. We have written before about the science of commenting, and noted recently that certain posts receive a lot of comments.

The good news is that you no longer have to register with Wordpress to comment, a barrier that many of you disliked.

The bad news is that you have to conduct yourself in a relatively civil manner, according to these Times guidelines, and that all comments will be moderated.

Transgression of these guidelines is punishable by death, or by having your comment discarded, whichever comes first.

For the next several hours, while this blog undergoes some rehabilitation — no, not that kind of rehabilitation; we are fine, thanks — comments will be shut down. If all goes well, this condition won’t last past nightfall (in New York)..

The 2005 Hurricane season was the most active and destructive in recorded history. The devastation from hurricanes like Katrina, Rita, and Wilma was powerful evidence that man-made global warming had triggered an onslaught of unforeseen consequences — at least, that was the way the media tended to portray it. Maybe I am wrong, but I think the current focus on global warming in this country would be much weaker had those hurricanes not hit landfall, or had they hit Mexico instead of the U.S.

The scientific community, however, never argued a strong link between global warming and hurricanes. Read more …

We got an e-mail the other day from a certain Sara in Chicago. She had a question about the virtual world Second Life, but it could be asked of many pursuits, virtual and otherwise. (Even though I’ve never visited Second Life, I have been thinking about this issue lately since I have become a gold farmer for my own kids, on Webkinz — although frankly, they are better than me at earning KinzCash.)

I like Sara’s question because, on some dimensions, the answer/s may seen obvious Read more …

If all goes as planned, I will be appearing on Good Morning America tomorrow (Wed., 8/8 — lucky in China!) at about 8:30 a.m. EDT to talk about this very blog, and to announce a fairly significant change.

Hope to see you there.

As one result of this change, comments on the blog will be temporarily suspended today, starting in early afternoon. Comments will return in short order.

On August 7, 1987, Lynne Cox swam the Bering Strait; no word on whether she was then asked to submit a urine test.

We recently solicited your questions about street gangs for Sudhir Venkatesh, the then-grad student we wrote about in Freakonomics who is now a professor of sociology at Columbia. His answers are, IMHO, fascinating. Your questions were really good, too; thanks. Venkatesh will publish a book, Gang Leader for a Day, in early 2008.

Q: Do you think the HBO series The Wire gives an accurate portrayal of gang life? It is clear from the show (if it is as real as it seems) that traditional policing strategies are very ineffective.

A: I am a huge fan of The Wire. I actually watched Season Two with a group of high ranking gang leaders/drug dealers in Chicago, who desperately wished that the series producers would make a separate show about Chicago! Read more …

A few months ago, I attended yet another blasé Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. This time, at least something good came of it. I met a guy named Weber Hsu, one of two young Merrill Lynch employees who left finance to start a yo-yo company, Yo-Yo Nation. Read more …

I grew up just a few miles from the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis. We were a family that was terrified of heights. At least once a month, my father would mention how he thought a bridge over the Mississippi was going to collapse. We would be calling him Nostradamus today, except that his doomsday prediction was about a different bridge (the old Lake Street Bridge, for those who know the Twin Cities). In fact, when officials tried to demolish the Lake Street Bridge to make way for a new one, the first round of explosives proved inadequate — they had to bring in a second round to bring it down. So that bridge proved sturdy, despite my father’s premonitions.

But what, if anything, can we learn from the recent bridge collapse? Read more …

On August 6th, 1941, the U.S. government imposed a nightly curfew on gas stations to reduce fuel use in anticipation of entering World War II. By the way, oil sold at the time for an inflation-adjusted $12.75 a barrel.

Who will give up Barry Bonds’s 756th home run?

The first person who correctly identifies the pitcher who winds up surrendering Bonds’s record-breaker will get a signed copy of Freakonomics.

One guess per comment, please.

And a related question: for all the talk about not wanting to be the pitcher who gives up Bonds’s 756th, would it really be such a terrible thing? Read more …

Organ donation is heading from a bogus reality show to the big screen: An A.P. article reports that Paris Hilton has landed a role in the movie Repo! The Genetic Opera, a so-called “horror rock” musical that’s “set in a plague-ravaged future where people can purchase new organs on the installment plan from a corporation called Geneco.” Hilton will play the “fame-seeking daughter of Geneco’s owner,” played by Paul Sorvino. Read more …

Not long ago, we took our kids to Hershey Park in Hershey, Pa. We stayed at the Hershey Lodge, which is an official Hershey Park hotel.

My 5-year-old daughter, Anya, had heard from a schoolmate that Hershey Lodge gave away free Hershey bars — big ones — whenever you wanted and as many as you wanted. My wife and I were pretty sure that this was 5-year-old wishful gossip — but, lo and behold, we were handed four candy bars when we checked in, and when Anya went back to the registration desk five minutes later and asked for another couple of candy bars, they obliged.

As you can imagine, acquiring free candy bars soon became the favorite and most common activity of our stay. Read more …

Yesterday I wrote a nondescript post on books that knock God.

It got more than 100 comments in a day — about as many as we have ever gotten on any post where we weren’t giving something away.

Now I know who buys these books: the same people who read this blog.

A few days ago, we solicited your questions for hedge fund manager Neil Barsky. As always, your questions were terrific, and so are Barsky’s answers, below.

One thing that surprised me, however, is that nobody asked Barsky, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, what he thinks about Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Journal (and the rest of Dow Jones). This is probably a good indicator that journalists care a lot about the business of journalism — look at the thousands of column inches the Times and the Journal itself have devoted to the deal — but that nobody else really does.

Anyway, since I cared, I asked Barsky, and you’ll find his reply at the end of this hedge-fund Q&A. Read more …

On August 3, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell succeeded in making the world’s first coherent telephone call. Little did he know that, less than 150 years later, more than a billion people worldwide would be surfing the Internet on phone lines and broadband.

Via the Chicago Sun-Times: A University of Chicago and Yale-New Haven Hospital survey of 1,260 doctors found that those who considered themselves atheist or agnostic were just as likely to provide care for patients with little or no health insurance than those who were religious — a departure from studies finding that religious people are more charitable towards the poor. Though with religion currently taking hits in the publishing world, perhaps belief in God isn’t what it used to be. Read more …

A little more than a year ago I blogged about how every third book had the word “bullshit” in its title. Happily, that trend faded. I could only find two books on Amazon released in the last year with “bullshit” in the title.

Now, it seems that going after God is the hip thing to do. Daniel Dennett started the stampede with Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins followed with the best-seller The God Delusion. Then came God the Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stanger and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Read more …

Tyler Cowen is giving away 15 copies of his new book, with a clever twist: you have to write in to Tyler on his Marginal Revolution blog and explain why you want his book, and why you want it for free.

Hurry! As I type this, Tyler already has 55 comments in one hour.

While he is a generous man, Tyler is also no dummy: sending out all those books to his lucky readers will also surely raise his book’s Amazon ranking. FWIW, here’s an earlier glance at his book.

There’s a new news aggregator in town, called, and from the quick look I gave it this morning, it immediately looks like one of the best I’ve seen. It summarizes the major news stories in a good paragraph or two, then provides prominent links to the major newspapers and wire services that did the original reporting, which makes the aggregating feel less parasitic and more … well … aggregating. Here, on, is a brief story behind the Newser creators.

(Hat tip: Jim Romenesko.)

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