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Good Bye, Old Friend

21 Nov

Back in 2005, I was still writing the blog I had started in 2003 using Blogger.com. I had a growing audience, a bit of influence, and blogging was new and revolutionary. In April of that year, Marc Odien invited me to have my blog hosted on the WordPress platform at his creation, WNYmedia.net. Since then, the site and my blog have gone through many iterations, reformations, designs, strategies, and ideas. We went from a standalone to a white-on-black group portal, back to standalones, and back to a group portal where it remains today.

My focus used to be somewhat broader than it’s become in recent years, but ultimately my site was about what I found interesting. That’s the guiding principle under which I’ve operated all these years.

It’s with much excitement and some trepidation that I’m announcing my departure from WNYMedia.net starting sometime next week. Chris Smith and I will soon be writing online for Artvoice, western New York’s alternative regional weekly, under the guidance of editor Geoff Kelly.

Parting with WNYMedia.net is quite bittersweet. While I’m thrilled with the opportunity to write for a new, different audience as part of an established alternative news outlet, I will always be grateful to Marc for giving me this platform, which we collectively transformed into a genuine player in the local media scene.

Blogging’s meteoric rise in influence has waned somewhat in recent years, as social media platforms deliver similar content in a more immediate way. I wouldn’t say blogging is dead – it’s just different. It sure isn’t 2003 anymore.

I want to thank Marc, Chris, Kevin, Brian, Chris C., Chris VP, Nate, Paul, Eric, Christina, and the dozens of other contributors and writers we’ve hosted over the past six years. I’d like to thank Craig from the late Buffalog for paving the way for Buffalocentric blogging during the last decade.

But above all, I’d like to thank you who read me every day for taking that time. I’d like to thank the people who commented for your participation in what has oftentimes been a great conversation about us – as a city, as a region, as a state.

Marc and WNYMedia.net will continue and I’m sure they’ll continue to do great things. I leave with no hard feelings or bad blood. I wish him, and the site, the best in all things.

Metropolitan Buffalo is a great place that’s ready for its close-up.

Escape the Urban Book Review: Robert Kull’s “Solitude”

20 Nov

In February 2001, Robert Kull took the concept of “escaping the urban” to its logical extreme: he moved to an uninhabited island in the glaciated fjordlands of southern Chile and lived alone for a year. On purpose. The only companion he packed in was a cat named Cat – all other kinship he discovered while there. 

The non-fiction shelf of your local bookstore is full of what my agent calls “stunt books.” Authors place themselves in gimmicky and often preposterous scenarios to create a new frame for an old story: reading the entire encyclopedia, living a year according to a strict interpretation of the Bible, walking or biking or kayaking across a continent. Kull is less stuntman than hermit. His quest was the oldest: spiritual, not contrived drama, more Coptic guru than Bear Grylls.

Robert Kull, according to his own description, is an ex-woodsman, part time scuba instructor, Buddhist/New Age fusion acolyte and (now) successful PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. In 2000 he managed to convince his dissertation committee to allow him to spend a year alone in the wilderness to research the affect of prolonged isolation on the human psyche. He would be both observer and subject, and kept daily journals to study and record his activities, mood, and ramblings. Because Kull is missing a leg and likes to sit and meditate, those diary entries contain more stream of consciousness than action narrative. The intimate (but fortunately edited, though a more forceful slashing would have been welcome) daily log forms the bulk of this book, broken by various interludes to explore themes of technology, scientific inquiry, and the Big Mind of creation.

I was initially entranced by Kull’s concept, and my own longing for remote Patagonia. The book’s front half moves right along as logistical concerns dominate: choosing the right remote island, procuring gear and supplies, planning a year’s worth of meals, building a cabin in the raging wind and rain, finding and stacking firewood for the coming cold, exploring inlets and isolated pebble beaches to discover ducks, dolphins, seals and limpets.  

But as he settles in to a long winter of isolation, as anxiety gives way to comfortable introspection, Kull loses all readers except the most devoted (trite?) spiritual explorers. I stubbornly stuck around waiting for the moment he would snap, smear gratuitous psychological carnage across the page, a sign of solitary induced dementia finally evident. Instead, Kull forms friendships with Butter Belly Diving Ducks, sees reassuring spirit faces in the rock formations on the mountain sides, and only seems to dread the expected depression that will come with reintegration into human society. He finds pleasant Solitude, not Loneliness, and his self-indulgent self-criticism aside, seems more content counting shellfish on the shore than facing bustling Vancouver again.

Most disappointing, however, was that despite his constant introspection, Kull could never see the irony of his entire endeavor: the human society he shunned produced the technology that made his mission possible. Kull did not paddle out to an island and build himself a cabin out of the materials he found there. The Chilean Navy shipped in pallets of gear for him: lumber and nails and screws and plastic sheeting to build his cabin, solar panels and a wind turbine to make electricity for incandescent light and his computer and sat-phone, a rigid inflatable raft with two outboard motors. While Kull asks himself whether he is really alone if he can email his pseudo-partner any time he wants, he never contemplates whether he could have traveled to his island in the first place without two tons of stuff.

Self-help junkies, rapt meditators and quasi-spiritual investigators will enjoy Kull’s quest into the self and the occasionally interesting insights into life it provides. Wilderness enthusiasts will ask themselves if they could pull of a year near Tierra del Fuego, may experience a momentary twinge of jealousy, but ultimately will only wonder how this book ended up in the outdoor section of Barnes and Noble.

Collins’ Three Rs – Resist , Retain, Raise

16 Nov

The View from Poloncarz HQ

Bob McCarthy talks to local Republicans who seem as disgruntled as they are un-named, and lists off a series of concerns they have about the Erie County Republican Committee’s direction now that it lost the Corwin and Collins races.

One could easily quip that the Republicans have a problem running neighbors from Cobblestone Lane in Spaulding Lake to represent people with whom they are fundamentally, societally, monetarily out-of-touch, but that’s “class warfare”. Frankly, I don’t really care why the Republicans lost those races – and they were won by down-to-Earth, reasonable centrist Democrats like Kathy Hochul and Mark Poloncarz, and their platforms, messaging, GOTV, and ideas.

McCarthy uncritically transcribed this “concern” held by local unnamed Republican sources:

* How did a county executive who fulfilled all his promises with minimal effects on taxes and no scandals manage to lose?”

The first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem.

First of all, to say Collins didn’t have scandals is to ignore the time when he referred to the Jewish Assembly Speaker as the “anti-Christ”, and the time when Collins jokingly demanded a “lap dance” in order to save a seat at the State of the State address for a well-connected female executive at a local construction company. It ignores the fact that, to some people, informing them days before Christmas that they’d be losing their state-funded daycare services and that they’d have to quit their jobs to watch their kids, is quite scandalous indeed.

Secondly, Collins did not “fulfill all his promises“. Collins raised taxes, deepened regional cleaves, and ran on “Three Rs – Reforming Erie County government, Rebuilding the local economy, and ultimately, Reducing taxes.”

He did not reform county government – in fact, he resisted and blocked reforms almost routinely (another “r”); he did not rebuild the local economy, but ensured that stimulus funds were hoarded to artificially improve his balance sheet; and he did not reduce – but raised – taxes.

That’s breaking your promises, and that’s failure under any measure. It’s no wonder he lost.

The Grass is Not Always Greener: Tex-Mex Fears

16 Nov

The fierce yin and yang of America’s divergent relationship with its two borders is embodied in two provincial border cities: Buffalo in the north, and El Paso in the south. Here our concerns are greater engagement with Canada, the easing of border restrictions, developing an economic plan to build off bi-national trade. Here our elected officials (the incoming county executive, for instance) call for using the border as a business engine. Here we regularly cross north for weekends in Toronto and chinese food.

There, in El Paso, the prime concern is safety from Mexico, enforcing strict border restrictions, and shutting down the most profitable of cross border trades (mules carrying drugs, guns and workers). There elected officials call for ranchers to arm themselves from spillover violence among and between drug cartels and federales. There vacation cross border traffic stopped a long time ago.

The last time I wrote about El Paso after a visit, I said the smell of burning garbage, intense desert heat, and sounds of gunfire in the distance reminded me of Iraq. Last week I returned again, but as we stayed in a hotel north of the city and further from the border, I didn’t get any unwanted flashbacks this time.

While I was there I heard news of a poll, asking Texans to rank the top challenges for Texas and the country as a whole. Like much of the rest of the country, Texans rank “the economy” as the United States’ chief concern. But locally, they are more worried about “immigration.” While to us Blue State northerners this may conjure images of xenophobic Red State racists, talking to actual Texans (not surprisingly) yields a far more nuanced picture. New York may envy Texas’ economic engine, but certainly not the border issues. 

In places like El Paso and Laredo and Corpus Christi, large Latino populations predate the United States or State of Texas; the border moved, not the people. With families split by the river and an open relationship between the two countries, people and goods moved back and forth unofficially, under the radar, but mainly peacefully. A rancher I spoke to, who grew up in south west Texas, remembers fondly the days of mutually positive relationships between land owners and migrant workers; days that are now as far away as the old timer’s childhoods.

That less-than-legal but tacitly-accepted easy relationship has been replaced by fear and anger. Not fear of “immigrants,” and the jobs they may take or strain they put on social services (Texas is not California), but fear of violence: murders and kidnapping. The anger is almost exclusively reserved for the Obama administration, perceived as ineffectual at best, and purposely and dangerously ignorant at worst.

First, the situation. Some 40,000 odd people have died in Mexico since 2006 as a result of the war between various drug cartel factions and the Mexican government. In the last year, the violence has increased in both volume and scope: more deaths than ever, and more gruesome methods (car bombs, chainsaw beheadings (I’m not linking to it), targeting of social media reporters). To Texans, this violence is not academic – the majority is happening a couple of miles away, especially on the border town of Ciudad Juarez, and is crossing the border in under-reported ways. The reported murder rate for Americans in Mexico is up 300%, but that figure only includes voluntary reports to the State Department, not reports from Mexican officials. American gangs are increasingly linked to Mexican cartels. Locals will tell you that while the vast vast majority of bodies are found on the Mexican side of the border, the general suspicion is that at least some are killed here and dumped there.

In response to this trend, Texan and federal government officials have mostly squabbled. Texan politicians feel like the feds aren’t taking the situation seriously, as evidenced by President Obama denying a meeting on the issue with Governor Perry. In Washington, officials are uneasy about the scope of the response already: fences and border patrol and deployed national guard. When the Obama Administration does act, it does so incompetently – a major story down south (and mostly ignored this far north) is the bungling of FBI/ATF Operation Fast and Furious. That firearm sting operation sent 2000 functioning and untracked weapons to Mexico, 1400 of which are unaccounted for. When locals take efforts into their own hands, tragic mistakes inevitably follow.

Fear and anger. Beneath the failed Birther rhetoric that creeps into the vocal frustration is a basic human fear of violence. Fear for one’s family. Fear of a way of life taken, not by economic force but physical force. Anger that a Border Patrol agent was killed by an errant gun from the Fast and Furious operation, and no one in the federal government (especially AG Holder) has taken responsibility. Frustration that a war is happening a mile or two away and the rest of the country doesn’t know or care. STRATFOR, the Austin-based private global intel company, has declared Mexico is nearing failed state status. Is anyone paying attention?

Barbrady Science

16 Nov

A BBC documentary television series called “Frozen Planet” will soon air on the Discovery Network here in the U.S.

Well, most of it will.

U.S. audiences will not be shown the last episode, which looks at the threat posed by man to the natural world.

It is feared a show that preaches global warming could upset viewers in the U.S., where around half of people do not believe in climate change.

The Daily  Mail points out that 53% of self-identify Republicans refuse to believe the science establishing that humans contribute to global climate change, and the number leaps to 70% among the so-called “tea party” ultra-right wing.

Sir David Attenborough presents and authors the series, the seventh episode of which, entitled ‘On Thin Ice’, looks at how the planet’s ice is changing and what it means not only to the animals and people at the Poles but also the rest of the planet.

How about that. Only 32% of Americans support the Tea Party movement, which is perceived favorably by 28% of Americans. Only 29% of Americans self-identify as Republicans. Most Americans (38%) self-identify as “independent”.

I don’t quite understand, then, why a small minority of Americans gets to drive the nation’s scientific bus over the cliffs of ignorance.

Occupy Evicted

16 Nov

Early yesterday morning, under cover of night and by excluding and/or arresting the press, Mayor Bloomberg ordered the New York City police to clear Occupy Wall Street out of Zuccotti Park, and sanitation to clean it.

I’ve always had my doubts about the First Amendment implications of Zuccotti being a privately owned park – to my mind, the protesters would be on a more solid legal footing if they were gathered on public property. In any event, to my mind, yesterday’s expulsion was violative of the Constitutional protections for political speech and assembly. The government kicked them out – not the private park owner.

That Bloomberg did it under cover of night and deliberately excluded the press makes this even more ominous – what were they hiding?

While most media coverage of the Occupy movement has been dismissive, or packed with unwanted advice, in my opinion the lumpendemocratic, unorganized (if not disorganized) nature of the protest is exactly right. As Matt Taibbi points out, Occupy isn’t for any one specific thing – it is demonstrating against the general wrong direction of a superficial, lost society; an economy that has been systematically transformed into a bastardization of free market capitalism. The 99% get the crumbs while 1% of Americans belong to a privileged brown-shoe mafia that enforces its advantage through buying off politicians.

Although Occupy had obtained a temporary restraining order blocking their eviction, a State Supreme Court judge upheld the eviction later in the day, stating that the park was for the benefit of all the public, and that Occupy posed a health and safety hazard.

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Occupy is allowed back in the park, but not with tents, tarps, or large bags or camping equipment.

The earlier TRO:

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The city’s response:

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In Buffalo, the Occupy movement has set up in Niagara Square as a 24-hour demonstration. It’s been invited to stay by city government, and finds support among the unionized police and fire departments. There’s no reason to evict what’s become a movement.

And to those who say that Occupy needs to immediately set up a list of demands and figure out what it’s all about, I can’t think of a more succinct, relevant, accurate, or reasonable slogan than “sh1t is all f*cked up and sh1t”.

Naught to 60 in about 2.5 seconds

15 Nov

What happens when you take an old VW Golf Mk2 and stuff it with 4Motion all-wheel drive, a six-speed gearbox, and a turbocharged diesel engine?

0-100 km/h (0 – 62 MPH) in 2.7 seconds.

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As Autoblog so conveniently points out, that’s quicker than a multimillion dollar Bugatti Veyron. And as the number plate suggests, it’s street legal.

 

Wrapping My Head Around Last Week

14 Nov

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I’ve been thinking about the County Executive’s race all week, and I can’t seem to crystallize my thoughts into a coherent post, so here you go.

I’m not quite sure why regional campaigns would leave their messaging and communications in the hands of outsiders. Someone in Albany or Washington isn’t going to have his finger on the pulse of western New York, no matter whether they’re Buffalo expats or not.  Buy local, and use local talent.  Peter Anderson for Poloncarz was always cool as a cucumber. Stefan Mychajliw for Collins probably had a really difficult boss, and he got bogged down in making his boss look like the victim of union/Democratic fraud and dirty tricks. Collins, however, was too widely unliked.

Poloncarz and his team out-everythinged Collins’. While Collins and his people were busy whining about ballot tampering and signs “stolen” from public property in Williamsville, Poloncarz was undeterred from his central message of jobs and returning government to the people. Poloncarz showed up at candidates’ forums – friendly and unfriendly – that Collins completely avoided. Poloncarz walked door to door, attended fundraisers, shook hands, and – most importantly – listened to people.

Just three years ago, Collins was a rising Republican star. He was the millionaire model for conservative beancounters everywhere, even being invited to speak at the GOP Convention in 2008. Now? He’s going back to the private sector, where he can treat his businesses and employees however he’d like. Those people get paid to deal with him. Not so the voters of Erie County. Any talk of Collins running for statewide office is now quieted.

The people told him that they don’t like taxes, but they like the stuff they pay for, like libraries.

Running government like a business was a great platform to run against a reheated old pol like Jim Keane. But Collins didn’t run it like a business – he ran it like his business. He surrounded himself with very young staffers who were as sycophantic to their boss as they were arrogant to others. Their political prowess had become legendary, yet they had never run a competitive race against anyone. Kathy Hochul showed that they were weak; that was the first clue that Collins would lose. That he generally kept the same crew around was hubris, and they lost their second competitive race.

Correspondents tell me that the collective mood in the Rath Building has improved dramatically since last Tuesday’s surprisingly  convincing Poloncarz win. It’s not because Poloncarz is suddenly going to hire back everyone his union masters demand, as some would think; instead, it’s because county workers know that this victory will quiet down the incessant scapegoating. Despite all the talk of Six Sigma, the time will soon come where these workers will be judged on their merits; on their efficiency – not on arbitrary beancounting. The days of cutting off our nose to spite our face will be over.

The public-sector unions, however, are kidding themselves if they think they own the incoming County Executive. They will be treated fairly, but won’t be given the keys to the candy store.

Leading into election day, I was afraid it would be too close to call – that Poloncarz would win, but not for weeks, and that Collins would be yelling about election fraud. His win wasn’t exactly a landslide, but it was a much bigger margin than anyone expected, and it’s due to hard work.

Poloncarz insiders told me on Election Night that Bob McCarthy had slagged them off all summer, complaining about how boring the race was, and what a shoo-in Collins was to win re-election. They perceived McCarthy’s coverage of their effort as being unnecessarily negative and excessively dismissive. He pretended that there was a potential conflict of interest by SEIU – which has no contract with the county – paying Poloncarz’s campaign manager’s salary. There wasn’t, and it’s not as unusual as he suggested. McCarthy’s interest in the race began and ended with financial disclosures – Collins was the winner because he could afford to self-fund, and Poloncarz was the loser because until that first Siena poll was released, he hadn’t raised as much. Yet McCarthy didn’t do the math, and Poloncarz had even then out-raised Collins. After Siena, Poloncarz out-raised Collins by 4:1.

Bob, cash doesn’t vote. People do.

Political junkies like to follow the financial filings at the BOE; the general public, not so much. McCarthy comes out of this campaign looking downright shortsighted and foolish. His coverage was practically negligent.

By the way, city turnout last week approached 25%. Remember when the Siena polls came out and the city sample was 21% and 19%, respectively, and how the Collins camp and others had a conniption fit over that? That was fun.

They were right – Siena was inaccurate. They showed a dead heat when Poloncarz was out ahead. Collins’ people touted magical internal polls showing him up, up, up, but that didn’t materialize.

Ballot tampering – Collins’ crew’s attempts to link that to Poloncarz was pathetic and whiny. Granted, Poloncarz jumped the gun when he accused the Republicans of engineering that attempted fraud, but in the end, Collins was clearly trying to set this up for post-election-night litigation. But everyone knew the cops had absolved both campaigns of responsibility, so Collins came off as whiny.

I think a reason why the margin was so wide has to do with Collins’ appearance on the Fox News Channel in the days leading up to the election. Here’s a guy who won’t talk to voters in his own town, yet he has the time to go on a divisive Republican propaganda outlet with a miniscule national audience? Collins could have influenced more voters by yelling out his window in Clarence than appearing on some obscure Fox News show no one heard of.

The election, I think, was ultimately about re-assessing our community priorities. We may not be ready for true regionalism, but we’re over pitting one population against another. We’re bored with political scapegoating of certain sectors of our society. We want the county to move forward into the 21st century and stop bickering. We don’t like how high our taxes are, but enjoy the things they pay for that lift up our quality of life, and we need to find a comfortable balance. We’re tired of unfunded mandates, and we’re sick of redundancy.

What I’m most hopeful for isn’t a different kind of beancounting, but big ideas. When Poloncarz spoke of closer ties with Canada, an examination of redundant IDAs that poach business from each other, de-politicizing processes that Collins had hyperpoliticized, I get excited. When I consider that regional cooperation and consolidation of redundancies may re-emerge, I’m quite pleased. When I consider that the comptroller will now be in a position to fix issues he had identified as plaguing Collins’ budgets, I’m hopeful.

After the mess Giambra made, Collins’ policies may have been what we needed, but his obnoxious arrogance gave him a very short shelf-life indeed.

Escape the Urban Travelogue: An Unlovable Land

13 Nov

I spent the last week alternating between freezing and cooking on a table of high desert in a corner of New Mexico, just north of El Paso and the big bend of the Rio Grande. The northernmost finger of the expansive Chihuahuan Desert, this is a land of yuccas and scrubs, crusted-over mud that devolves into baby powder at the least disturbance, a tableau painted almost entirely from a palette of various browns and tans. There are only three exceptions to this uniform dirty smear: the deep sky above, two weeks of wet spring that brings the desert to bloom, and the mountains shimmering in the distance, blue during the blinding sunny days, purple when backlit from a dusty blown orange sunset.

This mile high landscape is beautiful like the bleached skeletons that litter the dessicated wadis. Beautiful like a chiseled slab of granite split from the relentless wind alone. Beautiful like a coyote howl heard from a mesa miles away, not a single obstruction to attenuate the sound between.

If this land is lovely, it is also unlovable. Not even the most hardened denizen can love a home that is constantly trying to kill. Tolkien’s elves and hobbits fell in love with whispering trees, rolling grassy hills and well-tilled earth, not spiny ground cactus, parched ridgelines and caliche dust flowing through your fingers like a powdery hourglass. Here your cheeks aren’t rosy from a nip in the air, but from a competition between the sun and wind to see which can deliver the more lasting burn. In New York, our “in-between places” naturally fill in with forest and vine and horsetails. Out in the high desert, the same places gather drifts of dirt in the open, and plastic trash in the cities.

If this land is not loved, that does not mean it is not respected, or admired, or pined for even. Having lived in eastern New Mexico for several years, I can confidently say that residents who bore their home any affection loved not their land but what it represented. Loved what the open landscape stood for. Freedom. Opportunity. Self-sufficiency. A pride in having been toughened by the clime, still standing tall like a dried yucca stalk, unbroken though etched and scarred by the wind and sun. The signs of past hardships are everywhere; the road I drove everyday between draws and low gullies appeared on our map as an old stagecoach tract, the squared and cut paving stones, now cracked, still lining the wheel ruts.

Back home now on grey wet Grand Island, my boots are still impregnated with dust, my neck is looks like parched beef jerky, and my wide horizons are shrunk again by the enveloping canopy.

Veterans’ Day – Remembrance Day – Armistice Day

11 Nov

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

– Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army