December 19, 2008
KILLING SALMONELLA WITH BOOZE
I love tiramisu and egg nogg, but the problem is that these calorie bombs don't taste right when pasteurized eggs are used. (I feel that if I'm already eating something that unhealthful, I might as well get the maximum enjoyment out of it). Because of the possibility of salmonella contamination from raw eggs, pasteurized egg products are now required in commercial food preparation, and recommended for use at home.
Personally, I am leaning toward the belief that the salmonella problem is relatively new and the result of our own doings. I think the real reason lies in our abominable way of raising chickens "factory style". This gives hens no opportunity to develop natural immunity to this commonly occuring microbe. Our farming practices have also resulted in new salmonella strains. These have practically been "bred" by the widespread application of antibiotics to farm animals. Like most common bugs, salmonella are very crafty survivalists. Over time, they adapt to each antibiotic we use to destroy them, and they become tougher and harder to combat by our own immune system.
Maybe there is hope: booze. The antimicrobial effect of alcohol has been known (and used) for thousands of years. Before water treatment and the knowledge of germs and hygiene became widespread, alcoholic beverages were the only safe and sanitary drinks. This explains why beer brewing and wine making were seen as very necessary contributions to society. In Europe, these tasks were often performed or supervised by monasteries, and for the common good. This was so vital that the first laws regulating food manufacturing and purity covered brewing, hence the famous German Reinheitsgebot for beer. (It mandates that nothing but water, yeast, malt and hops may be used).
The following video is about a fascinating experiment with egg nogg. For years, this particular recipe has been has been a holiday tradition at Rockefeller University. Although it is made from raw eggs, nobody ever got sick. Amazingly, the concoction is mixed six weeks before Christmas, then simply chilled. No artificial preservaties are used, except one: alcohol. The result is an egg nogg much cleaner than anything you can buy at the store. The alcohol content of 20% (and maybe also the sugar, which is another natural microbe killer if the concentration is high enough) seems to do the trick. Watch this!
Still, some caution is indicated. There are too many unkowns at this time. It could be that chilling the nogg for six weeks is essential, or that slight variations in sugar or alcohol concentration might make it possible for salmonella to survive.
December 8, 2008
TRIBUNE GROUP DECLARES BANKRUPTCY
I have frequently
written about Sam Zell and the Tribune Group. What is happening to this
media conglomerate is a good example for what is happening in the industry
as a whole.
Looking at the Tribune Group's L.A. Times these days, it is apparent that the quality and depth has suffered under Zell. It is not possible to provide the same jounalistic content with a creative staff cut from 1200 to less than 700.
What drives me up
the wall these days is people who are claiming they are "getting
their news on the Internet". No, folks -- you are not. Yahoo (and
similar sites) do not employ journalists. They "aggregate" their
"news" from sources such as wire services and (maybe you guessed
it): newspapers and magazines. These Internet news outlets merely regurgitate
what others have written. They do little (if any) original newsgathering
and original research.
The sad truth is that online advertising pays very little. It is not enough funding to maintain the professional power, apparatus and expertise that stands behind a traditional, printed newspaper or magazine. Even if a traditional publication maintains a web site to generate additional revenue, there is by far not enough money. In the case of the L.A. Times for example, only less than 9% of its revenue comes from the web site.
So, if you are interested in free, diverse media and news sources: Buy the newspaper. Buy magazines. They are best bargain in America today.
As a staunch Republican, Carnegie believed in a small government and was opposed to income and property taxes. On the other hand, he supported massive inheritance and estate taxes of up to 100% for large estates.
In Carnegie’s model, a man should spend and give away his wealth before his death, thereby returning it to the community from which it came. Those who did not, he wrote in his Gospel of Wealth (1889), would “pass away ‘unwept, unhonored and unsung’ … Of such as these the public verdict will then be: The man who dies thus rich thus dies disgraced”.
Andrew Carnegie -- at the time the world's richest man -- handed out more than $350 million (tens of billions in today’s money) to small colleges, schools and libraries. He provided trusts to pay student’s tuition and pensions for professors, built a library, museum and concert hall complex in Pittsburgh, gave millions of dollars to campaigns for world peace, and establish the Carnegie Corp. for the “advancement and diffusion of knowledge”. He also founded and endowed a scientific research institution in Washington, which to this day maintains its role as a world leader in astronomical and other research.
The machine shop at the Pasadena headquarters of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution.The black box on the left is part of the Carnegie Planet Finder Spectrograph (PFS), a high resolution instrument for the detection of extrasolar planets. The blue tube on the right is part of Four Star, a widefield near-infrared camera. Both are currently under construction. (Photograph: Reinhard Kargl)
November 17, 2008
For days, several brushfires have been buring around Los Angeles. A fine rain of ash is blanketing all of L.A., and the air quality is miserable. Here is what it looks like from space. (My location is where the two diagonals of the image would meet).
High resolution images are available here.
November 4, 2008
October 9, 2008
McCAIN's "OVERHEAD PROJECTOR" REMARK DRAWS FUROR IN SCIENCE COMMUNITYIn the recent debate between presidential candiates John McCain and Barack Obama, McCain declared:
voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork barrel earmark projects, including,
by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago,
Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?"
The reaction from science folks has been fast and furious. This is a notoriously tight-knit community, especially when rallying to a cause, and boy, are they are rallying to this one.
Cosmic Log has a great summary of the uproar.
"The logo for Senator John McCain's campaign has a star in the middle. I wonder what his guide star is? It can't be the same one that ten million children have seen at the Adler Planetarium. Why should anyone want their star to dim?" (Discovery Space)
The Adler Planetarium even issued a statement, noting that the request, ironically, was not even funded: "To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support -- which was not funded -- to replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere.... To remain competitive and ensure national security, it is vital that we educate and inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math."
(Figures in U.S. dollars. Euros have been converted at an exchange rate of 1:1.4)
September 16, 2008
LOS ANGLES TIMES EMPLOYEES SUE PARENT COMPANY AND SAM ZELL
And now, the barrel runneth over in the next chapter of the saga around the Los Angeles Times and its heavily indebted parent company, the Tribune Co.
Tomorrow's edition of the Los Angeles Times will announce that a group of former employees and one current journalist have filed a lawsuit against Sam Zell and his Tribune Co., seeking class action status and unspecified damages as a result of Zell's transactions. These included leveraging against everything the company owns, including the employees pension funds, massive layoffs and cutbacks, and selling off assets in an attempt to pay the company's huge debt, which was incurred as a result of the Zell takeover earlier this year. As part of the deal, former Tribune Co. CEO Dennis J. FitzSimmons received nearly $21 million in bonuses, severance and other payouts, according to the lawsuit.
Tomorrow's L.A. Times article is here.
For background information,
see my blog posts of July 14, July 2, Feb. 15 and Feb. 14.
September 15, 2008
TECHNOLOGY MAY HAVE
PREVENTED DEADLY TRAIN CRASH
Preliminary information shows that the passenger train engineer, who was also killed in the crash, had overlooked a red light.
The railroad operators will have some explaining to do. Technology to prevent this kind of crash exists, and the National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending it for 30 years. It is standard on European and Japanese railroads. But although Southern California has more freight trains and commuter trains sharing tracks than any other place in the U.S., the railroads have been stalling.
Such “positive train control” systems use GPS data, sensors and transponders to monitor train locations and speeds. The systems can automatically apply brakes when unauthorized movements, speed violations, improperly aligned switches or trains on the wrong track are detected.
It sure would be costly: outfitting 100,000 miles of track nationwide would cost $2.3 billion, according to an estimate by the Federal Railroad Administration. (Currently, only 4,000 miles of track are covered).
Oddly, the Federal Railroad Administration is maintaining a special grant, the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program, which could be used to install positive train control. So far, no railroad has even filed an application.
September 15, 2008
LOS ANGELES EMERGENCY RESPONDERS MAKE HEROIC EFFORT
Where the railroads shamefully failed, one must be in awe of the way our firefighters and other emergency responders performed. The first engine company arrived at the scene four minutes after the call. Within short order the site was teeming with 30 fire trucks, heavy lifting equipment, heavily equipped search and rescue crews, dogs and hundreds of personnel.
August 22, 2008
LEROY SIEVERS, 1955 - 2008
A great American journalist passed away last week. Leroy Sievers was a close associate and friend of Ted Koppel, the creator of ABC’s Nightline.
Sievers was born in Los Angeles in 1955 and attended Princeton and UC Berkeley. He first media jobs were on campus radio, after which he began to work as an assignment editor at a local TV station in Oakland. From 1982, Sievers worked at CBS in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. In 1991 Sievers joined Nightline, where he covered many difficult stories such as the genocide in Ruanda. Sievers and Koppel covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq directly from the front and were among the first American troups to reach Baghdad.
Altogether, Sievers spent 14 years with Nightline and became the show’s executive producer in 2000. One year later, he was successfully treated for colon tumors, but four years later, he was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer.
Sievers decided to share his battle with cancer. His popular blog, My Cancer developed a huge following and received over 30,000 comments.
Sievers was 53 years old.
August 22, 2008
LEAD TIRE WEIGHTS: A DUMB ENGINEERING SOLUTION
Some engineering solutions are so dumb one could scream. Or cry. Or both. Here’s an example:
Problem: Commercially manufactured automotive wheels and tires have slightly uneven weight distribution. At high speeds, they will not rotate evenly around their axis.
Solution: Calibrate and clip small counterbalance weights to the rims. This is usually done when new tires are fitted. (Most drivers are not even aware of these little weights – but check your wheels next time when you are at the gas station and you will find them).
Since the beginning of the automotive age, the material of choice for these balancing weights has been lead. The metal is heavy and easy to shape into small parts. But lead it very toxic. It has a nasty habit of accumulating in the environment, then showing up in food.
"Unforeseen" problem: The weights often fall off while the vehicle is traveling. Many end up on the road, where ongoing traffic eventually grinds them to poison dust. In a lawsuit recently filed by an environmental group, it is estimated that “wheel weights falling off vehicles release 500,000 pounds of lead each year into the environment in California”. (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21, 2008).
So why use lead? Foremost, because it is heavy, which means that the weights can be made small. Secondly, lead has been widely available; it is cheaper than less toxic heavy materials and it is easy to shape into small bits.
Now that the dangers of lead are well documented, we could easily use other materials instead of lead. For how much, you ask? Using industry figures, I calculated the additional costs to be between 25 cents and 1 dollar per vehicle.
So why don’t we? One word: stupidity. In the California, we are relying on “voluntary” plans for the industry to phase out lead. Chrysler and several wheel manufacturers have agreed to end shipments of lead weights to California by the end of 2009 – but only under threat of a lawsuit. The agreement does not extend to other states and of course it does nothing about the dozens of millions of cars with lead weights already registered in California.
When it comes to poison, “voluntary” measures just don't cut it. Once again, we are limping behind the rest of the world. The European Union has already banned lead tire weights in 2005. And Japanese and South Korean carmakers have been phasing them out as well.
August 22, 2008
E-MAIL: IT'S (ALMOST) ALL JUNK
Barracuda Networks, a California based firm specializing in e-mail technology, claims that 95% of all e-mail circulating on the Internet in 2007 was spam. The firm based this figure on an analysis of over 1 billion messages received daily by its 50,000 customers worldwide.
Anti-spam legislation has shown no effect. Spammers cunningly hide their identities by routing spam through other people's computers, web sites and networks.
Meanwhile, e-mail hosts are spending huge amounts of money on additional data infrastructure and on elaborate security and spam filtering systems. These costs are then passed on to consumers.
July 30, 2008
FIRST LAKE ON ANOTHER WORLD FOUND
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found the first body of liquid outside of Earth. "Ontario Lacus" on Saturn's moon Titan could be one of hundreds or even thousands of smaller lakes. It is about 20,000 square kilometers (7,800 square miles) in diameter. This makes it slightly larger than North America's Lake Ontario. Still, it's not an inviting place for a swim. Titan's surface temperature is a chilly 300º Fahrenheit (minus 184º Centigrade). And the lake is not made from water but from liquid ethan, a hydrocarbon. Titan shows overwhelming evidence of a weather system involving evaporation, rain and even fluid carved channels like on Earth. What a strange world it must be!
EARTHQUAKE JAMS PHONE SERVICE
So far so good. Yesterday's earthquake has caused only minor damage here, but there were no injuries and almost everything seems to be up and running. One interesting problem was that for hours after the quake, both landline and cellphone service was intermittent, and many who attempted to make a call received a busy signal or no signal at all. This was not caused by physical destruction, but by too many people making calls to figure out what happened. A spokeswoman for one of the wireless carriers reported an 800% call spike. The call volume soared way past predictions for a disaster of this scale. The should teach us an important lesson: in a really serious quake or catastrophy, we cannot hope for having phone service to communicate with loved ones or with emergency services.
July 29, 2008; 12h55
In the Los Angeles area, there is a 5% chance that an earthquake is precursor for something larger to come within a day. Foreshocks are generally on the same fault system as the main shock. The greatest risk is within two hours, but it drops in a steep curve. After 24 hours, this risk is down to 1% but continues at about that level for a few weeks. Although every earthquake relieves some stress, the drop is miniscule in comparison to what has built up. At the end of its fault line, a quake actually adds stress. (Dr. Kate Hutton, Seismological Laboratory, Caltech).
Caltech has just revised its preliminary data to 5.4 on the Richter scale, at an epicenter about 2.9 miles outside of Chino Hills. (It will take at least a couple of days to get exact measurements). So far, we've had 27 aftershocks -- the largest being about magntitude 3.
Minor damage reports are coming in, but so far no injuries.
July 29, 2008; 12h15
EARTHQUAKE RATTLES SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
At about 11h45 this morning, we were shaken by an earthquake. As of now, most local radio and TV channels have interrupted their programming and have switched to live coverage. Within seconds, Caltech transmitted their first preliminary data: magnitude 5.9, epicenter at Chino Hills, which is about 29 miles south-east of downtown L.A. The shaking was felt as far away as San Diego and Las Vegas. So far, there are no injury or damage reports.
I just called a friend in Chino Hills, who seems to have no apparent damage at his house.
All airports are operating. Power, Internet and phones seem to be working. But Disneyland, Griffith Observatory and other venues are being evacuated as a precautionary measure.
Although it looks like we got away fine, we still have to hold our breath. This area is criss-crossed with hundreds of faults. Every rupture causes shifts that might increase or decrease the pressure in other areas, causing more faults to get moving as well.
Strange: just a few minutes before the quake I was having a discussion about earthquakes. And this morning, my neighbor dreamed about an earthquake.
July 28, 2008
HUGE U.S. BUDGET DEFICIT ENDANGERS SCIENCE FUNDING
No matter who becomes the next U.S. president at the end of this year, the long term economic crisis we face is so serious that it hardly matters what the White House does.
The administration has just announced that next year’s federal budget deficit will be the highest ever: almost half a trillion dollars. This is about as much as the entire economic output of Belgium. The figure does not even include “extras”, such as the cost of the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. To put this in perspective: even if we completely eliminated the entire military (leaving the country without any defense), we still could not balance the budget. To do that, we’d also have to eliminate all federal spending for education, social programs and, regrettably, most science. Or, we could increase taxes by $12,000 per household per year. (Yeah, right. At the same time, we are facing the greatest number of home foreclosures, private bankruptcies and loan defaults since the Great Depression).
This is just the federal deficit. Never mind that most state governments also run deficits. Here in California, we have been adding 500,000 people per year -- the overwhelming majority arrive with few assets and little formal education. Of course, there has not been enough money to add infrastructure for half a million additional people per year. The result? Skyrocketing prices for everything (because of more demand for land, goods and services), a dilapidating infrastructure and the 49th worst credit rating among 50 states in the union.
Are consumers reacting? You bet. For example, picture the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Multiply by 40,000. This is the number of automobile miles American drivers will be cutting back this year. (While this may be great for the environment and good news for our serious trade deficit, it also creates another problem: less gasoline consumption means that the amount of gas tax collected is falling drastically, which creates huge shortfalls for road and bridge maintenance).
Anyone who still believes that this is not a serious crisis might consider becoming a resident of Disneyland.
July 22, 2008
NEW YORK TIMES REJECTS McCAIN ESSAY
Rejections are an unpleasant fact of life every journalist and author has to deal with. So I can't help but feel a tiny bit of schadenfreude over the New York Times' recent rejection of an essay submitted by presidential candidate, Senator John McCain (or should we rather say: his ghostwriter). Saying that the piece didn't offer any real news, New York Times editor David Shipley sent the manuscript back for a rewrite.
July 16, 2008
July 14, 2008
CHICAGO TRIBUNE EDITOR, LOS ANGELES TIMES PUBLISHER CALL IT QUITS
The series of high-level resignations in protest of Sam Zell's mandated cuts continues. Today, Chicago Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski and Los Angeles Times publisher David Hiller resigned in the wake of cuts of staff and resources forced by parent company Tribune Co.
These resignations come a week after the 161-year old Chicago Tribune was told to lay off another 80 journalists.Two months ago, George De Lama, the paper's managing editor for news, announced he was leaving the Tribune after 30 years.
Hiller took over as Los Angeles Times publisher after Johnson publicly criticized cost-cutting measures including a reduction of the paper's foreign coverage. Hiller then forced out editor Dean Baquet, who also opposed the cutbacks. In January, Los Angeles Times editor James O'Shea stepped down, also in protest of the cuts orderd by Tribune Co. He was the third editor to leave the paper since 2005. The paper's current editor is Russ Stanton. (Associated Press).
Also owned by the Tribune Co., the Baltimore Sun will stop printing a separate business section, and the Orlando Sentinel has reduced staff and changed its layout to include more graphics and charts but less text.
Sam Zell is a real estate mogul who financed the Tribune Co.'s take-over by putting the company $12 billion into debt which now needs to be serviced at $1 billion a year.
Tribune Co.'s CEO Randy Michaels said Tribune executives were "evaluating the productivity of individual journalists with an eye toward cutbacks."
Nice work environment.
July 2 , 2008
SELLING NEWSPAPERS -- MORE LAYOFFS AT LOS ANGELES TIMES
The deterioration of American newspaper journalism is continuing. After severely cutting its newsroom staff earlier this year (see my entry of February 15), the Los Angeles Times is now being forced to undertake another another round of layoffs. This time, 250 jobs will be eliminated, which includes 150 journalists or 1/6th of the creative staff. The paper will also reduce the number of published pages by 15% and drop the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
The irony is that the L.A. Times is not unprofitable. If the paper was still independently owned, the cuts would not be necessary. But since the L.A. Times is now just a subsidiary of a large media conglomerate which is deeply in debt, it does not make enough money to satisfy the parent company's stock holders. The takeover and consolidation last December was orchestrated by Sam Zell, a businessman with no experience or personal interest in the media. Zell financed the Tribune group consolidation by taking the company 12 billion dollars into debt and leveraging against all assets, including pension funds. According to the U.K.'s Guardian, the Tribune group reported a combined cash flow of 1 billion last year, which is barely enough to cover the annual debt repayments. This is why Zell must now squeeze the last dollar out of every media outlet in the Tribune’s portfolio, even if it means ruining its assets in the long term. This probably does not bother Mr. Zell much, because he will sell each of his media outlets when the timing is right and a good offer materializes.
Clearly, the media outlets in the Tribune portfolio are now being viewed as speculative assets. There is not longer much interest in making money the old fashioned way. When a journalist talks about "selling papers", he means "selling copies". When a speculator like Mr. Zell speaks of "selling papers", he means "selling the publishing operation". Therefore, the main objective is to improve each portfolio asset’s stock value to the point where it can be sold for a profit. Cutting expenses is merely the fastest way to accomplish this, and product quality becomes a mere afterthought. By the time consumers stop buying a product because of perceived quality issues, the speculative investor has already cashed in on the sale and is long gone.
Decades ago, the Los Angeles Times had a newsroom staff of 1,300. After the latest round of cuts, there will only be 720 journalists left. Other creative staff, such as photographers and illustrators, have also been cut. Of course, this has resulted in a dramatic loss of coverage, original research and overall quality.
Los Angeles is unique among western world cities in that is has only one daily newspaper covering the entire region.
June 18 , 2008
DATE PALM GROWN FROM 2,000-YEAR OLD SEED
Our best food preservation methods pale by comparison to what nature does. Seeds are near perfect containers for all the chemicals necessary to produce life.
The oldest seeds known to successfully germinate and produce life are 2,000 years old. They consist of date palm seeds found in the ruins of Masada in present-day Israel. (The previous record holder was a 1,300 year-old Chinese lotus).
Meanwhile, a lone date seedling grown from the Masada find has grown to be about four feet tall. Named “Methuselah” after the oldest person in the Bible, it is the only known link to the Judean date palm forests that once shaded and nourished the region.
Preliminary comparison with modern date palms shows a 20% to 50% difference from current date palm varieties. The resurrected date palm variety may have lost traits such as special adaptation or resistance to pests and diseases. We won’t know for sure for a while. If all goes well (and if Methuselah turns out to be female), fruit will not appear before 2010 at the earliest.
May 25, 2008
PHOENIX TOUCHES DOWN ON MARS
After a 10-month flight, the NASA-JPL spacecraft Phoenix has arrived on Mars. The lander performed an absolutely flawless descent and a picture perfect touchdown this afternoon local time. I almost could not believe how well things went. Of course, the landing was a big and exciting event in Southern California. The newsroom at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was packed, and local gatherings with newsfeeds were held at the Griffith Observatory, the RTMC Astronomy Expo and at the Planetary Society's Planetfest 2008.
I can't really agree with NASA's idea to schedule the landing for the Memorial Day weekend. These days, people are simply too busy and distracted on a holiday weekend. News coverage of major sporting events such as the Indianapolis 500 and the various celebrations honoring veterans have dominated the news today. I'm sure things will pick up in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the lander seems to be in good health. The first pictures have already been transmitted.
Full NASA coverage of the mission is here.
April 15, 2008
BANK ACCOUNT RAIDED
It’s the kind of thing that “only happens to other people.” Last night when I came home, I found a love letter from my bank, informing me that my personal checking account was overdrawn and that I was being fined $35.
This morning I went online, frothing at the mouth, to check my account. Had I messed up the accounting? What I saw was rather shocking: over the course of several days, my bank account had not only been completely drained, but overdrawn by thousands of dollars. The cash withdrawals were made from an ATM in Hollywood.
To add insult to injury, the bank had also assessed a multitude of rather hefty fees: "overdraft fees", "negative balance fees", "account balance inquiry fees", and yet more fees for making withdrawals from an ATM not owned by the bank. But they had nicely given away my money, even when the account was already overdrawn, because, as a bank representative later told me, of “my great relationship with the bank”. (I guess what she meant was that it was great that they could stick me with all these fees).
Getting someone from the fraud department on the phone took 15 minutes of hold time. I was told that will receive affidavit forms via fax. I am to fill them out, have them notarized and turn them in to the bank. They will then investigate the incident, which, the bank tells me, will take a minimum of 10 days. In addition, I was instructed to file a police report -- and live without a personal checking account.
My account is of course suspended now, and my ATM and debit cards are cancelled. If, at the end of the investigation, the bank finds that I did not make these withdrawals, they will refund the money. Checks I have written will most likely bounce. And of course, I have to spend all this time trying to sort out the mess. Just what I need!
For years I have been reading about the inherent problem with charge cards, and how they are less secure than credit cards. Yet, I had assumed that I would be less likely to be a victim. Since I’m constantly keeping myself up-to-date on technologies, I think I can spot a skimmig device. And I won’t fall for the ubiquitos phishing scams. So how on earth did the thief clone my ATM card and obtain my PIN?
My suspicion is that there is a dirty secret banks don't wish to admit. That is: they have massive internal problems with data theft. Security systems are only as secure as the personnel working with them. A bank employee could siphon off ATM card data by accessing the databases holding this information, or the data traffic between point of sale and bank processing center could be intercepted and the encryption broken. If someone has the decryption keys. (Which could be stolen by insiders).
Well, this should be interesting. I doubt that the police will do anything except take a report. It’s just another day in L.A.
April 10, 2008
London charges motorists
a hefty fee to drive into the city. A similar effort in New York just
failed, but is not quite dead yet.
The problem with all these ideas is that our public officials (yes, the people who enact the laws) are not really affected by them. Many use city- or county-owned vehicles. The higher-uppers even have chauffeurs. None of them will ever pay toll charges, or even parking charges. Tires and shock absorbers busted by our pockmarked Third World roads? No problem. Just stick the car repair bill to Mr. Taxpayer.
The answer lies in the Swiss way of thinking. Swiss citizens, by benefit of living (and voting) in the most democratic country on Earth, have decided that public officials must partake in eating the soup they cook.
There are almost no “official vehicles” in Switzerland. Instead, lawmakers and public officials get tickets for public transportation. Yes, the bus and the train. Don’t like to meet your constituents on your morning commute? Too bad, Mr. Mayor. You can drive your private car. If you drive by yourself, this means: no car pool lane for you. And pay for parking at City Hall – just like the rest of us. (You make enough money anyway). Perhaps you would consider tandem parking?
If Los Angeles thought like the Swiss, it would not be long before we would begin to see meaningful zoning and community planning. And in short order, we would actually see the beginnings of a county wide public transportation system that is not insane and ludicrous.
It worked in Switzerland for sure. Swiss trains are not only clean, safe and efficient; you can actually set your clock to them. Every city has a conveniently located train station. Buses and trams are efficient, and waiting areas are generally comfortable and clean. Many cities have now equipped public vehicles with GPS receivers and radio transponders. Such systems can be set to give public vehicles preferential treatment at regulated intersections. Computerized systems can even regulate traffic so that public vehicles are kept on a precise schedule. And they can tell waiting passengers when exactly the next bus will arrive -- similar to departure and arrival screens we know from airports. Real time departure- and arrival information can be tracked on the Internet and it can even be sent to passengers' cellphones and PDAs. Imagine --- no more guessing about when the next bus will arrive!
Of course this does not mean that Swiss citizens do not own or need cars. Of course they do (especially in rural areas), but they use them less but more efficiently instead.
April 4, 2008
iTUNES BECOMES AMERICA'S LARGEST MUSIC RETAILER
According to figures released yesterday by NPD Group, a market research firm, Apple's iTunes has now overtaken Walmart to become the largest music retailer in the U.S.
Apple Inc. created iTunes only five years ago. Since then, it has shaken up the industry by becoming a model for successful and profitable online distribution of digital media.
Personally, I am troubled by the inferior sound quality of downloaded files, even though the files on iTunes are technically better than the MP3 standard used by other services. Still, it does not come close to the quality one would get on CD -- a difference audible to someone with sensitive ears, listening on decent equipment.
At the moment, U.S. consumers are still buying more CDs than downloads, but the gap is closing fast. The important question is what will now happen with CD prices. Will the music industry continue to overcharge for their perceived value -- by marketing them as a "premium" product? Or will they finally come to their senses and realize that consumers feel chipped if they are asked to pay 20 times a product's manufacturing costs -- and therefore seek alternatives.
March 28, 2008
"Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
(Sir Arthur Charles Clarke - author, inventor, futurist; born 16 December 1917 in England; died 19 March 2008 on Sri Lanka. For more on Arthur C. Clarke, read Thor Dockweiler's blog post or the biography on Wikipedia.)
March 7, 2008
DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME MAKES NO SENSE
This Sunday we will
again do the crazy switch -- to “Daylight Savings Time”. Finally
there is good scientific evidence for what I’ve been suspecting
(and saying) for years. The notion that Daylight “Saving”
Time "saves" energy is bunk. It is a stupid idea, serves
no documentable purpose and should be done away with.
Here is an organization with the goal of abolishing DST for good: http://www.standardtime.com/
February 29, 2008
NEWS COVERAGE COMPROMISED AS A RESULT OF JOB CUTS
The wave of journalist layoffs (see my posts on Feb. 14 and Feb. 15) all over the U.S. continues. The general economic decline and our real estate and lending crisis is causing further stagnation in the already problematic classified advertising market. Predictably, the amount of quality coverage is also falling.
Today's Los Angeles Times has a most interesting article on the subject here.
Will blogs (mostly
run by unpaid "citizen journalists") pick up the slack? Research
by the Washington-based Project
for Excellence in Journalism suggests otherwise. Most blog content
consists of commentary and very little original research.
February 27, 2008
WIND TURBINE DESTRUCTS
Several years ago, I wrote a story about wind power. As part of the research I got to climb in and on those huge turbines. As I've learned, they are generally quite safe. Unless something bad happens. Here's a video of a Danish wind turbine self-destructing in a storm. This 10-year old turbine was 80 m (240 feet) high.
February 15, 2008
MORE NEWSROOM CUTS
More details of the Tribune Co.'s 2% job cuts, now under new ownership by real estate magnate Sam Zell, are emerging.
The New York Times will lay off 100 newsroom staff, the Los Angeles Times 100 – 150 (40 – 50 in the newsroom). Further layoffs were announced for the Chicago Tribune (100), the San Diego Union-Tribune (83, including 43 newsroom), the Detroit Free Press / Detroit News (110) and the Orange County Register (20 – 35).
The Tribune Co.’s local broadcasting outlets (currently 23 TV-stations around the country, including KTLA-TV Channel in Los Angeles) will be spared (for now).
The L.A. Times has named Russ Stanton its third editor in three years – this time Zell found someone who is willing to work under the imposed staff reductions. Stanton will have to make do with one third fewer staffers than a decade ago, which makes it impossible to maintain the same level of journalistic quality. (The previous editors resigned in protest).
A veteran journalist, Russ Stanton most recently was responsible for the success of the L.A. Times online edition, which has been adding 20% readers annually. Meanwhile, the print circulation has fallen from 1.1 million in the early 1990s to 780,000 today.
The most infuriating thing is that the Tribune Co. is not losing money. I repeat -- it is making a profit! But the consolidation in the industry (in this case the purchase through Zell in a $8.2 billion dollar deal) needs to be financed, and this left the company weighed down with a $13 billion debt. Such debt-financed consolidation never benefit us media professionals, nor do they benefit the reader. In this case, it only benefits Zell and his investors.
I know there are many of you who think that all this is no big deal. According to one line of thought, this trend only means that newspaper and magazine operations have to adjust to the Internet and will in future be financed through their online activities.
But I have to disappoint you. Nobody in journalism is making much money from web sites. In case of the Los Angeles Times, the print edition generates more than 90% of the paper’s revenue. The online edition is not sustainable from its advertising revenue.
So if you are interested in balanced, multifaceted and diverse media with high journalistic standards, subscribe to (or purchase) printed newspapers and magazines. Don’t just read their online editions for free!
February 14, 2008
WRITERS' STRIKE ENDS
After 100 days, the writers' strike has come to an end with yesterday's ballot. Under the agreement negotiated by the WGA, the new contract will be ratified on Feb. 25 and will be good for three years. The most pertinent issue was related to revenue generated by distribution over the Internet and mobile wireless networks, for which writers have seen little compensation so far. Although the new contract still falls short of writers' demands, it is still an improvement over the current situation.
The media and entertainment industry employs about 250,000 people in the Los Angeles region. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation estimates the strike's damage to the local economy at 3 billion dollars. Of these, $772 came from lost pay for writers and production workers.
MORE MEDIA JOBS TO BE CUT
Meanwhile, the general collapse in the media industry continues. Now under new ownership, the Tribune Co. (which also owns the Los Angeles Times) announced yesterday that it would lay off another 2% of its staff. For the Los Angeles Times, the cuts mean another loss of 100 to 150 jobs, including 40 – 50 in the newsroom. This comes after a previous reduction of newsroom staff from 1,200 to 887. The ongoing cuts and demands for “cheaper” news operations have caused several senior editors of the L.A. Times to resign in short succession.
Obviously, the cuts brings with them another reduction in the level of journalistic standards. They will accelerate the shift to tabloid stories and "cheap" reporting, in which stories are mostly adaptions of wire service feeds, with little original research by the news outlet.
Personally, I think this trend to “cheaper is better” is a fallacy. The verbatim content of wire service feeds is now available on the Internet within minutes. Why should a reader wait until the next day and pay money for something that’s already on the Internet? Newspapers and magazines cannot compete with “free” and “right away” – and should not even try. In my opinion, the only way to halt the slump is to go the exact opposite route and offer more of what is not easily available on the Internet for free: originality, reliability and hiqh journalistic quality.
February 11, 2008
CAMDEN MARKET FIRE
One of my favorite places in the world, the Camden Market in London (51º 32' 29" N, 00º 08' 47" W) was the site of a huge blaze over the weekend. Contrary to early reports, my most favorite place within the market (Camden Lock and the historic stables) remain unaffected. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Every weekend, London's Camden Market is a huge, cosmopolitan gathering place where people from all imaginable backgrounds mix and mingle.
February 5, 2008
While I was working at the Austrian Broadcasting Corp. (ORF.at) in Vienna, I had a couple of jobs as assistant director for Stefan Ruzowitzky, who was a few years my senior in the same college department. (Stefan remained in Austria and moved from television to feature films, while I went to London and Los Angeles to focus on journalism and writing).
most recent project, Die Fälscher (“The Counterfeiters”)
was just nominated for this year’s Academy Award, in the category
of “Best Foreign Language Film”. Just getting nominated
for the "Oscar" is a great success, and I’m extremely
happy for Stefan. I will keep my fingers crossed on February 24th.
January 26, 2008
January 12, 2007
KANGEIKO 2008 (Jan. 7 to Jan. 12)
A test of body and spirit, the tradition of kangeiko (winter training) is the connecting point between the past of the last year and the future of the coming year.
I really hate getting up before the sun does. But after a week of daily karate-do training before dawn, the mind becomes clear and ready for the challenges ahead. Here we are posing after the completion of the final class, before the obligatory sake toast. (That's me on the right).
January 5, 2008
The usually nice weather in California is not so nice at the moment. All of California is being battered by the strongest rainstorms in many years. Winds in Northern California reached over 80 mph, overturning trucks and crashing trees and debris into houses. Up to 1.5 million households and businesses have temporarily lost power. (Then again, due to our dilapidated and inadequate infrastructure, power outages are not that unusual here). There is a danger of flooding and mudslides, particularly in areas which were depleted of vegetation during the wildfires last November. More rainfall is expected over the weekend.
Lots of snow fell in the Sierra, and I'm hoping for some good snowfalls in the local (San Gabriel and San Bernardino) mountains as well.
January 4, 2008
REIGN OF THE LAPTOP
I have always been a big fan of portable computing. In my ideal world, I'd want to be able to have access to all my data anywhere, anytime. And I'd like to be able to work whenever the need (or inspiration) strikes me.
Portable computers have been around since the early 1980s, but the earliest models were too bulky and impractical for wide acceptance. I bought my first model (an Apple PowerBook 165 - 80 MB hard disk space, floppy drive, 4 MB RAM and a processor speed of 16 Mhz) in the 1990s and never had a desktop as my main computer. Since then, technology has greatly improved.
Laptops are now overtaking the old standard desktop computer in sales. In 2007, U.S. laptop sales increased by 21% to 31.6 million, while desktop sales declined by 4% to 35 million. For the first time American consumers are buying more laptops than desktops. In 2008, laptops are projected to also form the majority of corporate sales. They are expected to account for the majority of global computer sales by 2009.
In combination with wireless Internet access, the shift to mobile computing is causing great changes to the way we work, communicate and play -- a trend that can be expected to accelerate dramatically.
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