31 July 2013

Television review for the day

Rico says that he wouldn't ordinarily have watched "Jobs", having worked for the real guy, but casting Ashton Kutcher (who's been doing a great job replacing Charlie Sheen) was a brilliant move...

Quote for the day

"I'd like the chance to shoot an educated man, once"
Captain Augustus 'Gus' McCrae (splendidly played by Robert Duvall) in "Lonesome Dove"

Holding hands with Hitler

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by Alexander C. Kafka about Hollywood:
A debate is raging over Hollywood's alleged collusion with the Nazis. At stake: the moral culpability of Jewish studio heads during cinema's Golden Age.
The catalyst is a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler, by the 35-year-old historian Ben Urwand. The book is still several months from publication, but emotions are running high after an early review in the online magazine Tablet, followed by an exchange of rhetorical fire in The New York Times between Urwand and Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University who, this spring, published his own account of the era, Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press). The clash comes during a period of heightened scholarly attention to Nazi infiltration and counterinfiltration in Depression-era Los Angeles, complicating the story of Hollywood's stance toward fascism.
Urwand's Hollywood-Hitler focus began in 2004, when, while pursuing his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, he saw an interview with Budd Schulberg, in which the screenwriter mentioned that in the 1930s, the head of MGM would show movies to a German consular official in Los Angeles and they'd agree on cuts. Urwand knew that anti-Nazi pictures didn't start appearing until 1939, and he suspected that indifference or passivity couldn't fully explain that. He smelled a dissertation topic. "It was the spark," he says, and he spent the next nine years traveling to dozens of archives, piecing the story together.
For his forthcoming book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, the historian Ben Urwand dug through two dozen archives over nine years. For Thomas Doherty, the Hollywood studios’ dealings with the Nazis came down to hardheaded business decisions at a time of more complexity than moralistic hindsight allows.
At Sandrine's Bistro, off Harvard Square in Boston, Massachusetts, Urwand, a slender junior fellow in Harvard University's Society of Fellows, sits down to lunch in short sleeves on a hot, humid day. The Sydney, Australia, native's accent sounds as though it has been gently sanded by a decade and a half in the States. He is affably intense, no less so after a two-espresso appetizer to his gazpacho and lobster salad. The lunch is a break from sorting out his book's index while navigating a steady stream of press calls and emails in English and German, although The Collaboration is not due out until Octobe2013r. (In response to the controversy, the press bumped up the release from mid- to early October.)
Urwand's forthright, deadpan expression bursts intermittently into an engaging smile. Should you wish to see that smile vanish, mention Doherty. You'll get a somber look, a mild shake of the head. Urwand won't discuss Hollywood and Hitler specifically, only the more general "mythology", as he puts it, of the studios' staunch anti-fascism.
Yes, after the Anschluss, in March of 1938, the Munich Agreement in September, and Kristallnacht in November, Hollywood's stance toward the Nazis changed, though even then, the films strangely ellipted explicitly Jewish characters. But why did it take so long for the studios to cross cinematic swords with the Führer (photo, right)?
For Urwand, the answer is in the archival evidence: blatant complicity with the Nazis. For Doherty, whose book covers some of the same topical ground as Urwand but largely from the standpoint of the era's trade press— Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Motion Picture Herald, Box Office— it came down to hard-headed business decisions during a time of more ethical, political, and economic complexity than moralistic hindsight allows.
Goldberg McDuffie, a New York City publicity firm hired by Harvard University Press, is not as tight-lipped as Urwand when it comes to discussing Doherty. Promotional materials for Urwand's book deride Doherty's as relying on "flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers." Doherty fired back in the Times: Urwand's use of the word "collaboration" he said, was "a slander. You use that word to describe the Vichy government," he said. "Louis B. Mayer was a greedhead, but he is not the moral equivalent of Vidkun Quisling," a reference to the Norwegian traitor who ran a Nazi-backed regime.
Urwand says he welcomes mitigating evidence. But he's dug through some two dozen archives on two continents (taking classes to bring his high-school German up to "a good reading level" for the task). He's viewed more than four hundred films made from 1933 to 1940. (Seeing four or five films a day, many of them quite bad, got "a bit weird", he says.) Ultimately, collaboration is what he found— and collaboration, Zusammenarbeit, is what the studios and the Nazis called it.
It's long been known that the major studios— Columbia, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, United Artists, Universal, Warner Bros.— all tailored and blanched their 1930s product in response to the Motion Picture Production Code; to an American suspicion of Jews generally, and particularly of the Jews who ran Hollywood; and to motion-picture business interests abroad.
But here's the arguable game-changer: Urwand unearthed evidence that suggests the studios were not merely self-censoring in an effort to keep their shareholders, audiences, and industry and government monitors happy. Rather, he says, the studios began working in detailed coordination with Nazi officials, putting profits above principles.
Largely through the Third Reich's vice consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, the Nazi-Hollywood relationship gave Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, effectual power over what films got made, what scenes got cut, which stars and filmmakers were blacklisted, and which Jewish studio employees in Germany were fired. The Germans demanded say not just over American films shown in Germany, but over those shown anywhere. Nazi emissaries visited theaters worldwide to report back on whether promised scene cuts had in fact been carried out. If not, the officials scolded the studios and threatened to close German production and distribution markets to them. The studios, year after year, would promptly grovel and comply.
Germany wouldn't allow the studios to take their profits out of the country. Paramount and 20th Century Fox circumvented that restriction by shooting newsreel footage in Germany that they could sell worldwide. However, the Nazis determined what footage those newsreel crews could film, and how that footage was used for studio-produced Nazi propaganda shorts.
MGM didn't have a newsreel operation, and was losing most of its profits to German banks because of draconian Nazi finance laws. To diminish that loss, as Urwand discovered in one of his most damning archival finds, MGM instead lent money to firms that manufactured Nazi armaments in Austria and the Sudetenland, received bonds in exchange for those loans, then sold the bonds to an American bank. "In other words, the largest American motion-picture company helped to finance the German war machine," Urwand writes.
There is a Bizarroland aspect to how seriously the Germans took film. Both Hitler and Goebbels had a mixture of passionately insightful and insane theories about film's effects on the masses. Hitler would watch movies nightly in his private theater with invited guests, and his adjutants would take notes on his reactions. From those notes, Urwand learned that the Führer enjoyed King Kong, although the film's kitsch as well as the primate-pawing of an Aryan-type beauty were controversial among other senior officials. Hitler didn't cotton to Tarzan, but enjoyed Laurel & Hardy (as did Mussolini, notes Doherty in his book).
Urwand found that Nazi officials considered some American films ideologically useful— among them, Gabriel Over the White House (1933), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Our Daily Bread (1934), and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)—and that the studios expressly marketed certain titles in that vein. For instance, Gabriel Over the White House, an American fascist fantasia about a fed-up, divinely inspired president dissolving a chaotic Congress and whipping the United States into totalitarian shape, was touted by Frits Strengholt, an MGM executive in Germany, as resonating with Nazi work-mobilization, anticrime, and other efforts. True, the 1934 picture was outperformed in Germany by Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, and Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress, but when the Prussian justice minister, the president of the German Film Chamber, and several higher-ups in the Foreign Office attend a special screening, and when Nazi critics applaud a movie for its appreciation of the "leader principle", clearly there are factors involved beyond box-office sizzle.
Meanwhile, Gyssling, the Production Code, and some Jewish groups wary of fueling anti-Semitism in America by seeming to special-plead their case through the studios, undermined antifascist films in the works. Among those were The Mad Dog of Europe, a 1933 script by Herman Mankiewicz about German persecution of the Jews; a Sidney Howard screenplay of Sinclair Lewis' fascist-peril novel It Can't Happen Here; and darker, gutsier, more specifically anti-Nazi early drafts of what became Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent.
The few obliquely anti-Nazi pictures that were produced in the 1930s were troubling in other ways. Either they stereotyped Jewish characters to the point that the films did more harm than good— Urwand cites The House of Rothschild (1934), repurposed by the Nazis in a notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film called The Eternal Jew (1940)— or they were so bowdlerized and thematically opaque that most of the audience didn't even know they were about Nazis and Jews at all.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937) treated the subject of anti-Semitism yet, thanks to Jack Warner's intervention, the word Jew is never uttered, and is seen in writing only once, briefly. Even as late as 1940, when MGM's The Mortal Storm finally brought to the screen a direct representation of Nazis persecuting a minority group, the film never identifies that group as Jews. An audience survey of three hundred viewers found that sixty percent liked the acting, sixty percent understood that it was about changes brought about by Hitler, and nearly fifty percent appreciated the picture's "scenic beauty." Only seven percent came away realizing they'd just seen depicted barbarities against Jews.
Urwand sees in this more than MGM's reluctance to reference its Jewish origins. He interprets it as a strategic omission by MGM's head, Louis B. Mayer, who, in 1933, had abandoned the similar tale, The Mad Dog of Europe. The studio execs' "timidity, in other words, was not inherent; it derived from their years of collaboration with Nazi Germany", Urwand writes. "In this context, it was perfectly logical that, when they finally released a picture about the horrors of Nazism, The Mortal Storm, they would consciously erase all references to Jews."
During a postwar trip organized by the US Army in 1945, the studio heads traveled the Rhine on Hitler's former yacht; Urwand found photos of the trip. There's scant mention in the group's records of their visit to Dachau, where, one visitor recorded, "less than five thousand of the camp's 38,000 inmates remained... recovering from disease and starvation." Jack Warner "took a couple of snapshots", Urwand writes. Then "they drove back to Munich, and they had a festive dinner and celebration". In contrast, there's considerable correspondence from Warner following the trip, emphatically urging that the German film industry not be allowed to rebuild, and that the German market be reopened to Hollywood.
Urwand and Doherty have starkly different views of the era and its films. The yacht incident is a case in point. Urwand is careful to let his archival evidence speak for itself. But, in a rare moment of extratextual musing, he explains that he found himself looking in vain for any shred of remorse on the part of the Hollywood execs, some version of "Oh, what have we done?" Doherty, on the other hand, can imagine the well-documented hard-ass Jack Warner on board the late Führer's frolic boat thinking some 1940s version of, "Suck it, Adolf."
In a phone interview, Doherty is reluctant to hammer The Collaboration. He wryly refers to Fred MacMurray's line from Double Indemnity: "I never knock the other fellow's merchandise." He praises Urwand's archival finds, but says he's shocked that Urwand is shocked by what he found. (Insert your own impersonation of Casablanca's Captain Renault here.) "I'm always leery of history that allows the present to feel smugly superior to the past," Doherty says. "'I would have been so much more farsighted... scrupulous... I would have seen what was on the horizon.'" In 1933, Hollywood was dealing with seemingly rational Germans, with whom America was years from being at war, he says: "We filter the Thirties through the vision of what the Nazis were in the Second World War." Should the moguls really have been able to foresee the horrors to come? Particularly when they were also battling national, state, and municipal censorship boards, profound anti-Semitism from the likes of Father Coughlin and the German American Bund, and schisms within the American Jewish community regarding how vocal or assimilated a presence it should have?
Like scholars before him, whom Urwand feels have bought into and furthered the studios' antifascist "mythology", Doherty says he is "a little more sympathetic to the dilemma and plight of the moguls." Yes, the studios had to accept Nazi restrictions on their newsreel production, says Doherty, who devotes a chapter of his book to that matter. But the choices were not black and white. Would it have been better if the crews were pulled and even less 1930s newsreel footage from Germany were available?
Doherty's reading of a film like The House of Rothschild differs sharply from Urwand's, too. Where Urwand sees damaging Jewish stereotype, Doherty sees Jewish characters playing off stereotype to trick oppressive eighteenth-century versions of German storm troopers. (Asked about Doherty's interpretation, Urwand all but smacks his forehead in disbelief.) Sure, Nazi propagandists repurposed it for their own anti-Semitic ends, Doherty says. Frank Capra repurposed the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's footage for the Allies' Why We Fight series, too. "That doesn't mean anything about the ideology of the original."
While Urwand portrays unmade films like The Mad Dog of Europe as potentially powerful in shaping public opinion, Doherty details the lackluster revenue of most of the serious political films that were made. They didn't do well compared with musicals, westerns, and other escapist fare. "If you want to send a message," Samuel Goldwyn reportedly quipped, "use Western Union."
Even if the Jewish presence is vastly, consciously underplayed in a film like Zola, Doherty says audiences knew how to decode it the same way viewers of M*A*S*H knew that it was a commentary on the Vietnam War, not the Korean War. "Everyone, and any critic with a brain, commented on the allegory of tolerance and anti-Semitism," he says. Newspaper, radio, and newsreel coverage contextualized such films. And publicity campaigns accompanied them.
"It's important to look at these films as existing in this cultural ecosphere," says Steven Carr, a communications professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne and co-director of its Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He studies how Hollywood responded to Nazism and the Holocaust. He looks, for example, at "ready-to-plant publicity" items, some in both English and Yiddish, like an open letter about Zola from Louis Rittenberg, editor of The American Hebrew magazine. Rittenberg describes how moved he was by the courage of Émile Zola in bringing the Dreyfus injustices to light, averting "disaster upon the Jews of France and indirectly upon Jews everywhere". Rittenberg cites the film's timeliness "today, when prejudices are more rampant than ever," and the importance of the "understanding which humanity must have before people of divergent faith and opinion can live together in peace."
"I think, in 2013, there's a misconception that audiences knew nothing," Carr says, "and that films made sure that audiences knew nothing because the films didn't directly address Nazi anti-Semitism and the atrocities that occurred. My argument is that audiences very much could understand what these films were trying to address, even if the films were doing so indirectly." He also points to the wider business context. The studios all wanted to stay in Germany, and later, when it became clear that they could no longer do business with the Nazis, they wanted to position themselves to recapture the German market after the war. No one disputes that.
But, by the late 1930s, the studios' German profits were slim at best. And dealing with the Nazis was a huge headache. Yet they stayed, and Carr thinks the patriotic motives for doing so have been "vastly underestimated". The Hoover and FDR administrations encouraged Hollywood to pursue those markets. Both administrations "saw motion pictures as essential to selling the American way of life, sort of a form of propaganda for capitalist democracy", he says. "I think for the Hoover administration, there was more emphasis on consumerism and exporting American goods. Not that the Roosevelt administration shifted from this entirely, but the emphasis upon featuring American democratic ideals in films became more pronounced under Roosevelt. ...What made Hollywood film valuable in this context was not the profit generated, but its influential image of America and the counterweight this image promised to exert against totalitarian ideology."
Further complicating Urwand's portrait of the studio heads as Nazi collaborators is the fact that they helped finance efforts to spy on and sabotage American Nazi groups like the German American Bund and the Silver Shirts in Los Angeles. Steven J. Ross, a professor of history at the University of Southern California; Laura Rosenzweig, a recent Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz who just completed her dissertation on the topic; and Jon Wilkman, a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles, are among those who have combed special collections at California State University at Northridge for details. And the tale they're fleshing out reads like a cross between James Ellroy LA-noir and an Alan Furst international spy thriller.
In very broad strokes: in the 1930s, Leon Lewis, a war veteran, former Anti-Defamation League executive and Hollywood-connected lawyer, organized a highly effective spy ring funded by Jewish movie moguls. The moles infiltrated and hobbled a variety of Bund plans, including bombings, lynchings, and assassinations of Jewish business and civic leaders (including the studio heads) as well as their non-Jewish allies, like Charlie Chaplin and James Cagney. The American Nazis also wanted to recruit American soldiers to divulge key military secrets, and planned to blow up aviation, munitions, and port facilities along the Pacific Coast.
Information from Lewis' spy network was relayed, but without indications that it was a Jewish-studio-supported enterprise, to top US officials, who were too obsessed with anti-Communist measures to investigate the Nazi West Coast incursions with appropriate vigor.
Ross, Rosenzweig, and Wilkman say the Northridge archives show that German Nazis were instrumental in organizing, recruiting, and supplying these groups. Seeing Los Angeles as a more permeable target than Jew York, as the Nazis called it, the goal was nothing less than "to paralyze the defense on the Pacific Coast" to ready the Reich for "taking over the government of the United States", one of Lewis' spies said in testimony before federal officials.
In a detail described by Ross, who is writing a book on the matter for Bloomsbury Press, Lewis' top spy, Neil Ness, a World War One vet who'd studied engineering in Berlin, was introduced by his old friend Hans Luther, the then-German ambassador to the United States, to Georg Gyssling, the Nazi film arbiter in Los Angeles. Gyssling, in turn, connected Ness with the German American Bund leader, Hermann Schwinn. Ness became Schwinn's "main confidante", Ross says, and in that role was able to thwart some of the Bund's most savage plans. He may have paid for those victories when he died under suspicious circumstances several years later.
In addition to crying out for treatment as a cable-television series, such findings suggest that there may be shockers to come regarding the Hitler-Hollywood nexus. More immediately, they present a fundamental puzzle: how could the same studio heads sucking up to Hitler also subsidize spy efforts against him?
Urwand isn't surprised by that seeming paradox, which was explored by the screenwriter, playwright, and Jewish activist Ben Hecht, who, in his 1944 book, A Guide for the Bedevilled, wrote:
"In Hollywood our Jewish heroes, as do our Washington ones, give alms to three hundred and ninety Jewish organizations. ...But to throw their American won greatness into the battle against anti-Semitism— that, do not ask for. To stand up as the great of Hollywood and proclaim in their films against the German murder of their kind— that, too, do not dream about."
Urwand says that, for him, there was no wider cultural current that led him to this history, just the puzzle posed by the Budd Schulberg interview. Wilkman, the documentary filmmaker, thinks that there's a regional-studies aspect to the current interest in Nazi-Hollywood connections, a sense of Los Angeles' importance beyond the big-screen sheen. Carr thinks the current scrutiny is a logical continuation of research into the Nazi dealings of corporations, governments, banks, the Vatican, and so on.
But Ross sees the fascist threat of the 1930s as resonant with our time. During the 1920s, he writes in materials for his book in progress, American Nazis' "counterparts in Germany looked like fools, until they were not. In 1995 few Americans took the militia movement seriously until Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people. In September of 2001, and more recently in Boston, people who many Americans believed incapable of serious acts of terrorism and destruction proved capable of both. The rise of dangerous politicians such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum—I call them dangerous because they pit American against American—reminds us of what prescient Sinclair Lewis warned citizens in 1934: "It Can't Happen Here, but only if we remain vigilante in opposing fascism, Nazism, and all political hate groups."
Greil Marcus, a cultural critic and journalist who was on Urwand's dissertation committee at UCBerkeley, would like to see objections to Urwand's book aired in a symposium similar to one that was organized around The Passion of Michel Foucault, the controversial 1993 biography by Marcus' friend James Miller. The conference was difficult to take, in that there were "horrendous attacks on him from all areas," Marcus says. Yet it was "good to see to what degree personal animus, jealousy, a sense of turf protection failed to address what the book is about".
Extenuating circumstances. Spy sagas. Business instincts. Those are not what Urwand's book is about. His book is about Hollywood's failure to see through those blaring, worldly matters, about the studios' choice to sell out rather than sound the alarm. Hecht, who, in Urwand's telling, represents all the moral strength and common sense lacking among the studio execs, put it succinctly in a 1943 poem, The Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe:
Four million Jews waiting for death.
Oh hang and burn but— quiet, Jews!
Don't be bothersome; save your breath—
The world is busy with other news.
Rico says it's as if the other Kafka had written it... (But why is it that Rico can only hear Springtime for Hitler from The Producers in his head?)

Weiner refuses to say

The ubiquitous Josh Voorhees has a Slate article about Anthony Weiner:
Anthony Weiner sat down with the New York Daily News on recently, in his ongoing bid to turn the page from his latest sexting scandal and back to his campaign in general. That's something that would be nearly impossible with the best PR strategy. And, clearly, the disgraced-congressman-turned-disgrace-mayoral-candidate doesn't have one of those:
NYDN's Denis Hammill: There is no one you are sexting now?
Weiner: "You can quibble about beginnings, middles, and ends, but what we're talking about is over a year ago."
If someone wanted to give Weiner the benefit of the doubt, they could read that quote as simply another example of the New York Democrat's promise to neither confirm nor deny any specifics of new sexting allegations. (In another part of the interview, Weiner claims that any other sexts that surface would be "all old stuff.") But Carlos Danger long ago lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the timeline of his online escapades.
The full Daily News interview is here.
Rico says this guy should get elected, just to make all the other politicians look good by comparison...

Gubs for the day

Josh Voorhees has a Slate article about gubs in schools in Arkansas:
An Arkansas school district is taking a page straight from the NRA's playbook, arming more than twenty teachers and staff members this fall in response to what administrators say was an overwhelming number of complaints from parents worried in the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy. Here's The Associated Press with the details from Clarksville (population 9,200), located about a ninety-minute drive from Little Rock:
More than twenty teachers, administrators, and other school employees in this town will carry concealed weapons throughout the school day, making use of a little-known Arkansas law that allows licensed, armed security guards on campus. After undergoing over fifty hours of training, the teachers at the school will be considered guards. 
In strongly conservative Arkansas, where gun ownership is common and gun laws are permissive, no school district had ever used the law to arm teachers on the job, according to the state Department of Education. The closest was the Lake Hamilton School District in Garland County, which, for years, has kept several guns locked up in case of emergency. Only a handful of trained administrators— not teachers— have access to the weapons. State officials are not blocking Clarksville's plan, but Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell is opposed to the idea of arming teachers and staff. He prefers to hire law enforcement officers as school resource officers.
The employees who sign up for the program receive a one-time thousand-dollar stipend to purchase a gun and holster. The district is also paying another fifty thousand dollars to cover ammunition and private instruction from a local firearms training facility, although it is unclear if that figure includes the regular training refreshers the staff will be required to undergo. The fifty-hour up-front training program falls roughly in the middle of the forty to sixty hours recommended by an NRA-funded task force earlier this year.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the Clarksville School District had the full-time equivalent of just shy of 360 staff members (including 175 classroom teachers) in its five individual schools during the 2011-2012 school year, the most recent available data from the center. While the district isn't saying which staff members will be armed, a little back-of-the-envelope math suggests that there will be an average of more than four adults carrying a concealed weapon in each of the schools, the largest of which was Pyron Elementary School, which had a total of roughly 650 second-, third-, and fourth-graders at last count. (Or, if you prefer to breakdown concealed weapons by student, the math works out to about one armed adult for every 125 kids.)
While Clarksville is using the guard classification to work around state law, several other states have passed legislation clearing the way for teachers and staff to arm themselves. Those efforts, as The New York Times explained earlier this month, however, have run into a major hurdle in the form of insurance companies.
Rico says why is it he hears Last Train to Clarksville?

Going places you couldn't otherwise

Doug Aamoth has a Time article about video of off-limits places:
The influx of relatively inexpensive, remotely-controlled flying machines sporting high-definition video cameras has meant that long-forgotten locales can be explored more easily and less dangerously than in the past. In that spirit, here are videos of thirteen abandoned places being explored, thanks to the magic of flight. 
Hashima Island in Japan:

Gunkanjima (“Battleship Island”) is one of the world’s most well-known “ghost towns”. Originally developed as a seabed coal mining facility, more than five thousand people inhabited the island at the peak of its prosperity. The last inhabitants left in 1974, and today the island remains uninhabited. Using a radio-controlled helicopter equipped with a Sony Action Cam, we took some aerial footage of this breathtaking deserted island to serve as a record for generations to come.
Bodie, California
An abandoned hospital in Railway City in Russia:

Ruins in the Mist

An abandoned sanatorium

The abandoned Essex County psychiatric hospital

An abandoned warehouse in the Melbourne, Australia suburb of Yarraville

Abandoned factory

Another abandoned factory
An abandoned farm

An abandoned barn
An abandoned pool

Rico says some things can only be experienced in this way. (But surely someone will try and fly over some restricted area and get their little copter shot down by a real one...)

Tall ships making a comeback

Janet Fang has an article at SmartPlanet about the comeback of sail:
Sail last dominated freight hauling during the clipper ship era of the mid-1800s, with vessels averaging nineteen mph and carrying up to fifteen hundred tons, until coal-powered ships gained an edge.
Betting that regulations to curb air pollution emissions will increase fuel costs for conventional ocean freighters, Rolls-Royce wants to develop a modern-day clipper ship that’s 55 percent more efficient. Is it time to herald a new age of sail? Businessweek reports in an article by Robert Wall and Christopher Jasper:
Rolls-Royce Holdings is best known for producing engines that powered planes from the late Concorde to the current Airbus superjumbo. Now the British propulsion giant is working with partners to develop a modern-day clipper ship, as it bets that regulations curbing air pollution emissions will increase fuel costs for conventional ocean freighters and herald a New Age of Sail.
Cargo vessels are set for a design change embracing sleeker hulls and hybrid propulsion systems, according to London-based Rolls, which is helping to develop a ship featuring a 180-foot sail augmented by biomethane engines and carrying 4,500 tons of freight. “We’re at the dawn of a transition,” says Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation at Rolls’ marine unit, who predicts a switch to alternative fuels such as dimethyl ether and liquid natural gas, as well as “high-tech wind”.
Spurring the push are International Maritime Organization (IMO) sulfur caps that already require ship owners to switch to cleaner— and pricier— grades of fuel. Trimmer designs and innovative power systems could more than offset that extra cost, according to Diane Gilpin, project leader at Rolls' partner B9 Shipping at Larne in Northern Ireland. Results of wind tunnel and towing tank tests of the B9 design at Britain’s Southampton University were evaluated against data from the Met Office, Britain’s state weather forecaster, simulating a hundred thousand voyages over a twelve-year period. The analysis showed an estimated fuel consumption for the wind-assisted vessel of 46 percent to 55 percent less than an equivalent conventional ship on the same route.
The B9 vessel will measure 330 feet long and derive primary power from a sail hoisted with an automated rig. Rolls will provide a backup power plant that’s able to burn methane produced from municipal waste by another unit of B9 Energy Group. The sail and engine could also be used together for optimal efficiency. A B9 analysis estimates that about sixty percent of the ship’s thrust will come from conventional soft-sails, and forty percent from the biomethane engine during calm conditions or when it’s maneuvering in port.
Around ninety percent of the world’s cargo fleet is currently propelled by bunker fuel. While it’s relatively cheap, at about six hundred dollars per ton, it’s also one of the heaviest and dirtiest of crude oil distillates, with a 3.5 percent sulfur content contributing to about 84,000 deaths a year worldwide from marine emissions, according to a 2007 study led by James Corbett, a professor at the School of Marine Science and Policy at the University of Delaware.
Under the IMO rules, ships entering so-called Emission Control Areas covering the English Channel, the North and Baltic Seas, and most of the US coast, were required to reduce to one percent sulfur fuel in 2010, from an already stringent one-and-a-half percent limit. Ships in the same areas must move to one percent fuel by 1 January 2015, and all oceangoing vessels will have to adopt half-percent sulfur by about 2020. That will prompt a switch to “a much more diverse fuel pallete”, says Levander.
While the wind-methane hybrid design increases capital costs, B9 says the investment will pay off within three to five years of a ship’s three-decade life-span. “Operational budgets are trumping build costs at the moment,” says Gilpin, adding that B9 is trying to raise the $22 million needed to put a ship in the water within two years. To woo potential buyers, it’s offering to package boat orders with guaranteed-price contracts for biofuel sold by a sister B9 unit.
Sail last dominated freight hauling during the clipper ship era of the mid-1800s, when vessels averaging thirty kilometers an hour (nineteen mph) and a capacity of fifteen hundred tons transported high-value goods such as tea, spices, and opium on Asian routes. They also carried tens of thousands of people to the California and Australia gold rushes.
Historic British and US vessels such as the Cutty Sark (photo, above) and Rainbow easily outpaced their steam rivals, and hybrid wind-steam ships were also popular until the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal. The 120-mile waterway linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas allowed travel between Europe and Asia without sailing around Africa. But, because the canal basically cut through Egyptian desert, there were no reliable prevailing winds along the route, giving coal-powered vessels an edge.
Sail held on in the form of windjammers, which were slower than clippers, but carried loads of as much as 7,800 tons, in the case of Germany’s Preussen. The ships operated on low-value freight routes until as recently as World War Two, especially to ports lacking the coal and water required by steam models.
Efforts to introduce vessels powered by liquid gas are more advanced than the modern wind-based experiments. Norway’s Nor Lines, which serves dozens of local ports and a handful of others in the North Sea and Baltic regions, has ordered two ships for delivery next year with LNG engines also built by Rolls-Royce, Chief Executive Officer Toralf Ekrheim said in an email. The company, which already has switched much of its sixteen-vessel cargo fleet to low-sulfur marine oil, has options to take two more of the ships. The vessels will entirely eliminate soot and cut output of carbon dioxide by 35 percent and nitrogen oxide by 95 percent, according to their Chinese manufacturer, Tsuji Heavy Industries. The model is an offshoot of RollsEnvironship concept, which includes new bow designs and an integrated rudder and propeller that the company says could boost efficiency by eight percent.
Still, demand for greener craft has been hurt, due to slack growth in the global freight market since the credit crunch, and excess capacity as ships ordered during the boom years continue to launch. And freight lines are updating existing ships. A.P. Moeller-Maersk, which controls fifteen percent of the container market, is working with MAN’s ship engine unit to reduce the energy consumption of five hundred existing craft by as much as twenty percent. The project, backed by Danish state funding, could deliver gains of at least ten million kroner ($1.7 million) per vessel, the company has said.
Such savings from existing ships could slow adoption of wind-powered vessels. “The big challenge for the ship owners is the multiplicity of options,” says Nick Brown, a spokesman for marine consultants Lloyd’s Register Group. “People are probably putting off decision-making as long as they can.”
Around ninety percent of the world’s cargo fleet is currently propelled by bunker fuel. While it’s relatively cheap, at about six hundred dollars per ton, it’s also one of the heaviest and dirtiest of crude oil distillates.
International Maritime Organization sulfur caps already require cleaner, pricier grades of fuel. Additionally, ships entering Emission Control Areas were required to reduce to one percent sulfur fuel in 2010, and all oceangoing vessels will have to adopt half-percent sulfur by around 2020.
London-based Rolls is predicting that trimmer designs and innovative propulsion systems— such as liquid natural gas and “high-tech wind”— could more than offset the extra cost.
The sail-powered freighter from Rolls' partner B9 Shipping will measure 330 feet long and carry 4,500 tons of freight. It’ll derive primary power from a 180-foot sail, augmented by biomethane engines. The sail is hoisted with an automated rig, and mechanically controlled masts rotate to catch available wind.
The sail and engine could be used together for optimal efficiency: sixty percent of the thrust will come from wind, forty percent from the engine fueled by biomethane gas (during calm conditions or when maneuvering in port).
An analysis showed an estimated fuel consumption of 46 percent to 55 percent less than an equivalent conventional ship on the same route.
Rolls will provide a backup power plant that’s able to burn methane produced from municipal waste.
While the wind-methane hybrid design increases capital costs, B9 says the investment will pay off within five years of a ship’s three-decade lifespan. They’re trying to raise the $22 million needed to put a ship in the water within two years.
Rico says it'll be pretty...

Apple for the day

Brian Chen has an article in The New York Times about allegedly bad behavior:
Apple designs its retail stores to be a seamless shopping experience, where a customer can pick up a MacBook and be out of the store in minutes. But some of Apple’s former retail employees say working at the stores was less than smooth.
Former Apple store employees in New York City and Los Angeles have filed a class-action lawsuit, charging that they were forced to wait in line for thirty minutes per shift for their bags to be searched for stolen goods. They say that they were not paid for the time standing in line, which amounts to $1,500 a year. The suit, which was filed (photo) in the Federal District Court in the Northern District of California, was reported earlier by GigaOm.
Apple declined to comment. “We don’t comment on pending litigation,” said Amy Bessette, an Apple spokeswoman. But the company is not alone with this type of lawsuit in the retail business. Forever 21, the clothing retailer, was sued last year by its employees who said they were kept at stores during lunch breaks so their bags could be searched.
Apple’s retail stores take in more money per square foot than any other United States retailer. But employees in Apple’s retail stores enjoy little of that wealth, the majority of them earning about $25,000 a year.
Rico says it's not like they don't have the money...

History for the day

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

Fubar in Philly

Bob Warner, Theodore Schleifer, and Robert Moran have an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the recent explosion:
The recently renovated South Philadelphia rowhouse that blew up this week in a natural gas explosion was thoroughly inspected and approved by city building inspectors just last week, Mayor Nutter has said, adding that he would wait for a report from city fire marshals before speculating on what caused the blast. "These are complicated situations. Most fires are," Nutter said at a news briefing. "It is tedious, diligent work, but the fire marshals are very good at what they do, and I am confident they will figure this all out." The most seriously injured victim, contractor Steven Barrientos, forty, of Northeast Philadelphia, was inside 428 Daly Street when the explosion occurred. He remained in critical condition at Temple University Hospital with serious burns, unable to speak to investigators, according to the Fire Department. Outside Barrientos' two-story brick rowhouse on Levick Street in Mayfair, a woman who identified herself as Barrientos' daughter-in-law declined to talk about the incident."He's hurt, but he's breathing," she said. Seven others, including three children, suffered minor injuries in the explosion, from flying glass and other debris. Three houses on the south side of the 400 block of Daly Street, 428 Daly and the homes on either side, were reduced to rubble, and residents of six houses on the north side were unable to return to their homes, awaiting restoration of gas and electric service. "I'm on maternity leave and my husband's off," said Erika Risko-Brannon, 27, who lives at 429 Daly with her husband and their nine-week-old son, Alister. Risko-Brannon said she had not been able to get much information from city officials, not even the location of her towed car. Alister, who was treated for cuts from flying glass, was staying with relatives in Point Breeze while Risko-Brannon tried to sort things out, she said. Jim Murawski, a resident of 413 Daly for forty years, returned to his property to get medicine, but did not stay. "I'm not coming back here," he said, adding that he would stay with relatives for the time being. Initial reports suggested that the blast occurred when Barrientos tried to ignite the pilot light on a reinstalled hot-water heater in the basement. But Mayor Nutter said that the contractor was hired to do tile or flooring work, most likely putting him on the first or second floor. Another report had the explosion starting when Barrientos lit a cigarette, but Nutter called that "pure speculation." Barrientos, who listed his occupation as a carpenter on social media, identified himself as the owner of Rightway home improvement since 2010. The property on Daly is owned by a small corporation, SCK Investments, whose principals, Cathy Finney-Hughes and Steve Finney, did not respond to requests for interviews. The firm's website said the house was being renovated for resale. After buying the property in March, SCK obtained four permits for building, mechanical, plumbing, and electrical work, all issued to licensed city contractors, Nutter said. "L&I conducted fourteen inspections, all required inspections were completed, and no violations were issued," he said, adding that in a recent visit, an inspector had ordered "minor corrections that needed to be made to the hot-water heater". Those corrections were made and the renovated house passed final L&I inspections, with the owner present, the mayor said. Michael Fink, deputy commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspection, said the building code does not require gas appliances to be operating when L&I approves the hookups. He said he did not know whether they were operating during the last inspections. Barry O'Sullivan, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Gas Works, said the utility's records showed gas service had continued throughout the renovation period. Experienced contractors would know how to shut it off and restore it as necessary to install a furnace or hot-water heater," he said. O'Sullivan said that, before the explosion, PGW had not received any calls reporting any odor or suspected gas leak in the neighborhood. One of the four contractors identified on building permits for the Daly Street property, Michael Renzulli of Philly's Finest Construction, said that his firm had been dismissed from the job in mid-June in a financial dispute with Finney and had been replaced by another construction firm. "He continued to use my permit illegally," Renzulli said. "I was with the fire marshal today to make sure I'm out of this loop." Fink confirmed that, when a contractor listed on a building permit is replaced, the property owner is supposed to get a new permit. The requirement allows the city to determine whether the contractor is properly licensed to work in Philadelphia.
Rico says it's the usual Philly fuque de clusteur, with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else...

30 July 2013

Saving the place from us

Norimitsu Onishi has an article in The New York Times about Yosemite:
Far humbler corners of America have faced a similar dilemma: how much human activity should be allowed in a natural setting that is also promoted as a tourist destination?
The National Park Service is proposing a significant makeover of Yosemite National Park that would change the way future generations of visitors experienced the park, especially the seven-mile-long Yosemite Valley at its heart. The Park Service’s plan would restore more than two hundred acres of meadows, reorganize transportation, and reduce traffic congestion. To shrink the human presence along the Merced River (photo), park officials are also proposing closing nearby rental facilities for bicycling, horseback riding, and rafting, and removing swimming pools, an ice rink, and a stone bridge.
As with most things related to one of the nation’s most beloved national parks, the plan has ignited fierce debate among environmentalists, campers, and officials in both California and Washington.
Representative Tom McClintock, a Republican whose district includes Yosemite, said at a recent House hearing that the idea of removing commercial facilities was meant to satisfy “the most radical and nihilistic fringe of the environmental left.” But some environmentalists said the plan did not go far enough in protecting Yosemite Valley and the Merced River, which flows through 81 miles of the park.
Even among tourists, there was little consensus recently regarding a park that is many things to its four million annual visitors. At the bicycle rental stand that could be closed, Fred Chytraus, who was picking up some bicycles with his family, said he wanted the facility to remain open. It was more convenient for his family, he said, than bringing bicycles or renting from a shop outside the park, alternatives the Park Service is recommending. At the same time, he said, reducing traffic congestion should be a priority.
“There’s just too many people here,” said Chytraus, a resident of Carlsbad, California. “It’s a beautiful place, but we have to be conscious of our footsteps. But the bikes have no emissions. I have more problems with the number of cars coming in. If they bused people in and added biking, that would be the way to go.”
The National Park Service early this year released the 2,500-page plan, called the Merced River Plan, in response to a long-running lawsuit charging that it was failing to preserve the river. The stretch of the Merced inside Yosemite was designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1987, and is protected under federal law.
After the Merced flooded in 1997 and destroyed many facilities, the Park Service drew up a rebuilding plan in 2000 that would also protect the river. Two environmental groups sued the Park Service, and a succession of courts rejected the first plan as well as a revised plan in 2005. After a Federal appeals court ruling in 2008, the Park Service began working on its current, third plan. The agency had been required to produce a final plan by the end of July, but was recently granted a five-month extension.
Scott Gediman, a spokesman for Yosemite, said the current plan incorporated more scientific analysis and public input than the two previous ones. In the public comment period after the release of the plan in January, he said, the Park Service has held sixty public meetings and received thirty thousand comments, two-thirds of which supported the plan. The final plan must satisfy the 2008 federal appeals court ruling, which pointed specifically to the commercial services near the Merced as contributing to “the level of degradation already experienced in the Merced”.
“We want, for the American public, a plan that not only protects the river and provides the access but has to be legally sufficient,” Gediman said.
Greg Adair, the leader of Friends of Yosemite Valley, one of the two groups that sued the Park Service, said there was insufficient scientific analysis underlying the current plan. He said the plan was about the “status quo” and should have done more to decrease commercial services. The commercial services that the current plan proposes to remove, he said, were “tokenism”, adding: “There could have been thirty or forty such things put on the chopping block.” Adair said the plaintiffs had retained the option to litigate. “We do think they could probably revise this plan, but significantly, not a tweak or tinkering, to get it right,” he said.
The other plaintiff, Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government, sounded more conciliatory. Its leader, John Brady, said the group had “reluctantly endorsed” the Park Service’s plan, though he said he would like to see more restoration of the riverbanks and a significant reduction of the daily maximum capacity of visitors— twenty thousand— that is proposed.
“We feel that more could be done,” Brady said, “but we recognize that there are a lot of demands for use on the park.”
Over the years, Adair said, the plaintiffs have financed their lawsuits through the sale of t-shirts and donations from individuals, as well as two companies, Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer, and Clif Bar, an organic food producer.
At the Congressional hearing, the plan drew rebukes from critics of the reduction in commercial services. Brian Ouzounian, head of the Yosemite Valley Campers Coalition, said the number of camping sites would be increased under the plan, but would still be below the numbers that existed before the 1997 flood.
Wendy Brown, a resident of Mariposa, California and a leader of Yosemite for Everyone, said removing bicycle rentals and other services would make such activities inaccessible to most visitors. “We want the amenities and recreational activities that have been there for 150 years to continue,” Brown said. Referring to the Merced’s designation as a National Wild and Scenic River, she added: “We need to un-designate it and leave that section of the river alone. That would solve a lot of problems.”
Neal Desai, an associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, which has endorsed the Park Service’s plan, said there was a history of rethinking the park’s role and the kind of activities allowed. For example, two longstanding activities— the feeding of bears by park rangers and the Yosemite Firefall, a summertime practice of dropping hot embers from the top of Glacier Point— were ended in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Yes, those were interesting things back then” Desai said. “But, with more information and science and the changing views of the public, the park updates how it provides visitor amenities and services.”
Rico says it's been at least thirty years since he was last in Yosemite, but it remains an amazing place; he hopes we can stop greedily fucking it up...


Anne Barnard has an article in The New York Times about WHAT:
The Street Called Straight, long bereft of its bustle, was finally crowded again. Wall to wall, people shuffled forward in a slow procession. Shopkeepers had closed their wooden shutters, packing away the inlaid furniture and brocade shawls that no one had been buying anyway, to clear the sidewalks for a funeral parade.
Trumpets and drums beat out the soaring refrain of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The white coffin, heaped with daisies, spun like a helicopter rotor above the crowd as the pallbearers danced past a mosque to a neighboring church, both centuries-old structures striped with light and dark stone.
Women ululated and threw rice. The dead man, a Christian, was to have been married, but he and his Muslim driver were kidnapped and killed south of Damascus, two more victims of Syria’s civil war, and the funeral was the closest thing he would have to a wedding.
“Syria! Syria!” the crowd called, hailing the young man, Fadi Francis, as “a martyr of the neighborhood”.
Straight Street, the most storied thoroughfare in Syria, huddles these days in a wary calm, marred now and then by mortar attacks, and every day by anxiety. The street has been known since at least the early years of Christianity for its ramrod course through the twisting alleys of the old city of Damascus. It contains along its cobblestoned stretch much of what many citizens see as the best of their country: ancient history, diversity, and entrepreneurial spirit. But now, residents fear its very existence is in danger— though they disagree on who presents the greatest threat— the rebels, the government, or, as many see it, both. “I’m tired of watching people wearing black,” Leena Siriani said, looking down at Straight Street from her balcony. “Deep down, there is no longer anything that makes us feel happy.”
Many shops close early nowadays, and the foreign tourists are long gone. Shelling can be heard in the distance, and new militiamen guard the street. No more does President Bashar al-Assad stroll past on his way to dine with Damascus power brokers by the marble fountain at the restaurant Naranj.
The Bible says that, after the apostle Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus, God directed him to “the Street Called Straight” to find a man who would baptize him, on a spot now marked by the nearby Hanania church.
Along the street, remnants of a Roman colonnade, plastered in places with worn posters of Assad, testify to millenniums of habitation. Geometric stonework dates to the medieval Ummayad era, when Damascus was the seat of the Caliphate ruling the Muslim world. For centuries, people of many faiths and ethnicities have rubbed shoulders daily here, if not always in complete harmony, then in common worship of urban life and commerce.
Today, high-end antique shops alternate with cubbyhole workshops where carpenters and metalworkers make and sell their wares, much as they did centuries ago. Ottoman mansions and tiny swaybacked dwellings still shelter, respectively, the wealthy and the poor.
Scarves and carpets spill onto the street, from the third-century arched gateway at Bab Sharqi to the Medhat Pasha Souq, where market stalls under an arched tin roof display spices, lingerie and toys. At night, from the window of Abu George’s tiny and venerable bar, dim light still glows through colored liquor bottles, a kind of stained-glass beacon of religious diversity and neighborhood fellowship. “If Muslims didn’t drink,” Abu George, a Christian, likes to say, “alcohol would be a lot cheaper.”
Abu Tony sat on the curb one recent morning in front of his antique shop, drinking coffee. There were no customers, but he and his merchant neighbors had opened up anyway, to pass the time. He surveyed the row of shops, which to him symbolized the spirit of the street. “I’m Christian,” he said. “Next door, he is Sunni; the next one is a Shi'ite”, who, he said, rents his store from the Jewish owner, who left for America but stays in touch.
To Abu Tony, the rebels were extremists, alien to Syria. “It’s the land of civilization,” he said. “Christianity went out to the world from this street.”
Many here share his view, and his support for the government. At the funeral, a few days later, many Christian mourners said they were sure the killers were Islamist rebels bent on driving them away. For them, the fact that Muslim clerics helped locate the bodies was proof enough.
But even here, under scrutiny in the heart of Assad’s capital, people whisper a range of opinions. Some blame the government’s crackdown on dissent for riling up sectarian division. Others fear everyone, from politically minded killers on both sides to criminal gangs taking advantage of the chaos.
After the funeral, Sawsan, a Christian woman left impoverished after the conflict sapped her husband’s tailoring business, sat overlooking the street in a kitchen so tiny that spare propane tanks doubled as stools. Downstairs, her Sunni neighbors wholeheartedly supported the government line, dismissing rebels as terrorists. Sawsan did not. “They are all our men,” she said. Asked if she shared other Christians’ fear of being targeted for their faith by the mainly Sunni rebels, she jutted her chin upward in the Syrian gesture for no. “This is the idea they try to spread,” she said, without specifying who. “To make people fight each other.”
Her grown daughter was less confident. She recalled a story widely circulated by those who fear— or incite— sectarianism: that early protesters chanted, “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave.”
A shell thudded in the distance. “If they hit us,” Sawsan’s small grandson declared, “the house will be destroyed, but we won’t die.”
Nearby, a Sunni salesman said it was the government’s job to strike a peace deal.
“If they want to end this, they can,” he said, folding silk brocade scarves woven with Damascene geometric patterns. “It’s their people. They cannot kill them all.”
Another merchant pointed out a blank space on his wall where Assad’s portrait had been. He whispered that he had supported the peaceful protests when they began more than two years ago, and did not blame the opposition for taking up arms. “If someone kills your son,” he said, “what do you say: ‘Okay, thank you?’” But now, he said, he felt trapped. His wife was afraid to send their children to school a few blocks away. With his wealth tied up in inventory, he could not afford to flee. “We thought it would take two or three weeks,” he said. “We thought he would go.”
Rico says he's just as happy not to live in a religious war zone...

Peace? Why not?

Michael Gordon and Isabel Kershner have an article in The New York Times about the Middle East:
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will resume peace talks in Washington, the State Department said in a statement. It will be the first time that the two have held direct talks since 2010.
Clearing the last obstacle to resuming peace talks, the Israeli cabinet voted to approve the release of over a hundred Palestinian prisoners, an unpopular move with many Israelis.
Secretary of State John Kerry then spoke with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to formally invite them to send their negotiating teams to Washington. “Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point,” Kerry said in a statement. “We are grateful for their leadership.”
The goal of the negotiations will be to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel with agreed-upon borders and security arrangements. Officials said that talks are initially expected to focus on procedural issues, like the location, schedule and format of negotiating sessions, before moving on to tackle the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Israeli side will be represented by Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, and Isaac Molho, Netanyahu’s special envoy. On the Palestinian side will be Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator, and Mohammed Shtayyeh, a close adviser to Abbas.
The first evening session will be a working dinner at the State Department, hosted by Kerry, who has made an intensive effort to revive the moribund talks. The Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams are to meet again the next day before heading home.
The next round of talks would be held in the Middle East. Martin Indyk, the former United States ambassador to Israel, whom Kerry is expected to name to manage the talks for the United States, would attend that round.
After twenty years of an on-again-off-again peace process, agreement on the thorniest issues, like the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, has eluded even the most seasoned negotiators. Netanyahu worked over the weekend to convince Israelis that a resumption of the peace process was a vital Israeli interest and that a prisoner release was the least damaging concession he could make.
After six hours of deliberations, thirteen ministers voted in favor of the release, seven opposed it, and two abstained.
The prisoners, most of whom have served at least twenty years for deadly attacks on Israelis, are to be freed in groups. The pace of the releases will depend on progress in the talks.
“This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks at the meeting. “But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of those moments.”
Erekat described the decision in a statement as “an overdue step toward the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheik agreement of 1999", and added: “We welcome this decision, fourteen years later.”
But the stormy atmosphere surrounding the cabinet vote underlined some of the challenges that lay ahead for the negotiators. Two of the ministers who voted against the release were from Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, as were the two who abstained.
Gilad Erdan, one of the Likud ministers who voted against the prisoner release, told Army Radio that he could not support it on moral grounds, because, unlike other prisoner exchange deals, “in this case there is no certain reward for Israel and its citizens.”
As the cabinet meeting got under way, scores of Israeli protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s office, including people whose relatives were killed in terrorist attacks. The protesters carried signs bearing the names and portraits of some of the victims.
“It rips our heart out that they are aiding and abetting the terrorists,” said Yehudit Tayar, one of the protesters.
Another potential stumbling block lies in the lack of clarity from the Israeli side about the identity of all the prisoners to be freed. The Palestinians said they had presented Kerry with a list of the prisoners, all of whom were convicted before the Oslo peace accords came into effect in the 1990s. The list included about two dozen Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Erekat emphasized on Sunday that they were among those to be released.
But Israel has long refused to grant early release to such prisoners along with other Palestinians, seeing it as an affront to Israeli sovereignty.
Netanyahu will lead a team of five ministers who will determine the identity of the prisoners to be released during the negotiations. But he deferred any decision on whether they would include Arab citizens of Israel, saying that any such release would be brought to another cabinet vote.
Moshe Yaalon, the defense minister and a member of the ministerial team, said in a statement that he opposed the release of Arab Israelis, adding that Abbas “does not represent them.”
Rico says we think we have troubles with our neighbors...

Gubs can be dangerous to politicians

Jack Healy has an article in The New York Times about gub politics:
As he prepared to vote for some of the strictest gun control measures in the country earlier this year, John Morse, a former police chief and president of the Colorado State Senate, knew he would infuriate some constituents. “There may be a cost for me to pay, but I am more than happy to pay it,” he said in a recent interview.
Now, after months of gathering signatures and skirmishing in court, gun activists in Colorado, with the support of the National Rifle Association, have forced Morse and a fellow Democrat, Senator Angela Giron, into recall elections. The recall effort is seen nationally as a test of whether politicians, largely Democrats, outside big cities and deep-blue coastal states can survive the political fallout of supporting stricter gun laws.
“Legislators should be scared,” said Becky Mizel, chairwoman of the Republican Party in the old steel and railroad town of Pueblo, Giron’s home district. “We have a battle here.”
Around his Colorado Springs-area district, Morse has spent the summer in campaign overdrive. He walks door to door, explaining his votes to people in his narrowly divided district.
At first, the recall drive was against four Democrats. But the organizers failed to collect the required signatures against two of them, leaving only Morse and Giron to face a recall vote on 10 September, a first for the state. Voters must decide whether either of the Democrats should be recalled and, if so, who should replace them. So far, only two Republicans— one a former police officer, the other a former city councilman— are expected to be on the ballot to replace the incumbents.
“They’re going to turn out to ride me out of town on a rail,” Morse said. “Symbolically, if you could take me out, that would be a benefit to the special gun interests.”
For Colorado gun-rights supporters and their allies, like the NRA and the Republicans who opposed the gun bills, the recall elections are a chance to send a message to any politician who would support similar legislation. If Morse and Giron survive the recall vote, it might bolster lawmakers in other gun-friendly states to consider more controls on firearms.
The recall campaign began just weeks after the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature passed Colorado’s first new gun limits in more than a decade— measures that required background checks for private transactions and limited the rounds in ammunition clips.
To supporters, the limits were an overdue response to mass shootings that have haunted Colorado since the Columbine High School attack in 1999. But, in a state where avid support for hunting and sport shooting crosses generations and partisan lines, the measures drew an angry response from many quarters.
Supporters of the new gun laws— including Governor John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat— said they were tailored for Colorado. Lawmakers increased the proposed limits on clip size to fifteen rounds from ten, and added provisions to allow parents to pass down guns to their children without a background check. Supporters released opinion polls showing they had the support of solid majorities of Colorado residents.
But to Victor Head, a plumber in Pueblo, the new measures were a travesty. One day, Head said, he was chatting with friends on a website for enthusiasts of the AR-15 assault rifle, when the discussion shifted to how they could strike back at their legislators. “You can only write so many emails and go to so many meetings and protests,” Head said. “They have to listen to a recall.”
Democrats criticized the recall effort as a waste of time that would cost taxpayers $200,000. They pointed out that Morse had to step down next year because of term limits, and that Giron, a first-term senator, would be up for re-election.
But gun-rights activists said they needed to act. “We’re sick of saying: ‘Let’s just wait until next year’,” Head said. “We’ve got to send a message.”
In Colorado Springs, supporters of the recall set up a political action committee, the Basic Freedom Defense Fund, and started printing bumper stickers, hiring paid signature-gatherers, and taking donations. They have collected twenty thousand dollars to date, including $250 in ammunition that was donated as door prizes for volunteers. The vast majority of contributions have come from donors around Colorado Springs, though campaign-finance reports say that the NRA provided help with mailers and phone banks.
In Pueblo, Head took a hiatus from his job fixing water heaters, borrowed four thousand dollars from his grandmother, and set to gathering the eleven thousand signatures needed for a referendum on Giron.
Gun advocates set up tables on street corners, and in the parking lots of a Walmart and a Safeway grocery store, waving signs that said Save Our Guns and Recall Giron. They went door-to-door handing out leaflets. They crowded town-hall meetings to condemn the new gun laws and promise political retribution.
“I am tired of seeing our Second Amendment rights trampled on,” said Joe Santoro, a retired military explosives expert who joined the recall effort. “We can beat them.”
Morse was a leading voice in the fight to pass the gun limits, which came in response to the mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado last July and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut in December.
Though other legislators were more closely involved in the drafting of the background-check bills and the ammunition bills, it was Morse who lobbied fellow Democrats and rounded up votes. And he was the prime sponsor of a proposal, which he later dropped, that would have made dealers and manufacturers of assault rifles liable for deaths or injuries caused by those guns.
Morse was first elected to the Senate in 2006, and won re-election in 2010 by just 340 votes in a district in the Colorado Springs area that is split roughly in thirds among Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters. He is barred by term limits from seeking re-election next year. But, as the Senate president, he became a high-profile target for gun advocates in the recall vote.
“I just go back to 14 December and 20 July, and think about the families that had to bury their children,” Morse said, referring to the Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings.
Giron was elected to the Senate with 55 percent of the vote, in a Pueblo district that leans heavily Democratic. Only 23 percent of voters are Republicans. She said she could not go anywhere in public without being drawn into a discussion about the recall election. “I’m watering plants in my front yard, and people stop,” she said. “I’m in the grocery store or getting gas, and people are coming up to me.”
Giron has support from powerful Democrats including Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia, who has campaigned for her, and there is a political action committee supporting her. The PAC has hired a staff member from President Obama’s re-election campaign, Chris Shallow, who handled field operations in North Carolina for the Obama campaign.
Giron and Morse are raising and spending far more than their opponents. Giron’s supporters have raised more than $87,000 and Morse’s more than $153,000, according to campaign disclosures. Each campaign has received thousands from progressive groups in Colorado and $35,000 apiece from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Washington group that supports liberal and environmental causes, and $3,500 each from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
As they make their case, Giron and Morse are trying to expand beyond the gun debate. He emphasizes his years of public service as a police officer and paramedic. She talks about the forty million dollars in community college funding she helped to secure.
Even if he loses, Morse said, he has no regrets, not after Aurora and Sandy Hook.
“How does that happen and you don’t stand up and say: ‘We have to fix this’?” he said.
Rico says we do need to fix it, but they're not gonna with these laws...

Philadelphia's 3,000 African-American Graves

Rico says his friend Kema forwards this, from the Huffington Post:
Just days after archaeologists on Maryland's Eastern Shore uncovered what they believe to be the oldest settlement of African-Americans in the United States, another team in Philadelphia unearthed what may be the resting place of nearly three thousand others, under a playground in the city's Weccecoe Park.
Douglas Mooney, senior archaeologist for URS corporation, and his colleagues dug up a single white gravestone belonging to 26-year-old Amelia Brown, who was likely a member of the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, who bought the burial site as a private cemetery in 1810 and used it as such until 1864.
Mother Bethel is the oldest African-American church in the country, researchers say. During the late eighteenth century, cemeteries within Philadelphia's city limits would not accept black people, which prompted the congregation to purchase the plot near Fourth and Queen Streets.
During a dig at the playground last week, a team of archaeologists broke the asphalt in four places at Weccecoe Park, looking for clues as to where the cemetery limits are, and how far down, NBC Philadelphia reports. The dig took them three feet down, revealing evidence of grave shafts and stone walls representing the border of the cemetery.
According to Philly magazine contributor Michael Coard, those buried at the site include Ignatius Beck, who helped construct the US Capitol in 1789, abolitionist Sarah Bass Allen, and civil rights pioneer Caroline LaCount, along with numerous black Civil War veterans.

Nobody wants to bid

Christopher Drew has an article in The New York Times about Marine One:
Wanting to clamp down on wasteful spending, President Obama halted a project to create new presidential helicopters four years ago, saying its soaring price was a symbol of government contracting “run amok.”
But, to the administration’s surprise, a new competition to build the helicopters much more cheaply is also running into trouble. Industry officials said that only one company, Sikorsky Aircraft, was likely to bid on the multibillion-dollar contract this week. And some of Sikorsky’s rivals are voicing an increasingly common complaint— that bid specifications are being written so narrowly they are driving away potential competitors.
Given the budget crisis, the White House has reiterated the call for sharper competition in all areas of contracting, to lower costs. But the bidding for Marine One, the helicopter that sweeps away presidents from the White House lawn, suggests that goal is hard to achieve, as have other recent contract troubles. By putting more emphasis on price and being more precise in what it wants, the government could end up with cheaper bids, but could also be excluding equipment that might be more flexible or less expensive in the long run, experts in government contracting said.
“The question is not whether the president can get the cheapest helicopter, but the best one that’s affordable to buy,” said Jacques S. Gansler, who was the top Pentagon acquisition official in the Clinton administration. “It’s like when you buy a car. Do you drive a Yugo? Or is the best buy the cheapest one that meets your needs?”
Such questions have simmered for months among military and information-technology companies, which are feeling the pinch as opportunities to win large federal contracts dwindle. But the issues could attract wider attention now that the president’s own helicopter is back in the spotlight.
President Obama first expressed concerns about the cost of the new helicopters shortly after he took office in 2009, when Senator John McCain of Arizona, who had been his Republican opponent in the presidential race, confronted him at a conference on fiscal responsibility. At the time, the projected price for 28 futuristic helicopters, to be designed to fend off terrorist attacks and resist the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear blast, had nearly doubled, to thirteen billion dollars.
President Obama responded by saying that the existing fleet of white-topped helicopters, which are now 35 to 40 years old, seemed “perfectly adequate to me.” He also promised to fix the procurement process. Since then, the White House Military Office, which sets the requirements for the helicopters, and the Navy, which buys them because the Marines fly them, pared back some of the demands that had contributed to the cost overruns, like how fast the helicopters must fly and how far they can go without refueling. The Navy also decided that it would supply the sensitive communications gear using existing technology rather than asking the contractors to create something new.
The latest plan is to buy 21 helicopters— at a much lower, but unspecified, cost— that would begin to enter service in 2020. Congressional auditors have praised the plan as more sensible, and the Navy had said it expected “a full and open competition.” But with the bids due soon, officials at three companies that had considered bidding— Boeing, Bell Helicopter, and Europe’s AgustaWestland— all said in interviews that they had decided not to. AgustaWestland, which was expected to be Sikorsky’s biggest rival, said in a statement that several aspects of the bid process “inhibit our ability to submit a competitive offering” and “provide a significant advantage to our likely competitor”.
Under the deal that the Obama administration scrapped, AgustaWestland had supplied the helicopters to Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor. (The Navy later sold the nine basic helicopters they produced to Canada for $164 million to use for spare parts.) AgustaWestland teamed with Northrop Grumman in preparing for the new competition, while Lockheed Martin is now working for Sikorsky.
AgustaWestland, in planning a new bid, proposed a helicopter based on its AW101 model, which it sells overseas. It was larger than Sikorsky’s basic H-92 model, and it lost some advantages when the Navy eased the requirements, like reducing the minimum seating to twelve people from fourteen.
Industry officials said that while the earlier contract required the winning helicopter to eventually be certified to Navy standards, the Navy wanted to save time in the new competition by allowing safety approvals by either civilian or military authorities. Sikorsky’s helicopter already had been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, while AgustaWestland’s was not.
And while the Navy highlighted four areas where the bidders could improve their scores, AgustaWestland concluded that it could not gain enough extra points to overcome Sikorsky’s basic price advantage, the industry officials said.
Boeing had considered bidding with its large H-47 Chinook helicopter, or offering the V-22 tilt-rotor craft that it makes with Bell. But neither would have worked once the government decided that the helicopter had to be small enough to easily land on the White House lawn.
AgustaWestland, Boeing, and Bell also dropped out of an Air Force competition last year for a new combat-rescue helicopter in which Sikorsky also appeared to be the only bidder. The Air Force is now considering using V-22s for part of that mission.
AgustaWestland, a unit of Finmeccanica, also faced a potential problem from a bribery scandal in India, where it is under investigation for using middlemen for a $754 million contract for AW101s. Sikorsky, which built the White House helicopters now in use, has run into extensive delays and cancellation threats on a military project in Canada with a helicopter similar to the one it is offering the Navy.
The White House referred questions to the Navy, but Navy officials declined to speculate on what they would do if Sikorsky were the only bidder for the new presidential helicopter, known as the VXX.
Until the bids are due, the Navy “does not know, and it is of no consequence— no consequence at all— to speculate what companies will submit bids,” Captain Cate Mueller, a Navy spokeswoman, said in a statement. Captain Mueller said the Navy had considered feedback from industry throughout the process. She said it had learned from the earlier presidential-helicopter contract that it would be more cost-effective to use a helicopter that would not need a new safety certification later.
Dr. Gansler, the former Pentagon acquisition official, said another problem was that solo bidders “rarely try to cut their price”. But Frans Jurgens, a spokesman for Sikorsky, said: “Our proposal will put forward a safe, reliable and cost-efficient aircraft.”
Rico says the other guys are just a bunch of whiners...

More dying technology

Nick Wingfield has an article in The New York Times about the decline in the PC market:
The death of the personal computer may be an exaggeration. But the industry around personal computers seems to be in limbo. Like the mainframe, which was said to be dead decades ago but has remained a meaningful business, the PC will almost certainly cheat death. True, mobile devices like the iPad will continue to gore PC sales. Those mobile devices, though, will most likely never satisfy spreadsheet masters, film editors, and other workers who depend on multiple screens and the precision of a keyboard and mouse.
Still, there is a strong view among many longtime tech executives that the PC’s relevance will steadily diminish.
“In my humble opinion, the PC as we have known it is in a continuous decline and being relegated to a utility device for businesses,” said Hector Ruiz, the former chief executive of Advanced Micro Devices, a company that makes chips for PCs and other devices.
The mood around the PC industry has become increasingly glum. The business is effectively in a recession, and there is no upturn in sight. During the second quarter of the year, global PC shipments fell around eleven percent, for their fifth consecutive quarter of declines, the worst downturn since the advent of the PC more than thirty years ago.
Intel, supplier of the chips in most PCs, and Microsoft, which makes the Windows operating system on the vast majority of those machines, have delivered disappointing financial results. An overhaul of Microsoft’s software, Windows 8, did not lift sales and may have made them worse.
The once-mighty Dell, deeply weakened by the PC slump, is mired in a struggle with shareholders over a plan to go private, seeking relief from investor pressure. In their bid to take the company private, Michael S. Dell, the founder, and the investment firm Silver Lake have argued that they would turn the company into a corporate software services provider. A vote on Dell’s future is expected this week.
While sales of PCs to businesses remain steady, demand among consumers has plunged, largely because people are instead buying iPads, Kindle Fires, and other tablets.
Still, a reality check: more than three hundred million PCs are expected to be shipped this year globally. That is a lot of widgets for a business that has caught a cold.
Tablet sales are growing explosively. This year, there are expected to be more than two hundred million shipments of the devices, which will for the first time exceed shipments of notebooks, the largest category of PCs, estimates Gartner, the research firm.
Steven P. Jobs, the Apple chief executive who died in 2011, predicted several years ago that PCs would become something like trucks, workhorses used by many people but outnumbered by tablets, the cars of the technology business. (The analogy is somewhat undercut by stats: the most popular vehicle in the United States for several years has been a truck, the Ford F-150.)
One theory is that tablets are leading PC shoppers to postpone purchases of new computers, perhaps by a year or two, but that eventually people will be ready for a fresh machine. “Replacement cycles are being pushed out,” said Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst at Bernstein Research.
A more pessimistic view is that a lot of the consumer demand for PCs will never return. Daniel Huttenlocher, the dean and vice provost of Cornell University’s new New York City technology campus, said consumers began buying PCs in big numbers beginning in the 1990s, largely because no better device existed for getting on the Internet.
But the PC, he said, was always better suited as an office machine for the production of documents, presentations, and other work. In his view, tablets are better for the consumption of content, whether that is watching Netflix or surfing the Web. “There are way more consumers than producers, period, even in a world with lots of user-generated content,” Dr. Huttenlocher said.
In the first quarter, 53 percent of computer shipments were to the consumer market while 47 percent were to the commercial market, estimates the research firm IDC.
Many consumers will still favor PCs for tasks like editing home movies and writing term papers. But tablets are already invading the turf of PCs in many professional niches, from flight manuals for airline pilots to cash registers in restaurants.
The incumbents in the PC industry— especially Microsoft and Intel, the software-chip duopoly with the most to lose from the decline of the business— have a seemingly straightforward response: redefine the PC to make it more tabletlike. Microsoft designed Windows 8 to work well on touch-screen devices. If users tire of finger gestures, they can switch to a classic Windows desktop interface that they can operate with a mouse and keyboard. Intel, meanwhile, has refined its chips so that they are more thrifty with their consumption of battery power, an important requirement for mobile devices.
The changes have given rise to a frenzy of crossbreeding in devices, effectively blurring the boundaries between PCs and tablets. Now notebooks can turn into tablets either by flipping their screens or through fully detachable displays. Many otherwise ordinary notebooks come with touch displays for quickly jumping between different modes of operation.
Microsoft and Intel are betting that devices coming out in the fall will finally get PC shoppers back in stores. Microsoft plans to release a new version of its operating system, Windows 8.1, that responds to complaints its customers had with the earlier version.
“What you’re going to see over the next few months is a lot more designs from every PC manufacturer,” said Adam King, a director of product marketing at Intel.
Using the automotive analogy of Jobs to different effect, Frank Shaw, a spokesman for Microsoft, said the car business kept subdividing into many categories, including luxury models and electric vehicles. “You can say the same thing is happening in computing,” Shaw said.
Anand Chandrasekher, the chief marketing officer of Qualcomm, which supplies chips for some mobile Windows devices, says he expects Microsoft will successfully adapt to the changes in its business. “I admire Microsoft for the changes they’ve made,” Chandrasekher said. “We’re bullish that they will have a strong presence in the marketplace.”
Some people are deeply skeptical that creating a new hybrid class of devices will help stop the momentum of tablets from Apple and companies with devices based on Google’s Android operating system. Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce.com and a frequent Microsoft antagonist, said customers had already shunned new types of devices, like Microsoft’s Surface. “The reason why they’re not accelerating growth is for one simple reason,” Benioff said. “There’s a better technology.”
Whatever happens to the PC business, the iron grip that companies like Microsoft and Intel once wielded over hardware makers appears to be no more. Hewlett-Packard now makes a notebook using Google’s Chrome OS software and a tablet based on Android, Google’s mobile operating system. Lenovo, the world’s top seller of PCs, is big seller of Android smartphones and tablets, especially in China.
In an earlier era of computing, those would have been considered intolerable acts of disloyalty. “We’re a device company,” said Gerry Smith, a Lenovo senior vice president and head of its Americas division. “We’re agnostic on hardware and agnostic on software, whether Android or Windows.”
Meanwhile, Microsoft has struggled to maintain its influence with software developers, which have gravitated in ever greater numbers to Apple and Google’s mobile technologies.
Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, an online storage company that has developed software for Windows 8, said that influence was once Microsoft’s most powerful asset.
“It wasn’t the absolute value of the technology,” Levie said. “It’s that you have mindshare and ecosystem support. Microsoft is now in a very different world these days.”
Rico says he already has an iPod, an iPhone, and an iPad, but is saving up for the newest version of the Mac Pro, an amazing PC due from Apple in the fall, to replace his current Mini...

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