A little perspective

By Times Wires
Published March 9, 2008

He'll have what i'm having

First a little joke told by Russians, printed by the Los Angeles Times, about Vladimir Putin and the newly elected president, Dmitry Medvedev, handpicked by Putin and widely considered a bit of a puppet. Putin and Medvedev (MED-veh-dev) go out to a restaurant to celebrate. Putin: "I'll have the steak." Waiter: "And what about the vegetable?" Putin: "He'll take the steak too." This next part is serious. So little is known about Medvedev and what his relationship with Putin will be like that analysts look for signs in the unlikeliest of places, like the Kremlin watchers of old staring at airbrushed photos of the Politburo. Lately, the subject of wristwatches has come up. "Putin wears his watch on the right wrist; Medvedev on the left," explains the Los Angeles Times. "Kremlin watchers say some of the United Russia party faithful have begun to switch their watches from right wrist to left to signal loyalty to the new chief."

Yes, they were making it up

It's been a bad few weeks in the nonfiction world. First, a bestselling Holocaust memoir, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was revealed as a fake. The author was never trapped in the Warsaw ghetto. Not adopted by wolves who protected her from the Nazis. Did not trek 1,900 miles across Europe in search of her deported parents. Or kill a German soldier in self-defense. Not even Jewish, the Associated Press reported. Misha Defonseca, 71, a Belgian writer living near Boston, admitted through her lawyers that her book, translated into 18 languages and adapted for the French feature film Surviving With Wolves, was a fantasy. She gave her real name as Monique De Wael. Then the New York Times reported that Love and Consequences, a memoir by Margaret B. Jones that received rave reviews, was made up. The author of the work is really Margaret Seltzer, and she confessed to the newspaper in a phone interview. Not a half-white, half-Native American who was raised by a black foster mother in a tough neighborhood of Los Angeles. Didn't sell drugs for the Bloods gang. Nope. In real life, she is a white woman who was raised by her biological family in a well-off area of San Fernando Valley and went to an exclusive private school. The story began unfolding when her sister saw a profile of "Jones" in the New York Times and alerted the publisher. Seltzer said she wrote it while "sitting at the Starbucks" in South Central Los Angeles. There is a novel solution: Don't pretend they're true. Simply call these fictional works what they are - "novels."

Is an old sitcom a sign of intelligent life?

It's probably getting harder to find intelligent life in the universe. And no, this isn't a joke. In 1961, Frank Drake, a young radio astronomer, along with 11 other men including a Nobel-winning chemist and a young, unknown Carl Sagan, did some math - what came to be known as the Drake Equation - and guesstimated that there might be a thousand to a billion civilizations in the galaxy. They started looking. Drake told the New York Times last week that he no longer expects to hear from ET in his lifetime. Under realistic estimates, he says, you would need to look at 10-million stars (there are 200-billion in the galaxy), and there is not enough time left. "We could be wrong," he said. "The extraterrestrials have to help us a lot," he explained, by beaming powerful beacons our way. But the trend might be in the opposite direction. Earth became detectable in the 1950s, he said, when the planet was full of powerful television and radar transmitters beaming and leaking gigawatts of power into space. But now big transmitters are being phased out in favor of cable and satellites that leak hardly anything at all. Earth is gradually going radio quiet. "That's big change nobody anticipated," he said. Once the big powerful transmitters go off the air, he said, "We will still exist but we will be hard to detect."

Watching each other watching each other

Just thought you should know. At 11:06 p.m. on Super Tuesday II primary day, one of the professional bloggers for the Economist wrote this: I should note, incidentally, that I'm at a small party with a gaggle of bloggers, and a New York Times reporter has just shown up to cover us covering the cable networks covering the returns. I've now covered her coverage of our coverage of their coverage, and this sentence is reflexive coverage of my coverage. If I recall correctly from my skimming of Godel, Escher, Bach and religious viewing of Doctor Who, this will create a strange loop that rends the fabric of the universe asunder.