I’m not sure I get this NYT op-ed by Patricia Weitsman on the dangers of coalitions. I think her argument is that the current “coalition” fighting in Iraq is costing us money and not gaining us any of the global legitimacy that the word “coalition” is supposed to buy. And in that sense, she’s right. We’re basically paying these tiny countries who have no real armies to send soldiers for the veil of legitimacy (aside from the UK, of course):

At President Bush’s request, in May 2005 Congress created a $200 million Coalition Solidarity Fund that supports coalition partners in Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, Estonia received $2.5 million in Coalition Solidarity Fund money to support its troops — about 40 in Iraq and 80 in Afghanistan. Albania, with its 120 or so troops in Iraq and 35 or so in Afghanistan, received $6 million, as did the Czech Republic, which has roughly 100 troops in Iraq and 60 in Afghanistan.

And (surprise!) it hasn’t worked:

According to a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, few people worldwide believe that the United States pays attention to the interests of others when making policy decisions. In the international community, the perception of America as unilateralist is pervasive.

But it should be pretty clear that what’s really at issue here is not the idea of coalitions in and of themselves, but rather how the Bush Administration has misappropriated the phrase. The 2003 Iraq War coalition has neither the diplomatic legitimacy of the 1991 Gulf War coalition or the diverse troop makeup of the 1999 Kosovo coalition. And so yes, it’s damn near useless in terms of winning the war.

I guess what’s odd about the column is how matter-of-factly she treats this idea. Like she’s genuinely surprised that the coalition in Iraq isn’t gaining us anything when it’s been clear for years that the “Coalition of the Willing” is an international joke. It’s a PR stunt, and always has been.

Living In The Fallout Shelter Doesn’t Mean You Have To Sacrifice Fashion

Ladies, Homeland might be cramping your style but not all is lost, the Thursday Styles section explains:

Enforcement has loosened slightly since restrictions were imposed by the Transportation Security Administration on Aug. 10, after a group of people suspected of plotting midair explosions with simple carry-on liquids were arrested in England. But the guidelines remain, and the chances are that the authorities will snatch any liquids and gels you try to take into the cabin.

Still, the mound outside security need not grow. And for those who are too busy or simply refuse to stand at baggage carousels to collect checked luggage, there is still a way to take beauty onboard without risking arrest or confiscation.

If the rules are followed (by travelers and by the authorities), it is possible to pack a carry-on cosmetic kit — best in an easy-to-screen zip bag — allowing you to shine lips, moisten skin and brush teeth before landing and even eliminate a stop at a drugstore or makeup counter after arriving.

. . .

Mascara is not allowed, but a product like Lola Loves Lashes ($25 at Sephora), the kind of cake mascara that made Bette Davis’s eyes something to write songs about, will pass muster.

Liquid foundation makeup is banned, but solid foundations are available. Benefit’s Some Kind-A Gorgeous ($26 at Sephora), calls itself a “foundation faker” because it is a solid that goes on with a light and creamy finish. It comes in only one shade, but Shiseido Stick Foundation ($35, Sephora), is available in 10 tones.

To freshen up on the plane there are Stila Petal Infusions Eye Makeup Dissolver pads ($20, Sephora) or ModelCo Exfoliate Body Wipes ($22, Sephora). And to avoid the drying and flaking that often come with a long flight in recycled air, you could pack a lip-balm stick like Vitamin C SPF 15 Lip Care Stick ($5, the Body Shop) and use Cocoa Butter Moisturizing Stick ($12.50), which melts at body temperature but at room temperature is a solid.

A Pain In The Fanny

It turns out that ethanol is big in the Midwest. But there are still some kinks they need to work out:

Standing next to his pickup truck at a service station here, Robert Beck squeezed a yellow nozzle and filled up with the corn-based fuel blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that car companies, farmers and politicians alike love to promote as a way out of America’s oil addiction.

Mr. Beck, an agronomist who travels throughout the Midwest, likes the idea of E-85, as the fuel blend is known, because it is made mostly from a domestic crop. But he still finds that buying the fuel is almost more trouble than it is worth.

“Everyone talks about it, but exactly where is it?” he said. “You have to have more fuel out there for consumers to buy.’’

That could take a while.

. . . 

After buying his truck in April, Mr. Beck discovered only two months ago that it was dual-fuel. In the past, most drivers did not even know they had flexible-fuel vehicles because the car companies did not bother to tell them and the engines are virtually indistinguishable.

But from now on, “we’re going to do more to let people know what they have,” said Susan Cischke, vice president for environmental and energy engineering at Ford. She said Ford marked its flexible-fuel vehicles on the hood and fuel cap.

. . . 

Unlike the standard gasoline pumps, the E-85 pump at the Qik-n-EZ did not take credit cards, forcing Mr. Beck to stand in line for 15 minutes behind customers buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

“You would think it would be as easy as buying fuel,’’ he said, “but it is a pain in the fanny.”

And there is no room for error when trying to drive only on E-85. Do not leave Emporia, Kan., for instance, without fueling up a nearly empty tank first. Otherwise, somewhere on the Kansas Turnpike the fuel gauge needle goes below empty.

What then? Turn off the air-conditioning, coast part of the way in neutral and, finally, a service station — the only one for another 30 miles — has gasoline. But no E-85.

And We’re Back

Sorry for the dearth of posts the last couple of days. The old Movable Type website finally bit the bullet. (note to would-be bloggers: BerkeleyDB = bad!). So I took the opportunity to switch the whole site to WordPress, mostly because of the awesome podPress plugin that powers the podcasts, but also because I don’t like manual rebuilds.

So… let us know what you think!

Behold the Embeggarment of the American Worker

More proof that Bush-o-nomics has left the average American running straightforward into the past.

The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity — the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation’s living standards — has risen steadily over the same period.

As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960′s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as “the golden era of profitability.”

While it’s not entirely fair to blame Rove & Co.’s cynical economic policies for this trend, this is further indictment of the general tone they’ve set for this country. We’re waiting for the cavalry to rescue us from this, and the Dems can’t seem to find their horses.

More And More, Trend Stories Are Proving To Be Total B.S.

There’s a great piece (start at the bottom of page 2 and continue) in the Observer this week about the “trend piece” — you know, the kind of New York Times story that takes three examples of a behavior and calls it a trend (e.g., Laptops). It’s great reading if you’ve become jaded about this, er, trend:

The basic formula has long carried reporters and readers alike through lazy vacation months: colorful quotations from a number (specifically, three) of the trendsetters; a blurb or two from academic experts; some vaguely thesis-related statistics; a reference to the broader zeitgeist.

Now the emphasis seems to be less on which way the cultural winds are blowing and more on the gaps in the stories, through which the wind leaks out.

. . .

Trend pieces often begin with input from a friend or colleague. Sometimes, those casual observations spiral outward to the larger culture, gathering more and more evidence in their widening loops.

This is the subjective style, the approach generally practiced at papers such as, for instance, The New York Observer. The subjective piece persuades and catches on (search Nexis for “Man Flab”) or it passes as a curiosity (search for “Floppy Woo”).

. . .

Every decline requires a peak. On June 22, 2003, The Times published Warren St. John’s “Metrosexuals Come Out.” No one needed to be reminded, that summer or afterward, what the piece described. The metrosexuals were upon us.

But even Mr. St. John was unsure if he had a true trend on his hands. “With that story,” Mr. St. John said recently, “I felt that a group of marketers were convinced that [metrosexuals] existed. I found people who said that they actually fit that description. What I can’t possibly know because I’m not old enough, or not smart enough, [is] if that creature is the same as one in the 1940s with different hair products. It may well be that Kiehl’s Lotion is the Brylcreem of the late 90′s.

“I felt that the reaction to that piece showed that it was on-target, but maybe that’s just because I’m a metrosexual.”

Mr. St. John’s years at the Times Styles desk (and before that, at The Observer) have made him something of a practitioner-theorist, and his estimations of the state of the trend piece aren’t particularly promising. Some of it may be personal: “Literally every week,” he said, “some guy will pitch a story to me that says macho guys are back, and someone else will pitch one that says it’s time for a new new metrosexual.”

But his critiques mostly target the slipperiness of the genre itself.

“In my mind, the red flag is the simple phrase ‘more and more,’” Mr. St. John said. “You ought to be able to tell me how many more. If you can’t tell me how many more, maybe you don’t have a story. It begs, you know, head scratching. It’s such a bold claim. More and more! Really? Jeez! How many more?

“There’s an inherent parlor-game component to the trend story — if it’s not happening, it doesn’t mean anything,” Mr. St. John said. “Editors in general don’t like to publish stories about random quirky things. So there’s a kind of pressure to put things into a context, to put it into something broad and culturally meaningful.”

Which gets at the central problem: “Just because something is interesting,” Mr. St. John said, “doesn’t mean it’s a trend.”

But it might just make it as a trend piece.

As A New Day Dawns A Culture Of Death Chugs On

Now that the stem cell issue has been overtaken by science, what is there left to fear from the Bush Regime? God willing, “stem cell” will soon go the way of all the other arcane topics that at one time or other occupied so much mental space:

Biologists have developed a technique for establishing colonies of human embryonic stem cells from an early human embryo without destroying it. This method, if confirmed in other laboratories, would seem to remove the principal objection to the research.

. . .

The new technique would be performed on a two-day-old embryo, after the fertilized egg has divided into eight cells, known as blastomeres. In fertility clinics, where the embryo is available outside the woman in the normal course of in vitro fertilization, one of these blastomeres can be removed for diagnostic tests, like for Down syndrome.

The embryo, now with seven cells, can be implanted in the woman if no defect is found. Many such embryos have grown into apparently healthy babies over the 10 years or so the diagnostic tests have been used.

Up to now, human embryonic stem cells have been derived at a later stage of development, when the embryo consists of about 150 cells. Both this stage, called the blastocyst, and the earlier eight-cell stage, occur before the embryo implants in the wall of the womb. Harvesting the blastocyst-stage cells kills the embryo, a principal objection of those who oppose the research.

“There is no rational reason left to oppose this research,” Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of Advanced Cell Technology and leader of the research team, said in an interview.

But questions remain, including what will be the next pro-life battleground. One possibility — butterflies:

As schools reopen, teachers around the country are planning a child-pleasing science activity: raising butterflies. Butterfly kits let teachers demonstrate a basic biological phenomenon as caterpillars transform themselves into painted lady butterflies that can be freed to complete their lives in a nearby field. The students learn that metamorphosis is marvelous, insects are engaging and releasing living things is virtuous. Wonder, beauty and goodness — who could object?

. . .

If the point of the educational venture is to teach important lessons, then here’s one: We are responsible for the harm that we may cause in the world. So once the butterflies have emerged, pop them in the freezer. Tell the children that protecting our environment is not always easy, that we must accept the responsibility that comes with bringing a life into the world, and that like other animals produced for our needs and wants (the industry refers to the butterflies as “livestock”) we owe the butterflies a quick and painless death.

If this is too harsh a lesson to teach in a culture that assiduously avoids confronting death, then a savvy teacher could work with students to collect local caterpillars, raise them and release the butterflies whence they came. That’s a real lesson in science — and ethics.

Laptop As Marital Aid

Even in an article titled “Laptop Slides Into Bed in Love Triangle,” this seems rather like a stretch:

Most couples experts said the act of taking an electronic device to bed did not by itself threaten a marriage. “It depends on the relationship,” said Marcy Levine, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. “If the relationship is a solid one, where the partners are loving and connected, then bringing a laptop to bed is a way of continuing to be with their partner even if they need to do something else.”

When a couple lie in bed together, both focused on the computer, Ms. Levine said, they can be said to be engaging in an intimate act.

Such is the case with Teresa and David Sholes of Bennington, Vt., who have been married for 15 years.

Ms. Sholes, a medical equipment consultant in Bennington, savors the convenience and coziness of her bed, and her laptop is something of a fixture there, not just at bedtime.

“Sometimes in the winter, if I want to rest in the middle of the day, I’ll bring my laptop and my phone and cuddle into bed,” she said. “I can be anywhere and connected to anything. It feels very powerful.”

Ms. Sholes uses her laptop in bed for more than work. She searches for recipes, plans birthday parties for her 5-year-old daughter, balances her checkbook and listens to audio books.

She also lies in bed and exchanges instant messages with her husband, who is elsewhere in the house on his own computer. “We discuss things, you might even say argue,” she said. “The IM will often eliminate a lot of the tone, and we can discuss things a little bit better.”

But the Sholeses also use the computer in bed to watch movies and to look at photographs Ms. Sholes has taken. And they sit together and have instant messaging conversations with friends.

In addition, the laptop has helped their sex life. “There have been a couple of times where we have digital pornography and can play it right there in bed,” Ms. Sholes said. “At this stage in our marriage I feel like we should bring our laptop into bed more often.”

Dude, you’re IM’ing across the house. There’s something wrong with that. Something really wrong.