“Al Goldstein Dies at 77; Made Pornography Dirtier”

That’s not my headline. It’s the hed on the New York Times’ hilarious obituary of the founder of Screw magazine.

Long before the internet brought newspapers to their knees, the industry suffered plenty of self-inflicted damage. Among the unnecessary wounds I would place the decision by big newspaper chains to turn obituaries into paid advertisements. The result has been a stream of unctuous prose authored by funeral directors and family members rendered inarticulate by grief.

One of the glories of the New York Times is the standard it continues to uphold in this magnificent genre. Witness today’s delicious piece on Goldstein:

Mr. Goldstein did not invent the dirty magazine, but he was the first to present it to a wide audience without the slightest pretense of classiness or subtlety… The manifesto in Screw’s debut issue in 1968 was succinct. “We promise never to ink out a pubic hair or chalk out an organ,” it read. “We will apologize for nothing. We will uncover the entire world of sex. We will be the Consumer Reports of sex.”

…Apart from Screw, Mr. Goldstein’s most notorious creation was Al Goldstein himself, a cartoonishly vituperative amalgam of borscht belt comic, free-range social critic, and sex-obsessed loser who seemed to embody a moment in New York City’s cultural history: the sleaze and decay of Times Square in the 1960s and ‘70s.

…With renown came obscenity arrests and lawsuits, which Mr. Goldstein in turn milked for maximum publicity. (He also wrote numerous scathing editorials accusing his accusers of hypocrisy, often accompanied by crude photo collages showing them engaged in humiliating sex acts.) Mr. Goldstein, claiming First Amendment protection, beat most of the charges, occasionally paying nominal fines.

…His lawyers argued that the anticensorship diatribes in Screw made the magazine sufficiently political, though Mr. Goldstein himself ridiculed this defense, insisting that a reader’s erection “is its own redeeming value.”

As a reward for reading to the end of the Goldstein obit, the on-line version features one of the all-time great corrections.


Why John Henry bought the Boston Globe

As recounted here last August, John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, bought another great Boston institution, the Boston Globe, for just $70 million. That’s $1.13 billion less than the New York Times paid for it 20 years ago. The Times retained the paper’s $110 million in pension liabilities, so you could say the price was negative $40 million.

So grim are the economics of newspapering in the 21st Century, lots of industry watchers thought Henry was nuts. Late last month, he took to the paper’s editorial page to explain what motivated him.

I have been asked repeatedly in recent weeks why I chose to buy the Globe. A few have posed the question in a tone of incredulity, as in, “Why would anyone purchase a newspaper these days?” But for the most part, people have offered their thanks and best wishes with a great deal of warmth. A number of civic and business leaders have also offered their help. I didn’t expect any of these reactions, but I should have.

Over the past two months I have learned just how deeply New Englanders value the Globe. It is the eyes and ears of the region in some ways, the heartbeat in many others. It is the gathering point not just for news and information, but for opinion, discussion, and ideas.

John HenryTruth is, I prefer to think that I have joined the Globe, not purchased it, because great institutions, public and private, have stewards, not owners. Stewardship carries obligations and responsibilities to citizens first and foremost — not to shareholders. This is especially true for news organizations. As the respected Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston once said, “Only one industry throughout America carries on its day-to-day business with the specific blessing of the Constitution.”

I didn’t get involved out of impulse. I began analyzing the plight of major American newspapers back in 2009, during the throes of the recession, when the Globe’s parent company, the New York Times Company, considered shutting down the paper. As I studied the problems that beset the newspaper industry, I discovered a maddening irony: The Boston Globe, through the paper and its website, had more readers than at any time in its history. But journalism’s business model had become fundamentally flawed. Readers were flocking from the papers to the Internet, consuming expensive journalism for free. On the advertising front, print dollars were giving way to digital dimes. I decided that the challenges were too difficult, so I moved on.

Or, I should say, I tried to move on. I couldn’t shake off what I had come to admire about the Globe. I grew to believe that New England is a better place with a healthy, vibrant Globe. When the Times put the Globe up for sale this winter, I resumed my studies. I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission. And so decisions about The Boston Globe are now being made here in Boston. The obligation is now to readers and local residents, not to distant shareholders. This, ideally, will foster even bolder and more creative thinking throughout the organization, which is critical in an industry under so much stress.

May his words offer inspiration to those struggling to maintain smaller papers like the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, enterprises equally important to their communities.

The whole piece is worth a read. Thanks to Doug MacKay, who edited the late, lamented Halifax Daily News at the peak of its glory, for pointing it out.



Meet the odd couple who nettle the NSA from a dog- and monkey-filled jungle retreat*


Please read journalist Peter Maass’s spellbinding account of how reporter/polemicist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras collaborated in bringing to light NSA leaker Edward J. Snowden’s disclosures about massive illegal spying by the US Government.

Seriously, if you read nothing else this week, do read this richly detailed, 10,000-word account of how Snowden made contact with Poitras, how Poitras roped Greenwald into the project, and how they communicate privately when all three are targeted by the most sophisticated electronic spying in the world.

It reads alternately like a novel, a spy thriller, a quirky travelog, and most importantly, like detailed expose of the American security apparatus run amok. I am not by inclination paranoid, but this article convinced me I need to learn how to encrypt electronic communications. There’s even a Q&A Maass conducted with Snowdon over multiply encrypted links to his Moscow hideout.

Greenwald lives and works in a house surrounded by tropical foliage in a remote area of Rio de Janeiro. He shares the home with his Brazilian partner and their 10 dogs and one cat, and the place has the feel of a low-key fraternity that has been dropped down in the jungle. The kitchen clock is off by hours, but no one notices; dishes tend to pile up in the sink; the living room contains a table and a couch and a large TV, an Xbox console and a box of poker chips and not much else. The refrigerator is not always filled with fresh vegetables. A family of monkeys occasionally raids the banana trees in the backyard and engages in shrieking battles with the dogs.

Greenwald does most of his work on a shaded porch, usually dressed in a T-shirt, surfer shorts and flip-flops. Over the four days I spent there, he was in perpetual motion, speaking on the phone in Portuguese and English, rushing out the door to be interviewed in the city below, answering calls and e-mails from people seeking information about Snowden, tweeting to his 225,000 followers (and conducting intense arguments with a number of them), then sitting down to write more N.S.A. articles for The Guardian, all while pleading with his dogs to stay quiet. During one especially fever-pitched moment, he hollered, “Shut up, everyone,” but they didn’t seem to care.

Amid the chaos, Poitras, an intense-looking woman of 49, sat in a spare bedroom or at the table in the living room, working in concentrated silence in front of her multiple computers. Once in a while she would walk over to the porch to talk with Greenwald about the article he was working on, or he would sometimes stop what he was doing to look at the latest version of a new video she was editing about Snowden. They would talk intensely — Greenwald far louder and more rapid-fire than Poitras — and occasionally break out laughing at some shared joke or absurd memory. The Snowden story, they both said, was a battle they were waging together, a fight against powers of surveillance that they both believe are a threat to fundamental American liberties.

It’s a wonderful piece of reporting about a courageous pair of reporters picking up the slack left by the supine mainstream news giants.

If Maass’s 10,000 words don’t exhausted you, please also check out a much shorter piece, The NSA Is Commandeering the Internet on The Atlantic’s website. Security expert Bruce Schneier (he coined the phrase, “security theatre”) pleads with executives of giant technology company’s to fight back against US government spying.

Most of the largest Internet companies provide information to the NSA, betraying their users. Some, as we’ve learned, fight and lose. Others cooperate, either out of patriotism or because they believe it’s easier that way.

I have one message to the executives of those companies: fight.

Lastly, The Takeaway podcast has a good interview with Maass about his piece.

[*Yes, I know, Greenwald and Poitras are not a couple in the usual sense, and only Greenwald resides in Rio. Poitras, a Massachusetts native, lives in New York City when she is not in precautionary exile, as she is now. In this 2012 Salon story, Greenwald details the harassment Poitras faces in her home country.]


Snap quiz:  What do the following verses have in common?

And that’s how it went
all afternoon, one lizard
after another

It made me wonder
if snow leopards have a taste
for joggers as well

As is typical,
the Pope stayed above the fray
and did not comment.

Whether such tactics
will have a chilling effect
remains to be seen.

Answer: All four are inadvertent haikus, composed by humans but discovered by machines.

The first two come from a Tumblr blog created by New York Times editor Jacob Harris, who adapted some open-source compter code to scan the homepage of the New York Times, looking for snippets of text that conform to the Haiku syllabic structure: 5:7:5.

“Sometimes it can be an ordinary sentence in context, but pulled out of context it has a strange comedy or beauty to it,” Harris told the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The next two come from Haikuleaks, a project that searched for serendipitous poetry among the thousands of diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010.

A purest might say these poems are not really haikus, since they lack the requisite seasonal reference (kigo), and the twist (kireji) that injects the last line with surprise.

“Not every haiku our computer finds is a good one,” Harris wrote on the Times Haiku blog. “The algorithm discards some potential poems if they are awkwardly constructed, and it does not scan articles covering sensitive topics. Furthermore, the machine has no aesthetic sense. It can’t distinguish between an elegant verse and a plodding one. But, when it does stumble across something beautiful or funny or just a gem of a haiku, human journalists select it and post it on this blog.”

Both the Times project and Haikuleaks have their roots in Haiku Finder, an open source python script that crawls through text and ferrets out haiku. You can try it yourself by copying a large block of text—the bigger the better—and pasting it into the Haiku Finder search box.

If you do that with, oh, say, Nova Scotia’s broken Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Haiku Finder coughs up this ironic bit of poetic wisdom:

Where accuracy
is critical, please consult
official sources.




When eco-trivia overwhelms real threats to the planet

mac-water-bottle-poster-2-webWith so many real and pressing environmental crises threatening to harm Planet Earth, why are so many well-meaning environmentalists so easily diverted into foolhardy projects like the campaign to ban plastic water bottles?

On January 1, the Town of Concord, Massachusetts, prohibited the sale of “non-sparkling, unflavored drinking water in single-serving polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles of 1 liter (34 ounces) or less.” To be clear, it’s still OK to sell small, plastic bottles of Coke, Red Bull, colored sugar-water, and carbonated water, and it’s OK to sell Just Plain Water in 40-oz plastic bottles or gallon jugs.

In an approving report on the ban, the Globe and Mail zeroed in an oft-repeated environmental trope that appears to have its origin in a June, 2007, editorial in the New York Times.

The recommended eight glasses of water a day, at U.S. tap rates, equals about 49 cents a year. The same amount of bottled water costs about $1,400, according to the tap water activist group Ban the Bottle.


  • The recommendation for drinking eight glasses of water per day is quackery, debunked at Snopes.com and many other places.
  • No bottled water defender recommends that people consume water exclusively from bottles, merely that it’s a convenient way to drink water in some circumstances — such as in a car or on a beach, where municipal water taps tend to be scarce.
  • The proposition that bottled water use lowers public support for municipal water supplies (which are all but ubiquitous in North American towns and cities) suffers from an absence of evidence.
  • The Concord, MA, ban wisely omits emergencies when municipal supplies are contaminated or unavailable—unusual, but hardly unheard of events.

For his part, Contrarian drinks many glasses of tap water, but from time to time, he prefers the convenience of a recyclable plastic bottle, whether newly purchased with water inside, or refilled with tap water from his non-municipal bore hole. Sometimes he freezes water in bottles to take to the beach on hot summer days.

When one of these bottles has served its purpose, Contrarian carefully places it in the recycle bin, thereby contributing revenue his rural municipality can use to maintain water systems in places other than Boularderie Island.

He would like the Globe and Mail and the Town of Concord to get off his case.

H/T: JP (who might disagree).


One would like to think of human history as an unbroken march toward enlightenment in which superstition and magical beliefs are gradually discarded in favor of rational thought and evidence-based decisions. One would like to, but then one remembers the media’s obsession with Mayan doomsday predictions never actually predicted by actual Mayans, and the scandalous failure of most Nova Scotia health care workers to get the ‘flu vaccine (thus depriving themselves, their families, and their patients of the most effective life-saving advance in medical history), and today’s numerological media trope-de-jour: the fact that today’s (arbitrary) date can be rendered as 12-12-12.

So it was with a mixture of amusement and chagrin that we read (courtesy of Lauren Oostveen of the Nova Scotia Archives) the New York Times’s account of the last 12-12-12 iteration, the one that occurred on December 12, 1912. The anonymous Times writer of a century ago cataloged the carry-on about arbitrary dates with an air of droll contempt that seems not at all dated.

[F]or those who live on past to-day, there will still be available some triple-plated dates of magical mischance. And one of them, to come a mere thirty-two years from now, will outdo all other combinations in the magic of its mixture. It will come on April 11, 1944, and the 4-11-44 that may then be written will, of course, bring out into the letter writing industry every soul that ever hugged a rabbit’s foot, threw a horseshoe over the left shoulder, or trembled when he broke a mirror or walked under a ladder.

So mark this down as one area where 100 years of humankind’s relentless march toward rationality appears to have gained no ground whatsoever. Here’s the whole Times piece:


Has Neal Livingston lost his %$@& mind?

A couple of years ago, a friend and I travelled to Inverness for a celebration honoring the wonderful author and columnist, Frank MacDonald. On the off-chance alcohol might be consumed, we sought lodging at one of the town’s two motels. Our choices were Grim and Grimmer.

Inverness had many charms — spectacular setting, fascinating history, unique culture, magnificent beach — but no economic engine since its coal mines shut down in the 1960s. Boarded up storefronts and seedy hand-painted signs for the few surviving businesses offered silent testimony to the community’s entrenched gloom.

Into this sad civic concoction came Ben Cowan-Dewer and Allie Barclay, a Toronto couple determined to achieve a dream that had eluded Inverness for decades: building a top-notch golf course on the coal-ravaged landscape that separated the down-at-the-heels village from its glorious beach.

In 2008, they moved their family down from Toronto, leaving behind Barclay’s career in finance. They found golf-savvy investors and crackerjack course architects. They assembled 14 parcels of land from various owners. In the depths of the deepest recession since the 1930s, they raised “tens of millions of dollars” to reshape the mine site and build an 18-hole links-style golf course that is winning rave reviews. Canadian Golfer calls Cabot Links, “the best course built in Canada in the last 50 years.” On Canada Day, the New York Times devoted the front page of its Sunday sports section to an article extolling the course as, “a resort-quality, high-end layout designed to be a true links golf course, a boutique category of oceanside golf architecture exceedingly rare outside the British Isles.” The Globe and Mail’s Jane Tabor was equally effusive, as was the Toronto Star.

The course now employs 125 Invernessers — a staggering total in a village of 1,800 souls. If they ever throw another party for Frank MacDonald, out-of-town guests will be able to stay at the architecturally smart, 48-room luxury hotel that overlooks the course. The Robin Donut chain has opened the town’s first drive-through. There’s talk of another hotel, and Cowan-Dewar promises a second 18-hole seaside course, Cabot Cliffs, if the first course attracts 15,000 rounds this season. For the first time in decades, Inverness might just have a future.

This is all terribly upsetting to Neal Livingston. The media-savvy environmental gadfly has been a constant thorn in the side of Cowan-Dewar and Barclay. Last year, he claimed  the developers had reneged on an agreement to maintain a path from the highway to the far end of the town beach, although the parties to that agreement confirm that they worked out a satisfactory alternative path.

Last month, as the course was poised to open amidst a tidal wave of media accolades the likes of which Inverness has never seen, Livingston found another way to pee on the party. He issued a press release berating Nova Scotia’s Minister of Environment for being slow to act on his complaint that the course had damaged the beach.

In fact, officials of the Department of Natural Resources were quick to investigate — and reject — Livingston’s initial claim, although their investigation turned up a different issue: possible encroachment on real estate technically designated as part of the protected beach. You can see the devastating results for yourself in the photo above. (Kidding!)

As part of the links design, Cabot uses natural grasses and native vegetation. It is the least environmentally intrusive golf design possible. It replaces toxic coal mine tailings that had marred the landscape for decades, uncomplained-about by Livingston’s Margaree Environmental Association.

Here’s how golf journalist Robert Thompson viewed the contretemps:

The fascinating thing about the whole debate by a group of people opposed to any advancement in the town of Inverness is that they seem to ignore what they’ve gotten. The so-called “developer,” Cowan-Dewar, is hardly a developer in any traditional sense. Yes, there’s a golf course and a hotel, but this isn’t a huge residential development. And the project uses natural grasses throughout and has done its best to impose as little on the land as it can — its that sort of course. To top it off… the site was largely a remediated mine — and the boardwalk already runs along a sandy dune for several kilometres. I’m not sure how the golf course could do any more damage — or cross the boardwalk…

That’s exactly what a functioning democracy is all about. It’s about some individual opposed to a project making complaints time and again, having them shot down and finding new things to complain about. It is about an individual wasting government time and taxpayer dollars on complaints without merit.

What I find striking is that Livingston could maintain a seasonal residence in nearby Mabou for decades and yet remain indifferent to the desire of those whose ancestors settled this beautiful land in the 19th Century to make a living there in the 21st. Has lost his mind? Probably not, but he appears to have lost all sense of perspective, compassion, and common sense.

Infographic: Who gets US social support money?

Federal government benefits in the US —chiefly Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid,  veterans’ benefits, income security, unemployment insurance, and veterans’ benefits—accounted for 17.6 percent of personal income in 2009. The New York Times today published another of its fantastic interactive charts, this one showing where federal assistance has gone over the last 40 years: what counties got what percentage of their personal income from which programs in each of those years.

This screenshot doesn’t do the actual chart justice, so click through to the original.

An accompanying story concludes that, while social support programs once went mostly to the poorest Americans, the middle class has recently become the largest recipient. Americans who complain vociferously about overly generous social programs are themselves recipients.

Wouldn’t it be illuminating to see something similar for Canadian federal and provincial government benefits?

Dollar Store chic

From the moment I first stepped inside one, I have regarded dollar stores as miraculous institutions, unappreciated by the cognoscenti. In this morning’s New York Times, reporter Jesse McKinley describes how he outfitted his new apartment in Albany, NY, entirely from items purchased at  the various dollar stores that abound in the area (with a slide show). The daring Mr. McKinley does not observe my only rule of dollar store consumption: Avoid items intended to be ingested.

Donham’s Law of Fisheries Conservation reconfirmed

In an almost perfect illustration of Donham’s Law, the New York Times reports this morning that New English fishermen are pooh-poohing calls from fisheries scientists for greater restrictions, or even an outright ban, on cod fishing in the gulf of Maine.

The scientists point to new data showing cod stocks in much worse shape than previously thought; the fishermen say there’s an abundance of fish.

“Fishermen will almost always tell you that, and it’s not that they’re lying,” said Mark Kurlansky, whose 1997 book, “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” documented how Canada’s once-abundant Atlantic cod were fished almost to extinction. “Landing a lot of fish can mean the fish are very plentiful, or it can mean the fishermen are extremely efficient in scooping up every last one of them.”

Donham’s Law of Fisheries Conservation states that All fishermen resolutely support conservation measures, except those targeting the species they fish for, and the gear types they fish with.