Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "UK: Two faiths collide," July 22, 2000

Latest Potter book sells millions
Grail of Fire
If anyone were to doubt the spell cast by J.K. Rowling's new children's novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the lines outside bookstores on the evening of July 7 were persuasive. With the book going on sale at midnight, some 400 people joined a line at a typical megastore venue, a Borders outlet in Austin, Texas. Adults, many of them costumed as witches and wizards, outnumbered children. The initial printing of 3.8 million copies is the largest first press run in American publishing history. But as it turned out, the 700 copies this particular Borders store had received were not enough. At least 50 people went away disappointed, while those who considered themselves fortunate brought the trophy home. Meanwhile, children were telling newspaper reporters that they planned to spend a week living in the world brought forth in the book's 734 pages. What will they find, compared to the first three Harry Potter books? First, lots of words: The book could have been cut by a third without hurting the story. Second, the death of a good character, as Ms. Rowling promised. Third, a solid plot with interesting characters and a focus on issues important to both children and adults: good and evil, loyalty and ambition, jealousy and friendship. And yet, the occult settings, ghoulish characters, and menacing atmosphere of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire leave a creepy aftertaste. Voldemort, the Dark Lord (aka He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) is more fully characterized than in previous books. His evil intention, to resurrect himself and increase his power over the magic world, suggests that future stories will feature a titanic struggle between the witches and wizards that follow Voldemort and those that follow Headmaster Dumbledore. Both sides are likely to resort to stronger magic, with dangerous outcomes. And what will be the outcome for readers? Parents can confidently bring their children into the worlds of Middle Earth or Narnia both because J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had a biblical worldview, and because those series are done. The Harry Potter series, however, forms a ship that children are climbing aboard, with the destination known only to a captain who has a very different worldview. And here's one overarching problem that already is visible: In Harry's dark world of spells and curses, where it's Halloween all the time, it's hard to get a grip on good. It's not clear in Ms. Rowling's books why loyalty is good or murder is bad. Or why Hogwarts School celebrates Christmas and Easter. The world of Harry Potter is different than God's world in one sense but not in another: Witches and wizards do what the Bible condemns, but they are living in a civilization first structured along biblical principles. Or, as Francis Schaeffer might say, they are living off the interest of Christianity, without adding anything to the principal.
-Susan Olasky Judge grants lesbian visitation rights
''De Facto'' parents?
Now Heather really has two mommies. A court in New York has granted temporary visitation rights to a lesbian for her ex-lover's two children. Westchester (N.Y.) Family Court Judge Joan Cooney ruled that the woman, identified only as Janis, had a parental bond with the 4-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl. She will see the children for four hours every other week and may get permanent custody. Janis and the children's mother, identified as Christine, entered a mock marriage in 1993 and Christine had the children (who had both last names) by artificial insemination. When Janis and Christine "divorced" last November, Christine refused Janis any visitation and Janis sued. After a bitter five-day hearing Judge Cooney said Janis was "a partner and a co-parent." Last November, without setting a precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a Massachusetts ruling that said a lesbian who helped her partner raise a son had become a "de facto" parent entitled to visitation rights. West resigns Veterans Affairs post
Togo to go
Veterans Affairs Secretary Togo West Jr. abruptly resigned from his post last week, ending a two-year tenure that was marred by accusations of mismanagement. An inspector general's report said he violated government regulations and cost taxpayers thousands of dollars by using military aircraft in 1998. Another report said the department used $61 million in travel funds for salaries and equipment and allowed some top administrators to approve their own expenses. Mr. West will be replaced by another controversial figure, Hershel Gober; President Clinton withdrew Mr. Gober's original nomination for the post in 1998 after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. ACLU battles Kentucky, Colorado over civil religion
Monumental fight
More Supreme Court fights over civil religion may be on the way. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky last week filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Kentucky over a Ten Commandments monument that the state assembly plans to place outside the Capitol. The assembly approved the monument as a substitute for proposals to mandate display of the commandments in the public schools. The 7-foot-high monument was once displayed in an obscure corner of the grounds, but the assembly warehoused it in 1988 to make room for new building construction. The new plan is to bring the monument out of storage and place it near a floral clock, which is a tourist attraction. The assembly passed the resolution in April, before a federal judge ordered copies of the Ten Commandments removed from two county courthouses and the Harlan County schools. The judge said the displays were attempts to use government to promote religion. Meanwhile, a controversy brewing in Colorado could turn the motto "In God We Trust" into church-state fodder. The Colorado State Board of Education voted 5-1 this month to encourage public schools to display the motto, citing students' need to remember moral standards. "How long can we remain a free nation if our youth don't have civic virtue?" asked board chairman Clair Orr, who proposed the recommendation. The board's lone dissenter, Gully Standford, cited the recent Supreme Court verdict banning prayer before high-school football games as further evidence that the motto has less relevance in today's society. "In this pluralistic society, we must question the proclamation of one belief to the exclusion of another," he said. Colorado board members hoped to avoid the legal battles that led to the high court's pre-game prayer ban by posing their resolution as a "recommendation" rather than a requirement. The Colorado American Civil Liberties Union said it will wait to see whether schools post the motto before deciding whether to file a lawsuit. Anti-drug office expands controversial PR plan
Bought and paid for?
The next movie you see may have a subtle message from the Clinton administration. Specifically, drug czar Barry McCaffrey wants to expand a campaign that promotes anti-drug messages in TV to the big screen. In January, Mr. McCaffrey came under fire for quietly giving major TV networks millions of dollars worth of financial credits for putting anti-drug messages in popular shows such as E.R., Beverly Hills, 90210, and Cosby. A similar plan could be in store for the movie industry. "As powerful as television is, some experts believe that movies have an even stronger impact on young people," he told a House committee last week. Mr. McCaffrey's aides already have hosted workshops, briefings, roundtables, and one-on-one conversations with industry leaders. Chips can replace pens for legal "signatures"
E-John Hancock
That old-fashioned handwritten signature might not be necessary soon. The "e-signature" is now legal, meaning that people can more easily use electronic authorization to sign contracts-from credit-card sales to mortgage agreements. President Clinton this summer signed (by hand) the e-signature bill, which promises to streamline commerce and eliminate mountains of unnecessary paper. As of March 1, 2001, companies can begin the electronic retention of legal records. The new law provides that no contract, signature, or record shall be denied legally binding status because it is in electronic form. The contract must still be in a form capable of being retained and accurately reproduced. What this means, for example, is that someone can use a smart card instead of signing a sales slip at a store. Using the chip counts the same as getting a ballpoint pen and scribbling your name. People will no longer need to make special trips or send something through overnight mail to ensure that someone has an official signature. But just because the technology is legal doesn't mean it's available. Digital signatures are still being tested and no one knows for sure how they will work, how much they will cost, or how soon they'll be available. If they expand at the rate of credit-card acceptance in the 1960s or e-mail in the 1990s, it could take years. Don't let your handwriting go to seed just yet. The dark side of all this is that the e-signature is a privatized national ID card. It is the greatest tracking device since the Social Security number. Greater electronic storage means greater opportunity for data mining, theft, and unauthorized access by various snoops and spies. What happens when the e-signature hits Main Street? Don't expect a paperless society; that was dreamed up when the PC came, but it didn't happen.
-Chris Stamper Web museum displays flawed product designs
Handle with despair
Why are some products so hard to use? Michael J. Darnell, an engineer at Microsoft's WebTV division, has a veritable museum of things that are confusing, cryptic, and hard to handle at Baddesigns.com. Remember the top-loading VCR? It's one of his examples. Viewers would put the tape in a holder at the top and then scrunch it down to play. But they couldn't put anything on top of the machine or place it on a narrow shelf because the VCR wouldn't have room to eject. Such common annoyances come when product designers don't anticipate how their customers will use items. Mr. Darnell notes things like shiny hotel faucets that are hard to turn with soapy hands, hard-to-read tuna cans, and inscrutable boombox controls. An entire industry-usability testing-has sprung up to tackle this problem, but as Baddesigns.com shows, sometimes bad usability is just a part of life. Some gas caps are on the left and some are on the right; there's no logical way to know which tassel on a ceiling fixture turns on the light and which turns on the fan; and many doors leave people guessing whether to push or pull. For all of our high-tech progress, much of what is supposed to make life easier winds up making it more difficult. Kid's TV show bombs at box office
Cartoon Cold War
The Cold War is over, but the conflict between Moosylvania and Pottsylvania is still going strong. Bullwinkle's cult following continues, with new generations of fans watching the moose and squirrel squelch the plans of no-good spies Boris and Natasha. What made Jay Ward's television cartoon unique was that it tried to be a talking comic strip, with humor for both adults and children. Each episode was spiked with puns and cultural references that shot over the heads of most kids, taking on everything from college football to Disneyland. The animation was dirt-cheap, so the dialogue had to carry the day. But the formula for animation hasn't crossed over well with big-screen revivals. Boris and Natasha was barely released in 1992, and the current update (starring Robert de Niro, of all people) is floundering at the box office. Mr. Ward died in 1989. TV animators before and since have kept up the tradition of cheap animation, but have filled their stories with formulas and clichés. Mr. Ward's cartoons continue to show what can be done with a low budget and lots of creativity.

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