Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dog Days (of winter)

No matter what you may think, we Southern Californians do not bask in endless summer. Winters here are damp and chilly, with cold nights and a colder ocean. Spring and early summer is surprisingly cool, with fog and clouds lingering for days. Even summer brings a moist chill each night as the air off the coast blows in. And yet....I cannot deny that this weekend we are experiencing one of those picture-perfect California days that the local Chamber of Commerce fantasises about. This morning, I set off for some errands with a light jacket, but by 8:30, stepping outside of North Park's coffee shop Filter, I had peeled off the layers and started running the car's air conditioning. By noon, I had switched to shorts and a t-shirt and pulled out the bike for a ride around Ocean Beach and the cliffs of Point Loma. As of right now, I can see our window thermometer holding steady at 69.8, while the weather report confirms the downtown area is sizzling under an 80 degree haze. Jane has spent her post-yoga morning out in the garden, ripping out the old and dried weeds of last year (leaving the tomato plant, however, as it's still producing gorgeous red fruit) and actually getting to dig into my homemade compost pile to supplement our garden soil. From my window, I see shirtless skateboarders, bikini-clad teen gaggles, and barefoot surfers rushing off to catch the (a) mighty wave. I can smell the familiar whiff of propane and charcoal. We've propped up all the windows and swung the doors open. It's a gorgeous day for the end of February, and it would be a gorgeous day even if it was the middle of July.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Homework (Mine and Yours)

When I'm not puzzling over how best to craft a witty blog post, I spend a good deal of time sweating over essays of a less creative variety. Papers written for my Library & Information Science degree offer a challenge in that they deviate quite sharply from my standard operating procedure of using literary allusions, pop cultural deconstruction and sarcastic bromides. And learning to site sources in APA style was no picnic, either. But every once in a while, an assignment comes along that offers a bit more for me to work with than merely aping strategic planning mantras or assembling theoretical budgets. Below find a paper I just submitted on the topic of government information and depository libraries for my Gov't. Info. class. I know, sounds fascinating, but this actually proved to be an interesting project. Limited to 5 pages, I found myself a bit handicapped (I like to run at the mouth, bet you didn't know that), but I was still able to include the vast majority of the information I thought was important.

Read, browse, skim, skip, toss, ignore as you see fit.

Redacted, Reclassified, Recalled: The Difficulties of Controlling Information in an Electronic Age

In 1999, Joe Morehead raised an intriguing question on the primacy of the World Wide Web. Referring to depository libraries being asked to return, withdraw, destroy or surrender up publications sent by mistake, he asked, “isn’t it only a matter of time until the text of a classified document is published on an agency’s Web page and thereby becomes unreturnable in cyberspace” (Morehead, 1999). In the following decade, the Internet grew in size and importance, while an ongoing war against terrorism led to significant attempts at securing potentially sensitive information. The following essay considers developments over the past ten years, along with scholarly commentary, to investigate whether Morehead’s fears have proven true and if such concerns justify limiting access to government information.

“On occasion,” Morehead writes, “publications are sent to depository libraries by mistake. In those instances, the Superintendent of Documents sends a letter to depository libraries that have received the unauthorized publication by virtue of item selection” (Morehead, 1999). Such letters also include “sternly worded” instructions for disposal – returning to the issuing agency, withdrawal followed by destruction, or surrendering materials to federal agents. Morehead references a Journal of Government Information review by S.R. Lynch concerning such recalled documents, in which Lynch claims incidents of recalled documents from depository libraries increased during the 1980s and 1990s (Lynch, 1995). She points to a noticeable uptick in recalls between 1988 and 1992, in which an average of “six to four per year” were recorded, as opposed to “no more than one or two per year from 1981 through 1987” (ibid, 1995). Lynch claims the reasons given for recalls are often vague, and notes that while some incidents concern administrative security lapses and military security, there have also been cases clearly censorious. Lynch highlights a 1986 Vietnam War history series featuring a Marine Corps general quoted on the efficiency of the Corps itself in killing young Americans. An objection from the General led to libraries being asked to remove the offending page, replace it with a new page, and black out footnotes relating to the page and “the index listing for the upset general’s name” (Lynch, 1995).

While noting several librarians refused to alter their copy, Lynch concludes, “most depositories probably obey the recall notices,” adding “depository documents clearly belong to the federal government, even when in the custody of depository libraries”. However, she also agrees with Bruce Thompson that librarians are obligated to determine whether recalled titles represent an “interest to the public that would obligate the library to override the recall request”. This call to rebuff censorship seems to have been heeded by librarians, as Lynch notes “a cursory check of recalled document titles in OCLC reveals holdings for approximately 70 percent of the titles” (Lynch, 1995).

Questions over the recall of sensitive information and the dangers of the Internet dovetail in a 2004 article by E. Herman, with public access to government information weighed against national security protection. Herman compares recent recall efforts with an earlier example from 1979 in which Progressive Magazine was unsuccessfully ordered to cease publication of an article detailing nuclear weapon construction. While Herman argues the government’s case was “weak,” he also notes at least some of the disputed information had been inadvertently declassified (Herman, 2004). What distinguishes the Progressive case from more contemporary examples is that little of the disputed information in 9/11-related recalls was ever classified or restricted. Rather, fears of misuse by terrorist organizations led to “previously published data” being recalled (ibid, 2004). Herman details some of these reclaimed materials, noting a U.S. Geological Survey CD-ROM describing reservoirs and dams, Environmental Protection Agency risk management plans, and a report for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) concerning chemical plant security threats (Herman, 2004).

Of course, not all recalled information relates to terrorist misuse –the Census Bureau recently called for the withdrawal and return of census publications inadvertently sent between 1992-1998. A FDLP desktop post claimed the information was “intended for internal use only,” and might “compromise the integrity of the Census’ program for field agent testing” (FDLP desktop, 2009). Yet scholarly attention seems focused less on mundane matters and more on potentially sensational materials. Herman offers several examples of post-9/11 recalls proving unsuccessful, either through deliberate refusals by concerned librarians or through the sheer number of secondary web sources available for such items. While the Geological Survey CD-ROM may no longer be available in depository libraries, Herman notes, “copies the Government Printing office sold, those the Geological Survey may have given away, and those copied from the original CD-ROM are unaccounted for” (Herman, 2004). A more concrete example is Herman’s findings on the aforementioned ATSDR chemical plant report; “Searches of the All the Web, AltaVista, Google, MSN, Teoma, Vivisom and Yahoo search engines on August 22, 2003, retrieved copies at five different Web addresses” (Herman, 2004).

Herman concludes that increasing user sophistication means restrictions on data may have little practical impact. But the threat of such “leaks” seems directly related to decisions made by individual depository librarians on whether to obey expungement requests. A few examples outside the literature help illustrate this point.

An article in the Spring 2006 edition of the Collection Connection, a newsletter for the Harry Trexler Library (a federal depository institution), references the availability of a secret report on the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison. Head of Technical Services Linda Bowers writes how she and other documents librarians wondered whether this report would become a depository item and, if so, when. The report was soon leaked and posted online. She writes, “The next question was, ‘Whose website was most reliable and was it going to be posted in perpetuity anywhere’?” (Bowers, 2006). Bowers adds the report was immediately made available on their catalog, concluding, “Federal information belongs to the people …the act of making this information accessible to the community is an important responsibility” (ibid, 2006).

Numerous websites and organizations have sprung up to pursue the preservation of leaked information. The National Security Archive publishes declassified information in manuscript and microfiche form, as well as on their website. The Archive draws attention to the reclassification of declassified information, or “Declassification in Reverse” (Aid, 2006). An essay posted on the Archive’s website details a concerted effort since 1999 by government agencies to reclassify some “9,500 documents totaling more than 55,500 pages (Aid, 2006). In response, Matthew Aid offered PDF files of 18 examples of reclassified information, making the documents available once more.

Finally, one must consider the existence of Internet projects like Russ Kick’s The Memory Hole, dedicated to preserving information in danger of being lost or destroyed. In May of 2004, Kick posted images of files recalled from federal depository libraries between 1986 and 2000, noting the images were supplied by “a librarian who will remain anonymous”. While only displaying titles of pulled files, Kick noted a desire to post the actual documents, adding, “we know that not all libraries acceded to the demand to pull the documents, and many librarians resent being asked to do so” (Kick, 2006). He requested any librarian with such information send a copy to The Memory Hole.

While disgruntled librarians have not been flooding websites with reclassified documents, one might conclude that sensitive information will continue to be made available on the Internet, often with the encouragement or at least without the censure of librarians. Perhaps an update to Morehead’s question might be an investigation into the ethics involved in such matters? While Lynch argued depository documents belong to the federal government, she also stressed “care should be taken that requests should not become a tool used in censorship” (Lynch, 1995). And while Herman avoided explicitly defending such actions, he argued many post-9/11 protective measures were unnecessary, as those intent on causing harm need not “acquire login codes and passwords from insiders” (Herman, 2004). Comments made by Linda Bowers in the cited newsletter suggest many librarians believe part of their duty is to keep federal information available to, not from, the public. One could perhaps equate a librarian’s position with that of military physicians. While both are accountable to government oversight, both also share separate loyalties to non-government entities. Just as military physicians must make decisions with their patients in mind (not solely the government) so, too, must depository librarians maintain an allegiance to the public. Such distinctions bring with them enormous responsibility, potential conflicts of interest, and ethical dilemmas. A full decade on from Morehead’s posing of the question, perhaps more attention should be focused on the intricacies of this “dual loyalty,” and how librarians in a post-9/11 world should respond to competing claims for information access


Aid, Matthew M. (February 21, 2006). Declassification in reverse: the U.S. intelligence
community’s secret historical document reclassification program. The
National Security Archive. Retrieved February 22, 2009 from
Bowers, Linda. (Spring 2006). Federal government information in Trexler library.
Collection Connection: The Newsletter of Trexler Library, 2(2), 6-7. Retrieved
February 21, 2009 from
FDLP Desktop. (January 9, 2009). Census document recall. Retrieved February 22, 2009
Herman, E. (2004). A post-September 11th balancing act: Public access to U.S.
government information versus protection of sensitive data. Journal of
Government Information, 30(1), 42-65.
Kick, Russ. (May 27, 2004). Government documents pulled out of public circulation.
The Memory Hole. Retrieved February 22, 2009 from
Lynch, Saragail Runyon. (1995). GPO recalls of depository documents: A review.
Journal of Government Information, 22(1), 23-31.
Morehead, Joe. Introduction to United States Government Information Sources.
6th ed. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1999.

Monday, February 23, 2009

On (Not) Watching the Oscars

I'll have to check my diaries, but I'm pretty sure that last night's 81st Annual Academy Awards program was the first of my adult lifetime that I didn't watch even a single second of. This was partly due to circumstance - the first part of the evening was spent at a birthday party, the second half at a Charles McPherson concert in La Jolla. Then again, Jane and I don't actually get any TV channels anymore - we haven't yet hooked up our soon-to-be-obsolete antenna to our television, and I don't see that happening any time soon. But beyond mere physical obstacles to viewing the Oscars lies the philosophical differences. Simply put, my sense of taste and the Academy's sense of taste do not dovetail.

Rarely do the films I most care about or even halfway enjoy make their way into the sealed envelopes. This year, I hadn't even seen any of the five nominated films, and had little desire to change this situation. If last year's Oscars had at least made nods towards some of the darker and complex works being offered up by Hollywood, this year went right to the feel-good heartstrings of little-watched mainstream films which garnered lukewarm critical approval and so-so box office returns. If Slumdog Millionaire is not the lousiest movie to win Best Picture (and it isn't - 2004's Crash immediately springs to mind, as does 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth), Danny Boyle's vision (such as it is) still isn't worthy of the accolades it's been receiving. One suspects that many of the dewey-eyed Academy members swooning over the "exotic" nature of this Bollywood knock-off have had few experiences with the culture of the Indian sub-continent aside from sending back their chicken tikki masala at the Star of India for being too spicy. Sit 'em down with a copy of Bollywood / Hollywood, or, better yet, an actual Bollywood film, non-dependent upon English game shows as major plot points or directed by British individuals, and see if they're still wowed by Boyle's innovations.

But this should really come as no surprise, as the Academy, despite right-wing cries to the contrary, represents one of the most conservative entities this side of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. While they may vote straight democratic tickets and show proper concern for whales and rain forests, they still prefer to ape the status quo and choose safe narratives reflecting traditional American values while bedecking themselves in outfits and jewelry costing more than most working people take home in a decade. Whatever Bill O'Reilly thinks about the menace of Hollywood liberals, they're a weak and ineffectual breed of leftist, eager to boo Michael Moore's anti-war speech when it deigned to fall upon diamond-earring-clad-lobes mere hours after the bombs had begun to fall. George Clooney noted once from the podium how Hollywood was handing out awards to African-American actors while the rest of American society barred them from water fountains, but he failed to mention that Hattie McDaniel was forced to sit at a table placed far in the back, segregated from her Gone With the Wind colleagues. Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sean Penn may all have won awards for portraying gay men, but it seems the Academy does prefer gay roles to be played by straight actors, and for the characters to be killed at some point in the respective film.

Look, I could go on. Don't get me started on the Academy's love affair with Ron Howard. And please let's not broach the topic of Stephen Daldry's utterly loathsome The Reader, this year's Holocaust offering, in which once again the Sho'ah is presented to English speakers as a backdrop to a semi-steamy love affair. But I'm aware that it's more than slightly ludicrous for me to go on at such length about a ceremony I didn't see offering awards to films I haven't watched. So I'll quit. But reviewing the Oscars is kind of like being a food critic for McDonald's - do you really have to sample the entire menu and visit every location to get the point? By browsing the morning-after commentaries and celebrity blogs, it seems that the most electrifying moment of the evening came when Jennifer Aniston made some kind of brief presentation and the cameras made an immediate cut to a poker-faced Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in the front rows. Somehow, I think I'll be able to get through the week having missed that moment in cinema history.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Signs of Spring

The mornings are still chilly here in San Diego, and the winter rains continue intermittently, but a few early signs of spring continue to creep around the corner, and the arrival of more fresh sweet spring peas in our farmer's box is a welcome clue to the changing season. We saved up two weeks' worth of unshucked peas in order to make a larger meal out of them, and last night I paged through several cookbooks before stumbling upon a wonderful soup recipe that called for just-cooked whole peas and a handful of other ingredients, so as to let the freshness shine through. The following recipe comes from the so-called 'Naked Chef' Jamie Oliver and his Jamie's Italy cookbook. I'm not always the biggest fan of Oliver or indeed any celebrity chef, but this cookbook strikes a nice balance between honoring traditional Italian foods and introducing some subtle innovations. I've found several recipes in here that I've continued to turn to, including a wonderful chapter on various risottos. This Altamura pea soup, or minestra di piselli di altamura, takes less than half an hour to prepare, and if you're using frozen peas you won't even have to worry about the shucking process (there's something extra special about using fresh peas, however). I used a combination of store-bought mushroom stock and homemade chicken stock, and substituted strips of diced ravioli instead of spaghetti, and went heavy on the rosemary, which I think made it all the better - the rosemary added a spicy layer of complexity to the sugar-sweet peas. The result was a perfect springtime dish - warming yet light, utterly fresh, and with hints of spice amid the sweetness. I apologize for the somewhat lousy photo above - we were in such a hurry to sample the soup that I wasted little time getting a perfect shot.
Altamura Pea Soup

olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
4 large handfuls of freshly shucked peas
2 pints chicken stock
9 oz. dried spaghetti, broken into 1 inch lengths
salt and pepper
1 sprig each of fresh mint, basil and rosemary (I used one entire stalk of fresh rosemary)
extra virgin olive oil
small handful of chopped fresh parsley

Pour a good glug of olive oil into the pan (ed. one thing I really like about Oliver is his use of the word "glug" when offering measurements of olive oil and the like - makes total sense to me!), add the onions, and fry gently for 10 minutes.

Stir in the peas and chicken stock, bring to a boil, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Tie up herb sprigs and add to pan, removing before serving.

Cook the spaghetti in boiling water for half the time listed on the package, then drain and add to the pea soup to finish cooking. When pasta has cooked, season soup with salt and pepper.

Divide the soup into bowls, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with parsley.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Out on Bail

The earlier part of this week was spent dealing with the sprawling judicial system of San Diego, although my role was limited to that of a prospective juror. Boasting the third-largest court system in the country (behind only Los Angeles and Chicago, as we were repeatedly told throughout our jury-lounge stay) means San Diegans get tapped for jury service with a frequency not found in most other districts. Since switching my license and residence over to San Diego 2 1/2 years ago, I've been twice called up for duty, and have found the courts to be reluctant to bump dates. I'm curious about the judicial process, and would have no problem serving on juries, if only the trials wouldn't seem to always fall on the cusp of a planned vacation or major class assignment. My attempts to postpone jury service earlier this month nearly fell apart even after I appeared in person to speak with jury services and brandish a next-day plane ticket to Montana. It was only after some begging and pleading to the disinterested clerk that I was able to push my service to Feb. 17 (I've since heard that San Diegans have a notorious reputation for skipping jury duty, and that if one simply shows up on any weekday during the 90-day circle around one's stated court date, none will be the wiser).

So on Tuesday morning I once again took my seat in the vast jury lounge and listened to a portly robotic man rattle off details of employer forms and how to "relax until orientation begins". I buried myself in a magazine as we once again were subjected to a ridiculously cheesy video presentation on California's court system and how much fun we were all going to have deciding the fates of fellow citizens ("California - the greatest state in the union" chirps a female narrative over patriotic music and images of the High Sierras, "but sometimes, we have disagreements"). I suffered through the protracted speech by the judge-of-the-week, who mercifully had a much shorter speech than my previous judge, who had rattled on and on for nearly twenty-five minutes with pointless anecdotes about jurors stopping him in hallways to tell him how wonderful their experience had been. I had settled in for a long wait with a volume of Hunter S. Thompson for company, and had just turned the page to a segment entitled "Here Come De Judge" when I heard my name called for a fourth-floor courtroom.

A too-jovial bailiff spent several minutes pronouncing every single name incorrectly before assigning us numbers 1 through 35 (I received 22) and herding us into courtroom 67, where our judge introduced himself, let on that we were selected for a six-day trial, and commenced to have us introduce ourselves and submit to questioning from both attorneys. It became clear that the case would involve a nearly three-year-old car accident in which culpability had been admitted but damages were to be determined. It also became very clear that this was to be a trial consisting mainly of opposing medical testimony regarding long-term health effects.

While I was fully prepared to sit on the jury and perform my service, I can't deny that I had also carefully considered multiple ways in which I might duck out of my duties, either through simple body language, admitting bias or more extreme measures. Jane suggested periodically shouting out "Guilty!" or "Mistrial!" at random moments. I considered asking the judge multiple times if I would personally be allowed to execute the accused, asking if I might be allowed to introduce some evidence of my own, or constantly making objections throughout the session. But in the end, it was my wife who got me bounced from the box - or, more accurately, thanked and excused. With a case so wrapped up in doctors and medical testimony, the mere fact that I spend my evenings with a certified M.D. was enough to have me quickly excused the moment I took the place of previously-excused Juror #12. The fact that I was excused by the plaintiff's lawyer went some ways towards convincing me the health problems in question were to be bogus in nature, especially as the defense attorney had sternly asked me whether I realized that "doctors were people, just like everybody else"? I had responded that, yes, I had discovered that along the way, which caused a ripple of laughter in the courtroom and led the defense attorney to try a little humor of his own ("So, you're a librarian and your wife's a doctor? One final question, and you don't need to answer this; Did you meet her in the library?" Chirp chirp, chirp chirp...).

I was out of there pretty fast after that, and while I admit to being slightly disappointed in not being able to meet my wife for lunch downtown over the next week, I'm glad I'm not currently sitting in a fourth-floor courtroom looking at PowerPoint presentations of slipped discs. I'm sure they'll tap me next year - I'm up for duty again in twelve months.

Monday, February 16, 2009

By the Numbers

I've written earlier about my fondness for the monthly Harper's Index, in which random facts and not-so-random-facts are united through percentage points and numbers, with current events, politics, trends and observations put into stark relief. They're often funny, and often infuriating, and help reveal connections and narratives left unexplored by mainstream media. Long-time editor and essayist Lewis Lapham created the index in 1984 as he revamped the magazine, claiming, “Numbers can be made to tell as many stories as a crooked lawyer or an old comedian.”

This month, the Harper's Index turns 25 years old, and in celebration of this fact, Harper's has made their index database accessible for all. They've put up a pretty cool searching database in which entries can be browsed by subject. One can simply type in a topic or letter for a result, and hit enter for the results on this page. Or, one can start with some suggested "starting points" from the website:
American Men
American Women

Have fun with these, and then hit the harder stuff:
Saddam Hussein
Global Warming
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Social Security

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Vanity, Thy Name is Jason

For thirty-one years or so, I've had a somewhat unwelcome tenant perching just above the left side of my chin. This uninvited guest wasn't big enough to cause much stress, and never gave any signs of turning cancerous, so I left the harmless little mole where he was and went about my business. Although she'll swear up and down on a stack of Fitzpatrick's Color Atlas of Clinical Dermatology that she's never said anything about the matter, my wife was not as enthusiastic of a fan. Proudly disdainful of those stooping to methods of plastic surgery and resolutely unconcerned with mere outward appearances, I never once considered going under the knife for such a petty purpose.

But over the past six months, I'd been noticing a growing tendency to struggle with the little bugger during shaving sessions. I began creating new shaving schedules to work around the troublesome melanocytic nevus, letting my facial hair grow out for a week or two and shaving the entire beard off rather than staying clean-shaven for weeks at a time. Lately, even this cautious approach was leading to nicked neoplasms, with a rather copious amount of blood leaking out. Enough was enough. Forget about my looks, but spare me any more bloodletting.

Which is how I ended up getting my melanin-bubble removed Friday morning, after a quick shot of numbing agent to the lower lip area and a mercifully brief shaving excision through the use of a razor blade. Handed a package of band-aids and ointment and warned to stay out of the sun for a few months (yeah, right, like that's going to happen in Southern California), I was sent off with a slightly sore raised patch of skin where my old friend used to be. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to keep the little guy, as he was promptly sent off for biopsy treatment. In the meantime, I have the dubious honor of looking even more ridiculous now than I did before, thanks to a large circular bandage slapped above my chin. Just sign me up for the next season of The Swan.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Geysers, Hot Springs and Mudpots

It's easy to get caught up in the stunning mountain vistas and teeming wildlife, and forget about what makes Yellowstone National Park truly unique. The numerous geothermal features of the area rank it alongside Iceland in sheer number, and half of all the known geysers in the world may be found within this protected section of Wyoming. With the crowds gone, we were able to witness Old Faithful spout with only a handful of other visitors, and the winter landscape lent the hot springs and geysers an even more otherworldly feel. The warm gusts of sulfur-reeking air felt pleasant against the frigid temperature, and the geothermal vents could easily be spotted from far away due to snowmelt and bare ground tracing their paths. Our favorite features, however, were the bubbling oddities known as mudpots, in which the hot spring functions despite an adequate supply of water, turning what might have been a geyser into thick, viscous, gurgling mud. Truly awesome to watch.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Views of Yellowstone

Back home in San Diego, where it actually feels chiller inside our house than it was in Montana, I thought I'd post some photos of our visit to Yellowstone National Park last Friday. Below find elk, bison, bald eagles, freezing waterfalls and chilly panoramas. The off-season in Yellowstone means fewer crowds and lonelier vistas, even if it also means hibernating grizzlies - a good or a bad thing, depending on one's vantage point.
The magnificent geysers and mudpots that make up some of the more iconic aspects of the park will be featured later.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Going to Extremes

After several days of watching winter storm systems move across the surrounding mountains and becoming quite familiar with the decor of watering hole Whiskey Jack's and the taste of bison burgers, I'm starting to not feel quite as out of place as I did the first few days at the Summit Lodge here in Big Sky, Montana. But I'm still pretty out of place. One thing I've come to realize as I mingle with the slope fanatics here is that extreme sports has overtaken baseball as our national past time.

It's everywhere. I accompanied Jane the other night to a program billing itself as a look at the Telluride Film Festival, with highlights from recent showings. Being a bit of a film buff, I looked forward to seeing clips from Telluride premiers like the Qatsi Trilogy or Elephant, or perhaps segments featuring perennial favorites like Werner Herzog or Andrei Tarkovsky. What I had overlooked was that the evening's presentation was actually focusing on the Mountainfilm in Telluride festival, a completely different entity that presents mountain and adventure films. Rather than European art films and American indie projects, I watched short pieces on totally dudical rock climbers and white water rafters bearing a resemblance to Phish roadies. These Not-Ready-For-the-Learning-Channel projects paid tribute to the growing notion that untouched wilderness areas exist primarily as playgrounds for endurance-testers. While others oohed and awed to the feats of athletic skill on display, I wondered what the park service thought about the holes the rock climber gouged into the pristine Humboldt County coastal boulders he scrambled over (his The More You Know-style "don't litter" speech at film's end struck me as particularly ludicrous). When the extreme rafters blathered on about the need to protect the jungles of Papua New Guinea and preserve the many indigenous peoples from the threat of monolithic world cultures, I wondered how blasting the music of DJ Shadow and Bob Marley to images of white dudes plunging down rapids helped further this goal of cultural preservation. In the end, I left the screening with a deep suspicion that there are far too many DV cameras out there.

But even the Mountainfilm at Telluride presentation had some highlights (a charming short feature on sno-cones in the Peruvian Andes offered artfully-staged imagery and inventive editing). The same could not be said of the following night's speech / presentation / hero worship session by a self-professed Adventure Racing warrior. I admit to being unfamiliar with the concept of Adventure Racing until last night. Reliable sources describe it as a physically punishing extreme sport that can drag on for seven days of racing, cycling, kayaking or swimming, over inhospitable terrain, with sleep or rest not optional. Our presenter informed us that Adventure Racing was invented by French athletes in the late 1970s, which would put it up there with mime as one of the few French innovations the world might be better off without. Our speaker was nearly fifteen minutes late - apparently arriving on time for a conference presentation is more demanding than paragliding across Borneo. Within a few minutes of taking the stage, she had referred to the concept of "teamwork" some half-dozen times. She put up a powerpoint presentation with six different variations on the word "team" on the first slide alone. She referred enthusiastically to something she dubbed "group synergy" and promised to help us unlock our own synergistic principles. When she mentioned that she normally gave this presentation to corporate retreats, I started scouting the exits.

The naturalist in me dislikes the confusion of pristine wilderness with an open gym membership. The anarchist in me rejects using athletic group synergy motivational speeches to help maximize profits for corporate headquarters. And the ironist in me can only take so much sweat-encrusted wind-burned earnestness and muscle flexing before he decamps to the hotel room.

The scenery here is beautiful.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hello from Montana

For the past several days, I've been fortunate enough to be accompanying Jane during a wilderness medicine conference she's attending in Big Sky, Montana. In addition to learning about snake bites, knot tying, avalanche survival and water purification, we've both been exploring a strange creature known as a ski lodge, something she's had a few encounters with and something I have absolutely no experience with (unless a long-ago weekend on a bunny hill somewhere in northern Wisconsin counts, which it doesn't).

We enjoyed a tour of West Yellowstone our first full day out here, and I hope to post some photos of that soon, but lately I've been exploring the sprawling grounds of Big Sky and the Mountain Village, and feeling very much the odd man out. To lodge within a ski resort without any knowledge of skiing or plans to hit the slopes is to walk a lonely road indeed, even if you're the only one walking properly and not clumping along drunkenly in front-entry ski boots. I've pestered Jane with so many bone-headed questions regarding the art of down-hill skiing (Q: Do they let skiers and snowboarders share the same slopes? A: Yes. Q: Do you need to wear the special boots or can you just wear regular shoes and tie them around the skies? A: You can't do that? Q: Can you ride the lift just to enjoy the view from the top? A: Be quiet, please, you're embarrassing me) that she finally observed she wasn't particularly enjoying this new sensation - that of Jason displaying total ignorance on a topic.

I admit to total ignorance on the topic of skiing. I remain baffled by the number of turtleneck sweaters I've seen on distinguished-looking gentlemen in elevators. I'm astounded at the popularity of Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys. I'm both flattered and horrified that Green Day and R.E.M. have taken over classic rock as the music of choice on the grounds. I prefer the views of the surrounding mountains that haven't been scarred by the hands of man. But to breathe in the crisp alpine air at 7,500 feet and to gaze at the 11,000 foot peak of Lone Mountain is a reminder of how beautiful winter can be.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Union Blues in Old Town

The 30-acres of partially reconstructed adobe buildings, contemporary restaurants and gift shops known as Old Town in San Diego is one of those places the tourists flock to and the locals avoid. And yet, it wasn't always this way. Jane and I visit the area roughly once a month or so, largely because it's a short bike ride away along a pleasant river pathway. We've only known it since the entire park switched hands and was taken over by New York company Delaware North in 2005, following a fierce and bitter bidding war against local businesswoman Diane Powers, who had held Old Town's concession contract for over 30 years. Part of the state's goal in opening up the contract was to shift the park's atmosphere away from the flashy spread of Powers' design and towards a supposedly more authentic 1850s-California feel. Too much adobe seems to have scared the visitors away - revenues from some of the vendors and concessions are down 66% from 2005, the last year Diane Powers held ownership.

What this means is that Old Town is about to change ownership once more, this time to local restaurateur Chuck Ross under the name Old Town Family Hospitality. I gather from word-of-mouth and newspaper reports that part of Old Town's stunning drop in revenue was a direct result of a successful local boycott of the park - hurt feelings over the bidding war and a general dislike of the revamped park seems to have sustained heavy damage. I've always found Old Town to be pretty silly, what with hired actors strolling the grounds in period costume, totally-inappropriate Cajun restaurants placed inside quasi-historic buildings, and plenty of trinket and junk shops to entice sunburned tourists. If the state mandate was to make the park more authentic, I can't imagine what it looked like before. Still, I wasn't here before the switch, and I can't blame locals for avoiding something they dislike.

But one major change coming to the park thanks to the new takeover will be the destruction of the unions that over 150 Old Town workers belong to. Federal law requires the union to stay in place if more than 50% of union members maintain their jobs with the new company, Old Town Family Hospitality. The best way around such a requirement, of course, is to fire every union member and suggest they reapply for their old jobs with no guarantees. The new owners have suggested that many will not be re-hired so that the company will not inherit the union. Old Town Family Hospitality points to the struggling economy as dictating such restructuring - union leaders argue that the company will make most of their savings by eliminating the excellent health-care benefits union members currently enjoy.

This is a depressingly familiar story. What is even more depressing is my suspicion that locals were stirred to activist outrage when Old Town lost several popular restaurants and decorations, but may have little reaction when 150 employees lose their jobs because they dared to organize. I try and avoid looking at reader comments on our local newspaper's website, largely because the comments are so often uninformed and strident, but a simple comparison of two recent stories on the matter confirmed my suspicions on local attitudes. A report on the economic woes of the park resulted in several long posts expressing animosity towards Delaware North and reflections on the Old Town atmosphere they remembered. The story on the dismantling of the unions has resulted in far fewer comments, one of which is a gleeful, "Bye bye unions! You want a job? Take what you can get. The days of guaranteed pay raises and pension plans is over."

The fact that people felt strongly enough about a concession contract to effectively impact the company's business speaks strongly for the power the average well-informed consumer can still wield. I'd like to see a similar boycott enacted against the new owners and their campaign to inflict massive layoffs on park employees for the purpose of gutting health care benefits. But something tells me that union busting won't upset the community the way shutting down Casa de Bandini and their wide-rimmed margaritas did.