“Bill Cosby” is a verb now

We’re all individually responsible for our own transgressions. But we’re collectively responsible for the downfall that always comes when we set people on a pedestal, and they inevitably transgress.

Brimfield is a great little town. I’ve been there often. For the past couple years it’s been famous thanks to one man. Now it’s infamous for the same.

As of this morning the full allegations against Chief Oliver have been aired. A full-on flame war is sure to come. The faithful followers of his plain-speaking, mope-interdicting online persona are going to rush to his defense and unleash an impolitic flood of counter-accusations. It’s going to get ugly.

Which is a huge, huge bummer. That same online persona, as recently as a week ago, was the single most successful source of community-police relations we had, in a time when those relations are being sorely tested. Now that’s gone, to be replaced by tawdry controversy. There’ll be a lot of fallout from that, but one of the saddest is that a nice little town is going to be torn inside out, through no fault of its own.

If there’s fault to be assigned, and if those allegations are even partly true, then almost all of that fault goes directly to the former chief himself. Whatever’s left over should be claimed by all of us who stupidly—if temporarily—forgot that Mayberry was fiction and heroes are hard to find.

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NASCAR Nikita – Kurt Busch’s ex-girlfriend can end you

Sure, you have your doubts. But what if he’s right?

ICYMI, NASCAR outlaw and habitual left-turner Kurt Busch defended himself this week against a no-contact order filed by his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, by asserting that Driscoll is an international assassin who could snap his neck like a stupid little twig (I’m paraphrasing here).

Busch claims personal knowledge of numerous hits successfully completed by his cold-as-ice ex, including missions in Africa, and Central and South America. He also recounts a trip to El Paso during which Driscoll left their hotel in camos, and returned in a blood-spattered evening gown.

For her part, Driscoll responded by calling Busch and/or his claim “ludicrous,” and said that he was conflating reality with the plot of a screenplay she’d been working on. We can’t help but pointing out that this is exactly what a covert operator might say when her cover was in danger of being blown.

Speaking of which, it’s safe to say that if Kurt Busch’s claims are in any way true, his head is at this moment centered in a very steady set of crosshairs. And let that be a lesson to us all: when and if we learn our SOs are professional murderers, we should keep that shit to ourselves.

I suppose there’s a better than average chance that Mr. Busch might be mistaken. But let us not assume this is so. There are professional assassins, aren’t there? Do we have any reason to suppose Ms. Driscoll isn’t one of them?

Look at it this way: there are probably ninjas everywhere. The only reason we keep hearing about the ones in Japan is because they’re the absolute worst.

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Je suis Charlie

If there can be any solace in the horrific attack on the Paris offices of the weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, let it be this: the cowards behind the guns, and the manipulating cowards behind them, admitted both their weakness and their defeat in this same act which condemns them.

Because if your ideology or tenets or piety are so fragile they cannot stand satire, then they are worthless. And if your sense of honor is so deranged as to lead you to slaughter the unarmed and defenseless, then you are beneath contempt and beyond pity. The cowards who murdered the editors and artists and the police officers protecting Charlie Hebdo, should be and are being hunted to exhaustion. So should be any that supported and encouraged them.

More than anything else, though, Charlie Hebdo should drive on. Nothing would refute the murderous hate more than a fresh, unblinking and unafraid serving of well-barbed satire. I sincerely hope that’s forthcoming.

Je suis Charlie – and so too is anyone that cherishes free expression and rejects religious barbarism.

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Bill Viola – art in motion

Congrats and hat’s off to pioneering video artist Bill Viola for his recent feature retrospective in Forbes.

The article salutes a 40-year career—a time span that neatly parallels video technology itself—in the use of electronic media to convey experiential expression. Seems he took to heart, then took to its ultimate conclusion, the proposition that if a picture is worth X words, then moving pictures must equal Xy.

You’ll find in Viola’s work an interplay of time and emotion, and motive expressions of a range of human experiences. Also notable is the recurring theme of natural elements, with a startling emphasis on water and immersion. Only speculating here, but this could very well be a constant reliving of a near-drowning incident from his youth, which took him to what he later described as “the most beautiful world I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Whatever the impetus, Bill Viola seems driven to keeping showing us the flickering and unfolding images that describe his world, our world, and worlds both alien and disturbingly familiar….

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Coda 2014: Hope, fear, and necessity

Perception is reality. That’s a mantra that I wallow in daily, using it as both a business/marketing lever, and as a psychological anchor. It reminds me that, for good or ill, our world and our positions in it are largely self-created.

The implications of this are usually pretty stark.

That’s never been more clear, to me at least, than in the wrap-up and the look back at this year that just ended. The perception—and I don’t think I’m alone in this—is that 2014 was one godawful year. It was a year of fear, and of bouncing from one crisis to another. It was a year of reactions, and of being reactionary. It was not a year of progress, or cooperation, or communal synergy.

At least, that’s the perception. Any objective analysis has to allow that developments in ’14 weren’t uniformly bad. There was economic recovery, there were tantalizing hints that intelligent collaboration could, against all expectation, trump some of our thorniest problems.

But objective reality aside, we have to come to grips with the pessimism that 2014 engendered, and with the frightening truth that this pessimism (which doesn’t seem likely to abate just because the calendar clicked ahead one digit) is going to be self-perpetuating. And I have to come to grips with my own participation in that.

Because to be sure, I do have my own whopping dose of pessimism. It’s hard to shake.

Having examined it, though—or to be more accurate, having examined its root causes—I’ve sort of hardened into being a single-issue pessimist. Which is another way of saying I’m now a single-issue voter, and ultimately a single-issue obsessor.

It’s like this: climate change is the problem that edges out all others. That’s not to say all those other problems aren’t pressing—they certainly are. But climate change, and the wider issue of environmental degradation, is existential. We ignore it, and all the others sooner or later become moot.

That’s the pessimism, and the perception shaping our sad reality. The counterbalance to that must be a new perception, an optimistic one, that we can beat this thing.

You know what? We can. The solutions, when implemented, will be technical. Getting to implementation, though, will require personal, political, societal and cultural shifts. Daunting, but doable.

My hope—go ahead and call it a resolution—is that in 2015 we can start down that road. My hope is that all of us take responsibility for doing so—waiting for leaders to act is no longer an option. We must be the leaders. We have to set the example, and thereby set the course.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, upcycle. These aren’t hippy-dippy gestures, they’re collective actions that get results. They contribute to the solution by mitigating our individual contributions to the problem. And just as importantly they demonstrate, in that powerful way that only action can, that we’re committed to self-preservation.

This little weekly(ish) screed of mine has mostly been committed to art, culture, and literature; and only occasionally straying onto the heavy side. I prefer to keep it that way. Art is a refuge.

But art also has a long and proud history of progressivism, and of blazing a trail toward uncomfortable truths and unexpected solutions. May that ever be so.

The arts very much have a role to play in this unfolding drama. Artists have the opportunity, some might say the responsibility, to comment loudly and persuasively on what’s happening now, and what must happen next. And they have a moral duty to adjust their own practices and lifestyles, whenever and however they can.

Let sustainability be our guiding principle for art and for life in 2015. In the final analysis, be it pessimistic or otherwise, or absolutely objective, it’s the only path to survival.

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Let the retrospectives begin: 2014, a year in art

Say what you want about 2014 (and spoiler alert, I certainly will) — it may have been a kidney stone of a year, but like a kidney stone, it’ll pass. Global malaise aside, this was a lively year for the arts. Maybe malaise is a muse? At any rate, as we wind this annus horribilis right the hell down, it’s worth an appreciative look back to see what the creators hath created…

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RIP Joe Cocker (May 20, 1944 – December 22, 2014)

One truly amazing and original voice went silent today. Joe Cocker OBE, a man who had more soul than most of us have blood cells, has lost his battle with lung cancer.

It’s hard to say whether he was best known for his own incomparable singing, his energized stage presence, his solitary and well-earned position as the best coverer of Beatles tunes…or for the eerily accurate way in which his persona was once captured and recreated by the equally incomparable John Belushi.

Doesn’t matter—he was a package deal. All of those things and more synchronized into the being of one of the finest performers any of us will ever see. He’ll be sorely missed.

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A death in Miami

Worlds collided last week, in more ways than one. But these weren’t romantic or progressive or productive comminglings. They were destructive and divisive and deadly.

Art Basel is an international celebration of modern art, and its sojourn in Miami has helped cement the position of that often-troubled metropolis as a new cultural hub.

Which is admirable, but like all cultural institutions, Art Basel can’t be accused of being all-inclusive. So maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s indicative—either way it’s chilling, and it must mean something that midway through this year’s festivities a Miami artist (or was he a criminal?) was killed.

Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez, a street artist with the tag “DEMZ,” was struck by an unmarked Miami police car in the early morning hours of December 5th. He died from severe head trauma four days later.

He was a lifetime removed from Art Basel, I’d argue, for the same reason that his art brought on his death. He operated in a furtive world, with his mode of creation proscribed, interdicted, policed. When the spotlight fell on him, he ran. At some point, somehow, he ran in front of a police car. And that was that.

In collisions like these, especially of late, there’s a reflexive need to assign blame. So the tragedy, in the minds of many, became an assault. Another assault.

Look. I wasn’t there. Just like I wasn’t in Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland. Chances are, neither were you. None of us can say with any certainty what happened, in any of these cases. But that doesn’t stop many of us—too many—from expressing certainty, on one side or the other.

The reason why, I think, is conflation. We’re melding deaths together. Thus, Trayvon becomes Tamir and Eric and Michael…and now, by extension, Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez. Their names and faces and stories are melded together—into fuel. Fuel for anger.

Is that a proper, or even understandable, reaction? I don’t think so. Because it denies them something that all of them, and all of us, deserve both in life and in death: individuality. No one’s life or death should devolve into merely a statistic, even though that’s what largely seems to happen. By holding these deaths up as examples of a deplorable trend, whether that’s true or not, individuality is erased.

Trayvon died differently than Michael and Eric. Tamir’s death was not Delbert’s.

I certainly don’t regret a dialogue, if we can have one rationally, about policing and use of force, and about the very much unfinished business of racial equality. And if any sector of our society, whomever they may be, are especially victimized, then I fully support their right, their duty, to vehemently protest.

Still—I think it’s a disservice, the final and maybe the worst one, to decide on scant evidence that all of these things are like the others. Much has been declared (with the usual imprecision of declarative statements) about Ferguson and Cleveland and Staten Island. I’ll leave those be.

With equal risk of imprecision I’ll say this about Miami, and about DEMZ, and about the police officer who was behind the wheel: I think it was a tragic accident. I think the officer was doing his job, and that never in a million years would he have wanted things to turn out the way they did.

The same can probably be said for DEMZ. He was doing his job, or more accurately, following his vocation. But setting aside elevated examples like Banksy, that particular vocation is illegal. It is–usually–denounced and unwanted by the property owners who supply the canvases. Those property owners look to the police for relief. Police officers are individuals too, and it’s probably safe to say they have a gamut of opinions on street art or on graffiti. But whether they see beauty or they see vandalism, they’re expected to do their job.

The tragedy is that this conflict, this collision, led to the death of a very young, very talented artist. And tempted though I am to draw some kind of just-let-art-be-art conclusion from it all, I recognize that in doing so I’d be just as guilty of the same sort of conflation that I indicted just a few paragraphs ago. And I’d be stretching for answers where I honestly have none.

So there’s simply this, and maybe it smacks likewise of conflation but maybe that’s unavoidable in the end: Worlds collide. They just do.

Any or all of our worlds are dangerous enough on their own. When they collide? Casualties are inevitable.

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Kim Dotcom: Mega-Politico

Looks like one of the most outsized and out-spoken figures from the gray-hat worlds of file-sharing and internet entrepreneurship plans on insinuating himself into the already-bloated milieu of American politics. Being that Kim Dotcom dasn’t step foot on U.S. soil, where he’s considered the most-wanted pirate outside Somalia, his plans to shake up the American political scene seem optimistic at best. Still, the short history of twenty-first century digital culture is rife with chagrined examples of those who’ve underestimated Big Kim.

Born Kim Schmitz in Kiel, Germany, currently a resident of Auckland, New Zealand, he’s been making online waves since the nineties, having hacked the Pentagon, NASA, and a handful of international banks. His first brush with the law came in 1994, with his first arrest (and later conviction) for piracy. It would not be his last.

He’s most famous (aside from the self-indulgent name change) for his file-sharing site Megaupload, founded in 2005. It, and he, quickly drew the ire of copyright holders, particularly American film and music companies. Megaupload’s wide-eyed defense that it merely provided a platform and had no control over what files members were sharing, did little to dissuade the FBI from pursuing Megaupload and Kim Dotcom right ’round the globe. The U.S. Justice Department engineered the 2012 raids that seized Megaupload servers, shuttered the site, and ended with Kim Dotcom in handcuffs.

His case, and most particularly his extradition fight, has been raging ever since, and it’s undoubtedly an offshoot of that which led to his founding of the New Zealand Internet Party in March, 2014. The party has been well-funded, organized and touted with the typical Dotcom flair…and has been thus far utterly unsuccessful in electing candidates.

That’s probably understandable, given the movement’s youth. The most natural strategy would be to grow those grassroots, to allow the party membership and leadership to mature, and to take the slow route to political relevance.

But that wouldn’t be the Dotcom way, would it?

Thus, Kim Dotcom announced last week, without an over-abundance of detail, his plan to bring the Internet Party to the U.S. sometime in the New Year.

So what does this mean for American politics? In all likelihood, not a lot, at least not for the foreseeable future. The deathlock of our two-party system—enshrined in stark reality if nowhere in law—doesn’t leave much room for small issue-oriented upstarts…and certainly not for one instigated by a non-citizen, designated fugitive.

But hey, maybe that’s all the more reason to welcome the Internet Party to our shores.

I’ve always found Kim Dotcom to be fascinating, dubious, enigmatic, and more than a little buffoonish. That doesn’t mean I consider him iniquitous, or even especially criminal. And it doesn’t mean I can’t take his political efforts seriously.

Maybe I’m simply starved for political choice. In that I’m certainly not alone. There are legions of us who feel that the American political system is utterly stagnant, rampantly corrupt, and thoroughly non-representative of (and probably uninterested in) our interests. Doesn’t seem likely that Kim Dotcom can make much of a dent in that, but if he’s willing to try the least I can do is be willing to listen.

The platform of the Internet Party N.Z., which would presumably be largely imported into the U.S. incarnation is, unshockingly, tech-centric. It includes calls for digital freedom, expansions of connectivity, and a curtailment of government surveillance. It’s also pro-environment and against social inequity.

Don’t know about you, but I can get behind all that.

Kim Dotcom, you haven’t yet convinced me. I’m not promising my vote, or my time, or my involvement. But I’m intrigued, and endeavoring to be open minded. You just might be onto something here, and I’m inviting you to press on. So please – tell us more.

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A tad less impermanence

Countless lifetimes after the art we last explored found its inspiration, we’re happy to see new art, via a modern medium, similarly inspired.

Muralist Eric Skotnes, who paints with the intercession of aerosol accelerant, created this tableau and the timelapse, below, of its genesis, to dissertate aesthetically on the concept of Awakenings.

It’s a worthy subject, tackled admirably. Buddhahood, after all, is simply the state of being awake. And it surely must be that transitional phase, the awakening itself, in which the (r)evolution feels most acute.

May we all awake. And may all art wake us, or at least shake us.

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The art of impermanence

Hat tip and thanks to Huffington Post’s Antonia Blumberg for today’s gorgeously illustrated exploration of the ephemeral art of Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings, or mandalas.

In both Buddhist and Hindu traditions, the term mandala is layered with meaning. It can refer to both a symbol, and a reality. It can be a focus for creating the sacred, and it can be a factual statement of the very much mundane.

In the most familiar, and possibly the most moving respect, a mandala is a two-dimensional, mathematically precise representation of the Buddhist universe, containing ideations of spheres of existence, of convergences of energies, and of wisdom itself.

And since mandalas convey the graphical equivalents of Buddhist thought, it’s important, maybe vital, that they embrace the most important aspects of that philosophy. One such aspect is impermanence: These examples are built of that most shifting of substances, sand.

Another central Buddhist theme: non-attachment.  It’s almost inconceivable, especially for an artist or indeed for anyone who might spend hundreds or thousands of hours on a creative endeavor—but an integral phase of mandala construction is its inevitable and looming destruction.

If you ever get a chance to see the creation of a mandala, by all means take it. You’ll be blown away by the detail, by the meticulous craftsmanship, and hopefully by the thought and intent. You needn’t be Buddhist, and you need not sit and meditate on the dharma. But, understanding that the artwork before you will be born, exist, and die in the course of a matter of days, you’ll experience transience writ in the microcosm—something that can and should be compatible with all strains of faith, or none.

It’s been quite a few years since I stood, transfixed,  and watched three monks build their fleeting pattern of the Wheel of Time. Days later it was reduced to its constituent parts, and was gently released into the river.

Parts of it, and maybe its whole, must surely still be there. I know they’re here with me.

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Lies, damned lies, and viral videos

Could have seen this coming. In fact many of us did see it coming: Viral videos have become commodities, which welcomes lying and cheating into the clicks-into-cash equation.

So no surprise, then, to see a dishonest follow-on to October’s NYC cat-calling video, wherein Shoshona Roberts, with the help of a hidden camera, shows us what it’s like to walk the streets of Manhattan as a woman. Nearly 40 million hits later, the result has been a much-needed discussion on the difference between friendliness between strangers, and unwanted sexualized attention. All good so far.

But then along comes poseur Stephen Zhang, and his attempt to horn in on some of that sweet social-dialogue clickbait. On November 8th, Zhang posted a video on YouTube purporting to show a woman’s travails on the opposite coast. In it we see a young woman acting drunk, really drunk, in the middle of the day on Hollywood Boulevard. No way I’m going to link to it, I won’t be responsible for lending Zhang a single further undeserved click. But if you happen to go search for it, please note that he’s disabled comments. And draw your own conclusions.

Conclusions were drawn, and then some, as soon as the video went viral. Salon led with the headline, “Gross men being gross.” I’ll admit I was snookered as well. The video seemed to capture numerous instances of random men trying to take advantage of the inebriation—to lure her back to their cars, their apartments, their houses. It seemed sickeningly plausible.

Too bad it was all a big fat lie. Within four days the men in the video all began coming forward, all telling essentially the same tale: They were told they were helping create a student video, or maybe it was a comedy short. All of them had been fed their lines. All were told exactly how slimy they should act.

It’s deplorable. Not least because the video claimed to show a reality that was actually manufactured to match a communal preconception. And not least because it raised a worthy question, and would have been a worthy experiment if only it had been honestly undertaken.

It’s deplorable because, who knows, maybe one of those guys might have been inclined to help that girl, and in so doing might have given us a bit of viral restoration for our faith in humanity.

Instead we got a viral confirmation of all the worst.

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Danish musicians can take the heat

Okay, yes—they look to be in pure agony. And before the last note fades, they drop their instruments and run for the exits like the pyretic victims they are. But judge not — they faced their crucible (almost literally so), and performed nearly without flaw.

“They” are the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, and their tormentor/collaborator is Danish chili-pepper aficionado (isn’t it good to know there’s such a thing?), Chili Klaus. Their challenge, for whatever twisted reason, was to consume the world’s hottest chilis—ghost peppers, Carolina Reapers, Trinidad Scorpions—smack dab in the middle of a performance of Tango Jalousie.

How did it go? Better than you might expect, actually. No, they don’t look to be having the times of their lives (although the second violinist, my new hero, looks like she could eat a peck of these perfidious peppers while shrugging her way through a Wagner opera or two)…but they toughed it out. More than that, near as I can tell, they missed nary a note.

The video of this—what to call it? “Stunt” hardly does it justice—has only been up for a week, yet has garnered more than two million hits. Deservedly so, it’s a spectacle unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Please, for their sakes, watch it all. Resist the temptation to skip ahead to the capsaicin-laced climax. And if you really want to give them their due, go ahead and munch the hottest chili in your larder just before you hit play.

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Jian Ghomeshi – a predator in the spotlight

Short of a confession, in these vexing and vicious cases of “he said/she said,” the next best thing for determining guilt has to be a preponderance of evidence. And short of evidence—because the predator often takes care not to leave any—we have to settle for, and let ourselves be convinced by, a preponderance of accusations.

And that’s exactly what’s come to bear against former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, creator and until very recently the on-air icon of CBC-Radio’s flagship show, Q.  When he was first publicly accused a couple of weeks ago of sexual abuse and predation, he was able to leverage doubt, leavened with his own flat denials, and to hide behind his victims’ very anonymity. He also, not surprisingly, played the ‘jilted lover’ card, in a painful-to-read multi-thousand word Facebook-posted diatribe, wherein you’re apt to learn much more than you ever wanted to know about Jian Ghomeshi’s sex life (although that’s becoming a widely reported-on subject, media-wide).

But the denials, and those self-serving counter-allegations, start to dissipate in effectiveness when the accusations come in floods, and even more so when some of the accusers step up and name themselves.

The result is a conclusion that’s unlikely to ever be reached in a court of law, but it’s real and inescapable nonetheless: Jian Ghomeshi is a serial abuser and a sexual predator.

And that’s a strange and quite uncomfortable conclusion to reach about anyone—especially when you consider that there are so many, too many, people for whom that description is apt. But most of them are faceless. Jian Ghomeshi isn’t.

To be sure, he’s far more famous in Canada than he is here. But I was well aware of him, if not his personal life nor anything about his pre-Q career, far before his name became so stained. I was a regular listener, and an admitted admirer of his skills as an interviewer. I’d said more than once that some of the best interviews I’d ever heard, I’d heard on Q.

All of which raises an uncomfortably familiar question: What is the relationship between celebrity and the presumption of guilt? The question becomes more acute, and much more uncomfortable, in these cases of sexual villainy, where the truth lies somewhere between the word of the celebrity and his accuser. We’ve seen this before, with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, and in each of those cases, as with the earliest moments of the Ghomeshi mess, we saw a tendency to believe the celebrity, and in some reprehensible way, to indict the accuser.

Why? Because celebrity itself is a shield.

I don’t know what this is, but it’s as widespread and as regrettable as a disease—and as much as it pains me to say it, I’m just as susceptible to it as anyone. I didn’t want to believe what I first heard about Jian Ghomeshi, and the only reason I can think of for that is the faint praise I offered above: I think he was talented at the art of interviewing. For that dumb, simple reason, I was willing to give him more than his fair share of the benefit of doubt. All that brought me back from that ledge was the flood and history of allegations (apparently Ghomeshi’s reputation was so well known that the University of Toronto wouldn’t place interns on his show).

In this all too uncommon case, there’s been a semblance of justice. Doesn’t seem to be any criminal proceedings in the offing, but Jian Ghomeshi has been fired by CBC, and his reputation is (deservedly) in the toilet. His nature has been caught out, and he’s been irrevocably tarnished by his own deeds. He can never escape that.

And likewise, we can never escape the fact that if so many of his victims hadn’t been brave enough to speak out, he’d still be getting away with it. He’d be safe under the protection of our sick culture of celebrity worship.

Someday, somehow, we’ve got to come to grips with the truth that the universe of celebrities is like any other population of human beings: some undoubtedly decent, maybe even saintly; the vast majority of them are probably as situationally ethical, sometimes good / sometimes bad, as the rest of us. And some of them, statistically, are simply monsters. We’ve got to recognize that, accept it, and deal with it.

Until we do, people as bad as Jian Ghomeshi, or people even worse, are going to bask in public glory even as they wallow in private depravity…and we’ll all be their unwitting yet willing accomplices.

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RIP Tom Magliozzi (June 28, 1937 – Nov. 3, 2014)

Another regrettable loss – just over two years ago we said goodbye to Car Talk, a truly legendary National Public Radio property. Today, as reported by NPR, we sadly say goodbye to Tom Magliozzi, one of Car Talk’s irreplaceable Tappet Brothers. Tom has died at age 77, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Car Talk has continued, thankfully, in the form of replayed weekly archived shows. If there’s any bright spot in this dreadful news it’s that NPR, and Tom’s surviving brother, Ray, plan to continue these.

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