31 July 2011

A near-run thing

Rico says that's the ladyfriend's car after plowing into a runaway (driverless) Mercedes. Fortunately, she's fine, even if the car's not...

Fewer dams, more fish

William Yardley has an article in The New York Times about removing obstacles to salmon migration in Washington:
Beginning late this summer, one of the most promising and pure acts of environmental restoration the region, and the nation, have ever seen will get under way, experts say, in the form of the largest dam removal project in American history. It will demolish two massive hydroelectric dams, one of them over two hundred feet high, that block the otherwise pristine flow of the Elwha River, nearly all of which is within the boundaries of Olympic National Park.
For a century, since the first dam was built in 1912 to supply power for the town of Port Angeles and, later, a lumber mill, salmon have been trying, futilely, to follow their genetic GPS upstream on the Elwha. Instead, five miles south of where they enter the river from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they hit a concrete wall.
“They pool at the bottom and go in circles,” said LaTrisha Suggs, the assistant director of river restoration for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. “They swim up, they swim down, they swim up, they swim down.”
Biologists say that will change once the dams are fully removed, sometime in 2014, and that a migrating salmon population that has declined to about three thousand fish will steadily begin replenishing itself from a small stock carefully perpetuated in rearing channels since the 1970s to preserve their lineage as “transitional species”.
These Chinook— one of six salmon species, all of which exist in the Elwha— are distinct from salmon that enter Puget Sound and those that spawn in rivers off the Pacific Ocean. Models show that up to 392,000 fish will fill seventy miles of habitat now blocked by the dams, matching the predam peak. Chinook here once grew as big as one hundred pounds, and experts say they should reach that size again. “Because of the habitat we have,” said Brian Winter, the park’s project manager for the restoration project, “we expect success.”
It will have taken a long time and a lot of money to achieve. The first President George Bush signed off on the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act after it was passed by Congress in 1992, and momentum had been building for more than a decade before that. The total cost, $350 million, includes paying for new power sources and water treatment plants in the area, as well as fish hatcheries and extensive revegetation projects.
The restoration of the Elwha comes as dams, often facing expiring operating licenses, are to be removed from several prominent rivers, including the White Salmon in Washington and the Penobscot in Maine. Four dams are scheduled to be removed in the Klamath River in southern Oregon in 2020.
Many conservationists see this as momentum for more ambitious goals, most notably their push to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington that provide electricity, water, and a channel for barge traffic between the ocean and the powerful agricultural interests inland. Their hopes increased when President Obama recently nominated Rebecca Wodder, the former president of American Rivers, which has pushed for dam removal on the Snake and elsewhere, to become Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. The nomination, which has yet to be confirmed, is widely opposed by dam supporters.
Yet even advocates for larger dam removals acknowledge that they can draw only limited comparisons between the remote Elwha and dams like those on the Snake. The two dams on the Elwha, the Glines Canyon Dam (photo) and the Elwha River Dam, provided enough power on average for about fourteen thousand homes, and allowed for no fish passage. The dams on the Snake can power a city the size of Seattle and have elaborate systems for fish passage, though a federal judge has repeatedly found them inadequate.
Even as it is planning to ambitiously promote the Elwha restoration, the Obama administration opposes removing the dams on the Snake, as did administrations before it. The judge, James A. Redden of the Federal District Court for the District of Oregon, is expected to rule soon on a government plan to improve protections for salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers.
On the Olympic Peninsula, the National Park Service has helped lead a branding effort that includes posters and stickers saying Elwha River Restoration; Natural Wonders Never Cease. Local museums are collecting equipment from the powerhouse, which stopped producing power in June. A festival is planned in Port Angeles around the start of the removal in September. The public will be able to watch the dam removal from platforms during the next three years.
“Plan A is to use hydraulic hammers,” said Brian Krohmer, the project manager for the contractor overseeing the removal, Barnard Construction. “Plan B is explosives.” The dams will be lowered slowly from top to bottom— “kind of like eating a corncob, just going back and forth,” Krohmer said— to regulate the downstream flow of sediment accumulated behind them so it does the least damage to the river and the people below.
While experts say the habitat surrounding the river is pristine, except for the dams, removing them has required extensive new plumbing elsewhere. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which has lived at the mouth of the river for thousands of years and has opposed the dams since they were built, is being connected to the sewer system next door in Port Angeles for the first time, because of evidence that its septic system could be damaged by rising groundwater. The reservation will also be protected by a levee that has been raised, widened, and fortified with rocks as large as four feet across because the sediment flowing downstream will raise the level of the freed Elwha. The tribe wants all of this but, after a century of living with a tamed river and adapting as development increased on the peninsula, there is also concern. “What worries me is that the river’s going to be unpredictable after they take the dams out,” said Ron Boulstrom, 46, a lifelong resident of the reservation and a commercial fisherman. “Four more years and I’ll have my house paid off, and I’m making a nice new garage. Hopefully, the river won’t take me out.” Then again, according to tribal lore, the tribe’s creation site was flooded by the dams. And there are the Chinook, also called king salmon, remembered in stories told from generation to generation, but now too depleted to fish. “Back in the day, we had this whole place, the hills, the mountains,” Boulstrom said. “I’d like to catch another king out of the Elwha in my lifetime.”
Rico says there's a line somewhere about rivers running, unfettered, to the sea, that applies here...

Suspicious, hell

David Goodman has an article in The New York Times about another averted massacre:
An Army private, who had been absent without leave since earlier this month, was arrested this week near Fort Hood with a gun and suspicious materials in what local law enforcement officials described as a “terror plot” to kill other soldiers.
During questioning after his arrest, the soldier, Private First Class Naser Jason Abdo, admitted that he specifically planned to attack Fort Hood, according to a report by The Associated Press An FBI spokesman said that he could not provide further details because it was a continuting investigation.
Police in Killeen, Texas arrested Private Abdo in a motel room near the southern edge of the base, one day after a clerk at a local gun store alerted the police about a suspicious purchase, the police said.
According to a law enforcement official, among the items found in Private Abdo’s room at the time of his arrest were a military uniform with Fort Hood patches, a pistol, shotgun shells, and an article on “how to make a bomb in your kitchen” from the English-language version of the al-Qaeda magazine Inspire. He also had more than one wall clock, a cellphone, duct tape, and a shopping list for what appeared to be explosive components, the official said.
The police said that they had interviewed Private Abdo in the city jail and that his statement “leads us to believe that military personnel were targeted,” said Dennis M. Baldwin, the Killeen chief of police. He said Private Abdo did not appear to be part of any larger plot. “As far as we know, he was acting alone,” Chief Baldwin said.
What connection Private Abdo had to the base was unclear. He had been absent without leave from his own base, Fort Campbell in Kentucky, since early this month.
The announcement of his arrest renewed a sense of vulnerability at Fort Hood, where, on 5 November 2009, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an army psychiatrist, went on a shooting rampage that killed thirteen people and wounded 32 at a medical facility on the base. Base officials quickly issued a statement to reassure soldiers. “At this time, there has been no incident at Fort Hood,” officials said. “We continue our diligence in keeping our force protection at appropriate levels.”
At an afternoon news conference, the Killeen police chief underscored what he felt was the seriousness of the situation: “We probably would be here giving you a different briefing had he not been stopped.” Private Abdo, who joined the Army in April of 2009, gained national attention last summer when he refused to deploy with his unit to Afghanistan, insisting that his Muslim faith prevented him from serving. He had fought his deployment since 2010, and gave multiple interviews. “I was under the impression that I could serve both the U.S. Army and my God simultaneously,” he said in a television interview with CNN last summer. “As the time had come near to deployment, I started really asking myself and taking the question more seriously whether God would accept what I was doing and whether I was really meant to go to war as opposed to the peace that Islam preaches.”
Army officials said that Private Abdo was granted conscientious objector status in May, but his discharge was put on hold after the Army said it had discovered at least 34 images of child pornography on his computer. James Branum, a lawyer who represented Private Abdo during his conscientious objector case but who is not representing him in this matter, said that Private Abdo had been “pretty upset” about the child pornography charges. “He told me that in good conscience he could not plead guilty to anything,” he said. In June, a military grand jury referred his case to a general court-martial. Private Abdo disappeared shortly after.
Rico says lessee, a Muslim conscientious objector who's into child porn and killing soldiers. Nah, he's just confused...

Movie review for the day

Manohla Dargis has a review in The New York Times of the new movie Cowboys & Aliens:
Galloping across the desert, his inscrutable baby blues fixed on the horizon, Daniel Craig makes for a surprisingly convincing cowboy. Some actors, including a few in his new movie, Cowboys & Aliens, look too modern for old-timey roles. There isn’t enough grit, suffering, and poor nutrition in their faces, and their gestures and gaits are timed to the impatient rhythms of the information age. But Craig, with his brutally handsome face and coiled physicality, looks like a rawhide whip that’s just itching to get cracking.
He does, eventually, though it takes the director, Jon Favreau, a long time to wake up his movie, giving it a good kick about a half-hour in. Maybe it’s all the western clichés he had to line up, including the dusty town, the gun-toting preacher, the mild-mannered doctor, the trigger-happy scion of a powerful cattleman adored by the American Indian orphan who would make him a better son. Don’t forget the surrogate for this PG-13 picture’s presumptive audience, a wide-eyed boy whom you half expect to cry out for Shane. And then there’s the faithful pooch that, in one scene, yelps when (finally!) he encounters a genre-hopping extraterrestrial with razored lobster claws that looks like a cousin of the monsters from the Alien films.
That these new beasties even evoke the nightmarish creatures originally created by the artist H. R. Giger is a testament to his genius and to this movie’s lack of imagination. It’s too bad. Favreau, who directed the Iron Man films, isn’t an innovator, but he can have a nice, light touch, and his actors always seem as if they were happy to be there, which is true here, too. Here, though, he wavers uncertainly between goofy pastiche and seriousness in a movie that wastes its title and misses the opportunity to play with, you know, ideas about the western and science-fiction horror. (The title may mean little to young viewers, who, like the niece and nephew of a friend, don’t watch westerns and were puzzled about why this isn’t called Cowboys vs. Aliens.)
The movie is distilled from a comic-book world cooked up by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg that was transformed into a platitude-heavy script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby from a screen story by Ostby, Fergus, and Steve Oedekerk. That’s a lot of writers (some with very fine credits) for a movie in which a woman lovingly reassures her bullied man that he has nothing to prove (meaning that he sure does, as the finale reveals), and in which Craig’s character says— drinking at a saloon bar with his back to the sheriff— that he doesn’t want any trouble. He doesn’t, kind of. But, gee, I bet he would have liked a better line.
As Jake, Craig happily doesn’t need to say much at first, entering in near-Daniel-Day-Lewis mysterioso silence, popping into the frame as if waking from a nightmare. He’s bloodied and dazed, but his bearings return as soon as he’s set upon by bandits whom he quickly disarms, unpants, and deboots. He makes his way to a town where he finds a preacher, Meacham (played by Clancy Brown), who sews up a weird wound for him, and takes on a drunk, Percy (played by Paul Dano), who makes the saloonkeeper-sawbones, Doc (played by Sam Rockwell), dance to gunfire. And, in the role of Miss Kitty or, actually, Ella: Olivia Wilde, whose bleachy-white teeth and manicured brows are strictly Beverly Hills 90210 rather than New Mexico Territory 1875.
Just around the time that the sleepy town threatens to become sleepier, a cluster of small spaceships zips out of the nighttime sky, simultaneously laying waste to the area and stirring your interest. (An earlier, visually obscured attack turns some cattle and their keepers into barbecue.) It’s an effectively staged, attention-grabbing scene, with the ships darting in and out of the darkness, smoke, and fireball bursts, as the panicked, shrieking citizenry zigzags below. Amid the clamor, there’s a nice pocket of relative quiet when Jake, who’s been detained, suddenly realizes that the strange, metallic bracelet locked on his left wrist has a purpose, an epiphany that turns him into a cowboy with a zap gun.
Soon after Jake figures it out, though, townsfolk have been snatched by the aliens, yanked up by long, tentaclelike appendages that flick out of the spaceships and seize prey as easily as frogs gobble flies. If you’ve seen a few cinematic oaters, or just about any them-vs.-us movie, you know what happens next: strangers join forces as they take off after the villains, who just happen to be extraterrestrials, but might as well be Russians or Nazis, given their bland back story. There is one surprise that nearly saves a laughable character and some wishful thinking with some super-accommodating Apaches that, even in the service of a cinematic fantasy, rankles. As the cattleman, Harrison Ford looks totally cranky but is also pretty swell.
Ford’s presence, along with that of Steven Spielberg (he’s an executive producer) makes you wonder what Spielberg would have done with this material, though maybe the better question is what Favreau might have done differently without him. Cowboys & Aliens is, with Super 8, yet another summer release Spielberg has blessed with his imprimatur, perhaps not to the advantage of either. (His name is also on the latest Transformers, but let us not speak of that.) It isn’t just that he is a veritable genre and brings a legacy and specific filmmaking ideas with him; it’s also that J. J. Abrams, who directed Super 8, and Favreau, each a pop adept, have skewed heavier and less loose with the Great Man on board, as if awed by his genius instead of his early gift for fun.
Rico says he has not seen it yet, and will report back once he has; in spite of the mixed review, he has hopes for this one, as he's really liked Daniel Craig in everything else he's seen...

History for the day

On 31 July 1964, the American space probe Ranger 7 transmitted pictures of the moon's surface.

30 July 2011

Usal? Who knew?

In the only-on-the-internet category, Rico says he's always amazed what turns up in a Google search. The latest? Usal, California. When Rico was in high school (years ago), he and his friend Christopher used to drive up and camp there, when it was still a lumber area. Now a state park, it's still gorgeous. But videos (below)? And a MySpace page? How the old place has changed...


R.I.P., alas

Rico says he's lost family and friends over the years and, while he misses most of them, he's resigned himself to the gradual diminishing of his circle of acquaintances. But the loss of a fifty-year friendship, on the other hand, is saddening. It's someone (who shall remain unidentified, for Rico's protection; the guy likes gubs as much, if not more than, Rico does, and owns a lot more than Rico does) who Rico met when his parents first moved him to California, when he was eight. They've had an interesting, if uppy-downy (to use one of the guy's phrases) relationship since then, but the relationship croaked altogether this week, in spite of Rico's attempts to revive it. (Yes, gubs were involved, but fortunately were not pointed at each other.) Rico says he doubts he'll ever see the guy again, at least until they're both under a stone somewhere... (Well, Rico says that he won't be; he's going with cremation, with his ashes scattered from Nantucket to Usal to Hana by his remaining friends.)

Ecological terrorism in NYC

Lisa Foderaro has an article in The New York Times about the latest food trend in New York City: eating in the park:
Maybe it is the spiraling cost of food in a tough economy, or the logical next step in the movement to eat locally. Whatever the reason, New Yorkers are increasingly fanning out across the city’s parks to hunt and gather edible wild plants, like mushrooms, American ginger, and elderberries.
Now Parks officials want them to stop. New York City’s public lands are not a communal pantry, they say. In recent months, the city has stepped up training of park rangers and enforcement-patrol officers, directing them to keep an eye out for foragers and chase them off. “If people decide that they want to make their salads out of our plants, then we’re not going to have any chipmunks,” said Maria Hernandez, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages Central Park.
Plants are not the only things people are taking. In Prospect Park in Brooklyn last week, park rangers issued four summonses to two people for illegal fishing. Although officials say such poaching is not widespread, park advocates say taking fish and turtles for food is not uncommon, and some have reported evidence of traps designed to snare wildfowl.
Foraging used to be a quirky niche, filled most notably by Wildman Steve Brill, who, for years, has led foraging tours in the Northeast, including in Central Park. (He now sells a foraging app, too.) But foragers today are an eclectic bunch, including downtown hipsters, recent immigrants, vegans, and people who do not believe in paying for food.
Even those who would never dream of plucking sassafras during a walk in the park can read about it. The magazine Edible Manhattan has an Urban Forager column (as does The New York TimesCity Room blog). And the current issue of Martha Stewart Living features a colorful spread about foraging on Stewart’s property in Maine, but at least all those plants belong to her.
While it has long been against the rules to collect or destroy plants in the city’s parks, with potential fines of $250, the city has preferred education to enforcement. “It’s listed in the prohibited uses of the parks, and the simple reason is that if everyone went out and collected whatever it is— whether blackberries or wildflowers— the parks couldn’t sustain that,” said Sarah Aucoin, director of urban park rangers for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Officials have not gone as far as posting signs in Central Park that foraging is prohibited, for fear they would serve as arrows pointing to the most delectable areas. Hernandez of the Park Conservancy would take a reporter on a tour of edible plants, only on the condition that their locations not be revealed.
For their part, regular foragers— especially those who write and teach about the practice— say that they are sensitive to the environment, and that they focus on renewable items like leaves and berries. Besides, they say, much of their quarry comes from invasive species that squeeze out native plants. “You’re almost doing the ecosystem in the park a favor by harvesting them,” said Leda Meredith, who wrote The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget, which includes a chapter on foraging. Meredith, who leads tours in Prospect Park, says seventy percent of the plants she collects are nonnative and invasive. “Japanese knotweed is very invasive, and it’s in season in April,” she said. It can be used like rhubarb, she added.
Marie Viljoen, a garden designer who writes the foraging column for Edible Manhattan, argued that parks officials were overstating the problem. “It’s a little alarmist to think that a park is going to be mowed down like a herd of deer went through,” she said. Park officials counter that they are more worried about the novices, and say that certain plants, like American ginger and ramps, are especially vulnerable since they are yanked out, root and all. Park managers point out, too, that there are programs to weed out invasive plants.
Then there is the danger of poisonous and toxic plants. “Not everyone knows how to use these herbs and spices,” Hernandez said.
Some natural areas outside New York City accommodate foragers. Sandy Hook in New Jersey, which is part of the federal Gateway National Recreation Area, limits the harvesting of beach plum fruit, berries, and mushrooms to “one quart container per person, per day,” said John Harlan Warren, a spokesman for the recreation area.
In New York’s state parks, the attitude seems more relaxed as well. “It’s illegal, but the occasional blueberry picker is not hauled away in handcuffs,” said Tom Alworth, deputy commissioner for natural resources for the State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.Aside from issuing summonses, the city has not taken any recent legal action. It did go after Brill for foraging in Central Park once before: he was arrested in the mid-1980s, and it turned into a public relations debacle for the parks department. The charges were later dropped. After appearing on television talk shows and receiving sympathetic news coverage, Brill was actually hired by the department as a naturalist, and led foraging tours for a few years. He has since continued his tours privately, and says he is tolerated by Central Park’s rangers. “They usually wave at me,” he said.
Even some fellow foragers look askance at Brill. One of his tours in 2009 attracted 78 people, an all-time high. “I see him as the vaudeville showman of foraging,” Viljoen said. “I get nervous when I see that many people storming the park.”
Just what gets taken can vary from park to park, often depending on the ethnic makeup of the surrounding neighborhood. “There are groups going around and collecting things that they recognize from their home countries,” said Gary Lincoff, an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden, who admitted foraging in the parks for juneberries. “The Chinese gather gingko, and I’ve talked to Koreans who are gathering white wood aster.”
Beverly McDermott, director of Friends of Kissena Park in Flushing in Queens, has confronted foragers directly when she has seen them hauling away everything from plants to top soil to turtles. A garden in the 242-acre park that McDermott helped revive a decade ago has been repeatedly pillaged, with herbs, flowers, and a whole weeping cherry tree disappearing. “I have caught them leaving the park with coolers full of fish and turtles,” she said. “You need signs throughout the park. I find the rangers to be totally useless. They’re walking around like Boy Scouts.”
Rico says no, not eating in the park, eating the park. But 'coolers full of fish and turtles'? That's going too far...
Maybe a sign like this, instead:

Close, but not yet a record

Rico says his monthly high-water-mark is December of 2008, with 401 posts. He hasn't hit 400 this month, but July's not over yet. Maybe...

Rico is guilty of standing idly by, in absentia

Ilya Mouzykantskii has an article in The New York Times about a new law in Belarus:
Iron-fisted authorities in Belarus have responded to a burst of creative modes of protest by young protesters with a rather surreal innovation of their own: a law that prohibits people from standing together and doing nothing.
A draft law published Friday prohibits the “joint mass presence of citizens in a public place, including an outdoor space, that has been chosen beforehand and at a scheduled time, for the purpose of a form of action or inaction that has been planned beforehand and is a form of public expression of the public or political sentiments or protest.” Anyone proven to be taking part in such a gathering would be subject to up to fifteen days of administrative arrest, the draft says.
Recent protests, galvanized by an economic crisis and organized through social networks by Belarussian dissidents based outside the country, have encouraged ingenious methods of expression. People have simultaneously and publicly clapped or strolled, or had their cellphone alarms go off together.
The ever-subtler expressions of defiance have drawn extraordinary suppressive measures, as security forces engage in the harshest crackdown of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko’s seventeen years in power. Plainclothes police officers have detained nearly two thousand people since the so-called 'clapping' protests began in June, in many cases because they were seen clapping or standing near people who were. More than five hundred have received sentences of five to fifteen days.
Permits have long been required for political protests, and they are very rarely granted to the opposition. Silent gatherings, however, have never required a permit. In an online statement, the organizers of the protests said that the “regime is hammering nails into its own coffin”.
Danila Barysevich, an administrator for the online group responsible for organizing the protests, called the draft law “absurd”, noting the law could be used against “every queue, every group of people in a park”.
Another new focus of repression is a Russian song, We Want Change,” by Viktor Tsoi. After the song was adopted as a kind of revolutionary anthem by the growing youth protest movement, opposition news sources reported that the song had been banned from the Belarussian airwaves.
Rico says that Ilya always reminds him of Illya Kuryakin, a character (played by the ur-blonde David McCallum) from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a show off the air long before most of you were born...

But they'd arrest these guys, for sure:

Mass resignations? Better than mass graves

Gul Tuysuz and Sabrina Tavernise have an article in The New York Times about the rapidly-changing situation in Turkey:
Turkey’s top military commanders resigned en masse on Friday, a move without precedent in Turkish history, that many analysts saw as a failed effort by a beleaguered institution to exert what is left of its dwindling political power. In the surprising series of events, Turkey’s top commander, General Isik Kosaner (photo), together with the leaders of the Turkish Navy, Army, and Air Force, simultaneously resigned in protest over the sweeping arrests of dozens of generals as suspects in conspiracy investigations that many people in Turkey have come to see as a witch hunt.
Hours later, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepted the resignations and elevated his own choice to become the senior military commander: General Necdet Ozel, who was, until Friday, the commander of the military police. The decision stamped Erdogan’s civilian authority on the country’s military, which has long regarded itself as a protector of Turkey’s secular traditions.
The news stunned Turkey and left many people wondering whether they were witnessing the end of the power the military has long exercised over the nation’s political system. “This is effectively the end of the military’s role in Turkish democracy,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet. “This is the symbolic moment where the first Turkish republic ends and the second republic begins.”
Erdogan has rolled back the military’s political power substantially since he took office in 2002, in part through legal reforms that assert civilian control. But the single biggest blow to the military’s clout has been a sprawling series of investigations and trials in which a number of senior military commanders, as well as journalists and others, were charged with conspiring to overthrow Erdogan’s government.
The resignations were the culmination of a year of frustrations, in which more than forty generals, approximately a tenth of the senior military command, were taken into custody, an assault that has infuriated the military but left it essentially helpless to fight back.
A more immediate spark may have come in the form of new arrest warrants for 22 more people, among them two top generals, which were issued Friday, the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency reported.
“This is the first time in the history of the republic that we are seeing something like this,” said Gursel Tekin, vice president of the main opposition political party, who was speaking in the seaside city of Canakkale. “Honestly, this situation is not good.”
Historically, the military has wielded immense power in Turkey. The modern nation was founded in 1923 by General Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the military remained involved in politics after the country went to a multiparty political system in the 1950s. Military leaders have deposed elected governments four times in Turkish history, beginning in 1960, when they went so far as to execute the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes. But the Turkish political system has gone through profound changes in recent years, and many analysts argued that resigning was the only weapon left in the military’s arsenal. Few people interviewed on Friday thought that a coup was likely, both because Turkey’s democracy now has deep roots and because the military appeared diminished. “Besides this one act, the military doesn’t really have that much left in the tank,” said Steven Cook, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Cook argued that the resignations also said a great deal about Turkey as a democracy, because its citizens, even those who dislike Erdogan’s increasingly powerful Justice and Development Party, were no longer willing to accept military rule. “Turkey has grown out of that,” he said.
One of the sticking points between the military and the government has been that the military wants to promote some of the officers who have been languishing as suspects in the conspiracy cases, but cannot because the officers have remained in custody. An important meeting of the military that would determine appointments is scheduled for Monday.
General Kosaner, who had two years left as Turkey’s top military commander, spelled out that frustration in a statement circulated in the Turkish news media on Friday, noting that, although the officers have not been convicted of any crimes, they will miss the chance for promotions. He added bitterly that one of the aims of the conspiracy cases “is to create the impression that the Turkish Armed Forces are a criminal organization”. He also said that the situation “has prevented me from fulfilling my duties to protect the rights of my personnel, and thereby rendered me unable to continue this high office that I occupy”.
By midnight, the website of Turkey’s official newspaper published an announcement that General Kosaner had retired. According to protocol, Ozel, the new army chief, will be appointed as the top military commander by Turkey’s president on Saturday. Ozel was not a surprise choice for his new post. He had been expected to become head of the army after Monday’s military meeting and to assume Turkey’s top military post at the end of General Kosaner’s term in 2013. The heads of the army, navy and air force had been scheduled to retire next month. While Ozel is not seen as an ally of Erdogan, he is also not a foe, as are many other senior military officers.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an email that the military’s status as a trusted institution had plummeted, with only sixty percent of Turks saying in most surveys that they trusted the institution, compared with ninety percent in 2002, the year Erdogan took office. “Turkey’s moment of reckoning, delayed since 2002, seems to have arrived,” Cagaptay said. “This is the Turkish military leadership’s way of telling the government, ‘We are done playing with you. Set up your own team if you can.’”
The resignations seemed intended to send a message that the military was still powerful enough to shake up the country’s political system. But they seemed almost to have had the opposite effect, with Erdogan acting fast to choose a new leader. “This was their last resort,” Aydintasbas said of the resignations. “It is happening precisely because there is no likelihood of a coup. There is nothing else for them to do.”
Rico says the Turkish Armed Forces are a criminal organization, just with uniforms...

What, nobody owns a chain saw?

Joseph Berger has an article in The New York Times about a bad pole (and, no, not Władysław Gomułka):
When it showed up unannounced in April, the neighbors stared, goggle-eyed. Some compared the scene to one in a classic Stanley Kubrick film. “The neighbors started gathering around it like it was the monolith in 2001,” said the Reverend Jeanne Person, an Episcopal priest who has lived in a century-old pocket of Flatbush, Brooklyn, for eleven years.
The monolith this time was a twenty-foot-tall polygonal pole made of gray fiberglass. It was put up by Verizon as part of its effort to wire the area with ultra-high-speed fiber-optic cable for FiOS, its telephone, Internet, and high-definition television service.
The neighbors, in the Flatbush historic district of Victorian-style houses known as Fiske Terrace-Midwood Park, said the pole clashed with its unapologetically old-fashioned setting, where even the lampposts are quaint: the hooked cast-iron style known as bishop’s crook. What gives the complaining residents some clout is that Verizon may have planted the pole without following the rules on laying down new structures in a neighborhood that, in 2008, was designated as historic by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. According to the commission, any changes in the streetscape of historic neighborhoods, except for safety features like fire hydrants and stop signs, require its permission.
The commission and Verizon are “identifying possible alternatives that meet the commission’s regulations and are consistent with the character of New York City’s historic districts,” Elisabeth De Bourbon, a commission spokeswoman, said in an email, adding, “We expect a resolution soon.”
The dispute is another illustration of how protective, even possessive, some New Yorkers can be about their neighborhood’s landscape. The residents are happy that FiOS is coming, but they do not want poles that clash with the turn-of-the-twentieth-century ambience. So far, residents say, Verizon has planted only two poles they know about, and only one is in the historic district, on East Eighteenth Street near the corner of Glenwood Road. The other pole is in front of an apartment house just outside the district. Any further planting of the poles has been postponed until the landmarks issues are resolved.
But why would the addition of some utility poles rattle armadillo-skinned New Yorkers, who shrug off harsher insults? “They look nothing like anything around them,” said Fred Baer, 62, a retired Kennedy Airport manager and former president of the Fiske Terrace neighborhood association. “They are out of character with the neighborhood.”
John J. Bonomo, Verizon’s director of media relations, said the poles were necessary to allow for an “interface” between underground cables and above-ground wires that thread through backyards. The poles, he said, are less obtrusive than large cabinet-style boxes planted directly on sidewalks, which can invite graffiti and vandals. Verizon believed that it had acquired all the permits it needed from the Department of Transportation, and did not think it needed approval from other agencies, he said.
Nevertheless, the company confirmed that it was trying to resolve the matter with the Landmarks Commission. “Both parties are focused on ensuring that these facilities are placed in a manner that is appropriate for these historic districts,” a Verizon statement said. Bonomo declined to say how many poles had been put up around the city (there is at least one in Fort Greene in Brooklyn), describing the figure as information it wants to keep from competitors.
The Fiske Terrace-Midwood Park Historic District is one segment of Victorian Flatbush, a mile-long expanse of century-old homes that stretches from the south edge of Prospect Park to the Brooklyn College campus. Fiske Terrace was built from 1905 to 1907 as an early suburban development, aimed at people commuting to Manhattan on the old Brooklyn, Flatbush, & Coney Island Railroad, now the Q and B subway lines. The almost three hundred freestanding homes are generally three stories tall, with wood shingles and wide porches, and they are set back from the sidewalk behind generous front lawns, many graced with one-hundred-year-old oaks and London plane trees. Inside there are stained-glass windows, parquet floors, elegant cabinetry, and orange and green brick fireplaces.
Michael Rabinowitz, 33, a political consultant, said he had moved to the neighborhood because it reminded him of the upstate town where he grew up as the son of Hamilton College professors. Many residents are middle-class professionals, academics at nearby Brooklyn College, or business people.
Because the neighborhood has good public schools and two of the city’s best public high schools, Midwood and Edward R. Murrow, nearby, homes are valued at over eight hundred thousand dollars and, in many cases, over a million. It is a neighborhood that, unlike some others, sought landmark status as a way of protecting its distinctive look from developers and eccentric renovators.
Person said she first saw the pole when she came home from work at General Theological Seminary in Chelsea one afternoon. “First we wanted to know what it was,” she said. “Then when we figured out what it was, we wanted to get rid of it. What does landmarking mean if it doesn’t protect us?”
Rico says that Edward R. Murrow would be doing a documentary about all this, if he wasn't, unfortunately, dead...

Captain America, only darker

Charles M. Blow has an opinion column in The New York Times about the new movie, and his grandfather:
My grandfather spoke to me this week. That would’ve been unremarkable, if not for the fact that he died four years ago. I had ducked into a movie theater to escape the maddening debt-limit debacle. I chose Captain America: The First Avenger. Surely that would reset the patriotic optimism.
But, as I watched the scenes of a fictitious integrated American Army fighting in Europe at the end of World War Two, I became unsettled. Yes, I know that racial revisionism has become so common in film that it’s almost customary, so much so that moviegoers rarely balk or even blink. And even I try not to think too deeply about shallow fare. Escapism, by its nature, must bend away from reality. But this time I was forced to bend it back. It was personal.
The only black fighting force on the ground in Europe during World War Two was the 92nd Infantry Division, the now-famous, but then segregated, Buffalo Soldiers. My grandfather, Fred D. Rhodes (photo, at right), was one of those soldiers. The division was activated late in the war, more out of acquiescence to black leaders than the desire of white policy makers in the War Department, who doubted the battle worthiness of black soldiers. It was considered to be an experiment, one that the writer of the department’s recommendation to re-establish it would later describe as “programmed to fail from its inception”.
For one thing, as the historian Daniel K. Gibran has documented, the soldiers were placed under the command of a known racist who questioned their “moral attitude toward battle”, their “mental toughness” and “trustworthiness”, and who remained a military segregationist until the day he died. In 1959, the commander commented in a study: “It is absurd to contend that the characteristics demonstrated by the Negroes” will not “undermine and deteriorate the white army unit into which the Negro is integrated”.
Yet they did show great toughness and character, including my grandfather. This is how his 1944 Silver Star citation recounts his bravery:
“On 16 November, while proceeding towards the front at night, Sergeant Rhodes’ motorized patrol was advanced upon near a village by a lone enemy soldier. Sergeant Rhodes jumped from the truck and, as a group of enemy soldiers suddenly appeared, intent upon capturing the truck and patrol intact, he opened fire from his exposed position on the road. His fire forced the enemy to scatter while the patrol dismounted and took cover with light casualties. Sergeant Rhodes then moved toward a nearby building where, still exposed, his fire on the enemy was responsible for the successful evacuation of the wounded patrol members by newly arrived medical personnel. Sergeant Rhodes was then hit by enemy shell fragments but, in spite of his wounds, he exhausted his own supply of ammunition then, obtaining an enemy automatic weapon, exhausted its supply, inflicting three certain casualties on the enemy.  He spent the rest of the night in a nearby field and returned, unaided, to his unit the next afternoon.”
Astonishingly, his and others’ efforts were not fully recognized.
My grandfather’s actions were the first among the Buffalo Soldiers to be recommended for a Distinguished Service Cross, according to surviving records. That recommendation was declined. In fact, only four enlisted soldiers from the 92nd were recommended for the service cross. They were all denied. It was given to just two black members of the unit, both officers, and only one of those officers received it during the war. The other received it nearly four decades after the war was over, because of the investigative efforts of another historian.
As the 1997 study The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War Two pointed out, by mid-1947 the U.S. Army had awarded 4,750 Distinguished Service Crosses and only eight, less than 0.2 percent, had gone to black soldiers, and not a single black soldier had been recommended for a Medal of Honor. (Roughly 1.2 million blacks served in World War Two and about 50,000 were engaged in combat.) Until 1997, World War Two was the only American war in which no black soldiers had received a Medal of Honor. President Bill Clinton changed that in that year by awarding Medals of Honor to seven of the men who had been awarded Distinguished Service Crosses, the only ones whose cases were reviewed for the upgrade. Just one of them, Joseph Vernon Baker, a lieutenant in my grandfather’s regiment, was alive to receive it.
Even when news of the Buffalo Soldiers was making headlines in the 1990s, my grandfather never said a word. There’s no way to know why. Maybe it was the pain of risking his life abroad for a freedom that he couldn’t fully enjoy at home. Maybe it was the misery of languishing in a military hospital for many months, and being discharged with a limp that would follow him to the grave. Or maybe it was simply the act of a brave soldier living out the motto of his division: Deeds, Not Words.
Who knows? But it wasn’t until after he died that I learned of his contributions. My mother came across his discharge papers while sorting through his things, and sent me a copy. On a whim, I Googled his name and division, and there he was, staring out at me from a picture I’d never seen and being extolled in books I’d never read. My heart swelled, and my skin went cold. I wanted to tell him how proud I was, but that window had closed.
It illustrates just how quickly things can fade into the fog of history if not vigilantly and accurately kept alive in the telling. That is why the racial history of this country is not a thing to be toyed with by Hollywood. There are too many bodies at the bottom of that swamp to skim across it with such indifference. Attention must be shown. Respect must be paid.
So as Captain America ended and the credits began to roll, I managed a bit of a smile, the kind that turns up on the corners with a tinge of sadness. I smiled, not for what I’d seen, but for what had not been shown, knowing that I would commit it to a column so that my grandfather and the many men like him would not be lost to the sanitized vision of America’s darker years.
This is my deed through words, for you, Grandpa. You’ll never be forgotten.
Rico says it's another (excuse the phrase) dark patch of American history, but he's glad Mister Blow had a bully pulpit from which to tell his grandfather's story. Yet, out of the half-million or so images that Google found for the movie, only one shows a black soldier:

To be renamed the 'Boner' bill

Carl Hulse and Robert Pear have an article in The New York Times about the debt crisis:
After a delay and concessions to conservatives, the House narrowly approved a Republican fiscal plan that the Senate quickly rejected in a standoff over the federal debt ceiling that was keeping the government on a path to potential default. Despite a day of frenzied legislative maneuvering and another attempt by President Obama to rally public opinion behind some kind of compromise, the two parties made no visible progress in finding common ground, leaving Washington, Wall Street, and much of the nation watching the clock toward a deadline of midnight Tuesday.
Demonstrating the deep partisan divide coloring the budget fight, the House voted 218 to 210 to approve the plan endorsed by Speaker John A. Boehner to increase the federal debt ceiling in two stages. No Democrats supported the measure; 22 Republicans opposed it. The White House condemned it as a “political exercise”.
“To the American people, I would say we tried our level best,” Boehner said, as he concluded a debate that had been abruptly halted Thursday evening when he fell short of the votes for victory. “We tried to do our best for our country, but some people still say no.”
The House vote was the first act of what loomed as a weekend of tense legislative gamesmanship on Capitol Hill. With Congressional leaders still unable to reach agreement, anxious lawmakers, aides and administration officials seemed to hold their breath, hoping that some compromise could mesh the competing proposals and rise above the increasingly confrontational tactics in Washington. Aides and lawmakers said back-channel talks across the aisle were not making much progress in the Senate, but they hoped the pace would pick up after the Senate rejection of the House proposal. That did not take long. Two hours after the House approved its plan, it was convincingly tabled in the Senate by a vote of 59 to 41, and Democrats took steps to move ahead with their proposal.
In an effort to attract some Republican support for his plan, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, made a number of changes in his bill. But the Congressional Budget Office found that the overall impact on the deficit was about the same as with his original bill: savings of $2.2 trillion over ten years.
House Republicans, stung by their inability to secure enough votes from conservatives for their own plan to raise the debt ceiling, reconfigured their proposal to win over the holdouts. The revised plan would raise the debt ceiling for about six months in exchange for $1 trillion in spending cuts. A second installment of $1.6 trillion, expected to be needed in about six months, would hinge on Congressional approval of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, a provision added to lure conservatives. But the revisions only made the measure less acceptable to Senate Democrats, who had made it clear that they would reject the bill as soon as it reached them. “This is the most outrageous suggestion I have heard,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin*, the assistant Democratic leader.
Though Boehner and his allies had secured the votes, the margin of victory was narrow. Lawmakers, aware that the fight was probably not over, did not celebrate with the usual applause, whooping, and hollering that erupts when a hard-fought bill goes over the top.
Indeed, an eerie silence settled over the House chamber. Republicans had won, but were in no mood to cheer the prospect of a $2.5 trillion increase in the federal debt limit, a possible fight with the Senate, or a default.
Earlier in the day at the White House, the president said that “any solution to avoid default must be bipartisan. I urge Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to find common ground on a plan that can get support from both parties in the House, a plan that I can sign by Tuesday.”
Obama urged Republicans in the House and Senate to abandon a bill that “does not solve the problem” and has no chance of passage in the Senate. “There are a lot of crises in the world that we can’t always predict or avoid,” he said. “This isn’t one of those crises.”
In an effort to send a message, House Republicans plan to allow a symbolic vote Saturday on Reid’s plan to show that it cannot clear the House.
In the Senate, Democrats filed a motion that started debate, running down the procedural clock while Republicans expressed their opposition. The first vote on overcoming the procedural hurdles would come early on Sunday. Unless the Democrats can win over enough Republicans to cut off debate and move to approve the Reid bill, or some variant, the Republicans would be forced to hold the floor continuously, awaiting some kind of deal.
Many members of the Senate are hoping Reid and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, can strike an agreement that can attract members of both parties to approve a measure that could be sent back to the House. And some Republicans began to encourage a compromise, with a spokeswoman for Senator Scott Brown, a Republican from Massachusetts, saying he could back “a Republican bill, or a Democrat bill, it doesn’t matter” as long as it cuts spending, does not raise taxes, and avoids default.
But Reid contended that he was not finding a receptive audience for compromise in McConnell. “They are not negotiating,” he said. Republican aides said they expected talks to begin, but they wanted to make sure that the White House was part of the bargaining.
The main legislative focus was on the search for an acceptable “trigger” that would guarantee that no second installment of a debt limit increase would be provided without consideration of further spending cuts or program policy changes. Democrats say they are willing to allow a new special committee to consider sweeping deficit reduction and tax policy changes but want the debt limit increase assured; Republicans do not want President Obama to get a second increase without meeting some standard, which would be passage of a balanced budget amendment through Congress under the new House plan.
A new Congressional committee would also have to produce $1.6 trillion or more in savings and win approval of that plan. In many other respects, the plans offered by House Republicans and Senate Democrats are quite similar, and the savings— aside from how those related to winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are calculated— are also similar, leading many on Capitol Hill to believe a deal could be reached if lawmakers would draw back from their hardening positions.
Republican Congressional aides said they were hopeful that, over the weekend, the leadership could come to terms on an approach that would ease the strings on the future debt limit increase but still provide penalties if the new Congressional committee did not make recommendations or they did not become law.
Obama is planning to fly to Chicago on Wednesday afternoon for two Democratic Party fund-raisers that evening celebrating his fiftieth birthday, which is Thursday. Yet he plans to return to Washington after midnight rather than stay overnight at his Chicago home, as he typically likes to do when he travels there.
A White House spokesman, Jay Carney, ruled out more definitively than he had before the possibility that Obama would cite the Fourteenth Amendment to disregard the debt-limit law and order government borrowing to proceed if no deal was reached. House Democratic leaders, former President Bill Clinton, and some constitutional lawyers have said that Obama should, if necessary, invoke the amendment, which holds that the validity of the public debt... shall not be questioned.
“This administration does not believe that the Fourteenth Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling. Congress has the authorities necessary to ensure that we meet our obligations,” Carney said.
Rico says the aply-named 'Dick' Durbin should be the poster child for this Congress... (But surely Shakespeare was talking about Congress when he wrote a plague on both your houses.)

History for the day

On 30 July 1945, the USS Indianapolis, which had just delivered key components of the Hiroshima atomic bomb to the Pacific island of Tinian, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Only 316 out of 1,196 men survived the sinking in shark-infested waters.

29 July 2011

Damn near a tie

Rico says this is not how government should be run; you'd think we were some banana republic somewhere:
The House of Representatives finally approved a plan for a short-term increase in the debt ceiling and cuts in spending, ending a week of intense fighting among Republicans and shifting the end game of the debate to the Senate The vote was 218-210, leaving House Speaker John A. Boehner with 22 Republicans who were unwilling to support his efforts to get a bill approved.
Rico says that's what he's gonna start calling them now: Banana Republicans. (Fuck the Tea Party, too.)

Even more ancient history for the day

Rico says it's a much-younger (and bearded) him (at left), Steve Lee (then his roommate, now head of the architecture department), and Shannon Matheny, at CMU, circa 1974.

Ancient history for the day

Rico says it's him (barely visible in the back, at the center) and a bunch of his friends at the Claris holiday party, many years ago now. Good times...

History for the day

On 29 July 1981, Britain's Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

A classic in self-reference

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Another anonymous post".

28 July 2011

Note to the idiots at The New York Times

Rico says he fails to understand how the editors of an august periodical like The New York Times allows this sort of bogus writing (from the below movie review) to continue:
Now, it's quaint and old-fashioned of Rico, he knows, to insist on petty and mundane things like correct grammar, but if you can't expect it from the Times, who can you expect it from? (Well, okay, from Rico, but we knew that...)

Movie review for the day

Manohla Dargis has a review in The New York Times of Friends With Benefits (which Rico has not seen yet):
Friends With Benefits, a breezy, speedy and (no kidding) funny comedy with a nicely-matched Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis that is about love and sex in the age of social networking, gets some of its juice and tang partly by trash-talking its own genre. The setup is familiar, as are the essential elements: a single man and a single woman, two battered hearts, yet a pair of resilient, eager, pretty bodies. But Kunis’ character is dark and savvy, not blond and dippy, and when she comically rails against an unseen Katherine Heigl you may sigh with relief (fingers crossed) that you’re watching the Scream of romantic comedies.
Much as the first Scream movie gave horror cinema a jolt with self-consciously knowing characters who knew the bloody ins and outs of the genre— and were sadistically subjected to those clichés firsthand— Friends With Benefits starts from the premise that its characters, and you, are sick of the romantic comedy clichés they may secretly, or not so secretly, adore. In other words, the director, Will Gluck, who wrote the script with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, doesn’t just want to have his romantic comedy cake and eat it too, he also wants to throw it in your face and make you laugh as you lick the icing off your lips. The results are about as naughty as that sounds (not very), but it also makes for a fairly giggling good time.
A corporate headhunter but, you know, cool, Jamie (Kunis) meets Dylan, a website art director (Timberlake) , when she lures him to New York to interview for a spot at a men’s magazine. They meet cute— she’s scrambling atop an airport baggage carousel and he’s wide-eyed and willing—and they’re soon off and running, or really walking and talking, mostly talking. She needs him to take the job to earn her bonus and so sweetens the deal by showing him around what she calls the real New York. That this tour includes a flash mob shouldn’t be held against Jamie, not least because Kunis is fast proving that she’s a gift that keeps giving to mainstream romantic comedy.
One reason is that she doesn’t play the stock girl, teary and needy or plucky and needy, but rather a woman who can go joking round for round against men. Kunis looks itty-bitty enough to hang on a charm bracelet, but her energy is so invigorating and expansive and her presence so vibrant that she fills the screen. If she continues to score roles like this, she might even be able to break out of the genre. Of course she’ll probably be forced to compete with the equally appealing and tiny— if paler and pinker— Emma Stone, who, with several other name actors, makes the most of a tiny role. Gluck directed Stone in Easy A, a lightly (very lightly) self-aware flick about a high-schooler play-acting as Hester Prynne.
The genre self-consciousness in Friends With Benefits extends from the throwaway Pretty Woman nods to a goofy (and entertainingly bogus) romantic movie within a movie that Jamie and Dylan watch after their initial business relationship turns into something a bit more touchy-feely and squealy. Having both been dumped, they decide that an occasional quickie with a friend is a perfect post-romance pick-me-up. Much like the recent similarly themed, if less satisfying and cruder, No Strings Attached, Friends With Benefits uses sex and bared skin to get at questions about the possibility of romantic love between true male and female equals. After all, without Mommy and Daddy, religion, community, or a ticking clock forcing the issue, what’s the point of settling down (or just settling)?
Gluck largely distinguishes himself in this movie by the casting (Woody Harrelson plays a randy gay colleague of Dylan’s, and Patricia Clarkson shows up as Jamie’s mom) and by directing the actors to talk at warp speed. Jamie and Dylan do more than trade teasing laughs, they slam their lines like Chinese ping-pong champs, hurling the quips so fast at times that it’s a wonder they don’t gaspingly reach for the oxygen. That speed makes the duds easier to miss and the dreary heavy stuff easier to ignore, and may of course also remind you of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, a comparison that Gluck hopefully flags with a conspicuous poster for It Happened One NightClark Gable and Claudette Colbert kept their distance with a blanket in that 1934 gem, whereas only their Calvins usually get between Jamie and Dylan, and rarely for long. That said, despite the sex and chatter, which includes some amusing bossy instruction, it’s the sentiment that keeps you hooked.
Too bad the whole thing is so very hard on the eyes: Friends With Benefits is certainly likable, but it may be the ugliest digitally-shot movie ever released by a major studio. The problem isn’t the serviceable shooting, the camera setups and the like, but the poor digital quality that makes New York look like a blurred Xerox copy and puts so much yellow in the actors’ faces, especially Kunis', you may think it’s their livers that are giving them trouble instead of their hearts.
Rico says the best part of the review is the slug at the end: "There’s enough simulated sex and nearly full nudity that, if you see this with your parents, you will be embarrassed."

More obscure comment

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So much for the housing crash

David Streitfeld has an article in The New York Times about the housing market in Miami:
South Florida is the default capital of the country. In Miami-Dade County, one out of five households with mortgages is in foreclosure. Nearby Broward and Palm Beach counties are not far behind. Nearly two hundred thousand South Florida families are stuck in the mire of default.
And yet much of Miami is gripped by a housing mania, as the oversupply of distressed homes dries up and foreigners and investors swoon. Only a few years after it seemed there were so many unwanted high-rise condominiums that the only solution was to tear some of them down, there are plans to build even more. Home sales in the metropolitan area during the first half of the year rose sixteen percent from 2010 for the best spring since 2007, according to the research firm DataQuick, far outpacing the negligible growth in the rest of the country. Two-thirds of the sales were all cash.
Prices, after a brutal drop, are firming up or even increasing. During the first six months of the year, there were 439 sales for at least two million dollars, up thirteen percent from last year. “People thought it would take at least a decade to get back to this point,” said Peter Zalewski, founder of Condo Vultures, a real estate consultant.
Gil Dezer, who co-developed the beachfront Trump Towers, saw ninety percent of the buyers in the project’s uncompleted second and third buildings abandon their deposits in the crash. Last week, Dezer achieved a milestone: he sold enough condos to pay off the $265 million mortgage on the property. Only about twelve percent of the apartments remain. “The Brazilians walk in, they don’t even negotiate,” said Dezer, who said he would announce two new projects by the end of the year. “It’s a no-brainer for them.”
For more than four years, the fate of the housing market here and across the country has been closely tied to the tremendous wave of foreclosures. In some communities, more than half of all home sales were bank repossessions. These cheap, often half-destroyed properties undermined neighborhoods and accelerated the market’s descent, prompting even more owners to walk away. But now, as new foreclosures slow and lenders are forced to let old cases languish for legal reasons, some of the regions that were worst off when foreclosures were at flood tide are much improved with the process stalled.
“People should thank the foreclosure mills,” said Zalewski, referring to the law firms that brought about freezes in foreclosures when they were caught using illegal methods. “They gave the whole market a reprieve.”
As a result, the balance between supply and demand in South Florida is shifting. In late 2008, as the financial crisis was peaking, there were just over one hundred thousand properties for sale and hardly any buyers. The region became a symbol of excess. Buyers abandoned their deposits and reneged on deals, buildings went bankrupt and squatters moved in. Now there are fewer than 48,000 properties for sale, Condo Vultures said. And, with supply diminished, homes have value again.
Whether Miami and other stricken markets like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and parts of California will continue to make progress depends on the fate of the two million American households in foreclosure and another two million in severe default. The nation’s attorneys general and the Obama administration are negotiating with the top mortgage servicers for new procedures for those in trouble. If the lenders get immunity from prosecution, foreclosures might speed up and the housing market could suffer another relapse.
In the meantime, the South Florida market is busy, although it offers a problematic blueprint for a national recovery. For the traditional buyer who wants to put down no more than twenty percent, loans are somewhere between tough and impossible. Many of the sales are to investors, rich people, or foreign citizens benefiting from a weak dollar.
“Two years ago, everyone was gripped with fear,” said a mortgage broker, Grant Stern. “Now investors are gripped by greed.” Stern is suffering the consequences of better times. The landlord on his high-rise rental finally managed to make a deal with the bank to sell it for less than he owed. Last week, Stern had to move. His old place, a three bedroom, was $1,300 a month. Across the street, he is paying $2,179 for a two bedroom. “I’m downsizing my space by thirty percent, yet spending fifty percent more,” he said.
Projects that were left for dead during the bust have sprung back to life. The Everglades, a two-tower, fifty-story project that went bankrupt in 2009 with fewer than ten percent of its units sold, has been reintroduced under the name Vizcayne.
Paramount Bay, a 47-story condo building that was supposed to open in 2009, but ended up foreclosed, is finally on track to start selling in September.
A developer and marketing team that suffered sharp reversals in the crash, the Related & International Sales Group, issued a promotional report a few weeks ago asserting that “the next chapter begins.” The tens of thousands of new condos built during the boom and abandoned during the crash will all be occupied by the end of next year, they said.
“Do I want to say ‘boom’? ” Philip Spiegelman, a Related ISG executive, wondered in an interview. “That’s a little overly aggressive, but we clearly are being rewarded for offering very inexpensive real estate.” Inexpensive is a relative term. Miami prices are about half what they were at the peak, but units in the project, called Apogee Beach, start in the high six figures. All fifty condos were reserved in sixty days. If construction begins as planned in November, it will be the first postcrash building in the area.
Some experts think Miami’s reprieve will be short-lived. “The banks will only keep the Grim Reaper at bay for so long,” said Jack McCabe, a real estate consultant. “There is going to come a day of reckoning when they will have to move this inventory.” Indeed, Dade County foreclosure filings in June ticked up thirty percent from May, for the highest monthly total since October. Even so, the rate is about a third of what banks were filing early last year.
For some investors, the unknown future is all the more reason to do deals right now. Andres Zapata was a young, inexperienced real estate investor at the end of the last boom, trying to flip houses. “I went down like a lot of other people did,” he said. He went to Iraq with the National Guard and is now back in real estate with several like-minded buddies. After about four months of looking for good deals, they just bought two houses in a Miami suburb. “We’ll either flip them or rent them out,” said Zapata. “So far, so good.”

That grinding noise...

...would be Christians gnashing their teeth over things like the scene described by Thomas Kaplan in an article in The New York Times:
Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples across New York State began marrying on Sunday, with the first taking their vows just after midnight, in the culmination of a long battle in the legislature and a new milestone for gay rights advocates seeking to legalize same-sex marriage across the nation.
Against a cascade of rainbow-colored falls, and with cicadas humming in the background, Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd (photo below) married at the first possible moment in Niagara Falls. After a bell tolled twelve times to ring in the new day, Lambert, 54, and Rudd, 53, held hands and kissed in front of more than a hundred friends and family members.
In New York City, 823 couples signed up in advance to get marriage licenses on Sunday, and many of them were expected to marry in city clerk’s offices across the five boroughs. Officials from more than a dozen cities and towns from Buffalo to Brookhaven said they would open their offices to issue marriage licenses on Sunday, and more than one hundred judges across the state have volunteered to officiate at the couples’ weddings on the spot.
“This is long overdue,” said Mayor Matthew T. Ryan of Binghamton, who planned to preside at the wedding of at least two local couples, and who invited same-sex couples from Pennsylvania to come to his city to be married. “It really is a great day for all of us who believe in inclusiveness and equal rights for everybody.”
The weddings— businesslike ceremonies in fluorescent-lighted city offices for some, lavish catered affairs for others— represent the end of a political campaign that lasted for years. On 24 June, the State Senate voted 33 to 29 to approve same-sex marriage, and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed it into law that night. But the law did not take effect for thirty days, which is why Sunday was the first day that clerk’s offices were permitted to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
“As the hours tick by, we’re getting more and more excited,” Brian Banks, a 33-year-old middle-school special-education teacher from Albany, said after going to City Hall there to fill out paperwork. Banks planned to marry his partner of seven years, Jon Zehnder, 37, a high school math teacher, at the midnight ceremony in Albany on Sunday. “Even though we’ve always viewed ourselves as married, to have there be no asterisk next to it, it’ll just feel really good,” he said.
Not everyone will be celebrating. Town clerks in at least two rural communities have resigned in recent days, saying their religious convictions precluded them from marrying gay couples, and some cities will see public demonstrations on Sunday. The National Organization for Marriage is planning protests on Sunday afternoon at the state capitol, outside Cuomo’s office in Manhattan and in the two largest cities upstate, Buffalo and Rochester.
But a sampling of pastors in the New York City area found that most did not intend to discuss same-sex marriage in their sermons on Sunday. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, for example, the homilist planned to speak on other subjects. “There may not be much more to say at this point,” Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said.
New York is the sixth, and largest, state to legalize same-sex marriage. Several other states are considering following suit, and some gay rights advocates plan to gather in Hoboken to call on New Jersey lawmakers to follow New York’s lead and allow gay couples to wed. But most states have either laws or constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage, and Federal law bars the United States government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
“It’s a huge step forward, and yet it doesn’t erase the fact that there’s so many roadblocks facing advocates of marriage equality,” said George Chauncey, a historian at Yale and the author of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. “Most of the time, an awful lot of the nation doesn’t want to be like New York at all,” Chauncey said. “I suspect that many people will take this as one more sign of what happens in the Northeast, and in New York in particular, that they don’t want to have happen in their own communities.”
Larry Kramer, the playwright and longtime gay rights advocate, said that as long as the federal government continued not to recognize same-sex marriages, the celebration in New York on Sunday would be misguided. “These marriages, in whichever state, are what I call feel-good marriages,” Kramer said. “Compared to the benefits heterosexual marriages convey, gay marriages are an embarrassment; that we should accept so little, and with so much hoopla of excitement and self-congratulation.”
But many people, both opposed to and in support of same-sex marriage, saw legalization in New York as a significant development, in part because of the size and visibility of the state, and in part because of its symbolism: the modern gay rights movement traces its symbolic emergence to the Stonewall uprising in New York City in 1969.
“New York really reflects and signifies that the center of gravity on this question has shifted,” said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which advocates for same-sex marriage. “It gives us tremendous momentum for continuing the journey the country has been on toward fairness.”
Whatever the historical implications, and however the push to legalize same-sex marriage fares in the other states where advocates plan to shift their focus, there will be no shortage of celebration, and protest, on Sunday and in the days to follow.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said he would officiate at the wedding of two senior City Hall officials at a ceremony at Gracie Mansion, while Cuomo was to host a party for gay rights advocates and lawmakers at a hotel near the meatpacking district.
In Brooklyn, the borough president, Marty Markowitz, planned to open Borough Hall for a marathon series of weddings, complete with free cake and champagne.
Outside the city clerk’s office in Manhattan, rabbis from a synagogue in the West Village were scheduled to solemnize weddings under a rainbow-colored huppah, or Jewish wedding canopy. And two gay puppets, Rod and Ricky, from the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, planned to show up outside the clerk’s office to stage a mock wedding as well.
There are also a variety of same-sex wedding celebrations, some with commercial or promotional overtones, on the agenda over the next days and months. On Monday night, three gay couples will wed onstage at the St. James Theater after the evening’s performance of the Broadway musical Hair. On Saturday, two dozen couples will marry in two pop-up chapels that are to be installed in Central Park. And the Fire Island Pines resort is promoting three same-sex wedding packages, one featuring a private ferry ride “complete with your own crew of drag queens.”
Rico says he wonders if they flipped for who got to wear the dress, or was it obvious? (And, since it's unlikely he'll be using it in this lifetime, they can have his next marriage..)


The New York Times has an AP article about an idiot in Texas:
Relatives were celebrating a child's birthday Saturday night at a skating rink when a gunman opened fire in an apparent domestic dispute, fatally shooting five people and wounding four others before killing himself, police said.
The man began arguing with a woman in Forum Roller World's front area where the party was being held, although the rink was not open to the public because the family had rented it for several hours for the private party, police spokesman John Brimmer said. He said investigators were still trying to determine how many people were inside the building in Grand Prairie, about twenty miles west of Dallas, when the shootings happened about 7 p.m.
Authorities did not immediately release the victims' names or ages, or say how the gunman may have been related to those who died. Brimmer said no young children or rink employees were killed.
The injured were taken to hospitals, and their conditions weren't immediately disclosed. Grief counselors were available for witnesses, victims and family members, police chief Steve Dye said.
Derrian Harris, sixteen, of Grand Prairie, said he rushed to the rink after hearing about the shootings. He said he usually goes there every Friday night and was worried about whether any of his friends were hurt, but later believed that he didn't know any of the victims. He said he has never seen so much as a fight at the rink. "All kinds of people come here to skate, and everybody gets along," Harris said.
Some people who were at nearby businesses when the shootings happened described seeing adults and children in a state of panic rushing out of the rink, some wearing roller skates. "They just looked terrified," Cody Poston, a witness, told WFAA-TV. "There's several people crying. The kids were just kind of oblivious."
Great Southwest Parkway, a major street in an industrial area in front of the rink, was partially blocked off after the shooting. About a dozen police vehicles with lights flashing and a few fire trucks were parked nearby, with a mobile command station in front of the building. As of midnight, investigators continued walking in and out of the building and bodies were still inside.
Byron Raspberry of Grand Prairie said his children go to the rink frequently because it is near their home. "It doesn't make any sense," Raspberry said. "I don't feel safe at all."
Rico asks if he's being redundant with 'an idiot in Texas'. But, after the guy in Oslo, only five dead hardly makes a ripple any more...

History for the day

Rico says that, since he woke up (thanks to his cats) at the eponymous hour of 4.42, an homage to the famed 442 Regimental Combat Team:
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was an infantry regiment in the United States Army comprised of Americans of Japanese ancestry. The unit fought in Italy and France during World War Two against the German army. The 442nd earned a reputation as a crack infantry unit, and the regiment and its men received numerous battle honors and individual medals for valor.

27 July 2011

One is the luckiest number

Randall Stross has an article in The New York Times about the difference between Apple and Google:
At Apple, one is the magic number. One person is the decider for final design choices. Not focus groups. Not data crunchers. Not committee consensus-builders. The decisions reflect the sensibility of just one person: Steven P. Jobs, the CEO.
By contrast, Google has followed the conventional approach, with lots of people playing a role. That group prefers to rely on experimental data, not designers, to guide its decisions.
The contest is not even close. The company that has a single arbiter of taste has been producing superior products, showing that you don’t need multiple teams and dozens or hundreds or thousands of voices. Two years ago, the technology blogger John Gruber presented a talk, The Auteur Theory of Design, at Macworld Expo. There, Gruber suggested how filmmaking could be a helpful model in guiding creative collaboration in other realms, like software.
The auteur, a film director who both has a distinctive vision for a work and exercises creative control, works with many other creative people. “What the director is doing, nonstop, from the beginning of signing on until the movie is done, is making decisions,” Gruber said. “And just simply making decisions, one after another, can be a form of art. The quality of any collaborative creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever is in charge,” Gruber pointed out.
Two years after he outlined his theory, it is still a touchstone in design circles for discussing Apple and its rivals.
Garry Tan, designer in residence and a venture partner at Y Combinator, an investor in start-ups, says: “Steve Jobs is not always right; MobileMe would be an example. But we do know that all major design decisions have to pass his muster. That is what an auteur does.”
Jobs has acquired a reputation as a great designer, Tan says, not because he personally makes the designs but because “he’s got the eye”. He has also hired classically trained designers like Jonathan Ive. “Design excellence also attracts design talent,” Tan explains.
Google has what it calls a “creative lab”, a group that had originally worked on advertising to promote its brand. More recently, the lab has been asked to supply a design vision to the engineering and user-experience groups that work on all of Google’s products. Chris L. Wiggins, the lab’s creative director, whose own background is in advertising, describes design as a collaborative process among groups “with really fruitful back-and-forth. There’s only one Steve Jobs, and he’s a genius,” says Wiggins. “But it’s important to distinguish that we’re discussing the design of web applications, not hardware or desktop software. And for that we take a different approach to design than Apple,” he says. Google, he says, utilizes the web to pull feedback from users and make constant improvements.
Wiggins’s argument that Apple’s apples should not be compared to Google’s oranges does not explain, however, why Apple’s smartphone software gets much higher marks than Google’s.
Google's ability to attract and retain design talent has not been helped by the departure of designers who felt their expertise was not fully appreciated. “Google is an engineering company and, as a researcher or designer, it’s very difficult to have your voice heard at a strategic level,” writes Paul Adams on his blog, Think Outside In. Adams was a senior user-experience researcher at Google until last year; he is now at Facebook.
Douglas Bowman is another example. He was hired as Google’s first visual designer in 2006, when the company was already seven years old. “Seven years is a long time to run a company without a classically trained designer,” he wrote in his blog Stopdesign in 2009. He complained that there was no one at or near the helm of Google who “thoroughly understands the principles and elements of design”. “I had a recent debate over whether a border should be three, four, or five pixels wide,” Bowman wrote, adding, “I can’t operate in an environment like that.” His post was titled: “Goodbye, Google.”
Bowman’s departure spurred other designers with experience at either Google or Apple to comment on differences between the two companies. Gruber, at his Daring Fireball blog, concisely summarized one account under the headline: Apple Is a Design Company With Engineers; Google Is an Engineering Company With Designers.
In May of 2011, Google, ever the engineering company, showed an unwillingness to notice design expertise when it tried to recruit Pablo Villalba Villar, the chief executive of Teambox, an online project management company. Villalba later wrote that he had no intention of leaving Teambox and cooperated merely to experience Google’s hiring process for himself. He tried to call attention to his main expertise in user interaction and product design, but he said that what the recruiter wanted to know was his mastery of fourteen programming languages. Villalba was dismayed that Google did not appear to have changed since Bowman left. “Design can’t be done by committee,” he said.
Recently, as Larry Page, the company co-founder, began his tenure as CEO, Google rolled out Google+ and a new look for the Google home page, Gmail, and its calendar. More redesigns have been promised. But they will be produced, as before, within a very crowded and noisy editing booth. Google does not have a true auteur who unilaterally decides on the final cut.
Rico says you don't fuck with a good thing and (having worked there), at Apple you do not fuck with Steve Jobs...

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