Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Time on our hands

A challenge as 2008 winds down:
Don’t waste a (leap) second

The year has been bad enough for much of the world, but it’s about to get longer – tonight at the stroke of 11:59:59, some crazed scientists have determined, we must add a second to 2008.

What to do.

After all the turmoil of the economy, war and disaster – natural and otherwise – we have an extra second on our hands this year, and it seems a shame to waste it, to just let it blow past like so much atomic dust.

Wikipedia has a lengthy explanation about why we need another second added to the master clock, yup, an atomic clock, that, for all you conspiracy buffs out there, controls our lives. (For the rest of us, we can pretend it doesn’t.) I gather it has something to do with the shimmying of a particular atom, though how anyone can figure that out....

So maybe, with a bit less than eight hours before this adjustment in the time of our lives, I can throw out to my vast cyber-readership (OK, it’s not vast, and on an average day maybe there’s 21 of you, but the word ‘vast’ sounded so nice) a challenge: Suggest how we can all best use an extra second this year.

C’mon – get to it! Time’s a-wastin’!

Pray? Initiate an act of intimacy? Take a last, deep breath, or give up a sigh for the end of days, at least those of a year that’s one second longer than scheduled.

Or how about this: Just laugh. It’ll be 2009 before you know it.

And here at The Real Muck, Bonnie and I wish you all a most excellent new year.


Christmas gone at last?

The holiday has its merits. I say this as a lapsed Jew (and, for that matter, a lapsed Unitarian), Christmas is OK – particularly as a reason for families to draw together, like Thanksgiving or even the Fourth of July. Families need all the help they can get, after all.

But as a religious occasion, I am very confused. Let’s see, peace on earth and goodwill and all that, and a jammed parking lot outside the local Best Buy store. Inside, the soothing tune of “Silent Night” is a backdrop to the booms and gunfire of demonstrator video games on half a dozen high-def TV and home theater systems. Loud enough, I’m sure, to send an Iraqi diving for cover. There could be a war outside (aside from the skirmish for a parking space), and who would know it?

The day after Christmas, everything you bought is 25 percent cheaper. That, I suppose, is when the folks who celebrate Orthodox Christmas begin their shopping season – if they happen to celebrate their holiday in an excess of gift-giving.

The Orthodox Christmas is Jan. 7, 2009, based on the Gregorian Calendar, rather than the Julian Calendar which for now is 13 days behind (not counting leap seconds, of course).
For those interested in the celebration, I found a nice account on the BBC Web site:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/subdivisions/easternorthodox_6.shtm

To an outside observer, it seems to make more sense than test-battling video games at Best Buy.

Blog envy

The Real Muck has had a surge of attention since Saturday, when Bonnie went “blogistic” on malware. More than 250 visits have been logged at Statcounter, most of them drawn by her account of the battle against the trojan that invaded her computer through a seemingly harmless but infected Web site.

I’ve been watching where visitors come from and what draws them, both of which are tracked in a general fashion by Statcounter. I can see whether they came through a link from another blog or Web site, and geographically the town or country of their Internet provider, among other characteristics.

They’ve been drawn from places as diverse as Claremont, Calif., and Hahira, Georgia; Sydney, Nova Scotia (we’ve been there!) and Billings, Montana; Mahwah, New Jersey, and Worland, Wyoming; Washington, D.C., and Macclesfield, Cheshire, United Kingdom, Palestine; towns in Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee – even Mexico; and places as remote as China, Japan and Thailand.

Some, like a visitor from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, departed with a click directly to the Malwarebytes Web site, suggesting they were dealing with the same problem that infected Bonnie’s computer.

And so far, we’ve had two messages from folks who, like Bonnie, cured the problem with the Malwarebytes software.

We particularly enjoyed this comment:

My daughter wants to know what kind of scented candle you like so she can light it in your honor.

I have just reformatted my computer because of the Vundo and Virtumonde viruses and she had just gotten a new motherboard and freshing reloaded XP and found to her horror her computer already was infected.

We used Malwarebytes and it cleaned her computer right up!

Thanks for raging against the idiots who love to create these things. They need to be blindfolded and bound in a room full of angry mothers with red hot kitchen utensils...


Our answer: Cinnamon will do nicely.

Today's fortune cookie message

Friends long absent are coming back to you.

Daily number: 232

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bonnie Goes Blogistic: Malware


Infected by pop-up plague, good cure tough to find

Trojan used to be such an innocent word – you know, like it was supposed to be protection.

Those were the good old days, before the digital revolution gave it a whole new meaning.

And we’re not talking about online porn stuff, either.

Not long ago I received email warnings relayed by family and friends that using Microsoft Internet Explorer might compromise my computer. I took it so seriously that I stopped using IE and turned to Mozilla Firefox as my browser.

Guess what? It, too, was vulnerable to attack as my computer was invaded by a Trojan from visiting a Web site that was Googled with Foxfire.

No, it wasn’t a porn site. I was merely looking for some UBB code I wanted to use on a forum. As soon as I clicked on this site (whose owners likely don’t even know it is infected, and I don’t remember the URL), Internet Explorer opened with no command from me and I received a machinegun-rapid barrage of advertisements.

I remember one ad being for online sports betting, but hardly paid attention to the content. I just wanted the pop-ups gone, but they came so fast I couldn’t close the windows quickly enough.

The lesson of Vanuatu

While this was happening, I remembered from years ago how our daughter’s computer at college, in a dial-up connection, got snared by a Web site where rapid clicking to close windows brought in an undesirable link to some distant place we’d never heard of – Vanuatu – and a huge unauthorized charge to the phone bill. A friend had been using the computer, surfing evidently in all the wrong places.

Because of that, I knew I shouldn’t continue clicking to close the array of windows. So I hit Control-Alt-Delete, bringing up the Task Manager where I could End Task for unwanted applications.

That worked for the moment, but not in time to avoid longer-term problems. I was infected with a Trojan.

What bothers me is that I’ve been good. I haven’t visited questionable Web sites. In fact, the one I clicked on that planted this Trojan had a green sign from my supposed protector, McAfee, which indicated that it was safe. And I keep up with all the latest updates.

I used to subscribe to McAfee. But in buying high-speed cable, it came free with the service from Comcast.

(I know – they say if it’s free, you get what you pay for.)

I have McAfee protection. I counted on it, and it let me down.

I’m not a computer geek. All I want to do is use my equipment for creativity, communication and information. That’s it.

But now I had to face geeky challenges to try to fix my problem since I couldn’t count on McAfee. Nor could I count on Microsoft – which is real good about messaging you about having to shut down, and asking if you want the problem reported. Kind of an inside joke, no doubt, for all the answers anyone gets back from Seattle or Mumbai or wherever.

Vulnerable and angry

But I was determined to fight back against this “home invasion.”

Yes, that’s what it was. It was a digital home invasion and I felt violated. I WAS violated. I couldn’t trust actions I performed on my computer for fear that I was vulnerable. I WAS vulnerable.

So the first thing I tried to do was to go back a few days to an earlier restore point. Dead end! Apparently the Trojan took care of that and all restore points were wiped out except for the day I was infected, and I wasn’t going to use that as a restore point.

The next thing I did was a full McAfee scan. Guess what? Nothing was found.

Then I rebooted my computer to safe mode and scanned again. McAfee still didn’t find anything.

During the next couple of days, McAfee was able to quarantine a malware file named Generic. And it was able to remove another, named Vundo. However, it was unable to do anything with GenericArtemis and this was a problem.

I got constant pop-ups from McAfee that I should reboot and scan. Every time I did, nothing was found and then I got the same message again. It reminded me of the old song about Boston Charlie riding the MTA. It was an unending, frustrating loop.

Unable to delete Internet Explorer (probably because it is so ingrained in the Microsoft package), I took some extreme measures – unplugging my connection to the outside world, and setting the program to its highest security level. Then I deleted Firefox.

Connecting to the Internet again, I started using Safari, an Apple product which seems not to be vulnerable.

But I still had a Trojan. I knew this because I kept getting a blank white screen. With the new IE settings, the Trojan couldn’t access the advertising sites but could still open IE –hence the blank window, which I then had to close using Control-Alt-Delete.

Next I tried to download another possible malware remedy called Ad-Aware, recommended by a son-in-law who said it had worked for him in the past. He also looked at a record of the infected files, and said, “This is bad,” explaining that the files had “hooks” which attached themselves to many other files.

Microsoft disallowed a download of Ad-Aware until the security setting was back to “medium,” and then I was able to scan with Ad-Aware, which found and removed a nasty thing named Virtumonde.

But I was not anywhere near out of the woods. There was still a problem, as some electronic critter kept opening Internet Explorer and the white screen reappeared again and again.
Neither McAfee nor Ad-Aware solved the problem.

Link to the solution?

Next, I tried downloading a program called Malwarebytes, which was recommended by a participant in a forum of McAfee users – and I seemed to have hit the jackpot! (So McAfee was good for something – one of its users had an answer).

Malwarebytes found about 40 infected files and removed some. The others were quarantined and then removed when I restarted my computer.

It’s now been six hours since I’ve done this, and so far (knock on plastic), no more ads.

I’m left angry that the good guys haven’t been smart enough to overcome the bad guys – at least, in this case, Microsoft (assuming they are good guys) and McAfee (where maybe they are smart, but just not fast enough to keep up).

I’m angry that stealth programs can invade my computer, in spite of all the right things I do. I’m angry at Microsoft and McAfee for not protecting me.

But I’m thankful to Safari for providing a free browser that doesn’t seem to be so vulnerable, and to Malwarebytes for having a smart program that helped me solve my problem.

I’m so grateful that, if a few days pass without a recurrence, I might even buy the full version.

Today's fortune cookie message

Your happiness is intertwined with your outlook on life.

(... but probably not with Microsoft's Outlook Express)

Daily number: 900

Editor's note

The Bonnie who occasionally goes 'blogistic' here in The Real Muck is Bonnie J. Schupp, the life partner, inspiration and art director for the blogger-in-chief. David has been lazy and not written very much in the past week. But he'll be back soon, and thanks you for visiting.

Note to dictionary editors

Blogistic: Venting feelings or exorcizing demons or any sort through a blog posting.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bonnie Goes Blogistic on Christmas Trees

Reflection on Imperfection

 

‘Tis the season for unreason

when green spills from wallets

of those believing in traditional pleasing.

‘Tis the season when people pine for a fine Christmas tree—

white pine, balsam fir, white spruce, Fraser fir,  Douglas fir, scotch pine,

whatever...

but it must be a wintergreen, evergreen, ever-perfect, perfectly-shaped

Barbie bush. 


In the nippy air, hundreds of Barbies form green lines

with straight spines, very vertical trunks, ample branches

each with a single perfectly-pointed top

waiting for its traditional spot up the

angel’s ...tush.

 

Partly hidden ornaments adorn lush limbs,

shiny balls peer from green mazes

and candy canes lavish properly perky

branch tips.


But Barbie’s lavish bushy branches

leave little room for ornaments

lest adornments detract from her own

flawless beauty.


***


I wander far and wide, bucking the tide

wondering why I must settle for popular perception.

I search for Barbie’s ugly cousin,

a form, a shape that doesn’t fit the mold,

flat-chested for small house

spaces.

 

It’s the wind-blown hair, the hole in the sock, the scrape on the knee, the spaghetti stain on the shirt, the pimple on the nose that tell a story

of  living.

 

I like a crooked smile, spaces between teeth, scraggly hair, spindly legs

and skinny arms that reach out

open to discovery.

 

I want a tree that doesn’t hide,

that opens wide to embrace pride

held in accessories’ histories, their stories and the

love they imply.

 

I seek a spindly tree, the ugly factor with character,

one willing to show open spaces,

places for treasured ornaments grown dear over the years...

 

those that have lost their shine, are ragged from playful cats, have missing parts, the hippo of bedtime stories, an apple from a student, a violin recalling cacophonous practice, clothes-pin soldiers formed by tiny hands, hummingbirds like ones covering a morning field years ago in the Grand Canyon, a plastic dog a reminder of a lost pet, baby’s first Christmas 25-years ago, grandmother’s crocheted hobbyhorse and mouse, eloquent velvet-covered and pearl-studded balls made by a nearly blind friend

long gone.

 

And then I see it—the orphan cousin in a heap

apart from the collection,

far from customers’ inspection.

I reflect on its simple beauty.

Missing branches leave

room for us.

 

I like my new bare and slightly crooked tree,

I like the way you hang your hand-painted sand dollar next to my beaded bird.

It is in the spaces where

we hang our love.

 

Perfection isn’t about shape and complexion.

Perfection lies in connections...

how we create them,

how we fill in and connect those spaces

that life gives us.






Monday, December 22, 2008

A Somewhat Super Bowl


Winning all the marbles,
or at least bragging rights,
makes for a fine fantasy


Football season ended for my team Sunday night – in a Fantasy League triumph.

I call my team the Muckies (short for Muckrakers), and play in an online league mostly composed of folks in advertising and marketing – Adgeeks. So when news comes out ahead against the ad world, I rejoice.

The Muckies were born four years ago, and initially played only in a sport I follow closely, baseball. I won the Adgeeks World Series one year, got cocky and decided to join in the football competition. Last year, the football Mucks sucked.

I still feel a bit overmatched when it comes to football, but since the players on my team were mostly selected in the league draft by a Sportsline.com computer, luck has a lot to do with it. This year’s draft went pretty well, and my Mucks won the first seven weeks –then, like in the real world, injuries started taking their toll, and the Mucks lost six straight.

The season ended with three victories – the first just in time to win one of the three divisional titles, followed by victories in both rounds of the playoffs.

Sunday night’s Faux Super Bowl win was fueled by the Mucks’ quarterback Phil Rivers of the San Diego Chargers throwing four touchdown passes against Tampa Bay, and Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams carrying the ball for four touchdowns against the New York Giants.

Rivers was my backup quarterback until my starter, Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals, suffered a bad early-season injury. I picked up Williams as a league free agent player in tweaking my lineup eight weeks into the season.

My wife thinks I’m a little nuts to spend many hours hunkered down at the computer studying player performances, team records, stadium weather conditions and injury and scouting reports, and then watching two or three weekend NFL football games, but... I won!

So, you ask, how much did you win?

Answer: Nothing. It’s a moneyless league, and all you end up with is bragging rights.

So here I am, spiking the ball in the proverbial end zone -- or maybe, like one of the real-world New England Patriots players Sunday after a touchdown, making a snow angel in the end zone. And that was, if you’ll pardon the expression, very cool.
Fortune cookie message of the day
“It is a nice day.”
Daily Number: 901

Friday, December 19, 2008

Farewell, Paul Weyrich

"Moral Majority" concept inspired some liberal-leftist fun

I have to say belated thanks to Paul Weyrich, an architect in the shaping of conservative thinking in America – and I don’t usually pay much homage to that wing of social (or antisocial) thought.

Weyrich, who died Thursday at 66, is credited with the buzz-phrase “moral majority” that in 1979 became the name of an influential Christian-right organization led by his pal, televangelist Jerry Falwell.

The name clearly had its roots in the “Silent Majority” mantra coined a decade earlier for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign to counter a growing outcry over the war in Vietnam and social ills that, sadly, still plague America.

But were it not for Weyrich’s little wordplay, my wife Bonnie and I might never have become card-carrying members of a group it inspired: The Immoral Minority.

We were introduced to those entertaining leftist subversives in the early 1980s while visiting an Oregon woman old enough to be our great-grandmom. I recall she was 79, because she was in failing health and told us she planned to die by the time she was 80 and be buried alongside her husband under a lovely tree in the pasture where her old Arabian horse was grazing.

She gave us literature on two organizations she belonged to – one of them the Hemlock Society, which advocated the right to die before it was a fashionable topic. The other was the Immoral Minority.

We soon joined both organizations, not necessarily as active members.

From the Hemlock Society, we received more literature, including a book by founder Derek Humphry, who evidently is still around marketing his ideas even though Hemlock has changed in management and softened its name to “Compassion & Choices.”

From the Immoral Minority, we received membership cards, buttons, bumper stickers and a good laugh – which, I might add, we never got from the Moral Majority.

Well, actually we did get some other laughs – particularly in the late 1980s when a Moral Majority fellow traveler, the Rev. Jim Bakker, got caught up in sex and fraud scandals, went off to prison, and got quite the tongue-lashing from Falwell, who rescued and took over Bakker’s lucrative PTL (Praise The Lord) Club television show.

So impressed were the founders of the Immoral Minority that they decided to go out of business – because, among other reasons, the Moral Majority had demonstrated it wasn’t particularly moral. They advertised a “garage sale” offering up the remaining stash of regalia.

We’ve got some of it down in the basement or up in the attic, in one of the dozens of boxes of stuff that packrats like me seem to accumulate over the years as souvenirs, stuff like the newspaper rack placard declaring NIXON RESIGNS,

But at least we have the button in hand – Bonnie just found it (photo, above) lurking in the bottom of her purse. Time once again to wear it like a badge of honor.

More troubles at my old newspaper

I went to a little sendoff party Thursday night for my friend Norm Gomlak, one of several editors who have held my old job as night metro editor at The Baltimore Sun since my buyout-retirement party nearly 18 months ago. The “buyout” or “voluntary layoff” window (whatever they’re calling it) had opened recently, closed, and then apparently opened again before year’s end, and he opted to squeeze through as management sought a little more trimming of the newspaper’s decimated staff.

So I talked to lots of my friends joining in the party at a nearby bar/hangout called the Midtown Yacht Club. I heard that a couple of newsroom fax machines are on the fritz, and getting them fixed is a problem when parent Tribune’s recent bankruptcy filing makes paying for repairs a little tricky. There were even questions whether the newspaper would be able to pay freelance writers, whose contributions to the content of The Sun have been increasingly apparent.

And in the wake of the decision by Detroit’s daily newspapers to cut home delivery to three days a week, there’s thinking that Tribune/Sun management is at least watching that development in the relentless search for ways to slash costs.

A free-distribution competitor, The Baltimore Examiner, launched two years ago as a daily newspaper with home delivery in upscale city and suburban neighborhoods, scaled back months ago to mostly city news rack and hawker giveaways, and home delivery only on Thursdays and Sundays (but almost never in my Anne Arundel County community).

The Sun, meanwhile, has gradually cut back publication of its reintroduced zoned Anne Arundel County section from three days a week to the latest schedule announced this week: Only on Sundays.

Norm, by the way, worked at The Sun for a bit over six years and is one of the nicest folks I’ve ever met in the news business.

Cheers, pal!

Fortune cookie message of the day

“Get your mind set – confidence will lead you on.”
Daily Number: 701

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The future of newspapers

Blogger Ettlin, on last day working in Baltimore Sun newsroom, May 31, 2007.


A columnist friend presents
a troubling question to ponder

My friend Dan Rodricks, the longtime Baltimore Sun columnist, posted a question on Facebook today, fishing for others’ thoughts:

If newspaper publishers want to win the day, why not shut down all their free web sites? To increase the value of the metropolitan dailies, like the one I work for, why not shut down the web and make the print editions the only way to get this valuable resource? We never should have given the news away for free, with any expectation that the print editions could survive. Now, with revenues and old-fashion paid circulation falling, why shouldn't we go back the other way -- on recycled paper, of course -- and say to the public: "If you want this, pay for it?"

I had a front-row seat in the same newsroom some 35 years ago when the first computers walked in – and it wasn’t pretty. The computers weren’t very good, but the printers recognized the threat right away. Their jobs were on the line.

For awhile, the computers hummed along with clanking Linotype machines. Some pages were put together the old-fashioned way, as pieces of cast metal and every line of a story a chunk of words you could hold and feel in your hand; others were assembled as a cut-and-paste job after the words spilled out of a darkroom-like enclosure in columns on glossy paper.

Printers made the usual mistakes: Sometimes a line would literally drop and vanish. Or maybe a few paragraphs would slip on deadline out of big Bob Bowman’s hand as he rushed toward the chase – the metal frame holding the page – and he’d reassemble them line by line, bending over the scattered slugs of metal on the hard wooden floor and reading them backwards since that’s the way type was cast. The amusing result, when it wasn’t caught on time in proofreading, was called “scrambled type.”

For a while, the Harris computers up in the newsroom imitated the printers. Scroll the dozen or so lines visible on the little greenish “video display terminal” display too quickly, and it would delete a line here and duplicate another there, usually making critical paragraphs unintelligible.

But the printers knew what was happening, and fought back at contract time. The pages still made of metal, they controlled – largely the classified advertising. And for one memorable Sunday edition, they inserted some extra pieces of metal, actually a lot of pieces of metal, in various sizes and fonts declaring many times on every page throughout the classified section: “Fuck The Sun Up The Ass.”

The phones started ringing minutes after the first edition – known as the “Bulldog” – hit the streets that Saturday afternoon. Supervisors dispatched to the composing room rooted through the pages trying to eliminate every hunk of terrorist type, but among the dozens of pages of classified ads, it was an impossible task. The subsequent editions included a full-page explanation and apology to readers.

The printers eventually won lifetime contracts that took nearly three decades for successor owners (Times Mirror and Tribune) to eliminate through attrition and buyouts, the last of them departing with settlements far more lucrative than those offered over the past decade in departments whose unions had no such lifetime guarantees.

Sign of times to come

In the end, the composing room where pages were set into type and assembled, which took up an entire floor of the newspaper building, had been reduced to a small office area where a sardonic sign was posted reading: “Decomposing Room.”

But who could imagine how much “decomposing” was in the newspaper’s future.

Departments had given way, one by one, as computers got smaller and better – engravers, lithographers, proofreaders, even telephone operators – the list goes on. (So far, security guard seems a safe occupation, although that task has long been outsourced to lowest-bidder, low-paying companies, as has janitorial work. Late at night, in the largely emptied newsroom, Spanish becomes the dominant language.)

I never thought online newspapers would happen so quickly. But one day, the computers caught up with photographic images and it became a simple matter to integrate “type” and “art” on an electronic page, and then posting on the Internet picked up speed, and newspaper companies started putting news and pictures together in pages anyone could see anywhere in the world much faster than a print edition could be manufactured and delivered.

And, as my friend Dan observed, most big newspaper gave it away for free. Some tried selling it, but retreated because so many others were not.

Mail-order subscriptions were as good as dead, and home-delivery editions – well, we know what’s happening in circulation numbers industry-wide. Fewer and fewer people are buying newspapers.

The question I pose is whether all those folks who are no longer buying newspapers are, instead, reading them online.

I bet not – at least not in the sense of turning pages. Newspaper sites are click-on driven, with stories tallied up as “page views.” Advertising is an annoyance, and the news sites try their best to force clicks onto ads to suggest that readers noticed them. Counts are what counts in this strange electronic information age.

And the “pages” mostly don’t look like newspaper pages. Click on a headline to read a story, click back to find another. Packaging of news is awkward, so threads of content are hard to follow. Few sites reproduce a full newspaper image beyond that of the front page.

People are reading newspapers less, and getting their news and information through alternative sources – not all of them as responsible as major daily newspapers.

And the newspapers themselves continue to contribute to their own demise by shrinking content, and original reporting. At The Sun, which once had its own network of foreign bureaus, unique international journalism is largely dead. It once had correspondents based in London, Paris, Rio, Bonn, New Delhi, Moscow, Tel Aviv (later Jerusalem), Johannesburg, Mexico City, Tokyo, and Beijing, and maybe a few others, though not all at the same time. They’re gone now.

The foreign editor took a buyout. There was no one left to manage and edit, really – just stories off wire service stories and from Tribune correspondents working for sister newspapers.

The highly regarded Sun Washington Bureau has shrunk, inevitably.

Once upon a very long time ago, The Baltimore Sun had a promotional slogan -- The Sun: One of America’s Great Newspapers.

A talented editor named Steve Luxenberg was leaving for better climes (he ended up at The Washington Post), and was smiling at a camera for the candid photo that would appear on a fake front page commemorating his departure. Behind him was a large horizontal poster image bannering the slogan. Steve, perhaps jokingly, put his hand over the word “Great.”

The Sun: One of America’s Newspapers.

Assessing blame

I can blame The Sun for its own decline only to a limit. There was, after all, the 1986 change from privately-held company to corporate ownership, and now being part of the Tribune media empire caught up bankruptcy filings in the ocean of debt created in the privatization purchase by billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell in the name of a fictional employee ownership plan.

But there were many decisions at home that alienated readers, time and again. Among them:

+ The company murdered its once-dominant evening newspaper earlier than necessary, forcing circulation down by duplicating content from the morning edition and figuring rightly that subscribers taking both papers would cancel the evening one. When numbers had dropped close enough to 100,000, the company used the plunging circulation to justify the end. It would have happened eventually, but the killing was premature and alienated many readers who for all their lives had preferred the evening paper.

+ The newspaper more recently alienated mainstay older subscribers with content changes that included eliminating stock tables from the daily edition, wrongly figuring they could readily turn to the Internet.

+ It redesigned the paper several times, always shrinking content in the process; for a time, it shrunk the highly read sports section into a tabloid format with far less space (and in reversing course with a return to a broadsheet format, the section was thinner than before).

+ There was a memorable note, about a year ago, from the powers overseeing the newspaper pushing increased use of photos and graphics, at a time when the news hole was already shrinking. Readers supposedly needed more charts and fewer stories. How about a pie chart in the face?

Slim pickin’s

There’s hardly enough paper in the paper for a modest crab feast.

The daily “Metro” or “Maryland” section is gone, preceded by the daily “Business” section. Now, the daily paper is just three sections – News (including local, national, international and business), Sports and You.

Yup, You. Whatever you’s are left, anyway.

Sometimes I grow wistful for the days when The Sun promoted itself as “Maryland’s Marketplace” and “Maryland’s Newspaper.” But time and again, it would launch expanded coverage of the rural counties, only to retreat to the core metropolitan area. Recently, the last dedicated Eastern Shore reporter was moved westward across the Chesapeake Bay to join a slimmed-down news staff based in Annapolis. In response, he took a buyout, or what’s now called a “voluntary layoff,” in the latest round of staff reductions across the newspaper.

The mission of The Sun – I still think of it as “my newspaper,” having worked there four decades and outlasting half a dozen folks called “publishers” before my buyout ship came in last year – has narrowed. And you can read what’s left for free on the Internet, where you’ll find dozens of other sources for the national and international news that used to be part and parcel of a “great” newspaper. Unfortunately, a lot of that news is coming from fewer sources.

You’ll also find on the Internet a clamor of other voices, some spreading truth and others lies, in a cacophony of information... a buzzing, even. A very loud buzzing.

Pandora’s box was opened, after all, and the bees are everywhere.

Dan, I’m afraid there’s no going back. We’ve given people too many reasons not to read newspapers.

For those who can access it, here’s a link to Dan Rodricks’ posting: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/topic.php?uid=42618730754&topic=6300&ref=mf

Maybe smaller is better

The National Public Radio program “Weekend America” had a related segment today, the thrust being that predictions of the demise of newspapers are premature. Newspapers currently have a profit margin averaging around 11 percent. But the profit is less than it used to be, and declining, and the largest newspapers are having bigger woes than smaller ones – and there are many more in the “smaller” category, where circulations may be around 35,000 daily instead of a quarter-million or more.

I’ve been working lately in a temporary, part-time editing job at the Baltimore Business Journal, a weekly newspaper with a daily Web report that takes up a big part of my two-day schedule. This week, though, I was asked to write a short opinion piece looking at the Tribune bankruptcy in light of my long association with The Sun.

It is supposed to appear in next Friday’s edition; I’ll post a link when it happens.

‘You will succeed in business’

Yeah, right. Sounds like something you’d find in a fortune cookie.

Well, The Real Muck is introducing a new feature: Fortune cookie message of the day, mostly courtesy of our favorite restaurant, the Szechuan Cafe in Pasadena, Maryland.

Here goes. Hold your breath.

Serious trouble will bypass you.

Your three-digit lottery number is 600.

Good luck.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Movie review: ‘Doubt’


A discomforting evening
with a couple of Oscar winners

Take a very intelligent and friendly priest, add a no-nonsense nun running the parish school, throw in an eighth-grade boy whose parents sense he might have homosexual leanings, and you’ve got the seeds for “Doubt” – a powerful drama opening in a week or so in movie theaters across the nation.

But it probably won’t be out there long before heading to the video store market.

And that’s not because of the Oscar-winner casting of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest and Meryl Streep as the principal, or any number of terrific supporting players; nor is it for any lack of tautness in the script, or timeliness and timelessness of the issue.

It’s just slow, carefully drawn and adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play set in 1964, dealing with a topic so powerfully uncomfortable: The sexual abuse of boys by priests.

In this case, there’s precious little evidence – only the strong suspicion of the priest by the principal. And she conveys that feeling to the idealistic teacher of the boy, who is the lone African-American pupil in the school, and to his mother, whose own protective desires are based on more immediately threatening fears for his safety from peers and a physically abusive husband.

Every moment, every subtle movement of children in the school, even the lifting of a fork at the nuns’ dinner table, carries overtones about the character of the key players, in a tale that can have no happy ending.

The photography and settings are stunningly real, the classroom scenes vivid, the action almost entirely psychological, and the performances riveting – the aging Streep’s, in particular, likely to bring an Academy Award nomination.

Trouble is, it’s all so discomforting – and maybe a little overblown, metaphorically, including entirely too many scenes of flying leaves.

In the end, “Doubt” left me in doubt, as well... suspicious, but uncertain, of whether the priest did it; maybe more concerned about what happens to characters like the young nun and the boy, whose further paths are not addressed; and walking out of the theater into a real world that seems ever more disconcerting.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Another newspaper veteran gone

Death of the 'wire room' chief
recalls era of the teletype

The passing last week of an old newspaper friend brought a rush of memories of the good old days – that distant time when news from across the planet arrived a keystroke at a time on clickety-clacking teletype machines through the low-tech graces of Western Union.

Ramon Baier was a clerk in the “wire room” of The Baltimore Sun newspapers, my first job when I arrived in 1967 for what proved to be a 40-year stay. Ray was one of the veteran guys manning that noisy communications hub who showed me the ropes, or at least the plugs and circuit boards, for two training shifts preceding my first afternoon working solo.

The Six Day War broke out a few hours before my arrival, and the chaos I encountered pointed to a couple of possible paths for my future – none of which involved the news business.

But I managed to get through the day, despite then-copy desk chief Sam Abt leaning over my shoulder hollering while I tried to communicate in pigeon-English with a German Telex operator about our not-arriving story whose relay from the Middle East was being awaited on deadline for the first edition. (Sam went on to greater glory at The New York Times as copy editor for its daring publication of “The Pentagon Papers” and later in Paris covering bicycle racing for the International Herald Tribune.)

The wire room was a long and narrow barrier that largely divided the huge fifth-floor newsroom into separate sides for the competing morning and evening newspapers. It had a window looking east from the back side of the building over Guilford Avenue and the five-story rag factory that took up the other side of the street. The windowsill served as a refrigerator part of the year – despite raids by a marauding seagull named Gertrude. (Her thievery ended after wire room clerk Eddie Nolan, a former photographer, planted a Tabasco sandwich there as bait.)

When major news was breaking, a bell on the teletype machine labeled as the “A Wire” would ding seven times as an alert. There’d be a holler out to the wire editor that news was imminent, then the clerk would rip each “take” of the story as it arrived, separate the original and two carbon copies, and plunk them into wire baskets earmarked for delivery by “copy boys” to various editors.

The job did not require a high school diploma. You just needed to be literate enough to recognize and sort the different types of stories – news, features, sports – for the right baskets, and remember when to switch circuits to get the Orioles’ baseball play-by-play from west coast games. It also helped to notice when the news clickety-clacking out of a particular machine sounded important, bell or no.

A little German would have helped, at least on that one evening, but my linguistic ineptitude never came up again.

There was another little deal to worry about in working the afternoon shift, a matter discussed only in whispers: The series of phone calls into the wire room between about 2:30 and 4, when a gruffy-deep voice would ask for such arcane matters as the place horse payout in the second at Santa Anita, the price on the winner in the sixth at Rockingham, or the betting handle at some other track. The call was coming directly from the nerve center of Baltimore’s illegal numbers game – the lottery that flourished across the city years before government got into and largely took over the gambling business – and the strange mix of figures based on horse races across the United States was used to calculate the day’s winning number.

On Fridays, a well-wrapped sub sandwich would be delivered to the newspaper building’s back door for the afternoon wire room clerk, with ham, salami, lettuce, tomato and a twenty-dollar bill.

On a $60-a-week salary, the 20 bucks was a tidy bonus. But it didn’t last long – just 10 weeks during the summer break between my junior and senior years at then-Towson State College preparing for a teaching career.

Going back to school, I lucked into a part-time weekend job as a clerk on the morning paper’s city desk. I had to tell Mr. Gruffy that a new guy had been hired for my old shift, and was asked what I knew about my replacement. All I knew was that he was black. And the voice at the other said, well, don’t worry about it. He’d get the information elsewhere.

It was going to be our last chat, the end of a beautiful relationship – his voice, my 20 bucks. So I suggested rather boldly that I had done such a wonderful job, and probably knew more than I should, and a bonus might help me forget things like the emergency phone number to use in the event of an error on the race wires.

That Friday’s sub came with a little extra lettuce.

For the next 15 months, I worked mostly overnight weekend shifts. The late wire room guy was usually a guy named Lou, and when the newsroom was otherwise deserted we’d play pinochle for a few hours within earshot of the phones and the teletypes. Then we’d finish up, Lou sorting the overnight wire stories and me calling every major police and fire outpost in Maryland to compile a memo for the dayside cops reporter.

Ray Baier, a gentleman who had a keen news sense and a matching sense of humor, mostly worked dayside. Over the years as I moved through jobs as a reporter and editor, I had later shifts. So it was a rare pleasure when we’d intersect for more than a few minutes in passing.

In 1973, the earliest days of the computer revolution, he was named chief of what became the “communications room,” and he oversaw its changing operations until retiring in 1999 after more than 45 years at the newspaper.

The obituary, written by Fred Rasmussen, noted Ray’s account of how low-tech was needed to keep high-tech humming. He stashed a $5 straw broom in a corner of his office, which he used to sweep snow off the newspaper’s rooftop satellite-dish receivers so they could still function in wintry weather.

He was part of an infrastructure unknown to the newspaper-reading public – including the likes of the copy boys, Linotype operators, printers and lithographers – that once made the business one of Baltimore’s largest employers. Many of the newspaper’s jobs have been eliminated, some outsourced; the newsroom itself keeps shrinking, and the paper seems only to grow thinner in content.

And gradually, the folks who remember the good old days are also leaving.

Ray was 72 when he died Nov. 18 of a heart attack.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

JFK: 45 Years


Photo of ill-fated Dallas motorcade, by Victor Hugo King. (Wikipedia)


A day seared in memory
seemed little remembered

Feels a little odd, so little fanfare of remembrance over the JFK assassination – despite an anniversary divisible by 5.

Likely more than half of the world’s current population wasn’t yet born when Lee Harvey Oswald took aim from the Dallas schoolbook depository building and popped off some of the most disputed rifle shots in the history of humankind.

The spot where the presidential convertible was passing, top down, when the bullets took down John F. Kennedy and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally, has become a bizarre testament to history – marked by an X where tourists wait for a lull in traffic to pose for pictures.

The nearby “grassy knoll” became an equally odd landmark – a little berm at the roadside from which, conspiracy theorists maintained, other shots were fired.

Forty-five years ago today: I vividly remember exactly where I was – walking to my American history class at what was then Baltimore Junior College – when I heard the news from a fellow student, a Greek immigrant named Gus I recall as rather right-wing in his politics.

“They shot Kennedy, they shouldn’t have shot him,” he said, rushing in the opposite direction from the cluster of portable classroom buildings where I was headed.

A powerful word: They.

And in using it, Gus – wittingly or not – was certainly one of the first to give voice to there having been a conspiracy behind the killing.

My professor, Dr. Wilson Valentine, a retired naval commander, was in tears. He told us all to go home and watch the unfolding events on TV, saying: “I can’t teach history on a day like this.”

I noticed Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory movie, “JFK,” was airing on a cable TV channel tonight. Heard a mention of the anniversary sometime during the day on National Public Radio.

Forty-five years.

Can’t help but wonder how different the world might have been had the top been up on Kennedy’s car as he rode through the center of Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, or in the long haul of history, how much the same.

There’s been a lot of harking to Kennedy lately in the election of Barack Obama – the first senator since JFK to win the presidency, with the youngest family since those “Camelot” days about to take up residency in the White House.

Maybe that has something to do with it: Why, on the 45th anniversary of that horrible day, the remembrance seems so unremembered of a tragedy we must never forget.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A little music, please




Dirk Hamilton, at Northeast folk music conference. (Photos by Bonnie Schupp)




Footloose and fancy free,
we dance around impolitically

Hillary who?

Sorry, bloggers, but I say: “‘Who cares?”

Problem is, you don’t have an election to obsess about, so now it’s the Obama Cabinet. And that brings out the Harpies all over again. Hillary this, Bill that.

Next thing you know, Monica will reappear selling her designer pocketbooks on QVC, because in this great land, nothing is as important as timing.

My view? I don’t need a new pocketbook, any more than I need debate over as-yet unannounced Cabinet choices. Obama won the election, and his picks will be part of the record of his administration on which voters get to chime in beginning with mid-term elections two years hence.

’Nuff said.

So I’m gonna blog about the weekend past, when Bonnie and I traveled nearly 700 miles round-trip for the sake of a photograph and an opportunity to visit friends Bob and Lee Rowley in mid-state New York.

The subject of the photo was Dirk Hamilton, who could have been a contender, rock-musically speaking, back in the 1970s. In recent years, he’s been making the rounds as a singer-songwriter – particularly in Italy where, in summer tours with a group called The Bluesmen, he may have become better known than here in the states.


We first met Dirk at a folkie coffee house program eight months ago in Columbia, Md., in a show largely arranged by our performing friend Georgie Jessup who considers Dirk one of her major influences. Turned out we liked his songs and style a lot – and Dirk offered Bonnie an answer to a question she’s been asking people for a project under development for more than a year:

“How do you define yourself? Answer in one sentence, beginning with the words ‘I am....’ ”

I’ve answered it, and so have dozens of other people from all walks of life and ranging in age from 4 to 100. I can’t give away any of the answers, because someone still mulling over participation in the project might be unduly influenced. No one gets to see any of the answers until delivering his or her own self-definition.

It’s a tough question, if you truly engage in self-examination – although a precious few came up with interesting replies quicker than I would have thought possible. I labored months over mine, much of the time even consciously avoiding thoughts about it. In the end, I got to answer twice – one a self-view before I retired, the other after.

Self-definitions seem to evolve.

Anyway, answers are followed by a collaborative photo portrait session – a task that has been incorporated in our travels. In the spring, as we visited California, Bonnie got the chance to photograph Palestinian friend Salim Tamari, who was teaching Middle East history for a semester at UC-Berkeley. Catching up to him on the West Coast was easier than a trip to the West Bank.

Dirk Hamilton currently resides in a remote hamlet northeast of Dallas, Texas, which we considered visiting last month when we were touring southern Appalachia. But when Dirk told us he would be attending the annual Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference at a hotel in mid-state New York, for us a mere 320-mile hop -- well, we could do that in a weekend!

So Bonnie got the photo, and after a couple of other conference attendees asked to have their pictures taken, we became a little conspicuous and got rudely ordered off the hotel premises by what seemed to be a conference official because we were not registered for the event and didn’t have the conference ID badges hanging around our necks. Not that Bonnie was making any money off the pictures, or that the woman barking orders to leave wanted to hear why she was there with a camera and tripod.

Seemed like a nice event, though, with hundreds of folks lugging around stringed instruments, trading guitar licks in corridors, or engaging in group performances around a piano in the lobby.

Our real weekend entertainment was a little different: A high school musical.

No, not the “High School Musical,” but a real high school musical: “Footloose,” performed by a large troupe of talented young thespians at Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, N.Y.

Our weekend host Bob Rowley, who on an ordinary day teaches music to middle schoolers, was the show’s musical director overseeing a dozen-student orchestra for the nearly sold-out three-performance weekend.

“Footloose” might be a good description for the way Bonnie and I travel, but this story – if you missed the Kevin Bacon movie on which the stage version is based – is about a high school lad who moves from Chicago to the hick town of Beaumont where, in response to a tragedy several years earlier that killed four young people, dancing was banned.

So the Kevin Bacon character, named Ren, develops this relationship with the rebellious daughter of the town preacher whose son was among the dead, and who as the town’s moral authority was the voice behind outlawing dance. And after Ren teaches that old preacher a lesson, the dancing resumes and everyone lives happily ever after or at least has a good time for a few hours.

Now this is about the time in a fun blog posting when I try to neatly wrap it all up, with a little connection to the top of this rambling nonsense that makes it all seem like we’ve come full circle. So here goes:

Let Barack Obama dance, for goshsakes.

If the music really disturbs you, change the channel to the Outdoors Network and hope it’s showing “Caribou Week.”

An irregular schedule

Having attracted a small but steady audience to The Real Muck with an inaugural month of daily postings, I have become sadly undependable with the end of the election and a return to work in a temporary, part-time newspaper editing job. But I hope you’ll check back regularly – there’s more coming, just not every day of the week.

Back soon!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Review: ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

See this movie. Really.
Do not ignore this advice!

Every now and then comes a movie that just blows you away.

Now I’ll admit to being easily entertained. I have a very low threshold for amusement. But “Slumdog Millionaire” is flat out amazing.

This despite a preposterous plot, a coming-of-age adventure story that takes a trio of young children through the innermost circle of hell after they are horribly orphaned in the worst imaginable slum of India and follows their lives through a window of memory opened by questions in the Hindi version of a very familiar television program, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

To say too much would spoil some of the most riveting scenes I’ve ever sat through in a dark theater. Dickensian horrors, unimaginable cruelty and abuse, love, beauty, death, redemption, and... well, OK, even a little homage to Bollywood. And not to forget, “The Three Musketeers.”

The ending was a little predictable, but don’t get carried away with self-congratulation before it all plays out. Just leave your disbelief at the box office, take a seat atop a train speeding across a desert landscape, feel the rush of wind and let it sweep you away.

For details on all that stuff you find in reviews – the director, running time, the novel it's based on, reviews and film festival accolades – here’s the link: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/slumdogmillionaire

If, in the end, you took my advice and didn’t like this movie, well... we’ll always have Paris.

Or maybe, frankly, I don’t give a damn. I loved it, and so did Bonnie!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Political recovery


In Maryland’s First District race,
a drift across the road’s center line



My older daughter called this evening.

“You OK, dad?” she asked.

“Fine,” I replied, walking along Baltimore’s Pratt Street, traffic droning past. “I’m just leaving work.”

“I was worried. You haven’t blogged lately. It’s not like you.”

“Well, I’ve been busy. Hanging out with photographers with Mom all weekend. Went to Washington for a little photo safari.”

Well, I was also a little hung over, electorally speaking. I knew what I wanted to write, but had to wait for closure – and it came earlier in the day when Andy Harris conceded to Frank Kratovil.

If you don’t live in Maryland, the names might not mean much to you – but their battle for Maryland’s First District congressional seat was a microcosm of the war between Republicans and Democrats to control the steering wheel of America.

The thing was, the Republicans were engaged in their own battle for the wheel of their party. It was Harris who bumped off Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in their party’s primary because the nine-term incumbent wasn’t conservative enough, and in the close and costly race for the open seat the Democrats added one more warm body to their growing majority on Capitol Hill.

But it wasn’t like the First District changed in complexion from red to blue. It just charged in hue to a slightly deeper purple. Kratovil, a county prosecutor on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay, is very much a centrist – as was Gilchrest, a former high school history teacher from the same largely rural area. He endorsed the Democrat.

Gilchrest’s 18 years in office were respite from the bizarre tumult of his district, where some Republican predecessors had proclivities toward suicide and sexual relations with a male teen prostitute.

It wasn’t always crazy. Rogers C.B. Morton represented the district from 1962 to 1971, when President Richard Nixon named him as Secretary of the Interior. (Morton’s only sin, it seems in looking so far back, was his support for Nixon.)
William O. Mills won the seat in a special election to succeed Morton, but killed himself with a shotgun two years later in the wake of a report that his campaign had received an unreported $25,000 from the ill-fated Nixon’s re-election finance committee.

A colleague of mine at The Baltimore Sun reached Mills by telephone late on May 23, 1973, and had what he described as a rather routine conversation with him about the campaign fund gift. A few hours later, Mills went out to his barn and shot himself in the chest.

The next special election brought outspoken conservative leader Robert E. Bauman to Washington. Catholic, married and the father of four, Bauman violated an old axiom of politics: Never get caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.

For Bauman, it was the boy rule – a 16-year-old who tried to blackmail the congressman as the story of their sexual relationship became embarrassingly public.

The 1980 mess was sorry enough for Democrat Roy Dyson to win the seat from Bauman, but his tenure in Washington ended a decade later – weakened by ties to defense contractors and the bizarre suicide of top aide Tom Pappas, who had leaped from a high-rise New York hotel in 1988. (A newspaper staffer, in pursuit of details after the leap, reported tracking down a hotel guest who told of watching a TV broadcast of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” when Pappas flew past the window.

Dyson barely beat Republican Gilchrest that year, but was defeated by the history teacher in 1990 – and was the last Democrat to win the seat until this election.

There were lots of factors figuring in the latest result, including the district’s gerrymandered geography – a horseshoe around the bay that clustered Republicans while making neighboring districts safer for the Democrats who largely control Maryland politics. Harris, an anesthesiologist and father of five, represented portions of two urban counties on the western shore in the state legislature.

There were lots of familiar issues – but their stands were deemed furthest apart on the Iraq war and the environment. Kratovil was backed by conservationists and anti-war activists, among others, and while Harris had initially been considered the frontrunner his candidacy was clearly hindered by the unpopularity of the lame-duck President Bush.

I’ve only met one of the district candidates. Last fall, Kratovil knocked on my door in a Pasadena neighborhood that has grown Republican all around me over the past decade. “I’m running for Congress,” he said, handing over some literature with a photo showing him, his wife and four children, and noticeably including the buzzword “family.”

Kratovil was the only congressional candidate to knock on my door in the 28 years I’ve lived here. I asked his views on a couple of my bellwether issues: gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. I gave no hint of my opinion, and Kratovil skirted giving his – though I had an idea that he and I had differences on both matters. We probably wouldn’t agree much on religion and its relation to politics, either.

But this day, I rejoiced, sort of. Where there’s a Democrat, there’s hope – with Harris, there would have been none, I feared.

Maybe, if Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress make some progress in turning around this troubled nation, Kratovil will even keep the job two years from now.

The center of the political road – well, maybe a little to the left of the yellow line – isn’t the worst place to be.

A visit to the White House

All right, we’re not talking about the Obamas. We’re talking about a photo safari on Sunday, with about four miles of walking and an obligatory picture of our group standing next to the White House fence.

We all held in front of our mouths a set of comical smiling lips affixed to plastic straws.

Then I suggested we all pretend to be Republicans, and we had another photo with the smiles turned upside-down.

It was a great day to be in Washington. The sun was shining bright. And the people around us on the sidewalk were laughing.

New blogging schedule

The election ‘s over folks, and I’m back to work two days a week, so this unpaid blogging gig is not gonna happen daily. But please check back a couple of times a week. I’ve still got a lot to say, and you might find some of it fairly entertaining.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bonnie Blogistic Again: A Cloudy Turn-On


Word clouds give new look
to McCain, Obama speeches

But they're not up in the air

Think of these political speeches as art: Barack Obama's victory, John McCain's concession. But they're not so much for listening as seeing -- as "word clouds."

What in the world is a “word cloud,” you ask? Well, if you go to http://www.wordle.net/, you will read that “Wordle is a toy for generating 'word clouds' from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.”

Here is a word cloud created from President-Elect Obama’s victory speech.



The text of the speech can be found here:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/18/obama-race-speech-read-t_n_92077.html

And here is a word cloud created from Senator McCain’s concession speech.

The text for this speech can be found here:
http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5hmJfimrZW3jBur_BmaFtqj7mfFgQD948JFJG5

And then I was curious about how David’s blog post, the letter to Barack Obama, would form as a word cloud. Here it is:

After I created these, I discovered that I wasn’t the only person to do this type of political art. A blogger created word clouds from the vice-presidential debate transcript (again, using Wordle). You can see the word clouds of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin’s here:

http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2008/10/3/0223/35665/837/618518

You can draw your own conclusions. Or you can go to http://www.wordle.net/ and "draw" your own -- having fun with whatever text you want to "cloud."

Enjoy!

A Day Frozen In Time


Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
(Or tuck it away for posterity)

Newspapers as instant history

Occasionally, over the course of my 40 years at The Baltimore Sun, I would be called on to visit a school and talk about newspapers. I would bring a sampling of them – the type with gaudy front pages after a monster storm, a big fire, the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

And I would hold up a copy of my old newspaper from Jan. 16, 1946, when almost nothing of interest happened but it had cost me 40 bucks. It was the day I was born, and the newspaper likely was being printed about the same time (12:04 a.m.) when I was coming down the chute.

Newspapers, I would tell the children (usually ages 12-14), present history in slow motion. Stop-action, even. A frozen day in time. How important that day of history is may depend upon who is reading or keeping that edition.

Wednesday, newspapers across the world froze a day in time for posterity. Some did it really, really well. Some... could have been better.

I say this because I went off to work in the morning (a temporary, part-time editing gig with the weekly Baltimore Business Journal) and neglected to buy a copy of The Washington Post.

I had The Baltimore Sun, of course – it arrived in its usual yellow plastic bag in the grass just off the driveway, in better-than-usual condition. I opened it at work downtown – more about what I saw later.

In the evening, on the way home, the Post was nowhere to be found, not in the vending machines, the gas stations, convenience stores or supermarkets – not even in the semi-redneck parts of my Pasadena community.

By today, Thursday, it and the likes of The New York Times and USA Today are all over eBay -- dozens of listings, including one offering a still-wrapped bundle of the Wednesday Post's final edition at more than $300.

Some newspapers totally get it. They were presenting history writ very, very large, with a front page telling in an instant that your grandchildren should hold it some day and marvel at the keepsake. An heirloom that, if not cared for, will by then be flaking around the edges on the way to becoming dust.

I once bought a copy of The New York Times from the day my late mother was born in 1914, a Sunday, and presented it at her surprise 80th birthday party. (Couldn’t find an intact Baltimore paper.) Taken out of its thick plastic packing, the Sunday Times crumbled a bit in her hands. It wasn’t a very special day in anyone else’s history so just its existence in 1994 was amazing. (I also read from a microfilm printout of that day’s Baltimore Sun a small travel advertisement for fall bookings on the steamship Lusitania – whose sailing the next spring didn’t turn out very well.)

But some newspapers can be so very special. Like the editions of Nov. 5, 2008.

The Baltimore newspaper, a victim of its recent redesign, wasn’t bad. It had a half-page-deep Associated Press photo of a waving Obama from the torso up, against a dark background, with an out-of-focus flag behind him in the nighttime setting at Chicago’s Grant Park. (The better photo, in black-and-white atop Page 5 of the inside-the-paper Election Section, from McClatchy-Tribune, showed Obama, his wife and children walking onto the slightly elevated stage and dwarfed by the enormous crowd assembled as far as the eye could see, and the lighted city skyline a distant but dramatic backdrop.)

The front-page headline, in yellow, declared “It’s Obama” with a much smaller five-liner in white just below and to the right: “Democrat gains historic victory, will be the nation’s first black president.”

Under the fold, played with the main story at center-page, was a smallish John McCain, also in front of an out-of-focus flag, looking constipated.

(A sticker advertisement had to be peeled off the page top, next to Obama’s open hand, taking with it some of the ink and leaving a rectangular patch of gray dots.)

I hate to say my old paper blew it. But I could still find a few copies in vending machines and at stores on the way home. (The newspaper announced it would be selling a reprinted edition of some 45,000 in stores on Thursday, to address demand, and I bought a pair of them for my collection. The Post was producing a commemorative edition of its Wednesday paper costing $1.50, double or more the usual daily price. It didn't get to my neighborhood.)

But here’s what’s fascinating – you can look at the day’s front pages of 714 newspapers from around world online, courtesy of the Newseum (hopefully they’ll all still be available for viewing when you click on the “Archive” link at this site: http://www.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages).

Check out the papers of Nov. 5, 2008. You’ll see The Baltimore Sun, which I feel didn’t quite rise to the moment as visually or powerfully as many of the others.

Among the first couple at the Newseum site, I kind of liked the Los Angeles Daily News’ ‘A NEW DAWN’ and the Tahoe Daily Tribune AMERICA CHOOSES CHANGE and the New Haven Register’s HISTORIC VICTORY and the Palm Beach Post’s HISTORY.

Scroll through this amazing presentation and savor the moment. HISTORY, also writ large on the Kansas City Star and so many others.

The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey:
OBAMA REACHES THE MOUNTAINTOP

The Albuquerque Journal: HISTORIC DAY IN AMERICA

And in others: YES, HE DID!; FROM DREAM TO HISTORY; PRESIDENT OBAMA

So many of them, all in big, bold caps, telling what we already knew.

They’re newspapers you don’t even have to read, although the stories in them likely are terrific.

Remember this new day in your heart, and tuck your newspaper away somewhere safe.
But if you have a copy you don’t need, my address is P.O Box 1152, Pasadena, MD 21123. I have a little more room in the old steamer trunk.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Letter to the President-Elect

Dear Barack:

It wasn’t us – not me, not my wife.

I made 42 telephone calls on your behalf, to North Carolina. She made 25 to Virginia.

Together, we chipped in maybe $150 to your campaign.

So it really wasn’t us: It was tens of thousands of us, hundreds of thousands of us, fed up with divisive politics, broken promises, morally bankrupt leaders, the widening gap between the haves-too-much and haves-too-little of our nation.

The American dream was becoming an American nightmare, and you were the wake-up call.

We don’t need to tell you what to do. But we hope you will do it – bring this diverse country together, inspire its people, nudge it forward, bring it respect and honor.

Things are so bad, it’s a tall order for any president. But we believe in the possible, and judging by your words, so do you.

Good luck.

And please, be careful out there.


Warmest regards and congratulations —

David and Bonnie

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Night: Freebies for Voting


Satisfactions of casting ballot
fill heart and tummy alike

But free gasoline would have been nice


There had to be some payoff for getting up at 6 a.m. to cast a ballot before work – something besides that great satisfaction of voting.

And by the time I left the office about 6 p.m., the returns were coming in: Ben and Jerry’s, Krispy Kreme, Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks.

The trick was running the table, making a clean sweep on the way home without going much out of my way. The problem was dessert came first, so I walked two blocks over to the ice cream shop at Baltimore’s Harborplace, where just six other people were in line with the same idea.

I got a cup of Cherry Garcia, and walked three blocks to the garage to get the car, a slow stroll, a spoonful at a time. I’d finished by the time I reached the automated pay machine and tossed the cup in the trash.

Driving south, I reached the Krispy Kreme on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie about 20 minutes later and ran into the first snag: A hand-written note on the locked door that read “Sorry Sold Out.”

But there were three women working inside, a dozen full trays of donuts in the display case, and a rumor that they were reopening at 6:30. But the sign didn’t say that, so I used my cell phone to call the corporate 800-number which a more permanent sign in the window suggested for reaching customer service.

The woman who took the call responded to my query by dialing the store, and I watched one of the trio inside answer. A few minutes passed, and customer service was back on the line with assurances that the donuts were almost ready – the free donuts, shaped like stars with red, white and blue sprinkles on top.

The problem, I was told, was that the special freebie donuts that had been delivered to the store were all gone, so the employees had to set up a new batch themselves. And at 6:32 p.m., one of them unlocked the door for the half-dozen folks who had been waiting under the building’s overhang or in the cars to keep out of a drizzly rain.

Donut secured, it was off to Marley Station Mall another three miles to the south, where I remembered a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. There, the clerk asked for my “I VOTED” sticker in exchange for the free chicken sandwich.

I protested, because I hadn’t yet been to Starbucks and thought I might need it. So I tore it almost in half, and handed over the 40-percent side – which proved a reasonable accommodation since I got the freebie.

Back to the car, and about a half-mile away at the Southdale shopping center, was the Starbucks. The clerk laughed at my tale of the sticker and said, “It didn’t matter. We operate on the honor system here.”

Another counter clerk handed over a medium-size cup of hot coffee. I picked up a couple of Splenda packs, poured in a little milk (the half-and-half container appeared to be empty), and headed east toward home for the last stop.

No, it wasn’t for a freebie – but that would have been nice.

I wanted a tank of gasoline.

But I got the next-best thing: A fill-up of regular at the near-bottom price of $2.12.9 a gallon.

As a believer in the conspiracy theory when it comes to national elections and gasoline prices, I knew in my heart it would be going up – if not tomorrow, real soon.

And just about now, down the road at the school where I’d voted minutes after 7 a.m., the polls are closing on a bit of history that I am proud to have been part of – with or without the full tummy and full tank.

Election Day: Precinct Report














Early voting in Maryland
means getting up early

Turning into the long drive toward my precinct's polling place at Chesapeake Bay Middle School near dawn, you had to wonder if it was Election Day: Just two ground-level signs were in place, one of them opposing passage of a constitutional amendment on slot machine gambling, the other for costume sales at a local party store.

Halloween was over, but the election in fact was in full swing – minus the usual crush of signs and the bustle of electioneering. There were plenty of voters, more than 60 of them lined up by the time the polling place opened for business at 7 a.m., and a steady flow of more arriving.

“I’m one of the 33 percent of voters in this state whose vote doesn’t count,” said Jerry Zazzera, referring to Maryland's Republican minority and waiting with his wife, Angie, to cast ballots and get the election over with. Unlike most of the early-risers, they were not heading right off to work afterward, but to a vacation.

“We want to relax now,” Angie said after they had voted, a CD at the ready in their SUV, in place of the political talk shows for a while.

“Our intention is not to listen to any of this throughout the day,” Jerry said.

Not that he was ready to abandon political talk entirely – first sharing his conservative-leaning views including that the Republican Party “empowers people to get out there and be anything they want to be,” while the Democrats, with “this whole redistribution thing” on wealth, “you take the spirit out of people for wanting to succeed.”

“Freedom is so precious to me – I served 11 years in the service,” he continued. “I feel Obama will castrate the military.”

On the Iraq war? “My view on Iraq is we have planted a seed that people in surrounding countries can see.”

There were probably a few Democrat-leaning voters in the growing line, but finding them became impossible when my interviewing was halted by the polling place’s chief election judge as improper on the premises (not that I was telling people whom to vote for), and who wanted to know who I was – and when he found that I was a blogger, declared, “Then you have no status.”

Well, I was at least a voter. And I got the deed done by 7:10 a.m., and was out the door.

By the time I was leaving the first electioneers had arrived at the perimeter spot where the closest politicking and signs are permitted – one of them, Maryland State Teachers Association employee Maura Taylor, promoting a “yes” vote on slots gambling that would ostensibly support education funding, and for Democrat Frank Kratovil for the area’s First District congressional seat.

“I’ve never been to a polling place that didn’t have 20 people standing out front,” Taylor said of the dearth of electioneers, and holding a pile of slots and Kratovil brochures in her hand.

Next to her, the lone electioneer for Republican Andy Harris had arrived and set up her signs, which included one for McCain/Palin .

The neighborhood is part of an oddly-shaped district carved out after the 2000 Census to bundle up many of Maryland’s Republicans. In the primary, the conservative state senator Harris bumped off moderate longtime GOP incumbent Wayne Gilchrest, who late in the general election campaign gave his anticipated blessing to Democrat Kratovil.

That has made the district’s congressional race the most-watched among the eight in Maryland this year.

Demographically, it looked whiter than the southern Appalachian towns from my recent two-week road trip. Among the first hundred voters, I did not see one person of color turning up at my precinct -- although the judges on duty included one who was African American.

I have a feeling that, at least in this district, I'm in the minority, too.


... lots and lots of emails

Still buying time until polls open,
more roars from the crowd

I’m still catching up on the posted comments and emails in response to The Real Muck Road Trip, but far and away the most provacative resulted from the Confederate Encounter episode and were posted by RobertsTennesseee, the second of them after reader Sherry noted the initial report of the skinheads’ supposed plot against Barack Obama.

First comment: I see that your visit to Sweetwater unearthed some of Tennessee's more interesting negative cultural relics: absolute crap sold in flea-markets and the pathological clinging to a symbol more desperate than religion and guns -- the confederate flag. Also, don't forget that the Ku Klux Klan was originally organized in Tennessee. Your blog posting provokes a question my wife and I keep asking ourselves: "What the hell are we doing here?"

Second comment: I shared David's blog posting about the Tellico Plains Sons of the Confederates with the afternoon volunteer here at the Loudon Democratic Office...(We'll call him Joe, the former mayor). His immediate response was, "Black folks aren't allowed in Tellico Plains." I asked him how that could possibly be enforced. He said that they could be shot at. Maybe that's heresay and an exaggeration, I don't know. But, I do know how chilling it can be for African-Americans to be in mountainous areas of East Tennessee where front porches are draped with the Confederate Flag. I have had plenty of friendly conversations with white supremists and confederate holdouts here in east Tennessee. But I'm not African-American. And if David were African-American, he may not have conducted a cordial interview with the Sons of the Confederacy. I don't want to demonize anyone, positioning myself as having superior beliefs; however, I want to defend and advocate racial tolerance and equality. How can these two principles be reconciled while confronting entrenched racism?

My response: I looked up Tellico Plains at Wikipedia, and learned it consists of 1.6 square miles of land, with (based on the 2000 Census) a population of less than a thousand souls. “The racial makeup of the town was 96.74% White, 0.81% Native American, 0.12% from other races, and 1.51% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.75% of the population.”
My guess: The place is a little short of African Americans, synagogues and mosques, and (the answer, my friends, with apologies to Peter, Paul and Mary) that backyard clothes lines have white sheets blowing in the wind.

From a blog reader with the unlikely handle of Mr.Murder (who evidently types as badly as I do), on bluegrass music star Ralph Stanley endorsing Obama:

The Ralph Stanley radio piece is inspriational. "Barack Obama has been married to the same woman for thirty years, he's a family value man." Maybe McCain will have trophy wife no. 3 respond?

My response: As a husband of 28 years preceded by a pair of Ex’s, I won’t blame McCain for his marital misadventures. On the other hand, his “trophy” came fully loaded. There's no shortage of money or beer in his household!

Friend Mitchell in New Mexico, on the free T-shirts that Bonnie and I picked up at Virginia Tech’s “Adult Swim” carnival:

You can add the T-shirt to your collection. If I remember correctly, you once had a pair of Mickey Mouse ears custom-embroidered with "PRESS" on them. Still relevant after all these years.

My response: I had a few editors who were Goofy. (Not that I wasn’t.) But speaking of the “Adult Swim” posting, the topic headline was “Adult Swimming” and lured at least two blog visitors who arrived through a topic search directly from a porn site. Maybe when my readership seems to be declining, I can come up with some double-entendre bait and pretend they came for the articles.

Bonnie’s guest turn as a writer (Bonnie Goes Blogistic) elicited several interesting comments:

From RobertsTennessee:

Your observations remind me of John Steinbeck's book, "Travels With Charlie," which chronicles his road trip with his dog. His section on travels through the south is laden with disbelief that so many people in the south can immediately open conversations with a racial slur. My wife complains about people immediately asking, "Where do you go to church?"

From friend Marguerite:

Well done, Bonnie. I had much the same experiences when in Georgia. I just hated it and felt like I was in another country or another time. One time I was so sick of hearing the people, that when I was made the center of attention for a Happy Birthday rendition in a large restaurant, I replied with my rendition of New York, New York! I don't know what made me do it, but it was totally spontaneous and I was totally sober!

I do get upset when the Bible or religion is misused so. It reminds me of how during the 60's, the Republicans co -opted the flag as a symbol of patriotism. Now, if you mention religion or the bible, you are considered a "Family Values" advocate and that term has become synonymous with narrow-mindedness.

In fact, if we believe in God, we should be more caring, less judgmental, more sharing, less selfish, and more active, less reactive.

Our minister has been talking to us about the ten commandments in a wonderful way. We hear "do not steal" but what we are being told in that is to share! How many "good Christians or good Jews" do this? In the difficult times that our country is facing whomever wins, we would be wise to turn to some of the lessons in the Bible. And that does not mean posting things on bathroom walls or using religion for self aggrandizement.

From friend Barry:

I'm a little confused, are you saying that the 10 commandments and Baptist churches are a bad thing or just that you don't see them where you live?

My comment: No comment

This forwarded email came from my former neighbor, Ed:

Quote from the Oct. 14 British Spectator
"Barack Obama"
Here's a quote from the Oct. 14 British Spectator that sums it up perfectly: "You have to pinch yourself - a Marxist radical who all his life has been mentored by, sat at the feet of, worshiped with, befriended, endorsed the philosophy of, funded and been in turn funded, politically promoted and supported by a nexus comprising black power anti-white racists, Jew-haters, revolutionary Marxists, unrepentant former terrorists and Chicago mobsters, is on the verge of becoming President of the United States. And apparently it's considered impolite to say so."

My response: Gee, I funded him, too – close to 150 bucks. And when I was in college and published a now-largely-embarrassing volume of poems, a Marxist bookstore in Baltimore happily put it on the shelf for sale. Guess that means we’re all fellow travelers, huh? Gimme a break – all these Obama word-association games are just silly-stupid and reminiscent of the kind of extremist false rhetoric used by followers of Lyndon LaRouche (also known as LaRouchies). You might have to accept the idea that Obama is going to be your president, as well as mine... and better for both of us if he makes some headway against the nightmarish problems brought on by the departing Bush administration. But other than that, Ed, I still like you.

Finally, a few comments on my wacky political history of Maryland’s Sixth congressional district, represented by long-time Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett.

From friend Al, who lives in (and manages to endure) the Silly Sixth:

Your recollection of (Goodloe) Byron dying while jogging is correct. The word in Washington County at that time was that the autopsy showed he had hereditary heart disease, and wouldn't have lived as long as he did if he hadn't exercised so much. (Widow) Beverly Byron was a very conservative Democrat, well suited to the Sixth District, but not beloved by some of the powers that be in the suburban sections of the Sixth. Some of these powers threw their weight behind Tom Hattery in the Democratic primary in 1992, thus ending Beverly's tenure. I understand she was mightily pissed by lack of support during that race, and essentially resigned from active Democratic politics forever. This is the circumstance that led to Roscoe's election. It was the second or third time he'd run for the seat. One of the key issues in his campaign was term limits; he vowed he'd resign after one or two terms (I forget which)
Seems he's forgotten too.


From Mitchell, on sometime mental patient and homeless bum Melvin Perkins:

I think I recall Perkins running for some office in Baltimore-- Mayor? City Council? State Representative? I don't remember for sure-- but I remember that there was even a televised debate with all the candidates attending. I do, however, remember that one of Lyndon LaRouche's droids also ran for the same position; neither one of them won the election, but Perkins placed higher. From then on, whenever I saw one of the LaRouche crowd handing out leaflets and/or trying to raise some money, I never failed to ask them how it felt to have someone in their organization who got fewer votes than a genuine mental patient.

My comment: Melvin Perkins rarely missed an opportunity to run for public office -- any office. He would file his candidacy as a pauper, so he did not have to pay any fee. That’s also how he would file lawsuits against anyone who said anything negative about him. Arrested and charged with indecent exposure after urinating off a loading platform at the Baltimore bus depot, Perkins responded by filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit alleging false arrest. When Perkins ran for congress in the Sixth, a friend of mine who was a regular in a downtown bar set up a collection jar to buy him a one-way ticket to Hagerstown to visit his future constituents. Melvin picked up the money and disappeared – later claiming he took the bus to Hagerstown, got lost in the fog there, and then came back. I never got over the fact that 14,000 people voted for him because he was running as a Republican.

Speaking of which, the polls open in less than seven hours. Vote early (but not often!), and may the best candidate win. G'nite.