Paul Murray's weblog, with news you may have missed and my $0.02 worth on a number of topics.

"You can't make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you're doing is recording it."
- Art Buchwald

I bet you don't have a friend who's an acupuncturist

E-mail me: pmurray [at]

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Saturday, December 29, 2001
Timeless. U2, 'N Sync and The Backstreet Boys had the most successful concert tours of 2001. So who had the number one selling album of 2001? Hint: they can't tour anymore.

Friday, December 28, 2001
It's about time! Compact disc prices may fall to $9.99 to combat online music sharing and the slow economy. While I don't condone Napster and its ilk, don't feel sorry for the record companies; remember a) how they want you to repeatedly pay for the same music and b) they are being investigated by the Justice Department for possible antitrust violations.

Thursday, December 27, 2001
Disguising the sign. The Star of Bethlehem was not a star at all, but a rare double eclipse of Jupiter, according to a researcher.

Played for suckers. First, Boeing convinces Congress to lease more than 100 model 767 airplanes from them at a price 30% higher than it would cost to buy them outright. The argument for this pork is the trusty "saving American jobs" (although it's also viewed as a consolation prize for losing the Joint Strike Fighter contract to Lockheed Martin). Now Boeing is talking with Japanese suppliers about having them do more of the work. Gee, no wonder the CEO of Boeing is optimistic.

The persistence of rumor. After more than 25 years, the rumor simply will not die that the FCC is considering a petition from atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair to ban religious programming from the public airwaves. The FCC has published a pamphlet, taken out print ads, patiently answered phone calls and letters, and set up a web page denying it, but it doesn't go away. The rumor has even outlasted O'Hair herself, who was killed in 1995.

What we were looking for. A timeline of 2001, as viewed through the searches conducted at Google.

When profiling runs amok. Profiling makes sense for screening airline passengers, but when an Arab-American member of the President's Secret Service detail (with credentials) is denied boarding on an American Airlines flight, something's not quite right. Update: American Airlines says this was never about profiling, but the pilot was unsatisfied with the agent's credentials.

Entertaining actuarial information. No, it's not an oxymoron. Check out the Social Security Administration's popularity rankings of names dating as far back as the 1880s. (For example, "Paul" ranks 19th during the 1960s.) This comes courtesy of The Illuminated Donkey, a blog that happens to use the exact same Blogger template as mine.

Monday, December 24, 2001
Merry Christmas. To all my friends, whether I've met you or not, I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas. I think I will leave it at that; though the expression is short and sweet, I mean it sincerely.

Friday, December 21, 2001
Money, not ideology? The FBI is examining the possibility that financial profit was the motivation behind the anthrax attacks. (thanks DH)

We're number one! According a ranking of cities by crimes, Detroit is the most dangerous city in the U.S.

Common origins. I love learning the origins of things; it's even better when I find out that several apparently unrelated things share the same origin. For example, did you ever wonder where the popular concept and phrase "six degrees of separation" originated? I just found out: with Stanley Milgram, the same psychologist who performed the famous experiment that explored what people were willing to do to another person when ordered by an authority figure (described in his article "The Perils of Obedience"). (By the way, here's a mathematical solution (and additional explanation) to the "small world problem," as it is known.) All of this comes up now because there's a new worldwide experiment to test Milgram's theory on a global basis using e-mail.

Dum dum dum, dum da-dum, dum da-dum... What exactly are they worshipping at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.? (No, it's not a Photoshop trick, it's real. The explanation is in this large PDF file.) (via Metafilter)

Thursday, December 20, 2001
He just can't let go. Bill Clinton has been holding meetings with aides and advisors about ways to remind the public about all his accomplishments.

Wednesday, December 19, 2001
But is it lethal? So Internet voters have chosen the world's funniest joke. It's amusing, but I prefer Monty Python's "funniest joke in the world"; after all, it did win WW II. (The script can't possibly communicate how funny it is to watch this segment in the second episode of the original series.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2001
The Enron collapse explained. Heh-heh. (via Morningstar)

Take that! We've all had miserable experiences with hotels at one point, but finally someone documented his using that ubiquitous business tool, PowerPoint. I find the result hilarious (the Doubletree Club Hotel in Houston does not, I'd guess). The impression I get is someone simultaneously seething with anger and calmly setting forth their case.

Saturday, December 15, 2001
In the Mood. Today is the anniversary of bandleader Glenn Miller's 1944 disappearance in a small plane over the English Channel. A British documentary pursues the theory that he was killed by friendly fire.

Coincidence? Book publishers are frustrated at declining book sales. Books are more expensive than ever, despite being physically cheaper to print. There's no shortage of opinions and finger-pointing.

Keep Oliver Stone away from history. Showtime is airing "The Day Reagan Was Shot" this month. The film, produced by Oliver Stone and written and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, is described as "a riveting behind-the-scenes account of the chaos following the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan."

In Friday's Wall Street Journal, Richard V. Allen says the movie is a "brazen distortion," and he should know; he was National Security Advisor and there in the White House Situation Room. In fact, he tape-recorded six hours of what happened in order to document it. After 20 years, transcribed excerpts of those tapes appeared in the April 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly... after the movie had already been shot.

Like Stone's movie JFK (which was factually inaccurate from the very first scene), Allen says that "The Day Reagan Was Shot" does not present an accurate portrayal of what actually happened, yet many will assume it does. As he observes:
The problem here is not simply that Messrs. Stone and Nowrasteh have sensationalized and distorted the truth but that they have made a film that will be taken as accurate--especially by viewers under, say, 30. There is something about the full Hollywood treatment, with its star performers and glossy production values, that imprints history on the mind (however falsely) more vividly than any book can.

Friday, December 14, 2001
Afghan tornado. On October 18th I observed, "You have to respect the ingenuity of turning a cargo plane (the C-130) into one hell of a gunship (the AC-130)." Now here's a time-lapse photo that demonstrates an incredible barrage from the AC-130's computer-controlled guns and cannons ("the most complex aircraft weapon system in the world today"). (time-lapse via

Thursday, December 13, 2001
Finally, a better answer to area code madness. That's why I think now that the FCC has approved specific area codes for wireless phones and pagers. The wireless industry has opposed this as inconvenient for their users, since you would always be dialing a 10-digit number. Yes, that will be slightly inconvenient. But the alternative has been that everyone, wireless user or not, has to dial 10 digits more frequently, plus going through the expense of changing stationery, business cards, listings, etc. every time an area code is switched. (The company where I work has just gone through its second area code change in a decade.) Besides, wireless phone users can store up to hundreds of numbers in today's phones.

Wednesday, December 12, 2001
Opportunity lost? It was thrilling to hear that RKO Pictures Television was going to make a miniseries for A&E of "The Magnificent Ambersons" based upon Orson Welles' original shooting script (plus some additional material from the novel). Welles had his movie butchered by (ironically) RKO Studios while he was shooting another movie down in South America; not only did the studio recut it, they destroyed the unused footage. The released version is still good, but many claim that his lost original version was a true masterpiece. (A college friend of mine has at least once tried to recreate it using available existing resources.)

"We're not going to want to change a line of the script," producer Gene Kirkwood was quoted as saying. "Who wants to mess with an Orson Welles script he wrote right after making 'Citizen Kane?' This is the best spec script in town." A name cast and director added to my optimism. (There was also the delicious irony that A&E is partly owned by the Hearst Corporation, which had an opinion about Welles' first movie.)

Alas, if star Madeline Stowe can be believed, the result we'll see in January will be "a disaster"; she praises the script but castigates director Alfonso Arau. "It breaks my heart that we didn't do the material justice," she says. Elsewhere, a Welles fan site says that it is only loosely based on the Welles script.

Of course, actors aren't always the best judge of the overall product. (For example, Cary Grant complained to Alfred Hitchcock that audiences couldn't possibly follow the complex plot of North by Northwest.) We shall see, I guess.

Do as we say, etc. As you might expect, Microsoft's Hotmail web site runs on the Windows 2000 operating system. But what OS does the Hotmail infrastructure run on?

They shoulda sent Geraldo. Remember the al-Jazeera network's exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden in October? It never aired anywhere, at least partly because the network's correspondent was visibly intimidated. Bin Laden refused to answer the correspondent's questions, preferring to ask and answer his own. (We know this because the tape has been making the rounds of Arabic and Western leaders.) Now some al-Jazeera officials even deny knowing anything about the interview. So much for the "Arabic CNN."

Too busy. How else could I have missed the announcement of England's annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award? (Here are past winners.)

Newspaper as late-night comedian. From The Washington Post, "Signs Your Child May Be Thinking Of Joining the Taliban."

Tuesday, December 11, 2001
20 years of Usenet. Long before the World Wide Web, there was Usenet (aka newsgroups), which was (and still is) a very efficient way to carry on non-real-time discussions among a group of people. Thanks to Google, we can now read the history of the past 20 years as noted by participants and onlookers. Here's the quick timeline of those 20 years' worth of messages, and here's a Wired News article about it that provides more explanation and better context.

For a fun trip into time, check out this review of the original IBM PC, a rumor about another personal computer, and what Quantum Computer grew up to be. These and many others (not all computer-related) at the Google link above.

Art Appreciation 101. This is art. It must be; it just won a prestigious prize from a famous gallery, awarded by a genuine celebrity. (Consider what lost.) It's so much more fulfilling than this kind of art, isn't it?

Ashcroft or McCarthy? Take a test and see if you can identify who said these quotes: Attorney General John Ashcroft or former Senator Joseph McCarthy. (I apologize in advance; this is an ugly and hard to read page; why anyone would do an entire page in italics is utterly beyond me.) (via Flutterby)

Monday, December 10, 2001
The retailing juggernaut. I hate Wal-Mart, but they are a retailing juggernaut, as noted here in the British magazine The Economist. Consider this: "In less than four decades, Wal-Mart has come to account for 60% of America's retail sales and 7-8% of total consumer spending (excluding cars and white goods)." Now consider this: what happens to us after Wal-Mart kills off all its competition?

Just call Alexander Haig. Some people are asking the question, what happens if one or more branches of the federal government are wiped out in an attack on Washington, D.C.? Right now, it seems that nobody knows. Lawmakers are starting to examine the issue. (via Drudge)

Sunday, December 09, 2001
Remembering George. Ravi Shankar has written a nice personal article about George Harrison in today's NYT.

Exceeded by its reputation. Watched the original "Ocean's 11" on TV last night. Whatever fond associated memories it might bring up, as a movie it's just okay. Sure, the "Rat Pack" cast is neat, but the first 45 minutes are very slow, and the movie requires major suspension of disbelief. I actually think that the best thing about it is the opportunity to see the Las Vegas of 40 years ago.

Bachelors begin to lose upper hand. WSJ reports that men in the 30-44 age group looking for a potential wife are facing more difficult odds. (The online version of this article doesn't have the sidebar listing the costs of matchmaking services, alas.)

Saturday, December 08, 2001
A new map of New York. Twenty-five years ago The New Yorker published what became a legendary (and much imitated) cover: a view of New York where everything else dramatically receded away, drawn by Saul Steinberg. I even had a small poster of it on my dorm room wall in college. For its December 10 issue, the magazine has published a new map of New York ("New Yorkistan") that reflects our times.

Making Linux look harder than it is. I have no firsthand knowledge of Linux yet, though I want to tinker with it. Yet this column is interesting; it argues that there are many tools now to make Linux easier to use, but the experts (who prefer to do everything the way they originally learned, from a command prompt) are unaware of them. The author properly points out that you don't need to know how a computer works in order to simply use it, and there needs to be greater awareness of these helpful tools.

Friday, December 07, 2001
Patriotic Americans don't criticize government actions. That's more or less the appalling and insulting message that Attorney General John Ashcroft issued during yesterday's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Here's the low point of his prepared remarks:
We need honest, reasoned debate; not fearmongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists - for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.

Jacob Weisberg does a pretty good job of deconstructing this paragraph. Take time to read it.

More WWII news. I find it fascinating when we learn new information about historic events. It turns out that the Japanese had cracked the U.S. and British secret diplomatic codes, which raises new questions about the start of the war. (via Drudge)

Hunting serial killers from the past. DNA tests reveal that Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to being The Boston Strangler (but was never convicted), did not kill one of his supposed victims. His family and the District Attorney's office are feuding over how to proceed.

Also, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell thinks she has identified Jack the Ripper as being a painter named Walter Sickert. Here's her argument, which prominently relies upon a painting he did called "Camden Town Murder." It's not a new theory; it has also been argued that Sickert was an unwilling accomplice of the real killer (scroll down to the last paragraph). I'm pretty skeptical. Based on what I read and saw on TV, Cornwell doesn't have any physical evidence beyond the fact that a believed genuine Ripper letter was written on the same stationery as Sickert used. And yet she declares, "I do believe 100 percent that Walter Richard Sickert committed those serial crimes, that he is the Whitechapel murderer." I think she's lost perspective. I thought that when I heard her say that she had spent $4 million to do this. 12/9 Update: UK newspaper article includes reactions in London.

(Believe it or not, I studied the Ripper murders in a college history class. Our teacher adopted the interesting technique of having us read a sloppy book about it first, to make the point that we can't believe everything we read. It was a rather memorable class.)

The FBI interview. Some have expressed concerns about the voluntary (I couldn't decide if that should be in quotes or not) interviews with the FBI related to the September 11 investigation. The Detroit Free Press taped an actual interview and describes it. It sounds scary in the sense that a large Federal agency is asking the questions -- much as anyone might feel if say, the IRS wanted to talk -- but otherwise rather mundane.

About Thomas Friedman. Lately I have been frequently pointing out columns by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times about Islam, the Middle East, etc. Well, lots of other people agree with him too... and lots of others don't. Read about him in The Washington Post.

Wednesday, December 05, 2001
More on presidential secrecy. As noted earlier, President Bush has signed Executive Order 13233, allowing any past or current president to block access to presidential papers; historians, journalists and members of Congress are up in arms, and a lawsuit has been filed over it. (Many have noted that President Reagan's papers were just about to be made public, and many believe that the current President Bush wants to hide information that may embarrass his father.) Now someone well-acquainted with presidential secrets weighs in: John Dean. (via

How's this for casting? Variety says Nathan Lane will play Jackie Gleason in a film biography by Sydney Pollack's production company.

Tuesday, December 04, 2001
The stadium curse. No, we're not talking about the Detroit Lions. But today's WSJ points out how a striking number of companies that have coughed up serious money for stadium naming rights have either gone bankrupt or been swallowed by another company. They didn't mention a local family business you may have heard of that has its own problems.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. That appears to be the thinking at Microsoft, which is offering financial backing to two of the three companies bidding for AT&T's cable TV business (Comcast and Cox). Do you think that it's possible they just want to block the third bidder?

Monday, December 03, 2001
Trivia. Can you identify the longest-burning structural fire in history? No hints...

Sunday, December 02, 2001
Say good-bye to The Big Easy? Someone once told me that New Orleans was sinking into the ocean and would not last past some surprisingly close date. I don't know about that, but earlier this year FEMA said that a hurricane hitting New Orleans is one of the three most likely catastrophic disasters this country faces. (The others, if you're curious, are a massive earthquake in San Francisco and, um, a terrorist attack in New York City.) Here's what New Orleans faces and what could possibly help. (via Robot Wisdom)

Saturday, December 01, 2001
Excite@Home may shut down in a few hours. A federal bankruptcy judge has said Excite@Home may shut down its cable Internet service at 3:00 am ET Saturday morning, potentially leaving 4.1 million customers at Comcast, AT&T, Cox and Charter -- including yours truly -- without service. The judge says he doesn't think that a shutdown will actually happen, that the parties will work something out. We'll see. In the meantime, Comcast is helpfully suggesting that we use their backup NetZero dialup service (unless we have a Mac, Windows 2000, or Windows XP, in which case we'd be SOL, I guess). It's a complex story, but basically, we subscribers are just pawns in a chess game between groups of investors. Good grief.