Friday, February 20, 2009

Underground Journalism

On Thursday morning I taught an “underground journalism” class to my “Introduction to Media Writing” students at Portland Community College.

That’s an apt enough lead for a post about a class that included a tour of the utility tunnels that burrow beneath the blockhouse architecture of the PCC Sylvania campus.

The tour started in the cavernous boiler room with its three-story high ceiling crisscrossed with color-coded pipes. The massive boilers heat water to roughly 190 degrees before it is pumped through the tunnels to the far reaches of the sprawling campus. The operation keeps dozens of classrooms and offices comfortably warm. That’s somewhere between 68 degrees and 74 degrees, depending on the season, heating engineer and tour guide Dale Payne told us.

Payne (front row right in the group photo) enthusiastically told us about his work and the machinery. An affable, easy-going guy, he piled on heating facts and ventilation explanations well into the depths of the underground labyrinth.

Of the many questions asked during the tour, he eagerly asked the most. It was always the same one: “Do you have any more questions?”

Finally, his prodding left the class with nothing more to ask.

The hard-hatted students retraced their steps through the concrete, cramped tunnel. They emerged into daylight filled with stories to tell — and to write.

I instructed them to have fun doing so. I’m eager to see what they come up with. One thought the boilers and the tunnels would make a great setting for a horror movie. Another was struck by just how unaware he was of what was going on beneath his feet.

Whatever they write, it’s due next Tuesday, 9 a.m.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Pancake People

I just received the current issue of "The Sun" magazine, my hands-down favorite. — and it's not just because it carries no ads.

Alas, this issue's stories and articles aren't listed on-line yet so I can't link you to them.

Each month the magazine features a long interview. In this March issue it is with Nicholas Carr, who has given considerable thought to how computers and the Internet are changing how we think. He is the author of last August's "Atlantic" article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid."

Because I'm teaching an information gathering class, which relies heavily on students' finding information on the Internet, I found the following passage intriguing because my students, while quite capable of finding information, often are weak about analyzing it.

Q: You've quoted Richard Foreman, author of the play "The Gods are Pounding My Head," who says we are turning into "pancake people.

Carr: We used to have an intellectual ideal that we could contain within ourselves the whole of civilization. It was very much an ideal — none of us actually fulfilled it — but there was this sense that, through wide reading and study, you could have a depth of knowledge and could make unique intellectual connections among the pieces of information stored within your memory. Foreman suggests that we might be replacing that model — for both intelligence and culture — with a much more superficial relationship to information in which the connections are made outside of our own minds through search engines and hyperlinks. We'll become "pancake people," with wide access to information but no intellectual depth, because there's little need to contain information within our heads when it's so easy to find with a mouse click or two.

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Winning full support for the next stimulus package

I’m not a big fan of majority rule when it comes to crafting legislation. By definition, it produces winners and losers and is bitterly divisive. You might even say it works against effective governance.

In the case of the recently passed stimulus package, the losers were the Republicans, who now will sit back and hurl darts at what happens. In short, with their eyes firmly fixed on the November 2010 elections, they will work to ensure a disaster we can’t afford.

The system should give them better things to do.

This may be what President Obama had in mind as he struggled to win bi-partisan, or even better, non-partisan support for the stimulus package.

He just didn’t craft the legislation in the right way.

So here’s a modest suggestion for the next time the president takes a run at Congress for stimulus money. And, believe me, he will.

For purposes of discussion we’ll use the familiar number from the current stimulus package.

Here is a politically, ideologically and geographically equitable formula for distributing the $787 billion. Divvy the billions up by congressional district, using population and need as determinants of exact amounts.

The House of Representatives has 435 members whose districts are determined by population, hence the House is the “people’s” branch of the legislature.

We’ll get to senators in a second.

For simplicity’s sake, and leaving out the question of the districts' varying needs (unemployment, lack of health insurance, foreclosures etc), let's just divide the $787 billion pie into 435 pieces.

That works out to $1.81 billion for each congressional district.

There you are, Representative, do with the district's $1.81 billion what you will.

If Republicans want it all applied to tax cuts in their districts, as most say they do, I say, go for it.

If Democrats want to apply it to schools, health insurance, bridges, pot holes and housing, have at it.

In some cases, neighboring congressional districts with interdependent economies might cooperatively pool their money. Count on governors and mayors to have a few suggestions too.

Oregon has five congressional districts so the state would get $9.05 billion — without dealing with any adjustments for “need.” (With those factored in, we might get $10 billion, but let’s not go there.)

The over-arching theory: Who knows (or should know) the needs of local people better than an elected House member does?

Senators present a problem because they aren’t elected by proportion of the population, yet they have to approve any stimulus package. One way to deal with them would be to reserve a senatorial pot of money for them to use in their state as they see fit. How about a half billion per senator? I know, I know, it's not fair that Montana and California (each with two senators) get the same amount, but we have to do the best with what we have.

That’s $50 billion for the entire 100-member senate. Of course the number is, as always, up for negotiation. Senators being senators, they will probably push for at least half of the entire package. That’s a grossly inequitable idea on its face but let’s leave that to the politicians.

Once you get into dividing the whole amount among all federally elected officials, you will probably have to set aside a few billion for the elected president and his administration to put into federal programs.

Finally we get to the most important part.

The program would track the success (or failure) of each representative’s use of the money.

Pre-stimulus baseline statistics measuring the economy, health care, education, jobs, economic growth, environmental factors etc. would be established. Then, three months before the next election, in August 2010, figures would be released to show what changed (or didn’t change) as a result of how the money was used.

Because of the pre-election timing, the results would be politically, as well as economically, telling. Using the before-and-after comparisons, voters would decide whose approach is best and who is worthy of re-election.

Beyond that, we might find out what actually works — and adjust accordingly.

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