Dispatches > Quick Takes

Quick Takes

Issue: "Lord of the box office," Jan. 11, 2003

Chinese checkers

Where there's fire, there's probably smoke-or in this case, Chinese authorities blowing smoke. China's government is stepping up its Internet crackdown by closing nearly 12,000 cybercafes temporarily and over 3,300 permanently. China's Xinhua news agency claims the motive is safety concerns after a fire last June at a Beijing cafe killed 25 people. But Asia analysts say this may be an excuse to seal up access points to unfiltered information. Cybercafes are important for tens of millions of Chinese who go online. Users can rent a connection without having to own computers. This creates problems for China's rulers, who want to attract foreign high-tech investment without giving up strict censorship. Recent months have seen the government's noose grow tighter. Internet cafes must now ban minors and close by midnight, and managers must keep records of customers' identities. Communist authorities have also reportedly instituted new filters that block both forbidden sites and certain keywords. Researchers at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society investigated China's Internet lines to see what the government censors. Sites on democracy, Taiwan, and Tibet were most frequently blocked.

Too true to your school?

Some collegiate sports fans wouldn't be caught dead in a rival team's colors. Others plan to be caught dead in their own team's colors. Aaron Kessler of the Associated Press reports that at least two companies, Georgia-based Collegiate Memorials and Texas-based White Light, are catering to a growing demand for college-themed caskets. The caskets, which run as high as $2,390, sport the school's insignia sewn into a velvet interior; some models can also play the school's fight song. "It's one more way to support your school," said Scott Walston of Collegiate Memorials.

Toned down

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In a cellular age, why plunk quarters into stationary phones? Apparently enough people are asking this question to drive pay phones-once a fixture in American cities-out of business. The coin-operated metal boxes are slowly vanishing as cell-phone use grows and operators find it costs too much to maintain pay phones, reports Yuki Noguchi in The Washington Post. Even at 50 cents a call, many units still lose money. Robert Hayden, president of U.S. Teleservices, told the paper that phones that once made him $200 a month sometimes lose him $20 a month now. (His solution: Replace his pay phones with ATM machines.) The pay phone population peaked at 2.7 million in the mid-1990s and has fallen back to about 1.9 million. Local phone companies own about 75 percent of pay phones and independent operators run the rest. Both groups are cutting back.

Liberals try to "muscle up"

The Democrats are still looking for their Limbaugh. Jim Rutenberg reports in The New York Times that some leading partisans "are scouring the nation" for a liberal mass-market superstar. Strident liberals tend to bomb, as Mario Cuomo and Jim Hightower did on the radio and Phil Donahue is doing for MSNBC. "Most liberal talk shows are so, you know, milquetoast, who would want to listen to them?" liberal TV producer Harry Thomason told the paper. Assorted Democrats are talking about launching new cable TV and radio ventures to drum up even more support for their talking points than the networks and print media give them. Some liberals also want to clone the Heritage Foundation, the flagship conservative think tank that helps shape public policy in Washington. Former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta is considering the idea: "Across the board, we need to muscle up," he told the paper, apparently referencing the flabbiness of liberal think tanks, single-issue groups, and countless political science departments.

Cliche watch

Journalists used the amusing-on-first-hearing term "between Iraq and a hard place" well over 200 times in 2002. U.S. headlines included "Jordan caught between Iraq and a hard place" (Austin American-Statesman) and "Iraq and a hard place: will there be a war?" (The Washington Post). Many journalists abroad also could not resist: "U.S. caught between Iraq and a hard place" (The Weekend Australian), "Blix caught between Iraq and a hard place" (Sydney Morning Herald), "Don't get caught twixt Iraq and a hard place" (Calgary Sun), "Caught between Iraq and a hard place" (Belfast Telegraph). The first press usage recorded in Lexis-Nexis came in 1985, when the journal Defense & Foreign Affairs used the phrase to refer to Kuwait's situation.

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