Monday, December 28, 2009

Phoenix's "best Maine writers" of the decade

It's been a few months since we heard from the Department of Vulgar Self-Promotion, so I'm hoping readers will excuse the following:

The Portland Phoenix (the alternative weekly hereabouts) just published their last issue of the Noughties, which features a piece on the "best Maine writers of the past ten years." It includes "local demigods" (Stephen King, Carolyn Chute, Phillip Hoose, Betsy Sholl), seasonal residents (e.g. Richard Ford) and "Young Lions," including yours truly. Here's their plug (with my own hyperlink enhancements):

"In non-fiction territory, COLIN WOODARD's exhaustively researched The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators & the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier (2004) presents a new local history that's edifying and, necessarily, both reverent and indignant. A similarly compelling unearthing, The Republic of Pirates, followed in 2007."

It's wonderful to be included in such a round-up, but even better to make the Young Lions department at age 41. It's a pleasant reminder that when the Noughties started on January 1, 2000, I was still four months away from publishing my first book, Ocean's End, and a full year from getting the initial idea for Lobster Coast. (This came to me in an epiphany while shaving in a Reykjavik pension, strangely enough.) Middle age still seemed far, far away.

Now the troubles of the world are on my shoulders.... not least that I will have to compete with the Demigods to make the list in December 2019!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Maine: pre-holiday news roundup

For fellow Mainers, a few items of interest before everything shuts down for the Christmas holiday:

Ferries and Fuel. We learned recently that The Cat, our ferry link to Nova Scotia, won't be returning next year, barring a change of heart in Halifax, where provincial officials had decided not to renew subsidies that had kept the seasonal service alive. What most news outlets haven't asked is why The Cat needed a subsidy. After all, its predecessor, the Scotia Prince, operated without one for decades before abandoning the route (after a nasty scuffle with the city of Portland over mold in their terminal building.)

The underlying problem is fuel. As I reported long ago in The Bollard, most high speed ferries stopped making economic sense when world fuel prices shot up. Throw in an economic downturn, the tightening of the US-Canada border, and the loss of the Scotia Prince's cruise ship-like experience, and The Cat became an endangered species.

Another question to be asked: what's this mean for Portland's troubled Ocean Gateway Terminal, now deprived of any real raison d'etre? Some background here.

Maine Republican Quits. Furious over the GOP's resistance to health care reform, Maine legislator Jim Campbell (R-Newfield) is leaving his party, an event that's receiving national attention today. US Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (who both voted against the health care bill) aren't expected to follow his lead. [Update, 1/28/10: Mike Tipping has posted a revealing interview with Campbell.]

Port Reopens. Some good news: Portland's container port is up and running again, at least for now, with the restoration of scheduled barge service to the port of New York and New Jersey (where cargoes are transhipped to the rest of the planet.) The International Marine Terminal has been closed off and on, its fate tied to that of a paper mill in Old Town.

Ocean Observing System Saved? As I've reported in the past, the popular and scientifically-vital Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System suffered a partial collapse this year due to a failure of will in Washington, D.C. This month, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute announced it was merging with GoMoos, although its not yet clear exactly what this means for the rump system. I'm working on getting some answers, though, so stay tuned. [Update, 2/4/10: my GMRI story here.]

Saturday, December 19, 2009

1989-2009: Romania's Revolution lifts off (as do I)

Twenty years ago this morning, I was being interrogated by Vienna airport security, along with just about everyone else intending to fly to New York with TWA.

I was grilled by a hawk eyed Austrian agent with a cold demeanor and a Mitteleuropean's clipboard. My answers seemed to annoy him. Where are you traveling from? (Hungary.) How long were you there? (Four months.) Where else did you go? (the Romanian Socialist Republic, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, twice to the Polish People's Republic, Yugoslavia three times.) What were you doing there? (Exchange student, Karl Marx University of Economics.) You entered Austria yesterday, where did you spend the night? (Sleeping on an airport ticket counter.) Why? (I can't afford your hotels.) Are you carrying any weapons? (No.) Are you sure? (Yes.) And so on. Vienna had been the site of a horrific terrorist attack four years earlier engineered by Abu Nidal, that decade's stand in for Osmama bin Laden. They weren't taking any chances.

While riding out to my aircraft in one of those giant people movers, I saw my first glimpses of the Romanian Revolution on a wall-mounted television. There was footage of protesters seizing control of Timisoara and talk of security forces mowing down thousands in mass graves. It had apparently been going on for two days, but I'd again been traveling on long-distance trains and this was the first I'd heard of it. I was shocked. I'd been in Ceausescu's Romania two months earlier and had come away with the sense that there was no chance of a popular uprising: the people were terrified, cold, and hungry, the security forces aggressive, heavily armed, and omnipresent. I'd expected Romania to hold out, North Korea-style, until their mad dictator succumbed to age or disease.

At home in Maine, I watched the revolution unfold on television. The events raised some provocative questions, particularly after a group of once-powerful Ceausescu regime apparatchiks seized control of the government. I would return to Romania that summer in search of answers, stumbling into a journalism career along the way. As in a bad mystery novel (or an X-Files episode), I only turned up more questions (along with a close call with a pack of government-guided miners brought into Bucharest to put down a new wave of protesters.)

Twenty years later, scholars remain divided on whether we yet know all the answers about what happened in Romania in December 1989, the subject of my feature that posted this morning over at Global Post.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution, and visits to Ceausescu's Romania, late Communist Poland and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Maine's Great Seaweed Struggle

Cobscook Bay in easternmost Maine is an unusual place: a multi-chambered embayment flushed by enormous tides (15-feet and up) where Jurassic Park sized periwinkles grow and all sorts of organisms that normally never leave the sea can be found by walking around the seafloor at low tide. It's one of the most biologically productive places in the North Atlantic, and has long put food on the table for people in Maine's far eastern settlements.

So when a large scale seaweed harvesting operation showed up in the bay last year, all hell broke loose. Periwinkle harvesters feared their quarry would be carried off with the seaweed. Shorefront property owners were upset that a Canadian company was coming in to take seaweed from intertidal rocks that might, in fact, belong to them. Activists drew attention to alleged short-cutting and other concerns. Never had seaweed be so contentious.

So what's to make of all this? This fall I returned to Cobscook Bay, and you can read what I found out in the January 2010 issue of Down East, on sale now, or at their website.

For a little additional background on Cobscook Bay, I can also offer this feature from the July 2007 issue of Down East. For more on the problems of the ocean environment generally, try my first book, Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Maine's Question 1: preliminary forensics

I've been following the money behind Maine's same sex marriage ballot in general, and the single largest player's failure to play by the rules in particular. (The National Organization on Marriage provided nearly two-thirds of the funds to defeat Maine's same sex marriage law, but has sued the state in federal court in an effort to keep the source of their money secret.)

The final ballot question finance reports are now in -- No on 1 filed theirs at 30 minutes to midnight last night -- giving analysts some insight into how, when, and from where money flowed to each side.

I posted some preliminary observations on Stand for Marriage Maine's final filing a few days ago. No on 1's final report (covering the period after Oct. 20) has no big surprises. It raised $548,000 in the final phase of the campaign, the vast majority in small contributions from hundreds of individuals. The biggest donations were $35,000 from Fred Eychaner (a Chicago-based publisher and Democratic activist), $20,000 from Jonathan Lewis (a South Florida activist), $20,000 from GLAD, and $10,000 from Stephen King.

Comparing the filings from the two camps, one thing is immediately apparent. In the final days of the campaign, same sex marriage opponents were able to close the funding gap through a series of very large payments from NOM: a total of $340,000 poured in four payments between Oct 23 and Oct 29. Without the organization's support, Stand for Marriage Maine would have been in deep trouble, as it provided 63.1% of its total funding.

This apparently allowed Stand for Marriage to outspend No on 1 on advertising in the final days of the campaign perhaps by more than three to one. No on 1 paid their media consultants McMahon Squire and Associates, Mission Control, Black Blue Communications, and Mundy Katowitz Media a total of $202,000 during the filing period, while Stand for Marriage Maine paid over $652,000 to their media team: Aaron Thomas and Associates, the Monaco Group, and the cryptic Mar/Com Services. These numbers aren't precise -- both groups had large payments to political consultancies and other organizations which may have been subcontracting ads for them and either group may have paid for contracts ahead of time (so they were recorded in the previous filing period) -- but they do suggest same sex marriage opponents may have benefited from a last minute spending surge. [Update, 1/25/10: My full report on this issue in Down East is available here.]

Mainers may also be interested in the Kennebec Journal's report this morning on the (remarkably large) corporate opposition to Question 3, which would have repealed Maine's school consolidation law.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

1989-2009: A Czech town survives two utopias

The Czech city of Zlin has had a strange century.

One hundred years ago it was a village of less than 4000, seventeen years later, a centrally-planned industrial utopia of 45,000, the brain child of a local cobbler who would build the world's largest footwear company. Ten years, a world war, and a Soviet "liberation" later, it found itself part of another centrally-planned vision, this time guided by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin rather than a self-made industrial tycoon. In 1989 that second utopia collapsed, of course, and by the beginning of the 21st century the shoe industry that had built the city was gone too.

So how has Zlin weathered it all? Very nicely, thank you, not least because its peculiar past. Passport members can read all about it in my feature now posted at Global Post.

Scholars of the industrialist Tomas Bata will be interested to know that elements of his vision for a centrally-planned garden city were co-opted by the Communist regime, which also pressed Bata Company technocrats into service, creating the concrete panel buildings that ring many Czech and Slovak cities today.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Maine: following Question 1 money, an update

Regular readers know I'm a big believer in following the money in politics, and I've been keeping an eye on the funds behind Question 1, the ballot measure that successfully overturned same sex marriage here in Maine.

It's already been reported that the majority of the funds came from a Princeton, New Jersey based group that has thus far failed to reveal their donors, as required under Maine law. The National Organization for Marriage even sued the state of Maine in an effort to keep the source of their money secret. This month they announced they plan to run advertisements before next June's state legislative primaries and the general election targeting legislators who voted for same sex marriage.

Yesterday morning, Stand for Marriage Maine -- the group that sponsored Question 1 -- released their final ballot question financing report, which reveals donations and expenditures since October 21st, the closing days of the campaign. The group raised a total of $525, 720 in this final period, of which 64.7% came from the National Organization for Marriage, bringing NOM's total contribution to $1.94 million, or 63.1% of Stand for Marriage Maine's funds.

Other large last minute donors included $7000 from Gary Bauer's American Values, $10,000 from James Dobson's Focus on the Family, and $25,000 from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson's Fieldstead & Company, a California-based Christian philanthropy that had once been a major donor to a foundation that advocated the stoning of gays. (They've since withdrawn support.)

If you'd like to read the ballot question disclosure documents for all the groups on both sides of Question 1, you can find them here. (The final reports technically aren't due until Dec. 15, and as of this writing, No on 1 had not yet filed theirs.)

More on this topic coming up in the bricks-and-mortar media.... [Update, 1/25/10: My full report on this issue in Down East is available here.]

Friday, December 11, 2009

Canada's nuclear waste policy

With concerns about climate change and oil dependence on the front burner, some experts have argued that more nuclear power plants to be built in the U.S. Critics point out that, in addition to concerns about their economic efficacy and the possibility of accidents, nobody has figured out how to safely dispose of the waste they produce. As I reported earlier this year, a lot of highly radioactive material is now stranded at former nuclear power plant sites in places like Wiscasset, Maine.

A number of readers asked what other countries were doing with their waste by comparison: Canada for instance. My piece on Canada's plans -- and a sidebar on the problems at New Brunswick's Point Lepreau plant -- posted at The Christian Science Monitor yesterday. As you'll see, their strategy is very, well, Canadian. (Potential depository sites have to volunteer to be considered.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

1989-2009: Witnessing the Velvet Revolution

Twenty years ago yesterday, I stepped off an overnight train from Poland at Prague's Hlavni nadrazi at 6 am. Sixteen hours later I boarded another overnight train to Budapest. (I was in Czechoslovakia on a 24-hour transit visa.) It was one of the most vivid days of my life.

On December 9, 1989, Prague had entered the ecstatic final phase of Velvet Revolution, which had begun with a student protest on November 17th and escalated into million-man marches ten days later. The Communist regime was frenetically backpedaling. They'd already repealed laws guaranteeing the Party a role in the nation's political life and were about to announce a new coalition government. As it turned out, December 9 would be the last full day of Communist rule. President Gustav Husak announced he would resign the next day, when a new government would be sworn with a non-Communist majority. Dissident poet Vaclav Havel was widely expected to be the next president.

But at 6:30 in the morning, the streets of central Prague were completely deserted. My companions and I walked to Old Town Square before dawn. It was a surreal scene. There wasn't a soul there, but there had obviously been many thousands only a few hours earlier. "It looked like a neutron bomb had gone off," I scribbled in my journal hours later. "There were no people to be seen, but someone had left behind an entire encampment: guitars, food, coffee pots, chairs, jackets, pastries and hundreds of still-lit candles." The famous statue of Reformation martyr Jan Hus had been turned into a candle-lit shrine covered in Czechoslovak flags, portraits of Alexander Dubcek, assorted printed announcements, and photographs of demonstrators being beaten by police. Seemingly every building in central Prague was adorned with dozens of national flags, which hung from nearly every window.
After sunrise, people began emerging from their homes, nearly every one wearing a Czechoslovak ribbon on their jacket in a show of support for the Revolution. There were many signs declaring "Havel to the Castle!" (He would be there soon enough, seated in the Presidential office there.) Demonstrators returned to their chairs and guitars to begin another day of Velvety goodness.

Slowly the streets became busier, although heavy snowflakes began gently falling in mid-morning, giving the already gorgeous city a magical quality, as if everything were under a goodly spell. We spent the next few hours seeing the sites -- it was the first time in Prague for all of us -- and by the time we got back to the Vaclavskie Namesti (Prague's half mile-long central square), it was packed with hundreds of thousands of jubilant demonstrators. There were cheers and chants, a lot of waving of flags and flashing of the V for Victory hand sign. New to the country and not understanding Czech, it was difficult to figure out exactly what was going on. I later learned I had taken part in a public celebration of Husak's resignation.

By the time our train reached the Hungarian border we were several hours over our visa, but the Czechoslovak guards seemed caught up in the spirit of '89 and didn't make a big deal out of it. (They even dispensed with the usual ritual of making us prove we still had all of our cameras, Walkmans, and other popular western gadgets with us, on the theory that every American was desperate to sell theirs on the black market.) At 8 am we were back in Budapest, reading western and Hungarian news accounts make sense of what we'd seen the day before.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and visits to Ceausescu's Romania, late Communist Poland and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

1989-2009: Poland on $10 a day

Twenty years ago today I was in Poland for the second time, taking advantage of the end of classes at my exchange program to take a trip lasting more than three days. I'd been to Krakow earlier in the fall and, like so many other visitors, was captivated by city's medieval charms, the intensity of its Catholicism, and the J.R.R. Tolkien-like flavor of Wawel castle, where Poland's kinds and queens rest in elaborate tombs.

I'd been to Auschwitz on my previous visit, but on this one I had time to wander Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, which was then literally in ruins. For reasons that still aren't entirely clear to me, the entire neighborhood appeared to have been left exactly as it was in 1945: blocks of gutted, bombed-out, or abandoned buildings whose occupants had been sent to the Auschwitz's ovens when the Nazis liquidated neighborhood. I returned a few years later to report on the neighborhood's rebirth for the Christian Science Monitor; Schindler's List had just come out and there were already bus tours for the tourists. I gather the place is thriving today.

The Nowa Huta steelworks -- Stalin's questionable gift to the Polish people -- were still working full tilt in those days, smothering Krakow in toxic pollutants. Friends told me not to go out at night because that's when the most dangerous emissions took place; pregnant women were allegedly told to leave the city until after birth. My landlady advised me not to brush my teeth with the tap water as it was known to corrode metal. Rain was so acidic it was melting away the statutes and gargoyles adorning the city's buildings. If you wanted to see what the U.S. would have been like without the Clean Air Act, Communist Eastern Europe provided a lot of sobering scenes.

As a penniless student, Poland had an additional attraction in those days. Dollars could be exchanged for an absurd quantity of Polish zloty, giving one the spending power of a millionaire, so long as what you were buying was priced in zloty. Hotels required hard currency, but if you could rent a bed in someone's home, everything else might as well have been free. I spent my 21st birthday with four friends at Krakow's most famous restaurant, Wierzynek. I had Chateaubriand, sauteed mushrooms, beetroot soup, pastries, imported Czech beer, ice cream and tea, was served by a wait staff of four, and paid a bill for the equivalent of $2.50, tip included. (We ate there three more times that week.) And while I stocked up on Christmas gifts and albums (vinyl and cassettes in those days), there were some things you just couldn't buy: toilet paper, fresh fruits, meat at the butcher's. When these things appeared, people stood in long lines to get them, and horded huge stashes. Every apartment I saw had an entire closet filled with toilet paper rolls.

Aside from the restaurant, we were hardly splurging, but rather living like adult travelers on a budget. But I calculated that I was spending a typical Poles' monthly wage every two to three days. A Polish friend with a good sense of irony related his favorite line from Trading Places. Eddie Murphy has just been given a $5 bill by Dan Aykroyd and he says "Gee, Thanks. Now I can go to the cinema....alone." At the time, $5 represented several days' wages in Poland.

On my last day in Poland, my travelling companions and I went out to Nowa Huta, where Stalin had built a centrally-planned city around the enormous steel works. There was a huge statue of Lenin in the middle of the suburban town. Students had tried to attack it the previous night and had been driven away by police with water cannons. Lenin was flecked with paint stains and broken bottles were strewn at his enormous feet. The square was covered in ice from the water cannons.

We were to leave Poland on December 8, but we weren't going straight back to Hungary. Instead, we planned to get the most out of our 24-hour Czechoslovak transit visas. There was a revolution underway in Prague, and we would see it happen.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and visits to Ceausescu's Romania and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Great Pyramids of Bosnia

My feature on the "pyramids" of Bosnia-Herzegovina is in the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Amateur archaeologist Semir Osmanagic (aka Sam Osmanagich) became a celebrity in Bosnia after announcing he had discovered the world's largest and oldest pyramid complex, hiding in plain sight just outside Sarajevo. As you can read, many experts are more than a little skeptical of Osmanagic's claims, and alarmed at the degree of official support his "archaeological digs" have received.

The piece is also available online in its entirety.

(If you'd like to read some of Mr. Osmanagic's writings for yourself, he's conveniently posted the English translation of one of his books online. Another, the nine volume Alternativna Historija, is available in Bosnian.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Maine: Tidal Power steps forward

Tidal power is expected to take a jump forward next month when a Portland-based company puts a large turbine prototype in the waters off Eastport.

I was in the area recently and wrote this piece in Working Waterfront on the project and the industry's prospects in Maine and Canada's Maritimes.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Maine: Portlander wins National Book Award

Earlier this year, readers of the Portland Phoenix were kind enough to name me "Best Portland Author" over several worthy nominees.

One of them, Phillip Hoose, just won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for his book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Before Justice.

Congratulations, Phillip! You done Portland proud.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Troubles on the Canada-US border

Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has been tightening its border controls, and border patrol agents have been more likely to follow the letter of the law, even in situations where a strict interpretation may not make a lot of sense. The casualties have been people living in border regions, places where history, culture, family ties, and day-to-day business activities were all cross-border in nature.

One such region: the Maine-New Brunswick frontier, a region traded back and forth between the U.S. and Britain in the decades after the American Revolution, and one where both sides of the border were settled by the same waves of Anglo-Scots settlers (in the southern two-thirds of the shared frontier) or Francophones (along the northern third.)

My piece on this topic ran earlier this month at Global Post. It's in the Passport section, so you may be prompted to subscribe. Therein, read about efforts to deal with a golf course cut in half by the border, a Canadian island cut off from Canada, a wilderness area where canoeists can no longer use half the campgrounds, and a remote hamlet where the church is on one side, the post office on the other, and the border post in between closes at night and all weekend long.

Monday, November 16, 2009

1989-2009: Berlin, when the wall came tumbling down

I was in what is now Slovenia the night the Berlin Wall was opened, but was able to get the visas and train tickets to travel from Budapest (where I was an exchange student) to East Berlin, arriving at Lichtenberg Station 20 years ago this morning. "In accordance with my ass-backward approach to Europe," I wrote in my journal, "I visit West Berlin for the first time via East Berlin."

Lichtenberg Station was swamped with thousands of East Germans pouring into the city from other parts of Brandenburg, Saxony, and Prussia, rushing to see the West for the first time. Crowds filled every platform and had overwhelmed the underpasses. People pushed one another, children screamed, and police shoved people around. I had to lift and carry a stranger's child to rescue it from being trampled. My two traveling companions and I were swept along with the crowd -- there wasn't any choice in the matter -- flowing under the station hall, out onto the street, back into another entrance, and down into the subway system.

Even in those days, you could travel by subway from East to West. The East and West Berlin U-bahn systems connected at Friedrichstrasse Station, which had customs stations where one would normally expect turnstiles. In the upper galleries of the transit hall, guards with automatic weapons paced back and forth, on the lookout for trouble. The crowds that day were enormous; I noted in my journal that the lines outside the women's bathroom were 80 to 90 persons long. We were on 24-hour East German transit visas, so needed to exit to West Berlin immediately, but under the circumstances, none of the guards seemed to know where to send us to get our exit stamps. (Most lines had been allocated for East German and Polish citizens only.) I remember a long Kafka-esque ordeal trying to fight through massive crowds in claustrophobic underground passages, going from bewildered guard to bewildered guard, trying to find a way out of the DDR.

Once on the West Berlin U-bahn, we passed through several dimly lit ghost stations that had been sealed off after the construction of the wall in 1961. I remember some of them looking like something out of Fallout 3, but the videos I see on YouTube from the period show them clean and vacant, as if they might open up again the next day.

The 16th was a Thursday that year, and the calm before the storm. We heard at our West Berlin hotel that the DDR had issued almost 8 million transit visas for the weekend, and that they city was about to be overwhelmed. That morning I walked along the graffiti-covered wall from Checkpoint Charlie to Potsdammer Platz where, every hundred yards or so, somebody was chipping away at the wall with a hammer and chisel, either to get a souvenir or to knock their own hole in the fortification that had hacked their city in half (photographed at top left). A man let me borrow his tools to chip out my own piece. (I still have it, sealed in a Ziploc bag because the wall was said to have incorporated asbestos.) At one point I was able to prop a discarded gate against the wall and climb to the top (photographed on right).

At Potsdammer Platz, the East Germans had removed an entire section of the wall, creating a new checkpoint for their citizens to cross No Man's Land by car or on foot. People crossed back and forth, although at that time, funny enough, there were more East Germans heading home (with car-fulls of goods) than heading into the West. West Berlin policemen and East German border guards were chatting and drinking coffee together, pausing to let passersby take pictures with them. The British Army had set up a field tent and dispensed free tea to one and all. (Later, we'd see East Germans lined up outside certain West Berlin banks to receive their "welcome gift" of DM 150.)

I've not been back to Berlin since, and its bewildering to look at photographs of Potsdammer Platz today. Back then there was nothing there: just a stretch of grass (and perhaps mines) between the inner and outer Berlin walls.

As the day proceeded, the crowds grew larger and larger, and by evening there was a huge crowd in front of the Brandenburg Gate, gathered in the hopes of seeing the East Germans knock the wall down underneath. (They did so six days later.) Hundreds of reporters had gathered from all over the world, and had set up dozens of satellite trucks and camera stand-up stations. Lights bathed the wall and the party continued into the frigid night.

The next day, my friends and I got day passes to cross back into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, my sneaker filled with an enormous wad of Ostmarks changed (at the street rate) at a West Berlin bank. While the East Germans were buying televisions and Sony Walkmans in West Berlin, I filled my knapsack with DDR-made drafting instruments and blocks of Erich Honecker-adorned postage stamps. "We never traveled outside the central portion of East Berlin, but I was favorably surprised," I wrote that night. "As far as socialist countries go, East Berlin was pretty nice. The buildings and Jetsons-like architecture were tasteless and bland, but they weren't bleak (as in modern parts of Budapest or Warsaw) or falling apart (as in Romania)." So was the 20-year old's first impression.

We returned to West Berlin for a final trip to the Brandenburg Gate and to get our bags. Unable to get hotel reservations in the west, we had to return to Budapest that night. Getting back to Lichtenberg Station proved even harder then getting away from it. At the customs point at Friedrichstrasse, thousands of East Germans were massed to return home with their "welcome gift" goodies. Exiting the overcrowded S-bahn at Licthenberg, the crowd was so enormous, many were in danger of being pushed off the platform and into the tracks. This was made worse by the East Berlin police, who blocked the exits for a time to reduce crowding within the station itself, where the platforms were also overflowing. I watched hundreds shove their way onto an already completely packed train to Karl Marx Stadt, causing some on board to cry out in pain as they were pressed against the walls of the corridor; babies were handed aboard through the windows. The scene seemed so desperate, we actually wondered if the Soviets were invading. Eventually the police arrived to force the crowd away from the train so it could close its doors and leave the platform. The scene was repeated a few minutes later for a train bound for Dresden.

Thankfully, fewer people boarded our international train and we were able to "escape" to Czechoslovakia before our return transit visas expired. As our train made its tortuously slow journey across the CSSR, protesters were beginning to gather in Prague, where the Velvet Revolution was about to begin.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain and visits to Ceausescu's Romania and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

Photographs (c) 1989-2009 Colin Woodard.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

News about the news industry round-up

A few items you may have missed regarding the state of the news industry:

Jon Stewart caught Fox News in the act of switching tape to make an anti-health care bill rally look bigger than it in fact was.

The conservative Washington Times -- a paper owned by controversial cult leader Sun Myung Moon -- may be at death's door, according to this report at Talking Points Memo. [Update 11/16/09: There's a revealing follow-up at TPM.]

Maine's Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel have new editors -- a development Media Mutt thinks is probably a good thing -- while longtime Bangor Daily News executive editor Mark Woodward is retiring. Meanwhile someone in Wilkes-Barre has posted this satirical video in which Adolf Hitler regrets investing in (Portland Press Herald owner) Richard Connor's Pennsylvania papers.

An Iraqi court has ordered London's The Guardian to pay Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki compensation for describing him as being increasingly autocratic, providing additional evidence that the newspaper's statement was correct.

Monday, November 9, 2009

1989-2009: The Fall of the Wall

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unexpected third-hand result of Hungary tearing down its section of the iron curtain (and Mikhail Gorbachev's decision not to roll the tanks to stop any of it.) The sudden opening took everyone by surprise, including the East German leadership, who'd authorized its citizens to travel visa-free across the inter-German border, but hadn't properly communicated their intent to the people in the field before going to bed the night before.

As news spread that the wall had opened, hundreds of thousands of East Germans poured into Berlin to have their first glimpse of the west. I would join the exodus from the east, arriving from Budapest at East Berlin's Lichtenberg station on the morning of November 16th, where the platforms were so overwhelmed with people, the train couldn't pull all the way into the station. It would be one of the most exhilarating days of my life.

But while the rest of the world was celebrating the news from Berlin the night of November 9th, I was completely oblivious that anything had happened.

As an exchange student in Budapest, it seemed the epic events of 1989 had already transpired. Hungary had opened the iron curtain, declared itself a republic and a non-aligned nation, disbanded the party's militias, scheduled free elections for 1990, and effectively exited the Soviet camp. After witnessing history, three friends and I decided to get some fresh air and traveled to the Julian Alps in the far northwestern corner of Yugoslavia, now independent Slovenia. The foliage was still on the trees, the idyllic resort town of Lake Bled was deserted, the hiking trails in the foothills of the Alps were truly stunning. Snow-topped peaks glowed in the moonlight. We never saw a television or heard a radio we could understand. There was no internet or cell phones in those days. Nobody mentioned to us that history had changed.

In fact, we wouldn't learn that anything had happened in Berlin until we got back to our dormitory in Budapest the evening of the 12th.

Even in Budapest, it was hard to get a good sense of what was happening. "We don't have Dan Rather or CNN, we can't see it out our window," I wrote in my journal. "What we can do is board a train on Wednesday night and go see it first hand." We would skip classes (on centrally-planned economics and East European history), stand in long lines for transit visas at the Czechoslovak and East German embassies, and take off to join the exodus.

Travel fatigue had by now set in. Our class schedule allowed us to travel on three day weekends, but this often meant spending more time on long distance trains than at our destinations. At the time I boarded the train for the 17 hour overnight trip to East Berlin, I was already exhausted, having taken separate whirlwind tours of Poland (25 hours on trains), western Austria (16 hours), and Slovenia (24 hours) on each of the previous three weekends.

"Several times I have imagined dying and finding myself in a second class coach car traveling through gray scenery for eternity without arriving at a destination," I wrote. "What I need is one weekend to rest here in Budapest, but the East Germans have thwarted me!... there's some historical event happening every few minutes."

And it wasn't over yet.

Continued here...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Maine: Hiding the money behind Yes on One

In any political story, it's always revealing to follow the follow the money, and the battle over Maine's gay marriage law is no exception. The law, of course, was defeated by a narrow margin in last Tuesday's referendum, an event that's received national attention. But if you want to know who provided the money to support that effort, you're largely out of luck.

Campaign finance disclosures show the majority of the funds fueling the anti-gay marriage came from a single source, the National Organization for Marriage in Princeton, New Jersey which, in violation of Maine election regulations, refused to register as a political action committee and thereby reveal its donors. In fact, last month the organization actually sued the state of Maine in an effort to avoid scrutiny. This week a federal judge in Bangor threw out the suit, but it's still going to be some time -- if ever -- before NOM is forced to show their cards.

NOM is apparently eager to avoid disclosure, as their most recent federal Form 990 leaves the identity of all contributors blank.

Meanwhile, the Mormon church is being investigated in California in connection with contributions improperly funnelled through NOM, and some suspect the group's money is coming from the shores of Great Salt Lake. The group is headed by Maggie Gallagher, a columnist who has her own history of concealing political money: she was revealed to be one of several journalists paid by the Bush administration to promote its policies and says she "forgot" to disclose to readers that she'd received tens of thousands to do so.

Another story Maine's media ought to be digging into, but probably won't.

[Update on this topic, 12/13/08]

Update, 1/25/10: My full report on this issue in Down East is available here.]

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tidal energy in the Bay of Fundy

Wind energy gets all the attention, but in the Bay of Fundy -- home to the world's largest tides -- new, low-impact tidal turbines are hitting the water. This month, the Irish firm OpenHydro will deploy its turbine in Nova Scotia's Minas Basin (where tides exceed 50 feet) and next month Maine's very own Ocean Renewable Power Company tests a prototype off Eastport.

The latest developments are the topic of my piece that just posted over at Global Post. "Exploiting the Motion of the Ocean" is in the Post's Passport section, so you'll need to subscribe to read the whole thing. (But if you care about international news, you may want to do so, as many newspapers have eliminated their foreign bureaus and stringer networks, including the San Francisco Chronicle.) The piece also explores concerns that the devices could effect fisheries.

Other stories from my recent trip to Atlantic Canada coming soon.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

1989-2009: Remembering October 23rd

As regular readers know, in the fall of 1989 I was an exchange student in Budapest, Hungary, and was fortunate enough to see many of the events of that historic period firsthand.

Among them: Hungary's first open and officially-sanctioned commemoration of the 1956 Hungarian uprising on October 23, 1989, the thirty-third anniversary of the toppling of the country's Stalinist government. During the popular uprising, the reformist prime minister, Imre Nagy, had announced his country was pulling out of the Warsaw Pact and called on the United Nations to help ensure its neutrality. A few days later, Soviet forces invaded from the East to crush the revolt. Some 2500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed and 200,000 fled to the West. In 1989, entire Budapest neighborhoods still bore the scars of the fighting.

There were rallies in front of Hungary's massive Parliament building scheduled for noon and 6pm, and I attended both. The #2 tram ran straight up the river from my dorm to the Parliament, but had to stop two blocks short because the crowds had overflowed Kossuth Square and blocked the tracks. The atmosphere was festive. Bands played. Soldiers marched. There were long speeches I couldn't understand -- except for part of one in which the names of various countries were read out loud; the U.S. was cheered, the Soviet Union booed. At another point they chanted "Gorby! Gorby!" in thanks to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who hadn't rolled the tanks this time. Hundreds carried the Hungary's tricolor flag, but with the emblem of the Hungarian communist party cut out of the middle, just as in 1956. Some guy came out at noon next to a photograph of Imre Nagy and gave a speech. Bells rang across the city. People cheered.

We students could barely ask directions in Hungarian, didn't have access to CNN, and, this being the pre-Internet age, we didn't learn what most of the rest of the world knew until later that afternoon: Hungary had proclaimed itself a republic. The guy I'd seen was Matyas Szuros, who a few days before had been named Hungary's first president, and he's the one who made the announcement. "This is a prelude to a new historical age," Szuros had declared. "The Hungarian Republic is going to be an independent, democratic, and legal state in which the values of bourgeois democracy and democratic socialism are expressed equally." He was prophetic on all counts, it turns out, though he missed the bit about the far right.

In the evening, the mood was more somber. People carried candles and torches. Old men -- the generation who'd lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Stalinism, and '56 -- wept openly. The rally was lit with eerie floodlights, which reminded me of the last scenes in Close of Encounters of the Third Kind.

It seemed incredible: in a single week Hungary had announced multi-party elections, disbanded the party militia, rehabilitated Stalinist political criminals, and declared itself a neutral state. Pressures created by Hungary having allowed tens of thousands of East Germans to escape the Eastern Bloc had just forced the hardline leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, out of power, replaced by a Gorbachev-esque reformist. We'd been fortunate enough to witness history take place. Little did we know that 1989's most epic events were yet to come.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain and visits to Ceausescu's Romania and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Eastern Europe: remembering the bad old days

I've been a longtime foreign correspondent of The Chronicle of Higher Education, for which I covered Eastern Europe for much of the 1990s. On the occasion of this, the 20th anniversary of the collapse of Communism there, I put together this feature on how some prominent university professors see their professional lives then (underground classes, listening devices in the walls, etc.) as compared to now (as European Union citizens with academic freedom, university autonomy, and more conventional challenges.)

At this writing, at least, the piece is freely available online. If that changes, it's also in the Chronicle Review section of the print edition.

I was actually an exchange student in Eastern Europe in 1989 and saw many of the historic events of that fall firsthand; I've been posting about that here at World Wide Woodard.

My last piece for The Chronicle was on the role of Iceland's universities in addressing that country's economic meltdown.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

1989-2009: Visiting Ceausescu's Romania, Part II

Continued from this post.

Morning broke, revealing a gray landscape where two time periods existed side-by-side. Farmers tilled over the ground with horse-drawn plows on the outskirts of dilapidated villages that looked to have changed very little since the late 18th century. The train regularly passed the ruins of medieval keeps and, at road crossings, peasants in horse-drawn carts. But every dozen miles or so -- usually in towns or large villages -- Ceausescu had deployed an early 1950s-style complex of prefabricated concrete housing blocks and smokestack-studded industrial facilities. While these appeared in as poor shape as the surrounding peasant cottages, they were actually quite new, part of Ceausescu's plan to create a rural industrial proletariat. (Peasants themselves, the dictator and his wife distrusted cities.) I would later write in my journal that while living in Budapest felt like stepping back to the 1970s (in terms of technology, clothing, the design of everyday objects), nothing in Romania looked like it post-dated the 1950s.

I was 20 years old and, until six weeks prior, had never been outside North America. Stepping off the train in Brasov that morning made a powerful impression. I described the scene as "the most disturbing place on Earth." The central railway station of Romania's fifth largest city had no power or heat and downtrodden people shuffled through the cavernous gloom under the watchful states of submachine-gun toting guards in great coats. The station and surrounding apartment blocks were crowned with billboards praising the dictator and his "Epoch of Light." In Czechoslovakia or East Germany people might take a second glance at a foreigner; here people stopped in their tracks and stared, unblinking, as if we had dropped from the moon.

At the bus stop in front of the station, commuters formed a silent semi-circle around us, everyone staring in silence. Nobody would return greetings. Five minutes passed. Still staring. Ten minutes. Staring. Then, as if responding to a starting gun, everyone rushed inwards towards us, faces desperate, wads of decomposing currency in their hands, pleading urgently to buy most anything: food, cigarettes, candy. We gave what we had of the latter, handing chocolate bars in grasping hands, refusing pay until -- as suddenly as it began -- everyone swooped away, back into their silent semi-circle. A man walked by. People stared. The bus arrived: an electric trolley bus dragging itself painfully up the street, three of its four tires completely flat.

In Brasov's medieval center -- a gorgeous place under other circumstances -- more guards were posted in pairs on many street corners. Peasants in traditional dress wandered the streets -- for real, not for tourists -- alongside at least one middle-aged woman with a full-on beehive hairdo. Most shops looked to be closed and empty, until you ventured to peer into their gloomy interiors where, under the light of a single 40-watt bulb, people were lined up between the empty shelves and display cases to buy the only items available from the workers behind the counter: pig's feet in the case of the butcher's shop). One exception: a bookstore with window displays full of the works of one man, Nicolae Ceausescu, including his 32-volume magnum opus, Romania on the way of building up the multilaterally developed socialist society. (It's available in English and is about as gripping as it sounds.)

As the sun set, the city became shrouded in darkness on account of electricity rationing. Even my "first class" hotel had just one low-wattage bulb in each room and in each eight-bulb chandelier. The Carpathian Mountains are cold in October, but the heat came on only briefly that night. At 7 pm, power to the city was cut off altogether, plunging the hotel corridors and stairways into pitch black darkness. My traveling companions and I joined other guests creeping along behind a man with a cigarette lighter, feeling our way along the walls until reaching the moonlit streets. Everything was blacked out -- shops, homes, streetlights -- except the police checkpoints and the billboards celebrating Ceauescu's greatness.

The next day I caught a train and country bus to Bran, home of a very atmospheric castle falsely touted as having belonged to Dracula. Once in the countryside, people seemed more relaxed, acknowledging our presence with friendly nods. Apart from being confronted and stared down by a menacing six-year old in a Young Pioneer's uniform, the excursion was a pleasant intermission from what was an otherwise sinister environment. In retrospect I wonder if the security situation in Brasov was particularly extreme on account of there having been an uprising there against Ceausescu just two years earlier.

That night, we spent a couple of hours in the darkened interior of Brasov station, waiting for the train back to Budapest. It soon became clear that there was a large band of orphaned children -- five to nine years old -- wandering around the station. Some of them apparently lived there, begging a precarious subsistence from Brasov's undernourished commuters. One seven-year old boy took notice of our foreignness and struck up a conversation in Romanian, unperturbed and apparently uninterested in the fact we couldn't understand him. He had a small flashlight which he kept pointed in his own face, flicking it on and off He laughed in a sort of maniacal way from time to time for no apparent reason. Everyone else in the station was afraid to speak to us -- the invisible presence of informants was reflected in their body language -- but eventually a young man sitting beside us asked the boy a few questions and whispered a translation, while pretending to look the other way. "He is going to a school for hopeless children in Moldavia, alone. He is sick. He is actually 11 years old. Yes, he is small, because of his sickness." The man added that he could be arrested just for talking to us. "I want to leave Romania," he said, before stating the obvious. "There is no freedom here."

Seat reservations were mandatory on the train we were taking, but the station agents refused to sell us any. This meant we had to stand, sardine-like, among the hundreds of people in the corridor for the eight hours it would take to get to the Hungarian border (which was fine) and that we would have to bribe the conductor with a package of Kent cigarettes to not be kicked off the train (which was a bit more harrowing, and involved a cloak-and-dagger hand-off in the space between the wagons.) I spent much of the next seven hours conversing with a relaxed man who had to have been a securitate agent; he was the only adult in Romania who spoke with me freely and without worry. We drank a bottle of his grandfather's homegrown wine and, after an hour or so, the man -- "call me Johnny, Johnny Doe" -- lowered his voice a bit and confessed he intended to leave Romania. "I want the freedom to live," Agent Doe declared. "I love Romania: the people, the mountains -- it is the most beautiful country in Europe. But you have only one life and here is not life, only survival."

He later pointed out securitate agents on the train for me. I, already knowing the answer, asked him why he wasn't afraid to be observed speaking with me. "Because I'm half one of them," he explained, even showing me his secret police i.d. "If they come over and yell at me I can tell them: brother, you are talking too loudly." Now, however, he said was only "one of them" on paper. "When I was younger, I didn't think. Then I traveled, I saw what it was like outside, all over the Mediterranean and in the Soviet Union. Now I know better. But at least I don't have to be afraid of Them."

Doe took his leave and got off the train before we reached Hungary, giving me his postal address and an invitation to visit if things ever changed. As the train headed for the Hungarian border, I felt certain there would be no change in Romania for a very long time. I had come to entirely the wrong conclusion, of course. Ceausescu had lost the loyalty of many in his own security apparatus, and would be executed in a bloody coup staged amidst a popular uprising. I would return to Romania nine months later -- and more than a dozen of times thereafter -- but I never did look up Agent Doe. Part of me always wondered where he was and what he was doing when Romania's December Revolution broke out. Another part of me didn't want to find out.

[For more on my experiences in Eastern Europe during the 1989 revolutions, here is the complete series to date.]

Monday, October 19, 2009

Secret Lives of Mainers

My piece on the "secret lives of Mainers" is on the cover of this month's issue of Down East magazine.

The article -- which is available online -- explodes some myths about Mainers and reveals some surprising facts that may surprise you. Example: the Maine town with the highest crime rate doesn't even have a stoplight. Or guess which state is the least religious in the country, after New Hampshire and Vermont? And what do you think is the most common occupation in the state? (Hint: you don't need a boat, chainsaw, or tractor to take part.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In Canada

If you're holding your breath, waiting for the rest of my posting on visiting Romania in the final months of Ceausescu's Orwellian rule, don't turn blue!

I'm on assignment in far Eastern Maine and the Canadian Maritimes this week (more on that later) and will finish my Romania postings just as soon as I have a free hour.

Mainers beware: snow fell in Calais yesterday. Winter is upon us.

Monday, October 12, 2009

20 Years Ago: Visiting Ceausescu's Romania

Twenty years ago this evening two friends and I boarded an overnight train to the Transylvanian city of Brasov. It was to be a dark, cold, and scary trip.

Just about everyone in Budapest had warned us not to go, many of them with wearing the grave expression of the villagers in those old Dracula movies when the main character asks for directions to the Count's castle. Be careful, we were told. Bring food. Don't take anything of value. Dress warmly.

It wasn't vampires they were worried about, it was Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, whose dictatorial rule had degenerated into madness. Ceausescu had built a cult of personality modeled on that of North Korea's Kim Il Sung backed by the securitate, a secret police force believed to have Orwellian omnipresence. Some securitate officers were said to have been recruited as children from Romania's massive population of abandoned children, itself a direct product of Ceausescu's rule. Possessed with the notion that Romania's national greatness would grow in direct proportion with its population size, he had banned abortion, banned the import or sale of birth control, slapped taxes on couples with few children, and instituted surprise examinations to detect illegal terminations of pregnancy. the result was a flood of unwanted babies, many of whom wound up in horrifying conditions in overtaxed, under-supplied state orphanages.

Meanwhile, having spent millions razing much of historic Bucharest to build his Stalinist palace, Ceausescu had become fixated on the need to immediately pay off appreciable his foreign debt. His solution: import nothing and export everything without regard to domestic needs. By 1989 the situation had become dire, with severe rationing of even the most basic foodstuffs. Buildings were heated for only a few hours each day, elevators and many electric appliances were banned, and inspectors arrived at homes unannounced to ensure that no more than one room was lit at a time, using a bulb of 40 watts or less.

As we prepared to visit, Ceausescu was making bellicose noises about the reformist government in Hungary and cutting back on the issuance of foreign visas. We got our visas by chance: one of the coordinators of our exchange program at Karl Marx University was related to Budapest's Romanian Orthodox bishop and had friendly contacts at the embassy. We packed our bags with food for ourselves, chocolates to give as gifts, and cartons of Kent cigarettes, which had become Romania's unofficial currency-of-graft. Then we boarded the old Orient Express bound to the East.

At midnight the train screeched to a halt at the border. The heaters in the compartment shut off. Romanian border guards marched through the wagon, throwing open doors, yelling at passengers, tearing into bags and dismantling the seat cushions. Outside someone was cackling into the public address system, his mad laughter echoing through Curtici's railyard. The other passengers just stared down at the floor in silence, as if awaiting their fate. A guard screamed threats at one couple - the wife was apparently ethnic Hungarian -- but eventually lost interest and stormed off to terrorize the next compartment.

Then two customs officers stepped into the compartment: a slim, pale-faced, raven-haired women with Natasha Fatale's demeanor, and her male colleague, who was portly, drunk, and loud. She confirmed we had no subversive materials (Hungarian newspapers, bibles) and collected $30 for each day we would spend in the country. In exchange I was given a wad of greasy rags: greasy and smelling of dirty socks. On closer examination this proved to be Romanian currency -- $30 worth at the absurdly optimistic official exchange rate -- although the notes were in such terrible condition their denominations could only be identified with considerable effort. The national mint had apparently stopped functioning in the late 1960s. The aging notes, like most things in the country, were falling apart. "Have a nice time in Romania," Agent Natasha said ominously before sliding the compartment door closed.

An hour later the train jolted into motion, pulling us further into Ceausescu's nightmare.

Continued here.