Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wednesday Links: Recession Solutions

BROOKLYN, New York -- Everyone is trying to cope with economic hardships. The Russian government is giving people free lumber. New Yorkers can no longer steal paper plates from their local Whole Foods. And Oprah just wants you to read The Secret and think positively to solve all of your financial, emotional, and medical problems.

Wall Street Journal: Let the forest be your stimulus.
Despite having the third-largest hard currency reserves in the world, Russia still can't spend its way out of economic oblivion. So instead, the government is letting ordinary citizens fell timber, prospect for gold and plant potatoes for free in hopes of stimulating the economy.

New York Times: Russia's defense minister is a "stool salesman." Russia's military has long been plagued by a bloated officer corps, but in its current economic dire straits, the country can hardly afford to gently show these officers the door. They just roughly kick them to the curb.

Architects' Journal: We will build Europe's largest ... er ... parking lot.
The Russia Tower was slated to become Europe's tallest building, but financial mismanagement has brought the project to a halt, and little has been built since the cornerstone was laid two years ago. So much for Norman "The Apologist" Foster's wet dream of a building.

Geography of Jobs: Americans are equally screwed everywhere. That's not entirely true, but almost no major cities have been free from job losses. This map comes from consulting firm TIP Strategies and displays the change in the number of jobs for the 100 largest metropolitan areas since 2004.

WNYC: Forget NYSC, I'm joining the YMCA. Like the two-dollar bill story reported earlier, WNYC is asking listeners to submit their own uncommon indicators of the recession. The result is a fascinating interactive map of New York City.

Newsweek: Oprah wants you to inject things into your vagina.
Oprah got thoroughly skewered by Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert in this Newsweek cover story, where they portrayed her as an uncritical, weak-minded ninny who unflinchingly endorses crackpots and cranks. The results are hilarious.

Toronto Star: Foreigners don't like hockey. Canada has been lauded for its open and fair immigration policies. Now if they could only get the new arrivals to take up hockey.

ESPN: I wanna be like Barry. If you want to get close to Obama, join in on some hoops. This borders a bit on a cult of personality, but luckily basketball is already very popular in the US, so we don't risk facing a situation like Russia, where niche sports like tennis, judo and skiing saw their popularity skyrocket simply because the president (Yeltsin in the first case, Putin in the latter two) played them.

Metropolis Magazine: Meet America's stupidest mayor.
We have leveled our own broadsides against illiterate Boston mayor Tom Menino; now he may be facing a challenge to his authoritarian rule.

Tor Project: Help stop the Iranian thugocracy. Speaking of authoritarian rule, the Iranian government has become quite adept at thwarting journalists and would be protesters from gaining access to the Internet to get information about the unrest out of the country. This piece of software prevents the authorities from easily tracking them and cutting off their access, or worse, finding out their identity and personally targeting them. It can also be quite useful to bloggers and journalists in any part of the world.

The Recession and $2 Bills

BROOKLYN, New York -- Recently a friend took a trip down to Baltimore for a family wedding. During that trip, something rather curious happened: on multiple occasions while making commercial transactions - usually with cab drivers - he received back in change the elusive two-dollar bill. He returned to New York with three of them in his wallet, totally befuddled as to why Thomas Jefferson's visage was in such regular circulation in Maryland.

Just last week, I took a trip back to my hometown of New Haven, and I retold this story to a mutual friend of ours at a local bar. We were both equally puzzled about this strange occurrence. I have never in my life been in possession of a two-dollar bill, and we both thought perhaps that Baltimore was such a backwards place that the bills had never fallen out of use. The bartender overheard us and said that he had two in his pocket that he had received from customers that week.

"It's the recession," he said simply. His theory was that when economic times are tough, people start dipping into any reserves of cash they might have on hand, whether those be collectible coins, loose change in the couch, or a stash of two-dollar bills.

The two-dollar bill has actually never been pulled from circulation. They currently make up roughly 1% of the money supply, and the Federal Reserve continues to print the bill. According to the Fed, "The $2 bill has not been removed from circulation and is still a circulating denomination of United States paper currency. The Federal Reserve System does not, however, request the printing of that denomination as often as the others. The Series 2003 $2 bill was the last printed and bears the names of former Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow and Treasurer Rosario Marin. As of April 30, 2007 there were $1,549,052,714 worth of $2 bills in circulation worldwide."

Most of the bills, however, are not in regular circulation. Banks hold on to them and usually only distribute them to customers when they are specifically requested. Most of them end up, for example, stashed away in the pockets of bartenders instead of in the register to be given out in the normal course of transactions.

Perhaps the cab drivers of Baltimore are simply following the orders of the Federal Reserve to use the bills like you would any other currency, and our neighborhood bartender just happened to get lucky. I have not found any evidence or research about links between the resurfacing of two-dollar bills and recessions, but it seems to make logical sense.

For the past several years, the two-dollar bill has started to become more and more common. A Reuters story from 2006 reports increased orders for the bills from banks since 2001, though it is hard to say why. The piece cites the bills' popularity among strip clubs, as they mean double the tips for the dancers. It is possible that the combination of increased supply and less reluctance on the part of spenders to use them due to the recession has led to their increased visibility.

The bill has been linked to the current recession, but in a different way. Recently a story appeared in several news outlets about a pharmacy owner in Alabama who earlier this year gave his employees his own economic stimulus. Danny Cottrell gave each of his full-time employees bonuses of $700 and his part-time staff $300, with two conditions: they had to give 15% of the cash to charity, and the remainder had to be spent in local businesses. To track his employees' spending, he handed out the bonuses entirely in two-dollar bills, so that if they did as they were told, the local market would be flooded with the bills (A similar scheme was tried by the Geneva Steel Company in Utah in 1989 to show the economic importance of the company and its employees. The bills have subsequently been used to show the impacts of the plant's closing in 2001.) Interestingly, Mr. Cottrell also wrote an article in 2004 for VFW Magazine about a limited-time release of uncirculated two-dollar bills from the Federal Reserve. Perhaps that is how he managed to get ahold of $16,000 worth of the bills to dole out to his employees.

Is the two-dollar bill really an indicator of the recession? It is hard to tell. I think we will only know how bad things really are when people start paying for their beers and cab rides with their own gold teeth.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Western Dispatches: The Lone Survivor of Little Bighorn

BROOKLYN, New York -- This week I will be bringing you a few observations and highlights from my recent road trip from Boulder to Brooklyn, one I will be repeating in reverse in just a few weeks time. The trip included my first visit to South Dakota; I was expecting a slightly less populated Kansas - some spectacular views of the prairies, but worth getting across as quickly as possible - but I was in fact mesmerized, and I wish I could have spent more time there.

While driving past lonely exit 191, right smack in the middle of the state, I stopped in at "1880 Town," an Old West attraction that looked too campy to pass up. The place is actually a collection of historic buildings taken from towns around the state and plunked down alongside the highway. Like many roadside museums, this one is filled with a somewhat random collection of artifacts, from signed pictures of Red Sox great Bobby Doerr (who, as far as I can tell, has no connection to South Dakota) to props from the movie "Dances With Wolves."

One of the most interesting exhibits was the above photograph of a horse accompanied by this letter:
Headquarters, Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory
April 10, 1878

General Orders No. 7

I. The horse known as "Comanche", being the only living representative of the bloody tragedy of the Little Big Horn, June 23, 1876, his kind treatment and comfort should be a matter of special pride and solicitude on the part of every member of the Seventh Cavalry to the end that his life be prolonged to the utmost limit. Wounded and scarred as he is, his very existence speaks in terms more eloquent than words of the desperate struggle against overwhelming numbers; of the hopeless conflict, and of the heroic manner in which all went down on that fatal day.

II. The commanding officer of Company "I" will see that a special and comfortable stall is fitted up for him, and he will not be ridden by any person whatever, under any circumstances nor will he be put to any kind of work.

III. Hereafter upon all occasions of mounted regimental formation "Comanche" saddled, bridled, draped in mourning, and led by a mounted trooper of Company "I", will be paraded with the regiment.

By command of Colonel Sturgis,
(Signed) E.A. Garlington
In reality, probably more like 100 American horses survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but the US Army heaped all of this praise on Comanche. He became a symbol of the battle, and the Army's resolve to fight the Indians to the last. The horse became so famous that he was even "interviewed" at Fort Abraham Lincoln by papers from across the country. For more on Comanche, go here for an article by Deanne Stillman, published in New West magazine.

When Comanche died in 1890, he became the first horse buried with full military honors - the only other horse so honored was Black Jack, who's only accomplishment was acting as the riderless horse at more than 1,000 military funerals. That hardly compares with being wounded in several battles and surviving seven bullets at the Little Bighorn. But Comanche was not laid to rest when he died; his remains were sent to the University of Kansas, where he was stuffed and put on display in the Natural History Museum, where he remains today.

Alongside Comanche's portrait were also those of the last surviving fighters from the battle (pictured below), who gathered in South Dakota in 1948 to commemorate the still-unfinished monument to Crazy Horse. These eight men have no monuments to their victory; one of the few Indian triumphs of the Indian Wars is instead remembered as a national tragedy. Had the outcome of the battle been the opposite, and the Sioux were slaughtered to the last man, this would likely be the marker left behind for these men.

On the western edge of the state, standing beneath the colossal outline of Crazy Horse's torso and horse, where 18 million tons of rock have been blasted from the Black Hills, and no less than 60 more years of blasting and carving remain to be done, I could not help but feel melancholy about the whole undertaking. Not just because the project seems Sisyphean, but because the monument to the Indians appears to be aping the nearby monument to the colonial occupiers. True, the Crazy Horse monument dwarfs Mt. Rushmore, but it will always appear as a copy, an effort to beat the white man at his own game, and a similar desecration of the sacred Black Hills. Of course, I am not an Indian, so I cannot say what is desecration and what is commemoration, but I could not feel comfortable about either place. If a reporter were to interview him today, I wonder what Comanche would have to say about all of this.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Enter the CELL: Denver Museum Tells You When, Where and How Terrorists Will Kill You

BROOKLYN, New York -- I recently visited Denver's Center for Empowered Living and Learning, ominously referred to as "The CELL," to see their inaugural exhibit on international terrorism. The museum probably told me more about the politics of fear and the construction of threats than it did about actual terrorism, so I thought I would share some information and insights from my visit.

Titled "Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: Understanding the Threat of Terrorism," the implied clause to follow the exhibit's name is "could be killed by terrorists," and they make every effort to convince you not only that terrorists are everywhere, but they all are part of a vast, sinister network who's only object is to kill innocent people. The museum was not as crazy as I had hoped, but it was as uninformed as I had feared.

The CELL opened last fall as part of Denver's Mizel Museum, which is dedicated to Jewish history and culture. The museum was founded by Larry Mizel, a real estate developer who is also the chairman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The museum claims to be non-partisan, and despite Mizel's history as a major Republican contributor, I was quite surprised to see not a single image or even mention of President Bush anywhere in the museum. There was a lot of information on attacks in Israel, but considering the number of terrorist attacks that have been inflicted on that beseiged country, this was probably appropriate (it was not mentioned anywhere that the first terrorist groups in historic Palestine were in fact Jewish, though mention of this fact would be a lot to expect from any museum, regardless of its politics.) The museum's slant goes beyond partisanship - the rhetoric of terrorism and fear transcends party lines.

The museum strives to make the visitor identify with the victims of terrorism. When you purchase your ticket, they give you a card for their "Shattered Lives" exhibit. At three points in the museum, there are kiosks where you insert the card, and you are given information on a particular victim of terrorism, very similar to the approach used at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. At the first kiosk, you are told about the person's biography and background - my victim was Yanis Kanidis, a resident of Belsan, Russia. The second station tells you about the circumstances of their encounter with terrorism - there was a brief description of the attack on the Beslan school in 2004, and the terrible conditions the hostages were held in. Finally, like at the Holocaust Museum, you are told whether your person lived or died - Mr. Kanidis was killed by the terrorists while attempting to get other hostages out of the school, for which he posthumously received the medal for the Protection of Human Rights by the Russian government.

Encouraging visitors to identify with people who's lives have been affected by terrorism is a somewhat noble goal of the museum, but another exhibit tries to accomplish this in a far more heavy-handed fashion. Called "Hitting Home," when you enter the room halfway through the museum, you are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling screens depicting crowds of people mulling around Denver's Civic Center and 16th Street Mall. The screens are then filled with explosions and fireballs and the sounds of sirens and anguished cries (pregnant women are encouraged to avoid this portion of the museum). This is the type of thing one would expect from a Tom Tancredo campaign ad, not an educational museum.

The main problem with the museum is that their definition of terrorism is at once too broad and too narrow. The museum tries to draw links between all terrorist groups across the world, which is similar to the Cold War efforts to link all leftists to an international communist conspiracy. It is even more absurd than that, however, because terrorism is not an ideology, it is a tactic. It is employed by state and stateless actors, by the downtrodden and poor and by the rich and powerful, by the left and by the right. The CELL explains that there is no universally-accepted definition of terrorism, which they see as problematic. But will this make terrorism any less ambiguous? Is the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden in World War II, or the shelling of Sarajevo, all of which specifically targeted civilians with the intent of inciting mass terror, much different that setting off a suicide bomb in a crowded Baghdad market? Many countries are labeled "terrorist states," but it is without dispute that the United States has provided both material and moral support to groups around the world that are unequivocally terrorists. Yet somehow we justify supporting the Contras in Nicaragua or insurgent groups in Iran. If these issues are black and white, and terrorism is morally wrong, then there can be no "freedom fighters" who set off bombs in shopping malls or use death squads to execute civilians.

America's struggle with terrorism has revealed that it is a complicated, messy business that makes it difficult at times to draw bright lines between good and evil in this so-called war. We have sacrificed many of our own moral principles in pursuit of the GWOT, and we are left with little to show for it. Despite our efforts to weaken terrorist organizations, people around the world, regardless of their ideology, are no less willing to murder and maim civilians to achieve their political goals. There are many valid question to be asked about the nature of terrorism and the use of violence to achieve political ends, but they remain largely unexplored in this museum. Saying that Timothy McVeigh, Hezbollah, and the Earth Liberation Front are all cut from the same cloth and should be treated the same obscures more than it illuminates.

Not Just Homeland, Hometown Security

I recently discovered another ad from Tom Tancredo's failed presidential bid, and it is even more crazy and racist, but it bears another similarity to the CELL. Tancredo says he wants to deport "those who don't belong," a wonderfully ambiguous phrase that is simply a code for racism and xenophobia. The CELL encourages visitors to be diligent in the fight against terrorism and offers tips and directions for the average citizen. These include looking out for people who "don't belong in the workplace, neighborhood, business establishment or anywhere else." You should also look out for people who might be rehearsing for committing an act of terrorism, or it could be for The Amazing Race, as Liz Lemon learned. Also look out for people who are conducting surveillance, which may include "use of cameras, note taking, drawing diagrams, annotating maps or using binoculars." Apparently, terrorism is an activity remarkably similar to birdwatching.

It would be far more useful if they included a poster like this one I saw at a zoo in Russia. It doesn't just tell you how to spot a terrorist, but what to do should you be held hostage. The most important thing is to avoid being killed by the police when they storm the building.

Making Terrorism Black and White

This effort to paint all terrorists with the same brush has led to a number of factual inaccuracies throughout the museum. Even the basic facts of terrorist attacks can often be disputed, but the CELL does not look at any accounts with a critical eye, choosing instead to give the visitor a clear-cut version of events. Two examples of this were particularly striking.

Throughout the first exhibit of the museum, there are television monitors that display information about various terrorist attacks that have taken place in recent years, including the location, the number of casualties, and the culprits. The segments are produced like news reports to give them an air of objectivity. One of the featured incidents was the hostage taking at a Moscow theater in 2002 by Chechen separatists. The attack resulted in the deaths of 129 hostages, though not a single one was killed by a terrorist - all of the hostages died as a result of a toxic nerve gas that Russian security services pumped into the building. The plan worked in rendering everyone inside unconscious, but there was not sufficient medical staff or equipment on hand to deal with the 700 affected people, and most of the victims died after being carried out of the building and left lying in buses and trucks, waiting to be revived at a hospital. It should also be noted that Russian special forces then summarily executed the 40 hostage takers while they lay unconscious inside the theater, when they could have easily been removed, arrested and tried for their crimes. None of this was mentioned in the CELL's report.

Mentioned in one of the exhibits was an event that took place on the eve of the Beijing Olympics last year, when reports came out of China of an attack by Uighur extremists on a police station in the western Chinese city of Kashgar. The official account stated that men armed with machetes and home-made explosives killed 16 officers, which is exactly how the event was recounted in the museum exhibit. However, pictures of the event taken by American tourists - and published in this article from the New York Times - show that the attack was far more complicated than insurgents attacking police. The attackers were dressed in police uniforms, and it is completely unclear who were the attackers and the targets in these photos. Clearly there are important details that the Chinese government either fabricated or left out, but the unambiguous official account is passed along to CELL visitors.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Wednesday Links: Baseball, Batons, and Bankruptcy

BROOKLYN, New York -- I have spent the past week wending my way across the United States (and Canada), seeing as many roadside attractions and minor league baseball games as humanly possible. In the coming days I will be publishing dispatches from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Buffalo, New York, as well as some links on places worth visiting should you ever find yourself in northern Iowa or southwestern Ontario. Itchy has also promised to emerge from hiding and complete his series on America's immigration policies.

This was a week of landmarks - of bloody crackdowns, bloody pogroms, and bloody bankruptcies. My brief detour through Ontario yielded a number of interesting stories, courtesy of CBC radio, and some old demagogues have found their singing voices.

Guardian: The internet is for porn, not protest. This week China chose not to commemorate the 20th anniversary of what they refer to as the "June 4th Incident"; instead, they marked the occasion by shutting down all manner of websites. In protest, many websites shut down voluntarily, citing Thursday as "Internet Maintenance Day."

CBC: Why read books when you can burn them? This week also marked the 28th anniversary of the destruction of the Jaffna Library (pictured) in Sri Lanka by a Sinhalese mob. The library, which housed one of the largest collections of Tamil-language texts in the world, was burned as part of a pogrom against ethnic Tamils after two policemen were killed at a Tamil nationalist rally on May 31, 1981. The destruction was a key moment in the formation of the violent separatist Tamil movement, which has supposedly been "defeated" by the Sri Lankan military after a 25-year civil war. Dr. Rebecca Knutsen, a professor of library science at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, has written extensively on the topic of "biblioclasm" and "libricide," including on the Jaffna incident.

The Wall Street Journal: P.J. O'Rourke hates pointy-headed busybodies. After driving more than 2,000 miles across 10 states, one province, and countless dirt roads and wide-open highways in my V-8 pickup, I must say that I sympathize whith O'Rourke's frustration. Trains and bicycles and other greener forms have transport have their romance, but it is tough to compete with the automobile as a symbol of freedom and exploration. So the next time you fill up your tank, pour a little out for GM and Chrysler.

CIUT.FM: Al-Jazeera English is not propaganda.
Tony Burman, the former editor-in-chief of the CBC, is now the managing director of Al Jazeera English. In this talk aired on the University of Toronto's community radio station, he speaks about his new network's focus on coverage of the global south, accusations of bias, and their efforts the secure a license to broadcast in Canada. Listen to this talk, and you will definitely consider tuning in to Al Jazeera English if you haven't already.

New York Times: Maybe if they made Freedom Toast.
In more depressing idiotic American immigration policy news, a French couple who immigrated to this country to open a bakery in the struggling logging town of Colebrook, NH are denied visas by the State Department.

Financial Times: Here's that green-collar job you've been promised, America.
The green energy sector has long been touted as a savior of American manufacturing, but the experience in the solar cell industry has not been encouraging. Like so many other industries, despite government subsidies and the need for inputs of advanced technology, solar cell manufacturing is drifting away from the US, Germany and Japan to lower-cost locations like China.

Toronto Star: The SkyDome seems much older. Toronto's SkyDome, now dubbed the Rogers Centre, turned 20 this week. Once the paragon of modern sports stadiums, back when it appeared every baseball and football game was destined to be played on turf in climate-controlled domes, the SkyDome has fallen behind the times, as have its occupants, the struggling Blue Jays.

Livejournal: Prokhorov will punch your face.
Russian metals magnate Mikhail Prokhorov was quite upset about something somebody said about his sister in the press. So, in true billionaire fashion, he has threatened to punch the person responsible in the face if they don't apologize within the week. He made this threat on his personal blog.

Youtube Stand-off: Churchill vs. Hitler. Here we bring you two videos that have brought me endless pleasure. The first comes from the geniuses who created the Autotune the News videos (I challenge you to find a more satisfying sound than Katie Couric singing the news). They have also remixed some historic speeches (the autotuned version of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech is sublime), including these words from Winston Churchill. In similarly inspired fashion, someone else has taken the wild gesticulations of Adolf Hitler and set them to the theme song from The Jeffersons. I guess by "east side," he means "Poland." You decide which is more awesome.

One final note ... Last week the Memorial Cup, Canada's premier tournament for major junior hockey, was won by the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. Located just across the river from Detroit, Windsor has fallen on hard times as jobs in the auto industry evaporate. Winning the Memorial Cup was a real bright spot for the city, but it was especially meaningful because the victory was dedicated to Mickey Renaud. Renaud was the Spitfires captain who died in February 2008 of a rare heart condition at the age of 19. Congratulations, Windsor, and Mickey and his family are in our thoughts.