BOOM BOOM BEACH

I had the good fortune to spend three days last week with friends Jim and Lisa at the oceanfront condo at Cocoa Beach in Florida, talking politics and watching playoff basketball (tough, exciting wins by eventual losers Magic and Suns) and contemplating the vista presented here. Hot and humid all day; ocean breezes, such as they were, cooled nothing. It’s funny, you can watch CNBC and MSNBC from anywhere, but as soon as you get away from the epicenter, they seem like nothing but TV shows. On Wednesday morning, the space shuttle Atlantis, completing a 25 year career that saw it log 120 million miles in space,  landed at Cape Canaveral, a stone’s throw away; I heard the characteristic BOOM BOOM of the sound barrier breaking as it descended. A nice visit, but as the Ramones put it, not my place.

STILL MISTRESS OF HER DOMAIN

We have been quite worried about our old dog Vicki. For the last couple of weeks, she has been limping, a hobble that just showed up after a long and pleasant walk in the woods. No big deal, we’ve been thinking, and it would show signs of lessening, and then she would bound off the porch after some squirrels, or Duke, the huskie who lives across the river, would walk down Todd Lane like he owned the place, and Vicki would have to hop and bark at him the length of the fence, and then she’d be limping again, worse than before. This has gone on for a couple of weeks, leaving us to conclude little other than she’s getting pretty old and just doesn’t bounce back like she used to. Vicki, however, remains dauntless. Saturday at 3:30 AM, both Vicki and our most unadulterated cat Playful detected some alien presence on the porch. I offered my usual display of noise and lights to allow the intruder time to escape–always advisable, since the pests we’ve met met in the past have included a couple of remorseless skunks–and then let the hopping and woofing Vicki out the door. Bad leg and all, Vicki charged down the steps, out to the gate, around the western side of the house, back around front, up the steps of the porch (up which she had limped most pathetically only hours earlier), and off to the Todd Lane side and around back. I could no longer see her, but moments later, I could hear her, emitting a terrible whine/growl/bay/yelp combination. Thinking that Vicki was engaged in some kind of combat, and losing, I ran out the door after her (in my underwear) and across the lawn. Glassless, aided by wan porch light, I unreliably witnessed Vicki release something, a charcoal smudge of something that quickly undulated into the bushes in the raised bed.  An otter? A muskrat? By then, Vicki, winded but no longer yowling, was joined by me and Ginny, Molly and even Wendy  (Cara heard the ruckus, but feared that Vicki was meeting her demise at the hands of the local coyote, and slunk under the covers), and soon hobbled back into the house. The next morning, limping around the yard, Vicki joined us for some gardening, and investigated the raised bed for signs of her recent adversary, though to no avail. At long last, she sat in the shade, and as her protoge Wendy patrolled the perimeter, the old dog proudly rested, still mistress of her domain.

A MCCRACKEN GOOD YARN

I had a delightful time yesterday meeting with McCracken Poston, a lawyer and former state legislator from Georgia who told me a warm and delightful story about, of all things, a murder case he tried a decade ago. He and I are going to work to try to turn it into a book. McCracken and I met at Soho House, a private club on Ninth Avenue that I had never heard of, but which was pretty terrific. We saw Stanley Tucci. Almost everyone we saw was young and svelte. Well, not Stanley, but he looked good nonetheless.

CCTV AND NEW YORK’S SUBWAYS: NO PANACEA

Squired by London’s Mayor Boris Johnson, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg made a ballyhooed visit to the main control room of the London Underground last week, and came away favorably impressed with the ability of the Tube’s management to use its CCTV system to monitor events on any and every station and platform in the system. Bloomberg flew home with visions of of monitors in his head.

I had the opportunity of visiting the same control center early in 2009 for an article I was reporting that eventually appeared in The Washington Monthly, and it’s damned impressive. The large wall mounted screens enable the people in charge to see for themselves what is happening, and this certainly leads to clearer information and better decision. The management team told me about how the CCTV system helped them in the aftermath of the July 7, 2007 bombings to close the system, safely evacuate a quarter million passengers. and most miraculously, reopen for business the following morning.

But before Mayor Bloomberg gets too enthusiastic, he should realize that there are important differences between the systems that would impact the experience. For one thing, many New York stations (perhaps even most) have a series of I-beam columns running the length of the platforms. Those will certainly block the view of any cameras set up to survey the platforms. More significantly, most Tube stations are heavily staffed with a large number of personnel. Many of them are almost like doormen, greeting passengers, giving directions and explaining the fare systems. These people are instructed to initiate contact with people who seem confused. It would be shocking if New York were to make that heavy investment in personnel, but it’s those people, and not so much the CCTV, that helps make the Tube virtually a crime-free environment. Indeed, the director of the Tube told me that have been most useful in telling managers when tracks have been cleared after a suicide, and normal traffic can be resumed.

But what about the striking CCTV images we saw of the men who perpetrated the bombing of 7/7, and the failed bombing attempts two weeks alter (see right)? Weren’t the cameras useful in identifying and capturing the terrorists? Yes, certainly they were. But the secret is while were captivated by the images that were captured, we missed the fact that they were only some of the images that should have been available. There were a lot of cameras that were broken or empty of film. Indeed, the day after, when police shot and killed an unarmed Brazilian tourist who resembled one of those caught on film but who did not respond to commands to halt, no cameras in the vicinity were functioning. Still, the cameras were useful because by having the images of the suspects, authorities were able to restore a sense of order and calm. “It sends the message that someone is in charge, that we know who committed this act and that we’re going to find them,” Tim O’Toole, the director of the Underground, told me.

THE BLOOMIN’ MICHAEL GROSS

A belated thanks to my friend Michael Gross, who came up to Briarcliff a couple of Sundays ago. The Garden Club was having its annual Arts Abloom Festival for the benefit of the library, and Michael was the special celebrity guest, reading  from his book Rogues Gallery and signing copies. Michael enjoyed his sojourn into suburbia (he’s a Long Islander himself) and even got his car washed by the our Girls Varsity Softball team (Is every one of them a budding Elena Kagan?)  It was awafully good of him to come. (Thanks to Phyllis Neider for the photo.)

PITCHING UNDERHAND TO ELENA KAGAN

When I was an editor at Spy a couple of decades ago, we used to run an item called The Spy List, which was almost invariably a simple set of names that were connected by–well, that was for the reader to figure out, or to speculate upon. Basically it was a way we could print rumors about people without risking the moral or legal consequences of spreading gossip initiated by unnamed and perhaps unreliable sources. And we were able to get away with it because we operated out on the edge, at a deliberate distance from the mainstream.

The Wall Street Journal, which fancies itself a mainstream, important, powerful newspaper, veered sharply into the heart of Spy List territory the other day when it published on its front page a 17 year-old photograph of Solicitor General Elena Kagan, now a nominee to the Supreme Court, playing softball. Published rumors in recent weeks have held that Ms. Kagan is a lesbian, which she denies and which the White House refuses to discuss. As well they should–it’s no one’s business. And no respectable newspaper would introduce the question in a straightforward way. But a partisan newspaper just might find a way to introduce the topic in a low, mean, back-handed way.

A newspaper might well have good reason for publishing a photo of a person in the news engaged in some leisure activity, and a current photo of the new Supreme Court nominee kicking back with friends would be a perfectly appropriate picture to publish, and on the front page. But a 17 year-old picture of the nominee? You might run that inside, in the context of a profile of this person in the news, in the midst of baby pictures, graduation photos, shots of early achievement, and so on.

But a 17 year old photo on the front page, unaccompanied by an article, apropos of nothing in the news? Not only is that not the sort of thing that serious newspapers do; it’s the sort of thing that is ordinarily called a mistake and that costs people their jobs. It’s simply not newsworthy, and in a week where oil continues to flow, the Icelandic volcano continues to spew, Great Britain settles on a new prime minister, amid other events, using precious front page acreage on this type of photo would ordinarily constitute journalistic malpractice. It would be stupid.

But the editors at the Journal aren’t stupid. They’re cynical. They’ve coyly introduced the topic of Ms. Kagan’s sexual orientation into public discussion, and caused people to discuss the paper, which should impress their boss. They should be proud–all it’s cost them is honor.

THE BROAD STREET BULLIES ARE ON THE LOOSE

Ginny and I spent a pleasant hour Monday night watching the HBO documentary about the Philadelphia Flyers of the mid-seventies, the famous Broad Street Bullies, whose adventures Ginny and I much enjoyed. Indeed, some of the footage was a little like seeing home movies. The famous fog game in the Cup Finals in 1975? That was on the night of our college graduation. Game 5? Saw it at Francis Nathans’ house in Bucks County the day after we were married, the night the famous misdaventures of our wedding night. The Game 6 clincher? We saw it with Peter Westbrook at True Light Manor. And though the show caught some of what it was to root for the near-criminal Flyers, it somehow missed the essence: they were very brave, and they just never, ever, ever backed down. It’s true, as the program stated, that their heyday was pretty nearly over after the Montreal Canadiens swept the Flyers in the 1976 Finals (but as Bill Barber told me a few years later, the presence of the injured Bernie Parent would have rewritten the story.) But for me, their greatest moment came in Game 4 of a 1977 quarter-finale series. Trailing a very good Toronto Maple Leaf team two games to one, and behind in Game 4 by 5-2 with six minutes left, the Flyers rallied to tie on goals by Tom Bladon, Mel Bridgeman and the incredible Bobby Clarke, and won after 19 minutes of overtime on a slap shot by the cool, brilliant Reggie Leach.  That was the Flyers I loved.

Bird, Hammer, Hound and Moose/The Broad Street Bullies Are on the Loose.

It’s one of the few poems I know by heart.

PETER O’DONNELL, RIP

Peter O’Donnell, who created the comic strip Modesty Blaise for the London Evening Standard in 1963 and who chronicled her adventures for the next 38 years, died over the weekend at age 90. O’Donnell began writing comic strips when he was 17, a nascent career that was interrupted by a stint in the army during the Second World War. Serving in a mobile radio detachment in Persia, O’Donnell had a chance meeting with a hungry little girl. According to the Guardian, she “eyed them warily but accepted some food. Before she left, O’Donnell gave her two tins of stew and showed her how to use a tin opener. “To this day, I can see in my mind’s eye the smile she gave us and the sight of that upright little figure walking like a princess as she moved away from us on those brave, skinny legs.” Twenty years later, that encounter sparked the creation of Modesty Blaise , “a woman who, though fully feminine, would be as good in combat and action as any male, if not better”. Over the years, the alluring secret agent was called upon  to thwart a multi-million pound diamond heist, foil a private army of professional killers, and defeat Caribbean drug traffickers and homicidal Norsemen. Modesty was drawn first by Jim Holdaway and later Enrique Badia Romero (see left), but O’Donnell also produced Modesty Blaise novels, whose most ardent admirer may have been Kingsley Amis. O’Donnell once said that the proudest moment of his career was receiving a letter from the Lucky Jim author who praised the books as “endlessly fascinating.”

GORDON BROWN: SURVEILLED ON HIS OWN PETARD

Does anyone else see the irony in the head of the world’s largest surveillance state meeting his destruction in front of an open mic?

Let’s face it, for all the commentary about how Gordon Brown’s harsh comments about a 65 year-old housewife revealed the inner man, what he was mostly guilty of was venting. Struggling through a difficult campaign, going through the motions of public appearances that he didn’t think were going well, Gordon Brown vented. He did what people do after dinners with prickly in-laws and long, droning meetings with the boss—he let off steam.

Now venting, like farting, belching, scratching your butt, and wishing someone were dead, are unpleasant and unattractive human activities that most people perform at least periodically, even though they seldom reflect advantageously on the performer. But usually they are performed before a privileged audience in a place that is private, a status that Brown, sitting inside his car in the company of a handful of loyal aides, thought he enjoyed. But Brown had forgotten that he was wearing an open microphone put there by the TV news people filming his campaign stop, and his comments were shared with the world. What distinguished this incident from a garden variety event like Christian Bale going ballistic on a soundstage is that Brown is not merely a world leader, he’s the leader of the country that is the foremost surveillance state in the world. More than anyone, he should have expected someone to be watching.

There are 4.2 million closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the UK, one for every fourteen people, perhaps a million in London alone. The cameras are operated by the police and by governmental authorities like the London Underground, by private security firms and local governments, by schools and hospitals and parking lots and chip shops and pubs. In some parts of London, like Westminister, where Parliament and the government buildings are collected, they are literally everywhere, gray boxy sentinels as expressionless as the guards in front of Buckingham Palace. But there are plenty in residential neighborhoods as well. Within 200 yards of a particular vantage point on quiet Canonbury Square in gentrified Islington, one can find 32 cameras running 24 hours a day, and the only thing that makes that particular vantage point unusual was that in 1944, it was the place where George Orwell was living when he began writing 1984.

And thanks to Brown’s Labor government, more cameras are on their way, only they will be more capable. Testing has begun on cameras that will incorporate software that will evaluate your face and eavesdrop on your conversations and tell you to pick up the empty coffee cup you’ve just tossed. If we think public officials are too cocooned now, imagine what they’ll be like when they risk becoming global laughingstocks every time they fail to dispose of a candy wrapper in a proper bin. Yet what’s astonishing is how ineffective CCTV is in fighting crime. A report by London’s Metropolitan Police that was released last August stated that “for every 1,000 cameras in London, less than one crime is solved per year,’’ putting the cost of that particular act of justice at a not very efficient 20,000 pounds. Perhaps one reason is that is that the cameras have been set up on an ad hoc basis dating back to the Thatcher regime, and are not linked. This means that although a Londoner might be caught by a video camera as often as 300 times a day, the fact that those cameras are not connected to one another means that the spectacular feats of surveillance people see television cops perform with ease are simply impossible. Retroactively the police might be able to follow a criminal every step of the way from his home to the scene of the crime, but it’s not as though cops can follow a suspect through central London. Last year an amused security official of the London Underground told me about the time the TV series “Spooks’’ filmed in the Whitehall station. “The character went into our security booth and connected our camera system to MI-5. We’re not connected to MI-5.’’

Instead, the cameras catch people in the act of performing the kind of infraction that Gordon Brown committed—things that are embarrassing, things that should be ignored that instead cause tons of explanation, things that everybody does. Everyone in London seems to have heard a story like the one about the university security sweep that was aimed against car thieves but instead caught two faculty members snogging in the back seat of a sedan. That was an accidental discovery, but as it turns out, local governments, armed with souped-up surveillance capabilities invested in them with new anti-terror laws, have been targeting people suspected of littering, fishing illegally, dumping, and applying to a school outside their area of eligibility. Seeking al-qaeda, we found cow-tippers. Last January, documents were revealed that suggested that the South Coast partnership, a cooperative venture between the Kent Police and the Home Office, was planning to use unmanned spy drones of the type employed in Afghanistan, in policing the population. Hey, it’s not a black helicopter, but it’s close.

And CCTV is just the beginning; British civil libertarians have been fighting other recent Labor Party initiatives include the institution of a biometric national ID card, the creation of a national DNA database, fitting all cars with tracking devices, and instituting systems for tracking all e-mails, phone calls and internet use. The glib line often cited to justify these measures is “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’’ But everybody’s got something to hide. If you don’t believe me, ask Gordon Brown.