Saturday, February 26, 2005

Karnick's Law of Culture

I was recently reminded of a formulation about culture in free societies, which I have used in the past but have perhaps not commited to print. To wit, what I call Karnick's Law of Culture:

Bad art drives out the good.

The idea is analogous, of course, to Gresham's Law, which states that in a free economy, bad currency drives out the good.

I think that Karnick's Law helps explain why contemporary American culture has so often seemed to appeal to the worst impulses of human beings and to downplay or even deny the very existence of our higher and better impulses. It is easier for artists (of any level of talent, from the very lowest to the highest) to create a deep and widespread reaction in audiences by appealing to sensations, which are nearly universally understood, than to the intellect, which fewer people can access at its highest levels. This is true regardless of the personal morality and intentions of the artist; it is an obsevation about human psychology, not morality.

Obviously, the best and healthiest art will appeal to both the sensations and the intellect, and will be accessible to a wide range of people. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, Dickens, T. S. Eliot, and David Lean, to provide just a few examples, demonstrate this achievement beautifully. On the other hand, a preponderance of sensation over intellect, or of intellect over sensation, will create a work of degrading baseness in the first case and of unnourishing aridity in the second instance.

In the economy, government intervention overcomes the perils of Gresham's Law. This is done through coercion, although such government intervention is a measure which most people would agree is salutary.

In society, the church and government seem to be the natural repositories of response to the problems identified by Karnick's Law. There is, however, much less agreement on this, and in particular on who should decide these matters even if we can agree that something should be done collectively, than is the case with our protection of the value of our currency

The question that naturally arises to the liberal mind is this: Is there a way in which society can overcome the perils defined in Karnick's Law by means of voluntary cooperation rather than coercion?

Friday, February 25, 2005

A Baseball Memory -- The Atlanta Braves

Jay, I understand your emotions. When the Braves first began to break out of utter haplessness, I had been watching for years as a child who cheered every time the team broke out of last place. I'll never forget Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS when the Braves were down 2-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The unknown pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera drove in David Justice and the slow-footed Sid Bream with a laser to left field. Bream slid into home and was safe by inches.

I was living in an apartment complex full of University of Georgia students in Athens. Some kind of collective mania took over. Within two seconds of the umpire calling Bream safe, the entire complex emptied into the parking lot as hundreds of us jumped and shouted with crazy joy. We were possessed by totally unself-conscious pure happiness. And that is what sports can do.

There was only one small bittersweet touch to the whole thing. Great names of the Atlanta franchise like Dale Murphy and Bob Horner weren't there for the big victory. Their careers had ended with a whimper a few years before.

Boston - Or Phoenix?

Spring training for baseball is about to begin, and for the first time in 86 years the defending World champions are the Boston Red Sox. Here is what I wrote the night of their Series victory last year:

Is it all right to cry? Is it permitted to shed a tear of joy and relief for the Boston Red Sox emerging triumphant after eighty-six years of torment? Is it acceptable for a kid who grew up in New York and has lived in Chicago and Cincinnati and now Miami?
Or have I not paid my dues? Is it necessary to brandish some stigmata? Do I need to show ten years of Prozac prescriptions? Bags under my eyes deep enough to carry all the pain in the world? Razor scars on my wrists from a certain 1986 accident that we won’t discuss?
Does there have to be a seat in O’Malley’s Bar that I have worn down to the springs? A groove on the bar counter where I have laid my head after a thousand bitter losses? A crack on the side of the pinball machine where I kicked it eighteen years ago? A dartboard with the picture of Bill Buckner that has been shredded by a million angry punctures?
Can’t I just be a guy who wants to feel that the little guy has a chance, however slender, in a world rigged in favor of Mister Big? Can’t I be a guy who wants to see hope trump advantage? To see the dream outdistance privilege? Can’t I pray for a world where no one ever has to give up until the first spadeful of earth falls on the casket?
Is there no room in your celebration for a kid who came home from school one day at age ten and saw ambulances in front of his house? For a boy whose Dad had to tell him that his Mom had died suddenly and we were on our own? A lad who spent his teenage years living mostly with his Grandma and roaming the streets of the big city?
Got no place for a kid who dreamed of becoming a famous writer? Who sat long nights typing awful mystery stories and sending them to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to be rejected? Who snuck into movie theaters after the ushers had vacated the hallways and was convinced that he could write one of those someday?
What about a young man who became something of a ghost writer? Who feared the glare of the public eye and plied his craft in lengthening shadows? Who watched his diffident words fly under the banner of names with more courage than talent? And who now has emerged, even as you have, to a touchingly warm welcome?
Is there an opening for a son who has been too often prodigal? For a brother who can’t control his remoteness? A friend who is too aloof? A lover who has been too cold? An arguer who has been too hot? A father who has been by turns too strict and too lenient and too neutral?
Isn’t your joy a universal place that the lonely and needy may enter? Isn’t your victory a shot in humanity’s arm? Haven’t you been carving out paths to achievement and ecstasy for the disenfranchised? Aren’t you picking up all the lonely and battered hearts and restoring them to health? Aren’t those hefty doses of confidence that you are distributing with an open hand?
Didn’t you go to the very brink in the ninth inning of Game Four against the Yankees? Didn’t you meet the bogeyman face to face and stare him down? Didn’t you claw and scratch and scrabble your way back, first to contention and then to championship? Haven’t you done what no baseball team had ever done before, eclipsing a three game to zero deficit in a best-of-seven series?
Have you not thrown off the suffocating embrace of a hostile Fate? Aren’t you providing a model for people and teams who are a heartbeat from total humiliation? Showing that patience and fortitude and hard work can eventually undo all the real and imagined curses? That under a cobweb or two there might be a fresh burst of energy? That past can stop being prologue and just become flashback?
Did we not come to love you for being spunky and indomitable? Did we not bleed every time we saw Curt Schilling’s “Red Sox” red with blood? Did we not grin every time David Ortiz launched a missile over the wall? Didn’t you hear my grunt when the umpire called a ball to us and my groan when he called a strike?
Can’t I order a portion of what it is you got? Are you too embarrassed to let me hold your hand for a minute? Do you have a seat for me on the team bus? Can you give me a hand up so I can share the view from the mountaintop? Can I wish you well for next year?
Can I shudder with your remembered pain? Can I tingle with your newfound ecstasy? Can I promise to keep climbing the ladder? Is it all right to laugh? Is it all right to cry?

Crimes Against the UK Citizenry

In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States engaged in a vast experiment in which political jurisdictions from top to bottom reduced both the certainty and severity of punishment for nearly all crimes, especially for violent crimes and those involving what used to be called public vices. The experiment, as the statistics show vividly, was a disaster, and two decades after its effective end we are still reeling from its effects. Crime has decreased, but it is still far above the levels it was at in the early years of the past century.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, however, and the people of Great Britain are now experiencing those awful effects. Britain has almost completely disarmed the noncriminals among its citizen population, and it has greatly reduced criminals' likelihood of capture, prosecution, and punishment, as a Times of London report of today notes in the case of one particularly brutal type of crime:

"According to government figures published yesterday, only one in eighteen rapes reported to police ends with the suspect being punished, although government ministers have pledged to increase the number of convictions."

The vast increase in burgularies and home invasions in Great Britain has been well documented in recent years, and now, obviously in response to this low rate of capture, conviction, and punishment in sexual assault cases, a new blight has arisen. This results in the familiar downward spiral of crime, in which victims cease bothering to report crimes because they see little use in confronting their attackers, who will almost surely go free anyway. The Times reports:

"[the Home Office]
estimated that the actual number of rapes in England and Wales is more than four times higher than the 11,700 reported to the police in 2002."

Thus a new strategy of rape has evolved:

"
According to a study by the Home Office, groups of predatory men are now targeting drunken women to rape and sexually assault. Jo Lovett, one of the authors, said: "There are people who are undoubtedly targeting women who are drunk.'”

These men are taking advantage of the fact that cases in which there is any doubt whatever that the woman has refused consent are dropped very early in the legal process. In Great Britain today, a man who rapes a drunken woman is highly likely to go entirely unpunished even if the woman files charges.

The Blair government has expressed concern over the problem and has promised to increase the conviction rate. We certainly hope that they will succeed, although we are saddened that it required such an outbreak of horror to spur them to act.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Wead Update

The Wead book isn't selling. It commits two sins. First, there is no surprising story here. What you thought about George W. is what you continue to think about him. Second, he publicly betrayed a friend's confidence. Go to Amazon.com and observe the list of non-reviews reviling Wead. Sales rank for the book: 1,094. For a relatively new release with NYT front page coverage, that's very, very poor.

Unseemly Behavior of Wead

The New York Times reports that the evangelical speaker and author Doug Wead has promised to give up all royalties for his recently published book, The Raising of a President: The Mothers and Fathers of Our Nation's Leaders, because the book contains quotes from conversations the author secretly recorded with George W. Bush, without the latter's knowledge, in the two years before his election in 2000.

I don't think that this is enough. Wead should never have used the quotes in his book, and his editors should have made sure that the author had permission to use them. If he deceived his publisher in that regard, he should be tried for fraud. As soon as the deception was revealed, the publisher should have withdrawn the book from publication. As it stands, the ultimate outcome wil simply be more publicity for a book which is partly the result of an utterly unethical journalistic practice. This stinks.

Reset Chris Rock

Drudge and Sean Hannity have been hammering the decision to have Chris Rock host the Oscars. Particular attention has been paid to a joke Rock did where he spoke of going to pro-choice rallies to meet sexually active women. I'm not a big Chris Rock fan and absolutely hated his movie Head of State, but it looks like he's been quoted out of context here.

Slate fixes the problem. Here 'tis:

What really bugs Drudge isn't the F-words, which thanks to a several-second broadcast delay you're no more likely to hear at the Oscars than a Mike Leigh acceptance speech. It's Rock's politics. In particular, Drudge objects to a stand-up bit in which Rock announces that "it's beautiful that abortion is legal" and says that he likes to pick up women at abortion rallies. "'Cause you know they're"—well, here Rock uses one of those words Drudge doesn't think very classy. Because he knows they're sexually active.

That's some tasteless "S," no doubt about it. Drudge's selective quoting, however, doesn't do justice to the joke. Putting the bit in context doesn't make it safe for the hallowed red carpet (whose purity is defended by the chaste, bare-breasted goddess Jennifer Lopez), but it does affect the meaning. Far from an encomium to fetus killing, Rock's abortion bit is an attack on women for the frivolous manner in which they decide whether or not to keep a child. "When a woman gets pregnant, it's a choice between the woman"—here Rock pauses, a mischievous grin barely restrained—"and her girlfriends." From there: "One girlfriend goes, 'Child, you should have that baby—that man got some good hair…' And the other girlfriend says, 'Child, why we even talking about this—ain't we supposed to go to Cancun next week? Get rid of that baby!' " And that, Rock says, "is how life is decided in America."

The assumption is that women who get abortions are frivolous and irresponsible rather than poor and desperate, as a liberal might have it. Not much there to offend a conservative's sensibilities. Though Drudge claims the academy "went to the gutter" by picking Rock, where it actually went was to the right. Rock may speak the irreverent language of blue comedy, but more often than not, his ideas are red-state red.

White House press pass "scandal"

Ann Coulter has produced a very good column on the controversy over the White House awarding daily press passes to a writer for the conservative Talon News organization, which appears to be affiliated with the Republican National Committee.

Coulter points out that Maureen Dowd "openly lied" about the situation in her New York Times column on the subject, and Coulter finds the criticism from the left to be very odd, in that it appears that the only real things they have been able to criticize the reporter for are his homosexuality and his use of a pen name, both of which they have no problem whatever with when true of people on their side of the political divide.

Once again, as occurs on both left and right, we see that writers today will use any possible argument against their political enemies, no matter how irrational, hypocritical, or ridiculous it may be. Coulter is by no means immune to this habit, but she is correct in her appraisal of the media frenzy over the Talon News reporter.

The Baylor Story So Far

Christianity Today has performed a great service by creating a special web page devoted to articles about the struggle for control of Baylor's future. If you want to get up to speed fast on the most interesting story in American higher education, this is the place. You might even find a couple of articles from yours truly.

Just follow this link: The Battle for Baylor.

Pregnancy and Homicide

ABC News reports on the significant co-incidence of pregnancy and homicide. A pregnant woman is more likely to be murdered than die in a car accident or of any other cause than medical complications from childbirth. Why? Predictably, men (like Scott Peterson) seem to seek freedom from obligation. However, some women present a threat as well. Here's a story from the article:

Unlike men, women who attack pregnant women usually do not know their victims well, if at all. They are usually obsessed with pregnancy and crave the attention — and what they perceive as power — associated with carrying a child.

Relatives said Lisa Montgomery, of Melvern, Kan., faked pregnancy five times. During the last false pregnancy, she allegedly zeroed in on Bobbi Jo Stinnett, a Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant, strangled her and cut Stinnett's baby from her womb. The child was found alive with Montgomery, who allegedly told relatives she had just given birth. Montgomery now faces a capital murder charge.

"With women who actually want to steal a woman's baby, they are usually psychopaths. They claim to be pregnant when they are not," Brown said. "She usually loves the attention and power that is associated with pregnancy and motherhood. … They like to use the child to get attention for themselves. But they like to try to manipulate others with the issues that motherhood and pregnancy bring."

Kentucky authorities said Katie Smith told family and friends she was pregnant. She wore maternity outfits and had a completely furnished nursery with baby clothes, diapers and formula.

But there was no pregnancy. To get a baby, police said, Smith, 22, lured neighbor Sarah Brady — who was nine months pregnant — to her apartment by telling her a package intended for Brady had been delivered to Smith's home by mistake. When Brady, 26, showed up, Smith tried to stab her, but the pregnant woman managed to turn the knife on her attacker, police said. Smith was killed. Investigators said Brady acted in self-defense, and she was not charged.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

BACONWHORES

How many times have you wanted to take down a heaping plate of bacon, but couldn't stand the thought of splattering grease and unpleasant clean-up?

Now, thanks to Baconwhores, you can make an appointment to have a beautiful Baconwhore come and cook up a beautiful plate of fried porkfat in the comfort of your own home. They are extensively trained in the art of cooking bacon and get it right every time. Atkins-dieters, heaven awaits ye. (HT to Ross Douthat at The American Scene)

Movies and Money

Have you ever wondered how a film studio could afford to pay one star $20-30 million, spend a couple hundred million on the movie, drop another several tens of millions on distribution/advertising, and still somehow make money at the end of the day?

Weekly Standard's Jonathan V. Last has the answer.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Barry Bonds Most Unsavory

I've written about before, but I'm back after Barry Bonds' lame defenses during his last press conference in which he was asked about steroid use.

Exhibit A:

Bonds, dressed casually in a black shirt and jeans, was asked whether he thinks using steroids is cheating.

"I don't know what cheating is," he said. "I don't believe steroids can help your eye-hand coordination, technically hit a baseball. I just don't believe it. That's my opinion."

B.S. buddy. You aren't being challenged for your high batting average. The question is how you've hit so many home runs. Steroid-fueled muscle might not make a .400 hitter, but it could surely add 10-20 homers a year. Muscle mass matters when it comes to hitting for power.

Exhibit B:

Bonds believes he's being scrutinized more since he's closing in on Ruth's record.

"Because Babe Ruth is one of the greatest baseball players ever, and Babe Ruth ain't black, either," he said. "I'm black. Blacks, we go through a little more. ... I'm not a racist though, but I live in the real world. I'm fine with that."

If it's possible, Bonds is even more disingenuous here. Nobody is giving much thought to Bonds passing the number two home run hitter of all time, they're thinking about Bonds being number one when he has likely been engaged in serious cheating. We don't know how many the Babe or Hank Aaron or Willie Mays could have hit with high test coursing through their veins. Racism has become the last resort of the scoundrel in this situation.

Comrade Homnick: Please....

Methinks that my beloved colleague Jay Homnick---make that The Great Homnick---has demonstrated himself too clever by half in his interpretation of the Dems' genius in terms of the elevation of the ineffable Howard Dean to the lofty position of Chairman of the DNC. Make that Chairperson or Chair or Chairwoman or something, whatever. From the viewpoint of the MoveOn.org leftists and their ilk---if only their message were made clear, they would be embraced by the common folk as a distant relative suddenly victorious in the lottery---the choice of Dean enhances their power in the Party like nothing else. After all, the Party Chairman exists to raise money, and only two big pots are available. Pot 1: The Clintons and their various buddies. Pot 2: The George Soros/internet/Michael Moore/dingbat crowd. In terms of this intra-Party competition, no one is better than Dean from the MoveOn.org viewpoint. And that is why all the talk about how Dean---purportedly a moderate when actually in office in Vermont---will prove a relative centrist as DNC Chairman is hogwash. In order to operate as a centrist, Dean must raise money from the centrists, and that requires cooperation and beta-female submission to Bill and Hillary. How can I put this gently? Dean will switch parties, genders, and underwear with random strangers before he will do that. And so Dean will not and cannot operate as a centrist DNC Chairman. He will raise money from the Left, he will mark territory like a Leftist, and his mating call will remain as it was in Iowa. Comrade Homnick's argument that Dean has been maneuvered into the Chairmanship/Chairship/ Chairpersonship/Chairwomanship as a means of getting him out of the way and making him more palatable even to churchgoing Dems is an argument---please, please forgive me, Jay---unworthy of the Homnick brand name. Dean is Chairman because he will serve the intraparty interests of the Democratic Left. And we'll have fun fun fun 'til Mommy Hillary takes the car keys away.

The DNC Dean Decision Explained

Mr. Homnick has taken it upon himself to help the readers of Jewish World Review understand Dr. Dean's new post and why the Democrats would engage in an apparently self-destructive maneuver. Here's a taste:

Here is what the Democrats accomplish by having Dean in that position. 1) His Presidential prospects are finis. 2) He is de-clawed as an infighter among the class of Presidential hopefuls. 3) His fundraising skills must now be diverted away from his aggrandizement and toward the party. 4) Even this mordant secularism that is said to be so abrading to churchgoers will have to be tempered to accord with his role as titular leader of all Democrat politicians.

Hunter And Pecking

We are not accustomed to thinking of our work in these terms, but it is not far from the truth to say that this publication scooped the entire media with our response to the passing of Hunter Thompson, and that we set precisely the right tone. Please note that our post was up at 12:13 Saturday night, minutes after the radio announcement.

We did not downplay his excesses, nor did we suggest that his prime legacy inhered in his specific views, but we acknowledged that his contribution to style and to broadening the parameters of how public events and personalities are examined was real. He was entertaining and a sort of genius while never escaping the weight of his own eccentricity.

Now take the dismissive piece at the Weekly Standard website, saying that he was a hollow loudmouth who left no legacy, the bemused piece at National Review Online, saying that he was a kind of lovable eccentric perched on the fringe of the culture, and the Opinion Journal piece written by the great Tom Wolfe himself (which Hunter links to below), saying that Hunter Thompson was the greatest comic writer of our time, the Mark Twain of the Twentieth Century.
Rampant schizophrenia in the conservative media or what?

A pat on the back: we had it rightest and we had it first.

Warren Buffett v. Alan Reynolds

Jack Kemp has a new piece up at Townhall knocking Warren Buffett for gloomy predictions about the U.S. dollar. What makes it particularly notable is the extensive quoting of Reform Club blogger Alan Reynolds.

To be fair, Mr. Reynolds has some less prestigious affiliations with the Cato Institute and the Wall Street Journal. Here's mud in yer eye, Alan.

Living New Journalist on Dead New Journalist

Accounts of Hunter S. Thompson's demise sometimes mention that he was a practitioner of The New Journalism, a style in which the author involves himself in the story and may even appear as a character. Tom Wolfe was part of that camp as well, but with a different style than Thompson. When Wolfe appeared in his own work it was very unobtrusive, whereas Thompson regularly gave himself a key role.

When I heard Thompson had killed himself, I instantly wondered what Tom Wolfe thought about it. Opinion Journal obliges. Here's a bit:

We were walking along West 46th Street toward a restaurant, The Brazilian Coffee House, when we passed Goldberg Marine Supply. Hunter stopped, ducked into the store and emerged holding a tiny brown paper bag. A sixth sense, probably activated by the alarming eyes and the six-inch rise and fall of his Adam's apple, told me not to ask what was inside. In the restaurant he kept it on top of the table as we ate. Finally, the fool in me became so curious, he had to go and ask, "What's in the bag, Hunter?"

"I've got something in there that would clear out this restaurant in 20 seconds," said Hunter. He began opening the bag. His eyes had rheostated up to 300 watts. "No, never mind," I said. "I believe you! Show me later!" From the bag he produced what looked like a small travel-size can of shaving foam, uncapped the top and pressed down on it. There ensued the most violently brain-piercing sound I had ever heard. It didn't clear out The Brazilian Coffee House. It froze it. The place became so quiet, you could hear an old-fashioned timer clock ticking in the kitchen. Chunks of churasco gaucho remained impaled on forks in mid-air. A bartender mixing a sidecar became a statue holding a shaker with both hands just below his chin. Hunter was slipping the little can back into the paper bag. It was a marine distress signaling device, audible for 20 miles over water.

Thompson was determined to live out his life in huge gestures. He reminds me of Hemingway in that sense. Once the body deteriorated and the novelty of hitting all the extreme notes wore off, he just tripped a trigger and ended the game. I've always suspected Wolfe's relative sanguinity and personal peace have something to do with closet Christianity.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Some Shameless Self-Promotion

Herewith, my oral testimony on the importation of price-controlled drugs before the Senate Health Committee last week. Email me if you want the full testimony and/or the executive summary. Comments welcome. Senator Teddy, disappointingly, did not attend, as there was at the same time a Foreign Relations Committee hearing featuring Condi and Rummy. I guess Teddy preferred to grill them than me. Go figure.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of this committee; I will summarize four central points covered in my written testimony.

First: Pharmaceuticals subject to price controls overseas are not “cheap.” I urge this committee to reject efforts to impose price controls on U.S. medicines, whether directly or indirectly. Any such policies incontrovertibly would mortgage the future in favor of the present by reducing the market R&D incentives yielding more and improved medicines alleviating future human suffering.

Second: Foreign price controls enable overseas consumers to obtain a free ride on the prices that American consumers pay for R&D. U.S. trade and other policies that raise foreign prices toward competitive levels unambiguously would benefit U.S. consumers, regardless of the assumption one makes about the competitiveness of the U.S. pharmaceutical sector.

Third: The recent “free market” argument favoring the importation of price-controlled medicines from overseas is fundamentally flawed because compulsory licensing processes combined with ambiguities in the “failure to work the patent” framework mean that negotiations would be highly vulnerable to implicit or explicit threats of patent theft. At a more general level, free markets domestically even in principle cannot be reconciled with the enforcement of price controls overseas.

Fourth: Federal price negotiations over the long term would harm consumers. The federal government is not like a very large pharmacy chain; it is instead so big that it has monopoly pricing power as a buyer that large private sector buyers engaged in competitive negotiations do not have. At a more subtle level, private sector buyers must compete for customers, and so must balance the conflicting objectives of low prices and broad formulary availabilities. The federal government, on the other hand, does not have “customers” as such, so that short term budget pressures inexorably will tend to crowd out consumer choice over time. That is the deeper implication of the “evidence-based medicine” approaches now being considered and adopted by some states. The noninterference provisions of the 2003 Medicare Act truly were farsighted, and I urge this committee to continue that approach.

In conclusion: We want our medicines to be affordable, and we want them also to be available over the long term. That is why price controls must be rejected.

Thank you very much.

Sandra Dee R.I.P.

I was sad to hear Sandra Dee died. We were classmates at University High School in L.A., although she just showed up occasionally before the ceremony because she was tutored. We later chatted briefly in Westwood Village, where I worked at Sears after graduating from the Auto Mechanics Institute (not my only degree). I mostly recall thinking she wore too much makeup.

At that time, her real name (second father) was Douvan. Her mother was rumored to be a pushy stage mom even then.

I reprinted below some relevant thoughts on the death of another class mate, Jan Berry, which appeared in National Review online April 6, 2004. I meant to send it to her, since she’s in the UniHi alumni book, and later to congratulate her about the new movie about Bobby Darin.

Despite fame and fortune, and perhaps partly because of it, both Sandra Dee and Jan Berry had extremely difficult and tragically short lives. Such examples prove envy to be foolish as well a unkind.


[http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/reynolds200404060903.asp]

“Jan & Dean: UniHi in 1959”

Alan Reynolds

Jan Berry, of the surf duo Jan and Dean, recently died at terribly young age. Jan was Class of '58 at University High School (UniHi) in West L.A.; I was Class of '59.

Nancy Sinatra was in Jan's class at UniHi. Tommy Rettig, the star of Lassie (who insisted on being called Tom), was in mine. Sandra Dee, who filmed Gidget in 1959, and went to our Summer '59 prom but graduated Class of '60. James Brolin (Bruderlin) was earlier, probably '57. Singer-songwriter Randy Newman was Class of '61. Beau Bridges was my classmate at Webster Junior High, but he went to Venice High.

To thwart gangs, UniHi encouraged more supervised groups affiliated with the YMCA (HI-Y) and YWCA (TRI-Y). These clubs varied in status, like fraternities and sororities, and Jan and Dean were in a top group, the Barons. I belonged to a totally unsupervised lowbrow group, the Ladds, which was supposedly a car club except few of us had cars. Paul Sessums was often the designated chauffer in his cool '49 Merc. In 1985, Sessums created a legendary blues club in Austin Texas, the Black Cat Lounge, before dying tragically in an auto accident a few years back.

Half the Ladds — the more muscular half — were from Hamilton High. A few Barons, not Jan or Dean, used to tease and intimidate UniHi Ladds. We were supposed to fight it out one weekend, but somebody had the good sense to bring a football. The game turned out to be unexpectedly close, which generated mutual respect and ended the tension. I nonetheless thought of Jan as physically intimidating at parties, a big football player with a persuasive scowl. It was good to be bad in those days, and some were more convincing actors than others.

Biographies of Jan and Dean note that they first used the Barons as the name of their singing group, but there were really three dozen Barons and they didn't all sing. It was Jan and Arnie Ginsberg at first, then Jan and Dean Torrence.

The late Fifties and early Sixties was a time of rapid transformation in the definition of cool — in music, cars, clothes and hairstyles. Those with a sense of fashion like Jan and Dean, were switching to khakis with a buckle in the back while my friends were still wearing low-riding Levis and rolled-up shirt sleeves. We listened to black R&B on Hunter Hancock's show (the Ladds' party favorite was "High Blood Pressure" by Huey Piano Smith). Jan and Dean's favorites were what we'd have dismissed as white bread, such as "Book of Love," "Little Star" and "Hushabye." Greased hair combed into a jellyroll (early Jan Berry) or waterfall (Dean), was on the way out. Shorter blonde hair, like Dean's later flattop, was on the way in. I was still swing dancing in 1958 with my "American Bandstand" dance partner Romelia Guevara. By 1961 swing was dead in L.A., replaced by the twist and the surfer stomp.

Paul's Merc was dropped in back, by torching the springs. That was still common practice on what was called (with inadequate cultural sensitivity) a "taco barge." That vintage Merc, which resembles an upside-down bathtub, was a favorite with the Falcons de Sotel, a Chicano group, but a '49-54 Chevy was a close rival. Some needed casters on the rear bumper to get up a driveway without scraping the twin tailpipes.

Rich kids' cars, by contrast, soon became inclined rather than reclined. Rather than being lowered in the back, they were raised in back — "raked" — with fat rear tires. Spoiled teens had '55-58 Chevys pin-striped by von Dutch. As a poor imitation, I helped my fellow-Ladd Don Brown rake his '50 Ford by moving the rear axle to below the rear leaf springs. It looked hot, but the wildly bent U-joints did not last long.

Coming of age in L.A. in the late Fifties was pretty cool. But today's cars, movies, and fashions are really much better. Restaurants are better too, with the exception of the Apple Pan on Pico, which is still as good as it ever was. Pop music is probably better too, but not nearly as magical. There was something uniquely special about hearing Chuck Berry for the first time at Venice beach, Little Richard opening the movie The Girl Can't Help It, and catching the debut of Heartbreak Hotel at a roller-skating rink. Some of us stuck in that groove too long. I was still singing "Slippin' and Slidin" with a garage band from Santa Monica College in the early Sixties, which was downright retro.

But music suddenly caught a new big wave when Dick Dale (who is still an astonishing guitarist) released "Let's Go Trippin'" in 1961- the same year, the Beach Boys came out with their first hit, "Surfin" and Jan and Dean with their second, "Heart and Soul."

Surf music came into its own at the same time twist clubs and coffeehouses sprung up. The Forty Thieves coffeehouse in Venice had silk hung from the ceiling and flat mats like a harem, with occasional poets and Mose Allison's "Seventh Son" on the jukebox. It was a fabulous time to be young in L.A. And a lot of the credit for all that fun goes to Jan Berry. The unique sound of Jan and Dean created continues to put smiles on the faces of everyone who hears it.

As Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers put it, "if there's a rock’n’roll heaven, I'll bet they have a hell of a band." Jan Berry and Bobby Hatfield just made it even greater.

New York Times and About.com?

For reasons that I may never understand, the New York Times has acquired About.com for $410 million. About.com? You have got to be kidding me. I've visited the About.com network on a few occasions but have never been overwhelmed by the content or design. How often have you been talking to someone and heard them reference About.com? "Yeah, I was just doing some research for my trip and spent a lot of time at About.com reading about mountain biking."

If I were an NYT shareholder, I'd be furrowing my brow right about now. Of course, I am a Krispy Kreme shareholder and the brow's been furrowed for a few months now.

The Maggot Maher

Blogger Mike D'Virgilio has provided an excellent brief study of the odious TV personality Bill Maher on Mike's fine blog, MDV Outlook.

In my view, Maher is one of the most annoyingly ignorant blowhards currently operating on the American talk-show circuit, and that is saying a lot. To me, he is in fact too repulsive to contemplate, and thus I am glad that I can refer readers to Mike's article, which provides a solid summary of Maher's "thoughts" on the role of religion in American today. Mike shows exactly how intelligent and open-minded the talking maggot Maher really is. It is well worth reading.

Two Of An Unkind

The race between news outlets for information about breaking stories is hardly a new phenomenon. I heartily recommend that everyone seek out Ben Hecht's autobiography, A Child Of The Century, to get a bird's-eye view of the journalistic culture of the early 20th Century (in case you thought The Front Page was fiction).

But in the age of Google one would expect that the baseline of accuracy for basic facts about a public figure's life would be universal.

Not so. I read two articles today about the passing of John Raitt, the great Broadway performer. The one in the Washington Post says that Rodgers wrote the soliloquy in Carousel specifically to suit Raitt's talents. The one by Reuters says that Hammerstein wrote the soliloquy in Carousel specifically to suit Raitt's talents. Okey-doke.

The Post piece says that in addition to singer Bonnie Raitt, John had a son and a daughter. Reuters says that he had two sons. I am inclined to credit Reuters with the greater accuracy, since they added that their names are Steven and David.

Guys, take five more minutes before going to press and get it right. We're counting on you to inform us about war and medicine and celebrity wardrobes; our lives are in your hands.

Jacoby on Gerrymandering

Jeff Jacoby had a very nice insight in his Boston Globe column of yesterday:

"The deepest and unhealthiest divide in American politics is not the one that separates Republicans from Democrats or conservatives from liberals. It is the gulf between Insiders and Outsiders -- between the incumbents who treat public office as private property and the increasingly neutered electorate in whose name they claim to act."

Jacoby points out that much of what Congress does, takes the form of an "incumbent protection racket"—which I would add is only to be expected, as long as those in Congress wield such a huge amount of power over the citizenry and indeed the condition of the entire world. When neither conscience nor the other branches of government can sufficiently restrain Congress, the great power of that body will create a huge amount of inertia.

Jacoby strongly criticizes the nearly univesal practice of gerrymandering, and rightly, as an important means by which legislators protect their positions. He correctly praises California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for launching "a full-scale attack on redistricting abuse in his state, demanding that the power to draw election maps be taken from the legislature and turned over to a committee of retired judges." As Jacoby notes, what is particularly interesting—and courageous—about Schwarzenegger's plan is "there is nothing partisan about it. It doesn't empower Rs at the expense of Ds, or Ds at the expense of Rs. It empowers voters at the expense of politicians." As a result, Jacoby says, sixteen of the current twenty Caifornia Republican congresspersons oppose the governor's plan.

Jacoby reports that similar reforms are underway in several other states, which is a good trend indeed. He writes,

"An end to gerrymandering would be an extraordinary shot in the arm for American democracy, once again making legislative races exciting and responsive. This is the very best kind of government reform—the kind that can unite conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. No, honest redistricting won't turn real-life politics into a ninth grade civics class. But it will make it a lot more interesting and democratic than the farce we're stuck with now."

That is true, and it is why those currently holding legislative power will fight to the death to retain the current system or at least water down the proposed reforms. After all, state legislators hope to become members of Congress themselves, down the road. Any progress toward reform in this matter could have some real consequences.

Hunter S. Thompson, RIP

We should hardly be surprised that Hunter S. Thompson has up and left us. Perhaps more amazing is that he lasted here for 67 years.

After hearing someone who shared a lecture bill with Hunter at a college somewhere describe how HST and his fourth wife were shooting up and downing shots in the rest room before his address, I would hardly have anticipated this level of longevity.

Still, Hunter was a man who opened a creative door, one that P.J. O'Rourke and many other fine writers refined in ways that have much enhanced our sense of events transpiring in faraway reaches of our planet. What was called 'gonzo' in his manic day has by now become part of our social fabric, not necessarily a bad part.

(Have a peek at Hunter's last column for ESPN.com, dated Feb. 15.)

As I have mentioned here before, I was once in the room when a genius went insane. Sometimes genius is too heavy a burden to carry.