Sunday, December 16, 2007

Teacher's climate message goes global

Teacher's climate change message goes global

YouTube - Greg Craven's video appeal about the dangers he says we face draws over 4 million views

Click on photo to see video.

Sunday, December 16, 2007
SCOTT LEARN The Oregonian Staff

INDEPENDENCE -- Central High School science teacher Greg Craven had one night before the last day of school to finish "The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See" in time to let his students know about it.

Downing cans of Red Bull, Craven holed up in a science lab of the Independence school, near Salem, editing all night. At 6 a.m., bleary-eyed, he posted his nine-minute, 33-second global warming video on YouTube.

His students linked to it on their MySpace pages. By that night, 60 people had clicked on it. The next day, 300. By Monday morning, 1,000. Craven was psyched. That kind of "viral" growth gets you noticed on YouTube, the Internet's anarchic video smorgasbord. Within two hours, his wife called: It's up to 10,000, she said.

Now, six months later, Craven's earnest and quirky appeal to act on climate change has collected more than 4 million views worldwide -- roughly 500 times the population of Independence. That puts it near the top of YouTube's all-time list for views in the news and politics category, despite competition from videos featuring Britney Spears, Satan's face in a 9/11 explosion and an Alabama leprechaun.

The 38-year-old family man has sifted through some 7,000 comments and discussions, mostly critical. "My toddler drools more cogent arguments," one said.

After posting the first video, Craven agonized about a hole in his theory, skipped his aunt's wedding to fill it, took a monthlong break at his wife's insistence, then spent six weeks producing a 44-part, six-hour sequel, "How It All Ends." It includes small explosions, silly hats Craven bought in a Nepalese tourist mart and a script totaling 70,000 words.

He slept two or three hours a night. He spent $500 on energy drinks. He made his relatives very nervous.

"It became a little bit maniacal," Craven admitted last week from behind his desk at Central High. "But if you think you see the emergency escape hatch when the Titanic's going down, you're going to do what you can to help people get to it."

Craven's YouTube site gives little biography, and his first video gives none (the sequel says he's a science teacher and fellow "Joe Schmoe").

Jan Hawkins, Craven's mother, can fill in: As a young boy, Craven looked inside padlocks and tadpoles to see how they worked. As a young man, he camped out for four days in the Honolulu airport to reflect on his year of traveling in Asia.

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2008 Masterpiece Theater Announcement

Masterpiece Theater

December 11, 2007

Dear Friend of OPB,

Masterpiece Theatre has just announced exciting plans for the 2008 season. Gillian Anderson, well known to fans for her Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated performance in Bleak House (as well as for playing Agent Scully on The X-Files), will make her debut as host on The Complete Jane Austen, the highly anticipated showcase of all six of Jane Austen's novels, premiering Sunday, January 13 on OPB.

Masterpiece Theatre will break the year into three "seasons," each with its own host. In winter and spring, Masterpiece Classic will feature signature period dramas. In summer, Masterpiece Mystery! will present the best British mysteries, and in fall, Masterpiece Contemporary will show dramas set in modern times.

Anderson will present the ten programs in the first Masterpiece Classic season, including adaptations of all six of Austen’s novels and a new biopic; Cranford, a three-part miniseries starring Judi Dench; My Boy Jack, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Kim Cattrall; and a new adaptation of A Room with a View by Andrew Davies. The other two new hosts will be announced next year.

No word yet on if we can expect Masterpiece SciFi.

John Bell
OPB Membership Team

Saturday, December 15, 2007

May all your holidays be white

Click on photo and then on "Play" to hear song.

Originally recorded by the Drifters in 1954.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Gift Cards Go Philanthropic

Gift Cards Go Philanthropic

Published: December 5, 2007

THIS year, the use of gift cards, many of which are bought and redeemed online, has merged with another venerable holiday tradition: charitable donations made in the name of gift recipients.

And in a new twist, several groups are offering charitable gift cards that allow the recipient to choose the organization that will receive the money given in his or her name.

“This is a movement that has exploded in the last year,” said Trent Stamp, president of Charity Navigator, a Web site that uses information from federal financial filings to evaluate charities.

“It seems to be something that has caught on nationally,” he added. “People are realizing that giving somebody another sweater is not as good as giving them the opportunity to give to a charity they support.”

More than half of all consumers say they plan to buy gift cards this year, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation, which expects sales of the cards to rise 6 percent to $26.3 billion by the end of the season, from $24.8 billion last year. The average buyer is likely to spend a bit more on the cards too, the retailers’ group says.

Most gift cards are sold by merchants and used to buy clothing, toys, electronic devices and the like. But groups offering charity gift cards say their offerings are not that different. “Philanthropy and commercial products are converging with each other,” said Daniel B. Goodman, president of “We’re offering a charity gift card as basically a commercial product.”

His group has been offering online gift-card buyers the option of letting the recipient choose where the money goes since 2004, Mr. Goodman said, and last year it received about $100,000 in such donations. But the introduction of plastic cards this year for gifts of $50 or more, he said, led to a big increase in donations, with more than $200,000 coming in before Thanksgiving.

Two new cards that allow gift recipients to choose where the money will go arrived on the market in November.

Network for Good, an Internet fund-raising organization founded by Time Warner, Yahoo and Cisco Systems, introduced the Good Card over Thanksgiving weekend.

The card can be sent either electronically, as an e-mail or as a plastic card. William E. Strathmann, chief executive of Network for Good, said it was the plastic form that really made the card compelling. “It’s nice to have something to put in the stocking,” he said.

TisBest Philanthropy, a Seattle nonprofit group, began selling its TisBest Charity Gift Card on Nov. 1. Erik Marks, a local lawyer and entrepreneur who is the founder and executive director of TisBest, said that 200 to 300 TisBest Charity Gift Cards had been sold and that sales were doubling every week. TisBest chose not to offer plastic cards for environmental and economic reasons. Instead, Mr. Marks said, he focused on using a simply designed Web site and evocative photographs to create the most satisfying emotional experience.

“When you pick a greeting card, the image on the face of it matters,” he said. “If I’m buying a gift for someone around the holidays and I’m spending $50 or $60 on the gift, what’s really important is the experience of buying the gift.”

Charges for the gift cards range from $3.95 at TisBest to $5 at Network for Good. At, another group that offers an electronic Charity Gift Certificate, there is a $5 fee for the first certificate and $2 for each additional one ordered at the same time. charges 50 cents a card plus 10 percent of the amount donated.

The groups also take different approaches in how the gift-card recipient can research and choose the charity that gets the money.

TisBest and offer screened lists of charities, while at Network for Good and JustGive, the money can go to any of the more than one million federally registered nonprofit groups in the United States.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

If Portland leads can DC be far behind?

December 16, 2007
By Neal Peirce

WASHINGTON - Could it possibly be that Washington, for years bashed by poliicians, its population shrinking and at one point almost bankrupt, has become a model of how the entire nation might smartly develop in the 21st century?

I never thought I’d see the day. But Christopher Leinberger, one of America’s top real estate analysts and now Brookings Institution fellow, makes a startling case for it in his just-published book, The Option of Urbanism - Investing in a New American Dream (Island Press).

Leinberger’s case isn’t about Washington’s radically improved politics and city management. Rather, it’s about walkability. It’s about dramatic reinvestment -- some $8.2 billion worth -- pouring in the city’s downtown since 1997. Complementing monumental Washington, there’s been a rush of new cinemas, theaters, quality restaurants and trendy retail stores and a wildly popular sports arena, all helped along by a downtown business district providing special security, marketing and planning.

But the success story’s not exclusively a downtown one -- the entire Washington citistate of 5.3 million people is now booming. And it’s starring especially in what Leinberger calls “walkable urbanism” -- places with the mix of destinations people want, from shops and parks and schools to pubs and entertainment, all accessible on foot.

In a sense walkable urbanism is nothing new; it was the way towns and cities were organized from the first urban settlements some 5,500 years ago into the 20th century.

But after World War II, with Americans’ rush to thousands of new suburban locations, a never-before-seen norm appeared. Leinberger calls it “drivable sub-urbanism.” And what a market smash it proved, offering Americans a sense of freedom, mobility, privacy, their own piece of turf and a yard for the kids to play. Plus plenty of jobs and profits, from autos to oil to real estate to fast food. The new form became virtually synonymous with the American Dream. Two generations of Americans knew practically nothing else.

But in the 1990s the model began to lose some of its luster. Suburbia’s big parking lots and low-density zoning meant an auto for every trip. Walking and transit were impractical. Older suburbs began to decline, inducing families to drive farther and farther to new suburban rings. Thousands of malls and shopping strips were abandoned. Traffic congestion -- and Washington’s no exception -- became so severe many families were obliged to build their lives around it. Kids had to be driven everywhere. Vehicle miles driven in America shot up a stunning 226 percent from 1983 to 2001, while population increased just 22 percent.

So by the mid-1990s a significant number of Americans -- and not just the poor and minorities long-consigned to inner cities -- began to ask: Isn’t there a better way? Popular media began to shift its images of the city from crime and violence to the exciting, hip, place to be (such television shows as Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City).

Urban crime rates took a deep dive. Most downtowns began a surprising revitalization, with more offices, entertainment, restaurants, and a leading edge of middle-class people (often youth and empty nesters) returning. And the ideas of walkable town and city life, spread with fervor by the architects and planners of the New Urbanism movement, gnawed at the decades-old supremacy of the suburban ideal.

None of this, Leinberger insists, means “drivable sub-urbia” will disappear any time soon: a huge weight of custom, continued consumer choice, zoning and the sheer vastness of today’s spread-out suburbia assure it will remain dominant for years to come. Nor will cities’ problems, from poverty to schools, disappear soon.

But walkable urbanism has demographics going for it. The share of U.S. families with children at home has been declining sharply; the largest household growth in the decades ahead will be empty nesters, never-nesters and singles, many likely to look to cities and their excitement. And cities, competing, will likely keep heeding advice to lure creative young professionals; in fact those that don’t offer true walkable urbanism, Leinberger suggests, are “probably destined” to lose out economically.

In the 1980s the Washington region had two highly walkable places-- Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria. Today, Leinberger calculates, it has 17 highly walkable, beckoning urban centers, with at least five more emerging -- the most of any U.S. metropolis.

Significantly, 16 of Washington’s walkable centers have subway stops; the modern Metro system, begin in the 1970s, has transformed the region as communities -- Arlington County, Va. is the star -- have consciously planned dense, multi-use development around the stops.

But Washington started its Metro when generous federal aid still flowed. Denver’s doing it the harder way, with a $4.7 billion light rail system that’s 80 percent financed by local taxpayers. But the Denver region will end up with 119 miles of track, many walkable centers, and a burnished reputation. In the process it, too, is setting a national model.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A balanced diet

From a RAPSU board member:

Can you figure out what these words have in common?


Are you peeking or have you already given up?

Give it another try . . .

OK . . . Here You Go . . . Hope You Didn't Cheat.

Answer: No, it is not that they all have at least 2 double letters.

In all of the words listed, if you take the first letter, place it at the end of the word, and then spell the word backwards, it will be the same word.

I had thought the tumors...

I had thought the tumors...

by Grace Paley
from Fidelity. © Etruscan Press, 2008.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

I had thought the tumors
on my spine would kill me but
the tumors on my head seem to be
extraordinary competitive this week.

For the past twenty or thirty years
I have eaten the freshest most
organic and colorful fruits and
vegetables I did not drink I
did drink one small glass of red
wine with dinner nearly every day
as suggested by The New York Times
I should have taken longer walks but
obviously I have done something wrong

I don't mean morally or ethically or
geographically I did not live near
a nuclear graveyard or under a coal
stack nor did I allow my children
to do so I lived in a city no worse
than any other great and famous city I
lived one story above a street that led
cabs and ambulances to the local hospital
that didn't seem so bad and was
often convenient

In any event I am
already old and therefore a little ashamed
to have written this poem full
of complaints against mortality which
biological fact I have been constructed for
to hand on to my children and grand—
children as I received it from my
dear mother and father and beloved
grandmother who all
ah if I remember it
were in great pain at leaving
and were furiously saying goodbye

From the Writer's Almanac

Sunday, December 9, 2007

That Old Black Magic

They called her the "Queen of Swing" and the "First Lady of Las Vegas" — Keely Smith and her husband Louis Prima won a Grammy nearly 50 years ago for the song "That Old Black Magic."

To hear the song Click Here, and then scroll down the page until you see "That Old Black Magic."

Identical Strangers

Twin peeks
Split up in ’60s, women discover sisterly bond

MELVILLE, N.Y. - The waitress at Le Gamin, a grungily hip bistro in rapidly gentrifying Prospect Heights, N.Y., lights a single candle stuck in a chestnut-creme-filled crepe.

The two women who on a recent day celebrated the first day of their 39th year lean past the bottles of mineral water and empty cups of cafe au lait, sing ‘‘Happy birthday to us’’ a bit self-consciously, then blow out the solitary taper.

A birthday crepe is not exactly a conventional idea, but when it comes to each other, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein can never reasonably expect the commonplace. Separated soon after birth by a Manhattan adoption agency that was helping researchers study the influence of nature and nurture, the identical twin girls, born to a patient at a mental hospital, went to New York City area families - Schein’s in Suffolk County, Bernstein’s in Westchester. Though they were dropped from the study because there was a lag between their adoptions, the families were never informed that their babies had an identical sibling.


Paula Bernstein (left) and Elyse Schein are identical twins that were separated at birth and reunited 35 years later. They have written a book about the experience, ‘Identical Strangers.’

It is impossible to mourn that which you don’t know you have lost. So, unaware of their mirror selves, Schein and Bernstein grew into young women who had their challenges - both struggled with depression, something they now know was a biological legacy - as well as their passions - both love film and were drawn to careers in and around that industry.

For Schein, though, something was missing. Her family left Long Island for Oklahoma after her adoptive mother’s death from spinal cancer when she was 6, but she returned to attend Stony Brook University. In her early adult years after film school in California, whenever she felt adrift, ‘‘I used to say, ‘I feel like I am missing my twin,’ ’’ recalls the writer and filmmaker. ‘‘I thought it was a common metaphor.’’

In 2004, Schein, who was living in Paris (which explains her fondness for any eatery that serves creme franche), wrote to Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency that had placed her and was just about to close. Eventually, the correspondence led her back to New York, where she learned from an agency staffer, with all the casualness that one orders a Happy Meal, that she had an identical twin.

A hard jolt

‘‘There was no question we were twins, but I was not sure we were sisters,’’ says Bernstein, who compares getting the news with a slab of cement falling on her chest. At first glance, her red hair and round glasses mute her obvious similarity to Schein, sitting across from her with dark hair and square frames. ‘‘There was an immediate intimacy that was misleading,’’ she continues. ‘‘But we still had to figure out the boundaries of our relationship.’’

The vehicle for that is their new book, ‘‘Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited’’ (Random House, $25.95). Underscoring their individual voices within their shared identity, the book is first-person squared: The sisters take turns describing how their story unfolded. Along the way are uncomfortable questions, mourning for the shared childhood they were denied, bitterness over having their lives - and reality - uprooted.

Schein says she struggled over fundamental questions of self, and how she might have turned out in a ‘‘hypothetical life’’: ‘‘Would I be who I am if I was Paula Bernstein?’’ she wonders aloud, imagining that she was the twin who headed to the northern suburbs instead of east to Mount Sinai. She thinks back to those moments in her life when friends said, ‘‘You look just like my friend’’ - were those just coincidences, or did she fail to see she had brushed up against her sister’s life, missing the chance for a reunion decades earlier?

As the ‘‘found’’ twin, Bernstein bridled at the intrusion on her neatly ordered life as a wife, mother and freelance writer. ‘‘We both led lives we loved and didn’t want to leave that. I felt very possessive of the life I’ve led.’’

Writing the book, she says with a laugh, ‘‘saved us a fortune in therapy.’’ They began writing it six months after they met and completed it in two years. When they sent the outline to the publisher, the last chapters were simply question marks. Bernstein’s central question was whether she truly wanted her instant sibling to be an integrated part of her life.

‘‘There were definitely moments where I feared hurting Elyse,’’ she admits.

‘‘And I knew from the beginning she was ambivalent,’’ Schein interjects. ‘‘But from the beginning I was confident the book would bring us together.’’

‘‘I didn’t know until the end,’’ Bernstein continues. ‘‘I didn’t know if I wanted to do this.’’

Schein’s belief in process paid off. Together, the two sisters hunted down the researcher whose project caused them so much belated pain; when he finally granted an interview, they found an unapologetic nonagenarian bereft of remorse and tight-lipped about the details of his findings. Piecing together the fragments of the study, which never was published, they developed a strong hunch that the study was also examining the hereditary effects of mental illness such as schizophrenia, with which their mother had been diagnosed.

Finally, they discovered the fate of their birth mother (suffice it to say it was not a happy ending, and their father’s identity is unknown), and remnants of her family, however unenthusiastic the reception. But most important, they found each other, and ways to incorporate a not-so-perfect stranger into their hearts.

Today, Schein and Bernstein live in nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods, meeting every couple of weeks for a tuna melt or a cup of tea. Voracious readers, they swap books and compare notes on favorite films. Sharing the same petite frame and wasp-waist, they have started shopping together, and though they gravitate toward the same kinds of clothes - wrap-around dresses are a favorite - in the end they make subtly different selections.

While it seems from the book’s research that nature has the upper hand in determining who we are - from our mannerisms to our preferences in soda and footwear - nurture can hardly be discounted. Though Schein and Bernstein started out with identical DNA, they have evolved individual strengths and outlooks. ‘‘I’m more the dancer,’’ Schein volunteers. ‘‘And I’m better at math.’’

Since meeting her twin, Bernstein has had a second daughter, and Schein, who is single, delights in watching the two.

‘‘I think of them as a part of me, because I have the same genetics as their mother,’’ she says. ‘‘But I don’t have to pay for summer camp,’’ she ad-libs.

Beneath the jokes remains a daunting task: how to continue to bridge a gulf of time and experience that neither wanted, but both now have to deal with, at an age when they planned to be settling into their final adult identity, not rethinking it.

‘‘There’s no handbook on how to be a twin,’’ Schein muses - much less an identical one miraculously reunited after 3 decades. To that end, ‘‘Identical Strangers’’ is as close as they come.

Friday, December 7, 2007


December 9, 2007
© 2007 Washington Post Writers Group
By Neal Peirce

The cause has simmered for years-- and we’ve all felt some of it: Frustration with fast traffic that turns streets through our neighborhoods into corridors of fear. Resentment about narrow, rough or nonexistent sidewalks. A reluctance to have children cross high speed roadways walking to school. Bicyclists taking their lives into their hands when they venture onto major roads.

Now, finally, there’s an organized nationwide movement to fight the good fight for saner streets. It’s a coalition mounting a nationwide campaign for city and town roadways that include safe, quality space for pedestrians and cyclists and public transit users, accommodating their wishes just as seriously as those of car and truck drivers.

It’s called, fittingly, the Complete Streets movement. Its members cover an amazing gambit -- from America Bikes and AARP, Smart Growth America and the American Society of Landscape Architects to Paralyzed Veterans of America. The Institute of Transportation Engineers is even on board, amazing for a profession long known as the “throughput crowd” for its pushing of maximum numbers of vehicles at maximum feasible speed through cities and villages alike.

Complete Streets “are about a right-of-way for everyone out there traveling, walking or biking,” says Barbara McCann, the movement coordinator. All users of all ages and abilities, she asserts, need to be able to move safely along and across a complete street. And, McCann adds, “safety is a huge reason.”

As well it should be: every 113 minutes across the United States, a motorized vehicle hits and kills a pedestrian or cyclist. Every eight minutes one is injured, sometimes paralyzed. Most of Europe, by contrast, has worked for years at expanding walkways and bikeways, making intersections safer and erecting physical barriers to fast city and town traffic. On a per-mile basis, a German pedestrian has only a third as much chance of being a traffic fatality as his American counterpart; a German cyclist, only half.

People tightly wed to the single passenger car concept are least likely to accept the complete streets idea. But 90 percent of us, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors, believe that new communities should be designed so we can walk more and drive less, and that public transportation should be improved and accessible.

States and cities are getting the message. Illinois this fall passed a complete streets law requiring the state’s transportation department to include bicycling and walking facilities in all its urban-area projects. Five other states (Massachusetts, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island) now have some form of complete streets statute or rule on the books. More than 50 metro regions, counties or cities -- Charlotte to Johnson County (Kan.) Salt Lake City to Seattle -- have passed similar statutes. Many others are now considering them.

Chicago, for example, is moving to narrower traffic lanes, median “refuges” and curb extensions for pedestrians, as well as converting 4-lane roadways into 3 lanes with marked bike lanes.

But for “a really dramatic increase in cycling in cities,” says Tim Blumenthal, executive director of Bikes Belong, “painting stripes won’t make enough people feel safe.” Paris is creating and protecting new bike lanes with vertical 1.5-foot separation posts. On New York’s 9th Avenue, one of four lanes of traffic has been removed and parked cars moved out several feet from the sidewalk, creating a safe cycle-only corridor.

Project for Public Spaces has some of the right advice for cities: “Stop planning for speed.” “Right-size” road projects in cities and suburbs to “reconnect communities to their neighbors, a waterfront or park.” And “think of transportation as public space” -- roads, transit terminals, sidewalks, reconfigured to create pleasant environments, a true sense of place.

Finally, there’s health. News reports indicate America’s obesity epidemic “is levelling off” -- but at outrageously high and dangerous weights (and now, as we’ve just heard, diminishing the life expectancy of today’s overweight children). So what’s the best cure? Walking? An average person walking half an hour a day would lose about 13 pounds a year. Blumenthal would have us think about “two miles, two wheels” -- cycle or walk for the 41 percent of all our trips that are two miles or less.

Complete streets make the walking/cycling prospect sound far more attractive. And now the American Public Health Association is seeking to connect obesity with the increasingly worrisome climate change challenge. Trading miles behind the wheel for increased walking, cycling and public transit can trim pounds and cut greenhouse gases simultaneously. Not to mention reducing smog and car deaths and registering less heart disease, osteoporosis and depression.

“This may present the greatest public health opportunity that we’ve had in a century,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Jonathan Palz, president of the International Association for Ecology and Health.

He may be right. But we’re not likely to get there until we make our streets and public realm safer and more appealing -- the essence of the complete streets message.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Fragment from the Ninth Elegy

Maybe we're here only to say: house,
bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree, window —

at most, pillar, tower... but to say them, remember,
oh, to say them in a way that the things themselves
never dreamed of existing so intensely.

Rainer Maria Rilke

From the Writer's Almanac.

Oral alphabet revisitied

Have you ever been at a loss for a name to put with a letter when you're spelling over the phone? Here's a reminder of the original oral alphabet.
























Test yourself

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Nuclear Reaction

From the Writer's Almlanac

It was on this day in 1942 that scientists working on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago conducted the first-ever man-made nuclear reaction. The leader of the experiment was the Italian immigrant Enrico Fermi, who had won a Nobel Prize for discovering fission. He had realized that if you split an atom with a neutron, the split atom would produce more neutrons, which could then split other atoms, and so on, creating a chain reaction. To test the idea, he and his assistants built a makeshift nuclear reactor on an unused squash court near the university's football field, constructing a pile of uranium bricks interspersed with graphite blocks to slow down the neutrons. They used neutron-absorbing cadmium rods to delay the reaction until they were ready. A couple of young physicists stood on a scaffold over the pile with buckets of liquid cadmium as an emergency measure in case there was a meltdown.

Enrico Fermi

They started the reaction at 9:45 a.m., withdrawing all the cadmium rods so that the uranium neutrons would begin splitting atoms. The only way they could observe what was happening was with their Geiger counters, which measured the number of neutrons in the room. As the rods were removed, the Geiger counters made a clicking sound that grew faster and faster, until they began to make a sound that one of the eyewitnesses described as a roar. Finally, Fermi announced that the reaction had reached critical mass, and they reinserted the rods to shut it down. People applauded, but nobody cheered. They celebrated with paper cups of Chianti, but nobody made a toast. One of the young physicists there that day said, "We had known that we were about to unlock a giant; still, we could not escape an eerie feeling when we knew we had actually done it.

Fungus in NYC

If you are visiting NYC this holiday season you might want to catch the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden (11/23/2007 - 1/13/2008)

“All aboard” for one of New York’s most beloved holiday traditions! A dash of holiday magic transforms the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory into an enchanting world featuring replicas of more than 140 New York landmarks—from the Statue of Liberty to Yankee Stadium—made entirely from plant parts like berries, leaves, and seeds. Large-scale model trains and trolleys zip through this wondrous landscape, disappearing into tunnels, crossing bridges overhead, and gliding under waterfalls and twinkling lights.

The Guggenheim Museum as rendered in fungus


For Release Sunday, December 2, 200
© 2007 Washington Post Writers Group

Are the stars finally coming into alignment for an American passenger rail system that’s even mildly comparable to 21st century world standards?

America’s train advocates are mildly optimistic. And for some good reasons. Amtrak is reporting impressive ridership gains. Oil has been pushing toward $100 a barrel, throwing a long shadow over affordability of travel on already-congested highways. Airport delays hit an all-time high last summer. Global climate concerns are mounting.

Rail freight demands, meanwhile, are rising fast, suggesting joint improvements with passenger rail. Worries are rising about mobility gaps hindering the ability of America’s “megaregions” -- the Northeast, Great Lakes, California and others-- to match the performance of competitive regions worldwide.

Also positive for Amtrak: signs of a much friendlier reception in Congress. Add to that an array of states anxious to expand rail service, especially if they can get a federal “match” comparable to the 80-20 percent federal-to-state match for highways.

For years, polls have shown Americans strongly in favor of Amtrak subsidies that would build a strong national rail system. But only slowly have legislators -- federal and state -- shown an openness to system expansion. And the Bush administration has been hostile; it has even tried to zero-fund Amtrak.

So here’s the irony: Amtrak is able to report it carried 25.8 million passenger in the last fiscal year -- up 1.5 million from the year before. Ticket revenue rose 11 percent. Trains on the Northeast Corridor and other popular corridors are increasingly sold out.

And no one knows, notes Rick Harnish of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, how expansive demand for Amtrak service would be if many more routes were opened, offering at least three or four trains daily for reasonable frequency. His bet is that millions of Americans would opt for the more convenient system, especially as oil soars in cost: “For 50 years we assumed we could do everything by car. It’s now painfully clear that’s not true.”

But there’s an irony: Amtrak expansion could get derailed. Why? If demand keeps rising as seems likely, Amtrak estimates it will lack sufficient cars and backup equipment by the 2010-2012 time frame. Given the multi-year lead times for equipment design and manufacture, that means the procurement process needs to begin right away.

Congress can help significantly if it moves swiftly on current bills -- the major boost being a $1.9 billion a year Amtrak support recently voted by the Senate, and a separate Senate Finance Committee proposal for $900 million a year to let states issue tax-free bonds to finance new intercity passenger rail infrastructure. Critical first steps will have been taken (assuming both bills can be tracked around expected Bush vetoes).

But state initiatives are also vital. Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi heads the “States for Passenger Rail Coalition” of 30 state transportation departments appealing for an 80-20 federal-state funding split to put some real steam behind rail expansion.

Fourteen states, notes Busalacchi, already provide operating support for Amtrak corridor services -- routes responsible for virtually all of Amtrak’s recent ridership gains. The “Hiawatha Service” in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor, he boasts, has boosted ridership 48 percent, to 588,000, in the last five years, with 90 percent on-time performance.

And there have been other breakthroughs. Pennsylvania, in a 50-50 cost split with Amtrak, electrified and rehabilitated the Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor so well it now offers 110-mile-per-hour service.

In California, a $2 billion rail bond issue that voters OK’d in 1990 sparked work on three major corridors (Central Valley, San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara and Sacramento-San Jose). The bond issue, notes Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, was originally “rammed down the throat” of a highway-dominated Caltrans (state transportation department). “But today,” Capon continued, “Caltrans is proud to boast at every opportunity about the 4 million riders yearly on the combined California corridors.”

Illinois made a splash last fall by doubling the number of trains it sponsors, increasing, for example, Chicago-St. Louis runs from three to five trains daily. Cascadia service (Oregon-Washington) had 674,000 passengers last year. Maine scored a breakthrough (even when New Hampshire and Massachusetts wouldn’t help it) by starting up Boston-Portland “Downeaster” service; last year it carried 362,000 passengers.

But many legislators, federal and state, remain skeptical. A longtime rail system advocacy group, the National Corridors Initiative, aims to convince more of them through a Jan. 28-29 conference on U.S. transportation competitiveness at St. Louis’ Hyatt Regency Hotel (within the once-derelict, now restored historic Union Station).

The affair will be called the “Carmichael Conference on the Future of American Transportation” in honor of Gilbert Carmichael, a Federal Railroad Commissioner who served under (remember him?) President George W.H. Bush. Carmichael is an enthusiastic rail supporter -- a reminder that rails to meet America’s needs will have to be a bipartisan effort -- or likely not happen at all.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

This could be addictive

Free Rice

Playing a word definition game at results in food being donated to the needy.

 is the creation of 49-year-old American computer programmer John Breen, and is the sister site of, launched in January 2007 with a counter showing one person dying of hunger every 3.5 seconds. Breen is no stranger to such programs, having created The Hunger Site in June 1999.

As to who foots the bill for the food being donated, the site says: "The rice is paid for by the advertisers whose names you see on the bottom of your vocabulary screen." As more people play the game, the site racks up more advertising revenue, which in turn is converted into food donations for the hungry.

On 7 October 2007, the first day of the site's operations, only 830 grains were donated. As of 17 November 2007, the number of grains of rice given away amounts to 2,457,120,420

The rice is distributed by the United Nations' World Food Programme an organization that in 2006 reached 87.8 million people in 78 countries.

Monday, November 26, 2007

November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month

November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month

[A friend, who has memory problems -- as many of us do -- sent me this post.]

While on a road trip, an elderly couple stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch.

After finishing their meal, they left the restaurant and resumed their trip.

When leaving, the elderly woman unknowingly left her glasses on the table and she didn't miss them until they had been driving about twenty minutes.

By then, to add to the aggravation, they had to travel quite a distance before they could find a place to turn around -- in order to return to the restaurant to retrieve her glasses.

All the way back, the elderly husband became the classic grouchy old man. He fussed and complained and scolded his wife relentlessly during the entire return drive.The more he chided her -- the more agitated he became.

He just wouldn't let up one minute.

To her relief, they finally arrived at the restaurant. As the woman got out of the car and hurried inside to retrieve her glasses, the old geezer yelled to her, "While you're in there, you might as well get my hat and the credit card."