Friday, December 23, 2005

My vote for important reading

I was going to wait until finishing Deliver the Vote to write about it again, but I'm finding so much to recommend that I can't resist. If there's a political buff or civic activist on your gift list, this history of American election fraud is the book you should get them.

In the early chapters, author Tracy Campbell serves up bitter medicine for Democratic readers. It turns out, though, that he thereby inoculates himself for any backlash against what he reveals about today's Republicans. Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 were so much worse than I remembered! If you love your country, if you believe in democracy, you must read this book.

Behind the FEMA meltdown

The highly visible failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in this year's Gulf Coast hurricanes actually began years ago and at the highest levels of the Bush administration, according to the Washington Post today. FEMA fell apart under fire not only because it had been shoved into a corner of the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but also because FEMA boss Michael Brown so fiercely -- and unsuccessfully -- fought the reorganization. In response, Bush administration officialdom emasculated Brown's FEMA.

Michael Grunwald and Susan Glasser write:
In many ways, Brown is a cautionary tale of what can happen to Washington officials who make mistakes in the public eye after making enemies behind the scenes. Brown spent two years trying to use his contacts with White House officials to undercut DHS, but the White House rarely backed him, and DHS leaders responded by shifting FEMA's responsibilities and resources to more cooperative agencies.

[Homeland Security Secretary Tom] Ridge stripped FEMA's power over billions of dollars worth of preparedness grants as well as the creation of a national disaster response plan. Most of the agency's top staff quit. And after he arrived at DHS in February, [Ridge’s successor, Michael] Chertoff decided to take away the rest of FEMA's preparedness duties.

The full story is here. The writers took questions from readers this morning. I gather that their work continues tomorrow.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The season is Christmas

Yes, I sent Christmas cards, and I'm now taking a few days off to do the faith and family thing. I wish you great joy in your own circle and, as my neighbors say, saludos y dinero* for the new year. Meanwhile, check this nice piece by Newsweek's Kenneth Woodward.

* health and wealth

Osama, Osama, can you hear me now?

Ooops, the president's little dig at the news media the other day wasn't quite right. It turns out that Osama bin Laden quit using his satellite phone before the word ever got out that someone was listening in. Thanks to the Washington Post for checking it out.

More to the point, there is reason to wonder whether bin Laden is even running al Qaeda anymore. Donald Rumsfeld shared the question while visiting in Pakistan this week. Also wondering is the Indian Express.

How big are blogs?

You, my esteemed reader, are part of the next big thing. Or maybe the thing before the next big thing. Anyway, there appears to be a future in this kind of communication. Read more in The Miami Herald.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ounce of prevention

Let us return to an earlier topic here: the inability of the U.S. medical industry to make enough vaccine for America's needs. This interview in Investor's Business Daily (registration required) offers some reasons why a former capacity no longer exists. Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Pennsylvania medical school, has written about the shutdown of U.S. vaccine makers after some bad polio vaccine was shipped by Cutter Laboratories in 1955 and a flood of lawsuits were filed in the 1970s and 1980s over a whooping cough vaccine. Offit says:
We can get vaccines, but [not] from pharmaceutical companies because it's not profitable for them. So let's make a deal. We protect them from unreasonable litigation in exchange for ... more of the products we need.

Now, IDB is no friend of plaintiffs' lawyers. It misses no opportunity to blame lawsuits for economic ills. But I think this physician, Offit, needs to be listened to. You might check out his new book, The Cutter Incident.

One serious critic of Offit on this topic also happens to be a lawyer who defends corporations in product-liability cases. He's Wade Rankin, and also worth reading.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A good word for Wikipedia

Having slammed the user-written reference archive, I guess I'm obligated to share with you this report saying that overall, it's reliable. I'm not convinced, but you may want to see for yourself.

Friday, December 16, 2005

More on the Wikipedia scandal

My hero of the moment is Daniel Brandt, the Texan who tracked down the author of that false biography on Wikipedia that I referred to here several days ago. Here's Daniel Terdiman of CNET News telling how the defamer was found out. Also, some discussion of the fundamental flaws in a reference source open to editing by anyone off the street.

My earlier mention is here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Doing good in changing times

The real estate boom appears to have had a brutal impact on one of my favorite charities, Habitat for Humanity. I don't quite know what to make of this report from Bloomberg, but you need to read it if you believe in decent housing for people of modest means

Monday, December 05, 2005

How "pay for play" news erodes the public conversation

A California journalist on the impact of the U.S.-purchased news stories in the Iraqi press. This is Peter Y. Sussman writing:
When government steps in to do covert journalism, it opens to question the work of all legitimate journalists, and the public is deprived of its lifeline to reliable and essential information on the operation of government.

A free press and a stubbornly independent press are essential to a healthy democracy, both in this country and in Iraq, and the Bush administration's clumsy attempts to peddle propaganda covertly as 'journalism' are a threat to both journalism and democracy in both countries. As journalists, we take pride in our independence from government direction.

At times, however, especially during wars, much of the public tires of dissent and yearns for the country to speak with a single voice. It is especially important at such times that we re-emphasize the importance of our independence so that truth and government oversight are not lost irretrievably because of transitory tidal changes in public opinion. It is our public trust as journalists to preserve diversity of public discourse.

White House on media placements

Robert Buckman reports a White House take on the scandal of U.S. military paying for play in the Iraqi media. Buckman:
I watched Stephen Hadley, Bush's new security adviser, interviewed yesterday by George Stephanopoulos on ABC. He said Bush was "very troubled" about reports that the Pentagon was paying to plant news in Iraqi media (he really didn't know about it?) but evaded Stepanopoulos' repeated question if Bush was going to stop it. [Here's the AP report.]
Jay Jeno's comment: Bush's response was, "Why haven't we been paying newspapers to do that here?"

Buckman is cochairman of the International Journalism Committee in the Society of Professional Journalists, and a member of the Society's Ethics Committee.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why I don't use Wikipedia

Here's the case of an honorable man whose name was blackened for weeks by this build-it-yourself "reference" source. The potential for mischief is so great, the site shouldn't even be considered a place of entertainment. Read about a false Wikipedia 'biography'

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Iraqi scandal "stinks"

The president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Dave Carlson of the University of Florida, checks in on the "pay for play" scandal (see earlier post) in Iraq:
"This stinks. . . . Passing off propaganda as news is a heinous practice, one that all Americans should detest and protest."

There's more response here.

Your host adds that, even if the paid placements were factual, as was asserted in the NYTimes, they were printed under false colors and thereby misled their audience. They corrupted the institution we supposedly are attempting to nourish. And now that this has been found out, the Iraqis have a right to be yet more cynical about whether Americans have any honest intentions in their country.

What angers me most, and most personally, is that these paid placements call into question the integrity of all journalists.

Disruptive change in the news world

Richard Edelman blogs thoughtfully about some of the things shaking up the newspaper world. His direct concern is how public relations people will need to adapt, but the leadup to his argument should concern everyone who is interested in public discourse and a functioning democracy.
"There will be continued cost pressures on the [media] companies, but with attendant questions about the ability to maintain quality of the product. The search for new revenue streams, whether from repurposing (such as podcasting) or pay-for-content, must accelerate."
In what I surmise is a revelation of his working habits, Edelman has named his blog 6 A.M.:.

Army pays Iraqis for favorable news coverage

Every honorable journalist abhors what is described here:
U.S. Army officers have been secretly paying Iraqi journalists to produce upbeat newspaper, radio and television reports about American military operations and the conduct of the war in Iraq.
by the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau.

Some other angles are covered by the New York Times (registration required, but free).

The story was broken a day earlier, in less detail, by the Los Angeles Times.

This disclosure is equally repulsive to Richard Edelman, a key figure in the public relations industry.
If a free media is a central aspect of a democratic society, then we cannot allow our PR industry to impede its development. It is a perversion of our business . . .
What the Army is doing, he writes, is barefaced Pay for play , an allusion to the sordid corruption of radio disc jockeys by the music industry.

Ths Washington Post report is more specific about who has been conducting this media campaign.
The program has been run out of the Multinational Corps commanded by Lt. Gen. John R. Vines in Baghdad, with the help of a Washington-based contractor, Lincoln Group. The company translates the articles and markets them to Iraqi media outlets without indicating the material came from the U.S. military.

The lowdown on the Lincoln Group from the Center for Media and Democracy.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Louisiana to D.C.: Save Us

From a writer at the Baton Rouge daily, some of the frustrations of hurricane recovery:
The unreality of the debate about loaning St. Bernard Parish money is breathtaking viewed from down here. But it’s only a small part of how Louisianians resent what’s going on post-Katrina and post-Rita.

God knows we’re grateful for those who came and helped. Outside my window were ambulances from Yuma and Spartanburg, Coast Guardsmen and Marines, volunteers from across the country. Thousands came to work long hours and save many lives.

But once the rescue was over came life with FEMA. A bloated bureaucracy installed itself at Camp FEMA, a huge former department store near downtown Baton Rouge. Security enforces a separation from the community only slightly less stringent than Baghdad’s Green Zone.

More aspects of the Gulf Coast situation coming over the next several days at the SouthNow blog, a political junkie's delight at UNC Chapel Hill.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Non-Life Insurers At Risk in U.S.

For homeowners in Florida and all coastal states, a sobering look at the insurance situation following this year's big hurricanes. In

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sometimes, a Tax Cut for the Wealthy Can Hurt the Wealthy

I wouldn't want to seem overly cynical here, but maybe, just maybe, this will give second thoughts to some of the lawmakers and policymakers who never met a tax cut they didn't like. The piece by Robert H. Frank is in the New York Times.

Cold facts reveal our hot climate-change

At last, here's a concrete contribution to the global-warming debate, in The Australian: [November 26, 2005]

Hopeful note about health care

You've probably heard the talk of reforming medical care by getting doctors and hospitals to record and share patient information electronically. While my computer experience assured me this could be done, the idea has seemed like pie in the sky until now. Here, though, is a man who has been putting the dream into practice. Frank Greve writes in the Miami Herald.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Chinese hack attacks

Lest there be any doubts about who our friends are, check out this at the ZDNet website.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Love that yellow light

The light is different this time of year in Miami, and I love it. You could see the difference in our little townhouse yard on Sunday afternoon, an hour before sundown. But where it's most noticeable is near Biscayne Bay. I and others at my office have often marveled at the beauty of the bay, and my wife, Liz, snapped this shot that begins to capture it. The camera was her phone, so the image only begins to show what I'm talking about. Not bad, though, considering the tools at hand.

Can you see that yellow spot in the water, near the center? There's a story behind that. And here is a closer view of that "inflatable villa."

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Main Street Strategy for Selling Knight-Ridder

I have been preoccupied lately with the future of Knight Ridder, owner of the Miami Herald and 31 other daily newspapers. The investment houses that hold major blocks of KRI have been trying to drive up the value of their investment. Knight Ridder has been aggressive about cost-cutting for several years, and is far leaner than a decade ago, but is yielding to the Wall Street gang and looking for how to sell itself -- as a unit or in pieces. That's depressing to many in the company's newsrooms. But Jay Rosen, one of the really smart students of the industry, has a notion for how the company could be broken up in a good way. Check out his piece and see how you think it work in your town.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Monday, November 07, 2005

Deliver the vote

Am listening to a fascinating interview with Tracy Campbell, the author of a new book about election fraud. Campbell is a historian at the University of Kentucky, and on XM Radio's "Bob Edwards Show" he makes a compelling case that a culture of corruption pervades the U.S. electoral system. I have ordered a copy for myself and hope that you'll do the same -- or request it from your public library.

-- The publisher's website
-- Miami-Dade Library's book request page

Longtime Public Radio fans will remember Edwards from his NPR days. It's a great pleasure to hear him again in his new gig.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

So long, good old tree

The live oak that shaded our kitchen window lies in pieces now behind our townhouse -- one of hundreds, maybe thousands of South Florida shade trees ruined by Hurricane Wilma or scarred by the storm and sacrificed by their owners.

At first we thought to save our tree: prune the broken top, hire a crane and set the tree back in its hole. We'd deepen the hole, help the roots reach deeper so they'd hold on tighter against the next storm.

Then we noticed how the roots had grown within inches of our sewer drain. Another year or two and the pipes would have been broken, maybe jammed with roots. Our loss of a tree revealed how close we'd come to a costly excavation.

So we sacrificed a tree that might have been saved. It is sad to lose the shade, and we will pay more in electricity come the next warm months unless we find another way to shade the three windows on our southwest side.

All around us for the past two weeks, people have been cutting trees. Some needed to come down, but many did not. It's a huge loss to the metropolis, this decimation of the tree canopy. In our block of townhouses, the condo officers talk of replacing the leafy trees with palms. I cringe at the thought. No leaves to rake, of course, but heavy fronds will drop at any time with no respect to who or what stands below. Give me a tree with leaves every time, leaves for shade in this sunny clime, branches where songbirds nest and squirrels play, leaves green and refreshing as they whisper in the breeze. The poet's tree, that thing unmatched by verse for loveliness, must surely have been not a palm but oak or maple, ash or poplar, gum or sourwood -- a tree, I'm sure, native to its place.

Want to do right by your new tree?
From the University of Florida, here are tips on selecting a tree and putting it into the ground so it will grow strong and healthy. Planting trees in urban landscapes

Monday, October 24, 2005

Riding out the storm

Hurricane Wilma pounded on Miami for 10 or 12 hours before moving out to sea. Vast parts of the city and surrounding county are without electricity at 1 p.m. Monday. Doppler radar (visible on the Herald's weather page ) indicates the heaviest rain was near the Fort Lauderdale airport. I'm tucked away on the 5th floor at the Miami Herald, with diesel power keeping most essential systems alive. I slept soundly in a sleeping bag from home. A handful of writers and editors are in the newsroom, busily blogging and trying to stay in touch with staff across the state and down in the Caribbean.

Running updates are available at the Herald's Wilma blog.

You can check power-restoration progress at FPL's storm page.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Treats for the hungry eye

I am nuts about magazines. They are easy to read and the best ones invariably bring me images and information that I had no idea I would find there. For a walk down memory lane for you other fans of the medium, here are some of the greatest covers of the past 40 years, as presented by the American Magazine Conference: Top covers

The Mad Man Of Wall Street

Jim Cramer is easily my favorite financial journalist. Unlike most of us in the news world, Cramer also works fulltime at a primary occupation outside journalism -- in his case, finance. Many have tried to figure out what makes him tick, and I think this piece succeeds. Read it in Business Week

Monday, October 10, 2005

House Of Cards

This little tale of political fund-raising shenanigans is a great read, and especially interesting to me because of its Florida connections. This is a bit intricate, so read it when you have a few moments to follow the twisting threads. April Witt tells the story in the Washington Post.

Lobbyists advise Katrina relief

We all have heard stories of shady legislative deals hatched in smoke-filled committee rooms. Here's something that puts flesh on those mossy bones. It's not pretty. Los Angeles Times

Friday, October 07, 2005

Offshore drilling

There was a big splash in Florida a few days ago because of this bill. Gov. Jeb Bush, who campaigned in the past as an opponent of oil exploration east of the present Gulf of Mexico fields, is now opening to the idea. Here's good background, adding clarity because it focuses on the bill instead of the Florida politics. San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Shaking out the pork barrel

Many of us, as we learned how the deferred levee maintenance at New Orleans contributed to the flooding after hurricane Katrina, also lamented the billions spent every year on pointless public works such as the planned Alaska "bridge to nowhere." That's a $225 million earmark item in the federal highway bill passed by Congress earlier this year.

One of those earmarks was for a $4 million parking garage in Bozeman, Mont., where civic boosters hope to buff up the city's downtown development potential. Some of the citizens of Bozeman began to say this month that the money would be better spent in Louisiana, and they asked the city council to send it back to Washington. The council rejected the thought.

But a movement has been born, and I think this will not be the last we will hear of it. There's a good report from the grass roots in today's New York Times. Read Timothy Egan's piece . Egan writes:
Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said all $25 billion in special projects -- called earmarks -- from the transportation bill could be deferred.

If you are open to deferring your own county's federal largesse, you might want to check in on what the movement's organizers are doing. Here's their website.

For more on how the pork barrel gets filled, you may visit San Francisco Weekly.

The movement is putting some heat on Rep. Don Young, the Alaskan who controls the transportation allocation process. The Fairbanks paper reported this week:
Young, along with Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, earmarked more than $1 billion for Alaska in the transportation act, which President Bush signed in August. About $600 million was Alaska-bound through formula spending anyway--the earmarks just designated it for projects of the congressional delegation's choosing--but another $400 million was money above the formula.

The bridge over Knik Arm, just north of Anchorage, will receive a total of $230 million from the act. A bridge over Tongass Narrows at Ketchikan will get $223 million. Much of the money will be essentially deducted from the formula funds the state gets.

More from Fairbanks here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Time for a return to the rails

When Florida was considering development of a high-speed rail corridor between Tampa and Orlando, I was hopeful something like that might be built out of Miami as well. Here's an argument that supports the idea. The writer notes the traffic jams in Houston and the utter inability to evacuate New Orleans ahead of this summer's hurricanes Rita and Katrina. High-speed rail, he says, could have taken fleeing thousands off the highways and saved anguish as well as life. It could work for South Florida, too. Remember the creeping traffic on Interstate 95 as Hurricane Andrew approached?

Here is Otis White, normally found in Governing magazine, writing today in the New York Times:

For decades, two myths have stymied efforts to develop intercity rail systems outside the Northeast: that rail can't compete with cars and airplanes and that the only region where passenger rail has been successful, the Northeast, has unique characteristics. Both are wrong.

The little engine that could (Registration required.)

Monday, September 26, 2005

A Story Better Told in Print

Once you get past the headlines and the raw emotion in a big news story like the recent flooding of Louisiana and Mississippi, if you want to understand the why and the "what next" you really need a good newspaper, not TV or the Internet. As most of us in the business acknowledge, it takes a serious newspaper to invest the time and energy in the necessary digging for facts that aren't standing out in broad daylight.

David Carr, on today's New York Times business front, makes this point especially well. Here is Carr:

Will New Orleans be a real city again, or just Disneyland with Jell-O shots?

Those are not questions that get asked or answered much on television. The New Orleans story needed the big muscles of print journalism to gain custody of facts that seemed beyond comprehension. People could Google their way through the storm, but for a search engine to really work, you need women and men on the ground asking difficult questions and digging past the misinformation and panic that infect a big story.

Read the story. (Registration required.)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Refiners making out as fuel prices rise

If motorists are the big losers in the spectacular run-up in gas prices, says the Washington Post, the companies that produce the oil and turn it into gasoline are the clear winners. This piece, Gas Profit Guzzlers, lays it out in dollars and cents.

More details in graphic

Banks and credit-card companies also are doing well on the price increase, because their fees are proportional to the dollars charged each time a card user fills up his tank. But according to the Post, the gasoline dealer probably makes a fixed margin and enjoys none of the price increase. Here's that part of the story .

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

It's the Global Economy, Stupid

I particularly liked the part about land in Jim Bacon's piece on global competitiveness. He's writing with Virginia in mind, but it's a worthwhile analysis in any state.

Monday, September 19, 2005

When the nation moved on coal

I am reminded today of the high school essay that infected me with the writer's bug so long ago.

The occasion is Along the rails, a piece at the Bacon's Rebellion blog about rail travel in my native state, Virginia.

My own research was mostly conducted by interviews with octogenarians such as my Grandpa Yeatts. An authentic photograph inspired the piece, and it may actually be in the State Library of Virginia. It shows an old-style Danville & Western locomotive at the station in downtown Stuart, right off the square that even today is still called the Depot. A copy hung in my dad's warehouse, a hundred yards or so down the line. The sight of it puts an ache in my heart.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Aspirin for your pain at the pump

A couple of weeks ago, a friend forwarded an email calling for a boycott of gas stations. It was meant as a protest of fuel prices, and that was even before Hurricane Katrina knocked the New Orleans refineries out of service and drove prices even higher. At the time, all I could think to say was that any boycott, to be successful, would have to include restraint from using gasoline as well as from buying it.

Then I came across a column by the always savvy Floyd Norris, with this ironic headline: Conservation? It's such a 70's idea . Norris, in the Sept. 2 New York Times, points out,
"The nature of energy demand is that it is slow to react to price changes. In the short term, a person cannot stop driving to work. Longer term, that person can get a car with better fuel efficiency or move closer to the job ... But to the extent that this is a short-term problem, it needs short-term solutions."

I hope you'll get a chance to read the whole column, but here's the bottom line:
We should drive slower, when we must drive at all, should cool our homes less until cold weather comes, and this winter, set the thermostat low and rely on dressing warm to stay in the comfort zone. This kind of personal action did make a difference while Jimmy Carter was president, and it can again.

Here's the Norris column.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

No alternative

The key moment in my favorite college course probably came when Professor Herman Thomas confirmed my observation that the natural inclination of business seemed to be to combine -- to the point of monopoly. So it was no surprise to learn that the "alternative" press, as embodied in the Miami New Times and the venerable Village Voice, both now linked commercially to sister papers of the same ilk, may be wrapped into a single combine. Sigh...

Here's more about the possible merger.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

If Your Home Utility Bill Is Zero, Is It Still a Bill?

A friend asked me a while ago what I was doing about the rising cost of gasoline. I'll write about gasoline after a while, but first wanted to share this practical piece from the New York Times about saving on home utility costs. (If you're not a Times user, you may need to register. No cost, last time I checked.)

Quick fixes recommended in the Times sidebar:
. Consider buying a water heater wrap (about $10) to keep heat from escaping, or a programmable thermostat (about $25) ... to save energy at certain hours.

. Replace most incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones (about $3 each).

. Seal every hole and crack in your home.

. Plant a tree in front of the western windows of your home.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Work for willing hands, if society will cooperate

The radio station that stirred up a fuss about the job center in the Washington suburb of Herndon, Va., did nobody any favors. Here, though, is a serious piece in the Los Angeles Times (registration required) about the spots where men and women assemble and wait to be hired for work, usually a day at a time. These job corners, by the way, have been part of Southern life for many decades. Maybe they're common in the North as well. The shame of the Herndon controversy is that it will make it harder for needy workers there to earn a living.

More on this presently.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?

You've heard it over and over, from pols at every point along the political spectrum: If we could seed democracy in the world's most dangerous places, we'd have a lot less terrorism to cope with. Well, maybe it's time to give up that optimistic thought. Here's how professor F. Gregory Gause III reasons on that topic, in Foreign Affairs. It's worth your time. Then tell me what you think, won't you?

An important part of his discussion:
The emphasis on electoral democracy will not, however, serve immediate U.S. interests either in the war on terrorism or in other important Middle East policies.

It is thus time to rethink the U.S. emphasis on democracy promotion in the Arab world. Rather than push for quick elections, the United States should instead focus its energy on encouraging the development of secular, nationalist, and liberal political organizations that could compete on an equal footing with Islamist parties. Only by doing so can Washington help ensure that when elections finally do occur, the results are more in line with U.S. interests.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Blogs rule (not!)

A note from Blogging To Parliament : "Lynne Featherstone credits her online diary -- a blog -- with helping her overturn a hefty Labour majority in the May election to capture a key seat in the capital for the Liberal Democrats."

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Wow, listen to him write!

My current vacation reading is Painted Paragraphs, by Donald Newlove, who sets out several choice examples of various authors' vivid writing in an effort to inspire we of lesser gifts. His publisher, I presume, gave the book its surtitle, "A Handbook for the Soul."

Here is Newlove:

"All my writing must come breathing out of me. In Painted Paragraphs I pass myself off as an expert on writing, since I think daily about writing, and my largest hardship is to get past facts into feelings and to stir you as I am stirred by the joy of finding my soul alive in other people and my refreshment in the works of fellow writers. The trick is never to write an unfelt word. I wake the dead. ... My inner ear listens to a voice within trying to wake me up. If I wake up, so will you."


The topic for another day will be how to write with such passion and still be true to the obligations of modern journalism. Comments, anyone?

If this sounds like something you just have to own, here's help at

Making progress, slowly

Here's something fresh on the efforts to replace petroleum as our transportation energy source. The mere fact of the Honda prototype is encouraging, but I sure do wish more work of this sort was underway. Hey, maybe it is -- at some Detroit skunk works that we haven't heard of yet. Read the U.S. News magazine piece Running on Fumes

And a bit more on the subject, from the San Jose Mercury News . This writer just test-drove the Daimler-Chrysler fuel-cell car. So far, the mileage seems a big hurdle.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Cities that don't work

Here's a fine illustration of the disfunctional suburb. "Calmed" roads led to a storm

I don't imagine that speed bumps, etc., would make the Los Angeles commuters who seek shortcuts through Cheviot Hills leave their cars at home and walk or bike to work. But what about the Cheviotans themselves? Instead of cranking up their SUVs when they need a dozen eggs, couldn't some of them go by foot? Or bicycle?

The piece is a fine illustration of the futility of American urban design. When Frank Lloyd Wright promulgated his dream of a motor utopia he did his country a great disservice. The suburbs don't work much better than Wright's leaky roofs.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Truth vs. The Dollar

Business Week explains why Matt Cooper ultimately had to testify in the Valerie Plame case: "What wins Pulitzers and the envy of peers does not necessarily drive huge sales or increase franchise value. (It's market position, not front-page exposés, that makes The New York Times more valuable than the New York Post.)" The Truth vs. The Dollar

This kind of thing makes newsfolk sad or angry. More significantly, it makes the public poorer because it raises the cost of courageous reporting about government and other power centers.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Making peace and progress, one meal at a time

So late in life we learn what we most need to know! I was brought up to stand apart from those with whom I disagreed. Only in recent years have I seen, through studying conflict resolution, that progress often requires better understanding of our adversaries. Here's a useful lesson in that art, from a Colorado scholar named Patricia Limerick Nelson. She writes in the New York Times: Dining with Jeff (You'll need to register, if you haven't already, to read the piece.)

Saturday, June 04, 2005

A voice of reason in the land of illusion

A friend of mine wrote to Dr. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, a few days after the bipartisan compromise over the president's appointments of federal judges. I thought it a particularly wise and diplomatic letter, and want to share it with you here. The writer agreed, so here it is:

Thursday morning

Dear Senator,

I think our democracy was founded on several principles, one of which is protection of minority rights. We are a nation that is governed by laws and principles, not governed wholly by the will of the majority and not a nation governed solely by the last vote taken.

When the Democrats were in power in the last decade, Republicans rightly utilized the rules of the Senate to delay or thwart the appointment of many judges. It was the Republicans who, I believe, opposed President Roosevelt's plan to increase the number of Supreme Court justices, thereby packing the Court with nominees who would have supported his partisan views. Republicans preserved our nation by using the rules of the Senate, the same rules you would today deny. Your view is short sighted; one day you again may be the minority party and you will want to represent your 200 million minority followers.

Your actions are ill advised and a threat to the democracy we have built over the last two centuries. Pressing for judicial intervention when it suits you, as in the Shaivo case, and preaching restraint at other times is unprincipled and unwise. I would urge your patience with our process.

Your actions have helped create a most divisive Congress, one in which trust and cooperation are no longer a basis for solving America's problems. Money and religious fanaticism have always influenced our process. With the current greed and the grab for power, these four factors seem to be driving forces on our current political landscape. I sincerely hope you will rein in these four horsemen before they carry you too far afield.


Stephen Karlan

Frist, meanwhile, continues to oppose the 14 senators who put their country and the Senate itself ahead of their parties. If you visit his Senate home page, you will see Frist appropriating an underlay of the Constitution itself for his position.

June 5 update:
Today's NYTimes writes of Frist's effort to step out from behind John McCain's shadow. It's a good read.

Friday, June 03, 2005

A slam at Paul Krugman, and his response

Some of my favorite reading this year and last has been the New York Times columns of economist Paul Krugman. I was astounded, then, when Daniel Okrent fired a rather mean parting shot at Krugman in his final column (May 22) as public editor for the Times.

Krugman naturally demanded particulars. You can find them here Public Editor's Web Journal , along with rebuttal.

It seems to me that Okrent was being picky and petty rather than constructive. What do you think?

There's gold in them chills

An early concern of this blog was our country's stumble in production of flu vaccine. Here's an update that's encouraging. The nut graf: The marketplace for flu vaccines is changing. Higher Medicare reimbursements to physicians, increased media attention each fall (including the 2004 presidential election season) and a burgeoning campaign by immunologists to diminish the threat of a pandemic are creating a more attractive environment for vaccine manufactures.

You can read more at Stock Watch

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A timely observation

Matt Miller writes for the NYTimes op-ed page:

What if leaders in each party actually did tell their supporters some truths they needed to hear - and thereby exposed the charades each side relies on to wangle the support of half of the half of Americans who bother to vote?

You may need to register to read Beyond Viagra Politics , but it's SO worthwhile.

New home for world news on CNN

I'm encouraged to read that CNN will be doing a daily show compiled from its overseas affiliates. The midday slot mentioned here is hardly prime time, but it's probably realistic given American tastes. Let us hope the show helps broaden the view of the world that seems to prevail here.

As the LATimes headline This is CNN ... still settling on its voice suggests, the writer sees this new show as a sign of some casting about by the programming gurus in Atlanta. That may be, but I think the new show will be a worthwhile experiment. Remember that, during the first Gulf War, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, CNN efficiently telescoped the distance between America and the Middle East and brought the action (or a version of it) into everyone's living room. It was as effective as Ed Murrow's London broadcasts of the air raids in World War II in making us conscious of a distant reality. (I don't remember Murrow's radio days, but my parents spoke of them.)

One could wish that television were as effective with other news as it is with wars and tsunamis. Here will be the great challenge for CNN's new show. In the video culture that invented "If it bleeds, it leads," can cable news communicate without dramatic images and still hold an audience? I'll be hopefully watching.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Age-Old Debate Over N.C. Barbecue Fires Up

Back home in the Blue Ridge foothills, tastes incline toward the Lexington side in this discussion. But shoulder or whole-hog, tomato base or vinegar, the word "barbecue" is guaranteed to make a Virginia boy's mouth water. Here's a light-hearted look at regional culture. Yahoo! News

A Retiree Trying to Save His Life's Work

There's news here, for all following the Social Security debate, but also a couple of telling glimpses at how work gets done when Washington isn't frozen into polarized camps. Read the Los Angeles Times about Bob Ball

Thursday, April 21, 2005

A pragmatic idealist

I don't know why it seems uplifting to read this, but it is. Bob Herbert writes For Marla, No Sacrifice Too Great of a quixotic quest that to me demonstrates the best of the human spirit. (If you're not a user of the New York Times website, you will need to register.)

You can read the news account of Marla Ruzicka's death and noble life here at

some of the reaction to her passing at Philly

and here, the work of the group she founded: Civic Worldwide .

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Rowing upstream in a quickening current

I have doubts about current efforts to pass a federal "shield law." I don't think Kristof takes a position on that here, but what he writes is a pretty good start on the reasons for my doubts. The New York Times, op-ed page: A Slap in the Face

Friday, March 04, 2005

Shorting Circuit at the Times

For two or three years now, my favorite Thursday reading has been the Circuits section of the New York Times. Now, it seems, the Times is moving on to other themes. This post from the NY Post of March 2. See second item. I certainly hope the Times will reconsider.

An institution endangered

Making good newspapers is good business, the Washington Post's Meg Greenfield would say in her public speeches. And I agree. Wall Street has not agreed, however, to the dismay of all serious journalists working for publicly held newspaper companies such as mine. Now Phil Meyer of the University of North Carolina, a longtime stalwart of statistical analysis in public opinion research, is trying to show that responsible journalism is, indeed, a good place to invest. Tim Porter reviews Meyer's new book, "The Vanishing Newspaper." Scroll down Porter's page for a few grafs to find his take.

I just started the book, and I'll have more to say before long.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

When being right is not enough

One of my passions is the right to know. As deeply as I believe that free speech is the most fundamental human right, I believe that access to information is the keystone for citizen participation in public affairs. I do not, however, believe that one always protects a right by demanding it.

There is a court of public opinion that may trump the holdings of the highest court. Paul Starr made that point in his recent Op-ed piece in the New York Times, Winning Cases, Losing Voters, where he discusses the present dilemma of the national Democratic Party.

Starr's argument resonated for me because of discussions I took part in a few years ago, on quite a different topic. At the time, the authorities in Florida were rejecting newspapers' requests to see the autopsy photos after Dale Earnhart's fatal wreck at the Daytona 500 stock car race. A newspaper sued to demand the photos, and media organizations threw their lawyers and editorial pages into the fight in support of the demand. The problem was, Floridians were largely sympathetic to the reason officials gave for not releasing the photos: Publication of the presumably grizzly images would cause needless pain for the grieving family of the driver, a popular sports hero in the racing world and especially in the Southeast.

So even though a compromise was negotiated between the newspaper and the Earnhart family, there were several unfortunate outcomes. Each of them eroded the right to know. Most obviously, the case reinforced the stereotype of the press as trampling on the feelings of innocent sufferers. Many Americans already recoil at what they find in print or on TV, and applaud whatever power promises to clean up the information trash heap. At a practical level, the Earnhart photo case became the springboard for a new Florida law forbidding medical examiners to release autopsy photos. That's one more among dozens of exceptions to Florida's long tradition of open government, and a precedent for further exceptions that I fully expect will be attempted in a Legislature keenly alert to public sentiment.

The activist absolutists of the press may have found some satisfaction in, as one put it to me, "fighting the good fight," but the collateral damage was tragic to the cause of public information. A wiser course would have been to litigate a different case, one in which public opinion would be an ally, not an adversary. Generals, street brawlers and intelligent bureaucrats all learn to pick their fights. Is it too much to ask that media organizations do the same?

Now for the Opposing View on Social Security The Pro Shop: Now for the Opposing View

Monday, January 31, 2005

Chile's retirement plan delivers a surprise

The first workers retiring under Chile's much-vaunted privatized retirement system, the model by which the Bush Administration's aims to reorganize Social Security, are getting an unwelcome shock. While their accounts have reported incomes of as much as 10 percent a year, they are drawing less retirement income than they would have under the old system they left 25 years ago. Larry Rohter lays it out in the New York Times: Chile's Retirees Find Shortfall in Private Plan

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Where W got his ideas

The man and the money behind the Bush campaign to dismantle the Social Security system. They Invested Years in Private Accounts

Friday, January 14, 2005

They tried it...

The Brits already tried replacing their social safety net with a private-savings scheme, as the new Bush administration is hoping to do. How'd it turn out? A Bloody Mess, says this Financial Times writer in The American Prospect. Thanks to Paul Krugman for the tip. Both pieces are worth your attention.

Here's a glimpse at how the Bush-Rove bunch are organizing their effort.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

It's the ideas, not the numbers

I'll let Paul Krugman make his own argument here (The Iceberg Cometh) in another of his excellent pieces about the current effort to turn Social Security from a social safety net into a national roulette wheel.

What I want to offer is a footnote on the quote that Krugman and, earlier, the Wall Street Journal, attributed to Peter Wehner, an aide to W Bush's muse, Karl Rove. Wehner wrote: "For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win." So much for the claim that Social Security has to be reorganized simply because of the disproportion in the numbers of retirees over the next 20 years, compared to the number of expected workers. If this has been a battle for six decades, it is a battle that began when Social Security was a toddler and the baby boom hadn't yet happened. It is a battle about ideology, not about numbers.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Who remembers when compromise was good?

Congress certified the 2004 presidential election results this week, and that was part of the discussion today on The Diane Rehm Show. A phone-in participant recalled the pleas in Congress last year to create a paper audit trail in some of the big states that were moving rapidly into electronic voting. You probably remember that the Republicans put up a solid front against that effort. In retrospect, I don't think they had much to fear from the opposition in terms of winning the election. But they followed what seems to be Rule 1 of the Republican playbook: Whatever the Democrats want, they can't have.

This automatic opposition has been practiced by both of our major political parties, but the Republicans seem to have made it the invariable rule in their legislative program. Last year's efforts to extend Medicare coverage to prescription drugs are a case in point. The president's proposal could have gone through a lot sooner if the party leaders had been willing to rely on Democratic crossover votes -- votes that could have been had at a modest price in revision of the bill. But the leaders wanted an all-Republican bill to campaign with.

Whatever happened to the idea that politics was the art of the possible? When exactly did it become absolute war? Is there anyone who thinks our country is stronger or better because of this change?

IBD spots Firefox's gains

It's not just computer enthusiasts who are noticing what Firefox can do. Some pretty hard-headed folks at my second-favorite business paper, Investors Business Daily, put this on their front page:

Microsoft's Mighty Web Browser Starts to Look a Bit Vulnerable

Tweaking Firefox's tail

Not everyone is as sold on Mozilla's Firefox as I am. George Ou, in a piece headlined Firefox has much to learn, passes along the points that Peter Torr of Microsoft raised as flaws in the new browser.

The Ou/Torr critique is offered here in a spirit of fairness. My appreciation for Firefox is growing still. The only hitch I've encountered is that the browser locks up when I try to back out of an Acrobat pdf. The guru at Mozilla recommends that XP users get v. 7 of the Acrobat reader, and since I downloaded from Adobe yesterday it looks like smooth sailing again.

Here's to the Fox!