Swans Commentary » swans.com August 27, 2007  



Blips #57
 From The Martian Desk


by Gilles d'Aymery




"Nothing can confound a wise man more than laughter from a dunce."
—Lord Byron, Don Juan


(Swans - August 27, 2007)   COPY EDITOR NEEDED: Two weeks ago, after having posted the August 13 issue the preceding evening, I found four typos in my Blips #56, which I immediately corrected. That same morning, as I was working on the Archives, I found a much worse typo; this time in a title no less -- "Bruce Anderson's Latest Roar." "Latest" was spelled "Lastest." Darn, I had to correct the front page, the article itself, and the link to it on all other pieces of that edition, then reload the entire issue in a hurry. I had originally entitled the piece "Bruce Anderson's Last Roar," which I subsequently chose to soften. After all, Anderson may well have a long reserve of roars. So, I added "est" to "Last" and forgot to remove the "s" before the "t." Both co-editor Jan Baughman and I went through the piece several times. Neither caught the boo-boo. Embarrassing, to say the least.

WE PRIDE OURSELVES in the quality of our editing. Various contributors and readers have on occasion praised our editing efforts; efforts that are rarely found in Web publications. Have you read CounterPunch lately? Those folks epitomize the old adage that quantity is the enemy of quality. Then again, let's not be too critical of the CP gang. They have little time to "sweat the small stuff," to quote Joe Lelyveld, the former executive editor of The New York Times. Lelyveld, in the words of Clark Hoyt, the recently-appointed public editor of the august paper, "bemoaned 'the malignancy of misspelled names,' pointing out, among other things, that The Times had misspelled the first name of Madeleine Albright, who was then secretary of state, 49 times, despite running three corrections." How bad is the paper of record? From January 1 to August 11, 2007, the paper has issued 269 corrections of misspelled names. Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, has been spelled "Gonzalez" 14 times since 2001. Neiman Marcus, the department store, has been misspelled 195 times since 1930. And on, and on, and on... They even manage to repeatedly botch the spelling of Sulzberger, the family name of the newspaper's owners! That's how bad it is. As Hoyt wonders, "If they can't spell [a] name right, what else is wrong with the story?"

DEAD SINGER PERFORMS AT LOCAL EVENT: In the August 8 edition of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, publisher/editor Bruce Anderson waxed lyrically that "the great John Lee Hooker, bluesman extraordinaire, will appear live at the Navarro store this Saturday . . . . which will probably turn out to be the biggest public event in the town's history." The only problem with that announcement is that Boom Boom, the Boogie Man, has been dead for about six years (June 21, 2001). I should know. We were neighbors. He was living a short distance away in a modest Redwood City (San Francisco Bay Area) tract house on a cul-de-sac -- though, if memory serves, he died in Los Altos, a plusher town where he also owned a home.

BRUCE CONFUSED daddy and sonny. It's John Lee Hooker, Jr. who's supposed to pass through the valley and make a stop at the Navarro store -- still an event of some import in our locality. His justification for the confusion: "I'm not a show biz guy." Well, that's all fine and dandy but it begs the question: If one is not a "show biz guy" and therefore cannot report or should be forgiven for erroneously reporting on a musical event, how can one report on the County supervisors and local politicos without having ever been a supervisor or a politico? Or how can one report on and lambaste the wineries without ever having been a winemaker? Etc., etc., etc. Obviously, this is a lame excuse. One can, so long as one goes through the intense effort to check one's facts, always remain skeptical of one's own judgment, and keep a high degree of intellectual prudence.

A LACK OF ACCURACY can have serious and tragic consequences. Evidently, Bruce's case of mistaken identity was largely harmless, but take the reports by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon in 2002 and early 2003 on Iraq's WMDs and mushroom clouds over American cities and soon enough you get yourself into an endless war based on fabrications, rumors, and unchecked facts. Worse, look how the corporate media has not learnt its lesson and is once again goading the American people into yet another war, this time Iran, by disseminating alleged but unproven intelligence, misquotations (e.g., Ahmadinejad never said that "Israel must be wiped off the map"), and strident war-like remarks by politicians on both sides of the aisle. If you think I am exaggerating, I'd suggest you go on C-SPAN and check the little dance Sallai Meridor, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., did on August 23, 2007 at the Nixon Center in Washington D.C. "We're running out of time," said the oh-so-peaceful ambassador who's advocating yet another war. Facts, like spelling, indeed matter.

AT SWANS, WE STRIVE for excellence in both form and content. I know it's an unachievable proposition (and we do make mistakes now and then), but we do our utmost to achieve that goal. Most of our time is spent peeling though the work of contributors. We communicate with them, ask questions, make suggestions. We not only single-check, but almost always double-check for accuracy of factual assertions. As Clark Hoyt noted, "Reporters checking names on the Internet are carelessly misled by other people's misspellings." Everything must be double-checked. It takes a huge amount of time and effort. That's one reason, among others, we only publish on a bi-weekly basis. This kind of attention has allowed us to catch a couple of plagiarizers whose deceptions would have thrown a shadow of opprobrium on the entire contributing staff, and to avoid embarrassing mistakes for quite a few authors (e.g., someone spelling Cindy Sheehan "Sheean").

BUT STRIVING FOR PERFECTION in a world of Blackberries, iPhones, YouTube, and rampant illiteracy looks increasingly like a lost cause or a futile exercise. Fewer and fewer people care. The sheer amount of ad-driven, Madison Ave.-packaged output -- almost limitless -- dwarfs the editing skills required to produce an informing, thoughtful, quality outlet. Note the difference between marketing output and thoughtful information. We are broke. They pay dividends. That's all one can say for now.


ON WHICH PLANET IS HE LIVING? Chief muckraker Alexander Cockburn recently wrote:

One consequence of the [Minneapolis] bridge collapse is a torrent of news stories and editorials about America's rotting infrastructure. This hardy perennial gets a trot around the block every five years, or whenever a gas main blows up or a bridge falls down. A decade ago the uproar was about the interstate system. To read the stories, you'd think half the major highways in the United States were in terminal disrepair. They're not. I've driven over most of them, and they're in pretty good shape.

It's mostly bunkum, designed to enrich concrete tycoons and advance pork barrel high projects. A Californian variant on this is Earthquake retrofitting, an amazing racket.

PUZZLING SATEMENT from a man who seems to have lost it. I mean, Cockburn lives in Petrolia, Northern California, about 170 miles from where I reside. Has he ridden south along the costal Route 1 lately? Or, when he goes on a road trip, does he ride through Mattole Road, east to Highway 101, and south to San Francisco? And has he driven through the streets of San Francisco ever? Tried Hwy 128 or 253 lately, Cockburn? Is it because he is asleep at the wheel that he does not notice the potholes, the cracks, the bumps, and the decrepitude? Simply dumbfounding...and uninformed.

MAYBE ONE HAS TO own up to one's reputation, that of being a muckraker taking a contrary position on every possible issue, but this one should be placed near the top of the baloney index. Like the late Seymour Melman or the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) were in the pockets of concrete tycoons. Yeah, sure. Has Cockburn lost his mind and his mojo? Pipes blowing up, bridges falling down, caving roadways, levees falling apart, dams left to abandon, public school buildings in disrepair, and on, and on, and on... Has his brain joined the list?

IT'S LONG PAST DUE he revisits the shores of his childhood. He will understand the difference between a maintained infrastructure and one left to abandon. According to an October 2006 report available at tripnet.org, "twenty-six percent of the nation's major metropolitan roads -- interstates, freeways and other critical local routes -- have pavements in poor condition, resulting in rough rides and costing the average urban motorist $383 annually in additional vehicle operating costs due to accelerated vehicle deterioration, additional maintenance needs and increased fuel consumption." Other findings:

The ten urban regions with at least 500,000 people where motorists pay the most annually in additional vehicle maintenance because of roads in poor condition are: San Jose -- $705, Los Angeles -- $693, San Francisco -- Oakland -- $654, Kansas City -- $651, San Diego -- $618, Sacramento -- $608, New Orleans (pre-Katrina) -- $603, Oklahoma City -- $568, Omaha -- $560 and St. Louis -- $559. [...]

With current funding, pavement conditions are likely to worsen. A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) report to Congress indicates that through 2022 the nation will fall short of the cost of maintaining current urban pavement conditions by $76 billion and will fall short of making significant repairs by $138 billion. Maintaining urban roads in their current condition would require increasing current funding for road repairs by 40 percent and it would take a 73 percent increase to significantly improve urban pavement conditions.

The current $10.2 billion balance in the highway account of the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which funds numerous road, bridge and highway improvements, is expected to decrease to $2.4 billion by the year 2008 and will have a $2.3 billion deficit in 2009, based on revenue projections by the U.S. Treasury.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that from June 2005 to June 2006, the price of materials used for road and highway construction in the U.S. increased by 16 percent. This significant increase in highway construction costs was spurred by increases in the cost for asphalt, concrete and diesel fuel.

THESE FINDINGS are widely confirmed by the ASCE. The same is true with our aging water pipes and tunnels. According to a NY Times Editorial ("Keeping Cool, Clear Tap Water," August 18, 2007), "In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that it would take nearly $277 billion to keep the nation's water distribution systems up to par over the next 20 years." I suppose Cockburn would only see another "amazing racket designed to enrich [plumbing] tycoons" this time around -- "mostly bunkum," eh Cockburn?

A MORE SERIOUS QUESTION regarding our decrepit infrastructure is posed by Fran Shor in his August 13, 2007, article "All Fall Down: A Culture of Collapse," ironically also published in CounterPunch. Shor, a professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, asks pertinently: "Infrastructure for what?" Good question. To repair and improve the infrastructure to do more of the same? He asks further: "What is the environmental impact of improving the conditions of our nation's roads if that means that more and more private polluting transportation gets conveyed over greater distances by far-flung individual commuters? Shouldn't the logic of providing additional travel opportunities for gas-guzzling and CO2 spewing automobiles, SUV's, and trucks be questioned? Unfortunately, we have become so habituated to our pathological built environment that we seem to be in denial of its minor and major flaws." He concludes his thoughts thusly:

So, if we are to address our survival as a county [ed. I suppose Shor means "country" but we all know the editing prowess of the CP folks!], let alone as a species, we need to consider the serious consequences of the kind of culture we inhabit. While repairing infrastructure may save lives in the short run, what does it mean for our environmental and economic sustainability to pour money and human resources into the very built environment that is a threat to our existence? If we want to avoid total collapse, we need to spend some time and energy in thinking about the implications of our built environment and the culture that surrounds it.

PERHAPS WHAT SHOR SUGGESTS is a perfect example of a false choice -- to repair or not to repair, which either way leads to collapse. But what about repairing and maintaining our current infrastructure without adding to them? To fix what needs be fixed but not add new roads, new bridges, road enlargements to fight traffic congestion, etc. -- and by the same token think about the development of an entirely different socioeconomic system. When a cancer is gnawing at a body, you try to stabilize the body before fighting and hopefully killing the disease. You don't wait till the disease has entered its final destructive phase to combat it. I know the tendency in some milieus to advocate letting the system collapse under its own weight thus forcing us all to adapt to the new environment, with the belief -- often ideological -- or the hope that a new, better system will be erected on the ruins of the former one. It may have some sort of revolutionary appeal, but we also know how bloody revolutions run their course.

I'M NOT INTIMATING or inferring that Fran Shor, a very cordial man who occasionally contributes to Swans, belongs to these milieus or that he is salivating at the idea of, or praying for, collapse. I'm sure he is not. What I want to bring to mind is that the conundrum should not become an either-or proposition. As a society, we know quite well what's required to power down rather than power up the economic system. What we seem not to know is how to create the political and societal will to power down. Perhaps we need less muckraking journalism, fewer rants against the villains, and focus our efforts toward putting together a set of practical solutions that can relentlessly be pushed forward to our elected representatives. If not, we are kind of left with the old Ed Murrow saying, "good night, and good luck."


SUMMER GOSSIP from the other side of town: The socialite Brooke Astor, the Grande Dame of Charities in New York City who died recently at age 105, would put a fresh pair of white kid gloves on each and every night. Apparently she had dozens and dozens of pairs. What happened to them after having been used once? They were sent to a cleaner in Paris, France, and shipped back to her, or more probably to her French maid, Raymonde Tissot-Bellin. Mrs. Astor though was not a villain or, better said, a villaine. She used to say, quoting Thornton Wilder, "Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around." Over the course of almost 40 years she gave away some $195 million to New York City organizations like the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden, the Morgan Library, and countless other non-profits. She also helped animal shelters, homeless people, boys' and girls' clubs, poor tenements in Harlem, etc. When her husband Victor Astor died in the late 1950s he left her with almost $120 million, half for her and half for a foundation, which he wanted created "for the alleviation of human suffering." The white-kid-gloves woman did just that with a flair that gained her repute, accolade, and affection from all walks of city life -- from the poorest to the wealthiest neighborhoods. I wish these wealthy people did not exist and that the manure needed not be spread around but shared among all, but since they do perhaps could they emulate her example.

REMINDER: Bring back the tax cuts to their 2000 level for the 0.21% of taxpayers who are millionaires and the US Treasury would collect an additional $43 billion a year, trumping Mrs. Astor's generosity by a factor of approximately 8,820,513% on a yearly basis. Say, Mrs. Astor disbursed $195 million over 40 years. That's about $4.875 million a year (in non constant dollars evidently). A simple equation, if I recall my arithmetic properly: 4.875 by x / 100 equals 430,000, or x = 43,000,000 / 4.875. Math enthusiasts (are there any left in America?) can correct me. Staggering, no? And imagine bringing back the tax rates that existed under the Eisenhower administration... When will the wealthy become less "charitable" but pay their fair share for the well being of the commons? Or will those of us in the ever-shrinking middle of American polity continue to be taken to the cleaners for the benefit of the few? This is not a rhetorical question. It's a reality that's occurring right under our exhausted eyes (and wallets), just like an old 16mm black & white footage. It has nothing to do with populism or radicalism, just common sense. Wake up, people.


CITATION FOR THE AGES: "I champion the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the simple and the persecuted. I maintain that whosoever benefits or hurts a man benefits or hurts the whole species. I sought my liberty and the liberty of all, my happiness and the happiness of all. I wanted a roof for every family, bread for every mouth, education for every heart, light for every intellect. I am convinced that human history has not yet begun, that we find ourselves in the last period of the prehistoric. I see with the eyes of my soul how the sky is diffused with the rays of the new millennium."
-- Bartolomeo Vanzetti. June 11, 1888 - August 23, 1927


THE HORROR OF ALL HORRORS. On August 6, 2007, The New York Times reduced the width of the paper by 1.5 inches down to 12 inches. We only buy the Sunday edition at the local grocery store -- they don't deliver in the boonies. The incredibly shrunk format, by more than 10 percent, looked horrible. It had a different, cheap feel, the front page much too crowded, without any airy space or texture. They even cut the length of the Book Review section by 1.5 inches (they had to, so that it would now fit in the smaller format), which now looks like an ugly duckling, all proportions lost. I understand that the company's revenues dropped 3.5% in July compared to a year ago, and the TimesSelect subscription on their Web site is not the smashing success they had hoped. Of the reported 771,400 subscribers only 29% are paying subscriptions (60% are people who subscribe to the paper and receive TimesSelect for free, and another 11% college students and teachers who also receive the benefit for free). So they've chosen to cut their newsprint expenses and offer fewer words (there goes more editors) to their readers but they kept the price intact (actually, in the New York area, they hiked the rate a few weeks ago). So, less space, fewer words, crowded space, plain ugly, and still plenty of ads and a $5 price tag. Those people are shameless!

 . . . . .

Ç'est la vie...

And so it goes...


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La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.
Supporting the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a 
difference for Swans.

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Internal Resources

Blips and Tidbits

America, Myths & Realities


About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery on Swans (with bio). He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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This Edition's Internal Links

Gulag For Critics - Charles Marowitz

Is Life A Set Of Infundibula? - Carol Warner Christen

Keeping Hope On Life Support - Jan Baughman

Check Your Sources - Gilles d'Aymery

Blips #58 - From the Martian Desk - Gilles d'Aymery

Is This Not Genocide? - Philip Greenspan

Gold - Martin Murie

Don't Bite The Dog Please - Humor by Peter Byrne

Guardian Angel - Short Story by Marie Rennard

A Pinch Of Black Salt - Book Review by Peter Byrne

Polyhedron n. 8: History Two - Poem by Guido Monte & Francesca Saieva

Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art13/desk057.html
Published August 27, 2007