Archive for March, 2006

Identity for Sale

Friday, March 17th, 2006

The Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Zaslow writes about the latest trend in personalization: selling the rights to your baby’s name.

A little boy came into the world last Friday at 2:19 p.m., weighing 6 pounds, 11 ounces. His name: ChamberMaster Mead — after a software company that won the naming rights in a charitable auction mounted by his father.

Chris Mead, a vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, hoped to use his son’s birth to raise money for the organization’s scholarship fund. The company, ChamberMaster, which sells Web-based software to chambers of commerce, bought naming rights for two weeks, paying $375.

A consulting firm, Horizon Industries, has offered to purchase naming rights to the infant for the two weeks after that. Young ChamberMaster would then be called Horizon Industries Mead. Eventually, when corporations lose interest in the boy, he’ll go by the name John Douglass Mead, a source tells me. (OK, that source is his eye-rolling mother, Laura.)

And then there’s this: For $19.95 and up, a company called Save a Saying, will let you add your favorite phrase to its international registry and send you or the lucky recipient of this gift a certificate and laminated registration card. You go, girl.

The Other Sirius Radio

Thursday, March 16th, 2006

Some years before Wired started carrying current from the Bay Area out to the heartland, RU Sirius was chronicling teledildonics, technopaganism, and astrophysical hottie Dr. Fiorella Terenzi in the pages of Mondo 2000. These days, RU’s countercultural calliope has gone digital, with his MondoGlobo Network producing an excellent array of podcasts. Emanating proudly from “the lower Haight,” his own show has featured such guests as Freewill Astrologist Rob Brezsny, Burning Man headmaster Larry Harvey, writer Beth Lisick, and mashup maestro Party Ben. Tune your favorite MP3 player in to RU Sirius Radio.

Mothers in Arms

Wednesday, March 15th, 2006

One of the wonderful things about living in a city like New York is the way it continually conspires to throw you in among strangers. It does this pretty efficiently with sidewalks, restaurants, jury duty, and mass transit. And every once in a while, someone like Leigh Witchel has an encounter that borders on the surreal:

“I asked the American lady where they are going. ‘A human rights meeting.’ She sounded embarrassed so I apologized and explained I only meant generally. ‘You don’t frighten easily?’ she asked. I said no, but I was bracing myself. The Arab (more accurately Moroccan) woman, Aicha, is the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui. The American woman I was talking to lost her son in the Towers. Through his trial, they have become close.”

Read the rest of Witchel’s post.

What Did You See at the War, Jimmy?

Wednesday, March 15th, 2006

SMITH “Back Home from IRAQ” columnist Michael Slenske takes his time when he interviews soldiers about their time on the battlefield. He listens, he lets his subjects talk, and we print nearly every word. The results: some of the best pieces on what the folks on the frontlines saw at the war, and how their experiences have changed their lives.
In his latest column, Slenske interviews Jimmy Massey whose book Kill, Kill, Kill has caused a big stir and started a new debate about just what constitutes “the fog of war.”

Slenske also interviews soldier turned playwright Sean Huze in the March/April issue of Mother Jones (note to MOJO, which swiped this piece from SMITH — you owe us one). Check out the Theater of War here.

Back Home with Jimmy Massey

Monday, March 13th, 2006

Michael Slenske writes SMITH's Back Home column. His last piece was Back Home With Paul Rieckhoff.

“I don’t harbor any ill feelings toward the Marine Corps. I learned valuable, intangible traits when I was in there-self-confidence, self-discipline. But in the back of my mind is that the reason they taught me these intangible traits was to turn me into a killer. And they succeeded.”

massey_flag.jpg In the wake of the James Frey debacle-and its tractor-powered disinterment of similar thinly-veiled literary hoaxes surrounding the louche and love-starved — it’s rather conspicuous (or perhaps not) that Jimmy Massey’s name has failed to resurface in the broadsheets. If you haven’t heard of him, Massey, a former Marine staff sergeant who spent 12 years in the Corps before being medically discharged with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and becoming a key figure in the peace movement with Veterans For Peace, rose to infamy last November after St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Ron Harris (followed lockstep by hawkish blogger Michelle Malkin) discredited claims made by Massey in his book Kill, Kill, Kill that he’d been party to (and a participant in) war crimes during his tour in Iraq with a Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAT) platoon.

Although Harris and Co. vehemently disputed Massey’s claims of killing innocent civilians on the road to Baghdad, Harris has admitted that he doesn’t read French (the language in which Massey’s book was published) nor was he ever directly embedded with Massey’s unit. Malkin, for her part, failed to return various emails, which is telling, considering the fact that the claims made in Kill, Kill, Kill, which is also being published in Spain, were corroborated by three other Marines in Massey’s platoon in interviews with the same French-American investigative journalist who ghost wrote the book with Massey. To find out what really happened SMITH deconstructed the fog of the Iraq war with the Marines’ most outspoken anti-war, war criminal.

SMITH: What made you want to write Kill, Kill, Kill?

MASSEY: When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, the psychologist suggested I write a memoir as part of the therapy. I started writing, basically just jotting down notes, and then when I got discharged from the Marine Corps, Natasha Saulnier, my ghostwriter, contacted me through Veterans For Peace. She did a couple interviews with me and asked if I wanted to write a book with her about my experiences, and it all kind of fell into place.

SMITH: How do you feel when people in the press like Ron Harris want to attack you for what you’ve said or what you’ve written?

MASSEY: Ron Harris is just covering his own behind. He knows he is just as liable for war crimes as any military member serving in Iraq.

SMITH: How so?

MASSEY: Because of his failure to do any investigative journalism into the actual incidents of the killing of civilians.

SMITH: Was he with you when this was happening?

massey_tank.jpg MASSEY: No, he was never with my company. He was with Lima Company. The only time that I saw Ron Harris was after a particular incident happened at a checkpoint when he came in to do his little interview and leave back to Lima Company. It took an international incident for him to report any of the civilian casualties. It took the killing of reporters for him to finally talk about that.

SMITH: But what’s the actual dispute?

MASSEY: Well, that’s the thing. Ron Harris even stated that he didn’t set out to dispute, he just didn’t see the harshness I portray in the book. And I don’t think Ron Harris has read the book either.

SMITH: So the contention is essentially whether the events you describe in the book should be labeled as normal combat procedures or war crimes.

MASSEY: I leave it up to the readers in the book. Are these war crimes or are these just fog of war? My definition of fog of war is that you’re on the battlefield and out of the corner of your eye you see somebody run and you fire off a shot and you go find out it’s a civilian. That’s fog of war. Where I have a heartburn with it is that we actually escalated the violence by heightening the intelligence reports. We demonized the Iraqi people and we were given carte blanche to shoot first and ask questions later. I think that the truth hurts. I think when a lot of Marines read this book it’s going to bring to their point of view the violations of the Geneva Conventions. Can you win a war with continued violations of the Geneva Conventions and International Law?

SMITH: So did you feel you were violating the law at the time?

MASSEY: Oh definitely, and I raised the BS flag very early on.

SMITH: And what did your fellow Marines say?

MASSEY: I was kind of treated like an outcast or rogue because they didn’t like my opinions about certain situations. I became very agitated because I went up to Captain Smith [of Lima Company]. This was shortly after the red Kia incident. I told him we need to get combat engineers in here to fortify when we have these kinds of checkpoints. And his response was, “No-there’s not going to be any combat engineers to come in.”

SMITH: So what would you say to people who’d claim your story is a fake war story?

MASSEY: The thing is I was there. There were other members of the platoon that were there. I haven’t seen one reporter that has interviewed guys who were in the book. Mainly these are just random Marines in other companies who have been interviewed. I think what is going to have to happen is that these Marines I talk about in the book are going to have to come forward or be interviewed and ask them about each particular event. Natasha Saulnier actually conducted the interviews with the Marines in the book, and they openly admit to killing civilians.

SMITH: Is this at the level of a Mai Lai incident?

MASSEY: I don’t think it’s to that level yet. I do think we have the propensity to head in that direction because of the military thought process and [because] we demonize the Iraqi people and treat every Iraqi as a potential terrorist. I’m very curious about Fallujah and the actual battle plans of what took place in Fallujah. I’d love to hear the civilian accounts of what happened, especially because I’ve been hearing that they used white phosphorous.

SMITH: Are you trying to get the book published in America?

MASSEY: If an American publishing company comes along and wants to publish it, sure. We’ve had a few look into it, and a few more are still looking into it, but it will published in Spain in March. We’ve also had a good response from the French-speaking provinces of Canada.

SMITH: What about those who’d say you were trying to make money off these events?

massey_mre.jpg MASSEY: Come on, brother. You know how much I’ve made off this book? I made about $8,000. The reason I wrote the book was initially for therapy. I have started a PTSD foundation through Iraq Veterans Against The War called the Vets for Vets program. What I’ve been using are the proceeds that are going to that so that we can continue helping returning vets diagnosed with PTSD because the VA system is taking almost two years to get into the system, to get a diagnosis, to get a rating before they even start seeing a disability paycheck. These guys are living on the streets, homeless, and we still got people slapping yellow stickers on the back of their cars saying, “Support The Troops.” They don’t have a clue.

SMITH: What was the hardest thing for you to deal with over there? Not just the stuff you saw, but the day to day?

MASSEY: The desperation in the Iraqi people. I don’t think that the Marines in my platoon had realized the devastation this country had been under. Thirteen years of sanctions, lack of medical supplies, humanitarian rations, and I knew the Iraqi people’s plight because I read the history of Iraq, and I knew the US involvement with Iraq, and I was a firsthand witness. I saw American tanks in Iraqi compounds; I saw ammunition with American flags spray-painted on the ammo box. All evidence. But it was just the desperation in their eyes. They were looking at us to be liberators and provide that humanitarian support and just act humanely toward the Iraqi people and we didn’t do it. We established places like Abu Ghraib; we established free-fire check zones at Marine Corps checkpoints, just crazy, crazy military blunders.

SMITH: What made you want to join the Marine Corps?

MASSEY: I came from a long line of military going all the way back to the civil war. All my kin, my family is from South Carolina, so I can trace all my roots back to here. I’ve had relatives that fought for the Confederacy, for the Union. My grandfather [Zachariah Roberts] was with Patton’s division during World War II, and I was growing up hearing stories of what he did while he was over there. So I always had a deep sense of pride in my country.

SMITH: Did you enlist?

MASSEY: I was going to UTI [Universal Technical Institute] I was studying to become an automotive engineer, but my goal was to design new cars. But I ran out of money and so I worked in the oil fields for Cardinal Well Service in the Gulf Coast. I was a tool hand. I took a job in New Orleans doing the same thing. But being young I fell in love with Bourbon Street, and I was eventually fired, lost my apartment and became homeless. I had too much pride to go back to my mom and tell her, so I talked to a recruiter when I was in New Orleans. I called my mom [and told her] what I planned on doing. She begged me to come home, so I came home. I told her I wanted to go into the Marines, and this is what I need to do to be successful.

SMITH: Do you regret anything about your service?

MASSEY: Absolutely not. The only thing I regret … is that I did not go into the Naval Investigative Service and tell them what I saw.

SMITH: Why didn’t you do that?

MASSEY: The Marine Corps told me they were doing the investigation and they were looking into what I was saying, so I was like well, “If they said they were looking into it, they were looking into it.” And I didn’t think I was getting discharged anytime soon.

SMITH: How do you think the support system is set up for soldiers and Marines who get “shell-shocked” over there?

MASSEY: We’ve got to look at the whole medical system of the military and see what their overall goal is. Lieutenant Col. Dave Grossman wrote a book called On Killing, and he talks about the psychological effects going all the way back to World War I up to the recent Gulf Invasion. He says the overall goal of the system is to get a member of the armed forces back on the battlefield. That’s why they are setting up these little rehabilitation centers in Iraq. So they let them play video games, and I’ve seen pictures of these little camps they have, and they play video games and they have this down time. They give them psychotropic medications, antidepressants, things to help them sleep. Then they get them back to a certain level, they ship them back to their unit. But they’re not getting to the real cause because the real cause-the PTSD-is a trauma that they’ve received while they are in country. And if you continue to keep them there that trauma continues to build and build.

SMITH: How did you feel when you came back? I’ve talked to other vets who say when they hear a car door slam or hear a firecracker go off they are very, very on edge.

MASSEY: I tell you what; the worst thing for me is driving. If I see a bag of garbage on the side of the road, or even if I see somebody walking, I’ll just instantaneously flashback and think about IEDs. My wife doesn’t let me drive anymore.

SMITH: You’ve been working with Cindy Sheehan. What is that like?

MASSEY: Working with Cindy is wonderful.

SMITH: What’s it like on the ground in Crawford, Texas?

MASSEY: It was amazing. My life to me is certain periods where I heal and that’s what I remember. PTSD, battling with it is everyday, but when I was in Crawford I didn’t have to battle with it, it was like I felt a sense of camaraderie, communion, we were achieving the same goals.

SMITH: Have you met any opposition at these events?

MASSEY: Yeah, I’ve been on speaking engagements-one in particular was in upstate New York-where I had people actually out front protesting me being there.

SMITH: Did things get messy?

MASSEY: No, but that’s the great thing: this is what the soldiers over there are fighting for is freedom of speech. I welcome those people if they want to come in and listen to what I have to say, or ask questions. I don’t claim to be perfect or know everything so I welcome a healthy debate on topics. But the Marine Corps was good to me the 12 years I was in. It’s not the Marine Corps’ fault for being used in a negative direction; I don’t harbor any ill feelings toward the Marine Corps. I learned valuable, intangible traits when I was in there-self-confidence, self-discipline. But in the back of my mind is that the reason they taught me these intangible traits was to turn me into a killer. And they succeeded.

SMITH: What was the fondest memory you had in Iraq?

MASSEY: I had a big saying while I was over there, I would come across the radio and say, “My Spiderman senses are kicking in.” And that was kind of like a key to the rest of the boys to be on a heightened sense of alert. And this wonderful artist, Lance Corporal Martins, came up to me and drew this Spiderman with a Marine uniform on that had a caption that said, “My Spiderman senses are tingling.” Just little stuff like that.

SMITH: And what is the day-to-day routine for you now?

MASSEY: I do a lot of work for IVAW [Iraq Veterans Against the War] so I’m heavily engaged in that and lining up different speaking engagements with various organizations throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. I recently went to Kuala Lumpur. The prime minister of Malaysia was hosting a peace conference, and wanted a representative from IVAW and I was the chosen one. I also went to Ireland to help with the plan of getting the U.S. warplanes out of Ireland’s Shannon Airport. I was on The Late Late Show [in Ireland] talking about the depleted uranium being flown through Ireland. I’m Scotch-Irish, so Ireland is my home country.

SMITH: What’s the one thing we don’t know about this war as the American public?

MASSEY: [Laughs] I feel … how can I put that … how do you tell a 25-year-old Iraqi that just witnessed his brother being killed at a Marine Corps checkpoint … how do you tell this young man not to become an insurgent?

SMITH: I don’t know.

MASSEY: That’s a question I’d like answered because I feel that’s something we did. We escalated the violence by our stupidity, our lack of Middle Eastern cultural customs.

SMITH: What’s a concrete example of that?

MASSEY: For one, [at checkpoints] we were sticking our fists up in the air, which is pretty much the military sign for stop. And then we would fire a warning shot as the car approached. I had this Iraqi-American woman, she came up to me, after I got done with a presentation [in America], and she said, “Wait a minute, explain to me what you were doing?” So I explained to her that we were sticking our hand in the air and firing a warning shot. She said, “Okay, don’t you think that by sticking your fist in the air in a Middle Eastern country that that could possibly mean solidarity?” And I said, “Okay, I’ll play devil’s advocate with you, but what about the gunshot?” She said, “What do you always see Saddam Hussein doing on the television.” And I was like, “Oh my god!” I travel to Iraq, go through that, to come back to the US to have this elderly Iraqi woman tell me that we were culturally fucked up.

SMITH: Were there any other things that bothered you after you returned home from Iraq?

MASSEY: I’ve got to bust on Harry Connick, Jr. This guy is from New Orleans. I’ve seen Harry Connick, Jr. play at the old Preservation Hall. This guy gets on CNN has the prime opportunity to say, “You know what? The government messed up. We were not getting the support we need to rebuild.” And he blew it. When they asked him the hardball questions about how he felt, he blew it. He just kind of tiptoed and danced around it. I guess he’s worried about his cell service. If that was me I would say, “Hey, come with me, walk with me down the street. I’ll show you what New Orleans is like.” And the celebrities are not doing it. Where are they at? What happened to the Johnny Rottens? What happened to the Dead Kennedys? That’s the stuff I grew up to, the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag and The Cult. I grew up with those kind of bands, and it’s just not there anymore.

SMITH: What did you think about the book and recent movie Jarhead?

MASSEY: I’ve got to give [author Anthony] Swofford props. I think he set out to tell a very heart-wrenching story of his indoctrination into war. I think that Swofford was censored. I could tell when I read the book that he wants to say something more here, and he wants to say something more here. You understand that Marine mentality. You can understand he was censored. Once I wrote my book and presented it to publishing companies, [and] they wanted to add things and take things out, I started to understand what he was up against. But I think Swofford did the very best of telling a gut-wrenching story, and ultimately I think his story has an anti-war statement.

SMITH: What’s the ultimate goal here?

MASSEY: The ultimate goal is to end the occupation of Iraq and bring the troops home and once they’re home provide support for them. That’s the ultimate goal. I don’t have any political ambitions-no crazy stuff like that.

Who Is … The Google Doodle Guy?

Monday, March 13th, 2006

Bernice Yeung is an editor at Hyphen magazine

When he was a kid growing up in South Korea, Dennis Hwang doodled in class instead of listening to his teachers. They’d holler at him to stop. He’d ignore them, and his spiral notebooks would overflow with cartoon frogs and planes and rainbows.

Some 20 years later, Hwang’s artistic defiance has paid off — he’s arguably the most viewed artist on the planet. In 2000, the young and steadfast doodler landed a job as the “Google doodle” guy, the enigmatic graphic designer who changes up the company logo every time there’s a holiday.

Working from a messy cubicle with three 24-inch computer monitors at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, Hwang has converted the logo into Braille for Louis Braille’s birthday, substituted an “o” with a soccer ball for the 2002 World Cup, and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the understanding of DNA by transforming the “o’s” into a rainbow-colored double helix. By now, he’s drawn about 300 Google logos, including a slew of international holidays from Korean Independence Day to Ramadan.

Hwang’s odd career trajectory started in the late ’90s at Stanford University, where he was double-majoring in fine art and computer science. “I was dead set on studying fine art,” he says, “but Stanford has a strong computer science department so I got sucked into that since I wanted to know about tools for creating animations and movies.” A guy in Hwang’s dorm told him about internships at a local dotcom with a funny name that means the number 1 followed by 100 zeros: Google.

By the time Hwang landed an unpaid programming gig, Google was already mixing up its logo, a tradition that had started the summer before when founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page inserted a flaming stick figure behind the company logo before packing up a car and heading out to desert arts festival Burning Man. They later asked a few guest artists to design variations of the logo, but when Dennis came aboard rumors of his talents quickly circulated among the staff.

First assignment: fix up the brand for the Fourth of July. Dennis drew fireworks coming out of the center “o” and placed three Founding Fathers to the right of the logo. “They were using clip art at the time so I thought, Fair enough, it’s within my league,” says Hwang.

He impressed his bosses so much that they not only gave him a programming job with salary and benefits, but custody of the Google doodles. “At first I didn’t quite have a clear understanding of the scope of these images. Even now, it really hasn’t hit me how many people see them.”

Five years later, Hwang is still pumping out new marks every week or two, generating ideas from Google doodle meetings (four a year), and from Google users suggestions (via email, of course). Though the doodles only make up 20 percent of his job — his official title is Webmaster and involves prodigious amounts of coding as well as managing a team of programmers, — the 27-year-old Hwang has learned that people take his doodles very personally.

Last June, for example, he created a logo for Bloomsday, the celebration of the work of James Joyce that’s based on events from his novel Ulysses (Hwang placed the author’s bespectacled face in the “G” and a tiny book to the right of the logo). That day he received dozens of emails from literary scholars telling him how much they appreciated his doodle. But one irate scholar wrote in to complain that Dennis had gotten it all wrong: the original version of Ulysses had a blue cover and the logo had erroneously featured a book with a yellow color. (He was not moved to change his Joycian vision.)

And then there are the librarians. On National Library Week in 2005, Hwang placed an open book where the two “o’s” should have been, and librarians from all over the country went nuts, sending him hundreds of flattering notes. A professional librarian organization has since sent him fan mail in the form of cards and a Librarian action figure with “amazing push-button shushing action.”

Although Hwang says he never expected his doodling to draw so much attention, he enjoys the reality of millions of eyeballs seeing his artwork. “I usually don’t tell people unless they ask me what I do,” he says. “And people don’t exactly recognize me on the street.”

He will admit it’s a real conversation starter at parties. “But,” he says, “I don’t use it to get dates.”

All in! The Rise of User-Generated Media

Monday, March 13th, 2006

The New York Times reports on the rise of user-generated media. What follows the avalanche of amateur content? The need for good editors. That’s what we want SMITH to do: open up the floodgates to a world of smart and hungry creators, all the while having editors sort through, filter, and work with our community of readers to help you tell the stories of your lives. Along the way, we want to work with you as we show the world that the line between the professional and the amateur is merging more and more each moment.

Wiki Prankster: “My Bad”

Monday, March 13th, 2006

So says the guy behind the fake Wikipedia entry which claimed that Nashville, TN journalist John Seigenthaler was involved in the Kennedy assassinations, turning that man’s life upside down and spurring an international debate about Wiki’s reliability. Turns out the prankster was just trying to mess with co-worker of his at a Nashville delivery company, not mess with Seigenthaler’s life. The BBC reports on the apology here.
Earlier: The Cult of the Amateur Rules As Wikipedia turns 5

Look, Ma - No Hands!

Sunday, March 12th, 2006

I’ve been doing some research for a new top-secret project for SMITH today (I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you), and part of that research has involved surfing around YouTube. It was while surfing YouTube that I found what is perhaps the craziest thing I’ve ever seen: a video of two men playing Pong in Berlin.

I know, I know, that doesn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary, but here’s the cool thing - they’re doing it with their BRAINS. No hands, no joysticks, no mice, just a couple fancy electrodes. Amazing. Watch it or regret it for the rest of your life.

Dial M for Mr. O’Reilly

Friday, March 10th, 2006

Ask just about any political blogger and they’ll tell you: one of the great things about blogs is it allows the average Joe to call politicians and the press out when they deserve it. But here’s one site that actually takes that ability literally: Calling All Wingnuts. A bunch of liberals have banded together to call conservative talk-show hosts and make sure their own talking points get heard. It was certainly possible to do this before the Internet, of course, but they’ve used the site to make coordination easier, and, even better, to post the oftentimes quite entertaining results of their efforts.

The site’s gotten some extra-special attention recently, after one caller to Bill O’Reilly’s radio show was dropped from the air for mentioning O’Reilly rival Keith Olbermann’s name on the air. O’Reilly then threatened to have Fox security get involved, and bring in local authorities as well: turns out that’s just what he did, as several callers from the site have reported hearing from Fox security.

I know I’m entertained, but then, I’ve always enjoyed seeing Bill O’Reilly go off the deep end. Liberal or conservative, though, the site’s worth checking out if only to see what a small group of people can do with time, energy and just a little bandwith.