Monday, June 30, 2008

PBS Frontline: "News War"

PBS Frontline now has a two DVD set “News War” from broadcasts in early 2007 (February). They cover several major topics of importance to journalists and especially bloggers and “citizen journalists.” The PBS link (including ability to purchase) is here. The total length is about 270 minutes.

Disc 1 is called “Secrets, Sources & Spin” and comprises two one-hour programs. The program covers two inter-related problems: whether journalists can keep their sources confidential when pursued by law enforcement, and whether journalists can be pursued or prosecuted for possessing and particularly disclosing classified information.

The early part of the report covers the Vietnam era protests and the legal issues and court cases surrounding the New York Times (and Washington Post) and the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 (text here: The case wound up before the Supreme Court as “New York Times Co. v. United States” and the Times and Post “won” 6-3. (The Cornell Law School indexed copy of the Opinion is here: In 1972, a major case “Branzburg v. Hayes” established that the First Amendment will not shield reporters summoned before a grand jury. A FindLaw copy of the Opinion is available here. During the Watergate era, Woodward and Bernstein had to rely on anonymous and protected sources to expose the scandal in the Nixon Administration (as in the movie “All the President’s Men”).

The issue of classified documents being released by the media would surface in the Ford Administration with a report about submarines by Seymour Hersh, and eventually no action would be taken.

In the Bush years, post 9/11, many of the same issues would return. Ashcroft would turn about face on previous administrations’ policies on “openness” to media, using any legal pretext to maintain mum. In 2005, the media would learn that law enforcement and intelligence agencies would wiretap on American communications without proper court supervision.

The issue of shields for journalists would come up with the jailing of Judith Miller for her refusing to testify regarding a leak naming Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. In the complicated maneuvers that follow (covered in the film), Scooter Libby would be tried for obstruction of justice and perjury.

There is no federal shield law for journalists in place, although there are many state laws. There are bills in Congress, such as Arlen Specter’s Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, discussed here.

There are philosophical debates about whether the Press is part of the “checks and balances” when it is not elected or appointed by a political process. There are questions as to whether the press could be viewed as an underground arm of law enforcement.

These questions have come up as to whether “amateur bloggers” would be treated the same was as “professional” reporters with respect to various problems that may come up. Josh Wolf was jailed (longer than any journalists) for refusing to turn over unpublished video clips of the burning of a police car in a demonstration to the FBI. (Go to the April 2007 archive in my movies blog (see Profile) and look for April 4 review of “All Empires Must Fall” and a group called “Anarchist Action”). Would an “amateur” (like myself) have a greater obligation than the “Press” to report a credible “tip” that he or she receives or witnesses? (I have turned over a few emails to the FBI myself since 2001, and they were interested in at least one of them.) Another question concerns “implicit content”: whether some kinds of material, when found by visitors (especially less mature visitors) will be viewed the same way as when it comes from “the establishment”, or whether in some cases amateur material could be considered “enticing.”

The film, as I recall, mentions the ethical dilemma that the Times and Post faced in 1995 when they published the "Manifesto" by Theodore John Kaczynski. But now the full text is widely available on the Internet, including Wikipedia.

The film also mentions the federal investigations of the Blank Panthers in the 60s and 70s, and this group was considered equivalent to the "terrorists" of today.

The second disk starts with the 90 minute “What’s Happening to the News?” The film examines how the various components of the news and journalism industry are reorganizing largely because of the Internet and the possibility of “free entry” by bloggers and citizen journalists. Internet companies, like Yahoo! and especially Google (CEO Dr. Eric Schmidt speaks often in the film) build a search and advertising infrastructure that pays for the rapid deployment of news, including citizen or user generated news. Younger people are tending to go to the Internet for news and advertising or product information. As a result, old fashioned print newspapers (and magazines) do relatively less well with classified ads and with selling hard-copies at newsstands or in subscriptions. Specialized classified advertising companies like Craigslist also compete with newspapers.

There is discussion of how bloggers work, and whether many of them actually get first-hand news the way professional journalists do. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they are invited to and paid for blogging on specific events, like trials (the Libby trial above) or political campaigns. The blogosphere, both from the liberal and conservative sides, tends to keep the established press honest and sometimes catches errors, such as the report about George W. Bush’s earlier military service and Dan Rather.

There is discussion of the corporate bean counters, and of the consolidations in the newspaper business. The Chicago Tribune bought the Los Angeles Times, and the Tribune is trying to get the Times to spend less on national and international reporting and focus more on local news. There is an ego issue with many reporters and their desire to write original stories about worldwide importance, such as why President Bush went to war in Iraq. There is another "ego" problem in that many journalists would like to migrate from factual (especially local) reporting to op-eds and commentary. But the money may be in “hyperlocalism” and in local news. For Los Angeles, ironically, that could mean more focus on stories about Hollwyood! (I recall a second local LGBT paper in Minneapolis, formed in 2002, that insisted that all freelance submissions be local!) There is also discussion as to whether it’s healthy that Wall Street’s “short term profits” values affects the news business, and some media companies do not expect the same return form their news divisions as from other entertainment divisions. But sometimes news, when done creatively, is very profitable, as with NBC Dateline and its famous series on Internet entrapment (some snippets from which are shown, as the scene where a cancer researcher, caught in pathetic circumstances with police, protests "I didn't do anything!" -- but he would have). The ethical problem in NBC’s paying a “vigilante” group to help is mentioned.

The last film (from "Frontline World") is called “Stories from a Small Planet” and itself is in two segments. One is called “War of Ideas” and talks about Al Jazeera and about western reporters in Beirut and Dubai. The film shows spectacular footage of both cities, especially Dubai. A state department employee fluent in Arabic reports on the US position on issues to UAE audiences – he is paid to present someone else’s point of view, notice. The last portion, "Requiem", is a short piece by Sheila Colonel, and describes the risks journalists take in places like the Philippines, Malaysia, Russia, China, and Iraq, where “objective” journalists have often been specifically targeted.

The whole set stresses the importance of journalism and of objectivity, apart from financial gain, political loyalty, or even as auxiliary senses for law enforcement.

I wonder if the Newseum (Washington DC) will show these Frontline films in its downstairs documentary film theater sometimes.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Reprise of "The 4400": Season 4 provides a distrubing twist in morality

Recently, I rented and watched “Season 4” of USA/Paramount’s “The 4400.” I see that I wrote a blogger entry about it here on September 11, 2006 (check the archive links on the left). The series had aired late in 2007.

The last DVD in Season 4 includes a lot of commentary (I believe it is by Ira Behr and Nick Copus but I failed to write down which two from the long list of directors were used). There is a lot discussion of the techniques in screenwriting for a television series. This sort of screenwriting is sometimes a much more disciplined and collaborative effort than is some feature film filmwriting. Typically, an episode comprises five acts, with each act (separate by scheduled commercial breaks) of precise length, adding to a precise number of minutes (in this show, 43, including credits). Often there is a recap from previous episodes, then a preamble, then the opening credits and song, which for this series (“A Place and Time to Call Our Own”) is quite captivating.

The writers describe their periods of “writer’s block” and multiple cups of coffee and all-nighters, and how they get their shooting scripts done just in time.

The story ideas themselves came in a collaborative fashion. They aren’t the “brainchildren” or high concepts of one creative artist, the way some people believe their screenplays are (just look at some of the entries in “Project Greenlight” contests), again, more common in features.

The DVD poses the question “is Jordan Collier” (played by Bill Campbell) “good or evil”? Earlier we have learned about him as a kind of messiah, back to save the world from its self-destructive future. By this season, we see Collier intent on changing Seattle (starting with his warehouse district “Promise City”) into what seems like a typical cult, although it is not exactly religious in the usual sense. Collier wants a paradise where a fiat money and a Bretton Woods financial system no longer exists (who would that fit for today’s stock market?) and where the currency is in “miracles”.

We see some other characters grow. Shawn Farrell (a most emotional, as the directors point out Minnesota native Patrick Flueger), now supposed about 21 (not counting the three lost years) honestly believes he is doing good when he deploys his gift of healing (that is the one power that Clark Kent in Smallville never has) by running his Foundation and will even run for City Council. (That reminds me of a city council race in Minnesota just before I arrived there in 1997.) He debates with himself over winning arguments v. converts, but he believes he knows good and evil (itself dangerous) and always tries to do good, as if he can provide the moral compass for the other characters (sort of the way Clark does in Smallville, or the way Sam does for his hothead brother Dean in Supernatural). He seems more effective with this than his establishment uncle Tommy Balwin (Joel Gretsch). But Kyle Baldwin (Chad Faust), looking buffed and waxed (it wasn’t necessary) has become “a man” by working for Jordan, for questionable causes.

But it is the “Promicin wars” that make the last season controversial. The writers say that the show took this direction by collaborative evolution and even accident. They also say that there are no plans to continue the series, and the concept may be too difficult for studio investors to take into a future season now.

Promicin is the (fictitious) neurotransmitter that enables the abilities, by unlocking various processes in the cerebellum. It looks like the green kryptonite of Smallville, in liquid form. (If the word were spelled with "mycin" instead, it would sound like the name of some currently effective antibiotics against super-bugs, a strange comparison to imagine.) By season four, Collier has evolved a plan to inoculate the entire world with Promicin. About half of all people will die (as a one-time “sacrifice”) but the others will each develop an ability as “currency” and live in paradise. It doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out what episode in world history this alludes to. (Later, there is talk of offering "the test" and making promicin "voluntary", but one character's "gift" (below) will sack that hope.) The credibility of such a plot in a television series provides a disturbing look into where our own moral compass may be headed as a culture that values individual freedon.

Yet, as the series evolves, the premise seems compelling. There is a suggestion that left-handed people are more likely to accept the drug, as are people with a larger corpus callosum. But one younger male character has a bizarre gift, to transmit promicin “infection” (as if promicin were like a prion) to others in (casually contagious) pandemic form, killing off thousands of people in the general public in Seattle. That character’s demise, when even Shawn cannot save him, provides some tragedy near the end of the series. There is some reckless use of buzzwords, like being “promicin positive” which would be desirable (until the phrase “HIV positive” comes to mind as a comparison). The Centers for Disease Control would have a field day with this.

Season 4 seems like a “final” reverse on the political spin of the series. A couple of seasons ago it seemed to focus on abuses by government and Homeland Security (“Uncle Tommy”) and on how the world will treat those who are “different.” (Through one sequence of episodes, the government was planning to inoculate the 4400 with a promicin antidote, to make them "normal," and that threatened their lives; Shawn himself almost died.) Now, it is those who are “different” who are presented as a real threat. How ironic. I know that feeling from my own dealings with McCarthyism during my own coming of age (my college expulsion for homosexuality in 1961). And all I wanted was “a place and time to call my own.”

At then end, Seattle has been replaced by an expanded Promise City, and I wonder where a followup series (or film) could go with this. Maybe the series would turn into something like “Jericho.”

Is Jordan Collier a kind of sci-fi Hitler, Stalin, Chariman Mao or Pol Pot? Well, “It’s” only a movie, or only a television series. It’s only too effective.

Picture: NASA Mission Control, from Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

ABC Nightline presents scientist with recovery from stroke and "Be Here Now" experience

Late last night (June 27), ABC Nightline presented the story of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neurology biologist, who experienced a stroke in December 1996 as a strange kind of epiphany. The interview was conducted by Terry Moran. She held and showed a preserved cadaver brain during the interview. The brain weighs about three pounds and has several hundred billion neurons.

Most of the left side of her brain died. For about four hours, she experienced life “in the present” the way a mystic does, she says. It was some time before she realized what had happened.

The left side of the brain is involved in speech, mathematics, abstract reasoning, and long term historical memory and context. The right side is more about the idea of “Be Here Now”, in reference to a book from the Lama Foundation. Currency of consciousness is the aim of transcendental meditation and spiritual practice (as with Eastern religions), she said.

Her new book, from Viking in May 2008, is called “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.”

She underwent eight hours of brain surgery and it took eight years to regain her memory and full conventional intellectual function. She sounded perfectly lucid in the television interview. The stroke occurred at age 37, so she is now 49 and has been fully recovered for four years.

The ABC News story is by Katie Escherich, and is called “Stroke of Insight: A Window Inside the Brain: Scientist Jill Bolte Taylor given an ‘incredible education’ when she suffered a stroke.” The link is here.

On two occasions, once in 1994 and again in 2005, spouses of co-workers have had sudden aneurysms, which may lead to similar symptons. An aneurysm event is a bursting and hemorrhage from a swelling in an artery, doing damage by pressure and blood loss. A conventional stroke is usually caused by a blot clot in the brain, a kind of “brain attack” analogous to a coronary thrombosis. Severe short term memory loss may follow either kind of event, and sometimes patients need to spend some time in assisted living to recover.

The NIH page on strokes is here.

Picture: Bhutan exhibit and live music from Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Washington DC, June 2008

Thursday, June 26, 2008

PBS: documentary on Presbyterians and LGBT people

Tonight (June 26), MPT (a PBS station in Annapolis, MD) aired “Turning Points: Stories of Life and Change in the Church,” produced by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians in San Francisco. (Website is here).

The documentary intermixed the stories of four churches coming to terms with gay and lesbian members and clergy. Susie Smith, having gone to the United Church of Christ to minister, returns to her original North Anderson Covenant Presbyterian Church in Anderson, S.C. A family in Tacoma, WA deals with a gay son in the church. A lesbian and former police officer shoots herself in Atlanta, but recovers, bringing on a crisis of faith for her pastor. And the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, on the east side of downtown (not far from the Convention Center, as I remember from living there) demonstrates its ministry to gays and lesbians.

Everybody knows about the battles over homosexuality and the Bible, and certain specific passages in Leviticus and Romans, etc. One question is why this particular issue gets singled out the way it is, a point made in the film. One factor is the enormous emotional commitment that conventional marriage and family demands of many people. Couples may believe that the biological loyalty of their children is an essential part of how they experience marriage, and may feel that their lives are predicated on everyone else making the same commitments that they make. It is a way to make things seem “fair” to them in a psychological sense. It’s not just fidelity and support of children once one has kids that matters to them, it’s the idea that one has an obligation to help provide and support the next generation (and now the previous once) regardless of who one is or of what one “chooses.” But it seems very hard for people to say this.

On June 27, AP (in a story by Eric Gorski) reported that Presbyterian Church Assembly (in the US) dropped a policy that effectively banned (active) gay clergy, link here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"The Baby Borrowers": New reality show on NBC, with no prizes

The Baby Borrowers is a rather daring new reality show, premiering tonight on NBC (at 9 PM EDT). I’m not sure that I get the byline “It's not TV, it’s birth control”, but let’s say it has a little of the spirit of Oprah’s recent “Big Give.” There is no “you’re fired” and no “elimination room” in this social experiment, and no prize at the end. It's just a dose of "real life." The link for the show is here.

Five teenage couples (they are 18 and 19, I think) from various states (Texas, New Hampshire, California, Georgia) move into new houses in an unspecified location on a cul de sac, and will take care of the babies (less than one year) of other couples, who can watch them by remote viewing (I mean cameras, not CIA-funded astral projection for extraterrestrials). I think I heard a preview this morning on Today say that the homes are in Boise, ID. There is one African-American couple, but there are no same-sex couples. The latter idea could have made things even more interesting, especially in LDS-influenced Boise (with its history from the 50s).

The show sounds designed to hit hard the subject of intergenerational responsibility. There will be subsequent episodes with pre-school toddlers, grade school kids, tweens, and teens (who will “tp” the block) and finally, an experience with eldercare. Of yes, there will be intimate contact. One elderly person is shown asking for a shampoo.

The experience starts with a bit of honeymoon, but two days before the babies arrive, the women have to wear artificial bellies simulating the weight of pregnancy. Then the cribs and baby gear arrive. The cribs are kits, and the couples have to figure out how to assemble them. They go to the hospital, where a natural birth is simulated with lifelike mannequins. The couples start to quarrel. The couples are told they would be taking parental leave at work. (Non-parents and singles would do their work?)

Then, early the next morning, the biological couples bring the babies. The parents quickly find out, “it’s not about you, it’s about the baby.” The babies require constant physical attention. One natural mother comes over and reprimands a couple for not changing the diapers again and putting the baby into pajamas – not giving enough attention. The natural mother chides the boy for referring to the baby as “it” and the boy says that his phraseology is a “joke” but it isn’t funny. One baby vomits back a feeding. Of the five couples, the California couple (from “Summerland”) seems to be the most comfortable.

One point is very clear: these are couples with already established relationships, and couples who apparently want children. (The show does say, however, that this is the first time each couple has lived together.) The parenting bonds are supposed to grow out of their relationships. They don’t appear out of nothing. With two of three of the couples, I got the impression that they would have been much more attentive with their own children ("flesh and blood") than "other people's children" -- a point that would interest conservative author Philip Longman ("The Empty Cradle"). The couples might also be more comfortable with the extreme demands of parental child-care if they were legally married.

Public school systems teach child care. Sometimes it is offered in home economics, and mannequins are used. The Arlington (VA) Career Center has a child care class, and substitutes are sometimes assigned to them without realizing that this will happen.

The next day, June 26, the Dr. Phil show was about "teens having babies" often with parents unaware of their pregnancies for months. The mood of the show was back to the idea of responsibility for your own "procreation" rather than that of other people -- a double edged concept, it seems. The link is here.

The series continues with a two-hour segment on July 2. Actually, the first hour seemed like a repeat. The second hour had one person in each couple going to work at a menial job, though one couple had someone get sick and have to go without the play money.

The last segment (July 30) showed four of the couples taking care of seniors. One senior required physical personal care.

At the end, the show showed what happened to the couples, who by and large didn't stay together and all said they were not ready for marriage and parenthood yet.

Some people have criticized the show for using unpaid babies and kids, rather than child actors, in a reality experiment.

(The picture is HB Woodlawn secondary in Arlington; some of the special education programs are run there.)

ABC Primetime: The Outsiders: Amish Community Speaks Out

ABC Primetime, on Tuesday June 24, broadcast an intriguing opening to a series called “The Outsiders.” This hour program, with correspondent Jay Schadler, examined Amish teenagers contemplating leaving home for the freedom of the outside world.

The teenagers face a stark choice between “freedom” and “family”. If they live in the mainstream world that most of us know, they will be outsiders looking in on the culture that raised them.

The Amish religion, as many know, rejects most modern technology and limits education beyond the eighth grade. It says this is necessary to eliminate temptation of the sin of “vanity” and destruction of “the family,” which “does things together” and remains emotionally cohesive to honor the parents’ marriage. Amish moral values seem based on the idea of mandatory sustainability. They also believe that the family and religious structure must control all life within their universe of opportunity.

The four teens were Harley, Lena, Nelson and Danny, all growing up in southern Ohio in Ashland county. The film showed the hilly countryside on the western end of Appalachia. A journey that takes two hours by buggy takes about twenty minutes by car.

Two other teenage boys arrange a midnight escape for “Danny” and tale him to a country house, covered with green shingles, where some ex-Amish live in a fraternity house environment (not exactly the ABC Family “Greek”). The boys seek manual labor and construction work since they have only eighth grade educations, but one wants to get a GED and go on to study computers. Danny eventually gets in trouble with the law with some vandalism and gets thirty days in jail. When Schadler interviews him, Danny does not seem to have any concept of “personal responsibility” that the freedoms of the outside world require, and of what the consequences of misdeeds can be. The moral climate at home kept him from developing the individualized sense of personal responsibility (harmlessness, at a minimum, for example – even the “Golden Rule”) that is well known in liberal democratic societies.

One of the other boys is not recognized by his younger siblings on a return visit home until he puts on Amish clothes. Some parents accept their kids back if they want to return. The Amish are willing to forgive “Danny,” just as they were forgiving of the perpetrator of the Nickel Mines disaster in 2006.

At the end, two of the teens decide to live “on the Outside” and two return to their families. An Amish person joins the church as a teen and must give up everything in the outside world. But Amish allow a “time for running around,” or “rumspringa”. The film “Saving Sarah Cain” (Fox Faith) had depicted Amish teens as extremely strong and healthy because of physical activity; that film was a drama in which a reporter gets custody of Amish kids (discussed here in my movies blog).

ABC News provides the following story by Samantha Edders of the show, titled “The Outsiders: Amish Community Speaks Out: Amish Elders Described Difficult Choices, Recall Past Temptations,” link here.

I had posted notes about the Amish tragedy at Nickel Mines PA in October 2006, here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nightline covers religious group in Siberia

On June 23, ABC Nightline presented a portrait of what seems like a bizarre cult, “The Church of the Last Testament,” headed by the messianac Vissarion (Виссарион), actually Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop. He was born in 1961 and looks young for 48 in the show. He claims to be a reincarnation of Jesus.The group was founded in 1991, as the Soviet Union fell.

The reporters had to fly to Moscow and then to Akaban, and then rent a car and drive to the commune on the taiga in the Minusinsk Depression. The commune settlement is called Tiberkul. The scenery in the piece featured evergreens and seemed to be in a bowl surrounded by low mountains. The piece was filmed in summer, and the most important holiday is August 18.

The commune participants turn over their money and get an “allowance.” There is no fiat money in their system of life, which is seen as utopian and “end of days” .

The ABC reporter was Clarissa Ward.

I had reported on a show about a commune in New Mexico on April 23 2008 on this blog.

The Nightline segment also depicted the pod hotel accommodations in London, called the “Yotel” which will become a worldwide airport chain. The “roomettes” are based on what would be available in super first class flying or train.

Nighline also covered plans of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to appear together in Unity, NH.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions ("Home in Space")

The Discovery Channel has been airing a series in three 2-hour parts, “When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions.”

Tonight Discovery aired the last segment “Home in Space”. The segment traces the later history of the Columbia space shuttle, if the International space station, and the Hubble telescope.

The early part of the documentary summarizes the Challenger explosion in January 1986. The film maintains that the crew members were alive during free fall until they hit the ocean water. I recall that a project leader came by everyone’s cubicle and told everyone at my computer programming job in Dallas then. The film documents the need for NASA to make itself “credible” again. It touches rather briefly on the O-ring controversy.

The film spends a lot of time on the Hubble, the only telescope actually serviced in space by astronauts. They had to do a daring repair to save it when their oxygen supply was limited. The film shows a lot of the living conditions and quarters. The astronauts are wearing wires and electrodes at times, and it seems amazing that they can stay on.

The early part of the film reviews some later footage from the final moon visits.

The film then documents how the ISS (International Space Station) is serviced by Russian (Soyuz and Progress) and US shuttles.

The last part of the film covers the final 16 day mission of the Columbia in January 2003. During the re-entry, the guidance mission control crew on the ground realized in about a minute that it did not have expected transmission just before its expected landing in Florida. Staff members say that the Challenger immediately came to mind. A streaking image of a piece of the Columbia was seen over North Texas, as it broke apart and crashed in pieces over several states on February 1, 2003. Seven crew members died. Apparently, a hole had been punctured in one of the carbon wings by a loose piece of insulating foam from a fuel tank during take off. The crew was doomed.

The photography of Mission Control is interesting. There is an incredible variety of computers and monitors and various devices. The staff is still well dressed (in tie) in the film, even in modern times.

I recall an "Understanding Convention" in Arizona in 1976 called "Man in Space." The work required to build a home in space is the most intricate cooperative venture man has ever had to work on. The ISS is the most expensive object man has ever made.

The film showed some of the underwater training given to astronauts. In 1989, I visited the Huntsville AL facility and saw the tank myself. On June 23, the NBC Today show demonstrated the training given to fight attendants (at Delta), some of which they must pass to be even be hired; only 2% are hired. Some of this includes water training, since planes can down in water.

I would like to see a Discovery Program (or IMAX movie) about what we think the surfaces of Titan (for which we have some Huygens photographs) , Europa, Io, and Triton would look like (with advanced animation). It would be interesting to simulate in animation what one would “see” if one could survive a plunge through Jupiter’s atmosphere all the way to the metallic hydrogen layer.

Update: 6/29

"The Explorers" is an earlier episode of the series. The title was also used for one of the movements of Ralph Vaughn Williams's "Sea Symphony." The metaphor applies, as the documentary traces the history of the moon exploration, ending with transmissions from the last moon visit. The Apollo 13 near-tragedy (subject of a 1995 Ron Howard film) is summarized, and the men are shown on the life rafts. One astronaut describes getting sea sick in a raft.

Friday, June 20, 2008

PBS NOW segment on the growth of the middle class in India, and strained global resources; Moyers on affirmative action

Tonight (June 20), PBS “NOW” (10 PM EDT on WETA) presented a provocative segment about the growth of the middle class in India, particularly the city of Pune, about the size of Atlanta, inland a bit from the “West Coast” of India. A shopping mall larger than the Minnesota Mall of America is being built there. The show presented a middle class family with the man employed as a software designer and purchasing a high-rise condominium on a “planned community” that encouraged walking to work.

The show presented the middle class in India as having risen from 8% in 1980 to 30% today, and likely to reach 50% (over 500 million) by 2020. This means increasing consumption in order to maintain a standard of living. That implies higher prices for food and energy around the world as the middle class grows. India and China will have an effect on the world comparable to what the United States had when it became an economic powerhouse with a large middle class toward the end of the nineteenth century.

The technocrat middle class in India is even active as a political block, having formed the PPI, the Professional Party of India.

The possible conclusion is that people around the world will have to consume less and accept a lower standard of living unless we get very creative and innovative with technology. This sounds like the "flip side" of globalization. The speakers from India expressed some optimism in that regard.

Also, "Bill Moyers Journal" (at 9 PM) discussed racial inequality. The suggestion was made that Barack Obama make a speech in which affirmative action is redefined in terms of class rather than race. Obama’s election would be transformative in the way parallel to that of the American Revolution itself.

Picture: Chesapeake Beach MD, 2008

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"How Life Began" on History Channel

On June 17, the History Channel broadcast the two-hour documentary “How Life Began.” Much of the film centers around an animation of a “life factory” that looks a bit like the Wonka Chocolate factory from the kids’ movies. Here is the Google talk board on the film.

The film takes the position that life comes into a being through a natural process called “emergence” where nature synthesizes more complex systems out of simpler components. The hexagonal snowflake is seen a an example of chemical emergence. Life may have started as self-replicating organic molecules (mostly CHON – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen) in a reducing environment, and gradually changed through accidental mistakes, mutations. The film travels to Western Australia to show fossils of some of the earliest cyanobacteria.

Eventually, nature developed sexual reproduction, which allowed organisms to develop into efficient and complex systems, particularly in metabolism and producing energy, more quickly, by matching traits and allowing much more rapid development of genetic variation.

There was a theory that early Earth consisted of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. Stanley Miller ( ) organized some “primordial soup” experiments in the 1950s called “Life in a Glass Earth” where he ran electricity through these mixtures and got complex organic goo. The atmosphere of Titan today has a similar composition. But later research found that there may have been much less methane and ammonia early in Earth’s history than previously thought. The show goes on to showing that organic compounds might emerge in outer space. The movie examines the concept of panspermia, the idea that life on earth could have been seeded from elsewhere. Organic compounds are thought to exist in the ices of comets. Recall the media reports of a rock found in Antarctica in 1996 that contained microtubules and thought to have originated on Mars.

The movie goes back and examines the idea that clay facilitates certain organic emergence, and the experiments at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institutes to create proto-cells.

The religious explanations of life (creationism and intelligent design) as in Genesis are viewed as supplementary to the idea of “emergence” in nature. Darwin, recall, viewed chemistry and biology as the same science at the molecular level. Yet, in school, the progression of sciences usually goes from physical science to chemistry to biology.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dr. Phil explores safety of women (and wives) who travel to the Middle East or to Iran

Today (following up on what started Monday June 16), the Dr. Phil show took up the touchy issue of women being trapped in middle eastern countries with Islamic husbands that will not let them come home.

One story concerned a girl who met a man on and had flown to the Middle East to be with him. She was 18 now and legally an adult. But she had tried to meet him when she was 16 and flown to Jordan from Canada before being picked up by the FBI.
The link was here (it continues onto show 976). The girl, Katherine, was now living with Abdullah and his family in a middle eastern country.

The family is afraid that the daughter will never be allowed to come home, but the husband says he wants a US visa. Dr. Phil talked to the couple by satellite and challenged them.

Dr. Phil then talked to “Betty” who married a man from Iran and went there after he threatened to take their daughter to Iran after the 1979 revolution. Then her husband would not let them leave. She had to scheme to get herself and her daughter out of Iran. Those events became the book and 1991 MGM film “Not Without My Daughter” (dir. Brian Gilbert) staring Sally Field as Betty Mahmoody. The events in the film seem somewhat changed from the facts.

As a supplement, I wonder about whether "controversial writers" or bloggers from the US or western countries could be in danger (of arrest and imprisonment) if they travel to certain Muslim countries, even when on business with employers.

PBS: "Eleanor Roosevelt" in "American Experience" series

On June 16 PBS station WETA in Washington aired the “American Experience” film “Eleanor Roosevelt.” The link is here.

Eleanor Roosevelt was actually born into the same family, a niece of president Theodore Roosevelt. She was quite an “individualist” as a child, growing up in New York City and Tivoli. She lost both parents early in life (the mother died of diphtheria) and was raised in large part by a strict grandmother. She had a creative imagination and an interest in writing and literature. She spent some time at a finishing school in Britain.

She was introduced to society at a debutante party and soon married Franklin, who himself had been a somewhat introspective only child. The film traces their career. But Franklin got caught in an “affair” and they lived “separately” for the rest of their lives, agreeing to stay married out of platonic love and out of regard for their careers. Eleanor developed her own public identity which she would keep in the four terms of FDR as president.

She became particularly interested in civil rights. She helped Marian Anderson get a signing engagement on the Mall in 1939 when it was controversial. He advocacy of rights for African Americans started to attract “enemies.” J. Edgar Hoover had her followed in the later days of World War II. Eventually, she went on a mission alone (with one other woman, and without FBI protection) past a KKK “Marginot line” in the Tennessee mountains in 1958.

The FBI, in fact, had spied on her over a supposed affair with a man in a Chicago hotel (pretty much Hoover's imagination) whereas some commentators (Lillian Faderman) claim that her friendship in 1933 with Lorena Hickok was lesbian.

She remained active in the Democratic Party after the War, giving a major speech at the 1956 Democratic Convention where Adlai Stevenson was (for the second time) nominated.

She died of bone marrow tuberculosis in the fall of 1962 at the age of 78.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Oprah celebrates sibling relationships; presents a family with four gay brothers

Oprah Winfrey today (Monday June 16, 4 PM on ABC-WJLA in Washington, EDT) celebrated sibling relationships, with perhaps a twist. She presented America’s first African American sextuplets.

Two blood siblings adopted separately from China were reunited because of the good luck of their parents being in the same support group.

A single mother from Mississippi raises five sons, including a set of triplets.

But the story that caught my attention was that of a Catholic family (named Huckaby, not quite the same spelling as the former Republican presidential candidate) of eight children with four gay brothers. The first to come to terms was Jason, who was studying to become a priest and then decided that he did not want to be alone in a manner required by the vows of the Catholic Church (for both celibacy and abstinence). Jonathan and Jody would eventually follow suit, and Jody would become an executive director of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). The show did not seem to identify the fourth brother, or specifically say how many of the children were male. Nevertheless, the story would seem to support a theory that sexual orientation has a biological and perhaps genetic explanation, as documented in the 1990s with the work for Chandler Burr. There was tension for a while over whether Jason had “chosen” his lifestyle or identity, which was resolved by both faith and by the eventual statements by the other brothers.

The opposition of Roman Catholic theology, at least as stated by the Vatican in modern times, to homosexual behavior is well known, and, whatever the theological rationale behind “the teachings of the Church”, it has always seemed to me to be trying to address the issue of “emotional karma” and family cohesion – making sure that everyone shares the “risks” and loyalties required by family life in some kind of “fair” way. Indeed the show today as a whole celebrated blood relationships for their own sake.

The link for the show is this.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

NBC: Chris Matthews and Meet the Press remember Tim Russert

The morning (Sunday June 15) the "Chris Matthews Show" on NBC paid a tribute to Tim Russert. The "Father's Day tribute" included comments by Andrea Mitchell, David Broder and Tim Hunt.

Most people know that Tim Russert collapsed and died of a heart attack at work at NBC4 in Washington DC on the afternoon of Friday June 13, 2008, at age 58. He was taken to nearby Sibley Hospital and pronounced dead. Most medical experts attribute the attack to a “plaque explosion” within a coronary artery and sudden occlusion, causing fatal heart arrhythmia. In hindsight, it’s easy to imagine that coronary bypass surgery (had it ever been done) would have prevented the attack, or that different atni-arrythmia drugs might have prevented fatality.

Russert grew up in Buffalo New York. As several tributes indicate, he researched his subject matter with unprecedented attention to detail. He studied the major public figures in the news as “people.” He would, figuratively speaking, “go door to door” with people. He could often surprise interview subjects with the subtle contradictions in their situations. One of the best known examples of his ability to probe political subjects occurred on October 30, 2007 at Drexel University when he drilled into Hillary Clinton’s position on Elliot Spitzer’s proposal to give New York State driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. There is a YouTube video of that encounter here.

The show also mentioned how he unmasked the intentions of former Louisiana representative David Duke in an interview.

The broadcast also mentioned Tim Russert's coverage on 9/11, and his early observation that the planes that struck the World Trade Center (and Pentagon) had been from coast-to-coast flights that would be filled with jet fuel.

Following Chris Matthews, NBC “Meet the Press” presented “Remembering Tim Russert 1950-2008” with Tom Brokaw. Russert is said to have been the first major journalist to look at the political map of the United States in terms of "red" and "blue" states. The Moderator's Chair, which had belonged to Mr. Russert, was empty.

Friday, June 13, 2008

"Churchill": PBS re-airs 3-part film

On June 12, the PBS Maryland Public Television rebroadcast the three-part, three-hour film "Churchill" (2003) from Carlton Television, with Ian McKellen. The three episodes are (1) “Destiny”, which covers Churchill’s life and career before WWII, (2) “The Lion’s Roar”, which covers the early WWII period (especially the Battle of Britain), and (3) “The Last Prize”, which covers the victory in Europe, and the Cold War, his retirement and strokes, and his death and funeral. It was filmed at Chartwell, Blenheim, Baldon Church, and the House of Commons.

His full name was Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, and he was born prematurely in 1974. He was a poor and rebellious student (with what he called a “speech impediment”) and had an erratic early life, getting into the Sandhurst military academy after a couple of failed entrance attempts. He had episodes in Cuba, India and what is now Pakistan, and South Africa. He entered Parliament as a Conservative in 1900 and changed over to Liberal. He went back into military service during the “stalemate” of World War I, and the film shows some footage. He would return to politics and be appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer when Britain tried to return to the gold standard in 1924. His meeting with Keynes would lead to a curious document by Keynes that would predict the 1930s depression. His participation during the Abdication Crisis would create controversy and “exile”.

However, Churchill would be appointed Prime Minister as World War II developed, and he would give the “we will never surrender” speech. Later he would say, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The film shows striking live footage of the German bombings of London, which came about rather suddenly with airraid sirens. (The episode is covered in other period movies like “Mrs. Miniver”). The British people would endure hardships at home that Americans, as challenged as they were with the war, did not quite grasp. Later, Churchill would ponder using poison gas to sicken the people in Germany, and say that in total war, morality doesn’t matter. But instead he (along with FDR) would “settle” for carpet bombing of cities in Germany. Later he would have reservations about this practice, as developed in

Churchill would lose the 1945 election after the War. After World War II Churchill would be outspoken about the Soviets and the development of the Iron Curtain, and would return to power in 1951. He would have health problems, including pneumonia and strokes. After his death in early 1965 he would have a grand funeral, and the film shows (in color) the procession with a band transcription of the “Funeral March” from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A-flat creating a somber mood.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Max, on "Days of our Lives" becomes Good Will Hunting

Well, now it seems that NBC / Corday’s “Days of our Lives” is trying to reconstruct “Good Will Hunting.”

For weeks, we wondered why (race car driver and bartender) Max Brady (Darin Brooks) was tampering with the cold fusion power source proposal by Nick Fallon “Carroway” (Blake Berris). A couple of times, after confrontations with Chelsea, Nick would leave his notebook conveniently behind in the Cheating Heart Bar and bartender Max would pick it up, correct the math by hand, and mail it in. Sounds like a likely story.

We thought there was some bribe or weird subterfuge going on, where Max was trying to scrape by with some money, perhaps some industrial espionage. No, now it sounds like Max is like the janitor genius Will in Gus Van Sant’s 1996 masterpiece “Good Will Hunting.” Matt Damon (who played Will) insists in interviews that his original screenplay (that he wrote with Ben Affleck) is still on the hard drive on his home computer. Yes, it was his idea.

In Days of our Lives, it often seems like the men are good and the women (like “Katrina”) are the villains. The worst of the lot is supposed to be – you guessed it – Nicole. Max, Nick, and Shawn (on leave with Belle) were all likeable characters; Philip seems a bit more devious. John (Drake Hogestyn, who had supposedly been fired by the show), brought back to life, acts and talks like a robot. We could make a clinical diagnosis.

Today Nick, in a gesture of moral purity, offered to return all his grant money. The honor, he says goes to Max.

Max, so determined to expose evil, ought to be a good blogger journalist. It’s too bad that Max and Nick are just fictitious characters and don’t really exist.

Thursday: Max says he hid his smarts because he wanted to be "normal" and fit in. Remember how young Clark Kent says that in the Pilot episode of "Smallville" in 2001?

I do identify with both Max and Nick, although I couldn't imagine wanting Chelsea if I was straight. Why doesn't Nick date another college graduate, at least? Darin Brooks and Blake Berris do great jobs of making their characters "real".

Update: June 17

Now we learn that Max is the (probably illegitimate) son of Nick's university professor.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

CNBC gives "job interviews" to Obama, McCain

Both Barack Obama and John McCain gave “job interviews” today (June 10) on CNBC’s “Fast Money” at 8 PM EDT, sponsored by Charles Schwab. They did not debate directly; instead they were each interviewed for fifteen minutes and then other experts commented on their interviews, rather like a meeting at a company reviewing candidates.

Obama said that we have to be pragmatic and look at facts in figuring out what to do about the faltering economy. Obama wants middle class tax cuts and wants to exclude those making over $250K from the cuts. He said he believes in the free market, but that the “profits” of innovation have to come back to the average person and not just to hedge funds. He says that the oil crisis is largely due to worldwide demand push and has come upon us with shocking suddenness.

After the interview, the “panel” consisted of Bill George from Harvard, Hank Greenberg from CW Starr, and Donabee Peebles.

McCain gave a “kind, gentle” interview. He talked about productivity, R&D tax credits, and said that every American should have a hybrid plug-in hybrid in some reasonable period of time. He said that Europe can develop a nuclear power plant in 5 years, but the United States takes 10, and hasn’t build one in 25 years. He wants to get rid of the sugar cane tariff and import more biofuel from Brazil. Despite all this, he thinks that a gas tax holiday is appropriate (Obama thinks it’s a gimmick) for those in rural areas who must drive long distances in older vehicles.

McCain accuses Obama of wanting to raise taxes, and promotes the idea of increasing child or dependent income tax exemptions considerably (although Republicans have proposed that for years).

The same panel reviewed his interview.

Monday, June 09, 2008

AFTRA and SAG may strike "a separate peace," or they may not

There is some controversy this morning about what is going on with the AFTRA and SAG talks, and there are many media stories.

The Board of Directors of the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (AFTRA) has sent to its membership a proposed new contract agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and recommended ratification. AFTRA claims better pay and working conditions and, following a concern well known with writers, a better royalty deal with republication on the Internet and “New Media.” The AFTRA Press Release is here.

However the Screen Actors Guild has issued its own press release, in which it discusses its request that AFTRA hold off on a vote, which it seems to believe could undermine SAG’s negotiations.

The SAG Press Release from Doug Allen is here. The SAG Home Page gives details of a “Solidarity Rally” in Los Angeles today.

Update: July 2, 2007

The SAG deadline seems to have passed with the Union in a holding pattern. The Variety story this morning by Cynthial Littleton, Michael Flemming is "Hollywood cools after SAG deadline: Industry not in WGA frenzy despite uncertainy," link here. The SAG website this morning has a banner "Vote NO on AFTRA's Prime TV Exhibit A Contract" and indicates that more that 4000 SAG actors have signed a solidarity statement.

Update: July 9, 2008

AFTRA members have ratified the new contract. Link to the story is here.

SAG's latest link on its own negotiations is here.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

CNN "Your Money" covers severance pay and layoffs

Today (June 8) CNN "Your Money" (with Ali Velshi) covered the subject of job layoffs in the current stagflating economy.

Of particular attention was corporate practice with severance pay. There is no automatic right to severance pay. But many larger employers have specific policies regarding how much is offered (relative to years of service and employee grade). Sometimes employees over 55 or some other age get supplementary severance. In almost all cases, to get full severance departing employees will have to sign agreements (often called “release of all claims” or something comparable) agreeing not to sue. They may have to sign additional non-compete agreements not to work for competitors during specified times. Frequently, severance will be paid out equal to salary until it ends, and health benefits can be continued while they are paid. It pays to ask for any retention bonuses that had been promised earlier.

There can be other considerations. Sometimes employers may have published policies agreeing to advance notice of layoff. If these are not followed, it might be possible to ask to add on to severance.

Mergers or buyouts may affect severance, but often merger terms require the acquiring company to honor the original severance policies of the acquired company.

It may pay to check the job boards of the acquiring company of you work for a company that is being acquired. Sometimes companies doing acquisitions do like to see employees show interest in the new company and persist aggressively about new opportunities. A willingness to relocate, travel or telecommute may be welcome. Sometimes acquiring companies, despite the economics, will pay all interviewing expenses for employees of the companies being acquired.

For employees over a certain age, it is sometimes possible to start early retirement (if the company still has a defined benefit pension program) and collect severance simultaneously, which could actually mean increased income for a while after the layoff, ironically. This would pay off if the employee did get a comparable new job, or started a successful business or somehow took advantage of the period.

State laws may vary as to whether you can collect unemployment while receiving severance. Sometimes it cannot start until severance has ended. States have maximum benefit amounts based on what was being made, and maximum periods of draw. However, lack of severance will not affect unemployment (other than making it possible to draw it earlier).

It's likely that Congress will encounter political pressure to extend unemployment benefits, which happened in 2001 after 9/11.

If you are 62 or over, you can also consider starting social security payments, subject to work-related earnings annual limits until reaching full retirement age. If payments are started earlier, the lifetime monthly payment amount will be less.

Update: June 9: Man blogs his layoff experience step by step

CNN also offers a video of the story of Ryan Kudor, who blogged (on mobile devices) his experience step-by-step of getting laid off from Yahoo! in February (the conference room was called "Lucy") and attracted huge readership during the event. As a result, he had two other job offers almost immediately, but reportedly he decided to go into his own business. Here is the video link.

Friday, June 06, 2008

ABC Nightline: Stories on finding more oil in Texas, and on an Internet "nanny"

ABC "Nightline" tonight (June 6) had two very interesting stories.

The first was about a wildcat oil man in the quasi-hill country near Abilene, TX, 140 miles W of Fort Worth. He had been a tennis teacher and became a geologist and almost went to law school in the 1980s when oil prices dropped.

Six out of ten wells in Texas wind up as dry holes. A typical well costs $500000, but a hit may bring in $14 million at today’s prices. The oil man said that at the $120 price a considerable amount of oil remains to be developed in Texas, despite the stories about tapping out.

Then Nightline presented a report about a British Internet nanny. She characterized children on the Internet at night without parents as a bit like letting children use the swimming pool without a lifeguard. She thinks that computer use does help develop the cerebral cortex in certain ways. One of the greatest problems is that children will not understand easily why they should not give out personal information on the Internet, unless they learn to compare the issue to meeting strangers in public; on the computer, potential “strangers” simply are invisible. She mentioned that Internet social networking is only about three years old, and many adults and parents just haven’t had time to understand what it means.

The “Trail Mix” segment discussed how quickly the week progressed for Hillary Clinton, leading to her formal pullout announcement Saturday.

Picture: northwest of Abilene TX (June 2005, personal trip)

Thursday, June 05, 2008

PBS airs two films on Israel, the Jewish people

PBS on WETA in Washington 26 aired two related films about Judaism. Both films were elongated by pledge funding appeals (with phone-bank volunteers), maintaining that this is the major source of money for non-profit film-making that usually does not have advertisers, but sometimes does have corporate sponsors. (Note that National Geographic sometimes makes films in conjunction with established Hollywood companies.)

"Visions of Israel" (90 min) offered spectacular aerial views of modern Israel. The most colorful part might have been the Dead Sea, 1300 feet below sea level, with odd coloration in some areas of evaporation, which has caused a 3 foot drop per year since the 1970s. Some pristine areas of Biblical times, such as the Spring of David, or the St. George Monastery built into the cliffsides of a canyon were shown. The stark and rocky Negev desert was shown traversed by a modern highway. The modern port of Haifa, capital city of Tel Aviv with the Parliament, and of course Jerusalem were shown in detail. Jerusalem photography showed the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the cantilever Chords Bridge. The story of the siege of Masada (subject of a musical cantata by Marvin David Levy) was told along with the spectacular views. This would have made a great film for Imax. The second melody from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony was played a lot in the music score.

The second film was “The Jewish People: A Story of Survival,” produced and directed by Andrew Goldberg. The film starts in ancient times with the Exodus and moves through the Old Testament quickly to Roman times. The Talmud is discussed, as an intellectual body of religious writings that tends to encourage intellectual introspection and truth-seeking. Until the 4th Century, Judaism was a “legal” religion in cosmopolitan Rome, until it turned officially “Christian.” At that time the Diaspora occurred, with the spread into areas of Europe. The Jewish people generally tried to assimilate into their communities while retaining their religious customs. Gradually, anti-Semitism increased, somewhat based on the idea that the Jews had been responsible for the Crucifixion. But if so, that seems to be based on the (anti-individualist) idea that one is responsible for the acts of one’s ancestors, and that descendants of someone who was wronged can make claims on other blood family members. At the same time, many European communities had found the Jewish populations of economic “value”. Since in those times Christians could not charge each other interest (as Muslims cannot today), they turned to the Jews for lending, a fact that would stir great resentment later in history. Jews were victimized in the Crusades, even though they were carried out against Islam (still a source of major grievance today in radical Islam). European rulers gradually started chasing the Jews and expropriating or confiscating their resources. The Jewish people began to move east, into the “Pale of Settlement” in areas like Poland and eventually Russia. Communism did not work well for Judaism as it had expected. The film covers World War II and the Nazi Holocaust only briefly. The idea of returning to a Jewish homeland in the Holy Lands had been proposed in the 19th Century, but in 1948 the modern Jewish state of Israel was recognized in a political sense.

Professor Alan Dershowitz spoke often. He referred to the faith as one that people want to return to. Another professor noted that in many communities, families had tried to live in the same city for many generations, and children often felt deep geographical roots with family, despite the migrations over history.

Much of the film consisted of stills and artwork. Music of Mahler (the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, and some passages from the Sixth) was played a lot. Mahler converted “partially” to Catholicism.

A six-hour film aired earlier this year on PBS was "The Jewish Americans" (2007, PBS, dir. David Grubin, narr. Liev Schrieber).

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

30 Days (Fox): Morgan Spurlock becomes a coal miner

Today, the first of a cable series from Warrior Poets and Morgan Spurlock, “30 Days” aired. And this one was about a most critical element of our karma: our dependence on the risky labor of others to support our lifestyles.

Morgan Spurlock leaves his wife and baby in a brownstone in Brooklyn to drive back to his native West Virginia, to spend 30 days working in an underground coal mine as an apprentice miner, to "pay his dues". He will shovel coal onto a conveyer – backbreaking work, and plaster coal walls to improve ventilations. He gets checked for black lung disease and is checked again after 30 days. A coworker tests positive for black lung. (Remember that in “Supersize Me” he became fat and terribly unhealthy according to medical tests after a fast food diet.) The show did make something of the fact that many boys raised there don’t get a chance to go to college and “escape” like Morgan did (to make movies).

The show also shows breathtaking shots of the Bryce mine in southern West Virginia. It is hard to reach from public roads but has been shown in Newsweek. The landscape had been chewed up into 200-foot carved ridges and plateaus. I have seen the open pit iron mines in Hibbing MN, the Anaconda copper mine near Butte Montana, an asbestos mine in Quebec, and I was almost arrested for trespassing on strip mine near Mt. Storm W VA (in the northern part of the state) in 1971. I wrote about mountaintop removal (discussed in the show) on the issues log in April, link here (check the label).

Sunday, June 01, 2008

CNN report "Fuel Nightmare" on oil prices

This evening (Sunday June 1), CNN Investigations featured a very useful report on the oil price crisis, “America's Fuel Nightmare.” At 8 PM EDT, running for one hour, hosted by Ali Velshi.

The show started by reporting that the Federal Trade Commission has been running an investigation of oil futures prices since December. On May 31, 2007, the price for crude was $64.01 and it has more than doubled in one year. Michael Greenberger from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission was interviewed. While some improprieties may be discovered, it is unlikely that the FTC will find a “smoking gun.” Golbal demand is outstripping supply, and the tendency is for fuel prices to be very inelastic.

There was a discussion of websites that monitor gasoline prices, such as and A reporter drove around Brooklyn NY and found that prices changed too quickly for the websites to be accurate, and sometimes lowest prices were miles away, as in New Jersey. The highest gasoline prices in the nations seems to occur at Death Valley, CA (I think it was $5.14).

Driving tips were discussed. It may be wise to turn off the ignition if idling for more than 30 seconds, and one driver even turns off the engine when coasting to double his gas mileage. Tires should be maintained at exactly the recommended pressure. Either running the car air conditioner or opening windows (leading to air drag) reduces mileage by about 1 mpg.

The predicament of suburbanites was discussed. They will tend to demand that auto companies give them rechargeable hybrids. Real estate prices may fall further in suburbs and rise again in cities, although employers could decide to disperse (motivated by broadband Internet) and government policy could actually encourage them to do so (as in a recent Washington Post Magazine fictitious story). Creatively engineered vehicles, like the hooded “bike mobile” could be developed.

The possibility of making gasoline and especially airline fuel from coal was discussed. The Air Force is already willing to encourage a gasification plant and mine to be built in Montana. But raising the demand for coal, plentiful in the US, would raise energy prices the way ethanol fules have helped increase food prices. Furthermore, strip mining and environmental damage and global warming might increase.

The prospect of finding more oil through drilling was discussed. Brazil (already heavily into ethanol fuels from sugar cane) is said to have huge offshore deposits under 10000 feet of ocean, very expensive and difficult to get out. But it might be profitable to extract it now.

Another Hurricane Katrina could boost fuel prices another 15-20% if there were major damage to the facility at Port Fourchon, LA, at the end of the Intracoastal Waterway, south of New Orleans.