Sunday, December 24, 2006

From today's Seattle Times: Putting an end to homelessness "can be done"


By Sharon Pian Chan, Seattle Times staff reporter

After lunch, Bill Block was crossing Fourth Avenue downtown when someone he knew brushed past.

"Hey, have you ended homelessness yet?" the man asked.

"Yeah, yesterday," Block said.

"Yesterday" is the punch line. But ending homelessness — Block is dead serious about that.

Not shelter it, feed it or clothe it. End it.

An intractable social problem — created by the economy, drug addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, the justice system, lack of health care — can be solved, he says.

That's his job. Until recently, Block was a high-powered attorney — responsible for negotiating some of the city's biggest real-estate deals. He is a former Sonics part owner and adept political player who decided to give up his law-firm partnership to head the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County.

The county has an estimated 8,000 homeless people, and Block is charged with finding a home for all of them.

Homelessness will end, the plan says, when we build a roof over every bed.

"It can be done," Block said. "We see it all over the country."

At its worst, the Ten-Year Plan is a naive campaign that gives false hope to society's most downtrodden and will inevitably end in failure. At its best, it is wildly idealistic and maybe crazy enough to work.

To accomplish its goal, the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, an alliance of government, business and nonprofits, must create 9,500 units of housing. Its members — who include King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels — have given themselves a deadline of 2015.


Friday, December 22, 2006

"Q: Would you give us a peek into the future and reveal the next great Colbert-ism? A: Colbertainment."

Stephen Colbert accepts accolades as one of Entertainment Weekly's "Entertainter of the Year":

"For the first time ever, there's a lot going on in the world. I'm so lucky that this year was the year something happened in the world. Years before, this show wouldn't have worked. The world was just phoning it in."


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Also: Fat Jokes Linked to Douchebaggery

Last year I interviewed someone who views himself as assiduously indie and progressive, so I was surprised when he made fat jokes from the stage after our conversation. (My tip off that he's a bit of a douche should have been when he kept asking about Ben G., as if I would tell one interview subject stories about another interview subject. Of course, I don't.)

It's always struck me as obvious that obesity, like most major health problems, is complex in its origins. Research continues to bear this out. From the Associated Press:

Bacteria May Contribute to Obesity

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The size of your gut may be partly shaped by which microbes call it home, according to new research linking obesity to types of digestive bacteria.

Both obese mice -- and people -- had more of one type of bacteria and less of another kind, according to two studies published Thursday in the journal Nature.

A "microbial component" appears to contribute to obesity, said study lead author Jeffrey Gordon, director of Washington University's Center for Genome Sciences.

Obese humans and mice had a lower percentage of a family of bacteria called Bacteroidetes and more of a type of bacteria called Firmicutes, Gordon and his colleagues found.

The researchers aren't sure whether more Firmicutes makes you fat or if people who are obese grow more of that type of bacteria.

But growing evidence of this link gives scientists a potentially new and still distant way of fighting obesity: Change the bacteria in the intestines and stomach. It also may lead to a way of fighting malnutrition in the developing world.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Living Off Rats to Survive in Zimbabwe

My father grew up under Nazi occupation in Greece and remembers villagers being so hungry and desperate that they picked lice out of their hair and ate them in order stay alive.

Jeff Koinange is a prescient journalist--his reports from the African continent are among the finest aired in our country--and he bravely and consistently works to impart attention to the poorest regions of the world. Countries afflicted with "stupid poverty", as Bono calls it.

In his latest piece for CNN, Koinange unveils how citizens of Zimbabwe are eating rats because their food supply has evaporated:

Living Off Rats to Survive in Zimbabwe

By Jeff Koinange

(CNN) -- Twelve-year-old Beatrice returns from the fields with small animals she's caught for dinner.

Her mother, Elizabeth, prepares the meat and cooks it on a grill made of three stones supporting a wood fire. It's just enough food, she says, to feed her starving family of six.

Tonight, they dine on rats.

"Look what we've been reduced to eating?" she said. "How can my children eat rats in a country that used to export food? This is a tragedy."

This is a story about how Zimbabwe, once dubbed southern Africa's bread basket, has in six short years become a basket case. It is about a country that once exported surplus food now apparently falling apart, with many residents scrounging for rodents to survive.


Jeff Koinage's CNN bio:

Monday, December 18, 2006

And now, the estimable Mr. Estey:

My friend, Chris Estey, has two crackling pieces out now.

In his Three Imaginary Girls review of the Decemberists' The Crane Wife, he wisely observes:

"Both of these comments are just angles hacks take to avoid spending more time with the music, absorbing the admittedly convoluted but compelling storytelling of bandleader Colin Meloy, in language not all that much more 'literary' than anything on a Bob Dylan or an Elvis Costello album. Okay, so the combination of more obscure words and faintly archaic musical forms may suggest some sort of complicated nostalgic aesthetic on the band's part, but to me it's no less organic than the Pogues. There's just a little less male prostitution and getting kicked in the nards by the cops."

In his Shorthand for Epic profile in the Stranger, he elicits my new favorite music-related quote:

"Beau, my roommate, who took the picture, and brought Larry into the band, is against that idea of four rogues smoking, leaning up against the wall of the building. You know what? You're not a street gang. Unless you're scary motherfuckers like Suicidal Tendencies, stop looking like it! And you're not fashion models. You're playing music."

Bravo, Chris!

Keep readin':

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball."

Jeff Stein's Congressional Quarterly piece on U.S. governmental and systemic ignorance of Sunni and Shiite beliefs and alliances is journalism at its most useful:

Dec. 8, 2006 – 7:43 p.m.
Democrats’ New Intelligence Chairman Needs a Crash Course on al Qaeda

Forty years ago, Sgt. Silvestre Reyes was a helicopter crew chief flying dangerous combat missions in South Vietnam from the top of a soaring rocky outcrop near the sea called Marble Mountain.

After the war, it turned out that the communist Viet Cong had tunneled into the hill and built a combat hospital right beneath the skids of Reyes’ UH-1 Huey gunship.

Now the five-term Texas Democrat, 62, is facing similar unpleasant surprises about the enemy, this time as the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

That’s because, like a number of his colleagues and top counterterrorism officials that I’ve interviewed over the past several months, Reyes can’t answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East.

It begs the question, of course: How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don’t know basics about the battlefield?

To his credit, Reyes, a kindly, thoughtful man who also sits on the Armed Service Committee, does see the undertows drawing the region into chaos.

For example, he knows that the 1,400- year-old split in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites not only fuels the militias and death squads in Iraq, it drives the competition for supremacy across the Middle East between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

That’s more than two key Republicans on the Intelligence Committee knew when I interviewed them last summer. Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., and Terry Everett, R-Ala., both back for another term, were flummoxed by such basic questions, as were several top counterterrorism officials at the FBI.

I thought it only right now to pose the same questions to a Democrat, especially one who will take charge of the Intelligence panel come January. The former border patrol agent also sits on the Armed Services Committee.

Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.

We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism’s major players.

To me, it’s like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who’s on what side?

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.

That’s because the extremist Sunnis who make up a l Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics.

Al Qaeda’s Sunni roots account for its very existence. Osama bin Laden and his followers believe the Saudi Royal family besmirched the true faith through their corruption and alliance with the United States, particularly allowing U.S. troops on Saudi soil.

It’s been five years since these Muslim extremists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center.

Is it too much to ask that our intelligence overseers know who they are?

Civil War

And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?

“Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah...”

He laughed again, shifting in his seat.

“Why do you ask me these questions at five o’clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?”

“Poquito,” I said—a little.

“Poquito?! “ He laughed again.

“Go ahead,” I said, talk to me about Sunnis and Shia in Spanish.

Reyes: “Well, I, uh....”

I apologized for putting him “on the spot a little.” But I reminded him that the people who have killed thousands of Americans on U.S. soil and in the Middle East have been front page news for a long time now.

It’s been 23 years since a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed over 200 U.S. military personnel in Beirut, mostly Marines.

Hezbollah, a creature of Iran, is close to taking over in Lebanon. Reports say they are helping train Iraqi Shiites to kill Sunnis in the spiralling civil war.

“Yeah,” Reyes said, rightly observing, “but . . . it’s not like the Hatfields and the McCoys. It’s a heck of a lot more complex.

“And I agree with you — we ought to expend some effort into understanding them. But speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”

Reyes is not alone.

The best argument for needing to understand who’s what in the Middle East is probably the mistaken invasion itself, despite the preponderance of expert opinion that it was a terrible idea — including that of Bush’s father and his advisers. On the day in 2003 when Iraqi mobs toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Bush was said to be unaware of the possibility that a Sunni-Shia civil war could fill the power vacuum, according to a reliable source with good White House connections.

If President Bush and some of his closest associates, not to mention top counterterrorism officials, have demonstrated their own ignorance about who the players are in the Middle East, why should we expect the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee to get it right?

Trent Lott, the veteran Republican senator from Mississippi, said only last September that “It’s hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what’s wrong with these people.”

“Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion?” wondered Lott, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a meeting with Bush.

“Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference?

“They all look the same to me,” Lott said.


The administration’s disinterest in the Arab world has rattled down the chain of command.

Only six people in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad are fluent in Arabic, according to last week’s report of the Iraq Study Group. Only about two dozen of the embassy’s thousand employees have some familiarity with the language, the report said.

The Iraq Study Group was amazed to find that, despite spending $2 billion on Iraq in 2006, more wasn’t being done to try “to understand the people who fabricate, plant and explode roadside bombs.”

Rare is the military unit with an American soldier who can read a captured document or interrogate a prisoner, my own sources tell me.

It was that way in Vietnam, too, Reyes says, which “haunts us.”

“If you substitute Arabization for Vietnamization, if you substitute . . . our guys going in and taking over a place then leaving it and the bad guys come back in. . . .”

He trails off, despairing.

“I could draw many more analogies.”

Yet Reyes says he favors sending more troops there.

“If it’s going to target the militias and eliminate them, I think that’s a worthwhile investment,” he said.

It’s hard to find anybody in Iraq who thinks the U.S. can do that.

On “a temporary basis, I’m willing to ramp them up by twenty or thirty thousand . . . for, I don’t know, two months, four months, six months — but certainly that would be an exception,” Reyes said.

Meanwhile, the killing is going on below decks, too, within Sunni and Shiite groups and factions.

Anybody who pays serious attention to Iraq knows that.

Reyes says his first hearings come January will focus on how U.S. intelligence can do a better job helping the troops in Iraq.

It may be way too late for that.

“Stop giving me tests!” Reyes exclaimed, half kidding.

“I’m not going to talk to you any more!”

Next: More on intelligence topics from my interview with Rep. Reyes.

Jeff Stein can be reached at


Sunday, December 10, 2006

As my dad calls them, "those fellows in the Cab you wrote about"

Two of my guy friends once challenged themselves to come up with one thousand synonyms for "penis" during the course of a forty-eight hour road trip. (Both of them had recently become engaged to their longtime girlfriends. When I asked if they'd interrupted the cock talk to discuss said relationships, they totally cracked up.)

Anyway, last night's DCfC show at the Key Arena blazed so fucking brilliantly, that if I were so inclined, I could concoct one thousand synonyms for "awesome" and it would still be insufficient. And I saw it with C and T, two of my closest friends for the past twenty years. I'm holiday-neutral, but last night felt like a celebration.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Power to the people and all that

Ballots for sundry year-end music polls are out now. Unless maggots have crunched through your skull, you can guess my top two picks. And it's worth reminding everyone, especially the children, that R.E.M.'s And I Feel Fine: The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 warrants accolades.

Three Imaginary Girls:



Tales, booze, yam fries

The Seattle Art Museum is hosting a series of smaller events around town to build momentum for the opening of their Olympic Sculpture Park next month. Tonight they're teaming with the story-telling salon, A Guide to Visitors, for a "Best of 2006" night at the Rendezvous. I've been asked to tell the story of a friend who was exposed as a literary hoax. The show starts at 7:30 and I'm on second.

The Seattle Times AGTV piece from a few years back by the lovely Brangien Davis:

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"If I could open my arms/ and span the length of the island Manhattan..."

I have two extra tickets to Death Cab's December 9 Seattle show at the Key Arena. I'm going with my friend, C, but the rest of our horde has a scheduling conflict.

Tickets are:

Section 113, row 26, face value. (These aren't comps.)

Email me at if you're interested. (And if you're not, you should have that looked at: perhaps it's glandular.)

Okay, I have some corduroys to press.