The Barbershop has re-located

The proprietor has moved the shop to ChicagoNow, a Chicago Tribune site that showcases some of the best bloggers in the Chicago area. You can logo on to the Barbershop home page here. The ChicagoNow home page is here.

You'll still be able to post comments with the same ease as in this location. The proprietor also will keep this web site alive if you wish to review old posts.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Iowa cornfields fuel folly of presidential hurdles

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

'I've long said that the Iowa caucuses are the gift to Midwestern agriculture.'

-- John Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association, as reported by the Associated Press

Gift, you say? Yeah, I suppose you could call a multibillion dollar government handout to special interests a gift. But the word gift just doesn't seem accurate or vast enough to describe the massive plundering that's in store for taxpayers and consumers at the hands of ethanol addicts.

That's thanks to the unrealistically important role that Iowa plays as the first state up in the presidential sweepstakes. Iowa is the nation's biggest corn-producing state (Illinois comes in second), and ethanol's biggest feedstock is corn. So, a veritable parade of presidential candidates from both parties must prostrate themselves in Temple Ethanol.

Take Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York who opposed a hike in ethanol subsidies a couple of years ago, but now that she's stumping Iowa fairgrounds and parlors, she's for them. "Iowa is way ahead of the rest of the country," she said. "What you've done with ethanol ... you're setting the pace."

Yes, Iowa could give lessons to the Texas oil industry when it comes to "setting the pace" in the subsidy Preakness. The Iowa Corn Growers Association keeps close track: Six of the top eight Democratic candidates support or lean toward supporting a 51-cent "blenders credit" for every gallon of pure ethanol mixed into gasoline to help keep the price lower than gasoline.

(Wait a minute, you say. If we have to subsidize ethanol to compete or beat the price of gasoline to the tune of 51 cents a gallon, why don't we just use gasoline? Good question.)

Our beloved Sen. Barack Obama goes further; he would give motorists a 35-cent-per-gallon tax credit for using E85 -- a fuel blend that uses only 15 percent gasoline. Only Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware outright opposes the subsidy. The group apparently couldn't fathom where Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut stand on the 51-cent subsidy, but Dodd is for a big hike in the federally mandated use of ethanol (another form of subsidy).

Republicans are little better. Of the leading GOP candidates, only Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas outright oppose the 51-cent subsidy. Then again, Paul opposes everything, except, I guess, freedom. McCain also "leans towards" opposing a 54-cent per gallon tariff on imported ethanol, made from sugar cane much more efficiently than from corn. No other candidate (except, of course, Paul) in either party appears to oppose the tariff.

I can think of no other major issue garnering such bipartisan agreement and, in this, bipartisanship is not a virtue but a sell-out.

Despite its canonization by "greens," researchers on the grant dole, processors like Decatur-based ADM, ethanol is more promise than reality and possibly a swindle of national proportion.

It may cost more energy to make ethanol than it saves. Its demand for corn puts upward pressure on food prices. It's more costly and difficult than oil and gasoline to transport. The industry's protectionist trade policies anger allies and make a mockery of our argument for free or fair trade.

Gallon for gallon, ethanol provides less energy than gasoline. Even its environmental value is questioned.

The ethanol industry disputes this, but what is not in dispute is that ethanol has made farmers, investors and others in agribusiness rich. As if they were not made rich enough by a lavish aid bill enacted two years ago, President Bush has signed an energy bill that vouchsafes significantly greater cash and benefits to the industry.

Everyone understands the need for stability in the nation's agriculture sector, but the anti-technology, unscientific and ideologically inspired promises being seeded all through Iowa by the candidates go beyond reasonable.

And it will continue for as long as some unwritten rule requires that Iowa kick off the presidential campaign, giving its winners a head start to be president. Maybe it's time for a constitutional amendment that would make the contest for the presidency a truly national election, instead of this silliness now thrust upon us by the farmers of Iowa.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Exaggerated Death of Newspapers

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

"Newspapers are dead. They didn’t have to be, but their window of opportunity closed long ago."—
Steve Rhodes, Beachwood Reporter, a blog.

“I’m sick and tired of listening to everybody talk about and commiserate over the end of newspapers. They ain’t ended, they’re not going to end and I think they have a great future.” – Sam Zell, new Tribune Co. boss.

My money is on Sam. And my apologies to Zell for mentioning Rhodes in the same breathe.

Rhodes apparently doesn’t catch the irony of pronouncing newspapers DOA, while he fuels his blog with daily rants about…newspapers. If Rhodes is right that the papers already are dead, I guess that means he’s living off a cadaver.

But Rhodes isn’t alone....

Read more at the Chicago Daily Observer

The true meaning of Christmas--hope and love

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Cheer up; the kids haven't forgotten the true meaning of Christmas.

I should say that at least my grandchildren haven't; I can't speak about all the rest. But then, the kids have time to contemplate the true meaning of Christmas, not having to lug in a Christmas tree and decorate it, shop for everyone who deserves or expects a present, figure out where all the money will be coming from, write Christmas cards, cook Christmas Eve and Christmas meals for the entire extended family and then clean up the whole mess.

So, if you can take a moment this Christmas Eve, take a deep sigh. And listen to the children.

What is Christmas, I ask Leia, 5, who is innocently ignorant of Black Friday and other corruptions. "Jesus' birthday." Who's Jesus? "God."

For days now, Lisa, 6, and Leia have been reviewing the material. Jesus lives in heaven. Heaven is "up there." Jesus is very old. They know the roles of the Angel Gabriel and the Magi. They know they were bringing baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, although they didn't know what the latter two were and I had to look it up myself to know that they were fragrant resin -- dry tree sap, in other words.

Of course, any kid can memorize this stuff, but with Lisa and Leia, there's something different about it. They also can memorize the plot of a "SpongeBob SquarePants" episode. They can become excited about hearing a new story, seeing a new movie and discovering the sights of a far-away vacation. Except, says their mother, Kati, their interest in Christmas is somehow deeper. So is their curiosity. Somehow, it feels built-in, emerging from something innate. They needed no special prompting to kindle their interest in the Almighty. Having heard the story, they latched on to it, and one question led to contemplation and to another question, and on and on.

This is not to suggest that Lisa and Leia are somehow special. But it is to suggest that they may be representative of the childlike innocence that brings us all to contemplate the meaning of things almighty and our own existence. Someone once said that if God didn't exist, man would have to invent him, in response to that inner drive that seeks to explain the who, what, why and how we are.

That drive emerges early and the questions pop up often, one right after another, as children experience the delicious taste of something altogether new. Those universal questions, I'm certain, appear whatever the faith of the children's fathers and mothers. That they do is a tribute to the deeper, inquisitive and better sides of our nature.

Which is why this natural curiosity needs to be nourished, in the public sphere as in the private. No, this is not a pitch for prayer in public schools; I'm against it. But I'm for teaching children about all the religions and the eternal questions. Call it social studies, comparative religions, philosophy or metaphysics even. Teach them first, before their fascination is dampened by adult cynicism. Teach children about all the world's religions and alternative (secular) explanations to the deep and enduring questions. Even if I'm wrong about these questions naturally bubbling up into the consciousness of all children, the instruction will at least bring these questions to the fore.

And this is why I find that all current scrubbing of the meaning of Christmas from the public sphere to be so disappointing and damaging. You know how it goes: "We can't sing Christmas carols in school because they are religious." We're taking a "holiday break," not a "Christmas vacation." I even heard of one principal who justified the banning of Christmas carols but permitted the singing of the Dreidel song, because the latter celebrated what he called a "secular" holiday. The principal himself could stand a course in comparative religions.

It's not just the gross commercialization and secularization that warps the meaning of Christmas. The festivities and rituals and nostalgia and good feelings, as welcome, positive and comforting as they are, also are slightly off the mark. For Christians, Christmas is the beginning of our redemption, carried out in the Easter rising. It's why Christmas is a time of hope and love. That's not a bad thing to know.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The costly lunacy of Block 37/CTA express rail service to O’Hare and Midway Airports

Especially as the CTA is scraping around for big money

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

If it’s a good idea, it shouldn’t take all that long to get it going.

By many accounts, Chicago took only four years to rebuild and obliterate just about all signs of the 1871 fire that destroyed downtown and most of the city.

Reversing the flow of the Chicago River—an engineering marvel of its time—took 13 years from conception until its 1900 finish. Literally raising the city a half dozen feet out its swampy bottom took six years in the mid-1850s, a mere 30 years after the city’s founding.

Then there’s block 37.

Read more in the Chicago Daily Observer

Monday, December 17, 2007

Then again, perhaps BP's refinery plans aren't so bad

A report suggests the company's upgrades will be up to code and won't ruin Lake Michigan

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Sometimes important news eludes us because it all sounds so technical. Take the fight over BP's plans to allegedly pollute Lake Michigan. The news that we missed from an independent analysis is that the company's plan for a $3.6 billion upgrade of its northwest Indiana refinery will not muck up the lake, as the plan's critics assert and as the public has been led to believe.

Perhaps the analysis was missed, at least in Illinois, because the 33-page report, released Dec. 6, was requested by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and done by A. James Barnes, professor of public and environmental affairs and adjunct law professor at Indiana University. Undoubtedly, this means it will be attacked as biased, unreliable, unscientific and blah, blah because Indiana -- which benefits economically from the expansion -- had a hand in it. Never mind that such a claim impugns the reputation of a respected scientist and fails to meet any test of substantive argumentation.

Anyway, to oversimplify the professor's conclusions, he found that the expansion plans complied with state and federal permitting requirements and that the discharges will not violate Lake Michigan water-quality standards. "The question of the extent to which any increase in TSS [total suspended solids] or ammonia should be allowed is a fair one and at the heart of this controversy," Barnes wrote. "However, the concentration of TSS permitted per liter of water (the equivalent of 10 grains of sand suspended in a pint of pure water) illustrates how far the description of it in several newspaper reports as sludge is from reality. In fact, industrial sludge -- such as the material that accumulates at the bottom of wastewater treatment tanks -- cannot legally be dumped into Lake Michigan or disposed of in a manner where it will reach Lake Michigan.

"Similarly, the permitted ammonia concentration is the equivalent of one eyedropper drop of household ammonia solution in a pint of water. Thus, some public perceptions/reactions were not based on an accurate understanding of the true facts." If the discharges are controlled as planned, he said, they "would not be expected to cause a violation of water quality standards or interfere with designated uses in Lake Michigan (including full body contact recreation such as swimming), and maintaining the aquatic community and drinking water supply." In fact, the limitations placed on the discharge "are demanding, and in several instances, much more restrictive than, those issued by adjoining states to refineries."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed, he said, that Indiana's regulations aimed at preventing "degradation" of lake waters conforms with the federal Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative Anti-degradation Policy -- a kind of clean-water gold standard. In fact, he said, "Indiana is more protective of the lake than the adjoining states."

Still, the controversy has illuminated a problem created by some vagueness in Indiana's rules, he said. That lack of clarity created uncertainty about what information BP had to submit to win approval, and that, in turn, led to an incomplete public record justifying the approval. And that, in turn, led to the public perception that the process was opaque. Barnes recommended that Indiana make a number of improvements (beyond the usual practice of burying legal notices in newspapers) to make the process more transparent. Among his other recommendations, Barnes urged the U.S. EPA to update its petroleum refining regulations, now some 20 years old, to reflect new and enhanced techniques for treating wastewater. That is particularly important, he said, because a number of refineries, like BP's, are planning to switch from the light, sweet crude to the heavier Canadian crude whose refining creates increased pollutants.

But even if the permits were entirely legal and appropriate, that still leaves the issue that defines the opposition: There should be no degradation of the lake waters, no matter how slight or inconsequential. Barnes discusses how degradation means different things to regulators, the regulated and the public and how that adds to the confusion surrounding the permitting process, but that still leaves unanswered whether the prohibition of even the slightest degradation is good public policy. Good public policy, in my view, is: no degradation unless the benefits outweigh its costs. So, we're back to the original question: Do the tiny, if nonexistent, environmental costs of the expansion outweigh the benefits of this $3.6 billion construction project in our midst that will reduce our dependence on crude oil from unfriendly sources? You don't need an expert to give you that answer; common sense provides it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Des Moines Register’s flop GOP debate

By Dennis Byrne
Political Mavens

Spare us another “debate” like the Republicans had Tuesday in Iowa.

Actually, I should say like the sham put on by the Des Moines Register and its editor, Carolyn Washburn. Sadly, it shed virtually no new light on any of the candidates (except for Alan Keyes, whose appearance surprised the multitudes who didn’t realize he was running for public office, again).

Washburn failed miserably to achieve her own stated purpose: a face-off to provide “some clarity” about the differences among the candidates. The major problem, of course, was the format in which Washburn laid down the rule that no one could take more than 30 seconds to answer her questions on such complex topics as economy and national security.

I can’t imagine what reason Washburn had for imposing this counter-productive rule. Repeatedly, she tried to enforce this dictate, cutting candidates off precisely at the moment when they could have plumbed their differences. Did she really think that the candidates would be more thoughtful with less time? Did she really think that such an absurd decree would inspire candidates, in a compressed amount of time, to abandon their canned answers? When it was over, the illumination of the candidates’ differences was faint, indeed.

The high point came when former Sen. Fred Thompson had enough...

Read more at Political Mavens

Monday, December 10, 2007

Credentials, not color

City enters new era as top cop's resume dominates talk of town

Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Oh, and did you happen to notice that Chicago's new police superintendent is white?

Of all the things noticed about Jody Weis, his race may have been the least. Not that you couldn't see that he was white, but his nomination as the city's new top cop drew far less attention than the other notables:

He's an outsider and an FBI guy, making him the ultimate no one who nobody sent. He's to be paid more than $300,000, making him the city's highest-paid employee. But hardly anyone is making a big deal out of Mayor Richard M. Daley's failure to pick someone with darker skin pigment.

Well, almost no one.

"I don't think this is a good message sent to our community," said Rev. Steve Greer Jr. of Christian Valley Baptist Church in North Lawndale. "We needed a representative sensitive to the issues that African-Americans face and understand why we do what we do."

Weis could make up for being white, I suppose, by following Greer's suggestion that the new superintendent choose an African-American for his second in command.

But that's about it. No marches on City Hall. No huffing and puffing about the city's minorities being disrespected and snubbed. No pundits spewing the usual racist crud about how you can't understand the black man's problems with the Police Department unless you're a black man or woman. Not a dissenting voice among the aldermen, although that's not new.

Maybe the anger was there, but perhaps the city's reporters, editors and producers just didn't bother going out to look for it, which would be a welcome relief from the usual knee-jerk story line that's so popular in the city's newsrooms.

Or maybe the usual carpers are just keeping their powder dry for later when they're planning a really big protest.

Not to make too much out of something that didn't happen, but could this sudden colorblindness in a city of stark contrasts be a sea change? Could a person's color no longer matter? Could it be a welcome sign of maturity in our civil matters?

If so, that's good news.

Perhaps it means that the town's black leadership and black communities are so fed up with the gangs and crime, police misconduct and brutality that they don't give a fig what color the new chief is as long as he is able do something about it.

Just four years ago, Rev. Jesse Jackson was railing about the failure of the Chicago Police Board to pick a black finalist to replace Terry Hillard, an African-American selected by Daley five years earlier. Jackson appointed himself to appoint a committee to submit a black finalist.

A black chief is needed, he said back then, because the black community is the one most victimized. "We're the most profiled, the most arrested, the most jailed, the most brutalized and, therefore, we expect to have in the highest places people whose credentials and track record earn trust in our community," he said. By "credentials" I take it he meant African-American.

With Weis' appointment, the same sentiment showed up on Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Web site. In a statement, Jackson said he was "astonished" that interim Police Supt. Dana Starks, an African-American, was passed over.

"But this is not just about the placement of a new police superintendent," he said. "The state's attorney [an elected office], the fire chief -- all of these key positions are held by whites and not minorities. This is a matter not just of ethnicity but of sensitivity."

You could have pulled the rhetoric right out of the 1960s playbook, a far different world in the history of race relations. The "color barrier" long ago was broken here, and the idea of a black superintendent for the sake of his color is regressive, not progressive. Sure, Jackson has tried to redefine the argument in terms of sensitivity, but the racial undertones remain: a white person is incapable of being sensitive because of -- what? -- inbred racism?

Still, Jackson's response seems muted, hopefully demonstrating a certain degree of acquiescence to today's reality, the reality being that most folks have come to recognize the racism in suggesting that you need black skin to build trust. Now we can allow Weis to do the job that really matters -- get rid of the bad apples, both in the department and in the neighborhoods.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

We've Gone Too Far With Focus on Religion

By Dennis Byrne

Oh, just shut up about Mitt Romney's faith. He doesn't have to explain it to anyone.

This isn't just directed at separation-of-church-and-state radicals who take offense that a president might be a practicing person of faith. It's also directed at evangelicals and others who are weighing such questions as, "Are the Church of the Latter Days Saints" and its adherents Christian enough?

Even after Romney's speech on Thursday, in which he tried to straddle the wide gulf between the practice of his religion and the president's oath of office to faithfully enforce the nation's laws, the discussion rolled along on the same, tired theme. Would Romney's speech satisfy Iowa evangelicals who "own" the Iowa Republican caucuses? Would it please those who demand to know whether Romney's church is "truly Christian." "Did the speech," post-speech commentators wondered, "ease voters' concerns about Mormonism?"

Read more at RealClearPolitics

Kids thinking they can be president is okay; but wanting to be president isn’t.

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

Everyone who wrote an essay in kindergarten, raise your hand.

No one?

Well, Barack Obama has, but I didn’t see his hand go up because maybe he isn’t in the audience. In fact, an essay he wrote in kindergarten in which he declared his desire to become president has briefly appeared as a central issue in the Illinois Democratic senator’s presidential campaign.

The issue here, as couched by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, is just how truthful is Obama’s finely honed image as someone who never really thought of running for president until the masses demanded it?

More fascinating, though, is the idea a kindergartener—Obama or anyone else—wrote an essay when he was five or six. Especially when so many Americans today can’t write a paragraph or even a complete sentence.

An essay, for the love of mike, is defined as a literary composition, often reflecting an author’s personal view. When did ...Read more in the Chicago Daily Observer

Monday, December 03, 2007

Why isn't this study about the pill and breast cancer heeded?

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Not wanting to become known as the town quack, I am reluctant to write another politically incorrect column about breast cancer.

Four weeks ago, when I reported a study that found a statistical link between abortion and breast cancer, the hate e-mail poured in, denouncing me for being an ignorant, stupid, anti-science, anti-choice and anti-woman lunatic. But it also brought a message alerting me to yet another study, suggesting that premenopausal women (younger than 50) who used oral contraceptives prior to having their first child faced a higher risk of breast cancer. Yes, I know, this debate has been going on for years, if not decades, and judging by the last studies given wide exposure a few years ago by the media, the issue seems settled: Oral contraception does not significantly increase the risk of breast cancer.

There's just one problem. According to an analysis in one of the most credible peer-reviewed journals in the country, the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the risk is real. The study employed an often-used medical research technique called "meta-analysis" that allows researchers to combine data from other studies on the risk to get a larger picture. The result: Premenopausal women who used oral contraceptives prior to having their first child have a 44 percent higher chance of getting cancer than women who didn't use the pill. If they used the pill for more than four years prior to their first full-term pregnancy, the risk increased 52 percent. Chris Kahlenborn, an internist at the Altoona (Pa.) Hospital and the study's lead author, suggests one additional woman in 200 could get breast cancer. Extrapolated throughout the population, that could mean thousands more cases every year. I'd say that's an important story.

The reaction? Nearly total silence. Since it was published more than a year ago, I couldn't find a single reference to it in the archives of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times or this paper. The Associated Press appears not to have covered it. I couldn't find a single mainstream media article about it in a Google search. But stories about other breast cancer risks were plentiful, including one about how sleeping with a night light on can increase your chances of getting breast cancer. The National Institute of Cancer doesn't mention the study on its Web site, but it did detail a 5-year-old study claiming to find no higher risk to pill use. The American Cancer Society also doesn't mention the study and concedes only that "it is still not clear what part" the pill plays in breast cancer. Such guidance, if not deceptive, is certainly incomplete.

"The last word seems to be that the pill is safe," Kahlenborn told me, as he called me with his frustration with being unable to get this important information out to women. "The word basically in the medical community before the study, and it continues to be, is that the pill is quite safe." But the results of his study are disquieting enough that if the pill were just coming out today, the findings would be enough for the Food and Drug Administration to keep it off the market, he said.

Why so little attention? My guess is that the pill has been so widely accepted, that it has become such a key part of feminist ideology and that the pharmaceutical companies make so much from it, that few folks are willing at this stage to talk about its dangers. It's no small irony that those who habitually are quick to criticize big business and government for failing to "do enough" to protect consumers are mostly silent when it comes to talking about this particular risk.

Here, I also should clarify some things to all the folks who are itching to hit the "post comment" button: Kahlenborn is pro-life, but what has that to do with his research? As for me, I am not opposed to contraception, oral or otherwise. I am not plotting to get the pill banned. I am not writing this column for hidden religious reasons. I am not saying that the Kahlenborn study is the last word; I'm not a scientist, so I can't vouch for its methodology or conclusions. Just like the abortion/breast cancer study, I'm writing about it because people have a right to know about the existence of health information, even if it is contradictory to the given wisdom.

The truth is that I'd just as soon not write about it, for all the heat it generates. I just wish that someone else would.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Chastity? Icky!

By Dennis Byrne
The Barbershop

Even in my adolescence during 1950s, the idea of a “chastity ball,” at which girls pledged to their fathers to remain virgins until marriage, would have been considered, well…. Let’s put it this way: To my knowledge, no one thought about it. And, perhaps, no one would have gone.

Of course, back then lots of folks thought chastity was a worthwhile goal for all kinds of reasons—not just religious. For better or for worse, it was part of the culture. But as unlikely as such a lavish dance would have been even then, I doubt that it would have stirred up the kind of scorn and hatred that this one did in the Chicago Tribune’s on-line Forum. For me, the response was as creepy as the posters thought the dance was.

(To see the responses go to the bottom of the on-line story; this you’ve got to read.)

For a bunch of these folks, it conjured up images of incest. Others said the whole thing was evidence that right-wing Christian screwballs still thought of girls/women as property. Others unleashed intensely personal attacks (e.g., “I would like to add that the people in the article are really sad and CREEPY!” On the ridicule and insults went: Icky, weird, nonsense, patriarchical, daddy’s little girl fantasy, depraved, sickening, gross, disturbing, disgusting, 18th century, perverse, pornographic, yucky, a bunch of crap, scary and, worst of all, offensive.

Phew, you’d think that they had been plucking out each other’s eyes, beating their grandmas or using cattle prods on puppies.

On display was the kind of bigotry that the left constantly reminds us that the right is guilty of, but as long as it’s the left’s bigotry, it’s all right. Laced through the scores of posts are vile displays of hatred of Christians, Catholics and people of faith. Hatred of people living their own lives as they choose to. For all the times that I receive mail from similar folks telling me to stay out of their private lives, I wish many of these posters had exercised the same restraint.

You can be sure, a number of posters said, that these are precisely the kinds of suppressed and controlled girls who go wild once they have discovered the joys of sex (the Catholic high school girl stereotype still persists). Others said, quite to the contrary, but in equally condemnatory language, that these are the kinds of girls who become afraid of having sex. Perhaps the most “icky” (and least demonstrable thing) said in all the posts came from Bobby Brown, from Germany: “Eventually these young girls will drift into S & M, visit the Tower of Power and take Golden Showers.”

I didn’t count, but it appeared that well over 90 percent of the posters had something bad to say about the dance. Some had good points: Why should all the responsibility be heaped on the girls? Why don’t the boys have the same kind of dance, mother-son perhaps?

Maybe they should have boyfriend-girlfriend chastity dances instead, because, after all, those are the people who are most in need of the message. If anyone would attend. I have a feeling that not a few posters would object to that too because what really has them upset is the idea of chastity itself. So ‘50s. So useless. So destructive.

Here’s what I think the story is behind the purity dance: The whole idea of virginity has gone in to such disrepute and has been attacked so viciously is some quarters, that it has spawned a backlash. It always happens when an extreme idea creeps into the culture, in this case the idea being that chastity is actually bad. Not a few people want to say they’ve had enough, and this dance is their way of showing it.

Maybe the best thing that has been said so far was posted by Mark from Elk Grove Village:

Purity is important to those who consider it important; we all live by differing values. Some young men and women consider it important to wait until marriage, others don't. Some young men and women consider their parent's council important in understanding relationships with the opposite sex. If these values are important to them, there's no fault in helping them to understand and enjoy the value of purity.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Another stunning advance achieved by non-embryonic stem cells

By Dennis Byrne

Thankfully scientists ignored the clatter of Michael J. Fox, assorted Hollywood dolts, left-wing ideologues and media spaniels who insisted on paying no attention to, and even ridiculing, the potential of adult and umbilical cord stem cells.

While Fox and the others were living in their embryonic stem cell nirvana,scientists pursued the most promising route. And here’s the result: a toddler’s stunning recovery from Cerebral Palsy symptoms. View video.

Not that they’ve been slowed down by the recent stunning breakthrough in which stem cells generated from skin cells have the same potential of those generated from embryos. They only dig their heads further in the sand, as this editorial posted on the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research shows.

Stubborn, sad folks

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Henry Hyde's finest hour

By Dennis Byrne

How best to remember Henry Hyde? With his own words.

As I wrote in a Chicago Sun-Times column, the best of Henry Hyde is perhaps one of the great speeches in the history of Congress: His Jan. 16, 1999 closing argument in support of the impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton.

It is, I wrote in 1999,
a gift to the people of the United States. It should be read, savored and preserved by all who love liberty and justice. It is the most eloquent dissent of this or any recent decade against the disintegration of the American community, a place where dedication to principle, respect for the law and the rights of the powerless against assaults by the mighty once were revered as high political virtue.

Hyde spoke of the “covenant” that Clinton himself espoused early in his term, that the presidency was a solemn pact of mutual trust and obligation with the American people. Said Hyde: “Trust—not what James Madison called the parchment barriers of laws—is the fundamental bond between the people and their elected representatives; between those who govern and those who are governed. Trust is the mortar that secures the foundations of the American house of freedom…

“We here today are the heirs of 3,000 years of history in which humanity slowly and painfully, and at great cost, evolved a form of politics in which law, not brute force, is the arbiter of our public destinies…The rule of law is no pious aspiration from a civics textbook. The rule of law is what stands between us and the arbitrary exercise of power by the state. The rule of law is the safeguard of our liberties. The rule of law is what allows us to live our freedom in ways that honor the freedom of others while strengthening the common good.”

What remains today, I wrote then, after the Senate acquitted Clinton, were Senators, who in turning their backs on the rule of law for the sake of personal preservation, partisan interest and public popularity, are mere echoes of a handful of people who loved their country more than themselves. The kind of people that John F. Kennedy wrote about in his Profiles in Courage.
The speech is worth reading in its entirety. It can be found here.

Is the recession here yet?

By Dennis Byrne
Human Events

Congratulations one and all, we’re doing a fine job of talking ourselves into a recession.

Thanks go to the media for acting like the kids in the back seat, unremittingly asking if we’re in a recession yet. Thanks go to Democrats, for looking for the slightest crack in the economy so they can stick it to President Bush and the Republicans. Thanks go to financial analysts who gladly deploy the most cockamamie schemes imaginable for predicting the arrival of the slide. Thanks to everyone who, apparently not content with the joys of prosperity, can be counted on to the find the dark lining in every silver cloud.

Thanks to ya’ll for knocking down the value of my house and drying up the real estate market just as my wife and I figure it’s time to downsize. Thanks for diminishing the value of my retirement nest egg. Thanks for weakening the American economy and increasing the chance of leading the world into a global recession. Is it dark enough for ya’ll yet?

Read more in Human Events

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is it possible for the CTA to operate without a loss, no taxpayer subsidy required?

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

That question is asked and answered in the affirmative by the Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market think tank, in its thought-provoking new analysis: “CTA looking in all the wrong places: Sustainable solution requires new thinking and real reforms.”

I can’t remember anyone seriously and convincingly making such a claim since the early 1970s when, as the Chicago Daily News urban affairs reporter, I started covering the CTA. That’s when it became conventional political wisdom that mass transit should be considered to be a public utility requiring a public subsidy. Hell, I even bought it.

Except for this: How many public utilities (e.g., the electric and gas companies) operate like the CTA, with their consumers paying only about half the costs, while taxpayers pick up the other half?

Read more at Chicago Daily Observer

Monday, November 26, 2007

No guts in Springfield, no transit fix

Iraqi parliament has shown more courage in solving its problems than Illinois legislators

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

For all of the Iraqi parliament's flaws, I would trade it straight up for the crowd that we've got in Springfield. Ridiculous, you say? Then, consider what both have accomplished. First, the Illinois state government: (This space left intentionally blank.)

That's right, nothing. Maybe the Iraq parliament hasn't done much more but think about its challenges compared with Illinois' crew. Iraq has to repair centuries of tyranny and brutalization. The country is split in three, marked by a centuries-long and sometimes bloody religious feud. With virtually no experience with self-government, the Iraqis are expected to come up instantly with a government and culture that respects democratic values.

Compared with Illinois, Iraq is a shining city on a hill. Compared with Iraq, Illinois is a stupefying challenge to the idea that democracy is the best form of government. Compared with Iraq, all Illinois has to do is relatively easily: come up with a few hundred million dollars to keep mass transit running. Yet, Illinois remains stymied because the political leadership here doesn't have the guts to face transit riders who would be upset if they were asked to pay a fairer share of their costs. As I have mentioned before, mass transit is one of the best transportation deals around; taxpayers match every dollar riders pay in fares. If commuters paid, say, 60 or 75 percent of their rides' cost, instead of 50 percent, perhaps transit wouldn't be knocking on our doors so often. With this, I'm not suggesting that taxpayers should no longer subsidize mass transit, as some of my critics charged. Even if riders paid a fairer share of the cost of their rides, they would still benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars a year in taxpayer largesse.

Which leads to another, thoughtful suggestion, presented in a new study by the Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market think tank. It challenges the common assumption that the only "sustainable solution" to the Chicago Transit Authority's problem is to increase revenues, with some fascinating and surprising findings.

While the CTA has indeed made some cuts, huge productivity savings remain yet to be made, the analysis concludes. If the CTA were as productive now as it was in 1979, it could reduce the agency's public subsidy to $257 million, from the current $527 million. That would more than cover the $158million deficit projected for the 2008 budget.

The key problem is the bus system: Now there are 154 bus routes, compared with 134 in 1979, and the total route miles have more than doubled; yet ridership has fallen 45 percent. "The bus operations data indicate that in 1979, the CTA operated a tightly focused, more market-sensitive route map. ... Today, with the route miles up 143 percent, it appears the CTA is running too many route miles for too few riders, making the bus system inefficient," according to the study. In other revealing comparisons between the CTA of today and 30 years ago (all financial figures are in constant 2007 dollars), the analysis discovered that the subsidy per rider has increased 35 percent, to $1.07 from 79 cents. That illustrates the "fallacy of the CTA public relations and budget document claims that the CTA's public subsidy has not kept pace with inflation. While that fact is true in absolute dollars, it is a misleading fact since the key data point is the subsidy per rider. In fact, one could make the case that the subsidy is excessive by $138million."

The institute offers 10 thoughtful proposals for a truly sustainable solution to the crisis, including a call for cessation of all expansion projects: "The CTA has been spending money on expansion and other unneeded projects while basic maintenance is being ignored." Another is to require true transparency of CTA spending: "Every check written, every contractor paid, every consultant hired and all the other details of spending should be open in an online easily searchable database. ... The bill offered by [state Rep.] Julie Hamos [D-Evanston] has transparency window dressing, but we need real sunshine to fix the problems."

Any governor, legislator, politician or public policy wonk who claims to be looking for a sustainable, permanent solution to mass transit funding problems without closely examining and implementing the Illinois Policy Institute's real solutions is lacking the courage to stand up to the given wisdom that the only way to solve the problem is to throw more money at it. It's pathetic when you consider the courage that is required of the members of the Iraqi parliament for the life-threatening job of just showing up.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ex-Sunni insurgent becomes U.S. ally

How refreshing to read top-notch reporting about what is actually happening on the ground in Iraq. This straight-forward story by Chicago Al Qaeda in Iraq leader and turned into a reliable U.S. ally.

"Americans are our protectors and saviors," he said of the alliance after he and the people in his community became fed-up with the violence and murder. His community now is safe to walk.

Such fact-based reporting is an antidote to the mindless rantings of Democratic presidential candidates. It is thanks to increasing reports of such progress in Iraq that the American public will begin--if it hasn't already--to break through the fog of war.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mayor Daley as Business Leader

Could Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley survive as the head of a corporation as infected, as is his administration, with the same level of corruption, waste, incompetence and red ink?

Business Week raised that question in an interesting and readable account, “The CEO of City Hall,” of the Chicago business community’s love affair with Daley and its tolerance of destructive and illegal practices they would never allow in their own operations.

“Admittedly, Daley’s admirers overlook some shortcomings,” wrote correspondent Joseph Weber with longtime Chicago business observer Bob Reed. “In fact, if he were a corporate CEO, his job security would be, well, in doubt.” The article then goes on to list the administration’s....

Read more in the Chicago Daily Observer

Stem Cell Breakthrough Uses No Embryos

Told ya so.

For years now, pro-choice fanatics have been insisting that pro-life fanatics have been blocking cures for all sorts of diseases by opposing embryonic stem cell research.

Now, the pro-choice fanatics have been proven wrong, and those who opposed the use of embryonic stem cells because it destroys a human life can take a bow.

They can congratulate themselves because they stuck to their guns when they were slandered as anti-science wackos, who were ready to sacrifice the lives of uncounted millions who suffered from various, fatal diseases, for the sake of something “smaller than a pin prick.”

They can congratulate themselves because it was their insistence on doing what was ethical and right that led to a discovery that today is being compared with the Wright brothers’ first flight.

Read about it here , here and here

Monday, November 19, 2007

New York state of mind

It's unsettling that top candidates come from that 'provincial' place

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

It's time to carefully weigh the likely possibility that the next president will be from New York, and is that what the rest of us really want?

If the polls are an accurate crystal ball (they're not intended to be), New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani the Republican. By this time next year, the nation could be facing the certainty of a New Yorker as boss man or lady. If that isn't bad enough, chew on this: The name of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg keeps showing up as a possible independent candidate. That would be three New York candidates; now if that doesn't give the rest of America the willies, what will?

It seems like we're always talking about New Yorkers as presidential and vice presidential candidates, simply because there are so many voters there. Franklin Roosevelt. The immortal Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller, New York governors who thought they had a chance to be president, save for the voters not thinking so. The legendary Bill Miller. But I can't recall a time when both candidates were from New York.

I find it curious that American voters may have to choose between two New Yorkers and it has received little, if no attention, from the coastal media. Maybe they think the rest of us won't notice. Maybe they don't care whether the rest of us notice. After all, New York is the Center of Everything (followed at a respectful distance by the District of Columbia and a great distance by everyone else), so the rest of us should be glad that someone from New York would be sitting in the Oval Office.

(By the way, we flatlanders cannot accept the suggestion that Clinton is one of us because she was raised in suburban Chicago, no more than we could accept the assertion that she's really a good ol' girl from Arkansas. When forced to declare her loyalty to the Chicago Cubs or New York Yankees, she -- what else? -- triangulated. I'd like to hear how she would answer the question: "Where are you from?")

Back to my point: Regional politics always has played a role in presidential elections from the republic's very beginning when New England commercial and shipping interests and the South's agrarian and slavery interests were at each other's throats. Regionalism is just one of the things that has divided American politics. Others include big state versus small state. Protestant/Catholic. Liberal/Conservative. Rural/Urban. Nativist/Immigrant. Populist/Establishment. Free trade/ Protectionist. Gold standard/Silver standard.

Of course, after Thursday's debate, we can add a few more: Asbestos pants suit versus guy trousers; cliche versus bromide; platitude versus banality. Nonsensical "choices" (Just answer "yes" or "no," host Wolf Blizter demanded) such as whether human rights are more important than national security. By the time it was over, I had little more information than before it started about where they all stood on, for example, universal health-care insurance, other than they all thought it was kinda important.

So, with all the debate's profundity (the upcoming Republican debate won't be any better), why can't the candidate's hometown or home state be an issue? If New Yorkers don't appreciate that it's a legitimate issue, they should ask themselves: How would they like it if their choice for president came down to two or three candidates from Chicago or Illinois. Even for those of us here, the thought staggers. President Richard M. Daley, Rod Blagojevich or Todd Stroger? Our ex-mayor, Jane Byrne?

The difficulty, of course, would be to find a local Republican to put on the GOP ticket. Former Gov. George Ryan would have to run from prison. GOP leadership here is so absent that they'd have to scrounge around in the Illinois legislature for someone. Wait, the Democrats already have done that.

So, it is fair to ask: Are Clinton and Giuliani the best that the nation has to offer? Is it provincial of anyone outside of New York to raise the issue, when New York itself is provincial? Or is it just a stereotype that New York is provincial? Is it a sure sign of a rube to suggest that New York, itself, is provincial? Isn't the hometown question at least as important as "who won the debate?" Or the degree to which the male candidates criticized Clinton? Or whether the debate "drew blood"? Or all the other meaningless tripe that seems to surround these events, which have become such a waste of time?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Can’t Jonathan Succeed?

Ask his old man, if you can find him in this story.

By Dennis Byrne
Human Events

Alas, poor Jonathan; his Washington D.C. high school failed him miserably. He barely passed after years of ditching classes, stringing together a chain of Ds and Fs and acting as if just showing up was reason enough to be awarded a diploma.

This pathetic story was told in a two-part series (here and here) in the Washington Post that rightly indicted the D.C. school system for deep-seated incompetence and indifference. It is worth reading, for what it says, but -- perhaps more importantly -- for what it doesn’t.

Jonathan, in his second attempt to graduate (no explanation was forthcoming about how he even got as far as his senior year), was running out of time, as teacher after counselor bent over backwards to give him every chance possible. Despite papers not turned in and exams flunked (everyone says he’s a bright kid) Jonathan keeps telling himself that he’s going to graduate, as if he had as much contact with reality as the Mad Hatter.

Read more at Human Events

Monday, November 12, 2007

Silence isn't prayer

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

Children, we’re going to have a moment of silence. You can use it to reflect on what you’ll be doing today, for silent prayer, or whatever you want. Everyone has to participate, everyone must remain quiet for the next 30 seconds.”

Such a ruckus that statement has caused. A recently passed law, enacted over Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s veto, has propelled school prayer back into the headlines by requiring every school in the state to start the day with a moment of silence. If children choose, it can be used for silent prayer.

One would think that asking children to be quiet for a few seconds or minutes to reflect on whatever they want would be a good thing. Reflection doesn’t seem to be the long suit of today’s stretched-tight generations. Teachers also might even welcome the relief of a longer mandated silence. Not that many children are going to spend the moment praying for anything except the answers to the test they weren’t prepared for. Or reflecting on pleasurable thoughts about the budding adolescent in the next seat.

Read more in the Chicago Daily Observer

Step forward, be a community

Daley is right: ID the suspects

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

What more proof do we need that Mayor Richard Daley has lost his mind? How else can you explain his recent public scolding of the Back of the Yards community for not ratting out the shooters who killed a pregnant woman in front of her three children on Halloween?

It's exactly what so many of us think every time someone gets killed in the crossfire between gangs, but it's a truth that no one dare speak for fear of getting raked over the coals. Unless he is out of his mind.

"You know who did it," Daley told several hundred people who had gathered for an end-the-violence rally. "Don't be blaming the police. Look in the mirror and say, 'I can do better.' ... If you don't turn these individuals in, you'll be marching for the rest of your life."

He spoke the truth, and it took courage. Some undoubtedly will accuse him of "blaming the victim," which is sociological coinage for, "You can't say anything negative about victims." It's like saying, "If a woman doesn't want to be stared at, she shouldn't dress provocatively." Only a primitive would say such a thing.

When it comes to the causes of violence, the willingness to be victims can't be overlooked. It is simply inconceivable that the gang members were complete strangers to every single person in the neighborhood. Yet no one is willing to step forward to identify the shooters and, hence, to help stop the violence. This is not an isolated case.

We're told that the witnesses are too terrified to step forward: "Ha, you have no concept what it is to live in a neighborhood infected by gang violence and hopelessness. Identifying the shooters can get you killed!"

All true. I don't know what it is like. I'm fortunate enough to live in a community free of such fears. Most of us do. But that doesn't make the principle any less valid. Daley is right; nothing will save a community if it isn't willing to save itself, all the candlelight marches demanding an end to the violence notwithstanding.

Daley's frustration with the treatment of his police department is obvious, and it's not unexpected that he pleads for us not to blame the police, who constantly are being assaulted -- sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly -- by charges of excessive force. Just a few weeks ago, Daley's emotions overflowed when he was responding to demands for the release of the names of cops most frequently accused of brutality. In that case, he overemoted; the public, I believe, has a right to the names.

But sometimes the complaints are just bellyaching. Days before, Daley was presented with knee-jerk criticism of police officers who used a Taser to stun an 82-year-old woman who was brandishing a hammer. Daley expressed proper amazement and distress, but wasn't so quick to condemn the police, as were some others, before knowing all the facts.

The police had been called to the woman's home because Department on Aging employees trying to do a well-being check were face to face with the hammer-swinging, belligerent, mentally ill woman. When she refused to put down the hammer, the police zapped her. Which brought on the furies: She was just a tiny, little thing, confronting people who "forced" their way into her house; she was within her rights to refuse police entry; the police should have found a better way to subdue her (with their nightsticks?); she wasn't a danger to herself or neighbors (although I'm not sure how they were supposed to know that in the heat of the moment); and so forth.

Maybe the police should have said, "OK, suit yourself. We're gone." You can imagine the criticism then: "Just another example how police aren't doing their jobs. They wouldn't have deserted their responsibility if it had been in a white or better-off neighborhood." And so forth.

No, I'm not in favor of the willy-nilly Tasering of grandmothers. I'm married to one. But I do wish that the folks who are so hard on the cops would get their demands straight. The cops are condemned for supposedly failing to protect the neighborhoods from the punks, but witnesses then refuse to name names in the most egregious of murders. We are supposed to believe cops randomly pick on innocent people for -- what? -- the fun of it? We're supposed to be outraged that in one crime-ridden Chicago Housing Authority development, the police ask residences to carry identification cards voluntarily so that the officers can keep away outsiders who bring drugs and violence into the neighborhood.

All I know is that I wouldn't want to be a Chicago cop.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Get off that bus, into telework

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Hey, you, sitting there on your train or bus, have you had enough yet? Sick of this ritualistic dance about mass-transit "doomsday"? Fed up with the endless maneuvering over fares and taxes? Isn't there some "long-term" solution to this mess that would free us from this exhausting exercise? Yes, there is: telecommuting. And you should be demanding it. Now. When you're fed up.

The crux of the commuting problem is simple: too many people going to too many places. You can try to fix it by improving the means of getting there (e.g., more subsidies, higher taxes, more cars, more concrete) without surcease or effect. Or you can reduce the number of people who depend on 19th and 20th Century technology to get there.

Some think that the answer lies in fighting sprawl, but that's been a flop. Academics who continue to cram the idea of "controlled growth" on an unwilling public are as out of touch as disco. All that's accomplished by propping up a mass-transit system with ever-expanding bases of "assured funding" is agony over when we'll have to face the next transit doomsday.

Instead of chasing a utopian ideal by tossing more money and effort at increasing the supply of transit, the enduring solution is reducing the demand for it, whether it is mass or individual. Instead of concentrating on how to best move people, we should be focusing on how to best move information. Instead of fighting technology and its inevitable impact on society, we should be facilitating and promoting the societal change that already has begun.

Almost 4.2 million people worked at home in 2000, up from 3.4 million in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That 23 percent increase was double the growth in the overall work force during the decade. According to the International Telework Association and Council, the number of Americans who spent at least some portion of the week teleworking jumped from 19.7 million in 1999 to 28 million in 2001, up 42 percent in two years.

Sadly, the greatest resistance comes from the private sector, not government. Telework in the federal government grew 35 percent in 2006, compared with 10 percent in the private sector, according to a study by CDW Government Inc. consultancy. Forty-four percent of federal employees surveyed indicated they have the option to telework, up 6 percent from 2006, compared with 15 percent of private-sector employees. That's thanks to a federal law that gives eligible executive branch employees the option to telecommute "to the maximum extent possible" without damaging their performance evaluations.

No, I don't want a law forcing the private sector to do the same, although just mentioning it will make someone think it's a good idea. Stiff corporate lobbying would make passage of such a law nearly impossible; it'd be easier to educate corporate minds about the benefits, to them and their employees. Not the least of which is the increased ability to continue operations after a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Surveys also show that employees are happier telecommuting, if indeed, companies think having happy employees is a good idea. Other advantages, says the American Telecommuting Association, are improved productivity, information turnaround and communications; greater staffing flexibility; lower employee turnover; and access to a larger pool of potential employees. I'd throw in fewer of those annoying, unproductive, face-to-face meetings.

The challenge is to disabuse private employers of myths about telecommuting and their stubborn belief that if they can't see the workers, then the workers aren't working. Organized labor also resists, citing fears, among others, of overtime abuse and the difficulty of maintaining union cohesion. For companies and unions that absolutely insist on having their employees in a corral, subregional or neighborhood telecenters are an option. For example, instead of making south suburban employees travel to the big northwest suburban headquarters, a company might set up a center in Orland Park.

For society, the benefits are clear and abundant. Among them are reduced energy consumption and pollution, and greater opportunities for the physically impaired, at-home parents, the elderly, people living in remote areas and caretakers for the infirm.

No, I'm not declaring the end of offices and downtowns, or that trains, buses and highways can or should be ignored or eliminated. We'll always need them, and they need to operate as best as they can. But I'm betting that when it comes to investing, say, $1 billion in roads and transit, compared with $1 billion in telecommuting, there's no question of which will produce the greatest return for everyone.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

This Just In: Boys and Girls are different!

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

So, how many billions did it cost us to discover that girls outpace boys on school tests?

That apparently is the latest finding to be coaxed out of the load of academic tests weighing down children and teachers, tying administrators in knots and showering the education and testing industries with untold riches. This latest crisis in gender disparity was described in detail in a recent page-one Chicago Tribune story revealing that Illinois grade school girls last year outperformed boys on every state achievement exam.

I could have saved them the trouble, if they had only asked. Ever since my first day in school in 1946 and every year thereafter, girls did better than boys in school. They were the first to raise their hands and when called on to have the right answer. They got the highest grades, scored big on “deportment” and graduated first in the class.

Read more at Chicago Daily Observer

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New reason to hate Bush: FEMA "fakes" a press conference

By Dennis Byrne

For days, media vultures have been circling the California wildfires, eyes peeled for another Hurricane Katrina “blunder” by the Bush administration.

But in the absence of red meat, they had to settle for—horrors!—a “fake” news conference conducted by FEMA’s deputy administrator, Harvey E. Johnson Jr., as evidence of the administration’s ineptitude or, worse, deception.

Judging by the press reaction, you would have thought Johnson had set some of the fires himself. Hundreds of stories describing the supposed scandal popped up across the country, including this blast in the Los Angeles Times:

The “fake” press conference “…comes just more than two years after [FEMA’s] agonizingly slow-motion response to thousands of displaced New Orleans residents who waited for help in dreadful conditions at the Superdome. Michael D. Brown, the agency's head, resigned under fire after he became an embarrassment to President Bush, who appeared out of touch when he praised Brown with the memorable comment: ‘Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.’”

It also reminded me of the agonizingly slow response to Katrina by Democratic Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin, but why bring that up when taking a shot at Bush is so much more fun? I suppose we should be glad that the two weren’t responsible for putting out the California fires.

The stories dutifully reported that an incensed Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) demanded answers from the head of FEMA, and as chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery, who, but her is better positioned to keep the heat on?

Other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who mindlessly blamed the wildfires on “global warming?”

FEMA and others in the Bush administration, frightened out of their skins by the possibility of a repeat of the Katrina public relations mess, hurriedly rushed forward with copious apologies, calling the press conference the worst thing imaginable—“offensive.”

Indeed, it didn’t take long after the California fires went out of control before the inevitable comparisons with Katrina were being raised. The only problem was that everyone seemed to perform well, which is what the “fake” press conference was supposed to be all about.

You can hardly blame FEMA for wanting to hold a press conference, both to blow its own horn and, more legitimately, to update the media on the progress of the fight against the catastrophic blazes. FEMA called a hurry-up news conference, with 15 minutes notice to reporters. The first mistake. Realizing that few reporters could make it, the agency provided an 800 number for reporters not on the scene to listen into the press conference, but no provision was made for them to ask questions—the second mistake. The only problem was that no reporters showed up for the actual press conference. Someone decided that it would be better to go ahead, with FEMA staff members asking questions reflective of ones that they had actually been fielding from reporters. Third mistake.

They might have avoided the problem if FEMA had just announced that no reporters were present, and in their absence FEMA was (A) canceling the press conference, or (B) forging ahead with Johnson’s prepared statement as planned, but frankly admitting that no questions could be asked. “Sorry we can’t do better at the moment, but call or e-mail us with your questions and we’ll get back to you as quickly as possible and try to set up a press conference later with better notice.”

I have no idea why none of this happened. The harshest critics will try to suggest that FEMA intentionally tried to fool the press into thinking that it was a legitimate press conference, and I can’t say that they didn’t. The critics also will recall that the administration already has been caught trying to “manufacture” the news, when it paid Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, $240,000 to promote Education Department programs.

But, having been in the news and PR businesses for almost a combined 40 years, I can’t imagine even the most idiotic publicist thinking that he could get away with faking a news conference. FEMA either needs better PR advice, or its top officials need to listen better to their PR experts if or when they give good advice.

Or, more pointedly, they shouldn’t be driven by the fear of what the partisan jerks will say. Such as Reid blaming Bush for the wildfires because his administration hadn’t provided enough funding for removing the dead tress and shrubs that fed the fire.

Maybe they’ll next accuse Bush of not “doing enough” to prevent the winds that stoked the wildfires.

Fan Dumb

By Dennis Byrne

Obviously, we mere fans aren’t privileged to read from the same secret playbook available only to team managers, coaches, general managers and owners.

How else can you explain why we don’t understand why, for example, starting Major League pitchers must be yanked automatically from the game after they’ve thrown 100 pitches?

How do you explain why throngs of Chicago Bears football fans failed to see that Bears quarterback Rex Grossman was obviously superior to Brian Griese?

Somewhere buried in those secret texts is an explanation for why the game-leading team—no matter in what the sport—must play “prevent defense” until the other team has had a chance to catch up.

In our ignorance, we fail to grasp the many reasons why such rules must be adhered to, come hell or high water, even if they fly in the face of common sense. Take manager Lou Piniella’s controversial decision to pull Cubs starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano out of the first game of the division series after six innings and not even 100 pitches, even though he was throwing a superb game. Got to save him for the fourth game of the series, was the explanation. The Cubs, of course, never got to the fourth game, having been swept in three by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s safe to say most fans would have left Zambrano in; it’s also safe to say that most managers—not just Piniella—would have taken him out. Not just because it’s the playoffs, but because of the precious 100-pitch rule. It’s hard to imagine that under such circumstances that baseball will see another Ed Walsh, the White Sox Hall of Fame pitcher, who in 1908 won 40 games, with 24 complete games in 49 starts, 464 innings pitched, 11 shutouts and 249 strikeouts. Imagine how delighted owners would be to have another house-packer like Walsh show up, but it’ll never happen again, thanks to the 100-pitch mentality.

Speaking of owners, they can be just as mystifying. For years, Chicago Blackhawk fans couldn’t fathom why the family ownership forbad full television coverage of this legendary hockey franchise. If the Wirtz family had nurtured, instead of restricted, the coverage, the fan based would have increased, providing the increased revenues harvested that might have prevented the disgraceful trashing of the franchise.

The tragedy is that the Wirtz family had one of the best examples of how the process works, right here in its backyard. The Chicago Cubs, despite being the most pathetic losers in MLB history, has a large and loyal following, here and nationally. Why? Because every game was televised, home and away, on commercial TV. On top of that, national exposure on Chicago’s WGN-TV’s superstation, produced a countrywide fan base. The Wirtz family also should have learned from the Chicago White Sox, whose descent into the city’s “second team” status began when the ownership restricted the team’s telecasts. The fans knew all this, but it sadly took the death of family patriarch, Bill Wirtz, for younger ownership to move to telecast the Blackhawks on a less limited basis.

Stubborn is the word for it, and perhaps stubbornness is the curse of the good fortune or riches needed to run or own a professional sports team. Stubborn, as in Bears head coach Lovie Smith’s unbending loyalty to Rex Grossman as the team’s starting quarterback, in spite of years of injuries and his demonstrated failure. The fans knew that a strong arm alone wouldn’t get the job done and demanded that Griese replace him. (Perhaps, you could say the fans got what they deserved, since they originally demanded Grossman in place of whoever at the time was the latest in a long string of quarterback failures.)

Not to rub Smith’s nose in it, but it became apparent from the first moment that Griese stepped on the field as starting quarterback that he would be more effective than Grossman. Each week he improved, until he was named the NFL’s offensive player of the week following his spectacular come-from-behind win last Sunday. The fans were right again.

Griese led the successful drive, virtually by himself, calling his own plays. We’re getting varying reports on just how many plays he called on his own during that drive, but it raises an interesting question about the practice of coaches and managers calling plays from the sidelines or the booth. Why not let the guy who’s in the middle of the action call the plays? Sending in plays from the sidelines has the same feel as generals who watch from a distance, sending in orders to the troops who actually are doing the fighting.

A last observation on football. Fans can see when a “game plan” is failing; why does it take so long for the coaches to see it? What is with the pig-headed determination to keep running the ball up the middle when it isn’t working? Why the insistence on “establishing the ground game first” before establishing the passing game? What makes the ground game so sanctified when all it produces is an endless series of three runs and a punt?

If these questions make fans scratch their heads in wonderment, the logic of some trades brings on hives. Take Aaron Rowand, the White Sox center fielder who was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies just a few months after winning the World Series. Many fans were appalled, even when the Sox got slugger Jim Thome (and $22 million) in return. Rowand was a fan-pleasing “fence crasher” and epitomized the team’s “grinder” image. It was like cutting out the team’s heart; the team was never the same.

Now there’s talk about the Chicago Bulls trading several front-liners to the Los Angeles Lakers for the perpetual pain-in-the-neck Kobe Bryant. The Lakers only want all-star Luol Deng, leading scorer Ben Gordon, the promising Tyrus Thomas and the exciting rookie Joakim Noah; in other words, gut the team for a “super-star” who will disrupt the locker room and, dare I say, anger the fans. By the time you read this, a variation of the trade may already have happened, and, for me, that’s it for the Bulls.

Here I’m making no claim to fan superiority when it comes to all things sporting. If teams took a plebiscite every time a trade came up or called a play, there’s no guarantee that things would be any better.

Nor, possibly, would things be any worse.

Monday, October 29, 2007

In public interest, name cop, accuser

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

You really had to worry about Rich Daley's health if you saw him last week answer reporters' questions about why the City Council shouldn't be given the names of cops who have racked up the most complaints for excessive force.

I thought Mayor Daley's head might explode when he kept saying, "They're [the complaints] only allegations!" Someone should have given him oxygen.

Still, the mayor was right: Complaints against the police officers are, indeed, only allegations. But Daley is wrong when he says that's a reason for keeping the names secret. When these same cops arrest people, it is only an allegation, but the names of the accused are a matter of public record.

So, if citizens are eligible to get their names in print when they're arrested, the public certainly has a right to know the names of cops alleged to be the most brutal. Why? To see if there's a pattern to the alleged brutalization, for one. To judge whether the city's mechanism for combating police brutality is working as it should, or if it is working at all, for another.

Notice that I'm saying that the right to the names belongs to the public, not the City Council. The Daley administration's presumption is that giving the names to the aldermen will mean that they inevitably will leak the names to the public. So what? The public has a right to know the names, leaked or not. That aldermen have big mouths is not a valid reason for the secrecy.

This gets complicated.

For example, concerns about public retaliation against the accused officers should be taken seriously. The police and their families do have a right to privacy for a good reason. Publishing the names with addresses and phone numbers -- which no one is suggesting -- would grievously jeopardize their safety. But if just knowing the cops' names was a bad idea, then cops shouldn't be wearing name tags.

Sure, the aldermen's reasons for demanding the names are suspect; everything they do is suspect. And here, Daley's got a good idea when he asked the reporters: "Could we have all the allegations against aldermen [published too], pffft?" Now that would be interesting reading. But their names lately haven't been appearing on lists of the indicted as often as the names of the mayor's pals. Right now, those lists make more interesting reading.

Daley makes a strong point, backed up by Interim Police Supt. Dana Starks, when he says complaints against the officers often come from offenders trying to discredit their arresting officers in order to "enhance their case in court." It is utterly naive to think that career criminals don't falsely accuse cops of brutality.

But ... Daley's handling of police brutality complaints during his terms as mayor and Cook County state's attorney has been, to put it charitably, flawed. It's thanks to Daley that the words "torture" and "former Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge" will be forever linked as one of the city's worst injustices. That Daley has taken tighter control of the Office of Professional Standards, the agency that is supposed to investigate police brutality, provides no comfort.

Obviously, this is a complicated matter, requiring the kind of simple-minded answers usually provided by media commentators. So, here's mine: First, disclose, as some aldermen want, the names of officers with more than 10 complaints filed against them in the last five years. Oh, what the heck, in the interests of compromise, make it 20 complaints; that'll still flush out the worst ones.

But, here's my twist. In making the cops' names public, the city also should publicize the names and the criminal and arrest records of the complainants. Fair is fair.

Would that invite retaliation against the complainants? If that's a serious worry, then just publish the complainants' records without their names. That would provide sufficient information to help the public judge the credibility of the most frequent complainers.

But more to the point, who would retaliate, and why? The police? They already know who the worst complainers are; they don't need an engraved invitation to get even. That leaves the public, and here we are getting to a very interesting idea. Maybe there would be fewer 10-year-olds killed in gang crossfire if the public knew whom the cops were nailing most frequently and who was complaining the loudest about it.

Make sure the gang-bangers show up at the funeral, explain to the kid's family, friends and neighbors how it's always the cops' fault.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Recall (read: can) Blagojevich, Stroger and Daley

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

Like most uprisings, the Illinois/Cook County/Chicago tax revolt has started without anyone sending out a press release or making a formal proclamation.

Not in memory—mine, at least—have so many taxpayers here been so riled. Not in memory, have so many taxpayers here been hit with such a flood of proposed tax increases. Not in memory, have the demands for higher taxes come from a gaggle of such incompetent, ineffective or corrupt politicians—namely Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Cook County President Todd Stroger and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (henceforth to be referred to here as BS&D

The signs of an impending march on the tyrants’ citadels surround us: Stroger’s office phone lines crammed with angry taxpayers. Liberal politicians and commentators jumping on the “we-re-taxed-out” bandwagon, without seeing the irony of their crabbing about the billion-dollar tax increases necessary to fund the government excesses that they have demanded.

They’re all asking: How much more money do they think they can wring out of us for their insider pals and contractors, for their padded payrolls, for their idiotic schemes? How stupid are they? How stupid do they think, that we are?

But this revolt will need more than a mob armed with pitchforks and muzzle-loading muskets charging City Hall, the County Building and the state Capital.

Read more at Chicago Daily Observer

Monday, October 22, 2007

Snubbing cancer study will only hurt women

Research showing link to abortion ignored by media

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

During National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is fitting and proper that women be informed about any newly discovered dangers, even as the public groans under the weight of all the warnings surrounding the mere act of living.

For example, a well-researched Chicago Tribune story last week disclosed that women who have just a couple of alcoholic drinks daily increase their breast cancer risk by 13 percent. Coincidentally, a new study reported that abortion is an important breast cancer risk factor, yet I couldn't find a word describing the research in mainstream media.

How to explain this disparity? I'll be vigorously advised that "most" studies disprove an abortion-breast cancer link. Or that the study in question appeared in a "conservative" scientific journal. Or that the study is bogus or unimportant. Or, more rudely, that the whole breast cancer argument has been concocted by anti-abortion rights advocates to make women afraid to have abortions. The issue is dead, I'll be notified. Kaput. Here I would remind critics that in science it's not who says it or how many say it that counts. What does count are the data and the rigor with which they are collected, analyzed and held up to a scientifically credible hypothesis.

So let's look at the science of this latest study, which appeared in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. Using statistical techniques and reliable national health data, the study of eight European countries found, to a statistically significant degree, that the incidence of breast cancer increases with the incidence of earlier abortions. The researcher, Patrick Carroll, used the same mathematical model employed in a 1997 study that predicted with extraordinary accuracy breast cancer increases in England and Wales from 1998 to 2004. Using that model, Carroll predicts that countries with higher abortion rates -- England and Wales -- could expect a troubling increase in breast cancer rates. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, where abortion rates are lower, should experience a smaller increase. And in Denmark and Finland, where abortion rates have declined, cancer rates should similarly decline. Some will object because the study is "only" epidemiological -- meaning that it relies on a statistically significant relationship between the incidence of breast cancer and abortion to infer that one causes the other. The standard, but simple-minded, objection to epidemiological studies is that a correlation does not necessarily prove causation. That's true, to some extent. But, epidemiologists use correlations in more complex ways, combining them with a range of medical, sociological, psychological and other information to lead their research in the right direction, to support or debunk hypotheses, and toward solutions for significant public health problems.

In the study of the abortion-breast cancer link, the working hypothesis is simple: For a woman who has not had a child before, an induced abortion is more likely to cause cancer because it interrupts the hormonal development of breast cells for later lactation, thus leaving the cells more vulnerable to uncontrolled and abnormal division, i.e. cancer.

The problem with dismissing the Carroll study because it is epidemiological is that you'll also have to dismiss a multitude of public health studies, including ones claiming a link between radon and lung cancer. These are the same epidemiological studies that alarmed millions of Americans, frightening them into buying radon detectors and creating a huge radon mitigation business. No study is perfect, and Carroll's shortcoming is that his data do not allow comparisons of individual women over time. But other major studies have, and according to one unchallenged compressive analysis of those studies, they show that a pregnant woman who has never had a child before and aborts in the first term increased her chance of breast cancer by 50 percent.

Science, by its nature, exists in an unsettled state. Evidence piles up on many sides. The public becomes unsettled. The media, as is their wont, avoid the complexities, especially when the complexities challenge preconceived or prevalent political notions. Instead of coming to grip with such concepts as epidemiology, they escape into silence. And ill-serve the public.

Speaking of media credibility, or lack of it, the conservative blogosphere is buzzing with the mainstream media's failure to report retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez' scathing criticism of the press in a recent speech. Yet, the media gave wide coverage when, in the same speech, he criticized America's conduct of the war. His criticism of the media would have resonated with millions who question the media's integrity and balance. Having been in this business for almost 40 years, I'm ashamed of and unable to understand my profession's utter dereliction when it comes to reporting its own failures.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Do they really think voters are that dumb?

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Isn't there some way for fed-up citizens of Illinois, Cook County and Chicago to force their governments into receivership?

After all, when a corporation is as stunningly incompetent as are Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, legislative leaders, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and his toady City Council, creditors can force it into bankruptcy in which a court-appointed trustee straightens out the mess or, if necessary, shuts it down to preserve the remains.

If the city, county or state were corporations, their creditors long ago would have forced their operations out of the hands of the bunglers and turned it over to a court-appointed executive.

So, why shouldn't we citizens and taxpayers have the same right to protect our publicly held assets from Blagojevich, Daley, Stroger and the rest of the clinkers who have so miserably failed to govern in the interests of the governed?

I make this suggestion with tongue only slightly in cheek. Look at the shambles that our "leaders" have given us: A state run by a governor who thinks we should cough up our money for every cockamamie giveaway and tax-increase scheme he hatches. Legislative leaders whose personal animosities have turned the state capital into a preschool playpen. A Cook County government, so wildly mis-, mal- and non-managed by Stroger and his cronies that they want to hit us up with a huge sales tax increase to bail them out.

Now comes Daley with a $293 million bundle of tax, fee and fine increases, including the city's largest-ever property tax increase, to finance an operation stinking with corruption and looting. Daley says blame the aldermen knocking on his "side door" for the goodies. Well, blame whomever; Daley is giving it away to somebody.

His 2008 budget would increase expenditures by more than 5 percent, and over two years by $700 million or 12 percent. Daley laughably suggests that Chicagoans should be happy with the higher taxes because they'll get some new neighborhood libraries. More likely, the taxes will pay for such deplorable decisions as the 10-year labor contracts handed to 33 trade unions representing 8,000 city workers. Building-trade workers will continue to be paid the costly "prevailing wage," while others will get annual raises averaging as much as 4 percent. Just coincidentally, the contracts would guarantee labor peace through the 2016 Olympics, in effect, imposing a hidden Games tax.

This piano-load of new taxes lands on Chicagoans and their visitors as they already are paying some of the nation's highest taxes and fees. That's thanks to the current $5 billion budget that imposed increases of about $75 million in taxes and $11 million in fees. How tempting it is to observe that the people who have driven the city, county and state governments into their worst financial smashup in memory are Democrats, raising the question of whether Democrats are congenitally incapable of governing. Are they mathematically challenged, having been denied the basic adding and subtracting skills by the touchy-feely education they so love? Are they so insecure that they can't say no to anyone who wants a touch of our taxes, because they might be accused of lacking compassion?

Republicans, if they controlled everything, might not do any better (or worse), but that's moot isn't it, because the GOP has aced itself out of every important city, county and state office in sight.

John McCarron, one of the city's most insightful columnists, raised this issue in this space last summer, when things in Springfield looked like they couldn't get worse. Why, he wondered, when Democrats run it all, can't they win the war for their own agenda: "progressive taxation, for equal access to jobs and educational opportunities, for a semblance of social justice."

Good question, and I don't have the answer, having surrendered my liberal allegiances, as I did in my adolescence, years ago. Maybe it's a matter of greed: now that they control the pot of gold, too many hands want to dip into it. Or purity: every "program" or "service" on the agenda must be fully funded.

Or, maybe Daley himself provides the answer when he takes Chicagoans for dopes by saying they "know that if I propose raising taxes it's because we've exhausted every other option ..."

He could be right. Perhaps voters are dumb enough to knowingly elect incompetents. Maybe we don't need a trustee to fix things; maybe just smarter, more responsible voters.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A cheapened Nobel

By Dennis Byrne
Political Mavens

By now, the derision and laughter created by Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize is old news. But if you still don’t believe that it was politically inspired, you might want to consider from whence it sprang.

The five-person committee that awards the prize is a creature of the Norwegian parliament, the Storting. The body, controlled by the Labour Party, has, you might say, something of a leftist tilt. Here are some of its recent high jinks:

Firms face quota deadline

Norway's center-left government has issued a warning to 140 companies that still don't have enough women on their boards of directors: Appoint more, or be dissolved.

Government [Equality] minister Karita Bekkemellem intends to enforce Norway's law requiring that at least 40 percent of the boards of stocklisted companies be made up of female directors….
Read More at Political Mavens

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Katrina of Marathons

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

Not surprisingly, the second-guessers have become unglued because the Chicago Marathon sponsors didn’t do—what?—enough about the blazing heat that laid many runners low. But, to compare what happened here over the weekend to the deadly disaster in New Orleans, isn’t that a bit much?

That’s what host Carol Marin did when she mentioned to her panel on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight that “some people” are calling the marathon, “the Katrina of Marathons.” The ridiculous analogy probably should have been expected considering how “some people” figure that someone (else) must be prepared on a moment’s notice to take care of every damn problem in sight.

You can bet if the marathon happened to have been run on a record-breaking cold day in a sleet storm, “someone” would have been blamed for not foreseeing the need to have an army of volunteers at the ready to chip the ice off the streets.

The Chicago Marathon is not a unique example of such starry-eyed expectations , but it sure is a shinning example of the prevalent Somebody-Do-Something mentality.

Read more in the Chicago Daily Observer

Monday, October 08, 2007

Parents' input--not book--gets banned

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Parents concerned about the quality of books their children must read in school don't deserve the ridicule and condemnation that rain down on them.

But, as surely as Columbus Day shows up every year, October brings with it Banned Books Week, the annual high-minded whacking of such parents for their supposed intolerance. Dare disagree or suggest that teachers and school administrators are making children read age-inappropriate material and you run the risk of being labeled reactionary, illiterate or worse, a conservative Christian.

Of this haughty nastiness, we have no finer example than John H. Kinzie Elementary School on the Southwest Side, where some parents objected to 7th graders being required to read Robert Cormier's "The Chocolate War."

It's a controversial book about Catholic high school students being terrorized by autocratic religious brothers and an unchecked secret society of physically and psychologically brutal students. In one chapter, a bully nearly beats another student to a pulp in front of the entire student body of 400 cheering, bloodthirsty boys, with the head brother's snickering approval.

Some parents don't care for the book's casual handling of sexual themes, such as masturbation, but that's the least of the book's problems. Worse, in this book, victimizing boys and girls is its own reward.

So, when several dozen parents protested that the book was on the required reading list, Kinzie Principal Sean Egan arrogantly told them, in effect, tough. "I don't tell you how to run your family," he said. There is a legitimate issue of who controls a school's curriculum: educators, parents or -- perish the thought -- a combination of both working together in a spirit of cooperation and caring. In many schools where this conflict erupts, parents are allowed to excuse their children from reading the offending text.

This doesn't mean that the book is removed from the school's reading list or library. Despite suggestions floated by the American Library Association -- sponsor of Banned Books Week and extremist advocate of the rule that "children should be able to read whatever they need or want" -- this isn't censorship.

But at Kinzie, even suggesting that your own children can be excused from the reading is verboten. In a letter, Egan warned parents not to. Doing so, he wrote, "could have a significant negative effect on the final course grade."

Elsewhere, this is called blackmail. Let's see, how often have we heard complaints about parental non-involvement? Especially, when student performance is low. "Where are the parents?" "Do they even care?" "We can't get them interested in what's going on in the classroom."

Apparently, parental involvement is appreciated only on the school's terms. Yes, I know, the book supposedly is a groundbreaking masterwork of young adult literature. (Even though Cormier wrote it for an adult audience; it wasn't until his agent informed him otherwise did he know he had actually written a book for adolescents.)

Contributing to the book's cache are attacks on it by "would-be censors" and its frequent appearance on the ALA's most "challenged" list, based on the reasoning that if the troglodytes are against it, it has to be good.

I'm not impressed. Cormier writes well, despite the confused point of view. But it's like "Catcher in the Rye"; when you grow up and reread it, it seems sophomoric. It makes you wonder: Is this the best that English teachers could find?

There's also the portrayal of the Catholic brothers who teach at the fictional high school. It takes more than a suspension of belief to think that such a sadistic, moronic faculty could be running this or any school. Or that they would sit by while letting a secret club of callous students victimize other students. Having graduated from a high school operated by the no-nonsense Christian Brothers, I see the book's portrayal of teaching brothers as hackneyed, cruel and unfair.

But the book does a fine job of making 7th grade boys worry about what supposedly awaits them in high school: sadism. Letting high school juniors and seniors read it is less troubling because they have real-world experience to judge the book for the laughable rubbish that it is. For 7th graders, the book just isn't age appropriate.

The book strives to teach the importance of thinking for yourself and standing on your own, the way the protagonist, Jerry, refused to sell chocolates for a school fundraiser. Too bad. Among the fawning education and ALA wisdom givers, is there not a single protagonist to do the same and say the book doesn't belong in 7th grade?