Pax Americana

plus Lucrative Losers and That Old Box Magic

Published November 12, 1995 12:11PM (EST)

Whether the Bosnian peace agreement, in all its Rube Goldberg glory, has any chance at all is a guess best left to the pundits at this point. The Bosnian Serbs are exhausted, their leaders indicted as war criminals. Their patron, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, an opportunist to the end, long ago decided to cut his losses. On the other hand, the Bosnian Muslims are bound to harbor highly understandable desires for revenge, while the Croats, who have renamed their streets after World War II Nazi collaborators, may find their ambitions unsated.

But if one lesson has been hammered home -- again -- it is that this is a truly unipolar world, run largely by the United States. The Bosnian peace talks were held, not at the United Nations, nor in the European capitals of London or Paris, but at a U.S. Air Force base outside Dayton, Ohio. And while nobody walks away untainted from this ghastly war -- including Washington, as spineless and wrongfooted as its early gestures were -- the U.S. should get the credit for bringing the bloodbath to a close.

This new, post-Cold War pax Americana may be temporary, although it is likely to last at least until the end of the century. The dream of a new multilateralism led by the United Nations lies in ruins under the gory fields of Srebenica, where Dutch UN peacekeepers looked the other way while Serb soldiers carried out Europe's biggest civilian massacre since WW II. NATO stands ready to enforce the Balkans peace, but only at the United States' bidding. Western Europe, for all its sneeering at the bumbling Bill Clinton, is left silent, shamed, useless at best, an accomplice to mass murder at worst.

Americans, most of whom still could not spot Bosnia on a map, had better get used to their global mission. In Somalia, Haiti, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and now the Balkans -- places in which we have material interests, as well as places where we don't -- America has held a candle, even if only a flickering one, when others have only cursed the darkness. That is something to be proud of, as our Bosnian peacekeeping role is furiously debated in the coming days.

--Andrew Ross

Lucrative losers

How do we get a scam like Marcia Clark's? As a reward for blowing the "trial of the century," she gets the third biggest nonfiction advance in the history of U.S. publishing. Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf got more, but they were winners, defeating a brutal aggressor who threatened the world's oil supplies. Marcia Clark lost a murder case against a brutal wife-beater. Her prosecutorial ineptitude -- the jury selection, making Mark Fuhrman the star witness, the infamous glove, among other boners -- contributed to one of the more inglorious episodes in American jurisprudence.

In less cynical times, Clark might have quietly returned to her job, sadder, wiser, taking time to reflect and exercise at least a little humility. But these are very cynical times, with amoral publishing executives throwing money at crooks and losers in ever growing wads, and public servants employing high-priced handlers to negotiate deals larger than the GNP of Third World nations.

The Clark auction was a frenzied carnival, by all accounts. Eight publishing houses pitched the former O.J. prosecutor in person. They all met her "floor price" of $1 million. Then the bidding got really serious, before Viking-Penguin emerged victorious with $4.2 million. A senior executive at Viking-Penguin crowed that the yet-to-be-written tome would be a "a seminal 'Eichmann in Jerusalem.' " Doubleday editor Arlene Friedman told the Los Angeles Times she was "crushed" that her bosses' pockets weren't deep enough.

There is nothing new in this, of course. Little, Brown got the ball rolling this time around with a $1.35 million advance for O.J.'s "I Want To Tell You," which repaid the investment handsomely. Little, Brown wisely decided to pass on a sequel, because O.J. is decidedly O-U-T, as a souvenir collector discovered when he tried unsuccessfully to feature the acquitted football star at one of his shows. (Instead Little, Brown recently bestowed its largesse -- $700,000 of it -- on Nick Leeson, whose fraudulent futures dealings brought down Britain's oldest investment bank, Barings Bros.)

Other houses still have post-O.J. dollar signs in their eyes. ReganBooks, an imprint of Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins, gave emotionally overwrought assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden $1.7 million for his memoirs, while Ballantine, a division of Random House, awarded Johnnie Cochran Jr. up to $3 million, according to Publishers Weekly, for the dubiously titled "My Journey to Justice."

Exceptions deserve to be noted. Times Books,
another division of Random House, refused on principle to enter the swamp. "In the late 20th Century, there are no depths to which a publisher will not stoop to keep afloat," said Steve Wasserman, editorial director of Times Books. "Very few publishers are coming out of this smelling like roses. The rush to profit from this tragedy has covered no one with glory."

--Andrew Ross

That Old Box Magic

The big story out of last week's COMDEX, the computer industry's annual blowout in Vegas, was "Larry's Magic Box." Not to be confused with some third-rate interactive adventure for kids, this "magic" is the latest scheme from the brain of Oracle's Larry Ellison -- and from here, it looks like one bogus hex.

Ellison proposes a $500 device, on sale by the middle of next year, that will allow the masses to hook up to the Internet more easily and cheaply than via computer. The "Magic Box" will plug into either a monitor or a TV set; it will have a keyboard and a microprocessor, but no disk drive or hard drive.

Ellison and IBM's Louis Gerstner both pitched the "Magic Box" as a chance for the computer biz to break the Microsoft/Intel quasi-monopoly. But nobody should mistake this for a David vs. Goliath story. In this battle, everyone's a Goliath.

Like many other companies, Oracle bet big a couple of years ago on the phantom promise of interactive TV. Now it's sitting on blueprints for "set-top boxes" and trying to figure out how to thrive in an Internet-driven universe. Just as other big media outfits are "repurposing" their software and print "content" onto the Net, Ellison wants to repurpose his hardware designs.

Industrial recycling aside, the "Magic Box" represents an even deeper delusion. Oracle, the second biggest software company in the world, has always made its bucks selling humongous database software to giant corporations, which is why Ellison's sudden interest in the low-margin, high-volume consumer marketplace seems so fishy. The growing power of desktop computing has threatened Oracle's core business; the "Magic Box" is an end run around today's PC-dominated marketplace -- an attempt to preserve the hegemony of Oracle-powered, centralized computing by hobbling the rest of the world's desktops.

Why do you think the "Magic Box" lacks its own disk drive? It's not just to keep costs down; it's to make users dependent on the network. You can't copy software if you don't have a drive. Oracle doesn't care if it loses money on the "magic boxes" themselves. Ellison and his allies expect to rake it in by metering your use of all the software your box has to borrow from their massive servers -- whether it's a simple e-mail program or a mega-multimedia download. Just think of it -- each month, after you pay your electricity, telephone, heating and water bills, you will write a check to Magic Larry.

Oracle's scheme is a revival of a 1970s vision of business computing -- in which a company's mainframe, tended by a cadre of specialists, doled out resources to cheap, dumb terminals that sat on everybody's desks. The personal computer revolution earned that label because it transferred powerful tools from a tiny elite to the general public. Today's "Magic Box" is yesterday's dumb terminal. Ellison's sleight-of-hand is a last-ditch move to contain the Internet explosion and make it conform to old models. It will fizzle, as it deserves to.

If somehow it does fly, here's another question: as millions of Oracle customers start reading their e-mail on low-resolution TV sets, who will pay their optometrists' bills?

--Scott Rosenberg

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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