Adventures in Bureaucracy
Sunday, January 26, 2003
Something to consider before signing up for the Foreign Service exam.
Saturday, January 25, 2003
Lots of stuff on the Franco-German alliance versus the rest of Europe at Innocents Abroad.
European politics is getting really interesting these days. As if the Franco-German proposals for essentially splitting the governance of the European Union between the two countries weren't bad enough, the French have joined the Germans in decalring that war is not an option in dealing with Iraq. Now it is clear that the two big countries in the EU have sharply diverged from the United States and the United Kingdom, and it looks like the rest of the countries on the Continent now have to make a decision on which path to follow.

An article in "The Scotsman" describes the current attitudes among the various governments of the EU countries:
"On present showing, Spain, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands broadly support the UK’s position alongside America. Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece and Austria are behind France and Germany in opposing war. Somewhere in the middle are Ireland, Portugal, Finland, and Sweden, determined to ensure that nothing is done without United Nations approval, but reluctant to criticise Washington’s increasingly hawkish stance."

It's interesting how the breakdown in some respects mirrors national feelings on the EU. Denmark and the Netherlands have traditionally been Britain's allies in EU wranglings, the Netherlands because of its tradition of freer, more open markets, Denmark because of its tradition of Euroskepticism (they were one of the few countries not to go into the euro currency zone). Italy and Spain, long supporters of the grand European ideal, have been less enthusiastic on the idea of late.

Germany and France have been the driving forces behind ever-increasing European integration, and they have been floating the idea of group representation for the EU countries, so there would be one EU embassy in Washington instead of one per constituent country. They have also pushed for a single EU foreign policy, an EU military force and the elevation of a single Europe above all. Now they are proponents of a constitution for Europe to bring the Continent another step closer to unity.

The United States has traditionally encouraged European unity as a way of preventing another conflagration like World War II, even establishing a mission to the European Union in Brussels. Now, however, it looks like the U.S. diplomatic corps is really earning its pay in bilateral talks. There's not a lot of information out there (at least not in languages I can read), but some of the reports are intriguing., which has Danish news in English, cites an article about U.S. negotiations with Denmark about Iraq, and it looks like it may get a favorable hearing:
"Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has held open the possibility of government support for a US military offensive on Iraq without the blessing of the UN Security Council. Despite strenuous debate in the halls of parliament, the opposition has been unable to force Fogh Rasmussen to tie support for an Iraq war to the terms of a new UN resolution."

Villepin's speech earlier this week was a bombshell, and it looks like the European ministries of foreign affairs are mulling over how to respond to it. The United States Institute of Peace Library site has links to the websites of many of the world's ministries, and a quick search through the EU countries' press releases shows that most of them have not made any formal statements on the topic. The most important topic of the day is absent. There are exceptions. France's site, naturally, has text of Villepin's remarks, and Spain's has text of the Minister of Foreign Affairs' remarks before a congressional committee. My Spanish is pretty rusty, but it looks like she said that there's a definite connection between Iraq and terrorism, so it doesn't look like the standard diplo waffling there. That can be found on Finland's site, which has the standard declaration of support for the United Nations, as well as a ministerial statement on the increased interdependency between the United States and the EU. My favorite was the terse announcement on the Greek site: Postponement of briefing of diplomatic journalists by foreign ministry spokesman Mr. Panagiotis Beglitis. That was supposed to be today, but I suppose it takes a while to get a position hammered out that tries to stay in good with both sides.

More interesting still are events outside of Rumsfeld's "Old Europe". The Franco-German power play within the EU could not have been welcome news in the candidate countries to the East, where electoral passage of the accession treaties was not a given even before the latest proposals on EU leadership. Foreign policy matters can only complicate the issue further. Memories are long in that part of the world, where the last big agreement on foreign policy between Germany and Russia brought fifty years of misery to the smaller countries in between.

There's not much on the MFA sites, but it looks like the diplomats have been busy nonetheless. Slovenia has a press release indicating U.S. overtures, though it sounds like they're still on the fence. Radio Prague reports on similar in the Czech Republic, where the issue is as controversial as it is elsewhere. Poland has always had a strong affinity for the United States, and it looks like diplomatic efforts with Poland are going well.

A lot of commentary recently has said that the positions of Germany and France have effectively destroyed NATO as an a functioning alliance. The bond between the two countries looks set to increase the pressures on members and candidate members of the European Union. The United States has had a long-standing policy of encouraging the EU enterprise. It will be interesting to see what happens with that policy and with US relations to individual European countries as a result the actions of France and Germany.
Monday, January 20, 2003
Now here's something you don't see every day. Well, except maybe in Bangkok.
Mature political discourse in action in San Francisco (via Little Green Footballs). I like the part about INS "disappearing" people. They must have found out about the gulags in North Dakota where the U.S. government puts all our illegal aliens and political prisoners. I'll have to bring that up at the office tomorrow.

The discussion thread is pretty good. My personal favorite:

Thank You
by Not Yet • Monday January 20, 2003 at 10:25 AM
Im a foreign anarchist who has been living in the US for several years. A few days ago, I was denied reentry into the US, interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted, searched, handcuffed and boarded onto the next plane back. Its a pretty big crisis in my life. I have to pursue some more legal options before being very public with this, but more to come.
These pictures have me crying for joy.
Keep up the fight, you are in the belly of the beast, and in a better position than anyone to stop this madness.
Hasta la Victoria siempre!"

Everyone says INS is incompetent, but they got YOU, "Not Yet". I'm guessing you were a B2 resident, huh? Bummer you got caught, dude.
Oh jeez, ANOTHER one, this time with the ever-popular "What about the children?" angle thrown in for good measure.

"I think the INS would get close to 98 percent compliance [with the registration program] if it promised not to automatically put people with pending applications in deportation proceedings." In other words, this program would get lots of names on a list if INS would just ignore all the ones illegally in the country. But then, those words were spoken by an immigration lawyer, and they are the ones who are supposed to help people stay.

It's hard not to feel some sort of sympathy for them (the illegal immigrants, not the immigration lawyers - I've got no sympathy for them whatsoever), since they are mostly just looking for the same American Dream as every other immigrant. Still, every single article I read about this registration program focuses on people who intentionally broke immigration laws, and the family described here is no exception - and contrary to the article, I doubt that most are "on the verge" of getting green cards that they would have already obtained but for INS processing delays. The closest thing I can see to a "2001 amnesty" was the passage of the LIFE Act (I had to go digging for this; I've been away from this immigration stuff too long, I guess), and this was not a general amnesty. Rather, its legalization provisions were aimed at cleaning up cases left over from the big amnesty in the 1980s, but it did not grant residence to people who had otherwise been here working illegally.

The LIFE Act did bring back the infamous 245(i), which was sometimes described as an amnesty, but was really just a way to get some extra cash. Immigration law does provide for people who come to the United States as non-immigrants (tourists, students and the like) to apply to become legal permanent residents. The catch is that they still have to be in legal status to do it, so overstays don't qualify. Ordinarily, they would have to leave the United States to apply for an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate overseas. The 245(i) provision in the LIFE Act waived the "legal status" bit and allowed out-of-status people to file for green cards with the payment of an extra $1000 fee. (This always sounded a bit banana republic to me, as if the U.S. government were soliciting a pay-off to look the other way at a violation of the law... but for the applicant, it's still cheaper than paying to fly back home and wait out the immigrant visa there.)

Still, th efact that an application was made does not guarantee residence. The most reliable way to get a green card is through family relationships, generally to a U.S. citizen. The article mentions that Mohammed has relatives in Falls Church, so this might be how he applied - but it's going to be a long wait, as the quota numbers for distant relatives are heavily oversubscribed. Employment-based applications have to go through additional hoops, but it doesn't look like Mohammed has an employer to sponsor him. The last option is the visa lottery, but again, it seems unlikely that Mohammed has a chance.

So basically, he's screwed. The registration program does not allow Mohammed the option he wants, i.e., he legally registers but is allowed to continue illegal residence. He knows the options he has, and neither one is especially attractive. Failure to register and his continued illegal presence would probably torpedo whatever application he's got when his number finally comes up, but if he registers, he's almost certain to be deported to Morocco to wait out the time until he can get a legal immigrant visa. It's his choice to make. But the fact that he's got a difficult decision does not mean that the registration program itself is a bad or ineffective. There are plenty of good arguments to be made against the registration program, but the fact that it puts some illegal aliens in a tough spot is not one of them.
Sunday, January 19, 2003
As much time as I spend writing stuff, this doesn't seem so bad. Nothing I'd go out of my way to see, mind you, but I'd stop a few minutes to have a look if I were in th eneighborhood. I hope they've included my own personal favorite, Verdana.
I love the headline on this article.

Iraqi Scientist Accuses U.N. of 'Mafia' Tactics

Physicist Says Wife Offered Medical Care Abroad

Medical care? Bastards! Can cement shoes and horse's heads be far behind?
Saturday, January 18, 2003
This brief article got my attention, partly because of the subject, and partly because of a single word.

My degree way back when focused in part on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the story of Jan Palach was a particularly gruesome episode in the sad story of post-war Czechoslovakia. The reforms of the Prague Spring of 1968 had been crushed by an invasion by fraternal Warsaw Pact forces. By January 1969, the brief period of hope was over, and Czechoslovakia was on its way to becoming one of the most repressive regimes in the Warsaw Pact. On January 16 of that year, a university student in Prague named Jan Palachset himself on fire to protest. He died three days later, becoming a symbol for those opposed to Communism.

The word "marasm" used by Jiri Dienstbier appears to be another form of "marasmus", a medical term referring to the progressive wasting away of the body, usually from malnutrition. Communism Soviet style certainly led to a wasting away of the soul, and by January 1969 the writing was certainly on the wall that Soviet-style Communism was returning to Czechoslovakia. So Palach set himself on fire in one of the main squares of Prague to protest the re-imposition of a harsh Communist yoke.

I always wondered about Palach's motivation. Was there something not-quite-right about him that broke in 1969? Did he set out to become a symbol, or hope that this act could help turn back the clock? Did he dread the dehumanization of the system that was looming before him? Was it insanity or courage that led him to do what he did?

Whatever the answer, I also wonder how all the people who shrilly complain that we are losing our liberties in the United States in 2003 would react if faced with Palach's situation in January 1969. The respected leaders of his time had been whisked off to Moscow, and the freedoms granted the previous year had suddenly been snatched away. The largely theoretical loss of civil liberties I've heard about (as I have not actually seen any evidence of these losses) are nothing compared to real loss of freedom that took place not so very long ago, not so very far away.
The demonstrations went on today without me to comment on them. My Amazon order came in today, so there was no reason to go out into the cold.
More fall-out from the registration program. Some recent articles illustrate one of the wide open doors in the immigration system: asylum. The only difference between an asylee and a refugee is that a refugee applies for status outside the United States, while an asylee is present in the country before claiming persecution. And that's the legal standard - the qualification for getting political asylum is well-founded fear of persecution because of one's race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Well, that's how it's supposed to work anyhow, and that's more or less how it did work during the Cold War. There was almost a romance to it back in the 1980s, when Russian dancers and Czech tennis players would come to the U.S. and then at some point say, "I defect." Most of them went the political opinion route (apparently being of the opinion that it was much better to make millions and keep it rather than turning it all over to the state to help the proletariat).

But times have changed. Now it seems that the main avenue is claiming membership in a particular social group - and legal decisions keep distorting and expanding the definition of "social group" with every new claim. This in turn has led to a shift from granting asylum to those with fear of persecution by foreign governments towards granting it to just about anyone with a tale of woe. Domestic violence? Genital mutilation? Terrible things to be sure. Are they the kinds of country-wide threats to people that merit asylum? They are now.

So the system often rewards the creative, like this woman from Ghana, whose story of a flight from threatened genital mutilation won her widespread sympathy, and eventually asylum. Except it appears that none of it was true, and that the woman had lied about just about everything, including her name. It's interesting to read that her case was originally granted by federal court, meaning that the asylum officers and subsequent immigration hearings all probably found her story not credible and/or not within the scope of asylum. But the final court of appeal decided it did.

This kind of thing is probably not so exceptional. It's not exclusively an American problem either. Most Western countries - and the Anglophone countries in particular - have a strong tradition of granting protection to the weak through their immigration systems. The United States, Canada and Australia all have vigorous refugee screening processes, and each country has opened its doors to thousands upon thousands of people who do face true persecution in their home countries. Asylum is a trickier proprosition, as the applicants are already physically present within the countries, and it's much, much harder to verify whether their stories are true or whether they are complete fabrications.

Australia in particular has had some widely-publicized cases of fraudulent asylum applications. The Ali Bakhtiari case in particular garnered a lot of attention last summer. Bakhtiari had arrived in Australia and claimed asylum as an Afghan facing persecution by the Taliban regime. His family entered illegally a few years later and were sent to a detention center, since Australia has a policy of mandatory detention of would-be asylum seekers until their bona fides can be verified. It turned out that the Bakhtiari family was not from Afghanistan at all, but from Pakistan. Like most migrants, they were prompted to turn abroad for economic reasons, but thought they'd have a better chance of being allowed to stay by claiming hard-to-verify political persecution.

And all of this is what I think about when I read articles like this, about Pakistanis who are illegally present in the United States asking for asylum in Canada. Political persecution at home? Maybe. Economic migrants hoping that Canada is the soft touch so many say it is? More likely.
A lovely Saturday morning in Washington, and the big event in the city is the demonstration downtown. I had thought about going into the city to have a look and write about it. I see it's 16 degrees F. Hmmm.... wander around in the cold, talking to random people with signs for blog fodder? Or stay in my cozy warm apartment, talking to myself?
Tuesday, January 14, 2003
A friend of mine who studied in Germany says that the Germans are perhaps the most twisted people on the face of the earth. Things like this do nothing to disprove that theory (via Wog Blog). This doesn't help much either.
Sunday, January 12, 2003
I just saw something so appalling, so horrible, so plain wrong that it may change my life forever. I still don't believe my eyes, but, yes, it was Tony Danza RAPPING on some awards show. I may never watch television again.
I just finished reading "Casino Moscow", a book that leaves me with no hope for the future of Russia. This passage says a lot:

"Part of the allure of expatriate life is that you are neither subject to the local mores nor constrained by the prevailing value system of your own culture. Since you're a million miles from home, you can act like a frat boy during spring break in Tijuana and save the false sanctimony for later, when you're safely stateside."

Although the expatriate life is much more fun when you're in a capital city where your employer picks up most of the big expenses than when you are living in the economy in the wilds of Slovakia.
Saturday, January 11, 2003
And one more note about today's Post article: "Officious, yes, but polite." Kind of an off-handed cheap shot there, eh?
These news stories about the registration program are started to wear on my nerves. It seems that the approved story line for this one is to compare it to the internments of Japanese ethnics during World War II. Yes, the nasty U.S. government is at it again, arresting Muslims this time for absolutely no reason at all, leading them to feel afraid of their own adopted country.

Almost all the news coverage of the issue that I've read or seen focuses on feelings of fear and unease about people subject to the registration requirement, and about how these people feel that America has betrayed them. It's easy to sympathize with the registrants, since just about everyone in this country would much rather be here than in, say, Yemen or Algeria. But this is where most of the coverage stops, especially with today's article in the Washington Post.

Some things tend to get obscured in most reporting that I've seen, such as who is required to register in the first place. According to today's article, it's "males age 16 and older from 20 countries, including Iran, Sudan, Syria, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are required to register with the INS". That's part of it, but it's misleading, because the biggest blur in all these reports is the difference between an immigrant and a non-immigrant.

The Immigration and Nationality Act and attendant rules and regulations provide a detailed list of who is eligible to enter the country. "Immigrants" are those who are permitted to reside permanently within the United States. Familial relationships, job sponsorships and even the visa lottery can all lead to lawful immigrant status according to the law. Legal residence is almost as good as citizenship, and legal residents can do just about anything that an American citizen can do except vote - and even that has been overlooked. Legal immigrants from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest do NOT have to register under this program.

The INA also provides for the entry of "non-immigrants." These include students, temporary workers, diplomats, crew members and tourists - the eligibilities are listed in exhaustive detail and got translated into the various non-immigrant visa categories. Non-immigrants do NOT have the same legal status as immigrants do, and their categoriy determines what they are allowed to do within the country. Temporary workers are, naturally, eligible to work in the United States, for example, but tourists are not. NSEERS applies only to non-immigrants from the various countries listed. All non-immigrants, whatever their category, are allowed in for a certain purpose and are expected to depart once they have fulfilled it.

And this little legal nicety seems to get buried in most news stories about NSEERS, but it's crucially important to understanding the controversy around it. The single most common type of non-immigrant entry falls under the classification "B-2". That's an entry for tourism or personal reasons, like visiting relatives or friends. The most basic bit of training for every new Immigration Inspector: "B-2s get six months." Then they get a stamp and are shoved into a booth to welcome the world to America. B-2 entrants are allowed to stay legally up to six months, with the possibility for later extensions.

However, there are practically no controls on people once inside the United States, so people who do not qualify for legal immigrant status may opt to obtain a tourist visa instead. Once they've entered, they stay. I've read news reports estimating more than 11 million "illegal aliens" living in the United States, with some estimates indicating that more than half entered legally and then stayed beyond their legal period of admission.

Of course, many people see nothing wrong with that. "They're the ones playing by the rules. They want nothing more than to be legal. Why should they be treated like criminals?" So why is the INS picking on these poor people? They didn't even do anything wrong! Just a technical foul, really, not a SERIOUS breach of law, kind of like speeding on the Beltway or fudging your taxes. Remember that explanation next time you're pulled over or audited. Sure, other people may get away with these things every day, but the ones who get ticketed or billed for missed taxes generally don't play the victim card.

Not so with those picked up at NSEERS registration. It seems none of them have done anything wrong at all! It's just the wicked and capricious government trying to harass Muslims for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Look at Abdel in today's article, just a working man who filled out an application for a labor permit. At first I thought he was the same Moroccan chef mentioned in yesterday's article, but that one clearly spells out that he entered as a tourist four years ago and never left or became legal. Four years! That's a little longer than six months, and it's more than enough time to have gone to Disney World. Sure, he also applied for a legal work visa. At one point I applied for a job at Citibank, but I didn't claim a right to an office there before Personnel made their decision. But today's article makes no mention of Abdel's status - he was apparently detained on bureaucratic whim.

My guess is that most of the people who have been detained are people who overstayed their tourist entries, or were students for the last fifteen years while forgetting to attend classes, or things like that. Many of the reports mention criminal violations in passing, without ever elaborating, so I'm guessing this means that some people with outstanding warrants have also been arrested. But I can't say for sure, because most coverage seems to go for establishing pathos and nothing more.

Enough with the feelings already. It's lazy reporting. There is plenty of room for argument on this program - Is it effective? Can it actually help identify terrorist cells? Is it the best way to achieve the goals it's meant to fulfill? Will it help or hinder the war on terrorism? Can it monitor the thousands and thousands of non-immigrants in this country? But instead we just get the sad stories of people caught up in the program who have broken no laws. Well, except for the one about staying beyong your legal period of admission.
Tuesday, January 07, 2003
The Department of Homeland Security is going to be a really big employer when it gets off the ground, so if you're considering a federal job, this might be a good time to get in on the ground floor. I've heard predictions of lots of retirements after DHS starts consolidating the various security agencies, so there's no better time to rocket up that career ladder! So if you're thinking of a career in DHS, you might want a little guidance. And since nobody asked, I'm just the one to give it!

There are loads of positions available in agencies that will soon be DHS, but think carefully before applying about which one is right for you.

First, the position nearest and dearest to my heart - the Immigration Inspector. If you're looking for variety and you like people, this is the job for you, because you'll meet lots and lots of people. Bus-, plane- and train-loads of people. Most of them are fine, but you quickly learn where stereotypes come from (get any group of inspectors together and you will eventually hear one of them saying "But I am French, I do not need a visa!" in a bad Inspector Clouseau accent. This is typically brought up after somebody mentions that the French can't fill out a landing form to save their lives.). You also get to work weekends and holidays, and there's plenty of overtime to be had. Burn-out time is usually around five years. A particularly good job to consider if you want to live in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Buffalo, El Paso or San Diego, as those places are always hiring.

Customs Inspectors get all the same benefits, as well as being able to find out all the bizarre things that are stuck in people's luggage, and standing by while a suspected drug courier has a BM in a toilet that doesn't flush. What's not to love?

If you like being outside in the open air and like physical activity, the Border Patrol may be right for you. These guys deserve a lot of respect for putting up all the crap that they do (like getting rocks thrown at them from Mexico) and for living out in the middle of nowhere (two words: Marfa Sector). Plus, the pay is getting better, although it's pretty cheap to live in most of the places where Border Patrol operates.

Coast Guard has a really good reputation, and all the Coasties I've met seem to enjoy the work. Just the thing if you want to interdict boatloads of Cubans and Haitians.

Have a big ego and difficulty getting along with people? FBI could be for you! Seriously, I've never had any problems in my dealings with the Bureau, but they do tend to have a bad reputation among other law enforcement agencies.

Diplomatic Security has potential, and it has stolen a lot of people away from other agencies (like, say, Immigration and Customs). If you're considering other jobs with State, go Foreign Service, as the rumors I hear all say that the institutional culture there tends to crap all over those with Civil Service jobs. And if you want a Foreign Service job and make it to the oral interviews: always talk and talk and talk about the problems at hand, and always keep your supervisor informed.

Park Police? Cool job from what I hear, with a surprising amount of variety.

TSA? The perfect place to look for a job if you're facing starvation and repossession of your home. I don't know anything about the screener positions (but I will say that the TSA security I've seen has been totally professional and a huge improvement over the people that used to man the X-rays at Dulles!), but I have yet to hear anything good about Sky Marshall morale. People actually go BACK to Border Patrol to get away from it, so that should tell you something.

The opportunities are there, folks, so set aside a few hours to fill out all the paperwork today, and you could be in a great new job by winter!
The headline suckered me in, but after reading it I found that they are not actually recommending an increase in my salary. It's really talking about the high-level SES-type employees instead of the typical rank-and-file workers. Many of the recommendations make sense, and I particularly liked the reference to the "archipelago of agencies" with similar, overlapping functions. Shrinking the number of political employees is a good idea. Granted, there's a lot to be said for the management dynamic of a political appointee setting the goals while the professional staff with knowledge of the institution works to carry them out, but lots of the appointees get into positions where they are expected to know what the agency does and how it functoins. Without that knowledge the appointees are completely out of their depth and generally drag down morale.

The part about paying a salary to attract and retain lawyers is absolutely critical. Who wants a second-rate lawyer prosecuting a high-profile security case? It's too easy to blow it on the technical details, but the private sector offers much better incentives to the good lawyers (by which I mean the heartless bastards that grab on tight and don't let go).

The report focuses on top-level employees, but some of the concerns affect the entire bureaucracy. My experience is that when the economy is bad, the quality of federal job applicants improves. I would think that entry-level jobs these days are attracting a much better class of applicant than the same positions four years ago. Actually bringing people on board takes forever, since background checks for new hires tend to really delay the hiring process, but then, who else is hiring these days?
Now this sounds like an interesting course.
The more I read about the Washington sniper case, the stranger it becomes. It appears that John Allen Muhammad financed his stays in the Caribbean through the alien smuggling business, to the tune of $60,000. He had apparently been caught in the act of bringing in three Jamaicans in Miami, but he was selling false birth certificates and licenses as well, at $3000 a package. I have to wonder how many got through, since all the Jamaican fraud back in my day was pretty crappy and easy to pick up. All the really good stuff was used by the Chinese.
Monday, January 06, 2003
Over the weekend I was confronted by modern art. It’s my own fault, really, as I went seeking it our at the Arte Povera exhibit at the Hirshhorn. Some of the pieces were quite interesting to behold, and some of them displayed obvious technical skill on the part of the artist. Some were just plain annoying, like the one that constantly repeated some sound. I wondered how the guard could stand there and listen to it all day. Some of the pieces looked like bits of junk waiting to be hauled away. But in the end, it did raise that eternal question: But Is It Art?

Modern art in particular generally leaves me scratching my head. The works of ancient civilizations and those of the old masters presented ideals of beauty or brought to life ancient myths – pretty straight-forward stuff. Many brought in allegorical elements that conveyed certain meanings to the observers of their times. But when artists started to create works meant to Make A Statement, usually a political one, they lost me. It seems that art loses something when linked to politics (although this can be said of a lot of things besides art). Art is supposed to convey something of the eternal and transcendent, while politics is always grounded in its own times. A number of the works in the Arte Povera exhibit left me scratching my head. And I can’t be the only one, as I saw a number of people who spent more time reading the explanations to the works than looking at the works themselves.

I just don’t get the portrayal of mundane objects as High Art. Sure, meaning and wonder can be found in almost anything if you study it from the right perspective, but does that mean my bowl of oatmeal is art? No. Well, what if I put it in a really nice stoneware bowl, set it atop a shiny aluminum cylinder and put a sign next to it, explaining my vision of the universal need for sustenance, and how the oatmeal symbolizes the insipid boredom of modern life, with the bit of cinnamon and sugar representing our attempts to sweeten our existence? Then is it art?

Nope, it’s still breakfast.

Art should stand on its own, not rely on the curators to tell the viewer what it all means. Too much of the modern stuff seems to go for juvenile rebellion against the more classic forms, or simple shock value. How much of the stuff that is celebrated today will merit a second glance in fifty years?

Before you think I’m a complete philistine, there were a number of pieces I liked in this exhibit. My favorite was probably a painting by Michelangelo Pistoletto of women on a balcony. Their backs were to the viewer, and the work was on highly polished steel, so the painting simultaneously invited the viewer into the company of the women, who appeared to be looking at the reflection of the viewer. Pretty good play on traditional perspective, I thought.

After going through the exhibit, I looked at some of sculptures in the main collection. I can’t be the first to notice the uncanny resemblance of Matisse’s “Jeannette” busts to the “Spitting Image” puppets of Margaret Thatcher, can I?
Sunday, January 05, 2003
Media scare-mongering? Who'da thunk it?
Lawrence Block's "Burglar" books have some terrific dialogue, and this passage stuck with me:

She heaved a sigh. "All those Women With Cats," she said. "They didn't plan on it, Bern. They got a first cat, they got a second cat, they got a third cat, and all of a sudden they were gone."

"You don't think they might have been the least bit odd to begin with?"

"No," she said. "No, I don't. Oh, once in a while, maybe, you get a slightly wacko lady, and next thing you know she's up to her armpits in cats. But most of the Cat Ladies start out normal. By the time you get to the end of the story they're nuts, all right, but having thirty or forty cats'll do that to you. It sneaks up on you, and before you know it you're over the edge."

"And the Third Cat's the charm, huh?"

"No question. Bern, there are primitive cultures that don't really have numbers, not in the sense that we do. They have a word that means 'one,' and other words for 'two' and 'three,' and after that there's a word that just means 'more than three.' And that's how it is in our culture with cats. You can have one cat, you can have two cats, you can even have three cats, but after that you've got 'more than three.'"

"And you're a Woman With Cats."

"You got it."
The only people less reliable than Washington politicians are Washington meteorologists. This was billed in the forecast as "snow at times". There's now at least an inch on the ground outside my window and it's still coming down hard - not that I'm complaining. It's beautiful, and all my errands for the weekend are done, so I can sit back with a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy it!
Thursday, January 02, 2003
Of course, if I had actually been whoring for links, this would have been accompanied by several e-mails, and my haunting the comments sections of several of the blogs in question. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.
Like I said just moments ago, I am not one of those people who writes a blog in the hope of having thousands of strangers read it. But if I WERE going to whore for links, it might look something like this:

Knock knock. “Hello? Bob? Are you there? Hello?”

“I’m here. Come in.”

“I brought the things you asked for. Why are you dressed like Harry Potter?”

“Because we’re going to cast a spell for my blog.”

“Your blog? I like it. That piece about Madeline Albright in a thong was the most disturbing image I’ve had in my head all year.”

“I don’t write this thing for my friends! I’ve been at it for months already, and I still haven’t been linked to by the big sites. Months! I figured at the very least I’d have gotten an offer to write a sitcom for the WB by now. You brought the stuff I asked for?”

“Uh, yeah, I did, but I couldn’t figure out why you wanted some of it. Like this Ken Doll here.”

“That represents Robert Fisk. A real blogger always holds his feet to the fire. You brought the candles too?”

“Five of them, cinnamon scented.

“Very nice. What else have you got?”

“I suppose this Butterball turkey represents something too.”

“That’ll be Michael Moore. The giblets stand for all the stupid things that come out of his pie-hole, and the rest should be pretty self-explanatory. Bloggers can’t stand the guy.”

“How about this box of dry spaghetti?”

“I just need one piece. It represents Ann Coulter. Any mention of her is good for at least five hundred hits. People can make fun of her to prove that we’re not uncritical right-wingers.”

“I like her!”

“Hey, I don’t make the rules. What else?”

“OK, what’s this box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies for?”

“It’s a snack. I get hungry.”

“So what about this Greek dictionary?”

“Some of the big-name bloggers use Greek names. Atrios, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Porphyogenitus, Tacitus, Cato. I figure the dictionary will help me get into their league.”

“I think a lot of those are actually Latin.”

“Greek, Latin, they’re both dead languages. How about the whiskey?”

“Yes, I’ve got that.”

“Great. A lot of the really cool bloggers like a drink now and then, so I figure a few benders might do the trick for my site.”

“Are you sure you’re not drunk already?”

“Shut up.”

“Then why the adult diapers?”

“They’re a reminder. One way to get links is to annoy people with something, but there are a lot of people you don’t want to piss off. People with guns. People who anger easily. People who could kill you will their bare hands.”

“Does any of your blog strategy involve actually writing something people might want to read?”

“Quiet. I need to make sure the lines on this pentagram around the computer are straight. Besides, if it were that easy everyone would be doing it. OK. You’ve got the matches? Light the candles and repeat after me:
Glenn Reynolds, I invoke thee.
Glenn Reynolds, I invoke thee.
Glenn Reynolds, I invoke thee.”

“Have you completely lost your mind? He’s a professor in Tennessee. How’s he going to hear this?”

“He hears EVERYTHING. I’ve heard the rumors, but I have it figured out. He’s actually a cyborg.”

“What are you talking about? I’ve seen pictures of him!”

“But you’ve never seen the back of his head, have you? That’s where the modem is. The wires go right into his brain. Now shut up while a new era in blogging begins.”

"I think you might need another hobby."
For some reason I couldn’t let this one (via Tim Blair) pass without comment:

The still-exploding number of non-institutional website blogs will slow down considerably by next summer. There are too many already and just a few will survive, those who hook up with other media, like Mickey Kaus's arrangement with Slate.

I agree with the first sentence. Anything new and popular tends to enjoy a big period of growth that levels off after the initial euphoria. The second part, though, is way off base.

“Too many already”? Depends on your opinion, I guess, but I think blogs are a great mode of communication. They’re almost like radio in a way, because both give you a sense of the people on the other end of the line. I hate to use the word “intimacy” here, but both blogs and radio open windows onto personalities in ways that the unscripted banter among TV anchors does not. On the morning drive into work I usually switch between two morning programs on the radio (DC 101 and Mix 107 for anyone playing AIB: The Home Game), and just from listening to the conversations in the studios I’ve learned a lot about the DJs – what they like, what they don’t, what happened on their last vacation – all those mundane details that come up in conversations. You get the same thing with blogs. When’s the last time you got that from your Action News team on television?

It also assumes that blogs are all wannabe op-ed writers just waiting for that big break, but I don’t think that’s the primary motivation for why people write the things. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most bloggers aren’t fretting about corporate sponsorship for the continued existence of their blogs. A completely random sampling of Blogger’s most recent updates shows some blogs are political (like this one), but most are not (like this and this and this and this and this). Somehow, I don’t think that their survival depends on other media.

Most of the ones I read discuss what’s happening in the world, but there’s a lot more to them than just the political. I regularly check in on the sites to the left because I think they’re well written and have interesting things to say. Look at Rachel Lucas’ site. It’s definitely not all political, and I don’t think she’s been writing it angling for a job with the Dallas Morning News.

I had been reading a number of blogs for months before I decided to give it a go, and I do it for two reasons: because I like writing and to amuse (maybe) some of my friends. That’s it. If other people stumble across the site and like what they see, that’s great. It always makes my day when I get an e-mail from someone I’ve never met before who takes the time to say hello. Getting referrals from other sites REALLY make me happy, of course, giving a Sally Fields "You-really-like-me" feeling for the whole day. But that’s all frosting on the cake, really, and even without any of that, I’d still write this blog. If Andrew Sullivan can make $80,000 in one week with his, that’s terrific, but that’s not my ultimate goal with this. Look, not even a Pay Pal button.

Although anyone who REALLY wants to make a donation can leave envelopes of small, unmarked bills beneath the bench to the left of the exit from the FDR Memorial along the Tidal Basin. And I will seriously consider all offers of employment from the established media.
Another holiday season is almost over (the official end for my family is January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany), and this one has certainly taken its toll. Between the fudge and the cookies, the Thanksgiving turkey and the Christmas honey-baked ham, somewhere along the line I have lost my chin. I’m sure the jawbone is still under there somewhere. Goodbye, gingerbread. Hello, rice cakes!
Wednesday, January 01, 2003
Well, it's morning somewhere. The Washington area has a foggy, drizzly and generally inauspicious start to 2003. On the plus side, there's no excuse for me NOT to take a nap.
Happy New Year to all!

I'll now take two aspirin and call you in the morning.
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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