Saturday, August 25, 2007

Jammin’ With Gabriel

Published: August 25, 2007

They were rambunctious geniuses — Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach — the nucleus of a group of immensely talented musicians who engineered a revolution in jazz as wondrous and profound as the birth of Cubism in painting.

Max was a tall, skinny kid who had grown up in Brooklyn and was so gifted a percussionist by his early 20s that Dizzy would express the mock fear that the angel Gabriel (the only trumpeter who could rival Dizzy at the time) might try to steal Max to play drums in some heavenly band.

He warned Max to stay put if Gabriel came to call.

I imagine they’re all jammin’ with Gabriel now. Max, the last survivor of that rowdy crew that created bebop, the stunningly complex and sophisticated music that ignited modern jazz, was buried yesterday. My great fear is that the music, underappreciated and poorly understood, is dying, too.

Max had an easy surface personality, which belied the torments he had to fight through as he adhered obsessively to the highest artistic standards, and the lifelong resentment he felt about the way the music was treated.

Elegant, husky-voiced and quick to smile, he was full of stories about the titans of jazz. I remember him chuckling one afternoon as he pointed to an elaborately carved straight-backed chair in his apartment on Central Park West. He was telling a story about Charlie Parker that went back to the 1940s.

Bird, peerless on the saxophone, was not only addicted to heroin, he was also phenomenally charismatic. His personal habits were as closely imitated by other musicians as his music.

“The guys would flop at my house in Brooklyn,” Max said. “My mother did day work, so we’d be there by ourselves all day. Now Bird was clever. He knew my mother was very religious and as soon as he’d hear her putting that key in the door, he’d pick up the Bible, jump in that chair and pretend he was reading it.

“My mother would say to me, ‘Why can’t you be like that nice Charlie Parker?’ I’d say to myself, ‘That’s my problem.’ ”

Like so many others in Bird’s orbit, Max became addicted, too. Bird would die at 34 from the effects of heroin addiction and alcoholism. Max was able to kick his habit. He then advanced the triumph of bebop with the creation of a stunning new sound — dubbed “hard bop” — that emerged from his alliance with the trumpeter Clifford Brown.

By the mid-’50s, Max was standing atop a pinnacle. Compulsively creative and an absolute virtuoso, he had almost single-handedly dragged the drums out of the shadows and demonstrated that they were much more than a mechanism to keep time for the rest of the band. They could be the expressive equal of any of the other instruments in the jazz repertoire.

And he was the co-leader, with Brown, of a phenomenal quintet that was recognized by critics and fans alike as a genuine artistic achievement. Brown, a modest, soft-spoken young man with a warm and powerful sound, was being hailed as the most talented trumpet player to emerge since Gillespie.

“Oh, man, he was something else,” Max said. “He was going to set the world on fire.”

The quintet was booked to play a gig in Chicago in the early summer of 1956. Brown, who was 25, and the band’s pianist, Richie Powell (Bud Powell’s younger brother), were to drive from Philadelphia to Chicago to meet Max and the rest of the band there.

Not long after midnight on June 26 the car in which they were traveling, driven by Powell’s wife, Nancy, careened off the rain-swept Pennsylvania Turnpike and plunged down an embankment. All three occupants died.

Max went into a tailspin. He drank heavily and sank into a depression.

But there was always the music, his recovery mechanism, and it was always fresh and inventive. “His artistic integrity was always intact and operating at a high pitch,” said Shannon Gibbons, a singer who was close to Max for many years.

Jazz no longer commands the attention it once did, and many of its greatest practitioners have slipped into the realm of the forgotten. (Your average person has never heard of Clifford Brown.)

Once when I was talking with Max in his living room, I noticed that his gaze had shifted to a spot over my shoulder, and there was an odd look in his eyes. Behind me, over the sofa, was a large photo of Max with Bird and Diz, Bud Powell and the bassist Charles Mingus.

Dizzy had only recently died. Remembering when they had all been young and wild and great together, Max said, “Damn, now all of those cats are gone.”

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Two New Deaths, Same Old Questions

Published: August 25, 2007

In a partnership with the State of New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s government owns a ruined, contaminated skyscraper at 130 Liberty Street, across from the World Trade Center site. The building appears to have been a howling firetrap, the kind for which private owners would be indicted in days. Last week it killed two men, Firefighters Robert Beddia, 53, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33.

Mr. Bloomberg and his partner, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, preached at the funerals that they would find out what their own governments had done.

Here is a short list: They hired what appeared to be a shell corporation to demolish the building. This company plugged stairwells with plywood to keep asbestos from flying around. Workers clipped sprinkler lines. Someone cut a standpipe, a dry water main that is reserved for delivering water during fires.

On many floors, the workers left a carpet knife and a flashlight by plywood doors that led to the stairways. Because the doors were draped with sheets of plastic, the knife could be used in an emergency to get out. The floors, being slowly demolished, were mazes.

All this was done under the eyes of inspectors from Mr. Bloomberg’s Buildings Department. They were in 130 Liberty almost every day, along with agents of Mr. Spitzer from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the official name of the partnership between the governor and the mayor. They issued piles of citations.

However, no one from other branches of the governments run by Mr. Bloomberg or Mr. Spitzer got around to telling the Fire Department exactly what was going on. And no one from the Fire Department bothered to find out.

Even though there is a firehouse next door to 130 Liberty Street, no firefighter had set foot in the building to inspect it for about a year. No one from Mr. Bloomberg’s government has yet explained their absence. Nor has anyone explained why the Fire Department had not taken part in discussions about the building’s demolition.

The first mission of the department is to respond to fires. Its second “critical objective,” as defined by the Mayor’s Management Report, is to “reduce the risk of fire incidents through quality inspections, investigations and public education.”

With the city booming and with vast new resources, the Fire Department has conducted 8,000 fewer inspections since 2001, while its budget has grown by more than a third. Officials say this is a normal fluctuation.

The calamity of 130 Liberty Street is not the sole responsibility of the Fire Department, but it will be firefighters who will be buried after the next Liberty Street, wherever it may be, if the department does not figure out how this one happened. If it is possible for the mayor and the governor to conduct thorough investigations of their own government, it still will fall to the Fire Department to protect its members by understanding how this could have happened. If it can.

The modern Fire Department grew out of 19th-century volunteer organizations that were aligned with gangs and politicians. With mass deaths in early high rises, the department emancipated itself from political influence and became a force for reform of building codes. It also became an organization devoted to merit hiring, in the process creating a culture of civil service fundamentalism. The highest-ranking officers are chosen by test. This has had its historic virtues, but it has also clogged the department’s ability to shape and scrutinize itself.

“You have no accountability at the senior levels,” said Thomas Von Essen, who was the fire commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He noted that in 2001, three firefighters, John Downing, Brian Fahey and Harry Ford, were killed on Father’s Day, fighting a fire in a hardware storage area that had not been inspected in years.

Three months later, the attacks of Sept. 11 found other weak spots: 343 firefighters died. Now, what appears to have been an accidental fire a week ago has killed two more.

In “Young Men and Fire,” a book about a forest fire that killed 12 firefighters, the author, Norman Maclean, wrote that such a disaster had to be honestly examined; otherwise, it would leave “terror without consolation or explanation.”

“Perhaps most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died,” Mr. Maclean wrote, and “those who loved them forever questioning this ‘unnecessary death,’ and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”


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Running an Empire? No Sweat

Published: August 25, 2007

Richard D. Parsons sat down at a quiet table by a window at Porter House New York, the fine year-old steakhouse on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Building, and looked at his watch. It was 7 p.m. “I’m going to have to leave at 8:30,” he said. “I’ve got another meeting.” He shot me a small, pained shrug. “It’s the middle of August, and I’m still busting my chops.”

We had come to this restaurant, to be blunt about it, to drink Mr. Parsons’s wine. In addition to his day job as chief executive of Time Warner, Mr. Parsons owns a small vineyard in Italy called Il Palazzone, which makes a high- quality Brunello di Montalcino. He acquired his taste for wine, he told me, back when he worked for Nelson Rockefeller.

Porter House’s sommelier, Beth von Benz — clearly no dummy — had the wit to get some of the Il Palazzone Brunello on her wine list. Mr. Parsons has since become a semi-regular and usually orders the Brunello di Montalcino Riserva for his guests, at $185 a bottle. “Our motto is, ‘We drink all we can, and we sell the rest,’ ” he chuckled.

A line like that — funny and low-key and mildly self-mocking — is classic Dick Parsons. True, the winery doesn’t make any money, but the wine is very good. A spokesman for Domaine Select, the importer, said that Mr. Parsons has been “heavily involved with the winery,” an assessment the man himself did not dispute. It’s just that, well, Dick Parsons would prefer that you never see him busting his chops. All his professional life, he’s wanted to be seen as someone who never seems to break a sweat.

Of course, there are plenty of people on Wall Street who believe that Mr. Parsons doesn’t break a sweat — and that’s been the biggest problem in the five years he has been running Time Warner. Why hasn’t he followed the example of his fellow media mogul Rupert Murdoch, scooping up hot Internet companies like MySpace, and buying coveted brands like Dow Jones? Why hasn’t he spun off Time Warner Cable? Why can’t he figure out what to do about AOL? And why, oh, why can’t he get the stock price to rise?

“At the beginning of 2005,” said Richard Greenfield, a media analyst with the independent firm Peri Research, “the stock was at 19. Right now, it’s around 18. When do they start taking shareholder value seriously? They have had long enough to make this thing work.”

There is another view about Mr. Parsons’s tenure as Time Warner’s chief executive, though. According to this view, which is held almost universally within Time Warner, when he first took over the company, he performed nothing short of a miracle, rescuing it from the single worst deal in modern business history, the AOL-Time Warner merger.

In 2002, when he became chief executive, Time Warner stock had dropped so precipitously that the company was in danger of violating its debt covenants. AOL and Time Warner executives were at war. The company was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department. “It was a mess,” said Don Logan, who was one of Mr. Parsons’s top lieutenants until he retired at the end of 2005. “It needed a calming influence to get it stabilized so that people could get back to running their businesses.” Mr. Parsons is a listener, a persuader, a diplomat — and those qualities made all the difference. To the chagrin of his critics, though, that’s still what he is.

It’s a little odd to be in the spot Mr. Parsons is in right now. Not yet 60 years old, he’s getting ready to retire, and everyone knows it. He doesn’t deny it, either. “When you find the right person to take over,” he said, referring to Jeffrey L. Bewkes, his No. 2, “and that person is ready to rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve got to get out of the way.” He added, “I want my legacy to be simple: I left the place in good shape and in good hands.”

I can see his Wall Street critics rolling their eyes. Where is the expansionist drive that fuels competitors like Rupert Murdoch? Where is the fire in the belly? “News Corp. is Rupert’s life’s work,” Mr. Parsons replied calmly. “He inherited a fairly small newspaper operation in Adelaide 50 years ago and has been relentlessly building it into a global media goliath. I think of myself as a professional manager. I am not trying to build a dynasty or create a monument. I know this comment will upset some people, but this is my job. It’s not my life. I don’t define myself by this.”

Sitting across the table from me was his press aide, Edward I. Adler, who didn’t look very happy as Mr. Parsons spoke. He had clearly briefed Mr. Parsons on the talking points he wanted the boss to get across — a list of all the things he had done during his time at the helm: the divisions he had sold ahead of the crowd, like Warner Music; the way he had deftly handled the long-running government investigations (“Now that took some diplomacy,” Mr. Parsons acknowledged); the way he had eased out Stephen M. Case, while ending the culture wars raging within Time Warner. It was a long list, and Mr. Parsons duly recited it, though not, I thought, with any particular passion.

Still, he had to acknowledge that the stock price has been “a huge source of frustration,” and that he hoped it would not be the only prism through which he would be judged. Given the world we live in, however, it seems likely that that rap that he didn’t do enough to “enhance shareholder value” will stick to him. This will be especially true if Mr. Bewkes — more of a money guy by background and inclination than Mr. Parsons — moves to shake up the company and its stock price. In which case, it will probably be right to say that Mr. Parsons was the right man for the first part of his tenure, but maybe not for the latter part. That’s not going to bother Dick Parsons, though. Nothing really bothers him. Or, to put it more precisely, nothing ever rattles him.

Never was this more obvious than a few years ago when the feared investor Carl C. Icahn ran a very public proxy fight, trying to put pressure on Mr. Parsons to break up the company. One thing Mr. Icahn does exceedingly well is get under management’s skin, but that never happened with Mr. Parsons. “I came home one day,” he said with a laugh, “and my wife said, ‘Who’s the guy calling you a moron? That’s my job.’ ”

No matter how many times Mr. Icahn described him as incompetent, Mr. Parsons never took it personally. Instead, he did two things. He ran what amounted to a political campaign, pressing his case with the 600 or 700 institutional investors whose votes most mattered. Secondly, though, instead of giving Mr. Icahn the back of his hand, he embraced him.

“Carl is not stupid and he is not crazy,” Mr. Parsons told me, after he had ordered a second bottle. (Don’t worry: The Times paid.) “And I agreed with him that the company was undervalued. I just didn’t agree with his prescriptions.” So he began to wine and dine Mr. Icahn, hearing him out, and diplomatically devising a solution that allowed his adversary to save face: Mr. Parsons agreed to a huge stock buyback. All the talk of breaking up the company went away.

“I don’t believe it ever serves anyone well to try to crush the other guy or leave him in a position of being humiliated,” Mr. Parsons said. As the well-known mutual fund manager and media investor Mario J. Gabelli put it, “He handled Carl Icahn by saying, ‘Let’s have lunch.’ ”

When I called Mr. Icahn, he denied ever calling Mr. Parsons names. “He lived up to everything,” Mr. Icahn said. “He did the buyback. The stock went up and our fund made a large profit. People thought we gave in, but he agreed to do a lot of things that helped shareholders. I saw it as a victory.” He continues to have occasional dinners with Mr. Parsons and Mr. Bewkes. “I like the guy,” he said.

Mr. Greenfield, the analyst, however, believes that if some new activist hedge fund manager made the same breakup proposal today, it would get a far better reception, because the Street’s patience has largely run out. In the last quarter, for instance, when Time Warner reported that AOL’s advertising growth had suddenly slowed, the stock took a big tumble, reverting back to around $18. (It closed yesterday at $19.01.) The truth is, though, that Mr. Parsons is in his victory lap, and the Street’s frustration notwithstanding, there is a real sense among Time Warner executives and even board members that Mr. Parsons’s work in those first critical years as chief executive has earned him some slack.

It was around 8:45 when Mr. Parsons got up to leave our dinner. Though already late, he seemed a little reluctant to leave. “We haven’t talked enough about wine,” he said. “Do you know what I like about that?” he asked, pointing to the empty Brunello bottle on the table. “Some time ago, those were grapes. We picked them, we fermented them, we bottled them. There is something to show for your effort. We have a product.”

Rumors abound about what Mr. Parsons will do when he leaves Time Warner, the loudest being that he will run for mayor of New York, something he staunchly denies. But I can guarantee he’ll be spending more time at his winery — and doing all the other things he enjoys doing. He’ll live well.

When I was talking to Mr. Icahn the next day, I asked if he had ever drunk any of Mr. Parsons’s wine. Carl Icahn is more than a decade older than Dick Parsons, but he is never going to retire: he remains as maniacally focused on doing deals and making money as ever. Unlike Mr. Parsons, his work really is what he lives for.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Icahn replied. “I guess so. He chooses the wine.” He paused a minute. “Wine really isn’t my thing,” he said.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Seeking Willie Horton

Published: August 24, 2007

So now Mitt Romney is trying to Willie Hortonize Rudy Giuliani. And thereby hangs a tale — the tale, in fact, of American politics past and future, and the ultimate reason Karl Rove’s vision of a permanent Republican majority was a foolish fantasy.

Willie Horton, for those who don’t remember the 1988 election, was a convict from Massachusetts who committed armed robbery and rape after being released from prison on a weekend furlough program. He was made famous by an attack ad, featuring a menacing mugshot, that played into racial fears. Many believe that the ad played an important role in George H.W. Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis.

Now some Republicans are trying to make similar use of the recent murder of three college students in Newark, a crime in which two of the suspects are Hispanic illegal immigrants. Tom Tancredo flew into Newark to accuse the city’s leaders of inviting the crime by failing to enforce immigration laws, while Newt Gingrich declared that the “war here at home” against illegal immigrants is “even more deadly than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

And Mr. Romney, who pretends to be whatever he thinks the G.O.P. base wants him to be, is running a radio ad denouncing New York as a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants, an implicit attack on Mr. Giuliani.

Strangely, nobody seems to be trying to make a national political issue out of other horrifying crimes, like the Connecticut home invasion in which two paroled convicts, both white, are accused of killing a mother and her two daughters. Oh, and by the way: over all, Hispanic immigrants appear to commit relatively few crimes — in fact, their incarceration rate is actually lower than that of native-born non-Hispanic whites.

To appreciate what’s going on here you need to understand the difference between the goals of the modern Republican Party and the strategy it uses to win elections.

The people who run the G.O.P. are concerned, above all, with making America safe for the rich. Their ultimate goal, as Grover Norquist once put it, is to get America back to the way it was “up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over,” getting rid of “the income tax, the death tax, regulation, all that.”

But right-wing economic ideology has never been a vote-winner. Instead, the party’s electoral strategy has depended largely on exploiting racial fear and animosity.

Ronald Reagan didn’t become governor of California by preaching the wonders of free enterprise; he did it by attacking the state’s fair housing law, denouncing welfare cheats and associating liberals with urban riots. Reagan didn’t begin his 1980 campaign with a speech on supply-side economics, he began it — at the urging of a young Trent Lott — with a speech supporting states’ rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.

And if you look at the political successes of the G.O.P. since it was taken over by movement conservatives, they had very little to do with public opposition to taxes, moral values, perceived strength on national security, or any of the other explanations usually offered. To an almost embarrassing extent, they all come down to just five words: southern whites starting voting Republican.

In fact, I suspect that the underlying importance of race to the Republican base is the reason Rudy Giuliani remains the front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination, despite his serial adultery and his past record as a social liberal. Never mind moral values: what really matters to the base is that Mr. Giuliani comes across as an authoritarian, willing in particular to crack down on you-know-who.

But Republicans have a problem: demographic changes are making their race-based electoral strategy decreasingly effective. Quite simply, America is becoming less white, mainly because of immigration. Hispanic and Asian voters were only 4 percent of the electorate in 1980, but they were 11 percent of voters in 2004 — and that number will keep rising for the foreseeable future.

Those numbers are the reason Karl Rove was so eager to reach out to Hispanic voters. But the whites the G.O.P. has counted on to vote their color, not their economic interests, are having none of it. From their point of view, it’s us versus them — and everyone who looks different is one of them.

So now we have the spectacle of Republicans competing over who can be most convincingly anti-Hispanic. I know, officially they’re not hostile to Hispanics in general, only to illegal immigrants, but that’s a distinction neither the G.O.P. base nor Hispanic voters takes seriously.

Today’s G.O.P., in short, is trapped by its history of cynicism. For decades it has exploited racial animosity to win over white voters — and now, when Republican politicians need to reach out to an increasingly diverse country, the base won’t let them.

David Brooks is off today.

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Of Fliers, Fines and the Limits of Patience

Published: August 24, 2007

The last straw for Simcha Felder came months ago. Actually, it was more like the last scrap of paper. His mother had been given a $100 sanitation summons for some advertisement fliers that lay messily on the sidewalk in front of her house in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

You’ve all seen those kinds of fliers and their pesky first cousins: restaurant menus that are dropped on stoops or slipped under doors by delivery guys. Some people find the advertising useful. But for many New Yorkers — we bet most — it is a giant pain.

“I hate coming home to the stuff,” said Mr. Felder, who lives in Midwood, Brooklyn. “O.K., it’s a nuisance. But my mother, she’s in her late 80s. My father has Alzheimer’s. They have a corner building. They’re getting stuff thrown near the door. She can’t clean up every day. So she gets a sanitation summons for some of the stuff that fell out of the bag, that got wet, that’s on the sidewalk, that’s matted down, whatever.”

“For her to get a ticket is like a convicted felon,” he said. “That’s how she feels. Of course, I paid the ticket. But she was so upset about it.”

Fortunately for Ida Felder of Borough Park, she has a son who looks out for her. But her boy Simcha happens also to be a city councilman. He can do more than fight City Hall. He can try to change it.

In March, Mr. Felder introduced a bill that would make it unlawful to distribute “any unsolicited printed material” in houses or buildings that post notices that say, in effect: Go away. The councilman held a news conference at City Hall, where he threw a fistful of fliers on the front steps

It was, he acknowledged, a touch of silliness. “But that’s what I’m supposed to do to get attention,” he said.

He did indeed get attention. But his bill sat dormant. There was no reason for the City Council to act, not with a similar bill making its way through Albany, sponsored by two Queens lawmakers, State Senator Frank Padavan and Assemblyman Mark Weprin. Signed into law this week by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, it sets fines ranging from $250 to $1,000 for businesses that ignore signs telling them to take their fliers elsewhere.

But Mr. Felder said he would revive his bill if the Legislature failed to make changes in the law. Amendments are already being considered in Albany to deal with matters like what to do if some renters in an apartment building want the menus. Who exactly will enforce the law, and how, also needs to be spelled out.

One could question the usefulness of laws that arguably amount to feel-good measures that are hard to enforce. That said, however, the menu stranglers are trying to get hold of a nuisance that has bugged the daylights out of countless New Yorkers for years.

Don’t forget the security aspect, Mr. Felder said. “If you’re away for a week,” he said, “you come home to 10 copies of the stuff on the doorstep screaming: ‘Hi, I’m not home. Come and take whatever you want.’ ”

Safety aside, laws like this satisfy a certain Garboesque streak in New Yorkers. Sure, they accept the city’s hubbub, even embrace it. But there is also a part of them that just wants to be left alone:

Enough with panhandlers hounding them on the weary subway ride home. Enough with loud cellphone yakkers on the bus. Enough with phone solicitors interrupting dinner.

At least the phone intruders have been held in check by way of the do-not-call registry. As of June, holders of nearly nine million phone accounts had registered in New York State, according to the state’s Consumer Protection Board. That compares with 7.5 million a year ago and 5.5 million in 2005. What are all those people saying? Simply, just leave us alone.

The anti-flier law is the do-not-call list’s equivalent. As with that registry, politicians and charities are exempt from restrictions, our lawmakers having apparently decided that the average Joe may not want to be bothered by a cable company huckster but is somehow dying to hear from someone running for office.

Those exemptions make no sense to Mr. Felder. But even his bill would give charities a pass from a no-flier ban.

How’s that? What makes them a special case?

Things are different “when it comes to God,” the councilman said. With charities, “some of them are not his messengers, but some of them are. I don’t want to be on his bad side.”

When his own time comes, he said: “I don’t want to be asked about this. I have enough on my plate.”


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Giants Await a Leader, but Also Need Followers

Published: August 24, 2007

How playful the Eli Manning-Tiki Barber quarrel seems, relative to more vexing issues dogging the N.F.L. Compared with the Michael Vick case, it’s a food fight in the school cafeteria or one of those intramural training camp scuffles that real men like Coach Tom Coughlin believe will make their players’ pores ooze with orneriness.

But it’s August, devoid of meaningful competition, and Vick, barring an unforeseen audible, will officially plead guilty Monday to dogfighting charges that will put him in jail. He hasn’t served a redemptive day yet and already the Atlanta chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., among other sources, is clamoring for him to play again. Imagine the unpleasant decisions, inevitably fraught with racial repercussions, facing N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell.

For now, as Goodell tries to remake his league’s battered behavioral image, he needs volunteers to step up, speak out, change the subject. If I’m Goodell, I’m thinking, keep talking, Tiki. Get down on all fours and bark, if you’d like.

The broadcast game is about distinguishing one’s self from the rest of the ever-expanding pack, and Barber knew what he was doing when he announced himself in the studio Sunday night by describing Manning’s leadership qualities as “comical.” Manning (pictured, left) answered Barber, his teammate only eight months ago, with a salvo that looked and sounded more sheepish than furious.

Easily impressed, his Giants teammates reacted with a right-on, about-time gusto, which mostly underscored the belief that what Barber said, however self-serving, was essentially true.

People often miss the point when they say that it is not easy for Manning to be the little brother of Peyton, quarterback and pitchman extraordinaire. Performance issues aside, Eli’s problem, born of a personality that is seemingly guileless, transcends genealogy. Forget Peyton; in his three seasons with the Giants, Eli has been everyone’s little brother, alternately picked on and stood up for. In either case, not the most ideal leadership conditions.

“Well, I guess I’ve always been even keeled, never really responded back and tried to always make things smooth and easy,” Manning told reporters Wednesday. An admirable approach in most places except inside the football arena; it’s a sport not exactly given to attitudinal complexity and languid body language.

We will know that Manning, 26, has met the big-boy challenge when teammates do not have to defend him so vigorously in the locker room, when Coughlin doesn’t think he is too fragile to treat him as churlishly as he did, for example, Mathias Kiwanuka, a rookie, last season. And most of all, when Manning has finally had enough and shoves a football in the face of the next receiver to show him up on the field, as Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress have become so accustomed to doing.

If the Giants had any real leaders last season, including Michael Strahan and Barber and, for that matter, Coughlin, those gestures of exasperation upon being underthrown or overlooked would not have been tolerated.

By season’s end, the network cameras were well trained on the Giants’ receivers after pass plays, anticipating overreaction and more embarrassment for Manning. Where were his supporters when he needed them most? Where was Strahan, the Giants’ most tenured and typically outspoken star?

Invisible, just as he is now, as he contemplates retirement or times his arrival to miss the most grueling part of training camp. Isn’t that just like a me-first Giants star in the years under Coughlin and his predecessor Jim Fassel?

There haven’t been many locker rooms as chatty as the Giants’ has become, where talk has been so cheap. Here, in fact, is Barber, on Manning two days before last season’s regular-season finale against the Redskins and 10 days before his retirement, when asked if he had any regrets of leaving a still-developing quarterback alone in the lurch.

“I care about Eli and it’s been fun playing with him for three years,” Barber said. “But he’s capable of handling it himself. I know he is.”

Barber then went out and carried the Giants into the playoffs with a franchise-record 234 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns. “Thank you, thank you,” Manning told him later that night when they passed in the interview room.

Payback, it appears, was Barber deciding to tell it like it is, Cosellian-style, to mark his network debut.

It wasn’t the most honorable act of Barber’s career, but, again, in the context of how we define aberrant N.F.L. behavior, it is hard to get more angry than Manning appeared to be — or not — when he tweaked Barber for last season’s long retirement melodrama in his unassuming, Andy of Mayberry way.

Bottom line: Barber, besides giving football fans something other than Vick to debate, did Manning a favor. He made himself a stationary target, handing Manning the motivation to allow teammates to see him, for once, stand up for himself.

Making them stand behind him, and making Barber admit he was wrong, we’ll just have to see about that.


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The Opinionator: A blog at the NY Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellentrop

As he promised, President Bush’s speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday contained a number of comparisons between Iraq and the Vietnam war: “Then as now, people argued the real problem was America’s presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end … The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be.”

The Times’s Thom Shanker has a fine roundup of historians’ reaction to the analogy, but of course the blogosphere has plenty of less-academic responses.

“Whatever one thinks of the stunning cynicism and immorality of the Nixon/Kissinger strategy, the American people at least understood and I suspect strongly approved of an agreement that allowed America to extract itself from a terrible and bloody quagmire that had killed over 58,000 US troops and millions of Vietnamese,” writes Scarecrow at the liberal blog Firedoglake.

“I’m not sure Americans cared what happened next; they just wanted out, and the agreement got them out, slowly, late, after too many deaths, but eventually out. Looking back, I doubt there are many Americans who think we should have followed the advice Bush is now offering; do they really believe we should have heeded the warnings of dire consequences of withdrawal from a country that had no real strategic interests for the US and is now a friendly trading partner?”

Bob Franken at The Hill feels that the president is “ignoring perhaps the most important similarity. The major U.S. military commitment in both conflicts came as the result of U.S. government deception: the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner finds such views shortsighted: “The mainstream media and a lot of liberal-leaning analysts seem to think it’s politically foolish or reckless for Bush to compare Vietnam to Iraq because they have one very specific narrative in mind when it comes to that war: America shouldn’t have gotten in, couldn’t have won, and then lost. What they have long failed to grasp is that’s not the moral of the story in the hearts of millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost (whether we should have gone in is a murkier question for many, I think). This is a point the Democrats fail to grasp: being on the side of surrender in a war is popular enough during the war, but if you succeed lots of Americans will later get buyer’s remorse and feel like it was a mistake and the next generation will see things very differently than their anti-war activist parents.”

To which P. O’Neill at Best of Both Worlds responds directly: “What else could America have done to have ‘won’ in Vietnam? Nuclear weapons? Incidentally, those against the Vietnam war weren’t for American ‘surrender.’ They were for letting Vietnam sort out its own problems.”

The president’s reply to that, one supposes, would be that Vietnam did an unacceptable job of sorting out those problems. The bigger question, presumably, is whether the Iraqis can do any better.


  • Should we just relax about sports and steroids? The controversial Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, writing in The Japan Times, thinks so. He approvingly cites the work of the Oxford medical ethicist Julian Savulescu, who feels sports “should drop the ban on performance-enhancing drugs, and allow athletes to take whatever they want, as long as it is safe for them to do so.” Singer writes:

    Savulescu proposes that instead of trying to detect whether an athlete has taken drugs, we should focus on measurable indications of whether an athlete is risking his or her health. So, if an athlete has a dangerously high level of red blood cells as a result of taking erythropoietin (EPO), he or she should not be allowed to compete. The issue is the red blood cell count, not the means used to elevate it.

    To those who say that this will give drug users an unfair advantage, Savulescu replies that now, without drugs, those with the best genes have an unfair advantage. They must still train, of course, but if their genes produce more EPO than ours, they are going to beat us in the Tour de France, no matter how hard we train. Unless, that is, we take EPO to make up for our genetic deficiency. Setting a maximum level of red blood cells actually levels the playing field by reducing the impact of the genetic lottery. Effort then becomes more important than having the right genes.

    Some argue that taking drugs is “against the spirit of sport.” But it is difficult to defend the current line between what athletes can and cannot do in order to enhance their performance …

    Moreover, I would argue that sport has no single “spirit.” People play sports to socialize, for exercise, to keep fit, to earn money, to become famous, to prevent boredom, to find love, and for the sheer fun of it. They may strive to improve their performance, but often they do so for its own sake, for the sense of achievement. Popular participation in sport should be encouraged. Physical exercise makes people not only healthier, but also happier. To take drugs will usually be self-defeating.

    “Usually” self-defeating, I guess — but can we also assume there are plenty out there who would be made “happier” by an Olympic gold, no matter how it was achieved?

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Keeping Pandora’s Box Closed

Published: August 22, 2007

Your guides through the secret worlds of the N.B.A. and N.F.L. will be Tim Donaghy and Michael Vick, who, to score points before sentencing, could soon reveal the monsters beneath the beds of David Stern and Roger Goodell.

Would a commissioner rather know what lurks or hides beneath his 400-thread-count sheets?

N.B.A. executives keep reciting the words “rogue, isolated criminal” in reference to Donaghy in a very no-place-like-home way, as if saying it makes Kansas happen.

This naïve escape plan is collapsing as Donaghy lets his whistle sing. He has already implied that refs play favorites on the court. And as Donaghy offers his cooperation, he could out every colleague — as many as 20, ESPN radio reported — who has ever entered an office pool or played the slots at Harrah’s or bet on Rasheed Wallace’s head to explode.

Any gambling — outside of off-season horse racing — is a fireable offense, according to league rules. One scoundrel is containable. A dozen are ruinous.

The troubling numbers have drawn no comment from the league — yet. But the N.B.A., in a public relations effort to soul-search, announced the hiring of the legal star Lawrence B. Pedowitz yesterday to lead a review of its referee morality play.

Why do internal investigations always seem so superficial? (Note to baseball’s steroid detective, George Mitchell: any time you’re ready.)

The N.F.L. sleuths have spent many billable hours skulking around Vick’s underworld, but John Goodwin, a dogfighting investigator with the Humane Society, said no one had asked what he meant when talking publicly about the subculture of dogfighting among athletes.

“Actually, the N.F.L. sent an angry letter telling me to stop saying it,” Goodwin said. “But I stand by my statement.”

The league admits requesting Goodwin to zip it unless he has specific, credible details on a player to disclose.

“As to whether we’ve heard names of players, it’s not an appropriate question,” said Greg Aiello, an N.F.L. spokesman. “We reiterate that there is no credible information to suggest players are involved.”

You don’t dust for fingerprints on a subculture, though. Evidence is in the lyrics and ads players devour. It’s in the commercial Nike once ran called “The Battle,” in which the scene of a fighting Rottweiler and pit bull was spliced into film of a streetball game. (No wonder Nike adored Vick before it dumped him.)

You don’t find paper trails to the shadows, either. Evidence is between the lines. In the months since the sordid Vick saga began, some player comments have revealed a hip-hop fascination with dogfighting and an indifference toward animal cruelty. In a column for The News-Press of southwest Florida, Deion Sanders recently wrote: “I believe Vick had a passion for dogfighting. I know many athletes who share his passion.”

Why would athletes be drawn to a macabre blood sport? Why would they seek a thrill in cruelty? Do football players — left beaten, broken and bewildered in their weekly survival games on Sunday — identify with dogs that are unleashed to fight to the death? Or is this just a twisted act by voyeurs with a craving for brutality against helpless dogs?

Vick may have some answers. We’re about to find out if he can talk a good game. He is scheduled to enter a guilty plea on dogfighting charges Monday and is expected to receive at least a year in prison when United States District Judge Henry E. Hudson sentences him in November.

“He’s got a good long while to do something to impress that judge,” said Goodwin, who was in the courtroom last week when Vick’s co-defendants, Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips, entered their guilty pleas. “He told them outright that while the prosecutor may make a recommendation, and he would give it weight, he made it clear if there were factors that warranted more prison time, he would do it.

“So I would certainly think it would be in the best interest of Michael Vick to be very forthright and honest.”

Honesty can be unnerving. Just like the N.B.A., the N.F.L. leaders are clicking their heels, reciting to themselves, “rogue, isolated criminal; rogue, isolated criminal,” hoping to make it so.

The N.F.L. will no doubt ask authorities for permission to interview Vick. But how much do they want to know?

There is no shortage of insiders in sports. Jason Giambi sat before the Mitchell investigation, but did so with assurances that he would not have to provide a clubhouse confidential on steroid use by other players.

Fine, Mitchell agreed. Besides, why complicate an investigation with names? Look at what Donaghy could do to basketball if he discloses the details of a gambling habit among referees. Look at what Vick could do to football if he gives up others who bet on the dogs.

Leagues are experts at hiring fancy investigators who uncover just enough to satisfy the public’s curiosity. But deeper knowledge is a burden on a monster scale.


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Sarkozy’s New Order

Published: August 23, 2007


Nicolas Sarkozy, the neophyte French president who can’t keep still, has already been likened to Napoleon Bonaparte. Set aside visions of Sarko invading Egypt or retreating from Moscow and you get to the kernel of truth in this comparison: he wants to trash the old order.

The presidency of the French Fifth Republic, built for Charles de Gaulle in 1958, was always the most monarchical of democratic institutions. It was conceived to allow a national hero to deliver France from its Algerian nemesis and imbued with something of Louis XIV’s crisp view: “L’état, c’est moi,” or “I am the state.”

Sarkozy has long indicated his impatience with this regal presidency, once comparing his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, to an out-of-touch French monarch on the Revolution’s eve. In a relentless road show since taking office in May, he has trampled tradition, abandoned aloofness and targeted taboos.

The performance has been exhausting to watch — suggestive of an unscarred first-term Tony Blair on amphetamines. But it has produced results. Among them are new forms of parliamentary oversight of the presidency and a bipartisanship that has allowed opposition Socialists, like Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, into high office.

Above all, Sarkozy has redefined presidential style, doing the unthinkable by vacationing in Wolfeboro, N. H., alongside millionaires. Money has never been a thing to display in France. That was the vulgar Yankee way.

To grasp the enormity of all this, imagine President Bush abandoning Texan brush for a three-week sojourn in St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

As it happened, Bush showed up at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Me., to meet Sarkozy. The choreography was blown when Cécilia, the volatile first lady of France, failed to show (illness was professed, a tiff widely assumed). Still, the presence of Bush’s father signaled a desire to bury Iraqi bitterness and return to the good times of the former president’s “Europe whole and free.”

French-American relations are always complex. Seldom have two countries been more reluctant, or stubborn, allies. The universalizing ambitions of both nations, their thirst to embody and spread the ennobling values of mankind, lead to tensions at the best of times. When things go south, as they did with Iraq, you get freedom fries and other less trivial forms of vilification.

So a warming of relations is good news if you believe, as I do, that when the trans-Atlantic bond is broken, the world grows more unstable. Still, the ironies of the amiable Maine picnic were hard to swallow. On one end of the corn on the cob you had a French president who seems determined to make his office more accountable, more accessible, more open, and invoking American-style checks and balances to achieve that.

On the other, you had an American president who, in the name of the war on terror, has, with Dick Cheney, been bent on placing the authority of the White House as far as possible beyond the offsetting power of the legislative and judicial branches.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the late historian, found in Nixon the villain of his 1973 book “The Imperial Presidency,” but thought Bush had gone further still in pursuit of a Caesarist democracy.

Schlesinger discerned in Nixon “the all-purpose invocation of ‘national security,’ the insistence on executive secrecy, the withholding of information from Congress, the attempted intimidation of the press.”

Sound familiar? The Bush presidency has shown contempt for due process, placed “illegal enemy combatants” in unacceptable limbo, fired politically recalcitrant federal prosecutors, dreamed up a bizarre oversight-free definition of the vice presidency, resorted to warrantless surveillance and disdained Congress’ constitutional role.

The price of keeping America safe, Bush would argue. But the real price has been the tarnishing of the country and consequent erosion of its ability to coax other nations to its views and objectives. American isolation in Iraq has been devastating.

Which brings us back to universal ambitions. France under a president descended from the heights seems more at ease in the world, attuned to globalization and attractive because less remote. The U.S. under Bush has seen its magnetism dimmed as the commander in chief has built his fortress of executive privilege.

To the next U.S. president will fall the huge task of restoring America’s international standing. I wonder whether a dynastic succession back to the House of Clinton as if all we had were Tudors and Stuarts would be the best way of stripping the regal and so returning the country to itself and the world.


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The Great Clock Plot

Published: August 23, 2007

This week, The Times reported that President Hugo Chávez is planning to move Venezuela’s clocks ahead by half an hour. The story created one of those wonderful moments of newspaper community, as readers around the nation suddenly shared an identical thought:

Say what?

Chávez unveiled his plans on his regular Sunday television show, in what several other news reports referred to as a “rambling” address. Reaction was swift, with many people recalling the scene in Woody Allen’s “Bananas” when a revolutionary hero becomes president of a Latin American country and announces that from now on, “underwear will be worn on the outside.”

The other popular comment was that Americans are in no position to make fun of countries whose leaders make incoherent speeches.

Chávez has always been strong on the grand leftist gesture. (Remember the day that he called George W. Bush “the devil” at the United Nations?) But it’s hard to quite grasp the populist appeal of having to use a calculator to figure out when the next plane arrives from Bogotá.

In his speech, Chávez connected the time change to his plan to reduce the Venezuelan work day in 2008. His administration believes that:

1) Cutting everyone’s work day to six hours will increase national productivity; and 2) That if you change 7 a.m. to 6:30, it will create a “metabolic effect, where the human brain is conditioned by sunlight.”

Now I know all this sounds extremely silly, but in the name of fairness, remember that:

1) You live in a country where the administration believes that cutting taxes for the heirs to billion-dollar estates will lead to increased prosperity for unemployed steel workers.

2) Every year, most Americans spring forward and fall back so that the Sun God will send extra rays to we who honor him with the ceremony of the changing of the clocks.

3) So far, Hugo Chávez hasn’t invaded anybody.

Inquiring minds still want to know about that half-hour. The Venezuelan science minister says the government wants to return the country to the system it used before 1965.

When it was changed. For convenience.

Perhaps President Chávez just isn’t a clock-watching kind of guy. His weekly TV program is six hours of him talking, which is an extremely long time to ramble on unless you’re Fidel Castro or an American sports commentator.

But what if there’s a trend under way here? The list of countries who use the half-hour system does not inspire much confidence. There’s Burma. And Afghanistan. And then there’s Nepal. When the countries around it are at 3 p.m., Nepal believes it to be 3:45. This may have something to do with the altitude.

Newfoundland is on the half-hour system, defying the rest of Canada to do anything about it. The reason, as Premier Danny Williams once explained, is that Newfoundlanders “like to be different.” Their country is mainly about cod — very important, historically speaking, but not frequently in the headlines these days.

So people there like a little attention. They like having a Newfoundland Time Zone. They like the fact that the national broadcasters always have to say: “Stay tuned for the news on the hour. On the half-hour in Newfoundland.”

We may be on to something here. How many countries do you think would feel better about the world if they just got mentioned once in a while? Probably won’t work for Afghanistan at this point, but we could try getting the networks to say things like: “News is up next, and let’s hope it’s a nice day in Surinam.”

Sooner or later, somebody in the White House will notice that the one other country whose clocks are running to the tune of a different drummer is Iran. Chávez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are extremely cozy, always pinning medals on one another and sending anti-Bush jokes back and forth. At this very minute, Vice President Dick Cheney is somewhere in his basement, working up a new theory about the Evil Axis of Half Hours.

Let’s just not go there. Riordan Roett, the director of the Western Hemisphere studies program at Johns Hopkins University, says that the fact that the president of Venezuela announces something does not necessarily mean it’s a done deal. “See if Chávez repeats it,” he advised. “If it’s just a one-time thing, the rational people who are still in the government will just ignore it.”

If only we had a similar system in the United States, imagine all the things we might have avoided over the last six years.

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About New York: A Moist Finale to a Summer of Movies in Bryant Park

Published: August 22, 2007

At the drizzling dot of 5 on Monday evening, security guards dropped the barriers to the Bryant Park lawn. Hundreds of people began a slow-motion dash across the lawn for the park’s final night of free outdoor movies this summer. By the time “Psycho” started four hours later, about 2,000 people had grabbed a few square feet of grass and the unlimited romance of a city night outdoors.

The summer of 2007 was getting its last licks. In a few days, colleges will open and the freshmen will peel off; there are sales everywhere on three-hole loose-leaf paper.

On the park lawn, people spread picnics and pizza boxes, then popped open contraband bottles of wine and beer. The rules say alcohol is not permitted in city parks, but those rules are not all that vigorously enforced. Waiters from sandwich kiosks moved through the crowd, taking orders and using helium-filled balloons to mark the spots for deliveries.

By fair-weather standards, the audience was small — it can run to as high as 10,000 with the right movie and clear skies — but given the light rain and the cool dreary night, it was a big crowd. Before long, even the stairs on the east side of the park were packed.

“A horrible night for weather, but it was the last movie of the summer,” said Ethan Lercher, who is director of events for Bryant Park and has gone to just about every Monday night movie for years. “And it was ‘Psycho.’ ”

Alfred Hitchcock, who made his last film in 1976 and was dead long before many of the spectators were born, could probably draw a crowd in a blizzard. He made “Psycho” in 1960, and it remains a classic of suspense about an insane man who operates a run-down motel and the young woman who makes the mistake of stopping there to hide out.

This is the 15th summer that free movies have been shown in Bryant Park. When the program began, it seemed like a defiantly countercultural statement, even though it was sponsored by HBO. In 1993, the city after dark and Bryant Park were generally seen as unfit for decent people, or the indecent, for that matter. (Even three years later, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani rejected a proposal to put giant television screens in city parks for the 1996 baseball World Series; the security issues, his aides said, would be too difficult.)

By then, however, outdoor movies were thriving, and not only in Bryant Park. Now, in places across Lower Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, independent films are shown in the Rooftop Films festival, which continues into September.

The Bryant Park films are sturdy classics — “Annie Hall,” “Wait Until Dark,” and “Casablanca” were on this year’s calendar — but the movies are practically beside the point. Couples kiss. Friends meet. Strangers connect.

“Quite a few people have said that they met their husband or wife at the films,” Mr. Lercher noted. “I mean, it’s the perfect opportunity. You’re sitting on a lawn. You have four hours to hang out from the time the lawn opens until the movie starts. I think there are people who just come to eat on the lawn in a crowd and then leave.”

As darkness fell over the park, a short cartoon was shown. Then an HBO preview trailer ran, with an old theme song for the network.

With that, as happens every Monday night when that commercial plays, people climbed to their feet and danced.

“Why?” asked Mr. Lercher. “I can’t explain it. A few people just started dancing one year, and more people joined, and now you have it every Monday night. All the better that no one stood up and made an announcement that people should dance.”

The movie began, a crisp black and white print. The crowd cheered the appearance of Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. Along 42nd Street, about two dozen police cars rolled by with lights flashing, in one of the city’s daily counterterrorism drills.

The spectators appeared to stick with the scary scenes on screen. They screamed when Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, stood under the running water of a shower and a shadowy figure holding a knife appeared.

The rain fell harder. Umbrellas popped up, and lines of kids leaned against each other to share the shelter, as if they were in little fortresses, unafraid of the dark.


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Freakonomics: on the obesity epidemic

Freakonomics Quorum: What is the Right Way to Think About the Obesity ‘Epidemic’?

If you rely on nothing but the media for your information, you might think that obesity is the new Black Plague, laying to waste huge swaths of the population. But is it?

We’ve blogged more than a few times about the spike in American obesity. These posts have included: economists’ attempts to identify the causes of this spike; a post wondering if high gas prices might lead to skinnier Americans; and an attempt to generally get a grip on what obesity is and how much it matters.

With the public and media still fixated on obesity, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a step back and put an incredibly basic question to a variety of people who spend a lot of time thinking about the subject:

What is the right way to think about the American obesity “epidemic”?

This round of questioning has come to be known as a Freakonomics Quorum, with recent discussions on street charity and the housing market. Here are the participants for the discussion on obesity:

J. Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America’s Obesity Epidemic; David Cutler, a former member of the National Economic Council who is now a professor of economics and a dean of social sciences at Harvard; Dr. Darwin Deen, a professor of family medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and co-author of Nutrition for Life and The Complete Guide to Nutrition in Primary Care; Dr. Lisa Hark, the director of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Nutrition Education and Prevention Program, co-author of Nutrition for Life, and former host of TLC’s Honey We’re Killing the Kids; Matt Verbin, founder of the Obesity Forum, an encyclopedic online source of obesity studies and programs; and David Zinczenko, the editor-in-chief of Men’s Health magazine and author of the Abs Diet series.

J. Eric Oliver:

We hear a lot in the media these days about America’s obesity epidemic. A third of Americans, we are told, are “obese,” and two-thirds are “overweight.” Hundreds of thousands purportedly are dying each year from weighing too much, while countless others suffer from scores of “obesity related” diseases. Obesity has been blamed for everything from dragging down the economy to global warming. Most recently, we’ve heard that obesity is “contagious.”

The problem with these assertions is that they are based mostly on arbitrary definitions and fuzzy statistical conjectures. Although Americans have indeed grown heavier over the past three decades (the average American weighs about 8 to 12 pounds more than in 1980), it is not clear that this weight gain is putting them in any imminent danger. The primary reason so many Americans are “overweight” and “obese” is because these terms are defined at unjustifiably low levels of body mass. For example, under our current definitions, George Bush and Michael Jordan are overweight, while Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson are obese. These standards were not based on any scientific evidence linking body mass to health, but were created by insurance actuaries and medical professionals with financial ties to the weight loss industry.

Similarly, the idea that obesity is itself a disease or causes disease is based largely on correlations in large epidemiological studies, not on any clear causal link between excess weight and disease. With the exception of a few minor conditions (like osteoarthritis), we don’t have any good evidence that adiposity causes any physical harm. By the same statistical criteria used to call obesity a disease, one could also claim that being male, being overly tall, or even being black is a disease (i.e., all correlate with early mortality and morbidity). The fact that we choose to demonize fatness rather than these other traits illustrates how concerns about obesity are rooted far more in political and cultural standards than scientific ones.

In short, the biggest problem with all the hype about the obesity epidemic is that it assumes that:

A) weight is a good barometer of health (it isn’t);
B) being thin is the same as being healthy (it’s not);
C) anyone can be thin if they want to (which is not true).

In the absence of any safe or effective weight-loss mechanisms, telling Americans they need to be thinner only encourages them to embrace unhealthy and unworkable diet plans. Arguably, prejudice and discrimination against fatness cause far more adverse health outcomes than the fat itself. Rather than worry about how fat our country is, we should be asking ourselves why we are so judgmental about how much other people weigh.

David Cutler:

As I write this in my office, a soda machine is not more than 20 steps away. Candy is practically within reach. In less than two minutes, I can walk to pizza, hamburgers, ice cream, muffins, bagels, cookies, and tacos (all in separate stores). Technology has brought us a wealth of good things; the computer on which I write this was undreamed of a generation ago. But easy access is one downside of progress. It takes all my energy not to eat chocolate continuously. And I love ice cream.

Some of us develop rules. I don’t drink caffeinated drinks — no obvious reason why, but that’s the rule. Chocolate is never eaten before lunch. I don’t get ice cream at work. Through these measures, I manage to keep my weight in check. But the rules are hard to keep. Technology is what allows us to be fat. The inability to discipline ourselves is why we let it happen.

The fascinating thing about progress is that it can be both good and bad. The discovery of nuclear fusion allows for cheaper, more environmentally friendly forms of energy. But it also allows for nuclear weapons. A generation ago, women spent an average of two hours per day cooking and cleaning; today, the cooking and cleaning is handled by a restaurant or food company. Weight gain is the consequence.

One of two measures will be needed to end the obesity epidemic. Technology might progress to where we can mass produce non-fat food as readily as fat food. Today’s cookies taste better than those of a few decades ago; apples are the same. Maybe a new kind of apple will be invented that has us rushing to the fruit store. Alternatively, we will have to discover the willpower to allow us to use technology only in moderation. I sometimes toy with a solution — maybe I should set aside $10 every week, which I get back at the end of the week if I don’t eat anything bad for me. We do this with saving (think Christmas clubs). Can widespread use of such a strategy for eating be far behind?

Or maybe progress will march along, and we will continue to get fat. In that case, we’ll develop and expand medical technology that treats the consequences of obesity — drugs for diabetes and high cholesterol; hip and knee replacements; new arthritis medications. All of those are expensive, but maybe the tradeoff for ice cream is worth it.

Dr. Darwin Deen:

An “epidemic” is defined by epidemiologists (who specialize in the health of populations), as a disease occurring at a greater frequency than expected. While the definition that we use for obesity has changed and our ability to measure body fat has become more sophisticated, there is no doubt that we are heavier than we were 20 or 30 years ago, and that this change will have the most dramatic health impact on our children.

It is alright to gain some weight as you get older (in fact, in middle age it is probably healthier to be overweight than to be thin), but people who are 50-100 pounds above the average weight for their height are at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. I am avoiding talking about BMI (body mass index) even though it is the way that physicians and researchers classify weight, as it is not that helpful when assessing an individual. What is more important for adults is belly fat.

The reasons for this increase in the number of people who are overweight are debatable, but one need only review the increases in typical portion sizes (I am 50 years old and still remember small glass Coke bottles and 3 oz. McDonald’s fries) to understand that we are eating more than we ever did. While exercise is an important part of staying healthy, the obesity epidemic has developed at a time when we have not started exercising any less (reductions in caloric expenditure — the calories that we burn through activity — are less now than they were 100 years ago, when everyone worked with their hands, but not less than they were 30 years ago, when the interstate and the office job were already the norm). So the right way to think about the obesity epidemic is that, in order to make sure you don’t suffer the medical consequences of obesity, you should eat a healthy diet (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products), avoid “excess” calories (cakes, cookies, large portions, feeling “stuffed” except for occasionally), and get regular exercise.

If any of this is confusion to you, there are plenty of articles and books on the subject (I’ve written two myself); and, while most doctors have very little nutrition training, your doctor is absolutely the best person to tell you if your weight or lifestyle presents a hazard to your health.

Dr. Lisa Hark:

When I think about the obesity epidemic in America, I become very concerned with the current and future health of our entire society. America is known as the cradle of liberty, a place where people who work hard can succeed, make something of themselves, and live their dream life. But now, Americans are gaining worldwide notoriety for being the fattest country on Earth, home to more than 65 million overweight people. And it’s not just a cozy, “more of you to love” situation. Obesity and the conditions it causes — heart disease and diabetes, to name two — are responsible for almost 1 million deaths every year. And now our kids are experiencing the side effects. Rates of obesity in children are at an all-time high. For the first time in history, this generation of children is not expected to live longer than their parents. Rich, industrialized America is poised to experience a drop in life expectancy, all because we’re eating too much and we aren’t active enough.

So what’s the answer and the right way to think about obesity in America? My focus is on the family, and helping parents and kids. As parents, we need to step up and take responsibility for making sure our kids get the foundation that they need to lead healthy and active lives, now and in the future. Unfortunately, we have become a society obsessed with TV, and kids are learning this at a very young age. Experts now agree that screen time of all types needs to be limited for children and teenagers to less than two hours per day. I believe the less TV our kids watch, the healthier they will be. Studies show that the more children are exposed to TV ads for junk food and sweetened drinks, the more likely they are to consume large amounts of unhealthy food. We need to avoid putting TVs in our children’s bedrooms and start monitoring how much and what they are watching. This also includes computer and video game time. Children spend most of the school day sitting, so get them outside for some play time after school, and use weekends for active family bonding outings.

We also need to get back to basics and eat meals together as a family as many nights as we can. We must incorporate fruits and vegetables into all meals and snacks, offer water and low-fat milk instead of sweetened drinks, and get out and be active with our kids in fun and inviting ways. After school is a great time to get children to eat vegetables because they are so hungry. Try baby carrots, cut up cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, or celery with low-fat ranch or French dressing. Offer fresh and canned fruit to satisfy cravings for desserts and sweets. Don’t rely on school lunch options. Pack a healthy lunch at least 3 times a week, along with a water bottle and fresh fruit.

Being healthy role models for our children is critical if we expect them to eat healthy and be active. And remember, it’s OK to say “no” to children when it comes to TV and unhealthy foods and drinks. If we aren’t firm in this area, advertising, peer pressure, and a plain old sweet tooth will override all of our good intentions.

Matt Verbin:

Obesity is a multi-faceted disease fueled by Americans’ poor eating habits, complacency and sedentary lifestyles. While the physical and emotional impact of obesity on a growing number of Americans is glaring, what truly makes obesity an epidemic is the economic impact it has on all of us.

People underestimate the economic effect obesity has on our society. The Center for Disease Control has concluded that illnesses associated with obesity cost the United States $93 billion a year in health care costs. Eric Finkelstein, a health economist at the nonprofit RTI Institute, wrote, “about half of the total cost of obesity-related health care is paid by the government through its Medicare program. For every American citizen, the out-of-pocket tax cost is an average $180.” This dwarfs the $13 billion businesses lose each year from obesity-related medical fees, absenteeism, and decreased productivity (as reported by the National Business Group on Health). Many of these obesity-related business costs are passed down to consumers in the form of more expensive goods and services.

Obesity, like many diseases, has no simple cure that alleviates its negative consequences. The government’s increased involvement and spending on health education, research and obesity programs, combined with our desire as a society to lead a healthier lifestyle, are the driving factors towards finding a solution. The question is, do we invest a lot of time and money fighting obesity now, or pay an even higher price down the road?

David Zinczenko:

A lot of people blame the obesity epidemic on lack of physical exercise, but I’m just not sold. The real rise in obesity started in the 1960s and 70s, and life wasn’t radically different between 1950 and 1970 — it’s not as though we were all working as farmers in 1950 and suddenly became sedentary in the seventies. (In fact, you can argue that we walked/cycled/ran/skied far less in 1950 than we do today, since the growth of the fitness industry.) Our lifestyles might be somewhat different now, but one thing is radically different: our food.

Starting in the 70s, manufacturers began to pump sugars into their packaged products, and the advent of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has only exacerbated our collective sweet tooth. HFCS has proven so irresistible to manufacturers because: a) it’s highly subsidized by legislation like the farm bill, which makes it cheap; and b) it’s a highly refined, stable liquid, which means it has a longer shelf life than table sugar and can blend seamlessly into products you wouldn’t associate with sugar — ketchup, for example, or marinara sauce. It’s no surprise, then, that we now consume 200 calories a day more than we did in 1970, and most of that comes from added sugars. By some accounts, we now consume up to 75 pounds of HFCS a year, and you’re likely to find it listed in the top three ingredients on the nutrition labels of products that simply were never intended to be sweetened — wheat bread, salad dressing, and crackers, for example.

As far as hydrogenated oils go, the sad irony is that they were created to replace the evil saturated fat, yet the trans-fats that came as a result seems to be far worse. Sure, some food manufacturers have taken strides to change (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Frito Lay, and Nabisco, for example), but others aren’t even attempting to make the switch: each Keebler cookie has two grams of trans fats, while a chicken pot pie at KFC has a punishing 14 grams of the stuff. This, in turn, is wreaking havoc on our waistlines, and our tickers.

Another way to look at it is that our bellies are growing in direct relation to the both the size of the ingredient lists on our packages (it’s rare to come across one that doesn’t require a degree in chemistry to understand), and to the increase in restaurant and fast food portion sizes. Studies have shown that the average size of a dinner plate has grown 36% since 1960, while over the same period, the impact of your average-size McDonald’s french fries order has swollen from 200 calories to 600 calories. All of this — the unpronounceable ingredients, the behemoth portions, the stealth additives — works to confound our expectations about what our food will ultimately do to our bodies, which explains why we’ve become so clueless about estimating our caloric intakes. Two studies are particularly illustrative:

1) A University of Arkansas study found that people underestimated the number of calories in restaurant meals by as much as 600 calories.
2) And at Cornell, 85 grad students and nutrition scientists underestimated their ice cream servings by as much as 40 percent.

If experts can’t gauge what they’re putting in their bodies, how can the average American be expected to?

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


Does Sport Cause Crime?

Athletic youth? Or dangerous criminal?Courtesy of Freakonomics Video

One of our old blog posts — about a French political scientist’s argument that playing sports may make young men more likely to become criminals — has now been turned into a short video. It can be found in the right-hand column of our home page. I suppose it was inevitable: MTV turned pop songs into videos; publishers turn books into videos; now we’re doing it with blog posts. What is the world coming to?

The very talented and creative young man who’s been making our videos is named Nicholas Graham. I think he will win awards some day. Today’s on-screen talent is … well, let’s just say for the moment that she’s an international woman of mystery. More will be revealed later.

The FREAK-est Links

“So You Think You Can Be President?” (Related.)

From nose to wallet: sellers embrace “scent marketing.”

It’s just business: new mob rises in Italy.

In MA, minority teacher applicants hurt by licensing test. (Related.)


And Today Is…

August 22 is the day in 2003 when Alabama chief justice Roy Moore was suspended from the bench for refusing to obey a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse. No word on whether he’d read Dawkins.


The FREAK-est Links

Play Warcraft, study pandemics. (Related.)

“Bueller? Bueller? Retirement?” (HT: Consumerist.)

Cell phones & driving not so dangerous after all? (HT: MR.)

In Denver, feeding the meter feeds the homeless. (Related.)

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Go Green and Save Money

Published: August 22, 2007

Have your eyes recently popped out of your head when you opened your electric bill? Do you, like me, live in one of those states where electricity has been deregulated and the state no longer oversees the generation price so your utility rates have skyrocketed since 2002?

If so, you need to listen to a proposal being aired by Jim Rogers, the chairman and chief executive of Duke Energy, and recently filed with the North Carolina Utilities Commission. (Duke Energy is headquartered in Charlotte.) It’s called “save-a-watt,” and it aims to turn the electricity/utility industry upside down by rewarding utilities for the kilowatts they save customers by improving their energy efficiency rather than rewarding them for the kilowatts they sell customers by building more power plants.

Mr. Rogers’s proposal is based on three simple principles. The first is that the cheapest way to generate clean, emissions-free power is by improving energy efficiency. Or, as he puts it, “The most environmentally sound, inexpensive and reliable power plant is the one we don’t have to build because we’ve helped our customers save energy.”

Second, we need to make energy efficiency something that is as “back of mind” as energy usage. If energy efficiency depends on people remembering to do 20 things on a checklist, it’s not going to happen at scale.

Third, the only institutions that have the infrastructure, capital and customer base to empower lots of people to become energy efficient are the utilities, so they are the ones who need to be incentivized to make big investments in efficiency that can be accessed by every customer.

The only problem is that, historically, utilities made their money by making large-scale investments in new power plants, whether coal or gas or nuclear. As long as a utility could prove to its regulators that the demand for that new plant was there, the utility got to pass along the cost, and then some, to its customers. Mr. Rogers’s save-a-watt concept proposes to change all of that.

“The way it would work is that the utility would spend the money and take the risk to make its customers as energy efficient as possible,” he explained. That would include installing devices in your home that would allow the utility to adjust your air-conditioners or refrigerators at peak usage times. It would include plans to incentivize contractors to build more efficient homes with more efficient boilers, heaters, appliances and insulation. It could even include partnering with a factory to buy the most energy-efficient equipment or with a family to winterize their house.

“Energy efficiency is the ‘fifth fuel’ — after coal, gas, renewables and nuclear,” said Mr. Rogers. “Today, it is the lowest-cost alternative and is emissions-free. It should be our first choice in meeting our growing demand for electricity, as well as in solving the climate challenge.”

Because energy efficiency is, in effect, a resource, he added, in order for utilities to use more of it, “efficiency should be treated as a production cost in the regulatory arena.” The utility would earn its money on the basis of the actual watts it saves through efficiency innovations. (California’s “decoupling” systems goes partly in this direction.)

At the end of the year, an independent body would determine how many watts of energy the utility has saved over a predetermined baseline and the utility would then be compensated by its customers accordingly.

“Over time,” said Mr. Rogers, “the price of electricity per unit will go up, because there would be an incremental cost in adding efficiency equipment — although that cost would be less than the incremental cost of adding a new power plant. But your overall bills should go down, because your home will be more efficient and you will use less electricity.”

Once such a system is in place, Mr. Rogers added, “our engineers would wake up every day thinking about how to squeeze more productivity gains out of new technology for energy efficiency — rather than just how to build a bigger transmission or distribution network to meet the growing demands of customers.” (Why don’t we think about incentivizing U.S. automakers the same way — give them tax rebates for save-a-miles?)

That is how you produce a more efficient energy infrastructure at scale. “Universal access to electricity was a 20th century idea — now it has to be universal access to energy efficiency, which could make us the most energy productive country in the world,” he added.

Pulling all this off will be very complicated. But if Mr. Rogers and North Carolina can do it, it would be the mother of all energy paradigm shifts.

Maureen Dowd is off today.

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