Reinhard Kargl
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Dec. 30, 2005

Last night I watched "Good Night And Good Luck". The movie is set during the witchhunts of the McCarthy era. It focuses on one of the greatest TV- and radio journalists of all times, Edward Murrow and his work for CBS. The movie is a demonstrative reminder of the vital function of a free press as a guardian against radicalism and as a protector of our great civil liberties.

More information on the movie is here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433383/

More information on Ed Murrow is posted on these sites:

http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/M/htmlM/murrowedwar/murrowedwar.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_R._Murrow

By the way: Murrow's portrayal as an intense chainsmoker rarely seen without a cigarette is entirely accurate. Murrow contracted lung cancer. He died in 1965, two days after his 57th birthday.

Dec. 9, 2005

An era just ended in London, when the city pulled the world famous, old red double decker buses out of regular service. "Routemaster" buses were built from 1959 to 1968 and have been in service ever since. Although they were initially received with skepticism, Londoners and tourists alike soon began to love them with passion.

These buses have several features missing on modern counterparts: There is a conductor who takes tickets, gives directions and helps passengers. (On modern buses, the driver also processes tickets, which wastes time at bus stops). Secondly, the Routemaster has no doors. Passengers can board or exit the bus at any time, which is very convenient when there is a traffic jam and the bus just inches forward.

The decision to retire the buses had to be a financial one. There is the cost of maintaining the old vehicles, the cost for two operators and the danger of liability lawsuits brought by passengers falling off the bus. All this was probably too tough to swallow for a cash strapped public transportation system.

On the other hand, what often is overlooked is the impact this will make on tourism and the city's spirit. London's classic taxis, buses and phone booths are quintessential icons which distinguish the British capital from all other cities around the world. I find it sad that the city's leaders did not come up with a solution to preserve the London's heritage.

My feeling is that this decision is completely at odds with the public's wishes. On bulletin boards and blogs, it is hard to find any messages not expressing anger and outrage over this move.

The good news is that about 20 "show" buses will remain for certain runs -- mostly as tourist attractions. The rest will probably be bought by private parties. Word has it that they can be had for 5,000 to 10,000 pounds.

 

LONDON RETIRES ROUTEMASTER BUS

 

London's Routemaster - A British Icon

 

There is an organization dedicated to it:

http://www.routemaster.org.uk/

 

Dec. 8 , 2005

JOHN LENNON DIED 25 YEARS AGO

25 years ago today, John Lennon was shot and killed in front of the Dakota Building in New York. Even though I was a toddler when the Beatles were active, they still had a great impact on me as a teenager and beyond. I can't quite recall the moment in which I received the news of Lennon's death, only that I was shocked and sad. Hard to believe that 25 years have passed since then.

Nov. 22, 2005

TED KOPPEL RETIRES

The TV journalist I most admire signed off last night. I almost couldn't believe that he is really retiring from his post at ABC's "Nightline" after 25 years. And I was a little disappointed that Koppel's final broadcast consisted of a re-run of excerpts from his interviews with Morrie Schwartz, the dying college professor who looked death straight in the eye and inspired the bestseller, "Tuesdays With Morrie". Sure, these interviews were powerful television and Koppel at his best, and they have lost nothing of their appeal in the 10 years since they were done. But this montage of interview fragments were just brief peeks through a keyhole, which didn't do much to characterize Koppel's interview style: polite and laid back, yet probing and relentless.

Interviewing people, especially on difficult topics, is an art form. Very few journalists have mastered it to the degree Koppel has. "Nightline" will go on without Koppel, but he will be missed. In his final message, Koppel encouraged viewers to give his successors a chance. "If you don't," he said, "you can be sure the network will replace Nightline with another late night comedy show." I am afraid he is right on the money.

Nov. 8, 2005

Wall Street research firm Needham & Co.announced yesterday that in 2005, over 1 million Windows users have switched over to Mac, which completely beat the most optimistic expectations. The trend is expected to become even stronger in 2006, for which the Needham forecasts 1.3 million to abandon Windows in favor of Mac.

Congratulations to all of you who have crossed over from the Dark Empire. (Yes, I'm biased. I've been using nothing but Macs for about 10 years.)

Oct. 9 to Oct. 14, 2005

In San Francisco for a conference. Every time I'm in the Bay Area, I am amazed about how different San Francisco is when compared to L.A. It feels a lot more like a European city.

I am fascinated by San Francisco's cable car and every time I am in town, I have to make it a point to ride all four lines from beginning to end. I find it amazing that a system which by today's standards would be considered completely unreliable, inefficient and slow was once a much admired marvel of innovation, and a great relief for the traffic challenges of its period. Cable cars are an example of centralized engineering. The problem: Steam engines, the power plants of the time, were too heavy and otherwise ill suited to be placed on small, urban vehicles. The solution: Make the engines stationary and place them in a central location. At this location, the steam engines drive long loops of steel cables, which run over a complex system of wheels and gearing and through shafts dug underneath San Francisco's streets.

The cars have no motors or power source of their own. Instead, they latch on to the moving cable, which keeps moving along at a steady speed of 15 mph. A primitive friction clutch mechanism allows drivers to regulate the car's speed. Thus, the engines at the central station drive all the cars around the city -- a concept which reminds of the days of mainframe computing, before the PC revolution.

Such an engineering solution might seem antiquated and peculiar, but trust me: The cable car is a whole lot of fun and still the best way to move around the areas it serves.

Should you want to learn more about how cable cars work, I highly recommend a visit to San Francisco's cable car museum, which is where the central gearing stations and the motors are located. (Sadly, the old steam engines have been replaced by electric motors, but otherwise, things still work as they always have.)

Another place worth a visit is the Wells Fargo Museum in the Financial District. The exhibition is well maintained and provides good insight into California’s pioneer era and the Gold Rush, a time in which what is now Wells Fargo Bank has its origin. Back then, Wells Fargo wasn’t really a bank. The company provided postal service, transportation by coach, gold trading services and access to the civilized world in what became known as the “Wild West”.

Sept. 26, 2005

Only a few days after Hurricane Katrina had washed away New Orleans, its evil sister Rita sent 2.8 million people running from the Houston area. But in the end, Rita turned out to be a dud. The storm refugees (including some personal friends of mine) are already returning.

The nation's response to Katrina and Rita has been much debated and will be scrutinized for a long time. One wonders how a nation which prides itself on its wealth, technological expertise and power may be reduced to chaos and incompetence in the face of disaster. On the other hand, to put things in perspective, one needs to look at the havoc caused by tropical storms in other parts of the world. In 1942, a hurricane in Bengal, India caused 40,000 deaths. In 1991, a cyclone in Bangladesh killed 139,000. The same country was hit by a cyclone in 1970, which cost 300,000 lives.

While the economic loss from "Katrita" will be gigantic, the loss of human life will be relatively small for storms of this size. Hundreds of thousands of lives were saved by the communication system, the traffic infrastructure and above all, the space technology which allows the remote tracking and forecasting of storms and makes timely evacuations possible.

Lives saved means survivors who need to be supplied with shelter, security, medicine and food in the short term, and jobs and housing in the long term. These are problems Bangladesh didn't even need to deal with. There, 300,000 deaths also meant 300,000 fewer people to feed and clothe.

In the case of Katrina and Rita, science and technology have not been able to completely prevent the loss of life. But at least it was minimized dramatically.

Sept. 21, 2005

SAD NEWS FROM VIENNA

News of the premature and surprising passing of a very dear person has reached me.

"Willi" was a mentor and fatherly friend during my student years in Austria. And had life not taken a different turn, he would have become my father in-law. He inspired my fascination with creative pursuits, vintage markets and the tireless acquisition of interesting, unusual books and objects. He also awakened my appreciation for the art of cooking, fine wine and cheese. During my most rebellious years, he accepted me the way I was, without passing judgment on the outrageous way I thought, dressed or wore my hair at the time. Willi loved to cook, and although I was on a tight student budget, I ate like a king whenever I was a guest at his house, and often left with leftovers for the next day.

He was a remarkable man, a person of genuine warmth and honesty who possessed unfettered tolerance for others, and whose philosophy was simply to live and let live.

Without him, I would never have become the person I am today. Thank you, Willi. I am lucky that fate joined our paths for a time.

Wilhelm Nitsch
1943 - 2005

Sept. 2, 2005

DOG POOP RETURNS

When I was a student in Vienna, I was often annoyed with the massive amount of dog excrement littering the streets. It's really a stinking mess. Vienna's famously feared old ladies, who seemed to own the majority of the city's dogs and represented a sizable political lobby, never dreamed of cleaning up after their beloved little pets. Dogs are allowed in parks, and since there are few landscaped areas along the old streets and sidewalks, their leftovers are usually deposited on the sidewalk or between cars parked along the streets. Being somewhat radical and angry young men, we had all sorts of wild ideas about how to sanitize the problem -- most of which are unsuitable for reciting here.

One idea we would never have dreamed of in these days: To take samples of the feces and match the DNA against a database, then fine the dog owner. The idea has recently been circulating in Europe, and I got to write a short blurb about it for the American magazine, Popular Science. (It's here: A Pooper Scooper Law with Bite).

In L.A.'s rich neighborhoods, such problems seem rather strange. Not only are there plenty of landscaped areas, but the folks here conveniently have (mostly) Latino gardeners who get stuck with the unpleasant task of cleaning up. (In all fairness, some dog owners are actually responsible enough to do it themselves).

My sincere condolences and sympathies go to the people of London and all those who were victimized by the barbaric terrorist attacks on July 7, 2005.
Having lived and worked in London, a city I love, this indiscriminate slaughter of innocent members of the public is very disturbing to me.
I hope the barbarians who committed this heinous crime will be brought to justice.

June 24, 2005

My grandfather was in the steel industry. When I was a boy, he took me to see the iron mine at Erzberg in Austria, a site where iron had been extracted since the times of the Roman empire. The huge trucks used to haul rock down the mountain made quite an impression on me. 20 years later, these memories inspired me to write a story on these fascinating machines.

Today's mining trucks are much bigger than what I saw as a boy. They are true monsters. Largest of them all: the Liebherr T282B, which is nearly 15 meters (48 feet) long and 7 1/2 meters (23 feet) high. Vehicle weight: 222 tons. Payload: 360 tons. Each tire weighs six tons. The diesel engine has 20 cylinders with twin turbochargers and generates 3700 horsepowers. That's good for a top speed of 65 km/h or 40 mph. If you want to own the biggest and meanest truck in the world, it will set you back $3.5 million.

In the fall of 2004, I visited the Virginia factory where these machines are built. Then, I flew back to L.A. to finish the manuscript, which was quickly accepted by the publisher. Strangely, it still took more than half a year for the story to go into print. Colleagues have told me that such delays sometimes happen, but until now I've never experienced it myself. Luckily, the magazine was nice enough to pay me right away even though they normally settle the bill on publication.

I'm glad the story is finally out. Somehow I never feel it's all done until I hold the magazine in my hands.

PS: June 17, 2005

Visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and loved the photograhps of André Kertész (Budapest 1894 - New York 1985). Here are some samples.

June 16, 2005

In today's edition, the L.A. Times leads with this story: For the first time, a large scale comparative study has shown that male and female brains work differently. Of course, no two brains are ever identical, nor are two minds ever the same. But there are subtle but profound biological differences which have now been shown to be remarkably consistent within either sex. Leading the research is Sandra Witelson at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Her work was recently published in Science, the New England Journal of Medicine and Lancet.

Surprisingly, this turns out to be politically charged stuff - and therefore makes good headlines. Last time I checked, the story was in worldwide circulation on Yahoo.com.

Society accepts the fact that male and female bodies are anatomically different and not really comparable. This is why men and women generally do not compete against each other in sports. But Western society has come to have real issues with the idea that male and female brains are not the same, and that therefore, male and female minds think in different ways.

It will be interesting to see if we, as a society, will implement this knowledge, or if we will continue to promote politically correct ideology in ignorance of scientific fact.

January 15, 2005

These days it seems that everyone and their pets have their own personal web log. It actually is an amazing thing. For the first time in human history, everyone with access to the world wide web is able to share ideas and information with the entire world. This is a milestone in our civilization's history which will rival, in terms of importance, the invention of the printing press.

On this page, you will find some random thoughts and rantings of yours truly, should you be interested.

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