Another Yakuza Hit

Let me be (nearly) the first to congratulate Japanese mobsters for their expert manipulation of tropical weather to aim another gigantic hurricane at the United States.

I say nearly the first because no doubt Scott Stevens — the Pocatello, Idaho, TV weather guy who announced earlier this month that Hurricane Katrina was the work of yakuza weather warriors wielding a secret Soviet climate weapon — has beaten me to the punch.

Stevens is finally getting some actual press attention for his ideas: The Associated Press picked up on an Idaho Falls Post Register story on Stevens’s ideas. The USA Today version of the AP piece (“Cold War device used to cause Katrina?” — a careless headline that gives Stevens’s notion credence) quotes the weatherman on his reaction to seeing a manipulated cloud mass with his own eyes:

“I just got sick to my stomach because these clouds were unnatural and that meant they had (the machine) on all the time,” Stevens said. “I was left trying to forecast the intent of some organization rather than the weather of this planet.”

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Last (Astronomical) Night of Summer

Explanations and observations about the above:

Yes, I’m showing my boreal and Western Hemisphere chauvinism with the above headline.

The official time for the start of autumn 2005 in these parts is 3:23 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

That’s 5:23 p.m. in Chicago and 6:23 p.m. in New York City, proud capitals of the Infospigot media empire. And 10:23 p.m. in London, a city unvisited by your correspondent.

For Tokyo, an outpost of the Greater Infospigot Co-Prosperity Sphere, that’s 7:23 a.m. Friday, the 23rd (the Autumnal Equinox is a national holiday there). That means the last sundown of summer falls on the 22nd, about three hours from now (5:38 p.m., Japan Standard Time; since Japan declines to spring forward or fall back, its already experiencing early sunset blues.)

And since everything is upside down and backwards on the other side of the Equator — my first big thrill visiting Australia was the realization that the reason Orion looked different was he was standing on his head — spring begins at 7:23 p.m. tomorrow in Buenos Aires, 12:23 a.m. (the 23rd) in Cape Town, and 8:23 a.m. (the 23rd) in Sydney.

Newscast Gone Bad

Ktvunews

[11/17/06 update: It’s official–Leslie Griffith is gone for good from KTVU.]

[9/29/06 update: The Case of the Missing Anchor]

[10/8/06 update: The San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier and Ross weighed in on Leslie Griffith’s absence. KTVU’s general manager said she’s on leave at least until October 27; a week or so earlier, he was saying he expected her back on October 9.]

I grew up in the Chicago area with the now-shocking notion that local TV news could be more than a weak, ill-informed entertainment. But not to rely too much on my memory of how solid those newscasts were or weren’t — of course, everything was better in the ’60s — there’s not much debate that most TV news has devolved into puffs of insubstantiality dressed up to look like they mean something. If these shows — both the locals and much of the stuff you see on network and cable — had to make their living on the actual knowledge they convey, they’d be out of business. But pictures are compelling. We need our weather, sports and advertising and the personalities who present it all. So the shows chug on. 

Here in the Bay Area, the last bastion of news for news’ sake was KTVU, Channel 2. Going back to their unaffiliated, pre-Fox days, the station had a 60-minute newscast it put on at 10 p.m., an hour ahead of its competitors and their 30-minute happy-talk shows. Channel 2 managed to use the 60 minutes well. Stories ran longer and there were more of them. “The 10 O’Clock News” developed a cast of reporters and anchors that actually seemed, well, “reliable” and “trustworthy.” It developed a reputation of seriousness and substance.

But nothing’s forever. Under cost pressure, Channel 2 long ago started cutting back. It started emphasizing easy, cheap stories like traffic accidents, fires, and the latest shootings. Much of the old cast is still there, though many members look tired. One significant change was the departure in 1998 of the longtime co-anchor Elaine Corral, who quit at the end of the broadcast one night without letting anyone know what she was doing. We were watching that night; it was TV to remember. It was also a loss to the show’s chemistry — she and the other anchor, Dennis Richmond, always looked like a good fit — but it also could have been an example of someone getting out at the right time.

Leslie Griffith, a reporter and weekend anchor best known for her wild mane of blonde hair and somewhat goofy on-air manner, replaced Corral. She seemed like a lightweight next to Richmond, who conveys something you might even think of as gravitas if you forget he’s presenting the local news. And no warmth has ever developed between Richmond and Griffith. Richmond is slow but precise; Griffith is someone who once looked like she was having fun on camera but decided or was told she needed to look serious when she became the show’s co-star.

The problem is, she can’t pull it off, and sometimes her performance is ridiculous: She stumbles on the scripts, she smiles when there’s no reason to smile, she hmmms portentously. Last night — we watched right after wallowing in an hour of “Prison Break” — she was nearly helpless from the very top of the show when she and Richmond were alternating reading the live teasers:

“As floodwaters recede in New Orleans … residents are first to return to home … and … but they’re told … not just yet.”

In the first part of the show, she had another couple muffs that sounded much worse than they read:

“Here in the Bay Area paramedics … the death toll from Katrina has reached 973 across the entire Gulf Coast region. It stands at 636 [on-screen graphic read 736] in Louisiana.”

And:

“Police are looking for the reason … or the reasons responsible … the persons responsible … for a brazen daylight shooting.”

Her style when she starts to get lost is to grind on mechanically, like a garbage disposal taking on an avocado pit. Richmond’s typical reaction, displayed last night, is visible annoyance or disgust.

Everyone in the news-reading business has bad days. There’s a mistake in the script or the production rundown, the TelePrompTer has a problem, or they just get lost. But Leslie does so badly so often that she seems permanently lost. It’s hard to understand from the outside why she’s permitted to keep going.

The Historical Hurricane

Two new storms — Philippe and Rita — have come to life. Next on the list would be Stan. Stan, the casual hurricane. Of course, there’s not much in these storm names. The relaxed-sounding Mitch (1998) spawned a disaster in Central America that in many ways dwarfs the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

There’s all sorts of documentation about who chooses the names and what the names are. The basic principles in naming are first to create a universal reference for forecasters and other officials and second to personify the storm in a way that makes the phenomenon concrete for the public. However, I haven’t come across any explanation of how the actual names are picked — how Mitch or Stan make it, for instance, and Mikhail and Shlomo don’t. Mostly it’s the desire to keep the names short and sweet and familiar.

But do you want a storm to sound friendly? I mean, Katrina had previous connotations for me that made it easy to imagine the storm as an awesome and potentially destructive force of nature. But Stan? What does that bring to mind? Stan Laurel. He might get you into trouble with the wife, but how much real damage could he do?

Which is why I’ve always (privately, until now) advocated a system that uses names of particularly destructive people — anyone from big-league despots down to well-known criminals. Hurricane Stalin. Hurricane Huberty. That way, you could convey the potential menace of tropical cyclones and deliver a history lesson at the same time.

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Fun with Firefox

Firefox is my browser of choice. The biggest reason, to start with, is that it’s not Internet Explorer; partly that’s a small vote against permanent Microsoft hegemony, partly it’s to escape the security problems that come bundled with Microsoft products on the Windows platform.

On a practical level, I’m not sure there’s a lot of difference between Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari (the Mac browser), Opera (the browser from Norway), or others. I have a feeling most people use a narrow range of functionality. As long as you can get to the things you want, I don’t a few bells and whistles (liked tabbed browsing, which I love because it allows me to navigate the 10 windows I like to keep open) add up to a startlingly different user experience.

But still. Some things are kind of neat to stumble upon. Such as: I noticed over the past few weeks that if I put the single letter “w” into the Firefox address bar when I’m typing in a site name — just “w,” nothing else — and hit return, the page that comes up is the White House. Other finds: “a” gets you the Apple home page; “c” brings up C-SPAN; “brekke” brings up Brekke Tours & Travel of Grand Forks, North Dakota. And so on.

I knew this was something that was programmed in. Was Mozilla (the organization behind Firefox) selling advertising this way? I noticed that typing in “failure” in the address bar took me to George W. Bush’s biography. That was a hint about what’s going on.

It turns out that, as usual when you’re looking something up online, this road leads to Google. Looking at Mozilla’s “Firefox Tips & Tricks” page, I found this: “By default, if you enter a search term in the address field and press Enter, a Google ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ search is performed, and you’re taken to the first result of that search directly.”

(For those who haven’t tried it, Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” option takes you to the page listed first in the Google search of any term. So if you do the standard Google search on “w,” you’ll see the standard long list of results, with www.whitehouse.gov at the top; if you plug in “w” in the Google search blank and hit “I’m Feeling Lucky,” then you’re taken directly to the page listed at the top — so the White House home page at www.whitehouse.gov comes up.)

September 17 Notebook

–Happy Constitution Day. Senator Robert Byrd inserted a provision into a spending bill last year — later approved by Congress and signed by the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — that directs schools that get federal money to conduct some sort of educational program every year on or around September 17th. That’s the date in 1787 the Constitution was signed. The requirement is actually a pretty loose one. The University of California set up a Constitution Day website, and doing that little bit would have complied with Byrd’s law. (At UC Berkeley, the occasion will be marked with a panel discussion at the law school, open to anyone).

–Happy 143rd anniversary of Antietam. Well, yes, happy might not be the word. After the battle that consumed a beautiful summer day in the woods and cornfields around Sharpsburg, Maryland, “nearly 6,000 men lay dead or dying, and another 17,000 wounded. … The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944.” (From “Battle Cry of Freedom,” by James McPherson).

Beyond the carnage, the North’s strategic victory gave Lincoln political breathing space to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation.

–Happy Harvest Moon. It’s tonight.

–Happy birthday to Dominic Hickey, born in Berkeley on this date in 1983, while I played with his older brother Dylan and my son Eamon in a park down the street from his folks’ place. He’s a senior this year at UC Irvine. Hey, it seems like yesterday,

Stairs

Stairs

Just me and my semi-broken tiny digital camera: Walking home the long way from work Friday. La Loma meets Virginia in a series of twisting streets and stairways The skies open up from their monthlong fog, the late warmth and autumn-slanted sunlight a surprise. Everything’s color and shadow.

Yosemite Shutter Geeks

Sleuth astronomers in Texas announced last month that they had unraveled a minor mystery from the career of Ansel Adams: The exact date and time he shot one of his most famous images, “Autumn Moon.” By locating the site from which Adams took the picture and doing lots of number work, the astronomers figured that the shutter snapped at 7:03 p.m. on September 15, 1948, The team calculated the same alignment of Earth and moon occurs precisely every 19 years; thus, everything ought to line up the way Adams saw it at 7:03 p.m. on September 15, 2005.

Armed with that knowledge, there was only one thing for Adams geeks to do: Go up to Yosemite to try to capture the scene. Ben Margot, an Associated Press photographer who was snapping pictures for the Alameda Times-Star when I was there in the early ’80s, was one of those who made the trek. SFGate has his story (and some of his images) of the event.

(Naturally, the copy editor in me screams, “Autumn Moon”?! It was still late summer!)

(And here’s another, less neutral take on last night’s photo-pilgrimage. I also note that that post and others freely use the copyrighted Adams and AP images.)

The City and the River

I didn’t listen to Bush tonight, much. I did hear the part that was excerpted for the late local news here in liberal-land. If I knew nothing of his history, I’d say I liked what they chose to play: He said he’s responsible, the people deserve better, and there will be an honest effort to learn from the catastrophe. Having seen him on the job for the last five years, the most optimistic sentiment I can muster is “uh huh.”

However, I will not now stoop to the blame game. Let us consider what others might be saying about the present and past of New Orleans and its region and what it might tell us about the future.

First: From Sunday’s Washington Post, an interesting piece of historical perspective from Joel Garreau, a reporter who suggests the city, as it was, will never come back. The biggest reasons, he says: the people who control the resources to rebuild simple won’t pay, and the people who live in the city lack what it takes to make it happen.

“In his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” political scientist Robert Putnam measured social capital around the country — the group cohesion that allows people to come together in times of great need to perform seemingly impossible feats together. He found some of the lowest levels in Louisiana. (More Louisianans agree with the statement “I do better than average in a fistfight” than people from almost anywhere else.) His data do not seem to be contradicted by New Orleans’s murder rate, which is 10 times the national average. Not to mention the political candidates through the ages who, to little effect, have run on promises of cleaning up the corruption endemic to the government and police force. New Orleans is not called the Big Easy for nothing. This is the place whose most famous slogan is ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ — ‘Let the good times roll.’ ”

Second: Recommended by the proto-Infospigot (aka, my dad) is an “American Experience” documentary on the 1927 Mississippi River floods. The disasters may differ in origin, but the utter disregard for the poor looks familiar. The show was on Tuesday night (September 14), but public TV being public TV, it’ll be on again.

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Question 31

You’ve used drugs. Or, heaven forbid, you’ve sold drugs. You got caught and convicted. Then, like Saul on the road to Damascus, a beam of light dazzles you and a voice tells you to go straight. You decide you want to go to college. You’re strapped for cash. You fill out the Free Application for Financial Aid. You come to Question 31:

“Has the student ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?”

A help screen for the online question explains: “A federal law suspends federal student aid eligibility for students convicted under federal or state law for possession of or sale of illegal drugs (not including alcohol and tobacco).” If you answer yes, you need to fill out the two-page Worksheet for Question 31 to find out when you might be eligible for financial aid.

In a society that wants to make sure everyone gets the message that drugs (except alcohol and tobacco) are very, very bad, that all makes perfect sense. If you used or pushed and got busted, you’ve got to pay the price. Not just in taking whatever punishment the legal system doles out, but in losing, for at least a while, access to financial aid (including many student loans) that might help you get through school and away from the drug culture (except alcohol and tobacco).

The way our drug laws are enforced, look who gets hurt. Yeah, a few hapless middle-class kids might screw up and find they can’t get aid. But — you wonder if anyone’s done a study — most of the people made ineligible by Question 31 must come from the same slice of America that’s so richly overrepresented in jails from coast to coast.

To be fair, the law behind Question 31 does restore aid eligibility to those who undergo an “acceptable” drug rehab program. An acceptable program administers at least two surprise drug tests. The treatment option is positive; but again, you wonder how this works in practice. How long does it take to find an acceptable program, and in a nation where most of the poor are uninsured, who pays for it?