Hard-Knock Life

Posted: Oct 23, 2007 10:13 AM
Hard-Knock Life

John Lockwood, whose recent research at the Library of Congress made headlines after he uncovered a 1922 Washington Post article "Arctic Ocean Getting Warm; Seals Vanish and Icebergs Melt," doesn't normally buy children's books.

But bookstore browsing over the weekend "I came across a new edition of Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' re-written for children — or as the cover phrased it, 'Adapted for a New Generation.' I bought a copy; I couldn't help myself," he insists.

Chapter 14 was his favorite — "Scientists are in almost complete agreement about the causes of global warming" — but "let's not forget page 10, where Mr. Gore gives a brief bio: When his father the senator was in town, young Al had to live 'in a small eighth-floor apartment whose windows looked out on concrete parking lots and buildings.'

"I have passed by this place hundreds of times at least," Mr. Lockwood notes. "The building is a block or two west of Dupont Circle, and sits on Massachusetts Avenue, or Embassy Row. A hardscrabble childhood, Al."

For readers outside the Beltway, Embassy Row is one of the District's more prestigious neighborhoods for ambassadors and elites alike. It's sometimes called "Millionaires' Row."

Fly United

The Federal Election Commission will soon amend the Federal Election Campaign Act to prohibit presidential and U.S. Senate candidates and their campaigns from spending campaign funds for travel on noncommercial aircraft, unless they pay the charter rate. House candidates and their campaigns are prohibited from spending campaign funds for travel on private, noncommercial aircraft.

Feeling fortunate?

Plain language is good business, or so Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox stressed during his entertaining keynote address to the Center for Plain Language Symposium in Washington.

First, Mr. Cox noted that the original appearance of the word "gobbledygook" occurred in 1944, when Rep. Maury Maverick, Texas Democrat, banned all "gobbledygook language" in his office. The now-deceased lawmaker made up the word to imitate the noise a turkey makes, and to show how serious he was, he wrote in a memo: "Anyone using the words 'activation' or 'implementation' will be shot."

So the SEC chairman got "right to the point, because after all, this is a plain-language conference." In his office, he revealed, he's gone so far as "to chuck out the $10 'Latinized' words with four or more syllables, if there is a good old Anglo-Saxon one with just one or two syllables that's handy."

Furthermore, he pretends that John Wayne or Clint Eastwood is sitting beside him at his chairman's desk, insisting the "paperwork be just like their speech: clear and simple."

"Remember Clint Eastwood's classic role in 'Dirty Harry' [when] inspector Harry Callahan didn't waste words? One of the most famous scenes from the movie has the wounded bad guy trying to decide ... if Callahan might have one shot left. Harry Callahan just squints at him, steely-eyed, and says:

" 'I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clear off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?'

"Not much question that Dirty Harry got his point across," Mr. Cox said, adding that if those same lines were to appear in the typical government statement, they'd read like this:

" 'I imagine that you are harboring significant uncertainty concerning the precise number of times that the hammer of this particular multishot firearm was cocked, its cylinder was advanced, the hammer was then released at the rear of its travel, the round in the chamber was fired, and the cylinder was then advanced once again — and specifically whether the exact figure is six, or possibly only five," he said.

"Indeed, given the ambient commotion, my preoccupation with the need to make multiple, simultaneous and consequential decisions with alacrity, the surrounding high-decibel acoustic percussion, and the substantial ramifications of the firearm having already been discharged multiple times, I myself am experiencing difficulty in quantifying the discharges with exactitude ... ."

Mr. Cox continued on and on, until his "Dirty Harry" script rewrite finally concluded: "is it your considered judgment that you are more likely than not to be relatively fortunate?"