Archive for December, 2006

I Imagine Doors Slamming

December 18, 2006


(Occasioned by the recent run-off in the election for 2007 Chemical Enterprise Association president)

Things must be exploding
in excitement at The Show,
just as they are here
at the Northeast News Bureau.

I imagine doors slamming,
people running down halls
in a flutter of paper,
editors running
into each other.

The chief has his top
Button unbuttoned,
His tie hangs askew:
He wants answers.
No calls in or out, though—
the lines are all jammed.

Send out for pizza.
Yeah, and coffee.
‘Cause, friends, this could be
What we call an all-nighter.

Bill Nye the Science Guy vs. Mr. Machine

December 17, 2006


Part II of my interview.

Bill Nye the Science Guy and I had breakfast at a diner on Madison Avenue last week. Well, he had breakfast and I just had coffee–it was 11:00 a.m. in New York and he was still on California time. We discussed, among other things, science critics and Ray Kurzweil’s dream of the human machine.

Rick: Is the world of science reevaluating itself in the 21st century?

Bill: It seems like it is because we have this anti-science thing. I think it’s bad for everybody. When you have a problem like global climate change or HIV, you need people who understand how it works to solve it. And, furthermore, you need voters and tax payers who believe there’s a problem.

The idea that science will solve everybody’s problem is a little old fashioned. I remember reading an account of Lou Gehrig. When he was diagnosed with this crazy disease, he thought, “Modern medicine will solve this problem for me.” It turned out to be a pretty intractable problem. Nevertheless, if it is ever solved, it will be a science solution. I cannot accept that there is going to be a faith-based solution to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Not to say that one’s frame of mind doesn’t affect one’s immune system. No question that it does.

Fanatics have been around for a long time. You can claim, “Well, Bill, you’re a science fanatic.” But our claim is that we don’t have all the answers. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. What we claim to have is a process for finding out the truth about nature. That’s the extent of our claim. If you want to find out what’s going on in nature, here’s how you go about it.

I am very reverent. I am astonished by my place in the universe. And I claim that I have greater reverence for the earth than many, many people who consider themselves deeply religious. I was brought up in a religious tradition, but I am no longer a believer.

Rick: A lot of people believe it is some kind of affront to in any way question the idea of natural selection. But, elegant as it is, it’s really just another scientific theory, and it’s completely open to challenge.

Bill: Scientists challenge Darwin all the time. You read about these entomologists, trying to figure out what the heck are the bees doing. They are willing to die for the queen when their own genes aren’t at risk! Similarly, my claim is that when the Yankees get eliminated from the World Series, Yankees fans in New York still root for an American League team–even if it’s Boston! Because Boston is in their league, even if they have nothing to do with them. They can feel it. I find that just astonishing.

The thing that’s so creepy about evolution–and fascinates me–is that not only are your size and shape, how many fingers you have, and your hair color determined by your genes, so, also, are your feelings to a large extent.

Rick: What do you say to Ray Kurzweil whose new book, The Singularity is Near, contends that humans will leapfrog their own biology through technical innovation, thus curing all disease, by 2045?

Bill: OK, I’ll meet him Botswana in 2045 and we’ll see how that’s working.

Rick: He also writes about spiritual machines.

Bill: A human brain develops not only by its genetic programming, but by what happens to it in its environment. This changes the way your brain works. With so many human brains running around experiencing so many different environments, I’d be surprised if the line between humanity and machines becomes blurry. On the other hand, the human brain is finite, it only has so many cells. It’s very possible you could make a machine like a human. But it’s gotta have some energy source. And that’s where the colossus takes over the world!

(Stay tuned for the next and final episode of My California-Time Breakfast with Bill Nye the Science Guy or Pee Wee Meets Bullwinkle!)

The Code

December 15, 2006


I drove to work in tears today. I was thinking of Amy.

She lived across the street from us in Maplewood. She was Maureen’s best friend—they were each other’s daily support in raising our first children, her Sam and our Emily. She died of a brain tumor about 10 years ago.

Amy battled the benign tumor for over a year. Her brother, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins, was able to get her one of the top brain surgeons on the East Coast. Her last operation took the surgeon out for a long time—it went on hours longer than anticipated and he seriously strained his back. Afterward, Amy deteriorated. She went on every kind of life support system imaginable. Finally, she was able only to move one eye and one of her feet—she communicated by rolling her eye up for “yes” as you pointed to letters on an alphabet board (Maureen was the best at doing this with her). Understandably, she finally chose to be taken off all the machinery.

The day before this was scheduled to happen, she asked her husband to bring a board, a maraca, and some rope to the hospital. Amy, who taught math at the Bank Street School in New York, would do things like that—set you up with some kind of confusing information that usually turned out to be a wonderful surprise once “the class” figured things out. It was impossible not to love Amy–I truly think she was a kind of Angel whose love and enthusiasm set her apart. Her request was a flash of her recently-shrouded brilliance, and her husband, Whit, wondered all that terrible night what she was up to.

The next day, Amy’s family and friends lined up at her bed and everyone said goodbye one at a time. You can imagine what that was like. Whit told us all about the paraphernalia Amy had requested–Amy rolled her eye upward as he did so. Then, Maureen, another friend named Amy, and I drove back to Maplewood from the hospital in Manhattan.

The next morning, Whit called and told us everything. Amy had him prop the board up at the foot of the bed and tie the maraca to her foot. For however long she lived once she was unhooked from the technology, she banged the maraca against the board. Banged in anger, banged in love. She insisted on leaving this world in some control, on making her own music above and beyond the whir of hospital contraptions. She sent a percussive code into eternity, a message we would understand after some time. Amy left a husband, a son in second grade, a family changed forever, and a best friend across the street. She left me crying behind the wheel on the Parkway this morning–and now, as I type this–ten years after.

A Matter of Life or Death

December 15, 2006


On Thursday, I stared up at a 500-pound-per-square-inch centrifugal dryer at a drug company research facility in the middle of New Jersey. The room was clean and odorless, and I thought I heard wheels spinning.

I couldn’t help thinking, looking at this machine after hearing yet another drug company describe its oncology pipeline to a roomful of squinting journalists, that we still live in a world in which Memorial Sloan-Kettering and the Mayo Clinic consider each other institutional arch rivals, sworn enemies. This, despite all the smart people that work at both places who realize they should link their computers together immediately; that they should collaborate on figuring out what they mean by personalized medicine and come up together with a practical means of vetting the data from the genome; that they must focus as one, along with research hubs around the world, on discovering next generation cancer therapies; and that this should all take place in a research world where there are new incentives for scientists, where no idea is hoarded, and where publication in prestigious journals is never a researcher’s goal. The technician that showed us the centrifuge told us he’d been with the company since the plant was designed.

At lunch, I met a writer from the Newark Star Ledger who works with Barry Carter, my old neighbor in Maplewood. Barry’s daughters and mine went to grade school together and our wives were Girl Scout leaders. Barry and I would sometimes discuss journalism at school picnics and dances, though our jobs were quite different–Barry worked for a major daily, covering the neighborhoods of Newark, while I worked for a specialized weekly business magazine in New York. Barry, a big, big man, is all charisma and solid neighborliness, someone you want around. I can still see him dancing with his fourth grade daughter in the gym years ago. He and his wife, Juanita, met at Howard University, probably in the 1970s. Two years ago, Juanita died between Christmas and New Years of a sudden heart attack. The reporter I met today says he played cards with Barry last weekend. That Barry recently finished taking a Latin dance class and writing a heavy duty feature series on the wife of a slain police officer in Newark. It starts on Sunday. “Barry’s OK,” he said. He still lives with his two daughters, now in high school, in the same house in Maplewood.

The day ended with a cancer survivor. A stunningly beautiful woman, standing nearly seven feet tall, her head shaved, she told us from the podium that her rare form of ovarian cancer will be in remission for four years in January, thanks to our hosts for the day. She is appearing in their advertisements. Her battle with cancer, she told us, has been a life affirming experience.

What’s Eating the Man of the Future?

December 13, 2006


Bill Nye the Science Guy and I discussed everything from I-Pods to God in a diner on Madison Avenue yesterday. Frenetic and peripatetic, he led the discussion from the starting point of each question I asked to the fork in the road of his answer. I was David Letterman to his Robin Williams, just sitting back, smiling amazed, trying to maintain control as he shot in unanticipated directions. Innocent like a child, wise like a seasoned comedian, Nye explored ideas, contradicting himself from time to time the way most interesting people do. I watched his eyes flash, watched him smile and laugh as he made little discoveries in his own statements. It was like watching Dave Brubeck perform on stage.

Nye, wearing a periodic table bowtie, ordered a plate of the diner’s “World Famous French Toast.” I drank cups of coffee. He was on California time–11:00 a.m Eastern meant breakfast for him. We had the diner pretty much to ourselves for a while. Then the lunch crowd filed in with their double takes—“Hey, that’s Bill Nye,…The Science Guy!”

Here is one of my favorite stretches of transcript (verbatim®), including a perfectly-timed visit from the waitress:

Bill: The biggest health problem we have in developed countries is that people just eat too much. I don’t mean to be weird on you. But, if you could go back in time to Ogg the Cave Guy and say, “Hey Ogg, I’m from the future. Check this out. I’ve got food with no calories!” he’d go, “What’s your deal? Check us out, man, we’re in Cave Times. All we do is get calories. That’s our business. Are you high? What’s wrong with you, man of the future?”

Me: That’s an interesting point. To what extent has science taken us away from our basic human nature?

Bill: Science is a human idea. Humans made up science.

Me: Well, who took the calories out of food?

Bill: Scientists did. Is that what you mean?

Me: Yeah. They did a lot of other things. They invented TV. There is an interesting book called Galileo’s Mistake, written by Wade Rowland, who headed the news operation for Canada’s pubic broadcasting network. His point is that the Inquisition didn’t take Galileo to task strictly for espousing Copernican ideas about the universe–Galileo got sent up for insisting that the only way to comprehend truth is through the application of science to the exclusion of faith and revelation. The book asks whether our quality of life is essentially better now than it was in the Middle Ages—it takes a good look, really, at the dehumanizing effect of the Age of Reason.

Bill (to waitress): Can I get some bacon?

(Stay tuned for the next episode of My California-Time Breakfast with Bill Nye, the Science Guy or Blowing Stuff Up is Really Cool!)

Photo by Rick

Brand Loyalty

December 11, 2006


Has everybody else noticed that, for the second time in a generation, the Bass Ale Company has redesigned its iconic bottle? Or, should I say, its formerly iconic bottle?

The modern age has a mania for redesign. There’s some kind of unwritten law in publishing, for example, that says a magazine has to undergo a redesign, usually a fairly substantial one, every five years. The problem is that the people redesigning the product are often unfamiliar with its legacy and heedless of its visual hooks. They impose broad, tasteless marketing techniques that aim for a lowest common (generally American) denominator. Now, for most products, this isn’t too big of a problem, because most products don’t have much of a legacy. A lot of beers do, however, and Bass, “introduced to a world of stouts and porters” by Bass & Co Brewery, Burton-upon-Trent, in 1777, has a rich backstory.

For one thing, the red triangle on the bottle is one of the world’s oldest logos and the first trade mark registered in Britain. Its association with the U.K. brewing industry and pub life made it as much a symbol of England in the 20th century as the red double-decker bus, the boxy black London taxi, derby hats, monumental phone booths, and the Carnaby Street hip boot. Across the Channel, it is prominently featured on the bar in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It crossed the Pond in a big way when I was in college.

The bottle I was introduced to in the 1970s resembled the one on the cover of Dylan Thomas’ Adventures in the Skin Trade. The brown glass bottle had a gradually sloping curve and a simple red triangle on an oval yellow/white label. In the 1990s, the bottle changed, taking on a more cylindrical appearance with a more angular shift into the taper. The label had a few subtle stylistic adaptations as well. I missed the old bottle, but I noticed the new one appeared more similar to the bottles Manet painted–though he seems to have painted 40s, which I’ve never seen at the local Pack-O-Liquor.

This latest change, coming six years after the sale of Bass to Interbrew (now InBev), a Belgian company, involves only the label. And it establishes a complete break from tradition. Essentially, they have dressed this beer up for the Super Bowl. I hear the ghost of Dylan Thomas is pissed and kicking up a lot of dust down at the White Horse Tavern.

Speak, ghost: “At least they have not mucked up the liquid spirits.”

Because that would be an outrage.

Sign of the Holidays

December 10, 2006

The light-write billboard on the Parkway that recently held “Go Rutgers!” up to a backdrop of brilliant yellow maple leaves now reads “Manhattan Gridlock Alert / Use Public Transportation.” This, every day, against a bramble of bare sticks. The Parkway Authority might want to think about planting a nice painted sign of permanent gridlock alert. As it is, though, this changeable sign serves the purpose of reminding me that the holidays are here and that the Parkway has given up on Rutgers.

The chemical industry’s star-studded New York Holiday Shindig Week starts Monday, so I’ll be publicly transported into the gird a couple of times at least. It’s the usual routine, starting with the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association* dinner on Monday night with entertainment by Darrel Hammond of Saturday Night Live. Last year they had Kevin Nealon—once they had Al Franken! Then it’s Super Tuesday. I start with a breakfast interview with (get this) Bill Nye the Science Guy! Then, lunch with the Société de Chimie Industrielle boys at the Yale Club, at which some guy from my office is the guest speaker. Finally, there’s the famous Eggnog Dinner at the Chemists Club. There, Bill Nye holds forth.

On the home front, my job is to paint the play room in time for a holiday party next weekend. It’s an annual get-together with three old high school friends and their families that we call “Festivus.” The name stuck, lamely, when it was slapped on after a Seinfeld episode 12 years ago. It’s been going on for a long time, and now it includes a bunch of know-it-all college kids who hate it when their dads bust out the ukuleles. Boy-oh-boy has college changed!

I just finished hanging the lights on our storm gutters, and I have a plan that will expedite the renovation of the play room as we swing into another holiday. Tomorrow, a tree will be dragged indoors.

And Last night, Lydia, my seven-year-old, and I read a nice little book that tells the story of St. Nicholas with an introduction by Pat Boone. Did you know that he’s not only the patron saint of marriageable women, but also of sailors at sea? …St. Nicholas, that is?

Froeliche Schlokheit!

*A chemical can, in fact, be both synthetic and organic—a Russian lady-cab driver in Vegas called me out on this once when SOCMA had its convention there. “Can chem-yee-kil be both syeen-tetic ant or-gyan-yic?” she asked me, ending a lull in our conversation at a red light under the Carrot Top billboard. “Yeah,” I answered, “….absolutely.” It was a fair question.

I Could Use Your Input

December 8, 2006

The Human Element

I’m writing a “day job” article about this television ad. I would be very interested in knowing what you think of it. Also, let me know if you have seen this ad before. I will not use anything you write in the article without your permission–I probably won’t use anything from here. This is to help me get a sense of how this ad campaign is being received (It’s best to respond before reading other comments).


Here’s the article. I didn’t get into your responses, but it helped to know them when I wrote it. Thanks for all your input.

Surrender Dorothy!

December 8, 2006

cover.jpg Did you ever go to the homepage of the New York Post? Quite an experience. It makes your pop-up blocker pop like an old-fashioned bucket of grease-boiled corn kernels. I went today—for the first time ever!—because I had to grab the front page. It’s one of the greats.

You probably know that the New York Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton and now owned by Rupert Murdoch, has become a cross between Fox News and the National Inquirer. Today’s bottom-of-the-page banner?: “Water on Mars.” (Yeah, sure–right next to Elvis!) The Post frequently runs “keeper” front page headlines, like the one 20 years ago about the first words of a man with a transplanted baboon heart after his surgery–“Heart Man: Gimme Me a Beer!” By comparison, The Daily News (“Ford to New York: Go to Hell,” circa 1975) is kind of sedate.

“Heart Man:Gimme Me a Beer!” That made me laugh.

But today’s headline and accompanying photo montage with the faces of James Baker III and Lee Hamilton almost stretched me out in gut-laughter at the news store on Bloomfield Avenue where I get my Chock Full-of-Nuts every morning. Again, with the baboons! They look like flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz at a 60th anniversary reunion.

You can’t beat the brio that The Post brings to the Yah-hoo news perspective. “Sound the reteat!,” it mocks. “Panel kisses up to Iran and Syria.” And I admire the paper’s willingness to pillory its darlings, folks like Jim Baker, when the bottle spins in their direction.

And you gotta love Jim Baker, too. C’mon! Sure, he was a henchman for George H.W. Bush–the handler who had such thoughtful insights on why Bush pere had to write-off New York. But I’ll give almost anyone a second chance. As for Baker–he’s become much more than a henchman to young W, and I’ve warmed up to him in the process. Baker is frequently compared to Winston Wolfe, Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction who’s called in to get John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson cleaned up after a messy faux pas. How cool is that? He’s tough, but fair, and clean by virtue of complete detachment. Travolta and Jackson know enough to do just what he tells them to do.

Well, here’s hoping that Baker has actually done some good heading up the Iraq Study Group, and that some good comes of it. He may be their monkey-boy, but he’s giving that ever-more-isolated monkey in the White House some serious adult marching orders.

Meanwhiile, over at The New York Times: “In 142 stark pages, the Iraq Study Group report makes an impassioned plea for bipartisan consensus on the most divisive foreign policy issue of this generation. Without President Bush, that cannot happen.”

Oh, that’s right. Sure, New York Times. Blame everything on Bush. Borrrr-ring!

The Love Song of J. Alfred (Vanx) Verb-Ops

December 7, 2006


I trod the circuits but a year,
Traversed the world around the clock
In search of kindred gondoliers
In vast canals of babble-talk.

My chart was sometimes to amuse,
Sometimes I went with travelogue.
At times I managed to confuse
Assorted readers of my “blog.”

And sometimes I myself, aghast,
Would read, bewildered, what I wrote.
Sometimes a story from my past,
So carefully hid, was set afloat.

I got stuck once,…well, maybe twice,
And gave the plug a little yank–
I thought to put my soul on ice
And lay my oeuvre in the tank.

But something brought me back again
To this beleaguered enterprise
To finish what I started when
I launched my Internet franchise.

And now I feel I’ve done just that,
My sense is that the job’s complete.
Now, in my off-line habitat
I ponder in the world of meat

The meaning of my year on line–
These pictures and those maunderings,
This circus that one might define
As mainstreet psychic-laundering.

The answer, friends, is to the right
At “Cassowary’s” blog-a-roll.
What have I gained by working nights?
A worldwide web of kindred souls.

And I hope I didn’t offend nobody—