March 26, 2008

What, no cheese?

NASA's press releases are often intriguing, but rarely are they this amusing.

The Cassini spacecraft "tasted and sampled a surprising organic brew erupting in geyser-like fashion from Saturn's moon Enceladus." Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, tells us that "Enceladus' brew is like carbonated water with an essence of natural gas."

At least he stopped short of calling it "charming, with an herbaceous bouquet."

The full press release is here.

March 23, 2008

Bunnies and eggs have nothing to do with Jesus

Christ the Lord is Risen Today—Alleluia!

During the children's sermon this morning, the pastor asked, "What's special about today?" Sure enough, one of the little ones piped up "the Easter bunny comes!"

My heart broke a little. This is a child from an ostensibly Christian home.

Earlier, a couple of the ladies lamented the fact that our church no longer has an Easter egg hunt. More children might be brought, they theorized, if we did.

Well, as one of the committee members who had a role in ending the practice, I for one don't care. I think parents should bring their children to church for discipleship training and for worship, not for pointless activities handed down from pagans.

Truly I tell you: Eggs and bunnies have nothing to do with the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Even the word "Easter" has nothing to do with Jesus. It's derived from "Eostre," a pagan goddess whose festival was celebrated at the spring equinox. It's from that pre-Christian festival that we get those seasonal symbols that have nothing to do with resurrection. Eostre was a fertility goddess. (Rabbits. Eggs. Need I say more?)

Furthermore, "Easter" is the name of the holiday only in the Germanic languages. In Russian (Paskha), and in the Romance languages like Italian (Pasqua), the name is derived from the Greek "Pascha," which comes from the Hebrew "Pesach," Passover.

Better still are the Serbian (Vaskrs) and Croatian (Uskrs) names, which mean "Resurrection."

I wish we English-speaking Christians would abandon the word "Easter" in reference to our holy day, and call it Resurrection Sunday instead. Let's leave "Easter," along with the bunnies and eggs, to the pagans.

March 19, 2008

Five years on...

My media colleagues are fervently publishing lists of anti-war vigils being held around town.

Where are the pro-war vigils? Or, if that term is too hawkish for you, the pro-troops vigils.

I'm no warmonger. I pray, as fervently as anyone, that we would all just grow up and learn to settle our differences without blowing stuff up.

But when megalomaniacal dictators slaughter their own citizens in the hundreds of thousands, we must take action.

It would have been nice if, when confronted about his atrocities by the United Nations, Saddam Hussein had said, "Oh my goodness, I'm so terribly sorry. I'll step down now and let a peaceable person run the country."

As you may have noticed, this didn't happen.

On this discussion board, writer G. Glyn Shull Jr., under the pseudonym Christian Soldier, explains why our presence in Iraq is a good thing. He is now back in the states, but at the time he wrote that post, he was stationed in Iraq.

I agree with Glyn that we need to remain in Iraq to help stabilize that country and build a strong ally. If we pull out, as some would have us do, we'll just give people in that part of the world one more reason to bash Americans: "they don't follow through on their promises."

March 17, 2008

Fiction: A Novel Idea

In the last couple of years, we’ve been faced with a string of “memoirists” who turned out to have fabricated large parts—and sometimes the entirety—of their “memoirs.”

I wondered why these authors commit this kind of fraud. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with making up a story—I do it all the time—but you have to be honest with your readers about whether you’re writing history or fiction.

Margaret Seltzer, for example, made up a story about a south LA drug runner, called it Love and Consequences, and then marketed it as her autobiography. When found out, she admitted that she had claimed this fiction was her memoir because she believed “there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

In a recent Boston Globe column, Steve Almond summed it all up better than I can. I find his conclusion troubling.

He writes: “Over the past few years, publishers have responded to declining readership by developing an insatiable hunger for books that come with ‘author survivors’ attached. Why? Because they know that such books are about 100 times more likely to get reviewed and featured on National Public Radio and anointed by Oprah.”

In other words, it’s easier to promote these books than, say, lengthy fantasy novels, which I'm told—more often than I care to think about—no one wants to publish.

This bothers me, of course, because I’ve written a lengthy fantasy novel.

Publishers seem to believe that readers only want to buy the autobiographies of people they see on Oprah.

They seem to have missed that whole “Harry Potter” thing, which, if you didn’t notice, was seven volumes worth of lengthy fantasy novels.

March 13, 2008

Well done

The Chicago Tribune has the best headline I've seen yet about Congress's questioning of Steve Mendell, president of Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Co., which was responsible for what the Trib calls “the largest meat recall in U.S. history:”

House grills meat packing chief

March 11, 2008

One more reason to keep your pants on

The Centers for Disease Control and prevention released a scary statistic today: one in four teen girls in America has a sexually transmitted disease.

The New York Times article on the subject concludes with this:

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual screening tests to detect chlamydia for sexually active women under age 25. The federal agency in Atlanta also recommends that women between ages 11 and 26 be fully vaccinated against HPV"

Excuse me? Age 11?

Isn't that rather like being vaccinated for yellow fever when you're not going to Africa?

I understand that the CDC wants women to be vaccinated before they become sexually active, rather than after, but come on—isn't the bar being set a little too low here?

Oddly enough, I can't seem to find the statistic on how many teenage boys have STDs. Not even by searching the CDC's Web site for "teen boys STD." Apparently they haven't gotten around to doing that study yet.

Would I sound like a conspiracy theorist if I wondered aloud whether that's because there isn't a trendy new vaccine to push on 11-year-old boys?


Regardless, I'm sure those teenage girls didn't pick up those STDs out of thin air.

March 10, 2008

While we're on the subject…

I just want to share a few numbers of note that I found while researching yesterday's post:

Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, draws a base salary of $100,000 a year, plus additional compensation of $114,250, for a total compensation package of $214,250 annually. That's less than two-tenths of one percent of the $120 million compensation received by Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide Financial, in 2007.

Yet Buffett is the one who is now, according to Forbes, the richest man in the world, with a net worth of $62 billion.

Here's another comparison: Berkshire Hathaway's stock value is up more than 22 percent from this time last year. Countrywide Financial is down almost 86 percent.

Yeah. There's a reason Buffett's called the Oracle.

March 9, 2008

Called on the carpet

Congress has been grilling subprime mortgage company CEOs this week, forcing them to answer a simple but cogent question: Why, when their companies were losing money faster than Britney Spears was losing her marbles, did they continue to haul in absurd amounts of compensation?

Case in point: Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide Financial, made $120 million last year, while his company lost $703.5 million.

Now, maybe I'm naive, but if your company's net income is a negative number, you ought to stop the bleeding by making some radical moves. If Mozilo had deigned to get by on only $20 million last year, and given the other $100 million back to the company, he could have reduced losses by fifteen percent. I'm sure some of his top execs could have chipped in a little, too.

Not that a reduction of red ink would have prevented the over-reached home buyers from foreclosure. But it would have earned the CEO some points with shareholders, who are now more eager than ever for some compensation reforms.

Yesterday, Business Week posted a story on the congressional hearings. The article quotes Nell Minow, co-founder and editor of The Corporate Library, an independent research firm, who told the House committee, "If you make compensation all upside and no downside, that will affect the executive's assessment of risk. It will make it clear to him that he can easily off-load the risk onto shareholders. It's heads they win, tails we lose."

What troubles me most about this (other than the fact that CEOs are now making a record high of about 600 times more than the average U.S. worker, according to Reuters) is that many of us have spent the last several years—if not decades—issuing warnings about excessive CEO pay.

For example, in a 2002—yes, that’s six years ago, right after the Enron debacle—report on the crisis in corporate governance, Business Week had this to say:

“Management guru Peter F. Drucker has long warned that the growing pay gap between CEOs and workers could threaten the very credibility of leadership. He argued in the mid-1980s that no leader should earn more than 20 times the company's lowest-paid employee. His reasoning: If the CEO took too large a share of the rewards, it would make a mockery of the contributions of all the other employees in a successful organization.”

Since Drucker made this point twenty-some years ago, why do we still not have a solution to the problem of corporate boards stuffing money into the pockets of CEOs?

Thanks to the diligent work of the Financial Accounting Standards Board, companies are now required to report stock options as an expense. Yet obviously there is still work to do, because as Minow noted, there is no downside to CEO failure.

Most of use are paid when we do OK, given bonuses or non-cash awards when we do well, and punished (if not fired) when we do poorly. CEOs should be no different.

Some in Congress are characterizing these hearings as a search for a scapegoat in the subprime meltdown. Perhaps they are. My only complaint about the hearings is that they didn't come sooner.

Quote of the day from Forbes: "No man is really honest; none of us is above the influence of gain." —Aristophanes

March 4, 2008

If I can punctuate it there, I can punctuate it anywhere...

It's so good to know I'm not the only one who still appreciates a good semicolon.

First, The New York Times wrote this great item about a subway ad that contains a correctly used semicolon. The ad is meant to remind people not to leave their used newspapers behind. Its closing line is “Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone.”

Many editors would change that semicolon to a period. I think that would be wrong. The "that" refers directly back to the antecedent action of putting the paper in the trash; to separate the two with a full stop would be too much of a break.

I'm not sure why journalists particularly (though they are not alone) have developed an aversion to the semicolon. I'm just glad that Neil Neches, a writer in the New York City Transit marketing department, brought the matter up for public discussion, although I'm sure he didn't intend to do so.

Furthermore, Erin McKean, a lexicographer, has proposed a Semicolon Appreciation Society. Sign me up!

It's late, but I might as well point out, while I'm at it, that today is National Grammar Day.

March 3, 2008

Putting the "free" in free press

I know some people think "journalistic ethics" is an oxymoron, but I work for a paper with high ethical standards. Nothing upsets me more than people who ask how much it costs to get their article in the paper.

It is sad that the line between news and advertising has become so unclear.

If, every time I was asked "how much does it cost to get my press release printed in your paper?" I said, "twenty dollars in small, unmarked bills," I wouldn't have to worry about putting my kid through college.

Whenever I get this question, it puts my guts in a knot. I disturbs me to think people believe they can buy news coverage. It disturbs me still more to think that at some news organizations, they can.

I consider myself fortunate to have worked, for more than 16 years now, for a news organization where journalistic ethics is not an oxymoron, it is a way of life.

So here's my public service announcement: If you approach a news outlet and it wants you to pay to get a news story written about you — that's not a news story. It's an ad. No news outlet of any integrity will charge you for being a source.

Journalists don't go into journalism to get rich; they do it because they have a deep-seated desire to disseminate information. Or, as one of my colleagues once said, "It's a great way to channel nosiness into a career."

That's why I answer the "how much does it cost" questions honestly ("there's no charge to submit a press release, but no guarantee of inclusion"), and hope my kid qualifies for a scholarship.

Here is a speech in which Bill Moyers discussed journalistic integrity and the lack thereof.

“News is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.” — Bill Moyers