Monday, August 28, 2006

Producing more, earning less

The productivity of American workers continues to lead the world. Despite criticisms (much of it unwarranted, IMHO) of the Millennials and some segments of Gen X, the workplace is still paying homage to the Protestant view of work. Yet, with productivity continuing to ramp upward, wages have stagnated and Americans are now earning less, in real dollars, than any time since 2003, at least according to an article, by Stephen Greenhous and David Leonhardt, in today's NY Times.

According to the writers, "The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity — the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation’s living standards — has risen steadily over the same period.

As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960’s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as 'the golden era of profitability.'"

So we are working more and earning less--many of us knew this intuitively, without having it quantified. What does this ultimately mean for American workers? Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, while not specifically addressing the issue of wages, did warn about "the unequal distribution of the economy’s spoils..." and that these recent economic changes imperil "the livelihoods of some workers and the profits of some firms."

Despite these economic storm clouds, Americans are generally less dissatisfied with the economy than at any time since the 1980s and early 90s. The asset "house of cards" perpetuated by rising house and stock values, has allowed many Americans to remain blissfully unaware of any ill winds blowing.

On the flipside, profits for companies and ultimately, those at the very top, continued to grow--a clear case of the rich getting richer and the rest, not doing so well.

"There are two economies out there,” Mr. Cook [Charles Cook, publisher a political newsletter], the political analyst, said. “One has been just white hot, going great guns. Those are the people who have benefited from globalization, technology, greater productivity and higher corporate earnings."

“And then there’s the working stiffs,’’ he added, “who just don’t feel like they’re getting ahead despite the fact that they’re working very hard. And there are a lot more people in that group than the other group.”

While most Americans seem to be too busy with their reality-based TV programs and other forms of bread and circuses to notice, there are some who recognize the seriousness of this issue and propose possible solutions to this dangerous inequality.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Looking for some real news

Maine’s media community is woeful at best and non-existent at worst. The former purveyors of hard news—the daily publications—have given themselves over to fluff pieces, weekly spin-offs and fake news supplements. While Maine’s newspapers face a challenge, with our state’s, population of just over 1 million, which contributes to flagging circulation numbers, our “flagship” newspaper, headquartered in the state’s largest city of Portland, could attempt to practice journalism, at least occasionally.

While I was spared another patronizing Sunday column this week from the Portland Newspapers’ Jeanne Guttman, I’m sure she’ll be back soon, probably touting their latest journalistic “technique”—the investigative column.

For those who may not be familiar with the Sunday newspaper of the Portland Newspapers (owned by the out-of-state Blethen News company), the Maine Sunday Telegram frequently carries a column by Guttman, the paper’s editor. Guttman regularly sermonizes on the trials, tribulations and difficulties inherent in being a newspaper, or how hard it is being an editor, or some combination of these basic themes. She frequently “shares” with us some “success story” that they’ve had, or gushes about the work of some intern who just wrote their first column, or how her staff all love her and just are the best people she’s ever been associated with (sniff, sniff). OK, so I’m going over the top here. I think you get the drift. All you really need to know about the editor of Maine’s largest paper can be gleaned from this older article in the Portland Phoenix. [This link doesn't appear to be loading; it might be down temporarily, or the story may have disappeared down the memory hole. I'll continue to try to update this link, or find an alternative.--jb]

This Sunday, the MST rolled out a new technique on their front page, or possibly, it was an older technique, I just happened to miss it. At the very top of the front page was an investigative story about overtime costs at the Portland Fire Department. Just in case we might not be aware that the Portland Newspaper’s reporters still practiced investigative journalism, the story was labeled, “Telegram Investigation: Portland Firefighters” in red. Just below it, on the right, above the fold, was another story about a possible ethics violation at the Maine Turnpike Authority. Investigative journalism on the pages of the Maine Sunday Telegram—“Hallelujah and glory be to God!”

Speaking of the turnpike, the Lewiston Sun-Journal, which lies northwest of Portland, as one travels Maine’s major north-south artery, semi-regularly practices journalism of the investigative variety. Better than that, they don’t label their stories, because apparently, S-J readers are familiar that the practice of journalism includes investigative work. In fact, one of their editorial page editors, David Farmer, had a solid investigative piece about how the TABOR initiative was being funded by large out of state interests. With this so-called “people’s revolt” actually part of a well-orchestrated national strategy that has ties to right-of-center conservative and libertarian groups with ties to people like Grover Norquist, Farmer’s piece is the kind of needful reporting that used to pass for news, back when most journalists took their craft seriously and editors demanded much more from their staffs. Newspapers, while they have always been financed by advertising, didn’t always place reporting in the subservient role that it occupies today.

As Chris Busby, one of the few muckraking journalists left in a state that at one time had a proud tradition for that brand of journalism (think the Maine Times, under John Cole), has an editorial (The Bollard's View; August 14, 2006-Blethen foists fake newspaper on Portland) about some of the practices of his hometown newspapers, the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram.

For those Mainers (and others, from away) who remember the days when reporters reported on the happenings and hi jinks of crooks, criminals and corrupt politicians (often the same people), Busby’s online publication, The Bollard is a worthwhile read. While certainly Portland-centric in content, it’s a refreshing read and will help purge your system from the impaction that is caused by the drivel emanating from the likes of Guttman and Co.

I can hardly wait for next week’s column from my favorite editor. What new journalistic tip or trade secret will she let us in on next? I can only imagine.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Headed south...in a hand basket

[While I've written at length about my aversion for much of what passes for major league baseball, surprisingly, this summer, I've found myself watching more Red Sox baseball than I have for the past four or five years. If I'm not actively consumed by the images on the screen, I've got Jerry (Trupiano) and Joe (Castiglione) on in the background, while I'm doing some work. Because of this, I've developed my own opinions about the 2006 version of New England's boys of summer. Not surprisingly, I find myself at odds with much of what's written, or talked about on sports talk radio.

Here is my "state of the nation" report and indictment of much of what I see is wrong with this team. For much of the summer, this team has lulled most New Englanders to sleep, especially since many have been mollified by the World Championship in 2004.--JB]

Headed south...in a hand basket

The Red Sox season is over. After 121 games, the Sox, while still 17 games above .500 and still within striking distance of the “Evil Empire,” don’t need to be bothered with printing playoff tickets this year. After last October’s train wreck against Chicago that might not be a bad thing.

Francona (more on him, later) and Co. have hit the proverbial banana peel in their season and are reeling. Last night's debacle exposed them for the playoff poseurs they are, courtesy of the team that beat them on the field, but more importantly, have beaten them in the general manager’s suite.

Theo Epstein, who was the talk of the town when he maneuvered his chess pieces at in 2004, being dubbed, “the boy wonder,” has seen reality set in, as experienced by most of the other 28 members of his elite fraternity. While at least Epstein gets to breath the heady air that comes with well-heeled owners, he still is a distant second compared to the cash available in Brian Cashman’s player acquisition account.

More than any other group of modern day sports fan, the legions of New Englanders and the many other bandwagon riders from the rest of the country who call themselves members of Red Sox Nation (a fairly recent moniker, one I never heard uttered back when I was rooting for Yaz, the Conigliaro brothers, Ray Culp and Sonny Siebert), these folks live in a constant state of delusion. Now a tenuous grasp on reality isn’t new for Sox fans. Most of us who grew up with the team, pre-2004, never could be accused of being fair weather fans, as Boston baseball lived in the fog of fading playoff hopes and late-season collapses. Those older than me, remember the days when the Sox were perennial second division members, living at the back of the pack with perennial losers like the old Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics, teams that rarely if ever found themselves in a meaningful game come August, or September.

Enough of ancient history. There is more than sufficient fodder to discuss with the 2006 edition of the Sox. It has been said that pitching is 90 percent of the game. Whether it’s 90, or even 75 or 80 percent, the sorry group of pitchers that pass for a major league staff in Boston this summer are a sad assortment to hitch ¾ of your hopes and fortunes to.

With the exception of Curt Schilling, who looks wrung out and at the end of the line, bags under his eyes and all, the Sox lack no other starter remotely resembling consistency. Overpaid and over hyped Josh Beckett seems to have reached the wall, now that his innings have reached the 150 mark. Beckett, despite overpowering stuff, has a history of running out of gas around the 150-180 inning mark (his career high is 178, coming into this year). That’s not a track record worthy of the Sox’ recent contract extension.

Yesterday, Francona ran household name, Jason Johnson, out to the bump in game one. This is a guy so valuable to his team that after the game, he was cut lose, being designated for assignment after another substandard outing. While his 3-12 mark and 6.35 ERA are certainly the marks of a guy worthy of the scrapheap, why would you as a manager pin your hopes for October on someone this ineffective? While Epstein has made some decent moves in the past, his recent track record offers ample ammunition for scrutiny.

Since the trading deadline has come and gone, all I’ve heard emanating from the lips of Theo and his apologists are that there are no pitchers available. No shit, Theo! That’s because Cory Lidle was snatched up by the Yankees and future hall-of-famer, Greg Maddux, is now donning Dodger blue and pitching like he did a decade ago. A casual glance at the standings should have given Cleo (I mean, Theo) an idea what teams might be in the market to dump salary, or part with pitching for some prospects. Speaking of prospects, I’m sick and tired of hearing all the talk about Epstein not wanting to “mortgage the future for the present.” The future is all speculative. The present is that you are sniffing the Yankees’ hindquarters and battling with Chicago and Minnesota for the chance of playing in the post-season. There's no guarantee that you'll ever be this close, next year, or for years to come. A more experienced and skilled GM would have recognized that and not have been so enamored with the likes of Lester, Hansen and Delcarmen, who’ve done nothing of much value at the major league level other than light up the radar gun and get hit, in Hansen’s case and give his team 120-pitch, five-inning outings consistently, in Lester’s case. Delcarmen, if he had any real value, would be able to do more than fill a middle relief role that traditionally had been the last vestiges of the careers for 35+ pitchers on the downside of their careers, not a so-called prospect.

Contrast the Red Sox pitching, which now is forced to rely on geriatric left-handers like David Wells to chew up innings, with wild card contenders, Minnesota and Chicago. With Johann Santana pitching 7 innings, or more, in nearly 70 percent of his starts and former ace, Brad Radke (who is pitching with a torn labrum, btw), giving them solid starts of late, not to mention rookie phenom Francisco Liriano (currently on the DL), along with a #4 starter like Carlos Silva, the Twins have the superior pitching. Chicago counters with Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia, not a bad threesome to pin their hopes on for repeating as World Champions, if they can win the race to the finish with Minnesota.

Back to Francona. This is a guy whose handling of pitchers makes me look back fondly on the Grady Little years. Anytime any of his starters begins getting a whiff of 100 pitches, Francona’s into his bullpen, chewing it up, not recognizing that you might need some of these guys for the stretch-run. Francona’s been doing this since April. Particularly with Schilling and Beckett. How many times has he taken Schilling out after six, when he wasn’t at, or barely over the 100-pitch mark? And then there’s Beckett. A 24-year-old guy who throws 97 ought to be able to give you regular outings of 115 to 120 pitches. Instead, they baby this guy, which with his track record, might be a good thing. This only furthers my post so far about the Sox. If you have a guy as your #2 guy that can’t consistently get you into the 7th, you’ve got some problems, especially when the guys at the back of your rotation are 43-year-old David Wells and Jon “I’ll give you five innings” Lester.

I want to say something about the entire philosophy of pitching at the big league level that’s totally fucked. Looking back at historical prototypes for pitchers like Schilling and Beckett, you naturally settle on Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. Ryan, particularly early in his career, routinely had outings where his pitch count was in the 150 to 175 range. He pitched several ball games where he threw well over 200 pitches. This is the same guy that was still throwing in the mid-90s at the age of 45! Clemens’ career was very similar, although he didn’t have the pitch counts that Ryan did. It all comes down to how these guys were developed.

The modern pitchers, guys like Hansen, Delcarmen, Lester and even Papelbon (who in his current role of throwing 20 pitches per outing and racking up 80+ innings for the year is an absolute waste of his Clemens-esque talent), are handled with kid gloves at their minor league stops in Portland and Pawtucket. If you want to use Papelbon out of the pen (stupid and not anything I’d ever support as manager), then get Hansen up pitch-wise so he can give you six, seven innings per outing. Personally, I think Hansen is a bust, but that’s just me. Unlike many Sox-watchers, I’ve actually coached players and made personnel moves at a level above T-ball. I know what 19, 20 and 21 year-old arms are capable of. Hell, 37-year-old John Carriero (of Patriot Mutual fame) could probably go out and give the Sox more quality innings than 75 percent of the current crop of “prospects.”

I’ve gone on longer than I wanted to, but I wanted to weigh in and bring some reality to this never-ending dysfunctional dialogue that goes on about the Red Sox. The Sox pitching sucks, you can’t contend with two starters, Terry Francona is a sorry handler of pitchers (as well as managing a game) and Theo ain’t all that the Nation thinks he is.

Give it another two weeks and see if I’m not right about this. Hell, give it another three days and I think you might begin to get on board with what I’m telling ‘ya. Unless you are as delusional as most other Sox’ fans that is.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Buffeted by bureaucracy

In the past, I’ve taken more than my fair share of potshots at governmental officials. It’s ironic that I currently find myself serving in a quasi-governmental capacity in my new position. While I’m not specifically part of the state system, my new role finds me operating within the parameters of state and local government.

Fortunately for me, my boss appears to be a real asset. A “recovering academic” as he likes to refer to himself, from his former days as a university dean, he epitomizes what government ought to be—focused, given to results and not beholden to regulation and red tape. Having said that, I’m aware of the myriad of rules and regulations that have the potential of fencing me in and limiting my effectiveness in my current capacity.

After spending much of my first week or so being introduced to movers and shakers and people who have reputations for getting things done, I had my first taste of what I can only imagine soviet-style bureaucracy to have been like. Better, what passes for the government that so many Americans like to beat up on.

Yesterday’s meeting was filled with many folks who have worked in the cocoon of state government for much of their employment careers. Rather than look at ways to get things done, they seem to be fixated on rules, regulations, and take comfort in obsessing about dotting I’s and crossing T’s. They welcomed my introduction and brief overview of my duties with the awkwardness of a fart in church.

For my own sanity and if I have any hope of making my time in this position meaningful, I’ve adopted my boss’s mantra on tackling the tasks of my job—proceed until apprehended.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The fog of fear and its effectiveness as an agent of control

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.
--BERTRAND RUSSELL, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish

If we let things terrify us, life will not be worth living
--SENACA, The Epistles

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.
--AUNG SAN SUU KYI, Freedom from Fear

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.
--EDMUND BURKE, On the Sublime and Beautiful


With this week's terrorist "plot" and subsequent ratcheting up of the rhetoric of fear and talk once more or "the war on terrah," I found this interesting piece at Living With War Today.

LWW Today, August 13, 2006
by, RB Warford

LWW has been watching the news as have millions around the world. We did some research and the latest "TERROR" threat (liquid based explosives) seems to be something the US government has known about for a while and is not a really a surprise. What is surprising is the sudden interest in making people scared of this danger now.

The extreme closeness of these events and related terror alert announcements to important elections in US and voter confidence in Britain relating to Prime Minister Blair is notable. LWW has learned that the knowledge and use of these explosives by our own government and governments around the world is commonplace. Why we have not been protected by Homeland Security thus far against the possible threat of a liquid based explosive is a curiosity.

Just read the following description of Fixor, a liquid based explosive, and you too may wonder why we are just now reacting to a threat that is so obvious.

LWW has been watching the news as have millions around the world. We did some research and the latest "TERROR" threat (liquid based explosives) seems to be something the US government has known about for a while and is not a really a surprise. What is surprising is the sudden interest in making people scared of this danger now. The extreme closeness of these events and related terror alert announcements to important elections in US and voter confidence in Britain relating to Prime Minister Blair is notable. LWW has learned that the knowledge and use of these explosives by our own government and governments around the world is commonplace. Why we have not been protected by Homeland Security thus far against the possible threat of a liquid based explosive is a curiosity. Just read the following description of Fixor, a liquid based explosive, and you too may wonder why we are just now reacting to a threat that is so obvious.

FIXOR ®--

FIXOR® is a two-component explosive kit, based on a flammable liquid. It has been designed to replace the use of plastic explosives and block TNT as traditional demining and UXO explosive charges. Unlike ammonium nitrate based binary explosives and traditional explosives:

FIXOR® can be transported around the world by any method, including commercial passenger aircraft. This makes FIXOR® rapidly available to those Customers who require safe, secure, single-purpose, demolition explosives throughout the world. FIXOR® Explosive self-neutralizes after a period of time, becoming a non-explosive. This unique characteristic of FIXOR® is very important to those Customers concerned with the proliferation of explosives-based terrorist devices.

WHAT WE KNEW--

Team FIXOR® is pleased to announce that demonstrations of FIXOR® have been witnessed by EOD Specialists from the Canadian Department of National Defense, US Air Force, US Army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, and private EOD/Demining corporations during the past 12 months. Team FIXOR® is currently negotiating contracts with a variety of organizations around the world for the provision of FIXOR®, and we are pleased with the international response FIXOR® has received to date. MREL is committed to reducing the traditionally high costs of explosives required to safely neutralize landmines and UXO in blow-in-place EOD operations throughout the world.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW--

We don't know why a Dept of Homeland Security terror alert has now been activated as if the threat of liquid based explosives was an unforeseen threat against the world. We don't know why warnings and precautions did not take place long before the story of the arrests in Britain. Are we being mis-led? You be the decider.

All or nothing

I’ve had a number of thoughtful comments in response to my post, “Al Gore’s Shell Game,” which I used to write about the debate over a proposed wind power project in the Carrabasset Valley region of Maine.

A recent commenter, posting anonymously, brought up some issues I wanted to address. I think they are germane to the discussion and it also presents me with an opportunity to clarify a couple of my original points.

I made the point that the wind farm project should go forward, because it provided us with an energy alternative and one that would lessen our use of coal, or petroleum and not contribute to global warming. This person took issue and shared the following comment.

This [the premise that wind doesn’t add to global warming] is just patently false. one does not just wave a wand and have the infrastructure appear. The raw materials for a wind farm and its transmission lines have to mined with machines; machines that invariably run on oil. The insulation that wraps the transmission lines is derived from petroleum. The cement required to seat the windmills on requires oil to manufacture and deliver. Ultimately all current and proposed components of alternatives to oil consumption are dependent upon oil for their manufacture to begin with.”

I would have to agree with this comment, as my enthusiasm for wind got the better of me. I know better and have written about those very issues, particularly last summer, when I was reading Jim Kunstlers, “The Long Emergency.” Kunstler delves into that very issue in the chapter about why there are no viable alternatives to oil, as a cheap and abundant source of energy.

Ceding a point to the anonymous poster, however, I’ll clarify my original point. While wind isn’t a “perfect” alternative, it is still an alternative that is worth trying. I have read extensively about peak oil and I’m aware of the issues that the end of cheap oil poses to our society and yes, our civilization. Anonymous goes on in his/her comments, “My own feeling is that the children of the future might actually be better served by just weaning off the industrial mammary altogether. Who actually proved that life is more fulfilling as a post industrial inhabitant compared to pre industrial standards? I've lived off the grid and in a less than permanent structure. It was the most difficult period of my existence. It was also the most rewarding. The drive to preserve as much of our current form of existence may actually end up obliterating the very set of conditions that allowed life to arise in the first place. I think it would be wiser to act to live on fundamentally less, rather than trying to preserve every fraction possible. For that, I say no to wind....”

This last part is where I have a concern and I want to speak to the need for every question to be settled by an “either, or” solution. I think this is dangerous and I believe that this tendency is where many of our current issues get bogged down.

I’m not sure how our society will ever “wean itself off the industrial mammary” without being forced to, either by the gradual decrease of cheap oil coming from the spigot, or government mandating that American consumers use less gasoline, build smaller homes and waste less petroleum by our current consumption-based societal model.

When faced with an "either, or" proposition like the one that anonymous presents, the average person, with little or no knowledge of peak oil, alternative options for energy, or experience living a simpler lifestyle, will reject the argument and continue their merry march to perdition.

We can choose to do nothing, which is where we are currently at, or we can begin to organize and bring the issues surrounding our current consumptive way of life into the public square. While I did take a cheap shot at Al Gore, maybe his movie will have the affect of making global warming a topic that ordinary Americans begin to think about and consider?

While wind and other alternatives, such as solar, are far from perfect, they certainly are superior to the members of the current administration, who are committed to having us revert to coal as an “alternative” to cheap oil. The damage that coal mining has produced (and continues to cause) to the environment (think Eastern Kentucky) is why we need begin to think outside of the box when it comes to producing energy.

I applaud those who have “gone off the grid,” however, not everyone is able, or willing to go to that extreme. I don’t think we have to demand that everyone cut their connections to their local public utility, or kill their televisions, to take steps in the direction of energy independence.

While thinking about the comments and pondering the “either, or” dilemma surrounding various discussions and issues, I came across an organization called Democracy Maine that sounds interesting. While I don’t know a lot about what they do, I did find their stand against extremism intriguing.

I plan on exploring the organization and hopefully, reporting back with more information.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Working for a living

Since I am re-entering the world of full-time work today (after a hiatus of 2.5 years devoted to freelance writing and other contract work), I thought this article on the nature of work might be pertinent.

It's not the first time that I've read something like this, indicting "the false gospel of work" as the writer, Gene McCarraher, calls it. He does certainly get to the heart of some of the issues surrounding technology and how we are "on" 24/7, as if our only purpose was to be a production cog.

I hope the fact that it is found in Christianity Today, isn't offputting for some.

As for my journey back into a more traditional work arrangement and whether it will affect my writing, the answer is, yes it will. Not so much that I won't write, as I plan to devote my evenings and weekends to projects, as well as maintaining my freelance ventures, albeit in a somewhat reduced capacity. I'll have more to say about this in future posts, I'm sure.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Maine myth and The Lobster Coast

While it might be difficult to imagine Maine as anything other than a destination for tourists, especially if you are new to the state, it wasn’t always the case. Unlike our neighbors south of here, Maine was slow to enter the 20th century, at least economically. With its emphasis on traditional industries such as fishing, farming and logging, the economic areas of the state dependent on those industries have found it difficult to find replacements when livelihoods based on these dried up. Washington County, areas west of the Penobscot and regions of Western Maine are still struggling to find viable economic replacements for lifelong residents. For far too many, a low-wage retail economy is what many have been forced to turn to.

Recently, I’ve been reading Colin Woodard’s The Lobster Coast. Woodard captures the Maine that once existed as well as any author I’ve read, writing about the state. Woodard traces the state’s history of its people back before New England was settled. With a very readable writing style that avoids meaningless historical minutia, Woodard still gives his readers a healthy dose of history, while painting a portrait that shows us where we’ve come from and, unfortunately, where we are headed.

Over my blogging career, I’ve posted a lot of my thoughts and concerns about the state where I’ve spent most of my adult life. Recognizing that Maine is changing and becoming less like the place where I grew up, occasionally, others have cautioned me about falling prey to the nostalgia bug. Maine was not an idyllic place when I grew up and it never has been. It’s a state where natives have had to scratch, claw and hew an existence that could be both backbreaking, as well as tenuous. Still, there was something in that type of life that made us different from most other places, away from here.

What I appreciate about Woodard’s book is his ability to deconstruct some of the myths about the state perpetuated by the likes of the Maine Department of Tourism and Yankee Magazine, among others. A native of Maine, who has become a well-respected journalist writing on global affairs for a number of national publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as The Chronicle of Higher Education, he obviously hasn’t forgotten his roots, back in the Pine Tree State. In fact, you'll find his regular column, Parallel 44 about Maine-related topics in Working Waterfront, a monthly paper native to Maine's coast.

His care of his subject matter and attention to accuracy were evident to me. Having done my own share of first-person research, I was impressed with the number of people he spoke to, as well as his footnoting of his sources, in the back of the book.

One such person who he interviewed and writes about in the book is Zoe Zanidakis. For those of you who ride the waves of pop culture and reality-based television, you’ll recognize Zanidakis as the resident of Monhegan Island who was one of nine contestants chosen from a field of over 50,000, to be a member of the cast of Survivor. As Woodard writes in the book, obviously, the fellow contestants, many of whom didn’t have a lick of survival experience, were intimidated by Zanidakis and voted her off the faux survival setting in the South Pacific. Not a big deal for her, as she returned to her fishing village on Monhegan and was back behind the wheel of her boat, The Equinox.

For me, one of the best parts of the book, was the chapter titled, "Brave Old World", where Woodard carefully considers the obvious tension that exists between maintaining our uniqueness, which attracts people here in the first place and the recent tendency, particularly south of Augusta, to become just another extension of suburban Boston.

Maine continues to change, as young people leave the state, only to be replaced by wealthy retirees and young families with children. For instance, York County has grown by 13 percent since the early 90s, while many coastal communities, particularly Midcoast Maine, have grown at around 10 percent. One in ten residents of most southern and Midcoast counties have moved here since 1990. This leads to the ongoing suburbanization of our state that contributes to sprawl. In fact, Greater Portland had the worst sprawl of any area in the Northeast, according to a Brookings Institute study, conducted in 2001.

As Woodard ponders at the end of his book, the clich├ęd Mainer—rugged, individualistic, and outdoorsy, with his non-nonsense practical dress and ways—is actually the polar opposite of the Mainer that you actually find inhabiting our suburban communities. With their manicured lawns, office-bound way-of-life, much of it spent in climate-controlled office buildings, today’s Mainer has no connection, or even a clue about the Maine of days gone by.

One passage that stood out near the end was this one:

Woodard writes, “I don’t know whether one can “save” Maine’s land, sea, and culture from the forces that are dismantling it. I know that things change—places, people, ecosystems—and the adaptation has been the hallmark of success ince the universe was born. The Gulf of Maine didn’t even exist ten thousand years ago, the Maine coast less than half that time, with Europeans living on its shores for a mere four centuries. If the native Mainer is a nascent, homegrown culture or ethnicity, it's one born over little more than two centuries, shaped by military, economic, and environmental challenges every bit as serious as the ones before them now.

What worries me about today’s crisis is their fearsome combination of speed and intensity, Coastal Maine has become integrated with the global economy at a time when people and capital move at an astounding pace, overwhelming zoning boards and fisheries managers alike. The unquenchable demand of Asia’s great fish markets creates and destroys fisheries for urchins, whelks, and other strange creatures before scientists can even develop a management plan. A fishing hamlet is transformed into a retirement colony so fast that the newcomers never even realize what was there and what was lost.”


This historical amnesia, I’m afraid, caused by the rapid acceleration of our world, will ultimately be Maine’s undoing. Once we become just like other states to our south, then what is the benefit of living here? While the coastline and natural beauty are breathtaking, if private landowners restrict access, much of it will become off limits to average Mainers like me and many others. Wouldn't it make more sense to move somewhere else, where the opportunities to make more money, are more abundant than Maine's? One can always come back here to visit.

As our state continues to change, arguably for the worse in many areas, it becomes difficult to stay for many of us who grew up loving what it once stood for. I urge you to take the time to read Woodard’s book. It’s an important contribution to understanding who we were, who we are and possibly, what we are becoming.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Al Gore's shell game

This summer’s heat has certainly added anecdotal ammunition to the dire predictions of a global warm-up of the planet. While there are those who continue to posit that these “doom and gloomers” are fraudulent and make their claims to promote an ideological agenda, the naysayers could also be accused of the same. Regardless of one’s thoughts about the future of the planet, there is some merit in investigating the science and developing alternatives to our consumptive way of life.

I’m not a scientist, or even scientifically inclined, so I sometimes get lost in the miasma of reports and newspaper accounts of conferences devoted to climatological change. Fortunately for me, I'm a reader and I'll plow through material long after many have jumped ship for their favorite reality program. For the majority to get on board, any theory cloaked in scientific garb requires simplification. If done well, then the masses will put aside their anti-scientific biases and line up to embrace it.

Al Gore isn’t the first person who has come down the primrose path to warn us of our impending doom. Others, like Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, hell, even the "late, great" Hal Lindsey, have popularized the apocalypse for the masses. Amazingly, despite these warnings and prophetic calls to, “turn back,” like the lemmings we are, we gaily sprint towards the precipice, ready to take the plunge off the cliff.

Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, is this summer’s Fahrenheit 911 for the liberals among us. Preaching primarily to the “converted,” this unconventional blockbuster, breaking down the hard stuff for the scientifically-challenged among us, has opened all over America to rave reviews. [For the purpose of full disclosure, I have not seen Gore's movie]

For those of you living in a cave, or at least ensconced in your McMansion, replete with your multiple air conditioners (just an aside-real Mainuh’s don’t have air conditioners in their home—we install windows, strategically placed), Gore’s film makes some of the following points.

*The earth’s glaciers are melting
*This is bad news for the polar bears among us
*Each year, we set new records for heat (just this summer, the U.S. has broken many records for high temperatures, across our nation)
*Al Gore’s just a regular guy

I know I’m being a bit facetious here at Al Gore’s expense and actually, I’m using poor Al as a cheap ploy to draw readers in. I’m ambivalent, actually, about Al. As politicians go, he’s certainly not the worst of the lot. Too cerebral and someone who apparently struggles to project the “real” Al Gore to the masses, the film, if nothing else, is a relatively inexpensive pre-2008 commercial for Gore, if he decides to toss his hat into the upcoming horse race for president.

It’s the Automobile, stupid!

Despite the best of intentions by Al Gore and his acolytes, North Americans are addicted to their cars. Regardless how many books, lectures, or even movies we see about the melting ice cap, rising sea level, or dangerous levels of CO2, we just keep driving to our hearts content. Even a true believer like Al Gore, god bless him, can’t wean himself from his SUV’s, limousines, or private jet. Not to indict only Mr. Gore, many card-carrying members of the environmental set talk the talk, but rarely, walk the walk. Some of this is structural. In rural states like Maine, if one is going to maintain any measure of meaningful employment, it most certainly will require some automobile travel to get there. Public transportation is a dirty word in these parts.

Despite talk of commuter rail and other methods of mass transport, Mainers (and most other Americans) prefer the privacy model inherent in one person/one automobile. With modern automobiles providing the latest in gadgets, comfort items (like A/C), why the hell would anyone want to pile into a crowded bus, with smelly, strange fellow commuters (if that’s even an option, where you live)?

If we can’t, or won’t wean ourselves from the internal combustion engine, then we sure as hell better find a way to power the suckers with something other than gasoline (or ethanol, for that matter). Better yet, to reduce the level of CO2 we are dumping into the atmosphere, we need to find alternative methods to generate our electricity, especially when we continue to exceed previous models of usage. Which leads me to my next point—why won’t the environmentalists help save the environment?

NIMBY-ism and wind power—conjoined at the hip

Wind power is clean, quiet and economical. Rather than generating electricity via coal, or nuclear, wind offers a clear alternative to other forms of power generation that environmentalists would seem likely to enthusiastically embrace. Unless, of course, it means putting up windmills in your backyard, or on a mountain with a picturesque view. Then, they are anti-enviromentalists that rival the most right-wing, anti-scientific Americans that we know.

Like the opposition generated on Martha’s Vineyard, coming from high-profile “environmental advocates” such as Robert and Ted Kennedy, Walter Cronkite and others, a proposed wind farm in northern Maine is attracting opposition from the very people that should be supporting it. Probably the very demographic that Al Gore’s movie is targeting—but I digress.

In today’s Portland Press Herald, several opponents of Maine Mountain Power’s proposed wind farm offered a variety of reasons why this project shouldn’t be built, at least in its current location. The 30-turbine project, which could generate enough clean electricity to power 40,000 homes, drew over 300 people to yesterday’s Land Use Regulation Commission’s meeting in Carrabasset Valley.

Opponents, like Sally Iverson, who lives on Eustis Ridge, located near the proposed site, had the following concerns about the project.

“We are blessed with panoramic views of the mountains,” she said. According to the newspaper account, this artist is concerned that the mountains, which have served as her inspiration, would be spoiled by wind turbines “that are taller than a 40-story building.”

Jo Craemer, also from Eustis (what’s in the water here, folks?), described the turbines as “visual pollution that will be in our faces 365 days a year, and they won’t produce energy 365 days.” [No, but the project will produce some needed alternative energy that will alleviate some of the air and ozone issues associated with coal-powered electricity, not to mention the effects of acid rain common to Maine.]

Saving the best for last, as well as illustrating the type of interlopers that are overtaking rural areas, like Maine, is this over-the-top comment from Jim Hutzler, a flatlander from Alexandria, Virginia, who owns a camp in Oquossoc, nearby.

“This is a question of right and wrong, good and evil,” he said. “God’s country must not be sacrificed to satisfy man’s lust to consume. (This project) will leave the land wounded and scarred forever.”

[I hate to inform this gentleman, as he doesn’t seem inclined to much reason, but much of our land has already been wounded and scarred. I’d commend his passion if he put this much energy into opposing box store development, as he is this proposed wind farm. But, I must also keep in mind that one man’s lust to consume, is another man’s means of livelihood.]

Fortunately, some voices of reason were apparent, such as Senator Ethan Strimling (D-Portland). Strimling’s family owns land and has a home in the area, with a back porch that looks directly at the mountains where the wind farm is slated to be built.

“The air we breathe is more important than the subjective asthetic,” he said. “If we can give up a little bit of our view to make sure that our children and our children’s children breathe cleaner air, then I say let the turbines rise.”

And what would a public hearing in Maine be without someone representing our former way of life, standing up and offering some good ‘ole Yankee common sense.

Countering Mr. Hutzler, part-time Mainer, was New Sharon farmer, Fred Hardy.

Said Mr. Hardy, “If anyone had been opposed to development 50 years ago, then the scars of clear cuts up and down Sugarloaf Mountain would not be here. Farming’s made me an environmentalist by necessity,” he said.

“Global Warming is not something I have ever been warm and cozy to, but there’s something to it. The wind farm is one way we can produce energy from a renewable resource that won’t contribute to global warming.”

Answering the critics of the project, who claim that Mainers wouldn’t receive the benefits of the power generated, Hardy, as befitting the homespun wisdom common to many of his sort added this.

“No matter where the power gets used, the fact remains that it doesn’t contribute to global warming or the use of coal or oil. If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where? Hardy concluded.

Yes, where indeed?

[Information and quotes for this post were taken from the Portland Press Herald and Lewiston Sun Journal, dated 8/3/06; some information on Al Gore's new movie was gathered from a Washington Post article, dated 1/26/06]

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Some new voices

I've made a couple of changes to my "links" section of the blog. Gone is Clusterfuck Nation, Jim Kunstler's blog that formerly focused on peak oil issues and the concerns he raised in his book, which came out last year, The Long Emergency.

Kunstler's thoughts about architecture, suburban sprawl and the end of our easy motoring lifestyle that will accompany the loss of cheap oil were always provocative and worth some time sifting through. Unfortunately, JK of late has abandoned what he knows best and has taken to writing some dreadful essays about the situation in the Middle East. Without going into unnecessary detail, I've reached the end of the line with CFN and Kunstler's pro-Zionist views of geopolitics.

Kunstler's blog generates a tremendous amount of dialogue and debate in the comments section. I've added a new blogger who regularly tried to add some cogency to the increasingly myopic discussions taking place over at CFN. Check out Weaseldog's Lair when you have an opportunity.

I've been a fan of Living on Less for quite some time. Asfo_del, has been one of my favorite reads in the blogosphere from the start. I always learn new things and appreciate her very personal writing on a variety of topics. Recently, she posted something from a blogger named Joe Bageant that knocked my socks off. I've been reading through some of his back posts and am appreciating his unique take on class in the U.S. I also have learned that he has a book coming out with a very provocative title. If it is similar to what I've read recently on his blog, it should be a worthwhile read.

If your blog reading has grown stale, then check out Living on Less, as well as my newest links. I hope they inspire and inform you and expand your understanding of the complex place and time that we find ourselves in.