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April 2008

April 30, 2008

(VT) Yankee Doodle Doldrums

Earlier this month, Christian Parenti, a contributing editor at The Nation, gave a lecture at the University of Vermont. I think the talk was ostensibly about climate change, but who knows? Parenti spent most of the time talking about other stuff, and I couldn't follow his thesis.

In a May 12 Nation cover story  (that magazine is a little preemptive), Parenti offers a much clearer argument — this time, on the nuclear power industry. In short, he says that, despite the best efforts of the Bush administration, nuclear's heyday is up. To illustrate his point, Parenti points out that Warren Buffet's MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Company recently decided not to built a new nuclear plant in Idaho because it wouldn't be profitable, even with federal subsidies.

When I spoke with California-based "peak oil" expert Richard Heinberg on April 18, he had this to say in response to my question about nuclear energy:

SEVEN DAYS: The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is a hot-button topic. Some oppose nuclear power outright, while others claim it’s cleaner than coal.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Well, nuclear power is inherently limited by the supply of uranium, which is another non-renewable resource. The best study we have on future uranium supply . . . concludes that global uranium supplies will peak, even in the best case scenario, before 2050. So if we continue operating our current fleet of 103 nuclear power stations in this country, we’ll be able to keep them running through most of this century with gradually increasing costs . . . If that’s the case, why not just invest directly in wind and solar now and bypass nuclear?

Interestingly, the most-discussed nuclear plant in Parenti's Nation piece is Vermont Yankee. He writes that Yankee's recent 20-percent power uprate is one of the largest nationwide in the last decade-- not a good sign, notes Parenti, in light of last summer's cooling-tower collapse at the facility.

"One of these days a plant will blow," said Diana Sidebotham, a Putney activist, in Parenti's cover story.

Continue reading "(VT) Yankee Doodle Doldrums" »

April 29, 2008

Before he leaves, they let the intern speak

Photo_28 It's my last day as an intern and someone suggested I might have a bit to say here. This didn't happen until after being given a thank you gift so I think that makes it a bribe, but fortunately I'm not above such things.

I've only been here for one semester and in ways it was an experiment. Could the people and the office behind a fun, cool, alternative newspaper actually be interesting or would it turn me off from wanting to be involved in that scene? The answer, which lets me continue to imagine a certain future for myself, is, for the most part yes. Much like science class, the experiment wasn't entirely fun. The work itself was mundane, the greatest strain came in finding a new way to move my wrist while still hitting the same keys over and over. Inputting events, videos, and links, throughout the day is not, surprisingly, interesting. So, the work as an intern, not my ideal. But once again, I'm not above things like mundane work to get involved with something better.

What made the whole thing worthwhile was that the people are fun, funny, helpful, and sometimes most importantly, acknowledged the work was boring while being grateful. I've worked at a movie theater for a few summers, and it makes a difference when people don't assume you are content with simple repetitive tasks. Dan Bolles gave me advice on writing reviews, I learned some level of functionality with website stuff, and I got to enjoy (suffer?) the rambling and active humor of the sales department, the last place I had expected such fun. If I had guessed beforehand, I would have ventured their laughter would center around inside jokes involving sale-pitches and bad puns.

In general I discovered that there is the possibility of a post-college life that is not filled with boring despair; that I can continue doing most of the things I enjoy now while replacing classes and work I pay for with work that pays me.

Between right now and that moment is, of course, the horror of finding a job that pays enough for me to have a roof of some sort and edible food. I expect, however, that this pleasant post is enough a bribe of my own to conjure a worthwhile recomendation.

Vermont: The "Social Capital Capital"?

Putnamrobert Last weekend, while I watched soldiers parade through downtown St. Albans during the annual Vermont Maple Festival, I experienced a mushy moment. Militaristic fanfare aside, I thought, this is a really nice, wholesome, inspiring community event. I had just eaten a corn dog and a maple-glazed donut, watched Jim Douglas and Anthony Pollina shimmy down Main Street, and clapped for an elementary-school marching band. It felt so . . . American, but in a mostly good way.

Returning to Church Street that afternoon, I was struck by a funny contrast. Compared with downtown St. Albans, downtown Burlington is more cosmopolitan, and its sidewalk strollers more ethnically diverse. Yet, if Church Street feels like a large city in a good way, it also feels more anonymous — in a bad way.

Indeed, Church Street sometimes affects me in a similar way, albeit to a smaller degree, that New York City does: I'm excited by the diversity of faces passing by, but also disheartened by a lack of neighborliness, a preponderance of chain stores, etcetera.

Last night, I went to hear Harvard prof Robert Putnam address these very issues in a packed lecture hall at the University of Vermont. Putnam is an all-star sociologist who researches "social capital" — a fancy term for "neighborliness." In 2000, he wrote the landmark Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which warns that Americans are becoming more and more disconnected from each other. In other words, he worries that our "social capital" is declining.

Continue reading "Vermont: The "Social Capital Capital"?" »

April 28, 2008

Benny Lava for Everyone

This has got to be the funniest music video of all time — even without the "translation!" Only from the land of Bollywood . . .

Free Press = Fruit Loops?

Last week, Burlington's CCTV Channel 17 taped another episode of its Media Literacy Series. This one features Burlington Free Press environmental reporter Candy Page, Seven Days Staff Writer Ken Picard  and Champlain College professor Craig Chevrier. Chevrier teaches a class called "Social Responsibility in Media." His bio on the CCTV website says he serves as Vice President for the activist group Action Coalition for Media Education, although he's not listed as such on the ACME website. (UPDATE: Chevrier is the veep — and the secretary! — of the Vermont chapter of ACME).

The podcast is an hour long, and some of the questions are less than exciting (i.e. "Where do you get the photos that appear in your paper?") But it's worth listening to, if only to hear Chevrier accuse Page and the Free Press of being "Fruit Loops." The exchange happens about halfway through the podcast.

Says Chevrier, "The news is a product, for most news outlets. They need to sell it, and they need to make a profit on it. I equate the mainstream popular press, or the corporate press, to Fruit Loops, or Cheez Whiz. Nabisco or Kraft sell that stuff, they make money on it. Is it nutritious? No. It possibly does more harm to you than it does good..."

He goes on a for another few sentences, then Page interrupts. She sounds pissed.

"So are you saying that the Free Press is Fruit Loops?" she demands. "That my work is Fruit Loops? That it doesn't have any nutritional content?"

Chevrier responds, "I'm saying on the whole, yes, I think the Free Press is the journalistic equivalent of Fruit Loops."

"I cannot disagree more," says Page. "I think that is insulting, it's inaccurate, and it's an attack on the work that I've spent the last 30 years doing." 

Ok, I'm a frequent critic of the Free Press, but I gotta say, Candy Page is no Fruit Loop. In my mind, she epitomizes what's right about the Free Press, not what's wrong with it.

Continue reading "Free Press = Fruit Loops?" »

April 24, 2008

Richardson to Douglas: Find Nick Garza

From an unsourced story by KOB-TV, in Albuquerque: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's office plans to ask Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas to "step up" the search for Nick Garza, the Middlebury College student missing since Feb. 5. Garza, a freshman, was raised in Albuquerque, and his friends and family there have been closely following the search efforts.

As Seven Days reported last month, Nick's family, who are living on the Middlebury campus, has reached out to Douglas, a Middlebury grad and a resident of the town. Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs told us then that the governor is ready to help, but has not received any specific requests for assistance from the Middlebury Police Department.

I've put in a call to Gibbs to find out whether Richardson has been in touch with Douglas yet. We''ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, if you're willing and able, the Garza family needs your help Saturday. They have organized a search of areas near the Middlebury campus. Volunteers, who must be at least 18 and in good health, will gather at Middlebury College’s Kenyon Arena, on South Main Street, at 9 a.m. If you're interested, email Nick's family at [email protected].

 The search will be led by the missing persons consultant, Gary Peterson, a former broadcast investigative reporter in Minneapolis.

Down in the Hole in America

The New York Times: "The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prison population . . . . Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries."

The Times reports that the U.S. has the highest number of prisoners per 100,000 population — 751 — in the world. That's compared to Japan, 63; Germany, 88 and England, 151. Even Russia and China stick fewer people in jail cells than the United States. And no one imposes longer prison sentences than American judges.

According to the Times' experts, a number of factors help explain the country's "extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice."

The Times story doesn't dig into two related issues: the conditions in American prisons; and who benefits when the answer to every anti-social act is a jail cell.

Seven Days readers are probably familiar with Paul Wright, an ex-con from Brattleboro who has become a fierce advocate for U.S. prisoners. Wright started up Prison Legal News in 1990, and has documented dozens of cases of prisoner abuse and exploitation. In January, PLN reported (subscription required) that Vermont leads the country in the percentage of prisoners who take anti-psychotic medications.

Check out Ken Picard's fascinating March 2007 profile of Wright here.

Wright and PLN just published a new anthology, called Prison Profiteers: Who Profits from Mass Incarceration, that examines the $185 billion taxpayers spend locking people up in America. The book looks at the private prison companies, investment banks, churches, medical corporations and other industries and individuals that benefit from the prison business.  

Sustainable Woodstock

Maybe this is how it will happen.

In the absence of leadership on energy policy and global warming from our elected leaders, individual communities will turn inward, to their own resources of creativity, camaraderie and intelligence, and begin to right the ship. Town by town, city by city, they will put their shoulders to the wheel and make minuscule but measurable corrections of course.

Something like this is happening in Woodstock, and it is heartening to see. On the night of Earth Day, a new community group called Sustainable Woodstock (the name says it all), organized a celebration, and a sort of coming out party for the group, at the Town Hall Theater. The house was packed with young and old, and everyone was buzzing with curiosity, a rare energy for an otherwise sedate citizenry. I couldn't stay for the whole show (our six-month old daughter was getting a little too vocal), but I liked what I saw.

Continue reading "Sustainable Woodstock" »

Coffee Cuff

Coffeecuff This makes me wish two things:
1. That I still drank coffee.
2. That I thought of it first.

April 23, 2008

Welch's Contractor Loophole Bill Passes House of Representatives

Peter Welch This just in...

Regarding this week's cover story: Legislation introduced three weeks ago by Rep. Peter Welch to require overseas contractors to report cases of waste, fraud or abuse has passed the House of Representatives on a voice vote, according to a press release issued this afternoon by the Vermont congressman's office.

In November, the Justice Department drafted a rule seeking to crack down on financial improprieties in government-funded contracts.  The rule required contractors to report internal fraud or overpayment only if the abuse exceeded $5 million.  However, just before publication, the rule inexplicably excluded “contracts to be performed outside the United States.”

Welch, who first brought the loophole to public attention, asked the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to investigate and introduced legislation to correct it. “This loophole is so outrageous that once exposed in the light of day it was simply indefensible," Welch said, in a written statement. "No contractor should be given a green light to defraud taxpayers.  We need to protect taxpayer dollars and our troops serving overseas by closing this loophole with the force of law.” The Bush administration had claimed the loophole was a simple rule-drafting error.

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