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Issue Date: October 1999

Scientific American's Working Knowledge should be required reading for those people who claim to know everything but have no explanation for anything. Found on the last page each month, the installments are written by contributing specialists who provide their expertise on everyday things. Often coupled with colorful diagrams or photos, the succinct explanations spell out in simple language the way things work. Why, for example, doesn't Krazy Glue stick to its own tube? (The answer has to do with polar and nonpolar surfaces.) One recent column described the difference between aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, in treating pain. (Aspirin chemically alters the walls of our enzyme channels, blocking the production of pain-inducing molecules; other drugs physically plug those channels.) There's been no scientific explanation yet for those self-styled know-it-alls. Maybe next month.

—Chipp Winston

in blind eye (simon & Schuster, September 1999), Pulitzer Prize-winning writer James B. Stewart dissects the disturbing tale of Michael Swango, a doctor who the FBI has linked to the deaths of 60 people. The book, which grew out of an article Stewart wrote for The New Yorker, details Swango's rise in the medical profession. Incredibly, Swango gained entrée into a number of prestigious medical residency programs even after patients died in his care, and after he was convicted of poisoning four coworkers.

Stewart—a former teacher of this writer's—relentlessly pursues his subject. Piecing together more than 200 interviews, he reveals Swango's obsession with death and his powers in persuading others of his innocence. "Nearly all those who came into contact with Swango...defended themselves by pointing out that he was such a skilled psychopathic liar," writes Stewart. Blind Eye is a convincing assault on the medical establishment, whose stunted investigations allowed Swango to continue his silent rampage.

—Kimberly Conniff

At last! A Drudgian website without the guilt-inducing aspects of the Drudge Report (sure, it might all be lies, but we can't help ourselves). The latest effort from veteran magazine writer Mickey Kaus—who's worked for The New Republic, Slate, and Newsweek—is the somewhat gossipy, frequently analytical, and always interesting political/media website Unlike Drudge, Kaus maintains a certain level of gravitas and responsibility. As he puts it, "I pretend to uphold some journalistic standards. It's a much more conventional journalistic venture in that sense."

Kaus is at his best when he comments on other publications' articles and writers, as with an August dispatch that questioned whether Talk writer Lucinda Franks became simply a White House shill in the aftermath of her controversial article on Hillary Clinton. Kaus critiques the media with an insider's understanding and without pulling his punches.

—Jesse Oxfeld

In the world of teen magazines, where headlines are made of perfectly applied lip liner and expertly teased hair, true girl power is found in the form of New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams. Without a makeup tip in sight, this ad-free bimonthly fills its pages with the opinions, ideas, and dreams of its adolescent readers. Each issue, written and edited largely by girls, covers a specific theme, such as "humor and happiness," "politics and feminism," or "fantasies and fairy tales." New Moon (available online at profiles such accomplished girls and women as Margaret Fishback, a poet and the highest-paid woman working in advertising in the 1920s. Other features include essays by girls from around the world, discussions of sexism, and the "Ask A Girl" advice column. As is evident in their debates about vegetarianism and Title IX, New Moon girls are hip to the real world—or at least to the one outside the shopping mall.

—Stephanie Bleyer

Stay Free! is the cool nonprofit 'zine that reads like a tour of America's consumer-driven culture. In its pages, editor and publisher Carrie McLaren and contributors examine the excesses of commercialism in American society. "Rationality wasn't behind the kick in the head I felt," she wrote in a feature about music in advertising, "when, upon entering a local bagel place, I heard [Sly & the Family Stone's] ‘Everyday People,' on a radio and…[I] thought of a car commercial. Not Sly Stone. Or discovering those records in college."

McLaren's unbridled sense of humor is apparent throughout the 'zine. Stay Free! regularly features back-cover spoofs that mock ads for everything from khakis to sports utility vehicles. In issue #16 (McLaren publishes "about every ten months"; ordering information is available online at the media critic cum sociologist presents a jocular yet scholarly article on the social psychology of mindlessness, "the human tendency to operate on autopilot." Stay Free! is a true alternative to all things profit-driven.

—Julie Scelfo

To many, the name Sicily conjures images of savory cuisine, ancient cultures, and, yes, the Mafia. Writer Peter Robb throws all these ingredients into Midnight in Sicily (Vintage Books, March 1999), creating a rich stew. Half travelogue, half crime history, the book is structured around the purported connections between Italian politicians and La Cosa Nostra, and how, since World War II, organized crime has created a multinational shadow state.

Robb weaves disparate elements and characters: A poignant chapter about Sicilian women includes vignettes of a prize-winning photographer turned politician, widows, and transgender prostitutes who testify in the defense of an alleged hit man.

Robb also details brutal killings, mountain towns, and Arab-influenced Sicilian feasts. In so doing, he dispels much of the Godfather romanticism that surrounds the Mafia, and enriches the island's stark, mysterious beauty.

—Matthew Reed Baker

With their dark, forbidding themes, E! Entertainment Television's Mysteries & Scandals and The E! True Hollywood Story strip the glamour from the world of celebrity to expose the ghosts in Hollywood's closets. From the behind-the-scenes cast conflicts of the hit seventies sitcom Three's Company to the late Frank Sinatra's connections to reputed Mafia figures, True Hollywood Story (hour-long episodes premiere weekly) uncovers the dirty little secrets that today's star publicists guard with their lives. An even seedier view of Hollywood emerges in Mysteries & Scandals, hosted by former New York Daily News gossip columnist A.J. Benza. The half-hour show, which airs throughout the week, focuses on the lives of Tinseltown's most notorious leading men and women, including the hard-drinking, womanizing Spencer Tracy and the enraged, wire hanger-wielding Joan Crawford.

—Justin Zaremby

Movie director and producer Eli Habillio serves up a fascinating—albeit unsettling—documentary with A Hole In The Head (Mad Dog Films, Inc., on home video). The movie examines the controversial practice of trepanation, the cutting of a small hole in a person's skull to, some believe, increase his or her level of consciousness. In addition to providing a history of the procedure (including stomach-turning footage of trepanation being performed), Kabillio interviews modern-day advocates and practitioners. We also learn that there are some fairly erudite folk among the ranks of those willing to feel the pain (including a former professor of President Bill Clinton's). A Hole In The Head is at once horrifying and compelling. Be forewarned: If you cringe at the sight of blood, you need this film like you need…

—Ari Voukydis

If you yearn for stimulating talk with your mid-morning cup of coffee, tune in to MSNBC's Watch It! With Laura Ingraham (Mondays-Fridays,11 a.m.-12 p.m. EST). The show's catchphrase, "Where spin doesn't win," sums up the host's hard-nosed approach to interviewing. Ingraham, a former defense lawyer and clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, grills guests on the day's issues while entertaining audiences with her scathing wit. "Al Gore is hardly the child of an impoverished background," Ingraham declared sarcastically in a discussion of campaign finance in the 2000 presidential race.

Watch It!'s main focus is on politics—the ‘Know the Candidates' segment subjects guests like presidential contender Pat Buchanan to the host's questioning. And Ingraham includes the occasional pop culture topic, as with the recent discussion of ageism in Hollywood.

—Danya Pincavage

Noam Chomsky fans who can't get their fill of the political dissident's speeches and critiques from more mainstream media can check out The Noam Chomsky Archive, courtesy of Z Magazine's website. Chomsky's radicalism makes him an unlikely regular on the Sunday morning talk show circuit. But the archive is full of Chomsky fare, like a transcript of a March 1998 debate on American foreign policy between Chomsky (a professor at MIT) and former CIA director James Woolsey. It's the perfect home for Chomsky's unfettered, revolutionary thought.

—Andrew Goldstein

When the Modern Library released its list of the twentieth century's 100 best English-language nonfiction books, some may have been surprised that The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, showed up at number 21. It ought to be in the top five. The fourth edition—published by Allyn & Bacon in July to mark the 100th anniversary of White's birth—has been updated to reflect the modern world (the term word processor makes an appearance). But much of what makes Elements great for those who spend time with the written word is timeless. Three of the authors' most useful commands: Use the active voice; omit needless words; write with nouns and verbs. In that spirit, here's another exhortation: Read this book.

—Ed Shanahan

The late E.B. White traveled to New York City in the summer of 1948 to rediscover the place where he once lived and worked. The result: Here Is New York, an essay that perfectly captured the city's essence. (The Little Bookroom has issued a new edition to mark White's 100th birthday.)

"The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines," White wrote. Much has changed since then, but the city still boasts many of the rhythms, characters, vices, and pleasures that White documented with precision and grace.

—Dimitra Kessenides

For $7.5 million, would you allow your mate to be kidnapped and held for one year without physical harm and then fake a rescue? How much would you pay to end world hunger forever? Would you become the movie star of your choice if it meant losing the memory of everything about your present life? Maybe you've never asked yourself these questions, but Smith and Doe have. They're the pseudonymous authors of The Book of Horrible Questions (St. Martin's Griffin, June 1999), and they asked 813 people these questions and others (many of them twisted ones about body parts and functions). Not for the easily offended, this book is a hilarious test of peoples' personal ethics. (For the record, 38 percent of respondents would allow their mates to be kidnapped, 14 percent wouldn't spend a dime on world hunger, and 25 percent would become a movie star.)

—Michael Colton

Freelance photojournalist Fred J. Maroon was one of the few outsiders to get inside the secretive Richard Nixon White House. Between 1970 and 1974, Maroon wandered through the hallowed halls and snapped more than 1,000 shots. He captured everything from Nixon at work in the Oval Office to the final moments of his presidency and his farewell address. Now, to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Nixon's resignation, 121 of the photos are on display in Photographing History: Fred J. Maroon and the Nixon Years, 1970–1974, an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (A portion of the exhibit can be seen online at; Abbeville Press was to publish a book of Maroon's photos, The Nixon Years, 1969–1974: White House to Watergate, in September.) Considered unlikely to produce an unflattering portrait of the administration, Maroon was granted this unusual access. His series of penetrating, often sympathetic images offers no startling revelations, but does present a rare, intimate look at the infamous figures of the Nixon cabal.

—Jane Manners

Robot Wisdom (www.robot presents news the way web pioneers envisioned it—hypertextual, wide-reaching, and exhaustive. Creator Jorn Barger scours the Web every day for offbeat stories, alternative viewpoints on the mainstream media, and the latest in web innovations (new search engines, for example). Barger's daily listings of headlines and news excerpts span the globe, covering topics that range from Russia's video-game culture to lifestyle guru Martha Stewart's decision to take her company public.

Robot Wisdom proves that the Internet can still be a source of untethered information. As Barger sees it, the Web has "truly level[ed] the media playing field.…[It] instantaneously, irreversibly transfers the seat of power from well-financed publishers to essentially unfinanced editors."

—Martin Johnson


Readers share their favorite sources for news and information.

Getting timely and objective news from Israel can be difficult sometimes. Ha'aretz, one of Israel's most-respected independent newspapers, offers its English-language version daily on the Web ( Similar to other Israeli news sources, the site includes news of local and global interest, business stories, and arts and leisure coverage.

Distinct features, like the "Anglo File" section, keep readers informed about the activities of Israel's English-speaking community. A recent installment profiled a Jerusalem-based investment banker who specializes in Israel's high-tech industry. Access to Ha'aretz's acclaimed op-ed page, however, really sets this site apart. It is here that power brokers, decision makers, and everyday citizens lend their differing views to the Middle East's age-old dialogue about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thanks to the Internet, readers around the globe can follow the debate.

-Josef Blumenfeld, a PR executive and self-described "heavy consumer of media" from Brookline, Massachusetts


Copyright Brill Media Ventures, L.P. 1999

October Issue
October 1999

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