development, dissipation, lost, unfortunate

Necessary Bohemia

The Hitch is right; San Francisco hasn’t got it. Not anymore.

From Vanity Fair (the emphasis is my own):

It isn’t possible to quantify the extent to which society and culture are indebted to Bohemia. In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers, developers, chain stores, generic restaurants, and railway terminals. This little quarter should instead be the preserve of—in no special order—insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; alcoholics and addicts and deviants and the proprietors who understand them; aspirant painters and musicians and the modest studios that can accommodate them; ladies of easy virtue and the men who require them; misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships. Though it should be no disadvantage to be young in such a quartier, the atmosphere should not by any means discourage the veteran.

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China, disaster, earth, environment, international, unfortunate

Heavy Weather in Sichuan

Gray skies are a common feature of many photos coming from Sichuan. Word is that it’s been raining.

The destruction that follows an earthquake’s shaking is often the result of fire. San Francisco in 1906 is the classic example: in much of the city, whatever the shaking didn’t break later went up in flames.  The risk exists today: imagine the consequences of dense development, broken gas mains, and exposed electrical lines or errant sparks (one of the 1906 fires was the “ham and eggs” fire, supposedly started by a family cooking breakfast). Then throw in some broken water mains and a dry season. That’s it.

Right now, it’s not a dry season in Sichuan, and no word of fire has come out. That’s a good thing. The steep-sided topography would tend to promote the spread of fires. If there were fires, it’s possible that the rain could be helpful.

But the rain can also be harmful in sloped regions like this one. An earthquake as large as this would shake a lot of stuff loose, creating landslides–and by all accounts it has. But this can be intensified if the ground is saturated rather than dry. If the rain continues, along with aftershocks, the people of Sichuan are in a precarious position–in danger both from shaking below and landslides above. David Petley, a geography professor at Durham University, predicts a bad landslide summer in Sichuan. He highlights the photo below, from Xinhua, as showing landslides. You can see the evidence, those patches of fresh earth on the mountain sides. More photos at his site.

Xinhua photos indicating extent of landslides.

And now there is talk of another cyclone hitting Burma.

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China, corruption, crime, development, disaster, earth, environment, geography, international, life, lost, unfortunate

An Unquiet Earth

Hard times around the globe these days. Earthquake in China. Cyclone in Burma. Tornados in the U.S. An enormous volcano on the verge of collapse in Chile.

Over the past several months, I’ve been working on a story about a possible earthquake here in the Bay Area. One thing I’ve learned is starkly visible in Sichuan right now: When an earthquake strikes, it’s not the earth that kills you. It’s everything else around you.

In the short term, this typically means buildings.* In China, construction quality will be a part of the discussion about what happened. Corrupt developers, local officials, and cut corners should come as no surprise–I’ve seen alleged evidence of it firsthand. The Guardian covers that angle. As one angry parent told a reporter:

“These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn’t collapse – the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don’t have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster – this is done by humans.”

In China, some call it “tofu” building. Or, as Josh Chin notes:

“Toufu dregs”-style construction (豆腐渣工程) has long been a source of public anger in China, and a potent symbol of corruption at the local level. (Witness the fuming controversy over shoddy electric poles during this winter’s freak snow storms in the south.) And now it appears the widespread practice whereby officials and developers profit through architectural corner-cutting may have cost a few extra tens of thousands of lives.

An erupting volcano can kill–namely through a phenomenon known as a pyroclastic flow. Cyclone Nargis was accompanied by a storm surge–this is what caused much of the destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta. But that damage was magnified by the loss of mangrove forests, which provide some resistance to these forces. The mangroves have been cut away to make room for development. This time, the initial round of damage was increased not by what humans have built, but by what they’ve taken away. And in Burma, human intention contributes to the continued suffering.

Boulder in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan. Kyodo News.*Update: Robert Siegel reports that the village of Gui Xi, in a steep-sided valley, was heavily damaged by displaced boulders and large landslides. (The photo at left, by Kyodo News, is from the city of Mianyan, Sichuan.) The most vivid and gripping English-language reporting from Sichuan is coming from NPR. All Things Considered was originally planning to broadcast features from Chengdu next week. When the earthquake struck, they had many resources in place.

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dissipation, education, journalism, money, really?, unfortunate

Follow the Money. Or Breadcrumbs. Or Whatever.

Matt Krupnick published an article about the fallout from the dean search at Berkeley’s journalism school in the Contra Costa Times yesterday (“UC Berkeley mum on why dean hire bailed out”). I think it’s worth a read, if only for the summing up that hasn’t appeared anywhere else–and he did a good job considering few would talk to him. He made it onto Romenesko, so people are taking notice.

We might as well pull out all the old journalistic shibboleths for this awkward situation. Is the cover-up worse than the crime? What did people know and when did they know it? Follow the money? Funny how so many tropes stem from Watergate.

The most interesting piece of new information in that story was about money, and it came from Provost George Breslauer. Both John Peabody and I mentioned Cynthia Gorney’s question to Breslauer at last week’s school-wide meeting. She asked if he could guarantee that the university would keep funding coming in. “Done,” he told us, sparking a round of applause.

In my post, I thought it worth noting that “how much, for how long, and for what was not completely clear.”

Turns out Krupnick’s reporting has dug up one parameter: “I’m not prepared to step in and now pour money in to ensure that everything Orville [Schell, the former dean] raised money for keeps going,” Breslauer told him.

That runs counter to the impression he gave at the meeting. “Grandstanding,” one professor called it yesterday.

But who’s asking questions? Or rather, who’s allowed to ask questions, considering what’s been said around the school? This situation has the potential to become, as George W. Bush says, “an accountability moment.” So the buck stops where?

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beach, energy, environment, journalism, San Francisco, unfortunate

Bunker Fuel? What?

In my last post, I mentioned that the spill isn’t just oil, but bunker fuel. What’s bunker fuel?

It’s the stuff that runs big engines, like in an oil tanker or cargo ship. And it’s cheap, which is why these high volume users use it.

Last year, I interviewed Dave Culp, an engineer who designs ship sails (he started Kiteship), and we talked a little about bunker fuel. According to him, this is residual fuel–stuff that’s “left over after everything’s distilled out of crude. So sulfur, palladium, iron, even sand stays in the stuff that gets sold and burned in these ships. There’s 900 times as much sulfur in a gallon of residual fuel than in gasoline.”

“But ships don’t really have a choice because the industry is built around this cheap, plentiful fuel source,” he added.

It’s highly viscous. Imagine this thick, black, grainy shit. That’s what’s out there, in addition to the lighter gas or oil that’s slicking on the surface and covering the birds. Sfist is doing a good job of updating what’s happening on the beaches, where I’ve not made it yet. But I figure that’s what has washed up on shore, as seen in this photo from Sfist:

clump of oil


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anticipation, dissipation, education, irony, journalism, politics, really?, ridiculousness, unfortunate

Instant Void: When it comes to the Journalism School’s Dean, you’ve got questions, but we’ve got no answers

Wrote this on Tuesday:
John Peabody has a nice rundown of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s meeting on the surprise withdrawal of Dianne Lynch as incoming dean. She is, and will remain, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. To recap: Lynch was the favorite candidate among the finalists for the job to succeed Orville Schell. She withdrew late in the game. Provost George Breslauer discussed her reasons for withdrawing with her and convinced her to accept the position in May. Breslauer and the search committee got the UC Regents to approve what they felt was a generous compensation package and official appointment in the summer. Then they started the faculty review. Breslauer said they waited until they could be sure the money was in place before they initiated the review. And then she withdrew, again, last week, about two months before she was set to start, about 5 months after she accepted the job.

Breslauer, along with Vice Provost Shelly Zedeck, and interim dean and professor Neil Henry, a former Washington Post reporter, met with students, faculty, and staff for about 40 minutes Monday evening.

The meeting, according to an e-mail from Henry, was “to discuss the withdrawal and the school’s immediate future with the full school community.”

The discussion of the withdrawal consisted mainly of variations of the phrase, We can’t tell you what happened.

The school’s immediate future was never substantially addressed either. Professor Cynthia Gorney got Breslauer to confirm that program funding would continue, though how much, for how long, and for what was not completely clear. But there’s a promise. In any case, in the same e-mail that Henry sent informing us of the meeting, Henry wrote: “With much School planning and decision-making on hold in recent months pending Dianne’s arrival, I will now move to secure university financial support for various curricular and program initiatives during our continuing transition.” So no surprises there.

There were a handful of notable moments in the meeting, including Henry’s admonition that we should not be curious about rumors, nor should we ask questions about confidential information. Sometimes a person will kick away the dirt to reveal the bright shining line that exists between journalism and bureaucracy.

But all of this secrecy and uproar may have a more pernicious effect. Granted, Breslauer, et al., are bound by the University’s rules of confidentiality related to personnel matters, and thus can not tell us what happened. But Breslauer was careful in describing the timeline of this process (which I summed up above). And he noted that it was during the faculty review process, when materials presumably relating to a candidate’s professional history, are scrutinized by faculty, that she withdrew.

And that’s where the questions start pouring in.

Look at it this way. If one went through the process of getting a high profile job in one’s field, only to withdraw during the professional evaluation–when people are examining your work, maybe calling up a few old colleagues–the casual onlooker might then wonder if something unpleasant was discovered. If it were enough to disqualify someone from being a dean at Berkeley, one might wonder if it might be enough to disqualify that person from being dean anywhere. Yet due to the confidentiality surrounding personnel matters, that other school might not be similarly informed. (Or it might not have seen a problem where others did.) Meanwhile, the reputation of an accomplished administrator and new-media star hangs in the balance.

That’s the uncomfortable situation that Lynch is in, and since there is a void of substantial information, rumors and assertions rush to fill it.

Worse, it may all be the result of bad timing. So Lynch withdrew during the review phase rather than the salary phase. Her motivation may have had nothing at all to do with the review. But because it happened during her professional review, it’s difficult to shake the implication of impropriety. And that, inevitably, is where many questions are headed.

But wait: What if Lynch’s withdrawal didn’t have anything to do with her record? Why withdraw then? Family, yes, which is what she’s told us. (When Karl Rove resigned, citing family reasons, Sara Schaefer Munoz mused about the popularity of the family reasons reason on the Wall Street Journal’s The Juggle blog.)

Could it be the Journalism School, itself? Possibly. Over the course of this whole dean search, a fair amount of dirty laundry has been aired, most of it having to do with the usual departmental politics endemic to any academic institution, though some of it has to do with the nature of journalism and journalism training. If you had a good thing going at your current job, and saw that the new job was rife with vitriolic, internecine feuding, maybe little Ithaca College isn’t so bad, after all. Why leave upstate New York, four seasons, reasonable cost of living, for the big time at Berkeley, if that means trading it all in for a two-season, earthquake-prone den of dysfunction?

Or maybe it’s something else. But I guess that’s the point here.

As long as the confidentiality rules hold, then both sides are technically protected from any potential revelations that they’d just as soon keep hidden. But in the process, both sides risk losing face.


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art, history, ideas, language, life, poetry, talent, unfortunate

Enormous Changes, Last Minute: About Grace Paley

Grace Paley died two days ago. She was a sweet and humane poet and short story writer, one of those individuals for whom many will admit a familiarity with the name if not a specific knowledge of the work because some high school English teacher somewhere along the line (but a fan, truly) assigned a couple of her stories about the lives of working class New York women, narrated by those same working class New York women. But many others will remember her for a long time because they were great stories and great poems and illuminated a talent and a part of society that we would do well to remember–the Yiddish-inflected Jewish street and home life of New York in the 50s and 60s.

Grace was also an ardent activist, particularly for the cause of piece. During the Vietnam War she went to Hanoi on a peace mission to negotiate for the release of American prisoners. To learn more about her, I strongly recommend the obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post–the Post for its wit (really, Grace’s wit), and the Times for its sheer, uninhibited enthusiasm.

I first met Grace Paley in 2000 or 2001. She lived near my college during the later part of her life, in Thetford, Vermont, and we had a couple of friends in common. One of them, Cleopatra Mathis, introduced me to her after a reading by the poet Grace Schulberg. We were at a little reception, catered by a local African restaurant, with platters of doughy fried finger foods and fresh vegetables. Grace Paley wasn’t in much of a talking mood, but was still very warm and friendly. “Don’t forget to eat your vegetables,” she told me. And then she bit into a carrot.

I saw her again a few years later, in April 2003. During the new Iraq War, it turned out. And she was worried about me. It was like talking to a close family friend or favored great aunt who is in town for the night and really just wants to make sure I’m getting along OK: am I? really? OK?

She was in San Francisco to give a talk at the giant Temple Emanu-el. (I wrote a friend about it, and from that am I getting some of these comments.) She didn’t read much, except a short and excellent story about spending six days in jail, and a few poems by other people. But she did talk a lot, especially about current events, and she didn’t avoid any questions. When asked about US involvement in the domestic situations of other countries, she recalled meeting a Chilean truck driver who had a briefcase full of paper money from the CIA. She and her husband Bob Nichols were visiting Chile to learn about strawberry farming. This was 1973.

I think I must have been the youngest person in the audience, except for a few 12 year olds. Maybe I was the youngest person who went there voluntarily. One woman a bit older than me stood up and asked Grace how she felt about current events as a Jewish person. This woman was young and attractive and well-dressed and well-spoken and after Grace’s talk she was surrounded by complimentary old women who clucked and cooed over her. The question seemed to arouse a sense of approval from some sections of the audience, though not necessarily all. How do you feel about these things as a Jewish person?

And Grace said, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

Grace Paley grew up as a normal socialist Jewish girl, she said, and added that religion never was very important in her family. I think she also said that her parents were quite critical of religion. She did make her opinion on the Israel-Palestine problem clear by suggesting that we transplant the anti-war slogan “Bring our soldiers home” to the occupied territories: “Bring the settlers home.” (This was before Sharon started the settlement withdrawals.) An Israeli friend of hers pointed out that having those settlers integrated into regular Israeli society would drive everyone else crazy, so Grace switched gears: “Send them home. They’re all from Brooklyn, anyway.”

She then mentioned that a series of threats she had received for her criticism of the settlements were traced to a single phone booth at a college in Brooklyn.

I talked to her briefly afterward, and she signed my edition of Collected Poems. (The poet and professor Gary Lenhart gave me a copy of her Collected Stories a couple of years back, as well–there you’ll find much of what the critics rave about.). We talked for what seemed a long time, but was probably just 10 or 15 minutes. I could feel all the middle aged women there eyeing me suspiciously–why is he taking so long? Though by the time I talked to her, there was no line. No rush, I suppose, either, as she made time for everyone who wanted to speak with her.

She hadn’t shaken the Bronx inflections (one former New Yorker told me they all work to cultivate it long after they’ve left): How’s life, dahling, whatta ya doing, are ya making enough money, good luck, dahling, good luck to you.

*

Grace Paley figured in the first blog entry I ever wrote, on the occasion of the death of a playwright. In that little essay, I lamented not getting to meet these great and talented people who lived when I lived, but died before I could talk to them, and noted that when it came to Grace Paley, I was lucky. Another person I mentioned there was the poet Kenneth Koch.

Kenneth Koch wrote a lot about helping people–especially children and seniors–write poetry. Koch figured heavily in me getting to know the aforementioned Gary Lenhart. And a friend of mine used some of Kenneth Koch’s writings when he helped children learn creative writing. Through some circuitous conversation, we ended up talking a little about all that. I hadn’t talked or thought of Koch for a while. This was Wednesday, the same day Grace Paley died. She was 84.

*

“Here,” by Grace Paley. First published in the Massachusetts Review.

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sitting
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

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crime, dissipation, journalism, life, San Francisco, talent, unfortunate

Theft

In June, the Chronicle ran a good story about a woman who discovered—and pursued—the person who had stolen her identity. It is engaging to read and a lucky score for the Chronicle, a story like that, one that unfolds cinematically and neatly. There are advantages to being the only show in town, as far as full-fledged newspapers are concerned. Where else might we have heard this story, if not the Chronicle? The Examiner wouldn’t set aside the column space to do the story justice; local television wouldn’t have the minutes to spare; the blogs have to deal with the dumb rule that everything has to be short; and, frankly, there are no magazines in town that would have managed to fit the story into their pages–it’s not “big” enough to warrant a feature, but too long to cram into a short front-of-the-book piece (although, if following the trail of the identity thief meant you stopped at The City’s 10 Best Places to Eat/Shop/Fall in Love, things might be different).

Maybe there’s room for some other kind of publication that could produce stories like this.

It was written by Mike Weiss. Three months earlier, Weiss wrote about a waitress and bartender who stopped a man from drugging his date. But Weiss doesn’t only write about regular people outwitting the criminal element. He’s one of the best features writers at the Chronicle, possibly the best. He certainly seemed to have free reign for a reporter. His beat covered a little of everything in the Bay Area: San Francisco General Hospital, Gavin Newsom, passion, unsolved crime, solved crime, ash scattering, casualty notification officers, intelligent design, and Duarte’s olallieberry pies, among other things.  In short, he wrote what we vaguely call human interest stories, what editors even more vaguely call enterprise reporting, but what anyone who wants to be a reporter and actually likes to write dreams of getting paid to do–the closest thing around to the old Joseph Mitchell kind of reporting, the closest to the full-steam-ahead Talk of the Town piece.

So should it have come as a surprise that he’s part of the Chronicle‘s Summertime 2007 housecleaning?  Maybe not, but it’s too bad for those who bother to read what’s left of the Chronicle.

Frances Dinkelspiel posted a list of what appears to be all the staff who are leaving the Chronicle this summer. Besides Weiss, some of the others who I’m disappointed to see go include Anna Badkhen (now at the Globe), David Lazarus (going to the LA Times), Keay Davidson, Edward Epstein, Glen Martin, and what looks to be a significant chunk of the photo staff.

Only Catherine Bigelow and David Lazarus really got to say goodbye to their readers, through their columns. Mike Weiss used to have a column, too. And for that, he wrote his own farewell, six years ago. But there was an earlier column, on the 10th anniversary of the 1989 earthquake. He was in Candlestick Park when it struck. He wrote that all in attendance cheered when it was over. It was about close calls and survival.

“We had an opportunity to show what we were made of,” he wrote, “and we did. San Francisco survived to bicker another day. You and I are alive. It doesn’t get any better.”

The whole list after the jump. Continue reading

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crime, money, really?, San Francisco, unfortunate

The Car, Broken Into

The Chronicle‘s Matier and Ross reported this morning that California Attorney General Jerry Brown’s official car was broken into recently. It was parked in San Francisco’s Civic Center, “Right across from City Hall, in plain view of the mayor’s office,” he told the Chronicle.

Nearly everyone I know who owns a car in San Francisco has a story about a break-in. At an Easter dinner a few years ago, one of the guests was a customs officer who had been robbed several times. Once his car had been broken into, the hits kept coming. Anecdotally, that seems to be a common story: the same car is often targeted repeatedly. And shabbier cars may be more commonly robbed because they are an easier mark, compared to a more expensive and better protected Mercedes–at least, only the shabby cars have signs asking would-be robbers not to choose them and announcing that there is nothing of value inside. But the customs officer’s favorite detail was that the thieves took everything–bad CDs, even family photos–except for the books. In every instance, there was the same box of books and it was always passed over by the robbers.

A college classmate visiting from out of town was at that dinner. He was driving through California. Of course we discovered that his SUV had been broken into during our dinner. Whoever broke in took a sleeping pad, the kind you roll out while camping, but not the rather expensive-looking skis that were in the vehicle.  The customs officer noted that it would look too suspicious if a junkie were seen carrying skis around the city.

And so it was that a couple of weeks ago, the week before I left for China, somebody broke into Alisa’s car. It was parked on our street, just two doors down from our house. We would not have realized it so soon, but a neighbor knocked on our door and asked if the afflicted car was ours.

We cleaned up the car by about 1 a.m. and drove down to the SFPD’s Mission Station, where the desk officer was profoundly unmoved by the situation. He tried to dissuade us from making any report. But Alisa insisted on at least producing some record of the break-in.

After hearing so many stories of car break-ins, I wondered if there were any statistics available for San Francisco. But I didn’t bother to investigate as my China trip loomed.

But now Matier and Ross have done the investigating for me. They write:

According to police statistics, so far this year, thieves have broken into cars in San Francisco an average of 32 times a day.

“That’s unacceptable,” said mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard, “but it does show a 28 percent drop from last year,” when cars were being busted into 43 times a day.

“That said, we are sorry about what happened to the attorney general,” Ballard said.

So 32 by 365 (assuming the average does not change for the rest of this year) predicts 11,680 break-ins for 2007 (compared to 15,695 last year).

*

The next morning I called three places to get an estimate for repairing the broken window (front passenger side window). The first, A-1 Glass in the Bayview, estimated about $145, including installation. The second, Glass Pro, across from the Hall of Justice, said it would be $215, but I could get a discount to $178. The woman on the other end then asked me if I’d checked anywhere else. A-1 quoted me at $145, I said. We’ll do it for $140, she replied, immediately. This is exactly what the reviewers at Yelp said would happen at Glass Pro. I then called Karry’s Auto Body. He didn’t have the price on hand because he has to check with the supplier. He called me back after about three minutes and said it would be $146, including installation. He seemed trustworthy enough, without having to resort to fake discounts; plus his place was more convenient for me, so that’s where we went.

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animals, consumption, environment, food, journalism, science, unfortunate

Learn Something New: Honeybees

The amazing, disappearing honeybee has become the sleeper hit of journalism. It has slowly gained momentum over the last nine or ten months and now it seems like just about everyone has heard of it, even if they don’t really know anything about it. Most coverage follows the same beaten path: bees are disappearing, did you know that people truck bees around the country?, etc. It’s all very interesting, in a panicky sort of way (kind of like the disappearing banana, though that never tugged at America’s heartstrings like this story).

070710_science_honeybeetn.jpgAnd then Heather Smith writes in Slate about why maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised or so worried. Because the honeybee that we’ve come to think we know and love is already long gone. Smith notes, “The only honeybees left—i.e., the ones that started disappearing in October—had become the cows of the insect world: virtually extinct in the wild, hopped up on antibiotics, and more likely to reproduce via artificial insemination than by their own recognizance.”

Illustration from Slate by Robert Neubecker.

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