Sunday, November 30, 2008

Very Small Array: National Rail Line

BOULDER, Colorado -- The folks over at Very Small Array have made a map of America's passenger rail network, and added an intriguing component - what if the network were run completely with high-speed trains?

This map shows the travel time between cities traveling by train at 240 km/hour (roughly 149 mph). The distances are estimated, as they are based on Google Maps driving distances rather than the actual rail routes. As you can see in the comments, there might be some discrepancies in distances and times recorded here, but it is still nice to dream, isn't it?


This map illustrates, however, that an important problem remains - the network of rail lines available for passenger traffic, whether on high-speed or conventional trains, remains woefully inadequate.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Roast Beef and Leftover Turkey: Michael Lewis' "The End"

WINDSOR LOCKS, Connecticut -- In the December issue of Portfolio, Michael Lewis chronicles the Wall Street collapse and ensuing global financial crisis, tracing its roots back to the financial innovations - and excesses - of the 1980's.

The article opens with some reflections on his brief career at Salomon Brothers 20 years ago, an experience he described in his book Liar's Poker:
To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.
In an earlier post, we discussed how this may have, in fact, come to pass as the big downtown firms gut their staffs. Hopefully, the chaff has been discarded, and the truly talented remain, though the reckoning came several decades too late, and at far too high a cost. Let's hope, for the sake of us all, that an Ivy League diploma and a letter in varsity lacrosse are no longer the most important qualifications for a six-figure salary on Wall Street.

Here's another tip, courtesy of my father: never invest your money with a publicly-traded investment firm. People are far less likely to screw around when their own money is on the line. And former Salomon Brothers CEO John Gutfreund - the man that took his firm public, a move that was soon followed by most of the big investment banks - basically admits that they started screwing around. "When things go wrong, it’s [the shareholders'] problem."

No, John, you dumb shit. It's everybody's problem now.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Turkey Day Update: Gozzi's Turkey Farm

QUECHEE, Vermont -- The turkey is in the oven, the Lions are losing 38-10, and we are all waiting for my brother - it must be Thanksgiving.

Watching Sarah Palin visit a turkey farm brought back memories of picking out a turkey for Thanksgiving as a kid. Growing up in Connecticut, the only place to buy your turkey was Gozzi's Turkey Farm, located along Route 1 in Guilford. The place was always best known for the pastel-colored birds they had roaming a pen in front of their store (pictured above). Though the birds look radioactive, Gozzi's developed one of the most delicious and popular local varieties of turkey, the Gozzi White, without the use of hormones or genetic modification. It has been a family-run business since the 1940's, and founder William Gozzi's wife began coloring the display birds during the company's early days to attract customers.

Finally, can the Detroit Lions get in on the auto industry's government bailout package?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving Special: Hard Time Killin' Cone Blues

BROOKLYN, New York -- Alaska Governor Sarah Palin can't seem to catch a break. After a vice-presidential campaign that all but the Bible-thumping-est of the GOP would rather forget, she was part of a gruesome and comical scene back in her hometown of Wasilla on Friday.

Palin came to the Triple D Farm & Hatchery to take part in an annual Thanksgiving turkey pardoning ceremony. Unfortunately, local TV station KTUU filmed an interview with her in which birds were being butchered rather unceremoniously in the background.



This latest piece of political theater got me to thinking - how exactly do you kill a turkey? The man in the background was doing his best to be discrete about the grisly deed he was engaged in, apparently unsure if he was actually being captured in the frame (though he was so confident that he wasn't, after dispatching the first fowl, he came back with a second while the interview was still going on), so I thought I would investigate the business of turkey slaughtering.

Killing a turkey is a simple process. In this case, the turkeys were being slaughtered with the aid of a device called a "killing cone," which holds the birds in place as their throats are cut. The cone prevents the turkeys from thrashing around (though as you can see, they still tend to move quite a bit) and allows the blood to drain cleanly into the receptacle beneath.

Blue Oak Ranch, an organic poultry farm in Santa Barbara, California that raises "heritage poultry" - traditional varieties of birds that have not been genetically modified - describes their "hand processing" by means of a killing cone:
A bird is placed in the cone headfirst to restrain it during the killing process. I find the killing cones especially useful for the larger turkeys. My cone is a modified road cone - I find it a better size for processing large framed birds like turkeys than the smaller metal cones available commercially. All but the largest toms can fit in a generously sized road cone! Killing cones also restrain the bird better and prevent bruising of the carcass as the bird convulses. Simply chopping their heads off is messy - blood goes everywhere and can be aspirated back into the lungs. It also makes it hard to restrain the birds, and it flopping around can bruise the meat and even break wing and leg bones in the process, leaving an unappetizing appearance.
Many companies manufacture commercial killing cones, though a traffic cone with the end cut off will get the job done just fine. For a mature turkey, a cone 20" deep and 12" across is recommended.

Before birds can be slaughtered, by law they must be stunned - supposedly a more humane killing method - either by use of an electric shock or by a swift stab to the brain. In large commercial operations, birds have their throats cut along a conveyor belt and are suspended upside down by leg shackles. They then pass through what is called a "killing" or "bleeding tunnel," which is a large metal cabinet where most of the blood is drained from the body.

Back to the Palin fiasco, the cameraman responsible for the footage claims that he asked the governor if she wanted to move so the killing cone was out of the shot, to which she responded, "No worries," and the interview went forward from the same spot.

It appears as if most of the reporting on this story is actually being done by the evening entertainment news programs. Entertainment Tonight reported that the Palin camp is denying that the cameraman asked if the governor would like to move so the butchery was not in the shot, claiming they had no idea what was going on in the background. Even the television audience can clearly hear the bird struggling in the stainless steel death chute, so Palin and her staff must have been struck by an electric stunning knife (another implement used to kill poultry) if they couldn't hear that racket.

Another of America's favorite infotainment television nightmares, Inside Edition, managed to snap up an exclusive interview with the farmhand immortally captured on Youtube, Brian Tomes. He described his valiant efforts: "I thought they had panned in on her face…I did try and block the process," adding the nonsequitur, "Don't mess with my governor!" I didn't manage to catch this program, though I usually like to catch up on my celebrity rehab stories after Jeopardy! I will venture a guess that this segment lasted approximately 11 seconds. Great reporting, as always, IE!

Of course, the American people will fall into two camps over this story. Either they will believe that Sarah Palin is again the victim of a vast liberal media conspiracy to wreck her public image, or they will believe that she is blood-thirsty imbecile who revels in watching animals twitch in the throes of death. I think she just needs to be a bit more aware of her surroundings, and she should probably fire her entire incompetent staff.

Finally, for your listening pleasure, Skip James performing "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues."

Happy Thanksgiving, America! Eat turkey and stuffing until you pass out while watching football - my game of choice this week will definitely be the Egg Bowl, Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State in Oxford.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

CNN, Congress Want All to Experience Joy of Air-Traffic Delays

NEW YORK, New York -- Coverage of the "bailout" the Big Three US automakers are requesting has pivoted in recent days on the fact that the companies' CEOs took private jets to Washington. I have primarily watched CNN's reporting and can say that Anderson Cooper & Co. have emphatically reminded viewers at every turn that "these guys took private jets to Washington!"

I agree that Rick Wagoner and Bob Nardelli are probably morons. Not only are they unfit to run large corporations, they probably aren't even fit to attend a PTA conference: You'd have to be a social twit to fly your Learjet to DC when asking for a taxpayer handout, whether or not your corporate charter has provisions stipulating private airtravel for you for "safety reasons."

http://i2.cdn.turner.com/money/video/news/2008/08/22/news.velshi.wagoner.gm.cnnmoney.216x164.jpg
Mr Wagoner, does GM make a short bus for you?


Still, CNN's near-obsession with Bob Nardelli's preferred mode of transportation obscures a much more important point: millions of jobs, municipal and state budgets, dozens of industries connected in seemingly arcane ways to the automotive sector, and a nation's morale all hinge on the existence of the US auto industry.

What happens to the industry is unclear. In order to be long-term competitive, union contracts will have to be ripped up, and bankruptcy is as good a way as any to welch on your contracts. But if the automakers go into Chapter 11 protection, they'll need to get new financing to restructure after getting rid of the union agreements that are crippling them. Their ability to find financing at this particularly lousy moment is ... not so hot. The government would save the country a lot of pain -- and probably more than $25bn in long-term unemployment checks, Medicaid/Medicare expenses and lost tax revenue -- if it would guarantee to bail out any automaker that goes into bankruptcy, provided they meet certain demands (rewrite your labor contracts, fire your incompetent CEOs, start making your European fuel-efficient models here now). But the government's coy little patty-cake game is stupid. Grilling the automakers and refusing to definitively say to what fate you'll sentence them creates uncertainty and drags down the markets. And after Lehman Brothers' demise, I doubt many people have faith the government will always step in when it should.

In light of that, harping on the aloof, Asberger's tendencies of auto CEOs does little more than push the public -- and therefore lawmakers, who seem unable to buck what they think will be popular anger against unpopular decisions -- against any bailout for reasons that have nothing to do with the soundness of the bailout itself. That's hella dumb.

Before turning the country against this proposal, Silver Fox Cooper and his ilk should consider not whether the CEOs of these companies took private jets or whether they have fancy suits (most CEOs of the world's top companies do, after all, and you can't expect to convince JPMorgan to lend you money when you fly coach and wear Skidz), but whether the bailout has merits of its own.

http://maremare1225.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/anderson-cooper.jpg
Clowns to Cooper: Get us back on the Gold Standard!

I don't know if it will lead to a depression, but allowing a major company like GM to fall apart now certainly won't help us avoid one. At this point, we should probably not take any chances in doing everything possible to move away from that outcome, and we shouldn't flirt with depression because of the fact that a few inept CEOs are too obtuse to fly JetBlue. Judging their stupidity should not be substituted for judging the merits of this country having an auto industry and the harm its collapse would bring to the US economy and people's confidence in the economy or themselves.

Chinese Democracy Finally Achieved

BROOKLYN, New York -- Chinese Democracy has finally come to pass. No, the People's Republic of China has not had free and fair national elections, nor has it permitted an independent press, or the free exercise of religion. Rather, Axl Rose and company have finally completed their record that was more than 17 years in the making.

Expect there to be mass arrests of Chinese Guns N' Roses fans who are just trying to use the Internet to find out more about their favorite band.

The New York Times likens Mr. Rose to another singer who had a catastrophic meltdown which led to years and years of promising an album that never came, My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields. Rose has shaken that monkey off his back, but as the Guardian described in 2004 - Shields' first interview in 12 years - he was still saddled by an inability to finish off the follow-up to 1991's Loveless, as well as being surrounded by a dozens of chinchillas.

UPDATE: It appears as if Guns N' Roses has genuinely raised the ire of the Chinese authorities. According to the Economist, the Global Mail, a communist party newspaper, said the album was part of a Western plot "to control the world using democracy as a pawn." The government has blocked access to websites related to the band, and not just to the forbidden search term of the new album's title.

Axl Rose does mention the banned religious group Falun Gong in his lyrics, as well as the violent suppression of dissidents. Overall the album is an absurdly overproduced shriekfest devoid of political substance, but it looks like it won't be officially distributed in China - that probably won't stop anybody for getting it who wants it, though.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"The New New Deal"

NEW YORK, New York -- So, what country is going to get us out of the global slowdown/credit crunch/recession/financial crisis/depression/incomparable disaster? That's a question that a number of European and Asian executives, financiers and officials took up this week in Barcelona, with speakers apparently divided between the US and China as the potential savior of the global economy.

While some of the European participants in the Global China Business Meeting, sponsored by Horasis, a Swiss consultancy, reportedly said China and other "emerging" countries would pull the world out of recession, others noted the limitations of China as a global economic power and called on the US to do more:

“China cannot replace the U.S. economy as the engine of global growth,” said Chang Dae Whan, chairman of Maeil, a South Korean newspaper company. “We’re going to need a huge stimulus package from the United States, on the order of $2 trillion, to get the global economy out of the financial crisis. So far, we’ve only seen about $700 billion. As a result, next year I expect to see more pain and fear.”

As Mr Chang noted, the US government will need to do a lot more if it wants to be the country that leads the world from the recession. As
Clive Crook wrote a week ago, the stimulus package recently announced by the Chinese Communist Party, at approximately $600Bn, represents some 15% of China's GDP. When that package was announced, the US Congress was dithering about passing a stimulus thought to be $100Bn to $200Bn (0.75% to 1.5% of GDP).

And though nobody can really say what will end the global slump we're heading into, a (temporary) return to Keynesian economics seems to be the best solution I've heard. As Paul Krugman writes, we should recognize that we are in extenuating circumstances: The usual lever that policymakers have on the economy -- interest rates -- no longer seem to have any effect on, well, anything. When we fall into those sorts of troubled waters where the usual policy mechanisms have come asunder, an FDR-style shot in the arm is needed.

You start building roads and public transportation and magically people have productive (i.e., non-Wal-Mart/retail) jobs building real things; factories open up to build trains, trolleys, solar panels and turbines; and even if you don't have a silver bullet for the economy immediately, it's a step in the right direction -- more paychecks means fewer foreclosures and, eventually, rising consumer confidence. Of course, the physical end product, improved infrastructure, yields tangible and long-lasting economic benefits as well.

Obama's plans for the economy include a $60Bn National Infrastructure Bank that would coordinate targeted, intelligent funding of important infrastructure projects across the country and an renewables-based energy strategy. There are also worker-retraining and Broadband Internet accessibility plans. But perhaps the most interesting -- and certainly most overlooked -- aspect of his economic plans is a call to build up a 21st-century manufacturing sector based upon advanced technologies. You put federal funding toward researching robotics and advanced manufacturing techniques that eliminate much of the labor component in the production of goods and it suddenly becomes realistic to make things in the US for export. And that as a result of increased competitiveness, not protectionism. With that production comes new factory jobs and, more importantly, R&D, distribution and managerial jobs.

No, the old factory jobs making sneakers or textiles won't come back as they were. But if we can build new, roboticized techniques to produce those goods, we'll be able to do so at competitive costs by cutting way down on labor, and in doing so we won't be building up massive trade imbalances or eroding higher-margin jobs designing what factories make or managing what those factories do.

The US, then, needs to pass a larger stimulus package not only to prove it can throw more public money at a recession than China can or even because it needs to end the current recession. Done correctly, a stimulus package could pull the country out of its longer-term economic funk and create a sounder footing for the future.

For 8 years it's been quite clear that the direction of the US economy -- moving toward ever-greater levels of consumer spending and household debt and ever-less production of actual, exportable goods -- has been unsustainable and reckless in the long term. Median incomes are trapped in a long-term decline, and unemployment is soaring after 4.3 million manufacturing jobs were lost in 1998-2008.

It seems equally clear that embracing services (financial or otherwise) as a substitute for a full, diversified economy with a significant manufacturing sector leads to its own problems: From the producer countries' point of view, why should they sit by and make everything while "services" nations take the plum, high-paying jobs? From the employers' POV, why should you continue to pay bankers in NYC loads when you can pay bankers in Mumbai $10K per year? And from the POV of common sense, why have managers and consultants in London when everything you actually produce is in China? Why not have the managers and consultants where the action is actually happening and remove the difficulty of communication and coordination?

By using the opportunity presented by the current mess to begin to think about the long-term sustainability of the economy and change the fundamentals, we could end up doing more good than we're bargaining for. As a starting point, let's admit that the "Chimerica" team seems to have ended up with egg on its face: By keeping the yuan down and its exports hyper-competitive in the US, the Chinese government amassed a $2 trillion warchest in recent years through seizing $0.50 on every dollar US consumers send to China. Much of that money made its way back to the US in the form of purchases of US dollars and Treasury notes, as well as US mortgages and credit. China, in other words, invested in certain types of US bonds and securities that had the effect of keeping its own currency down and keeping credit cheap for US consumers. That cheap credit and devalued currency meant US consumers kept on buying Chinese products out of thin air -- our Castle-in-the-Sky Economy. And it ended ... not very ... well, you get the picture.

The massive current-account deficits the US built up from 1999 (when Bill Clinton allowed Permanent Normalized Trade Relations with China) and a reliance on credit propped up by China -- rather than production of real goods -- for consumer purchases were going to come crashing down sooner or later. It seems, oddly, like we got off easily as they crashed just 8 years after Clinton's PNTR took effect. Now is our time to pull out of this Faustian bargain before we resurrect it.

Obama and Congress need to pass a package big enough to make a fundamental difference, and Obama must continue to have the sense to invest in building up the US manufacturing sectors rather than think (wrongly) that the US can be a nation of consultants, bankers, lawyers ... and janitors and Wal-Mart salespeople ... and nobody in the middle, and still have a functioning economy.

Whether the US is able to get its act together and pull the world out of recession is obviously yet to be determined. However, it seems this crisis offers America a fairly interesting opportunity to put its long-term economic fundamentals on sounder footing.

A few relevant articles:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122644805168418989.html
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/business/09blinder.html?scp=2&sq=blinder&st=cse
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/business/09shiller.html?scp=1&sq=shiller&st=cse
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/126fdcea-aec9-11dd-b621-000077b07658.html


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The LIRR: A Railroad That Doesn't Work

BOULDER, Colorado -- The Long Island Rail Road, the country's busiest commuter rail line, is run by a bunch of lazy crooks and criminals. Check out these startling facts and figures compiled by the New York Times in their ongoing investigation of the LIRR's fraudulent disability scheme (thanks for the tip, Jeremy):
  • 90% of the LIRR's career employees receive early retirement for disability
  • The Railroad Retirement Board, the obscure federal agency which supposedly reviews employee claims, regularly approves 97% of disability claims for early retirement
  • Nearly one-quarter of employees have private disability insurance, in addition to their employer-based coverage, which is a violation of company rules
  • Disabled retirees receive free membership to Long Island's Sunken Meadow golf course, at taxpayer expense
  • The LIRR is not a dangerous place to work; in fact, it has won awards for safety four out of the past five years
  • In conclusion, almost none of these people are actually disabled; they are just defrauding in the taxpayers, the state and federal governments, and the fare-paying riders out of hundreds of millions of dollars - $250 million in mostly fraudulent payments since 2000, to be precise
Last week, the LIRR started circulating this message to its employees:
“Any employee found to have filed a baseless claim for disability benefits, offered incorrect or misleading information in support of a claim, or assisted another in filing such a claim, is subject to discipline, up to and including termination of employment.”
Um, how about prison? At the very least, retired employees should have to return the millions of dollars that they stole from the state by fraud. I don't care if they fire every last employee, the MTA (which owns and operates the railroad) privatizes the LIRR, and they tear up all the contracts with the union members and cancel their pensions. It is shenanigans like this that give unions a bad name and hold this country back from creating a next-generation transportation network.

People Who Are Terrible at their Jobs: ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook

BOULDER, Colorado -- The New Republic's senior editor Gregg Easterbrook writes a laughably-uninformed column about football each week for ESPN.com, entitled "Tuesday Morning Quarterback." This week, he tackles the issue of close goal line calls. Easterbrook argues in favor of some sort of electronic tracking system to remove the element of human error in scoring plays. Here is his case:
If swim meets and horse races can be photo-timed to the hundredth of a second, it is ridiculous that the football world has to argue about whether a ball crossed a line. Some kind of radio chip embedded in footballs, and weighing next to nothing, could surely provide a GPS-like readout on whether the ball touched some kind of electronically projected line in front of the end zone and along a field's sidelines. Considering the state of miniature electronics, this doesn't seem as if it would be very hard to do. College engineering departments surely would compete for the right to design such a system. The system might prove too expensive for high schools and small colleges, but with all the money involved in the NFL and in football-factory colleges, the price of adding electronic sensing would be small by comparison. So let's insert a chip in the football!
In other words, "If two totally different sports can use technology to solve a completely unrelated problem, then why can't football?" Your logic is impeccible.

If you think about it at all, or bother to do any research, it actually is quite hard. FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, experimented extensively with placing RFID chips in balls for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Adidas had developed a system that involved placing a chip in the center of the ball and 12 antennae along the goal posts and crossbar. When the ball crosses the touchline, a signal is sent to a watch worn by the match referee. Ultimately, the system was scrapped because of reliability issues - Adidas had problems keeping the fragile chip positioned inside the ball as it was rocketed around the field. Add to these problems the fact that in football, there are 22 men, all of them well north of 200 hundred pounds, piling on top of this ball as it is stretched across the goal line.

This is not "Medieval Times," Gregg, but it is a simple issue of technology, and the technology does not yet exist with any degree of feasibility or reliability to replace visual confirmation of the ball crossing the line. In addition, as he admits, there are many other considerations in football, like the position of the ball carrier's body and the position of the ball in his hands, that go into ruling on a touchdown that make this one tiny bit of information that an RFID chip might yield basically useless.

One of the most important elements of football remains highly subjective - where the referee spots the football after each down - and no one believes we should find some "electronic fix" for it. Spots are often reviewed, but only at the behest of the officiating crew, not the teams. In this area, the ref's discretion is sacrosanct. I am not arguing for a referee's right to ignore evidence to get a call wrong, as opponents of video replay do. This is just wrong-headed and stubborn. But in sports, many things come down to a referee's judgment - like spotting - and I do not think this technology, as it currently stands, will allow an official to make a better-informed call. I think referees should be able to use every bit of video technology to get the call right, but if nobody saw it cross the line, either on the field or on TV, it isn't a touchdown.

It turns out almost all of the commenters on this piece agree with me, though many make much more sophisticated and interesting arguments about the shortcomings of RFID technology.

In the interest of full disclosure, part of the reason that I dislike Mr. Easterbook so much is his relentless criticism of the New England Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick. He likened the coach to Richard Nixon, called Michael Vick more honorable for owning up to his mistakes (when he was staring down six federal felony charges), and believes that Belichick is the worst serial cheater in sports history (in the NFL, I believe that honor belongs to Broncos boss Mike Shanahan, who drills his players in the criminal art of cut blocking).

So, just for spite, I will direct you all to Easterbrook's Wikipedia page and ask you to compare that photo with one he uses on ESPN.com.

WSJ: The Locomotive as Engine Of Artistic Inspiration

BOULDER, Colorado -- Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Gallery is currently hosting an exhibit on the art of the railway, entitled, "Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America, and the Railway, 1830-1960." The show will run until January 19, and I, unfortunately, will most likely not make it out to Kansas City before it leaves town. The exhibit premiered at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, UK, but unfortunately, Kansas City will be its only stop in the United States.

The Nelson-Atkins Gallery's website is here, and it features a number of pictures from the exhibit. The museum has also put together a book of the show, which you can buy on Amazon.com.

Richard Woodward has written a review of the exhibit for the Wall Street Journal, which I will include below, since it is part of the paper's pay content (thanks for the link, Itchy):

KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- At the burning heart of the Industrial Revolution was the white-hot power of steam. From the 1780s to the end of the 19th century, transportation and manufacturing were altogether reimagined to harness this ancient but suddenly practical source of mechanical energy. Some of its efficiencies remain useful today, as steam turbines continue to generate about half of the world's electricity.

No application of the new technology, however, rattled the status quo so much as the steam-powered locomotive. With each improvement, its speed and reach shattered limits of space and time. Millions of acres of wilderness were cleared for hundreds of railway lines. Timetables enslaved travelers to the clock as never before. (By 1883 American railroads had divided the country into four time zones, decades before the government made the concept official.) Stations and railroad cars forced people together even as they reinforced their division into classes.

The train was at once a symbol of engineering acumen, a wonder of the age, and a sign of progress run amok. As Thoreau wrote, "we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us."

"Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America, and the Railway, 1830-1960," the timely exhibition now at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., presents more than a century of ambiguous responses by artists to this intrusive phenomenon.

In a feat of smart editing, co-curators Julian Treuherz and Ian Kennedy have reduced the vast material available in museums and archives to about 100 paintings, drawings, prints and photographs. Although organized by theme -- starting with early developments of train travel in Europe, continuing with the transcontinental push across North America, and ending with the Machine Age in the 1920s -- the show also devotes rooms to the Impressionists and the Surrealists, groups for whom the railroad was a symbol of both menace and comfort.

Going from room to room here, one sees the immediate attraction that the subject offered in formal terms for artists of all sorts. A thick plume from a smokestack adds a dash of action to any picture. Parallel lines of track lead the eye in sensuous curves through mountain passes and underscore the drama between the shaping hand of man and God's creation.

Among the show's highlights is a first-rate group of paintings by French masters from the 1870s: four by Monet, two by Caillebotte (his voyeuristic "On the Pont de l'Europe" from the Kimball Museum in Ft. Worth as well as his unfinished "Landscape With Railroad Cutting" from a private collection), and Manet's much written-about "The Railway (The Gare Saint Lazare)," in which a seated governess looks up from her book to study us while a young girl in her care gazes through iron bars at a Parisian rail yard.

Less celebrated figures deliver more unexpected pleasures. Thomas Talbot Bury and John Cooke Bourne were British artists who specialized in views of railroads. Examples of their work here, dating from the 1830s, show the tunnels and bridges needed for a rail system. It wasn't just the steam locomotive but the infrastructure supporting it that transformed landscapes and cities.

Reginald Marsh's American realism has lost much of its original bite. But in "Pavonia -- Jersey City" from 1928, he shows in no uncertain terms how steam trains burst through old neighborhoods and tore them into new ones. The Italian Impressionist Giuseppe de Nittis usually veers in the opposite direction, romanticizing everything he touches. But a Sicily landscape from 1878-79 is anything but sugary: Two peasant women toiling in a field are overwhelmed by billows from a passing train, a glowing spot of distant red that only heightens their lonesome drudgery.

The railroad barons financed artists to portray their businesses in a favorable light. Carleton Watkins, whose mammoth-plate views of the West are among the glories of American photography, was subsidized by Collis Huntington. The owner of the Central Pacific Railroad even arranged to shuttle Watkins and his cameras up and down the coast in a private train. The curators have also selected paintings by George Inness and Albert Bierstadt, who in the 1850s to 1870s were similarly commissioned to put railroads on canvas, provided the trains were small and moved through bucolic settings.

The social drama of rail travel is represented here by Daumier's famous cartoons illustrating the gaps between first-, second-, and third-class accommodations (and passengers). But just as interesting are the chaotic scenes of departure at the stations, in which many groups were thrown together. Augustus Egg's "The Travelling Companion" from 1862 depicts two young Victorian ladies in a railway carriage. One sleeps as the other reads -- a reassuring but unrealistic scene, the curators suggest, as trains at the time were deafening.

As the railroads expanded, so did their urban stations, which at their grandest were like cathedrals in their scale and fenestration. Angelo Morbelli's "Milan Central Station" from 1889 captures the celestial light inside these airy sheds, as does a shimmering photograph of London's Paddington Station by Bert Handy. Elliott Erwitt's photograph of the steel rails leading to the entrance of Auschwitz, on the other hand, conveys how the interlocking train network can quickly become an agent of domination and terror.

Together, this array of work describes an arc familiar from the history of other relics of the Industrial Age. Factories and warehouses are now choice dwellings for young professionals, who pay extra for a view of canals where coal barges once docked. The anxious excitement that greeted the introduction of the railroad, and that peaked with its acceptance into the routine of the commuter, eventually passed into nostalgia as the steam locomotive become obsolete. O. Winston Link's staged 1956 photograph of a steam locomotive racing past a drive-in movie theater closes the exhibit and a chapter in American technology.

Too many curators these days fatigue museum-goers in a noble effort to be thorough. That's not the case here. I left refreshed, wanting more. My cravings were satisfied where they should be, and at a more leisurely pace, in a group of outstanding essays for the catalog published by Yale University Press.

One quibble: Mr. Trueherz and Mr. Kennedy have ignored the work of William A. Bell and other photographers hired to survey the West in the 1860s and 1870s. All of the prints here show the landscape after tracks were laid. One reason photography became a tool of increasing commercial value everywhere was its ability to help planners decide where the railroad should go before workers arrived with picks and shovels.

It's a pity that loan restrictions and insurance costs will prevent "Art in the Age of Steam," which originated in England at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, from moving around the country. More cities should have had the chance to host this well-thought-out survey. It looks splendid in Steven Holl's 2007 addition to the Nelson-Atkins. Lucky students of art and history will find it stationed there until Jan. 18, 2009.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Andrei Sychyov and Abuse in the Russian Army

BOULDER, Colorado -- Andrei Sychyov was a 19-year-old conscript in the Russian army serving on a base outside of the city of Chelyabinsk on New Year's Eve, 2005. That night, he and seven other soldiers were subject to a night of beatings and torture by their compatriots that was so brutal and vicious that Sychyov eventually had to have both his legs and his genitals amputated.

For nearly a week after his brutal torture, in which he was forced to sit on his haunches for hours on end while junior officers beat him, he received no serious medical attention despite suffering from several shattered bones. When he was finally taken to a hospital in the city, gangrene had already consumed most of his legs, and they had to be removed.

Russian officials initially tried to keep a lid on the Sychyov incident, and the then defence minister Sergei Ivanov dismissed the allegations of abuse in the army. Eventually, one of the young man's doctors passed information about his condition along to a local human rights group, and the story gained national attention. One of his torturers, Alexander Sivyakov, was sentenced to four years in prison, while two other men received one year of probation.

Sychyov still requires a great deal of medical care, and the Russian government has agreed to pay his expenses. However, his sister, Marina Muffert, recently wrote a letter to the defense ministry, claiming that her brother's care was sub-standard. Sychyov was recently transferred to a hospital in Moscow, where he was supposed to receive a reconstructive operation that would allow him to have children. Muffert claims that Ivanov promised that Sychyov would receive this operation, but his successor has reneged, and doctors have refused to perform it. She said, as quoted on Newsru.com,
In the papers, government officials call us unscrupulous extortionists. Hey, they gave you money for healthcare, an apartment and such, what else do you want? But I am not ashamed. If the leaders of this idiotic country cannot bring order to it, then I am not ashamed. I just want happiness for my brother.
Life in the Russian army is bleak, as conscripts endure horrific day-to-day conditions. In addition to inadequate food, housing, equipment and medical care, these men are often forced to do manual labor unrelated to their duties, like building summer homes for senior officers. Hazing, like that Sychyov was subjected to, is commonplace, and soldiers often die from beatings or other tortures. Some are even forced into becoming sex workers. In 2004, 50 soldiers were forced to stand out on a runway in their summer uniforms in January while their plane refueled in the Siberian city of Magadan; one died, and the rest were hospitalized, some suffering from severe pneumonia.

Unable to cope with these stresses, many men resort to suicide - official statistics put the number at nearly 350 in 2007. The suicide rate of the Russian army is twice that of the American army; this even though the US has seen a steady rise in suicide cases since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly half of all soldiers' deaths in Russia are the result of suicide, far outstripping combat fatalities or accidents. Many young men find ways to get around their military service, either by continuing their education or by bribing draft officials, usually leaving the poorest and least educated members of society for the army to take.

Judith Miller Transformed from Stupid Hack to Crusading Hero Journalist. Thanks, Hollywood!

BOULDER, Colorado -- I suppose it was only a matter of time before the story of formerly-imprisoned New York Times journalist Judith Miller was adapted for the silver screen. Here's a synopsis from Hollywood.com of the upcoming feature, Nothing But the Truth:
Washington, DC political journalist Rachel Armstrong writes an explosive story about a government scandal in which she reveals the name of a covert CIA agent. When a special government prosecutor demands she divulge her source, she refuses and finds herself behind bars, struggling to defend the principles she has based her career upon.
The real story is that Judith Miller was involved in outing CIA operative Valerie Plame as a part of a political hatchet job orchestrated by the likes of Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby and Karl Rove (Plame's name was actually leaked by fellow hack writer Bob Novak at the Washington Post, though he was never charged in connection with it) against Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, in 2003. At the time, Wilson was correctly debunking the bullshit the White House had spread about efforts by Saddam Hussein to buy uranium from Niger as part of their case for war against Iraq. Miller was asked to testify in the investigation into the leak (which constituted a violation of federal law) in 2005, and when she refused to reveal her source - it later turned out to be Libby - she was jailed for contempt. She refused to give up Libby despite the fact that he had already waived his confidentiality to her, suggesting she was more concerned with not embarassing the administration than protecting her source.

In this Hollywood scenario, rather than a bogus war in Iraq, there has been a military strike against Venezuela in retaliation for that country's alleged involvement in an assassination attempt on the US president. The Miller-based character, named Rachel Armstrong and portrayed by Kate Beckinsale, outs an agent who knew that Venzuela was not involved and told the White House as much, but they ignored this information and went forward with the attack anyway. Rather than expose the idenity of an agent in order to ruin her career and discredit her husband, the prettier, younger, movie-version Miller did it to tell the world this war was all a lie. Miller is apparently pleased with picture - I can only assume it is because she hopes the public will confuse the heroic Hollywood persona with the actual person, and forget about how shitty she was (and is) at her job.

Throughout her career at the Times, Miller was a dogged propagandist who used her byline to cheerlead the administration's march to war, routinely ignored contrary information and used a reliable pipeline of "unnamed administration sources" to pump her stories about Iraq WMDs full of administration talking points instead of corroborated, verifiable facts. After her 85-day stretch in the joint, she was canned by the Times in 2005. She has bounced around disreputable publications for the past few years, but she recently has found a gig that really suits her - she's a Fox News contributor.

Gawker has the rest of the story, along with clips from the film set for release December 19:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Proposition 8: Whodunit? The Mormons? The Blacks? Barack? The Gays???

BOULDER, Colorado -- There is a lot of blame being spread around for the victory of California's Proposition 8, which stripped same-sex couples of the right to marry. The New York Times has blamed the Mormons, who poured all their cash from Coca-Cola shares and Winter Olympics merchandise into the "yes" campaign. Everyone in the press seems to be stuck on the story that black people are responsible, because they don't like gays, or something. My grandfather would be disappointed in me for the amount of blame I have personally heaped on his beloved Knights of Columbus. But what is the real answer?

Well, truth be told, there really isn't one. I will strongly object to this line of argument that "black people did it," because it assumes that blacks and gays are two mutually exclusive groups. If we dig a little deeper into the polling data, it really only makes things murkier, which is exactly the point - we should not be pointing fingers at voters for the way this thing shook out, but rather at the entire ridiculous referendum process, which I will address shortly.

First, let's do a little number crunching of totally dubious exit poll numbers that would make Nate Silver throw his copy of Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract through his computer monitor, but it is the best that we can do.

Here's the data that I will be using from CNN.com. The Los Angeles Times also has some good maps of the voting patterns.

Proposition 8 passed by a margin of 52-48%, with a total of 11,970,000 votes cast. According to exit polls, blacks made up 10% of the electorate, and the split among them yes/no was 70/30. Political scientists and the media always treat black people as a homogeneous voting block, so maybe we should consider a 70/30 split as a step forward. But they are not the only group that sticks out in this data set - they just happen to be one of the groups that you can pick out if see them walking down the street. But people with graduate degrees make up 17% of the electorate, and their split was 60/40 against the ban - why isn't anyone talking about that? Or that 82% of Republicans, who make up 29% of the electorate, voted in favor? 61% of people over the age of 65 - 15% of the electorate - voted "yes" as well.

Many people have claimed that the fact that Barack Obama was on the ballot caused a surge in black voter turnout, and that is what carried Prop 8. Firstly, regardless of the outcome, I think that we should be happy that a larger number of blacks turned out to vote, as they are generally an underrepresented group. By my calculations, black voters made up (very, very) roughly 40% of the Democrats who voted "yes," which is disproportionate; but even if every single black Democrat voted "no" (a ridiculous assumption), the proportion of Democrats against the measure would only be 79% (in reality, 63% of self-idenitifed Democrats voted "no"), still lower than Republicans in favor (though the measure would have been defeated in this scenario). In other words, lots and lots of people in California, including some white Democrats, voted for this measure. Even if turnout was lower among blacks - say, instead of 10% of the votes were cast by blacks, 6.7% were, which is their share of California's population - and they still voted by the same margin, it would have, at best, made this an even contest.

But we shouldn't even be talking about who voted for it or against it - we should be talking about how absurd it is that a constitutional right can be stripped by a slim majority in a referendum. This shows that the whole ballot initiative process is bonkers, and California, like many other western states, is essentially subject to mob rule. If something is a right, it cannot be taken away, and the supreme court in California ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry. If gay marriage were a privilege granted by legislation, as states like Vermont argue a civil union is, then a case can be made for its revocation. The court's decision was not "legislating from the bench," and in the end, we allowed simple majority voting to be used to strip a minority of its rights, thus abrogating the very protections our democracy is meant to guarantee. This is a pattern that can be seen across the country (see map at right), but in all those other circumstances, voters preemptively banned same-sex marriage before the right was even granted, and who knows if it ever would have been.

Finally, I will object to the notion that this is in some way Barack Obama's fault. No Democratic politician really wants to touch this issue, and I don't think Obama's silence on the issue had anything to do with the fact that he didn't want to upset fellow black people. Politicians rarely talk about state ballot issues when running for national office - I didn't hear him talk about Colorado's measures to weaken unions, or Massachusetts' referendum to eliminate the state income tax, both of which are issues he talked about extensively in the federal context. Additionally, Obama barely even campaigned in California, so why spend money on an issue that he has no vested interest in, that he believes should be left to the states to decide (though in a more sensible manner than referendums), and in a state he is going to win handily anyway? Presidential campaign money should not be spent on state ballot issues; if the DNC wants to spend money on it, that's another story, but it was not Obama's call.

So we should all stop encouraging this Republican wet dream of Democratic internecine warfare of blacks vs. gays.

UPDATE: Nate Silver does the math for real, this time including the ever-important first-time voter demographic, something I neglected to do. This is why he is really, really good at his job(s), and we have a totally unknown and schizophrenic blog.

I would also recommend reading some of Ta-Nehisi Coates' commentary on Prop 8 in the Atlantic online (thanks, Peter, for both links).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Retro-Transport: Trains, Zeppelins and Canal Barges

BOULDER, Colorado -- Several years of oil prices surging above $100 a barrel and concerns over the effect of human activity on the climate have indicated that our current transportation infrastructure is not sustainable. Serious changes are likely on the horizon for the automobile industry, but what about other aspects of transportation, like shipping and air travel?

Trucking, especially in the United States, will likely undergo some serious changes as companies turn to alternatives like rail and waterborne transport. The jet engine is truly a climate killer - will people be willing to sacrifice the speed and convenience of the jet airliner for an alternative, perhaps a reborn Zeppelin? What will a post-hydrocarbon transportation network look like? Will it really materialize in our lifetime?

Earlier I discussed the project in California to build a high-speed train system, so I thought I would add a couple other alternative transportation ideas to the conversation. The first item, from a recent issue of the New York Times, is about the potential rebirth of New York's Erie Canal. If speed is not a concern, canal transport is a cheap and clean way to move goods in certain areas if the old infrastructure is still in place, as it is in Upstate New York.

"Hints of a Comeback for Nation's First Superhighway"

The second item concerns a glamorous old conveyance that met a fiery end - the Zeppelin. The largest one ever built, the ill-fated Hindenburg, could carry 72 passengers from Berlin to New York in approximately three days - it is a far cry from the 500 passengers that can make the crossing in eight hours aboard a Boeing 747, but it also expends far less fuel. There are not yet any serious plans to reintroduce the airships for passenger travel; personally, I think I would enjoy a luxury transatlantic cruise aboard one of these floating behemoths, but I doubt it will ever occupy a major niche in the commercial air travel market again. Instead, the blimp's boosters argue it could be used for heavy-lift transport to remote areas with poor access to roads or even airstrips. As the Economist states, dirigibles could carry large components for construction of things like oil and gas pipelines, which often cross rather dodgy stretches of the planet, or transport military hardware when aircraft capacity is in short supply.

"Pipe in the sky"

If you have any other thoughts or articles about retro transportation alternatives, send them along, and I will include them in this ongoing discussion.

Greatest Sports Journalism Commentary Blog Closes, Joe Morgan Still Employed

BOULDER, Colorado -- The blogosphere and the baseball world are far, far poorer today. The authors of Fire Joe Morgan - a site dedicated to exposing the incompetence and mental illness of ESPN's premiere baseball analyst, as well as of many other sports media types who suck at their jobs (John Heyman, Bill Plaschke, Woody Paige, Hatguy) - announced that they would no longer be updating the site. It will be a long winter trying to figure out how I am going to get through next year's baseball season without line-by-line dissection of every one of Joe Morgan's online chats. The sad farewell follows:

Hello, everyone.

After 21 years, and almost 40 million posts (we'll have to check those numbers, but it's something like that), we have decided to bring FJM to an end.

Although we have not lost our borderline-sociopathic joy for meticulously criticizing bad sports journalism, the realities of our professional and personal lives make FJM a time/work luxury we can no longer afford.

We started this site with two purposes: to make each other laugh, and to aid and abet the Presidential campaign of Bob Barr. Although we failed in the latter goal, we gleefully succeeded in the first, and thanks to a grassroots internetty word-of-mouth kind of a deal, we appear to have positively affected the lives of actual citizens as well, which astonishes and delights us to this day. We really never thought FJM would be for anyone but us. We are thrilled and kind of humbled to have been proven wrong.

We thank all of you for the kind emails, and the tips, and the support. To each and every person who ever contacted us: hat tip to you.

Perhaps the future holds another project for us on which to waste massive amounts of time. For now, we will leave the site and the archives up as a testament to the fact that if you work hard enough, and blow off enough social occasions, and stare at the internet enough, and get nerdy enough, and repeatedly ignore entreaties from your friends and loved ones to please God stop blogging about Bill Plaschke and get out of the house it's a beautiful day!, then you, too, can...have a blog.

Again, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you. And as Joe Morgan himself might say:

"I really haven't seen them play...slidepiece...Dave Concepcion."

Love,

dak, Junior, and Ken
Unfortunately, Joe Morgan has not been fired (or has he?) and continues to make ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball a truly unwatchable affair. FJM can maybe claim they had something to do with Harold Reynolds getting canned in Bristol, but this probably had more to do with his inappropriate behavior toward a female personal assistant at an Outback Steakhouse. Nonetheless, we faithful readers know how much these people suck, and we know that Moneyball was not written by Oakland GM Billy Beane and an evil, chess-playing computer that hates stolen bases and fun.

You can still read the archives online, and KT, dak and Junior - we aspire to be half the snarky, insipid meta-critics that you guys are.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Creating the New Locomotive Economy

BOULDER, Colorado -- The United States' passenger rail system totally sucks. This is an irrefutable fact. With the exception of a few areas of the country (just the Northeast, really), there is no reliable, high-volume train service. Take a look at this route map of our beleaguered national carrier, Amtrak. Vast swaths of the county are unserved, and the network still essentially follows the major trunk lines that were constructed not long after the Civil War. Those green lines on the map are bus routes that hold this patwork together. There are no north-south routes outside of the coasts and the Chicago-New Orleans line. The few improvements that have been made - like the "high-speed" Acela in the Northeast corridor - are overpriced, unprofitable, and deliver only marginally better service than what preceded them.



I happen to like trains. I also like to drive my car. Nobody is saying that you have to give up your automobile and ride your bike to the train station like some Dutchman. But there are so many things happening in this country and across the globe that make rail a viable growth industry. It is cleaner and cheaper than relying on the interstate highway system for passenger transport and shipping. While less flexible, an expanded network would easily make it competitive with trucking and air travel. Most importantly, a carbon tax, in some form or another, is coming, making gasoline, diesel and jet fuel-powered transport more expensive than it already is. Trains can be the great infrastructure project of this generation that will put Americans back to work, restore our manufacturing base, grow green technology, and make America the best place in the world to do business again. This may sound like a tall order for the humble locomotive, but it has the potential to be a powerful engine of growth in the future.

The voters of California got at least one thing right on election day. Though they repealed the rights of their gay citizens to get gay married, Californians approved a $9.95 billion dollar bond issue to construct an 800-mile high-speed rail network connecting all the state's major cities. The six-hour journey by car from San Francisco to Los Angeles will be cut to 2 hours 38 minutes. The 588-mile journey from Sacramento to San Diego will take only 3 hours 35 minutes, with a projected ticket price of just $68. Check out more about the system here, including the interactive map.


The project will cost $40 billion in total, and construction is tentatively slated to begin in 2011. California is hoping to secure $10-12 billion in federal funds, and the remainder of the cost will be covered by private investment or some sort of public-private partnership agreement that has yet to be hammered out. $1 billion of the bond will be spent on improving regional rail systems and linking them to the high-speed network.

There are still a lot of question marks about the funding scheme for this project, and the optimistic projections about the cost and time of construction will likely not be met. But California has taken a giant step toward creating an efficient and reliable passenger rail system.

Hopefully, other states - and the federal government - will follow their lead.

Historic Marriages In New Haven's City Hall

BOULDER, Colorado -- Connecticut became the second state in the union Wednesday to allow same-sex couples to marry, joining only Massachusetts since California banned the practice by a ballot measure. The final court ruling that allowed the marriages to be conducted came at New Haven's Superior Court.

Just minutes later, the first couples were married at the office of vital statistics in City Hall.

Connecticut has had a civil unions law on the books since 2005. In 2004, eight couples sued the state for full marriage rights, and on October 10, the state supreme court overturned the civil unions statute and conferred the right to marry on same-sex couples. Wednesday's decision was the final hurdle in the case that allowed municipalities to issue marriage licenses to the couples.

Due to the fact that the supreme court ruling came less than a month before election day, opponents of the decision were left scrambling to find a way to fight it. They settled on a plan to throw their support behind an odd ballot measure. Under the constitution, every 20 years Connecticut is required to place a question on the ballot asking the voters whether or not the state should convene a constitutional convention. Gay marriage opponents urged voters to vote "yes," apparently in the hope that they could muscle through an amendment banning the marriages at the convention. The state's last convention was held in 1965, and it looks like we will have to wait another 20 years, as the measure was defeated with a resounding "no."

The Connecticut constitution is notoriously difficult to amend and does not allow for voter-initiated amendments. Earlier this year, another group was lobbying for a "yes" vote on the convention question, hoping to insert provisions allowing for a referendum process, but their campaign picked up hardly any steam. Referendums sound like a good idea, but in practice they can be unwieldy and easily manipulated by interest groups - in the case of California, Proposition 8 was used to disenfranchise an entire group, and it passed only by a slim majority. In my adopted home state of Colorado, this election I was subjected to 24 state, county, and municipal ballot questions, 11 of which were amendments to the constitution. This hardly makes for efficient government.

Connecticut and California were linked in other ways, too. The Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization, which has its world headquarters in New Haven, donated millions of dollars to the "yes" campaign on Proposition 8 - in fact, they were the single-largest contributor to the campaign. In addition, the K of C provided money to the convention backers in Connecticut, hoping to roll back gay marriage on two fronts.

But same-sex marriages are safe in Connecticut for the foreseeable future. I cannot say the same for California, but there remains a glimmer of hope that the state supreme court will strike down the referendum on the grounds it violates the equal protection of the law guaranteed elsewhere in the constitution, but this remains unlikely.

So, congratulations to Robin and Barbara Levine-Ritterman and Peg Oliviera and Jen Vickery, the first two same-sex couples to receive their Connecticut marriage licenses. I hope there are many more issued in the future, and we New Englanders should be proud that we are paving the way for gay rights while most of the country seems to be sliding backwards.

Read more about this historic day in New Haven from Melissa Bailey in the New Haven Independent.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

F**k, S**t, C**t and the Supreme Court

BOULDER, Colorado -- On November 4, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case brought by the Federal Communications Commission against Fox television stations across the country for their broadcast of "fleeting expletives." The case hinged on several on-air incidents in which the words "fuck" and "shit" were uttered on live television, and the FCC's new rules cracking down on any use of foul language, whether intentional or gratuitous or not.

Nobody was pleased that the Supreme Court decided to withhold recordings of these proceedings, since this was certainly the juiciest case to come before the court since it allowed audio recording devices. Unfortunately, according to media reports, neither the justices nor the lawyers said any of the offending words, choosing instead to use the euphemisms "f-word" and "s-word." I do not have an opinion on which way the court should rule in this case, but it does raise a number of interesting questions about free speech, the regulation of the public airwaves, and the uses of profanity on television.

If the FCC wins, and broadcasters are subjected to these rules, it is actually quite easy to fix without muzzling everyone on television. Tape delays are used widely already, and seven seconds is usually enough time for producers to catch the offending word and insert the necessary censor without losing the feeling of a live broadcast - that is, in seven seconds they cannot go back and re-shoot something if someone flubs their lines or goes all Howard Beale on the air.

The defendants in this case made the argument that the FCC's rule changes were abrupt, capricious, and arbitrary, and they held television broadcasters to an impossible standard that punished them disproportionately. Notice the lawsuit was against Fox television stations, not against the broadcast network, as the fine was levied against every single affiliate that aired the offending words, making it an astronomical sum. The defendants are probably right on this count, as the FCC tends to do too much moralizing and latches on to well-publicized incidents (like Super Bowl XXXVIII) while ignoring much, much more important issues, like the consolidation of ownership of media outlets. You could even argue that if the FCC has a right to regulate the morality of television programming, it should crack down on violence and sex, not Cher blurting out "fuck" at an awards show.

Interestingly, most of these rules apply only between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., so even broadcast television stations can legally say and show whatever they would like at night, though they generally choose to apply the same decency standards around the clock (that is, Craig Ferguson does not rattle off "motherfucker," and they do not show hardcore pornography after 10). So, while they miss a bit of blue language here and there, they do a pretty good job of keeping the public trust by not turning the airwaves into dreck, or at least not fucking- and swearing-filled dreck.

Most basic cable stations still try to keep gratuitous swearing off the air, sort of. The bleeped-out f-word has become so ubiquitous on television that it is now a comedic device in itself. Some shows have been able to use this to great effect - Arrested Development turned censoring swear words into an art form, perfectly positioning actors and props to obscure the speaker's mouth just as they formed the offending word.

Other programs, like The Daily Show, make you wonder why the even bother bleeping it out. Cable is not subject to the same rules that govern the public airwaves, and they swear so frequently and with such vigor that they should probably just say "fuck" out loud, since functionally, the same thing is happening. There is no mystery, no innuendo, no guessing as to what was said. Even a child knows that Jon Stewart just said a dirty word. As much as I love The Daily Show, it often sounds like a bit of lazy, juvenile comedy that is made slightly less tedious by the bleep.

So, if the FCC really cares about protecting the ears of America's impressionable youth, they should set their sights on banning not just inadvertent swears, but the intentional use of bleeped-out swears as well. Or, just let the fuck, shit, cunt, piss, motherfucker fly.

Listen to a piece on NPR about the Supreme Court proceedings.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Notes on Veterans Day/Remembrance Day

BOULDER, Colorado -- To commemorate Veterans Day, I had just a few thoughts about this important, though often neglected, holiday. The first was about our neighbors to the north, people who have fought alongside the United States in many wars, including the current conflict in Afghanistan.

On the CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, Don Cherry, the co-host of the "Coach's Corner" segment, often does an honor roll for the Canadian soldiers killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan. This past weekend to commemorate the holiday, he dedicated the whole segment to reading off the names of the soldiers killed in the past year. I noticed something interesting about these names - there appeared to be a disproportionate number with French surnames. Since November 11, 2007, 26 Canadian soldiers have been killed, and nine of those men and women hailed from the province of Quebec. Quebec only makes up 23% of the population, so I decided to look a little deeper into the Canadian casualties to see if, in fact, there was a disproportionate number of Quebecois casualties.

A total of 98 Canadian servicemen have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. 15 of these come from Quebec, which is, in fact, a smaller proportion than would be expected based on the province's population. The largest number comes from the largest province, Ontario - 26 - but this is again smaller than the province's share of the total population, 38%. The area that has borne the biggest casualties is the Atlantic provinces - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Labrador and Newfoundland have suffered 22 casualties while making up only 6.6% of the Canadian population. Tiny Nunavut, with only 31,000 people, has even experienced one combat death, which would be expected statistically with 10 times the population.

I do not know how really to account for these discrepancies - it is largely a product of a small sample size of casualties - but we have similar patterns in the United States as well. According to the Department of Defense, the US has suffered 4,193 confirmed combat deaths in Iraq, but these are not equally distributed across all states. Big states, like Texas (388 combat deaths) and California (449) - which, incidentally, do have high rates of enlistment - have casualty rates that are quite close to their population. Meanwhile small states, like Vermont (20) and Nebraska (43), have suffered double the expected casualty rate.

You can find a complete list of the Canadians killed in action on the CBC website here, and watch Don Cherry's touching tribute to his fallen countrymen here. The New York Times also has an excellent set of visualizations of American casualty data in Iraq here, as does the Washington Post, here.

[Pictured: Pfc. Cody J. Eggleston, 21, of Eugene, Oregon, died October 24, 2008 in Bethesda, Maryland of wounds sustained October 16 in Baqubah, Iraq; Sgt. Prescott Shipway, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, killed in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, September 7, 2008. These are the most recent American and Canadian combat deaths of whom pictures are available.]

* * *


It is often forgotten in this country that November 11 is meant to commemorate the fallen from World War I. The armistice in that war was signed exactly 90 years ago, and though it seems the horrors of that war have been vastly overshadowed by subsequent global conflagrations, it remains an enduring memory elsewhere in the world. In the New York Times today, Alexander Watson penned a fascinating opinion article contrasting the ways in which this day is marked in the United States and Europe. Here, this day is used to celebrate veterans - those who survived this country's wars - whereas in Britain and France, November 11 is a day to remember those who died. Watson argues that this arrangement came about because America had already passed through a crucible just 50 years previous - the Civil War - that brought the death and destruction of modern warfare on a scale unseen in Europe until 1914. We already had a day for those dead, Memorial Day, so the day of the armistice became our Veterans Day, a day for the living.

So, while the French pay tribute to their dead from 1914-1918 by reading their names aloud in public squares, the people of the Commonwealth wear poppies on their lapels, and Americans shake hands with aged veterans, let us not forget our common history in the mud and the wire of Flanders.

Break of Day in the Trenches
by Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand

A queer sardonic rat
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German

Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

[June 1916]


Monday, November 10, 2008

Shut Up, Hugo Chavez: The One-Year Anniversary

BOULDER, Colorado -- It was exactly one year ago today when Spain's King Juan Carlos I told Venezuelan President to "shut up." The incident took place at the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile.

While Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was addressing the conference, he was repeatedly interrupted by the thick-necked Venezuelan despot, who was hurling insults mostly at the previous prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar. Messrs. Zapatero and Chavez had a brief but heated back-and-forth, and Chavez' microphone was turned off, but he continued to rant. Then the Spanish monarch leaned forward and said, "¿Por qué no te callas?", or, "Why don't you just shut up?"

Here's the video.



I am sure this is something that millions of Venezuelans shout at their television sets on a weekly basis, as the president hosts a live talk show every Sunday, Alo Presidente, which usually involves Chavez prognosticating for hours on end - his longest program to date dragged on for eight hours.

So, cheers to King Juan Carlos - I hope he gets more opportunities in the future to tell this tremendous windbag to shut his goddamn mouth.

UPDATE: Venezuelans appear to have been given a holiday from the president's variety show, as Alo Presidente will not be aired again until the beginning of December, so as not to interfere with elections slated for November 23.

UPDATE, pt. 2: Of much greater import (and relevance to this blog), today also marks the thirteenth anniversary of the execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa was a tireless voice for his Ogoni people of the Niger Delta region, and he championed human rights and enivornmental causes. He was arrested several times for his activities, the final time being in May 1994; he was charged with inciting murder, and the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha sentenced him to death. He, along with eight other Ogoni activists, was hanged on November 10, 1995, an event that sparked international outrage, leading to Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations.

Online Journalists Keep Local Reporting Alive

BOULDER, Colorado -- Like in most other places in America, the newspaper industry in my home state of Connecticut is in a sorry state. The Hartford Courant is the state's paper of record, but America's oldest newspaper has fallen on hard times. It is owned by the beleaguered Tribune Company, which is undergoing a massive restructuring; this summer, the Courant announced that it would be cutting its newsroom staff by 25%, and it has reduced the number of pages and cut back on expensive local reporting.

In my hometown, the New Haven Register remains the second-largest paper in the state, and it is still locally owned, by the Journal Register Company. However, JRC's stock was recently de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange, and its share price has since fallen below one cent. Despite serving one of the largest and most important cities in southern New England, the Register no longer has a full-time reporter covering the state capitol in Hartford.

But not to fear - local reporting is not dead in Connecticut.

Even though I live out of state, I like to keep up with what is going on back home, and the resource I most regularly turn to is not a regular daily newspaper, but an online one, the New Haven Independent. The Independent is a small operation with about a dozen staff members; they typically run three to five stories a day, and they do not publish on the weekends. However, The Independent has been breaking stories on a regular basis, beating out the more established publications, especially to stories coming out of city hall. The Independent has become so adept at getting scoops that they have raised the ire of the mayor's office. City workers have at times been specifically instructed not to talk to their reporters, and the city tried to fire two employees who were quoted in the Independent speaking out against the closing of a senior center. If they are pissing off politicians, they must be doing something right.

I really appreciate the paper's intense focus on local issues. On their site, you can sort their archives by New Haven's 24 different neighborhoods; I didn't even know there were that many. They also did some very admirable reporting this past summer about the rash of gang-related shootings in the city, and their police beat is outstanding. But perhaps my favorite piece is their weekly video blog with editor Paul Bass, "direct from our newsroom, otherwise known as my compost heap." Here's the latest installment.



The Independent is part of a growing number of online, locally-based news organizations that are not run for profit, but instead rely on grants and donations. The paper's founders also created something called the Online Journalism Project, which aims to
"encourage the development of professional-quality hyperlocal and issue-oriented online news websites. Sites like this one. We aim to accomplish that by helping stand-alone journalists obtain grants or other financing to develop local news websites meeting professional standards of fact-gathering, accuracy, fairness; by sharing information about this emerging medium; and by adding our voice to the debate over the course of online journalism."
The Independent is their largest project thus far, but there are other organizations that are attempting to reestablish local reporting and investigative journalism by creating a new economic model for journalism, or at least, one that has been mostly restricted to the arenas of public television and radio (though not just to PBS and NPR - other important outlets like Free Speech Radio News and Pacifica Radio also rely on donations and grants to maintain networks of independent reporters). ProPublica is one such organization. It has a newsroom in New York staffed with 28 full-time journalists dedicated to investigative reporting. The newsroom produces stories that are distributed to other news organizations free of charge; they also work with other outlets to produce segments for radio and television.

With the entire print media industry apparently going into a death rattle, is the non-profit model the future of journalism? It is hard to say - perhaps traditional print outlets will develop better online revenue streams and turn their fortunes around. But in the meantime, small papers are going under and local reporting - even in big cities - is suffering dearly. I am thankful that I have a resource like the New Haven Independent to turn to, and I hope they keep up the good work.

PBS' Newshour ran a segment back in June about this new type of newsroom, and you can watch it or read the transcript here.