Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Time on our hands

A challenge as 2008 winds down:
Don’t waste a (leap) second

The year has been bad enough for much of the world, but it’s about to get longer – tonight at the stroke of 11:59:59, some crazed scientists have determined, we must add a second to 2008.

What to do.

After all the turmoil of the economy, war and disaster – natural and otherwise – we have an extra second on our hands this year, and it seems a shame to waste it, to just let it blow past like so much atomic dust.

Wikipedia has a lengthy explanation about why we need another second added to the master clock, yup, an atomic clock, that, for all you conspiracy buffs out there, controls our lives. (For the rest of us, we can pretend it doesn’t.) I gather it has something to do with the shimmying of a particular atom, though how anyone can figure that out....

So maybe, with a bit less than eight hours before this adjustment in the time of our lives, I can throw out to my vast cyber-readership (OK, it’s not vast, and on an average day maybe there’s 21 of you, but the word ‘vast’ sounded so nice) a challenge: Suggest how we can all best use an extra second this year.

C’mon – get to it! Time’s a-wastin’!

Pray? Initiate an act of intimacy? Take a last, deep breath, or give up a sigh for the end of days, at least those of a year that’s one second longer than scheduled.

Or how about this: Just laugh. It’ll be 2009 before you know it.

And here at The Real Muck, Bonnie and I wish you all a most excellent new year.

Christmas gone at last?

The holiday has its merits. I say this as a lapsed Jew (and, for that matter, a lapsed Unitarian), Christmas is OK – particularly as a reason for families to draw together, like Thanksgiving or even the Fourth of July. Families need all the help they can get, after all.

But as a religious occasion, I am very confused. Let’s see, peace on earth and goodwill and all that, and a jammed parking lot outside the local Best Buy store. Inside, the soothing tune of “Silent Night” is a backdrop to the booms and gunfire of demonstrator video games on half a dozen high-def TV and home theater systems. Loud enough, I’m sure, to send an Iraqi diving for cover. There could be a war outside (aside from the skirmish for a parking space), and who would know it?

The day after Christmas, everything you bought is 25 percent cheaper. That, I suppose, is when the folks who celebrate Orthodox Christmas begin their shopping season – if they happen to celebrate their holiday in an excess of gift-giving.

The Orthodox Christmas is Jan. 7, 2009, based on the Gregorian Calendar, rather than the Julian Calendar which for now is 13 days behind (not counting leap seconds, of course).
For those interested in the celebration, I found a nice account on the BBC Web site:

To an outside observer, it seems to make more sense than test-battling video games at Best Buy.

Blog envy

The Real Muck has had a surge of attention since Saturday, when Bonnie went “blogistic” on malware. More than 250 visits have been logged at Statcounter, most of them drawn by her account of the battle against the trojan that invaded her computer through a seemingly harmless but infected Web site.

I’ve been watching where visitors come from and what draws them, both of which are tracked in a general fashion by Statcounter. I can see whether they came through a link from another blog or Web site, and geographically the town or country of their Internet provider, among other characteristics.

They’ve been drawn from places as diverse as Claremont, Calif., and Hahira, Georgia; Sydney, Nova Scotia (we’ve been there!) and Billings, Montana; Mahwah, New Jersey, and Worland, Wyoming; Washington, D.C., and Macclesfield, Cheshire, United Kingdom, Palestine; towns in Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee – even Mexico; and places as remote as China, Japan and Thailand.

Some, like a visitor from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, departed with a click directly to the Malwarebytes Web site, suggesting they were dealing with the same problem that infected Bonnie’s computer.

And so far, we’ve had two messages from folks who, like Bonnie, cured the problem with the Malwarebytes software.

We particularly enjoyed this comment:

My daughter wants to know what kind of scented candle you like so she can light it in your honor.

I have just reformatted my computer because of the Vundo and Virtumonde viruses and she had just gotten a new motherboard and freshing reloaded XP and found to her horror her computer already was infected.

We used Malwarebytes and it cleaned her computer right up!

Thanks for raging against the idiots who love to create these things. They need to be blindfolded and bound in a room full of angry mothers with red hot kitchen utensils...

Our answer: Cinnamon will do nicely.

Today's fortune cookie message

Friends long absent are coming back to you.

Daily number: 232

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bonnie Goes Blogistic: Malware

Infected by pop-up plague, good cure tough to find

Trojan used to be such an innocent word – you know, like it was supposed to be protection.

Those were the good old days, before the digital revolution gave it a whole new meaning.

And we’re not talking about online porn stuff, either.

Not long ago I received email warnings relayed by family and friends that using Microsoft Internet Explorer might compromise my computer. I took it so seriously that I stopped using IE and turned to Mozilla Firefox as my browser.

Guess what? It, too, was vulnerable to attack as my computer was invaded by a Trojan from visiting a Web site that was Googled with Foxfire.

No, it wasn’t a porn site. I was merely looking for some UBB code I wanted to use on a forum. As soon as I clicked on this site (whose owners likely don’t even know it is infected, and I don’t remember the URL), Internet Explorer opened with no command from me and I received a machinegun-rapid barrage of advertisements.

I remember one ad being for online sports betting, but hardly paid attention to the content. I just wanted the pop-ups gone, but they came so fast I couldn’t close the windows quickly enough.

The lesson of Vanuatu

While this was happening, I remembered from years ago how our daughter’s computer at college, in a dial-up connection, got snared by a Web site where rapid clicking to close windows brought in an undesirable link to some distant place we’d never heard of – Vanuatu – and a huge unauthorized charge to the phone bill. A friend had been using the computer, surfing evidently in all the wrong places.

Because of that, I knew I shouldn’t continue clicking to close the array of windows. So I hit Control-Alt-Delete, bringing up the Task Manager where I could End Task for unwanted applications.

That worked for the moment, but not in time to avoid longer-term problems. I was infected with a Trojan.

What bothers me is that I’ve been good. I haven’t visited questionable Web sites. In fact, the one I clicked on that planted this Trojan had a green sign from my supposed protector, McAfee, which indicated that it was safe. And I keep up with all the latest updates.

I used to subscribe to McAfee. But in buying high-speed cable, it came free with the service from Comcast.

(I know – they say if it’s free, you get what you pay for.)

I have McAfee protection. I counted on it, and it let me down.

I’m not a computer geek. All I want to do is use my equipment for creativity, communication and information. That’s it.

But now I had to face geeky challenges to try to fix my problem since I couldn’t count on McAfee. Nor could I count on Microsoft – which is real good about messaging you about having to shut down, and asking if you want the problem reported. Kind of an inside joke, no doubt, for all the answers anyone gets back from Seattle or Mumbai or wherever.

Vulnerable and angry

But I was determined to fight back against this “home invasion.”

Yes, that’s what it was. It was a digital home invasion and I felt violated. I WAS violated. I couldn’t trust actions I performed on my computer for fear that I was vulnerable. I WAS vulnerable.

So the first thing I tried to do was to go back a few days to an earlier restore point. Dead end! Apparently the Trojan took care of that and all restore points were wiped out except for the day I was infected, and I wasn’t going to use that as a restore point.

The next thing I did was a full McAfee scan. Guess what? Nothing was found.

Then I rebooted my computer to safe mode and scanned again. McAfee still didn’t find anything.

During the next couple of days, McAfee was able to quarantine a malware file named Generic. And it was able to remove another, named Vundo. However, it was unable to do anything with GenericArtemis and this was a problem.

I got constant pop-ups from McAfee that I should reboot and scan. Every time I did, nothing was found and then I got the same message again. It reminded me of the old song about Boston Charlie riding the MTA. It was an unending, frustrating loop.

Unable to delete Internet Explorer (probably because it is so ingrained in the Microsoft package), I took some extreme measures – unplugging my connection to the outside world, and setting the program to its highest security level. Then I deleted Firefox.

Connecting to the Internet again, I started using Safari, an Apple product which seems not to be vulnerable.

But I still had a Trojan. I knew this because I kept getting a blank white screen. With the new IE settings, the Trojan couldn’t access the advertising sites but could still open IE –hence the blank window, which I then had to close using Control-Alt-Delete.

Next I tried to download another possible malware remedy called Ad-Aware, recommended by a son-in-law who said it had worked for him in the past. He also looked at a record of the infected files, and said, “This is bad,” explaining that the files had “hooks” which attached themselves to many other files.

Microsoft disallowed a download of Ad-Aware until the security setting was back to “medium,” and then I was able to scan with Ad-Aware, which found and removed a nasty thing named Virtumonde.

But I was not anywhere near out of the woods. There was still a problem, as some electronic critter kept opening Internet Explorer and the white screen reappeared again and again.
Neither McAfee nor Ad-Aware solved the problem.

Link to the solution?

Next, I tried downloading a program called Malwarebytes, which was recommended by a participant in a forum of McAfee users – and I seemed to have hit the jackpot! (So McAfee was good for something – one of its users had an answer).

Malwarebytes found about 40 infected files and removed some. The others were quarantined and then removed when I restarted my computer.

It’s now been six hours since I’ve done this, and so far (knock on plastic), no more ads.

I’m left angry that the good guys haven’t been smart enough to overcome the bad guys – at least, in this case, Microsoft (assuming they are good guys) and McAfee (where maybe they are smart, but just not fast enough to keep up).

I’m angry that stealth programs can invade my computer, in spite of all the right things I do. I’m angry at Microsoft and McAfee for not protecting me.

But I’m thankful to Safari for providing a free browser that doesn’t seem to be so vulnerable, and to Malwarebytes for having a smart program that helped me solve my problem.

I’m so grateful that, if a few days pass without a recurrence, I might even buy the full version.

Today's fortune cookie message

Your happiness is intertwined with your outlook on life.

(... but probably not with Microsoft's Outlook Express)

Daily number: 900

Editor's note

The Bonnie who occasionally goes 'blogistic' here in The Real Muck is Bonnie J. Schupp, the life partner, inspiration and art director for the blogger-in-chief. David has been lazy and not written very much in the past week. But he'll be back soon, and thanks you for visiting.

Note to dictionary editors

Blogistic: Venting feelings or exorcizing demons or any sort through a blog posting.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bonnie Goes Blogistic on Christmas Trees

Reflection on Imperfection


‘Tis the season for unreason

when green spills from wallets

of those believing in traditional pleasing.

‘Tis the season when people pine for a fine Christmas tree—

white pine, balsam fir, white spruce, Fraser fir,  Douglas fir, scotch pine,


but it must be a wintergreen, evergreen, ever-perfect, perfectly-shaped

Barbie bush. 

In the nippy air, hundreds of Barbies form green lines

with straight spines, very vertical trunks, ample branches

each with a single perfectly-pointed top

waiting for its traditional spot up the

angel’s ...tush.


Partly hidden ornaments adorn lush limbs,

shiny balls peer from green mazes

and candy canes lavish properly perky

branch tips.

But Barbie’s lavish bushy branches

leave little room for ornaments

lest adornments detract from her own

flawless beauty.


I wander far and wide, bucking the tide

wondering why I must settle for popular perception.

I search for Barbie’s ugly cousin,

a form, a shape that doesn’t fit the mold,

flat-chested for small house



It’s the wind-blown hair, the hole in the sock, the scrape on the knee, the spaghetti stain on the shirt, the pimple on the nose that tell a story

of  living.


I like a crooked smile, spaces between teeth, scraggly hair, spindly legs

and skinny arms that reach out

open to discovery.


I want a tree that doesn’t hide,

that opens wide to embrace pride

held in accessories’ histories, their stories and the

love they imply.


I seek a spindly tree, the ugly factor with character,

one willing to show open spaces,

places for treasured ornaments grown dear over the years...


those that have lost their shine, are ragged from playful cats, have missing parts, the hippo of bedtime stories, an apple from a student, a violin recalling cacophonous practice, clothes-pin soldiers formed by tiny hands, hummingbirds like ones covering a morning field years ago in the Grand Canyon, a plastic dog a reminder of a lost pet, baby’s first Christmas 25-years ago, grandmother’s crocheted hobbyhorse and mouse, eloquent velvet-covered and pearl-studded balls made by a nearly blind friend

long gone.


And then I see it—the orphan cousin in a heap

apart from the collection,

far from customers’ inspection.

I reflect on its simple beauty.

Missing branches leave

room for us.


I like my new bare and slightly crooked tree,

I like the way you hang your hand-painted sand dollar next to my beaded bird.

It is in the spaces where

we hang our love.


Perfection isn’t about shape and complexion.

Perfection lies in connections...

how we create them,

how we fill in and connect those spaces

that life gives us.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Somewhat Super Bowl

Winning all the marbles,
or at least bragging rights,
makes for a fine fantasy

Football season ended for my team Sunday night – in a Fantasy League triumph.

I call my team the Muckies (short for Muckrakers), and play in an online league mostly composed of folks in advertising and marketing – Adgeeks. So when news comes out ahead against the ad world, I rejoice.

The Muckies were born four years ago, and initially played only in a sport I follow closely, baseball. I won the Adgeeks World Series one year, got cocky and decided to join in the football competition. Last year, the football Mucks sucked.

I still feel a bit overmatched when it comes to football, but since the players on my team were mostly selected in the league draft by a computer, luck has a lot to do with it. This year’s draft went pretty well, and my Mucks won the first seven weeks –then, like in the real world, injuries started taking their toll, and the Mucks lost six straight.

The season ended with three victories – the first just in time to win one of the three divisional titles, followed by victories in both rounds of the playoffs.

Sunday night’s Faux Super Bowl win was fueled by the Mucks’ quarterback Phil Rivers of the San Diego Chargers throwing four touchdown passes against Tampa Bay, and Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams carrying the ball for four touchdowns against the New York Giants.

Rivers was my backup quarterback until my starter, Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals, suffered a bad early-season injury. I picked up Williams as a league free agent player in tweaking my lineup eight weeks into the season.

My wife thinks I’m a little nuts to spend many hours hunkered down at the computer studying player performances, team records, stadium weather conditions and injury and scouting reports, and then watching two or three weekend NFL football games, but... I won!

So, you ask, how much did you win?

Answer: Nothing. It’s a moneyless league, and all you end up with is bragging rights.

So here I am, spiking the ball in the proverbial end zone -- or maybe, like one of the real-world New England Patriots players Sunday after a touchdown, making a snow angel in the end zone. And that was, if you’ll pardon the expression, very cool.
Fortune cookie message of the day
“It is a nice day.”
Daily Number: 901

Friday, December 19, 2008

Farewell, Paul Weyrich

"Moral Majority" concept inspired some liberal-leftist fun

I have to say belated thanks to Paul Weyrich, an architect in the shaping of conservative thinking in America – and I don’t usually pay much homage to that wing of social (or antisocial) thought.

Weyrich, who died Thursday at 66, is credited with the buzz-phrase “moral majority” that in 1979 became the name of an influential Christian-right organization led by his pal, televangelist Jerry Falwell.

The name clearly had its roots in the “Silent Majority” mantra coined a decade earlier for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign to counter a growing outcry over the war in Vietnam and social ills that, sadly, still plague America.

But were it not for Weyrich’s little wordplay, my wife Bonnie and I might never have become card-carrying members of a group it inspired: The Immoral Minority.

We were introduced to those entertaining leftist subversives in the early 1980s while visiting an Oregon woman old enough to be our great-grandmom. I recall she was 79, because she was in failing health and told us she planned to die by the time she was 80 and be buried alongside her husband under a lovely tree in the pasture where her old Arabian horse was grazing.

She gave us literature on two organizations she belonged to – one of them the Hemlock Society, which advocated the right to die before it was a fashionable topic. The other was the Immoral Minority.

We soon joined both organizations, not necessarily as active members.

From the Hemlock Society, we received more literature, including a book by founder Derek Humphry, who evidently is still around marketing his ideas even though Hemlock has changed in management and softened its name to “Compassion & Choices.”

From the Immoral Minority, we received membership cards, buttons, bumper stickers and a good laugh – which, I might add, we never got from the Moral Majority.

Well, actually we did get some other laughs – particularly in the late 1980s when a Moral Majority fellow traveler, the Rev. Jim Bakker, got caught up in sex and fraud scandals, went off to prison, and got quite the tongue-lashing from Falwell, who rescued and took over Bakker’s lucrative PTL (Praise The Lord) Club television show.

So impressed were the founders of the Immoral Minority that they decided to go out of business – because, among other reasons, the Moral Majority had demonstrated it wasn’t particularly moral. They advertised a “garage sale” offering up the remaining stash of regalia.

We’ve got some of it down in the basement or up in the attic, in one of the dozens of boxes of stuff that packrats like me seem to accumulate over the years as souvenirs, stuff like the newspaper rack placard declaring NIXON RESIGNS,

But at least we have the button in hand – Bonnie just found it (photo, above) lurking in the bottom of her purse. Time once again to wear it like a badge of honor.

More troubles at my old newspaper

I went to a little sendoff party Thursday night for my friend Norm Gomlak, one of several editors who have held my old job as night metro editor at The Baltimore Sun since my buyout-retirement party nearly 18 months ago. The “buyout” or “voluntary layoff” window (whatever they’re calling it) had opened recently, closed, and then apparently opened again before year’s end, and he opted to squeeze through as management sought a little more trimming of the newspaper’s decimated staff.

So I talked to lots of my friends joining in the party at a nearby bar/hangout called the Midtown Yacht Club. I heard that a couple of newsroom fax machines are on the fritz, and getting them fixed is a problem when parent Tribune’s recent bankruptcy filing makes paying for repairs a little tricky. There were even questions whether the newspaper would be able to pay freelance writers, whose contributions to the content of The Sun have been increasingly apparent.

And in the wake of the decision by Detroit’s daily newspapers to cut home delivery to three days a week, there’s thinking that Tribune/Sun management is at least watching that development in the relentless search for ways to slash costs.

A free-distribution competitor, The Baltimore Examiner, launched two years ago as a daily newspaper with home delivery in upscale city and suburban neighborhoods, scaled back months ago to mostly city news rack and hawker giveaways, and home delivery only on Thursdays and Sundays (but almost never in my Anne Arundel County community).

The Sun, meanwhile, has gradually cut back publication of its reintroduced zoned Anne Arundel County section from three days a week to the latest schedule announced this week: Only on Sundays.

Norm, by the way, worked at The Sun for a bit over six years and is one of the nicest folks I’ve ever met in the news business.

Cheers, pal!

Fortune cookie message of the day

“Get your mind set – confidence will lead you on.”
Daily Number: 701

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The future of newspapers

Blogger Ettlin, on last day working in Baltimore Sun newsroom, May 31, 2007.

A columnist friend presents
a troubling question to ponder

My friend Dan Rodricks, the longtime Baltimore Sun columnist, posted a question on Facebook today, fishing for others’ thoughts:

If newspaper publishers want to win the day, why not shut down all their free web sites? To increase the value of the metropolitan dailies, like the one I work for, why not shut down the web and make the print editions the only way to get this valuable resource? We never should have given the news away for free, with any expectation that the print editions could survive. Now, with revenues and old-fashion paid circulation falling, why shouldn't we go back the other way -- on recycled paper, of course -- and say to the public: "If you want this, pay for it?"

I had a front-row seat in the same newsroom some 35 years ago when the first computers walked in – and it wasn’t pretty. The computers weren’t very good, but the printers recognized the threat right away. Their jobs were on the line.

For awhile, the computers hummed along with clanking Linotype machines. Some pages were put together the old-fashioned way, as pieces of cast metal and every line of a story a chunk of words you could hold and feel in your hand; others were assembled as a cut-and-paste job after the words spilled out of a darkroom-like enclosure in columns on glossy paper.

Printers made the usual mistakes: Sometimes a line would literally drop and vanish. Or maybe a few paragraphs would slip on deadline out of big Bob Bowman’s hand as he rushed toward the chase – the metal frame holding the page – and he’d reassemble them line by line, bending over the scattered slugs of metal on the hard wooden floor and reading them backwards since that’s the way type was cast. The amusing result, when it wasn’t caught on time in proofreading, was called “scrambled type.”

For a while, the Harris computers up in the newsroom imitated the printers. Scroll the dozen or so lines visible on the little greenish “video display terminal” display too quickly, and it would delete a line here and duplicate another there, usually making critical paragraphs unintelligible.

But the printers knew what was happening, and fought back at contract time. The pages still made of metal, they controlled – largely the classified advertising. And for one memorable Sunday edition, they inserted some extra pieces of metal, actually a lot of pieces of metal, in various sizes and fonts declaring many times on every page throughout the classified section: “Fuck The Sun Up The Ass.”

The phones started ringing minutes after the first edition – known as the “Bulldog” – hit the streets that Saturday afternoon. Supervisors dispatched to the composing room rooted through the pages trying to eliminate every hunk of terrorist type, but among the dozens of pages of classified ads, it was an impossible task. The subsequent editions included a full-page explanation and apology to readers.

The printers eventually won lifetime contracts that took nearly three decades for successor owners (Times Mirror and Tribune) to eliminate through attrition and buyouts, the last of them departing with settlements far more lucrative than those offered over the past decade in departments whose unions had no such lifetime guarantees.

Sign of times to come

In the end, the composing room where pages were set into type and assembled, which took up an entire floor of the newspaper building, had been reduced to a small office area where a sardonic sign was posted reading: “Decomposing Room.”

But who could imagine how much “decomposing” was in the newspaper’s future.

Departments had given way, one by one, as computers got smaller and better – engravers, lithographers, proofreaders, even telephone operators – the list goes on. (So far, security guard seems a safe occupation, although that task has long been outsourced to lowest-bidder, low-paying companies, as has janitorial work. Late at night, in the largely emptied newsroom, Spanish becomes the dominant language.)

I never thought online newspapers would happen so quickly. But one day, the computers caught up with photographic images and it became a simple matter to integrate “type” and “art” on an electronic page, and then posting on the Internet picked up speed, and newspaper companies started putting news and pictures together in pages anyone could see anywhere in the world much faster than a print edition could be manufactured and delivered.

And, as my friend Dan observed, most big newspaper gave it away for free. Some tried selling it, but retreated because so many others were not.

Mail-order subscriptions were as good as dead, and home-delivery editions – well, we know what’s happening in circulation numbers industry-wide. Fewer and fewer people are buying newspapers.

The question I pose is whether all those folks who are no longer buying newspapers are, instead, reading them online.

I bet not – at least not in the sense of turning pages. Newspaper sites are click-on driven, with stories tallied up as “page views.” Advertising is an annoyance, and the news sites try their best to force clicks onto ads to suggest that readers noticed them. Counts are what counts in this strange electronic information age.

And the “pages” mostly don’t look like newspaper pages. Click on a headline to read a story, click back to find another. Packaging of news is awkward, so threads of content are hard to follow. Few sites reproduce a full newspaper image beyond that of the front page.

People are reading newspapers less, and getting their news and information through alternative sources – not all of them as responsible as major daily newspapers.

And the newspapers themselves continue to contribute to their own demise by shrinking content, and original reporting. At The Sun, which once had its own network of foreign bureaus, unique international journalism is largely dead. It once had correspondents based in London, Paris, Rio, Bonn, New Delhi, Moscow, Tel Aviv (later Jerusalem), Johannesburg, Mexico City, Tokyo, and Beijing, and maybe a few others, though not all at the same time. They’re gone now.

The foreign editor took a buyout. There was no one left to manage and edit, really – just stories off wire service stories and from Tribune correspondents working for sister newspapers.

The highly regarded Sun Washington Bureau has shrunk, inevitably.

Once upon a very long time ago, The Baltimore Sun had a promotional slogan -- The Sun: One of America’s Great Newspapers.

A talented editor named Steve Luxenberg was leaving for better climes (he ended up at The Washington Post), and was smiling at a camera for the candid photo that would appear on a fake front page commemorating his departure. Behind him was a large horizontal poster image bannering the slogan. Steve, perhaps jokingly, put his hand over the word “Great.”

The Sun: One of America’s Newspapers.

Assessing blame

I can blame The Sun for its own decline only to a limit. There was, after all, the 1986 change from privately-held company to corporate ownership, and now being part of the Tribune media empire caught up bankruptcy filings in the ocean of debt created in the privatization purchase by billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell in the name of a fictional employee ownership plan.

But there were many decisions at home that alienated readers, time and again. Among them:

+ The company murdered its once-dominant evening newspaper earlier than necessary, forcing circulation down by duplicating content from the morning edition and figuring rightly that subscribers taking both papers would cancel the evening one. When numbers had dropped close enough to 100,000, the company used the plunging circulation to justify the end. It would have happened eventually, but the killing was premature and alienated many readers who for all their lives had preferred the evening paper.

+ The newspaper more recently alienated mainstay older subscribers with content changes that included eliminating stock tables from the daily edition, wrongly figuring they could readily turn to the Internet.

+ It redesigned the paper several times, always shrinking content in the process; for a time, it shrunk the highly read sports section into a tabloid format with far less space (and in reversing course with a return to a broadsheet format, the section was thinner than before).

+ There was a memorable note, about a year ago, from the powers overseeing the newspaper pushing increased use of photos and graphics, at a time when the news hole was already shrinking. Readers supposedly needed more charts and fewer stories. How about a pie chart in the face?

Slim pickin’s

There’s hardly enough paper in the paper for a modest crab feast.

The daily “Metro” or “Maryland” section is gone, preceded by the daily “Business” section. Now, the daily paper is just three sections – News (including local, national, international and business), Sports and You.

Yup, You. Whatever you’s are left, anyway.

Sometimes I grow wistful for the days when The Sun promoted itself as “Maryland’s Marketplace” and “Maryland’s Newspaper.” But time and again, it would launch expanded coverage of the rural counties, only to retreat to the core metropolitan area. Recently, the last dedicated Eastern Shore reporter was moved westward across the Chesapeake Bay to join a slimmed-down news staff based in Annapolis. In response, he took a buyout, or what’s now called a “voluntary layoff,” in the latest round of staff reductions across the newspaper.

The mission of The Sun – I still think of it as “my newspaper,” having worked there four decades and outlasting half a dozen folks called “publishers” before my buyout ship came in last year – has narrowed. And you can read what’s left for free on the Internet, where you’ll find dozens of other sources for the national and international news that used to be part and parcel of a “great” newspaper. Unfortunately, a lot of that news is coming from fewer sources.

You’ll also find on the Internet a clamor of other voices, some spreading truth and others lies, in a cacophony of information... a buzzing, even. A very loud buzzing.

Pandora’s box was opened, after all, and the bees are everywhere.

Dan, I’m afraid there’s no going back. We’ve given people too many reasons not to read newspapers.

For those who can access it, here’s a link to Dan Rodricks’ posting:

Maybe smaller is better

The National Public Radio program “Weekend America” had a related segment today, the thrust being that predictions of the demise of newspapers are premature. Newspapers currently have a profit margin averaging around 11 percent. But the profit is less than it used to be, and declining, and the largest newspapers are having bigger woes than smaller ones – and there are many more in the “smaller” category, where circulations may be around 35,000 daily instead of a quarter-million or more.

I’ve been working lately in a temporary, part-time editing job at the Baltimore Business Journal, a weekly newspaper with a daily Web report that takes up a big part of my two-day schedule. This week, though, I was asked to write a short opinion piece looking at the Tribune bankruptcy in light of my long association with The Sun.

It is supposed to appear in next Friday’s edition; I’ll post a link when it happens.

‘You will succeed in business’

Yeah, right. Sounds like something you’d find in a fortune cookie.

Well, The Real Muck is introducing a new feature: Fortune cookie message of the day, mostly courtesy of our favorite restaurant, the Szechuan Cafe in Pasadena, Maryland.

Here goes. Hold your breath.

Serious trouble will bypass you.

Your three-digit lottery number is 600.

Good luck.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Movie review: ‘Doubt’

A discomforting evening
with a couple of Oscar winners

Take a very intelligent and friendly priest, add a no-nonsense nun running the parish school, throw in an eighth-grade boy whose parents sense he might have homosexual leanings, and you’ve got the seeds for “Doubt” – a powerful drama opening in a week or so in movie theaters across the nation.

But it probably won’t be out there long before heading to the video store market.

And that’s not because of the Oscar-winner casting of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest and Meryl Streep as the principal, or any number of terrific supporting players; nor is it for any lack of tautness in the script, or timeliness and timelessness of the issue.

It’s just slow, carefully drawn and adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play set in 1964, dealing with a topic so powerfully uncomfortable: The sexual abuse of boys by priests.

In this case, there’s precious little evidence – only the strong suspicion of the priest by the principal. And she conveys that feeling to the idealistic teacher of the boy, who is the lone African-American pupil in the school, and to his mother, whose own protective desires are based on more immediately threatening fears for his safety from peers and a physically abusive husband.

Every moment, every subtle movement of children in the school, even the lifting of a fork at the nuns’ dinner table, carries overtones about the character of the key players, in a tale that can have no happy ending.

The photography and settings are stunningly real, the classroom scenes vivid, the action almost entirely psychological, and the performances riveting – the aging Streep’s, in particular, likely to bring an Academy Award nomination.

Trouble is, it’s all so discomforting – and maybe a little overblown, metaphorically, including entirely too many scenes of flying leaves.

In the end, “Doubt” left me in doubt, as well... suspicious, but uncertain, of whether the priest did it; maybe more concerned about what happens to characters like the young nun and the boy, whose further paths are not addressed; and walking out of the theater into a real world that seems ever more disconcerting.