Sunday, September 30, 2007

Toddler Rape Tape: What if Madison were black?

UPDATE on "Little girl is found, safe"

Before she was old enough for kindergarten, Madison was raped. Her rapist videotaped everything. And when police got the tape, they asked America to help them identify the 3-year-old girl and her sleazy rapist. Millions tuned in,read the stories and clicked on blogs. Thanks in part to media outlets showing her sweet little face -- and her rapist's -- she was identified and her likely assailant is being hunted at this moment.

But a question more sordid than child-rape is already popping up around the edges of the Internet: Would reporters have cared if Madison were black?

Mediaphobic bloggers and other assorted paranoids have squawked and groused endlessly about the so-called "missing white woman syndrome." They believe mainstream journalists only care when the victim of foul play is a pretty white woman (or a cute little white girl.) They think that black, Hispanic and Asian women who go mising get less coverage because of insidious prejudice. The media doesn't care, these fractious folks say, about minority women.

Hogwash. Piffle. Bullshit. Get a lithium refill.

Last week, you couldn't avoid hearing the story of Nailah Franklin, a Chicago pharmaceutical saleswoman who went missing and whose murdered corpse was found Thursday. She was black ... and she was all over the news.

The story of Madison and her videotaping rapist wasn't splashed on the evening news because Madison is a cute little white girl. It's because the facts in this case -- so far -- were extraordinary. It wouldn't have mattered if Madison were black, green, purple or multi-colored ... whether she came from the 'hood, Beverly Hills or Oz ... her story gripped us because of its raw grotesquerie. Would you feel any less sympathy for here -- or would your anger about her rapist be less than white-hot -- if she had been a little black girl? Would you have preferred the news media decline to tell her story because we had already met our month's quota of "white children in peril" stories?

But not every "white woman or child in peril" story makes the front page of the NY Times or prime-time CNN, so immediately a viewer/reader must ask what makes these cases special? I propose, modestly, it's not color but the uniqueness of the case. The more mystery and intrigue, the higher the news value.

As the managing editor of a mid-sized daily newspaper, I assure readers that the color of the victim is of absolutely no importance to news decisions, except in crimes where race is central ... I'm more interested in the extraordinary circumstances. The 10th fatal mugging at a midnight subway platform by a gangster is less intriguing than the discovery of a grandmother's corpse in a public park and the realization that her 4 grandchildren are now missing. Which would you put on the front page?

And who among us is not intrigued by Madison's story? Was it because she is white ... or because of the facts of the case as we know them? When I blogged on this subject recently at true-crime uber-blog, In Cold Blog, the response was generally dismissive. No amount of logic or facts can sway a myth.

And here's a twist you won't hear about: Men also get "ignored" generally in such cases. FBI statistics show men are more likely than women to be reported as missing, and that blacks make up a disproportionately large segment of the victims. On May 1. 2005, there were 25,389 men in the FBI's database of active missing persons cases, and 22,200 cases of women. Blacks accounted for 13,860 cases, vs. 29,383 whites. (USA Today, 6/15/05)

Should men rise up and demand equal attention from Nancy Grace or Greta van Susteren? No. When a fascinating case of a missing man comes along, rest assured it will make the news, too.

Facts have no moral quality, only what we project upon them.

Crime news is like a cultural ink-blot test, in which society looks at a set of insensate, numb facts and projects its own history, fears, impatience, insolence, clemency, insecurities, dreams -- and nightmares -- upon those facts.

In theory, we are not really describing the ink blots, but something inside ourselves. And what's inside is every fairy-tale monster: A brutal ogre, a bloodthirsty werewolf, an elegant vampire, a bullying giant, a scheming devil, a predatory wolf, a sneering troll, or maybe just an abusive step-mother.

The archetypes of our fears have trickled into every heart. And when a crime captures the public's imagination before a trial, the great majority of citizens are already projecting the monsters of our collective mythology onto the suspects.

And that's a bigger part of choosing the stories on the front page than the color of the victims.

And if you would have skipped Madison's story in favor of anything else, check your pulse. You probably don't have one.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Toddler Rape Tape: Little girl is found, safe

UPDATE on "Have cops found their man?"

"Madison" -- the little girl who was raped by a pedophile on a videotape -- has been found and is safe (or as safe as a young rape victim can be) but her rapist remains at large, police say.

Madison is now 7. The horrendous video was made four years ago.

Her suspected pedophile/rapist, Chester Arthur Stiles, knew her family. Now 37, he worked as an animal trainer for Siegfried and Roy in Las Vegas. He is described as a "survivalist type" who is almost always armed ... unless he's making videos with toddlers.

If you see Stiles (pictured above), contact the Nye County (Nevada) Sheriff's Office or email the detectives working the case at

Friday, September 28, 2007

Toddler Rape Tape: Have cops found their 'man'?

UPDATE on "Do you know this child..."

Nye County (Nevada) deputies have named Chester Arthur Stiles, 34, as a "person of interest" in their investigation of a rape tape that shows a man having sex with an unknown toddler. Stiles hasn't yet been arrested because cops don't know where he is.

Stiles was already wanted on unrelated state and federal warrants on charges of sexual assault and lewdness with a minor under 14.

Is he the same guy? A recent mug shot appears above, and a screen-grab from the salacious video is at right. You can judge.

Your Own Private War Room: World Incident Map

Ever wonder what it's like to sit in a Pentagon war room? Do you sometime wish you could zoom in from a satellite and watch a riot from a safe, bird's-eye view? Well, now you needn't be a full-bird colonel or even a bird to get an instant view of all terrorist and suspicious activity in the world.

Just visit this Global Incident Map and pick your poison. The map refreshes every 460 seconds (about every 7.5 minutes) and lets you zoom into areas to get a closer look at what's happening. From bus fires to airline intrusions, it all seems to be there in blinking icons you can investigate more closely in satellite images.

The map was created to give the public, police, military and governments "a new way to visualize and become instantly aware of" terrorism and suspicious incidents around the world. Unfortunately, it still requires human data input, which means errors, delays and bad choices are to be expected occasionally. It's not certain if this almost-realtime view will actually help thwart future terror attacks, but it certainly gives us a sobering worldview moment-by-moment.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

No Immigrant Left Behind: A new test

A new naturalization test hasn't yet been unveiled but the grumbling has begun that it might require new immigrants to know more about history and government than born-and-bred Americans.

Frankly, that wouldn't be hard. Americans are grossly ignorant of how their government works, their history, and even our symbolism. Can you name Texas' two senators? Do you know who won the battle of Gettysburg? From whom did America declare independence -- and when?

Look around. At least half of the people you see can't answer those questions, despite years of history classes. Even Miss South Carolina now knows 1-in-5 Americans can't find the USA on a map. We're civics boobs.

The new tests seeks to bolster immigrants' assimilation by stressing the basics of American democracy, history, and citizenship rights and responsibilities ... not just ask the three colors of the American flag. That's good ... even if some folks would prefer an easier, "No Immigrant Left Behind" approach.

The problem is NOT that we might require immigrants to know more than lifelong Americans. The problem is that Americans don't know more than most immigrants! We shouldn't strive to "dumb down" our naturalization test, but we should strive to make already-here Americans smarter about our country. And maybe we could trade our flunkers to Nigeria for some future draft picks.

By clicking "Read More," you can see the 142 pilot questions used to refine the new test. Most of these questions will appear on the revamped naturalization test. Print them out and see if you and your family can answer at least 110 correctly. (If you can't ... well, I hear Nigeria is very nice this time of year.)

1. Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence.

2. What is the supreme law of the land?

3. What does the Constitution do?

4. What does “We the People” mean in the Constitution?

5. What do we call changes to the Constitution?

6. What is an amendment?

7. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?

8. Name one right or freedom from the First Amendment. *

9. How many amendments does the Constitution have?

10. What did the Declaration of Independence do?

11. What does freedom of religion mean?

12. What type of economic system does the U.S. have?

13. What are the three branches or parts of the government?

14. Name one branch or part of the government.

15. Who is in charge of the executive branch?

16. Who makes federal laws?

17. What are the two parts of the United States Congress?

18. How many United States Senators are there?

19. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years? *

20. Name your state’s two U.S. Senators. *

21. How many U.S. Senators does each state have?

22. The House of Representatives has how many voting members? *

23. We elect a U.S. Representative for how many years?

24. Name your U.S. Representative.

25. Who does a U.S. Senator represent?

26. Who does a U.S. Representative represent?

27. What decides each state’s number of U.S. Representatives?

28. How is each state’s number of Representatives decided?

29. Why do we have three branches of government? *

30. Name one example of checks and balances.

31. We elect a President for how many years?

32. How old must a President be?

33. To become President of the United States, what must the person be at birth?

34. Who is the President now?

35. What is the name of the President of the United States?

36. Who is the Vice President now?

37. What is the name of the Vice President of the United States?

38. If the President can no longer serve, who becomes President?

39. Who becomes President if both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve?

40. Who is the Commander-in-Chief of the military?

41. How many full terms can a President serve?

42. Who signs bills to become laws?

43. Who vetoes bills?

44. What is a veto?

45. What does the President’s Cabinet do? *

46. Name two Cabinet-level positions.

47. What Cabinet-level agency advises the President on foreign policy?

48. What does the judicial branch do? *

49. Who confirms Supreme Court justices?

50. Who is the Chief Justice of the United States?

51. How many justices are on the Supreme Court?

52. Who nominates justices to the Supreme Court?

53. Name one thing only the federal government can do.

54. What is one thing a state government can do?

55. What does it mean that the U.S. Constitution is a constitution of limited powers?

56. Who is the Governor of your state?

57. What is the capital (or capital city) of your state?

58. What are the two major political parties in the U.S. today?

59. What is the highest court in the U.S.?

60. What is the majority political party in the House of Representatives now? *

61. What is the political party of the majority in the Senate now?

62. What is the political party of the President now?

63. Who is the Speaker of the House of Representatives now?

64. Who is the Senate Majority Leader now? *

65. In what month are general presidential elections held in the United States?

66. When must all males register for the Selective Service?

67. Who is the Secretary of State now?

68. Who is the Attorney General now?

69. Is the current President in his first or second term? *

70. What is self-government?

71. Who governs the people in a self-governed country?

72. What is the “rule of law”?

73. What are “inalienable rights”?

74. There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.

75. Name one responsibility that is only for United States citizens.

76. Name two rights that are only for United States citizens.

77. Name two rights of everyone living in the U.S.

78. What is the Pledge of Allegiance?

79. Name one promise you make when you say the Oath of Allegiance.

80. Who can vote in the U.S. presidential elections?

81. Name two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy.

82. When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?

83. Name two of the natural, or inalienable, rights in the Declaration of Independence.

84. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

85. When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?

86. Name one reason why the colonists came to America?

87. What happened at the Constitutional Convention? *

88. Why did the colonists fight the British?

89. When was the Constitution drafted?

90. There are 13 original states. Name three.

91. What group of people was taken to America and sold as slaves?

92. Who lived in America before the Europeans arrived?

93. Where did most of America’s colonists come from before the Revolution? *

94. Why were the colonists upset with the British government?

95. Name one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for.

96. Who is called the “Father of Our Country”?

97. Who was the first President?

98. Name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers? *

99. What group of essays supported passage of the U.S. Constitution?
100. Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s. *

101. What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?

102. What country sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States?

103. In 1803, the United States bought a large amount of land from France. Where was that land?

104. Name one of the things that Abraham Lincoln did.

105. Name the U.S. war between the North and the South. *

106. Name one problem that led to the Civil War.

107. What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

108. What did the abolitionists try to end before the Civil War?

109. What did Susan B. Anthony do?

110. Name one war fought by the United States in the 1900s.

111. Who was President during World War I?

112. The United States fought Japan, Germany, and Italy during which war?

113. What was the main concern of the United States during the Cold War?

114. What major event happened on September 11, 2001, in the United States?

115. What international organization was established after World War II (WWII) to keep the world at peace?

116. What alliance of North America and European countries was created during the Cold War?

117. Who was President during the Great Depression and World War II? *

118. Which U.S. World War II general later became President?

119. What did Martin Luther King, Jr. do?

120. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream for America. What was his dream?

121. What movement tried to end racial discrimination?

122. Name one of the major American Indian tribes in the United States.

123. Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.

124. What ocean is on the west coast of the United States?

125. What country is on the northern border of the United States?

126. Where is the Grand Canyon?

127. Where is the Statue of Liberty?

128. What country is on the southern border of the United States?

129. Name one large mountain range in the United States.

130. What is the tallest mountain in the United States?

131. Name one U.S. territory.

132. Name the state that is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

133. Name one state that borders Canada. *

134. Name one state that borders on Mexico.

135. What is the capital of the U.S.?

136. Why does the flag have 13 stripes?

137. Why do we have 13 stripes on the flag? *

138. Why does the flag have 50 stars?

139. What is the name of the National Anthem?

140. On the Fourth of July we celebrate independence from what country?

141. When do we celebrate Independence Day?

142. Name two national U.S. holidays.

Do you know this child ... or this pedophile?

This little girl is one of two children seen in a porn tape, but Nevada police don't know who -- or where -- they are. They hope somebody will recognize her and they'll catch the molester who was videotaped performing sex acts with them. Do you know her? If not, maybe you know the slime who's molesting them. He appears below ...

If either of these photos looks familiar, contact the Nye County (Nevada) Sheriff's Office or email the detectives working the case at

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Taser This: The editor stumbles

Last week, David McSwane, the editor of Colorado State University's campus paper, published an unusually concise -- if illogical and impenetrable -- column on his editorial page. It said, very simply:
"Taser this: Fuck Bush"

He was apparently referring to the Tasering of a college student who had disrupted a John Kerry speech earlier in the week, but it's not real clear what George Bush had to do with it ... or why this kid felt a profane need to belch out his clearly immature politics. But kids will be kids, eh?

McSwane has certainly cost his newspaper a lot of money and his "publisher" (Colorado State University) some great embarrassment for the simple reason that he couldn't control himself. His Tourette-like mini-spew isn't just foul, it doesn't make sense. But free speech is funny that way: One needn't be coherent to speak freely.

I defend McSwane's right to say it. I also defend his publisher's right to fire him for misusing his rights and his position as a gatekeeper. That's another funny thing about free speech.

McSwane is just a potty-mouthed kid who apparently can't form a logical, rational argument for or against whatever he's for or against. His thought processes are crippled. He's a heckler, not an orator. He's thinking of himself, not his readers.

Would I hire him in my newsroom? Not a chance. Not because he's an inarticulate freak. Not because his vocabulary seems woefully limited. Not because he's apparently incapable of original thought. Not because he prefers to stand at the back of the crowd and shout profanity instead of leading a crowd to a positive conclusion. Not because he's heckling Bush (I'd feel the same if it was Hillary or Obama.) Not because he showed disrespect for his publisher and his community. Not because he can't seem to surrender his knee-jerk politics to the greater purpose of writing wisdom.

But because he seems to have no ability to step back from his narcissism and say something that's worth the price of ink and dead trees. This masturbatory little punk put himself first, not his readers.

Good luck, kid, in pizza delivery because you suck as a newspaperman.

Quote of the Day: Love, doggie style

"And when you love an animal, mouth-to-snout resuscitation doesn't seem so strange."

Read the whole sordid tale here.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Evil Has Landed: Ahmadinejad in the Big Apple

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in the middle of two question-and-answer sessions in New York City today ... and protesters are out in force. That's a good sign.

You know our immigration rules are out of whack when we let a confirmed enemy of America take a working vacation in the Big Apple, but let's not get too excited: A country that doesn't embrace free speech -- even when it's coming from a smelly turd like Ahmadinejad -- is an insecure country. He won't say anything that truly damages us ... and we can take a certain amount of pride in the fact that we have offered that Muslim Nazi a soapbox he'd never offer us.

Speaking of free speech .... after so many newsreels of Iranian hotheads burning U.S. flags and hollering "Death to America!" I hope someone had the presence of mind to burn an Iranian flag.

UPDATE 1:35 P.M. -- President Ahmadinejad got a lesson in free speech today, and saw that truly free speech isn't the one-sided exercise he enjoys in Iran.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger excoriated Ahmadinejad in his introduction. "Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," Bollinger said. He also lambasted Iran's "brutal crackdown" on dissidents, public executions, executions of minors and other actions, CNN reported, and assailed Ahmadinejad's "denying" of the Holocaust as "ridiculous" and "dangerous propaganda." CNN said Bollinger called Ahmadinejad either brazenly provocative "or astonishingly uneducated."

When Amadinejad took the podium, he said Bollinger's introduction included "insults" and falsities, and flew in the face of an environment that's supposed to let people speak their minds.

Translation: The Iranian blowhard thought he was the only person in the room who could speak his mind.

Headlines You Missed ...

You might have overlooked these stories amid all that weekend piffle about Iraq, crime and racism in Louisiana:

{ ______________ } Uber-mime Marcel Marceau dies
Is Hannah Montana Pregnanna? Teen mag says it's so
Murder Most Fowl: Dumbass decapitates duck
There's No Good Way to Go, But ... : Worker falls into vat of sulfuric acid
Can You Hear Me Now? $30 million prize offered for first phone call from the Moon
Made in China? Cancer-awareness bracelets recalled for lead content
Right to Life ... Sorta: Was Pope John Paul II euthanized?
Y'all Must Be Fixin' To Secede: Southern drawl is spreading
Wrigley Fields is Born: These Cubs fans might be a little too fanatical

Friday, September 21, 2007

Hit Me: 100K for your thoughts

A little later this afternoon, Under The News will achieve 100,000 hits -- a milestone that was rather inconceivable when I first posted here two years ago.

VISITOR NO. 100,000 IS:
(on a State of Florida server)
Who clicked onto Under The News at 12:33:29
after Googling "free true crime book reading on internet"

Since Sept. 6, 2005, I've blogged through two hurricanes, a couple great adventures, a few wars (from the safe distance of my newsroom), dozens of quirky headlines, and a couple hundred stupid-human tricks. On average, sombody has logged into Under The News every 10 minutes since the beginning, and they've come from all over the world (The other day, somebody in Tehran Googled "ron franscell" and found my blog!)

Best of all, I've gotten a chance to "meet" some very smart and articulate fellow bloggers whose screen-names I always love seeing -- and some who weren't so smart or articulate. (Chance, SingingSkies, CleaningLady, Ivy, Jill, Rita ... you're all among the former.)

Thanks for dropping by! Please do it often ... so we needn't wait for two years to get to 200,000!

The Seven Dwarfs of Menopause

* Thanks to my pseudo-misogynistic redneck cheesehead buddy

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The content of his character

... or the color of his skin?

This racism thing confuses me. It seems like every time I think I've got it figured out, they change the rules. I'm trying really hard to be a color-blind white guy, but I keep getting rear-ended by the fact that some people of color are anything but color-blind.

Don Imus (who is white) calls some college girls '"ho's" and loses his job ... the NBA's Isiah Thomas (who is black) calls a female team executive a "ho" and it barely gets noticed. Then Thomas says he winces when white guys use the word "bitch" but it's OK when black guys do it.

Now Rev. Jesse Jackson says presidential candidate Barack Obama (who is black) is "acting like he's white." What the hell is that supposed to mean? What stereotypical white behavior is the founder of the so-called Rainbow Coalition referring to so dismissively? And if a white power-broker accused a white candidate of "acting like he's black," wouldn't Jesse Jackson (and his buddy Al Sharpton) be in the front row of the lynch mob calling for his disembowelment?

I'm so confused.

The double standard on racism is weighing us down. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, yet his most intimate followers -- including Jesse Jackson -- seem more obsessed with the color of a man's skin than the content of his character. If Jesse Jackson (and many, many other black leaders) cannot live up to King's standard, can they truly expect other races to do it?

The current Jena 6 controversy in Louisiana is an example of harvesting what we have sown. There, six black teens are charged with beating a white classmate. Supporters says the beating was a response to three nooses hung in a tree three months before (the white students responsible were suspended from school, but no criminal charges were filed.) At bottom, it's a complex case where two sides -- black and white -- are justifying criminal behavior in their own interest. Jesse Jackson (there he is again!) is in Jena to support the black assailants, even though his own mentor advocated civil disobedience and non-violence as a response to racism.

Many of us -- me included -- truly dream of a color-blind world. Among my friends and co-workers of color, I would much rather be judged by my character than the color of my skin. It cannot be a judgment of convenience, where color is more important than charcater some times but not others. Color matters or it doesn't. And it can't be only a white expectation.
If our goal is a color-blind society, we can reasonably expect blacks, Hispanics and all other people of color to join in the movement. We cannot go down this path alone.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Just an idle question ...

If O.J. Simpson doesn't have any money to pay his civil judgment to the Brown and Goldman families ... who paid O.J.'s bail?

See the SciGuy: You'll wish you were a geek

If you're a geek and especially if you're not, Eric Berger's SciGuy is one of the best blogs for your money. Based in Houston -- home of NASA -- Eric boils down difficult concepts into clear, easy-to-grasp postings that explain exactly what it means to you. If you have a question about space travel, meteorology, scientists' pay, or anything else, you'll likely find the most accessible information at SciGuy.

Eric Berger's 'possibilities' model at

When hurricanes loom at the edge of the Gulf, Eric is usually Johnny-on-the-Spot with his analysis of weather conditions, so he's become our go-to guy as we look out across the cyber-seas at potentially threatening storms.

So it is today. A disorganized low lurks off the eastern coast of Florida, with a good chance it will cross the peninsula and enter the Gulf of Mexico. There, it could gain power and size from the warm water and rake across the Gulf Coast as a tropical storm or hurricane. Where? Well, that's anyone's guess.

But Eric's guess is educated. His map of "possibilities" (appearing above) shows a direct hit on Southeast Texas -- specifically Sabine Pass, the landfall of 2005's Hurricane Rita. So we're among the potential landfalls if this sloppy storm develops into something to which we must give a name.

If it does, watch the SciGuy.

Headline AND Graf of the Week

A two-fer! Cruising the newspapers of the world for you pays dividends! You wouldn't believe the stuff out there!

First, this headline from

"Man says wild sex caused SUV accident"

And then this amazingly tantalizing paragraph from the Tasmanian Mercury:

"Crown prosecutor Julie Aylward told the court pornographic magazines and clothes were strewn around the room, and that a makeshift sex aid constructed from a Toilet Duck bottle, a piece of wood and a latex glove had also been left behind. The woman's vacuum cleaner had also been left in the bathroom."

Disclaimer: We don't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

O.J.? No way!

O.J. Simpson, the ex-NFL star who has so far eluded justice the way he eluded tacklers, has been formally charged with a slew of felonies in last weekend's alleged armed robbery in Las Vegas, including kidnapping and robbery. That's good.

But I think his O.J.-ness colors this whole case. Think of it this way:

If Ray Romano's home had been pillaged by one of his trusted aides, and Ray burst in with the entire (armed) cast of "Everybody Loves Raymond," would we be so secretly delighted that Ray was in trouble ... or would we be slightly more generous with a good, innocent guy who was merely taking back what was rightfully his? I think we'd suspend judgment a while, and be seeing far more defenders if it was Ray. But it's O.J. and everybody hates O.J. (Me, too.)

I think we all hope this is a second chance for the justice system to smack O.J. around. Much like the Isiah Thomas sex-harrassment case is now showing, the well-managed luster of these stars fades fast when they happily outgrow their own press image and believe they are bullet-proof. I wouldn't lose any sleep if O.J. went up the river for a while.

For the record, I hope the Goldman and Brown families get all those valuable mementoes. I hope O.J. finally pays a little of his enormous debt to society. I hope you didn't buy that "If I Did It" book. And I hope Ray Romano keeps his mouth shut.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Buck fever: How to shoot your own foot

Last Friday on the airport parking shuttle, I overheard a conversation between two hunters flying to exotic big-game hunts out West. They had just met (they were both carrying camouflage luggage.) Their conversation went something like this:

"Where you headed?" the man I'll call Hunter Bob asks.

"South Dakota, antelope," says Hunter Dick. "My son and I have gone on a big hunt every year for the past six years. It's a great time."

"Is your son here?"

"No. Unfortunately, he had to stay home this year."

"That's too bad," says Bob. "School?"

"No," says Dick, sounding a little disgusted. "My wife is making him go to my brother-in-law's funeral."

Oh man. Talk about buck fever.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hurricane Humberto:
It was a dark and stormy night

Madena Picard blocks off a flooded underpass in Vidor, Texas, this morning
(Beaumont Enterprise / Tammy McKinley)

Humberto was a hurricane, sure, but as hurricanes go, he was definitely on the "wet-willie" end of the spectrum.

Tragically, an 83-year-old Bridge City man was killed when his carport collapsed on him near the tail-end of the storm, but other reports of damage are modest. We have some damaged homes and businesses, schools are closed, some trees have been "pruned," and some streets and highways remain waterlogged this morning.

Humberto is gone now. He's somewhere over Louisiana, past middle-age and eroding rapidly. He only has a couple days to live and he's frittering away. Good riddance.

I didn't sleep much last night, but why sleep through a big story? Besides, the drip-drip-drip of water on the top of my car through the parking-garage roof was worse than torture. This time, our Newsroom held up against Nature and the staff gained some valuable experience in preparation and reaction time. If you're gonna get rocked by a hurricane, this is the kind of hurricane you want.

In 11 days, we'll mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Rita, whose marks here were more indelible. But Humberto reminds us of the vulnerability of the Gulf Coast and the need to be prepared on a day's notice. And he made his point loud and clear: Believing the odds of getting hit twice are astronomically slim is a fool's bet.

Humberto: A night under the storm

The Enterprise newsroom, under wraps for Humberto

I decided to spend the night in the newsroom, waiting for Humberto. Not because I expect catastrophe, but because the predicted rainfall makes flooding likely between my home and our newspaper ... and flooding would make it hard to do the serious work of covering this storm.

The last advisory from the National Hurricane Center said Humberto was getting angry, gathering steam less than 50 miles off our coast. His winds had swollen to 65 mph and would get stronger, they predicted. In fact, when he makes landfall only a few miles from where Rita hit in 2005, Humberto would be roaring at near hurricane strength. Had Humberto enjoyed a running headstart at us, he might have been a real bruiser.

The last news deadline passed and we unfurled blue tarps -- God, it looks like FEMA exploded in the newsroom -- to protect computers from any roof leaks that might spring under 5 to 15 inches of rain and near-hurricane force winds. We don't think the roof will fail ... but we watched it cave in two years ago and those images are hard to shake. Yeah, paradox runs thick right now. We remain confident that Humberto will not scrape across us like Rita, but he might bring some of his own wickedness to town and we are reluctant to be too sanguine about a mere "tropical storm."

A few minutes ago, I walked out onto the parking garage's roof under light rain and a gentle breeze. The night sky was the color of bruised salmon as refinery lights reflected off low clouds that scuttled eastward like slow-freight trains passing a bum. The next few hours should swell to a frenzy of water and wind. Tomorrow might be a difficult commute for everyone, but we'll know more by dawn. And if we're lucky, Humberto will rush off to die an unceremonious death in Mississippi.

More as the night unfolds .....

UPDATE 12:15 A.M. -- Humberto is now officially a hurricane. A buoy in the Gulf recorded sustained winds at 74 mph -- just one mile-per-hour above the minimum speed for a hurricane. So suddenly, Southeast Texas will absorb its second hurricane in two years, a rather ignominious distinction. Oh well, I hope we act like we've been here before, and not as if this is our first trip to the freak show.

Humberto will hit within the next 1-2 hours. A Weather Channel reporter on Crystal Beach remarked a few minutes ago that an unusual number of frogs were scattered all over the sand there. My first thought was, "Brave amphibians." But then it occurred to me that if you're an amphibian, maybe you needn't be brave in the face of a hurricane. Go figure.

I'm going to sleep in my car in the newspaper's parking garage tonight. Maybe in a few hours I'll wander down to the street for a ringside seat on another thriller. Might as well look it square in the eye.

See you in a few hours ....

UPDATE 2:50 AM -- About 40 miles from where I sit right now, Hurricane Humberto has made landfall in a Category-One churn of 80 mph winds and presumably some unlucky frogs. The thrum of driving rain and modest winds here make sleeping in the echo-y parking garage almost as difficult as sleeping below the flight deck on the USS Enterprise during the round-the-clock bombing of Afghanistan ... a bunk where I never got a good night's sleep. But more than the echoes, the occasional, ever-so-slight jarring of my Subaru made it even more restless.

And this is just Humberto's overture. The serious wind and rain is still a few hours away, even though the storm has likely begun to dissipate as it crosses the energy-draining land. Most people are sleeping through this part of the storm. Let's hope Humberto rolls into town on wobbly legs, more spent than energized.

UPDATE 5:30 AM -- Our power has been out for a couple hours. I hooked up my laptop on battery power to a secure landline. We have had reporters and photographers in the field all night and I know they're OK because they're posting to our website. A fresh, new wave of reporters will start arriving soon. The sun will rise and Humberto will keep running east until he's out of steam.

Tonight, I stood in the doorway of our Main Street parking garage and watched Humberto rage ... just as I watched Rita two years ago. Humberto lacks her guttural growl, her raw fury, her intensity, her sadism. He's a rookie hurricane, without the seasoning that a week in the Gulf offers. For the moment, it seems that all he had in him was a power outage and some flooded streets ... but we'll know much, much more when the sunlight can pierce Humberto's thick, gray poncho. And a lot of people will awaken to the remnants of this storm and later, they'll tell all their friends that they slept through a hurricane.

Book it to Wyoming: Go West (this weekend), young man

If you yearn to sleep under the big sky (bigger than Montana's) and to meet some of the West's best authors, saddle up and mosey to the Wyoming Book Festival in Cheyenne this weekend.

Despite a literary history that includes such names as Ernest Hemingway, Owen Wister, Annie Proulx and Mary O'Hara, Wyoming has never truly celebrated its authors -- big or small -- until now. The first Wyoming Book festival will bring together most of the state's contemporary writers in an ambitious venue that spans from the State Capitol grounds to the historic downtown Plains Hotel. There'll be signings, panel discussions, informal talks, Q&As, maybe even a chance to take your favorite Wyoming writer to coffee (I prefer the chai latte, please.)

Who'll be there? Oh, only best-sellers C.J. Box, Michael and Kathleen Gear, Margaret Coel, Craig Johnson, Kyle Mills and National Book Award finalist Harvey Hix. But you'll also get a chance to "discover" some great writers you've never seen on B&N's best-seller list: Page Lambert, Julianne Couch, Tim Sandlin, Tina Ann Forkner, C.L. Rawlins, and Geoff O'Gara, among many others. (Want to know more about these authors right now? Go to the Wyoming Authors Wiki.)

I'll be signing my latest book, "FALL," at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in front of the Wyoming State Library. Then I'll join several other writers in a one-hour panel discussion about true-crime writing at Noon Saturday in the Plains Hotel. And finally, I'll follow mystery blockbusters Box and Johnson at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the Mystery & Crime Tent on the Capitol Grounds.

The Wyoming Book Festival is free, so y'all come!

(On Monday, you may also join a conversation I'll have with law students about justice and journalism at noon at the University of Wyoming's College of Law in Laramie, a short jaunt from Cheyenne. It's also free, but there's a dress code: You have to bring your thinking cap.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

TS Humberto: Battening the hatches

Tropical Depression Nine popped up unexpectedly this morning just off the Texas coast, and within hours brewed itself into strong Tropical Storm Humberto. Humberto is expected to make landfall somewhere between Galveston and Port Arthur in the wee hours Thursday morning. (The tiny red box in the photo above denotes the approximate location of my desk in Beaumont.)

Just 12 days short of the second anniversary of Hurricane Rita, there's more trepidation in Southeast Texas air, but a tropical storm only a couple hundred miles off the coast is unlikely to roil into a full-fledged Category 3 hurricane. While Rita raked across the landscape with 130-mph winds and falling trees caused much of the damage, Humberto is more likely to cause severe flooding, with 5 to 10 inches of rain expected (15 inches in some isolated areas.) Different storm, different threat.

Nobody's evacuating. Nobody's stocking up on food and water. Nobody's nailing plywood to their windows. But that doesn't mean there isn't some adrenaline flowing in Southeast Texans' veins right now. After all, we learned one thing from Her Terribleness Rita: Don't underestimate a storm.

Extra, Extra! Toe-sucking bandit gets socked!

Note to readers: This is a real police mugshot.

Police have arrested Carlton Davis, 26, of St. Paul, Minn., on felony charges that he snatched a cell phone and purse from a woman he mugged early Saturday. The police report says the woman handed over her stuff, only to be told by her mugger, "Now I'm going to suck your feet."

The woman took off her shoes and the mugger kept his promise. He ran away when somebody came by and cops nabbed him a few blocks away.

Looking at this mugshot, one must think: That sucks.

UPDATE: Kevin Everett not paralyzed

The news from Buffalo is very good this morning: Kevin Everett voluntarily moved his arms and legs yesterday when being brought back from sedation.

"'Based on our experience, the fact that he's moving so well, so early after such a catastrophic injury means he will walk again,' said Dr. Barth Green, chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Miami school of medicine. 'It's totally spectacular, totally unexpected,' Green told The Associated Press."

Minor miracle? Evidence of what's medically possible? The power of prayer?

Who cares? The news is good and I can't help but think this development offers hope for a lot of people who never had hope before.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dreams Hurt: The tragedy of Kevin Everett

Kevin Everett is a hometown boy, a graduate of Port Arthur's storied Thomas Jefferson High School. Today, this 25-year-old kid who had the world ahead of him lies still as death in a New York hospital, his spinal cord irreparably damaged by a head-on collision in an NFL game last Sunday. He might never walk again but, incredibly, that's not the worst news. This particular injury leaves him open to more catastrophic -- that's their word for "possibly fatal" -- events like infection or blood clots.

Everett was here in Southeast Texas a few months ago to put on a football camp in Port Arthur, where football might be the only way out of that dismal industrial town for a lot of kids (one being the current University of Texas standout Jamaal Charles.) Everett overcame a lot of handicaps in his young life to become and NFL player and it was going to be his ticket to a dream. About the same age as Falcon's QB Michael Vick without Vick's stardom, he certainly represents the better side of professional athletes: Hard-working, involved and unassuming.

I've been on a few playing fields in my life. Great athletes -- whether Pop Warner League or the NFL -- don't think about getting hurt while they're on the field. Most fear being embarrassed far more than they fear getting hurt. Worrying about injuries is a bus ticket back home to Port Arthur or some other dismal place where you'll forever be known as the guy who had a shot at the Big Time but got hurt. Massive, muscled bodies are thrashing around out there like unguided cannon shells, and stepping two inches to your left can make the difference between a touchdown and a career-ending ACL tear. You think about the touchdown ... not the ACL.

And truth be known, football players play injured most of the time; their injuries would send most average office workers home to bed for 3 or 4 sick days, but they are working with sprained ankles, dislocated fingers, deep bruises all over their bodies, cracked ribs, battered tendons and ligaments holding by only a thread. You simply cannot succeed on a football field by thinking about the injury that could happen at any second in a 3,600-second game.

Kevin Everett wasn't think about snapping his own neck when he collided with a Denver Bronco in Buffalo on Sunday. He was thinking about making the tackle. He was thinking about getting off the special teams squad and playing first-string tight-end. He was thinking he might help his team win this season-opening game. No, he was dreaming. But he wasn't thinking about getting hurt. It's a game. People shouldn't die.

Say a prayer for Kevin Everett. And next time you go to a high school football game, say an extra prayer for every kid out there, because he's not thinking about getting hurt. He's thinking that someday, he might get his shot at a dream, too.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Britney's Belly: Is this really 'fat'?

A lot of oh-so-snippy (and perhaps anorexic) entertainment reporters and bloggers have "weighed in" on Britney Spears' out-of-lip-synced performance at MTV's Video Music Awards last night: They say she's fat (or "plump" or "tubby" or "out of shape" or "hauling some extra pounds.") Here's one review.

I watched Britney's performance on the Internet today and it was truly a bomb (not the good kind.) She couldn't match her lips to the words, danced like a wounded duck, and basically made a fool of herself ... but fat? Folks, take a look at the photo from her performance here ... maybe there's a little more of Britney than before she stopped wearing underwear, but fat?

OK, maybe her mother wears Army boots. Maybe she's a couple sandwiches short of a picnic. Maybe she's wearing a wig. But c'mon ... fat?

Maybe she's fat in Hollywood, the eating disorder capital of the world. But here in the middle of America, where there are plenty of Americans with middles, Britney wouldn't even qualify as "slightly pudgy."

For future reference, all you hyper-stylish adipose critics, THIS is fat. ===>

Habitat for Dogmanity: A woof over their heads

I've spent the past three weekends building a dog house. Or more appropriately, a dog duplex for my two overgrown pups.

Of course, they will only go near it when I put a treat inside. For lounging -- which they do superbly -- they prefer the cool, wet earth under the deck.

This duplex actually fits the two fuzzy lugnuts perfectly, but I purposely made it spacious. I never know when I might have to spend the night on their couch.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Nyet: Mayor bans excuses in his office

Tired of his own bureaucracy, an enterprising mayor has banned his workers from saying things like "I don't know" and "I'm on lunch break." If his workers are caught offering such lame excuses, they can be fired. How refreshing!

Unfortunately, this mayor is in Siberia, not the USA. We could use a little of this kind of reform in American government ... and the cable company ... and the power company ... and the insurance company ... Russia might be way ahead of us on this no-excuses thing.

Alexander Kuzmin, the 33-year-old mayor of Megion in the Khanty-Mansiisk district, has banned these phrases and about 20 more:

It's not my job
It's impossible
I'm having lunch
There is no money
I was away/sick/on vacation
What am I supposed to do?
What can we do?
I'm not dealing with this
The working day is over
Somebody else has the documents

Any worker who disregards the order "will near the moment of their departure," the mayor's warning said.

The mayor also ordered that anyone who gives his bad information will be considered to have done it purposely, and will be fired.

Gosh, how come we don't get immigrants like Kuzmin?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Death and rock: Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be rock stars

"Rock and menopause do not mix."
Stevie Nicks

"Living fast and dying young" isn't just rock 'n' roll marketing: A new study has found that rockers actually die younger than average humans.

The A-List is well-known: Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Cass Elliott, Eddie Cochran, Sam Cooke, Dennis Wilson, Freddy Mercury, Gram Parsons, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Ronnie Van Zandt, Marvin Gaye, Andy Gibb, Brian Jones, Michael Hutchence ... and the list gores tragically on and on. Texas alone has contributed hugely to the death toll with Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (whose casket was exhumed in Beaumont last March, pictured at left), and Dimebag Darrell Abbott.

Researchers at Liverpool's John Moores University found rockers they are more than twice as likely to die a premature death as ordinary people. They sampled 1,064 stars from the rock, punk, rap, R&B, electronic and new age genres in the "All Time Top 1,000" albums published in 2000.

The prematurely-dead rockers' age at death was 42 for North American musicians and 35 for European stars, the study said. So if you are older than 42, you are older than the average dead rock star; if you're younger than 42, there's still time!
The reason for many of those deaths isn't a mystery: Drug or alcohol problems accounted for more than one in four of the deaths. And "rookies" to fame are more likely to croak ... the study found the first few years of fame are the most dangerous, with rockers three times more likely to die than the average person during that time.

The good news is: After 25 years of fame -- think Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger -- the death toll returns to normal.

Having an "artistic personality" probably contributes, too, one psychiatrist says. That pattern holds true in many artistic pursuits. Shelley, Fitzgerald, Poe, Van Gogh ... all died prematurely.

"You could argue that rock stars and pop stars have a sensation-seeking personality, that they have this desire to put themselves in these terrifying situations -- performing in front of a large group of people -- that also makes them vulnerable to dependence on substances, which markedly increases mortality," said Dr. Tim Williams, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction at the University of Bristol

Considering that they also must travel a lot in airplanes (the Nos. 5 and 6 causes of death for rockers), and cannot always pick their friends as carefully as the rest of us (murder caused twice as many rockers' deaths as alcohol), there are many reasons behind the higher body count in rock 'n' roll ... even including a romantic tendency toward suicide and mood swings that generate the highs and lows that lie beneath our greatest songs, books, poetry, paintings and plays.

But given the nature of the creative mind, it's unlikely that human nature will "fix" this tragic reality. The risks required to succeed in art are the same risks that put life in danger ... and eventually make our normal, humdrum lives richer as we experience vicariously what artists intended for us to feel

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The (Weird) View: Whoopi defends Vick

Whoopi Goldberg debuted today on The View and ... following in Rosie O'Donnell's well-chewed footsteps ... she immediately defended dog serial killer Michael Vick.

Goldberg said: "From where he comes from" in the South, dogfighting isn't that unusual. ... It's like cockfighting in Puerto Rico. There are certain things that are indicative to certain parts of the country."

Incredibly, she went on to suggest that Vick wasn't even sure it was wrong.

By defending the admitted felon Vick as merely doing something that folks like him do every day in their rural, Southern culture where “this is not questioned,” she shows her ignorance. By rushing to tell (mostly) white folks that it’s just a black thing, she shows some racism.

Whoopi conveniently overlooks the fact that Vick and his pals went to great lengths to keep things hidden and under wraps. Why? Because they KNEW it was against the law! Dog-fighters KNOW it’s illegal to fight, abuse and kill dogs, as well as to gamble on the fights … which (as Vick and his buddies did) are usually held secretly. Those guys cannot possibly make a defense that they “was just doin’ what we does here in the South.” Whoopi is way out in left field, socially and legally.

In the face of Vick's own admissions (and upcoming prison sentence), it really takes some kind of odd logic to say, "Oh, it's no big deal."