Monday, August 31, 2009

El Imparcial on Republic of Pirates

Yesterday's edition of the Madrid newspaper El Imparcial carried this review of the Spanish edition of my book, The Republic of Pirates. My Spanish is terrible, but from what the Google translator tells me, it sounds like they enjoyed it.

La republica de los piratas has been selling well and a paperback edition was recently released by Editoria Critica. The book - a thoroughly-researched history of the golden age pirates - is also available in Danish translation, as a Sony e-book, an Amazon kindlebook, a BBC America Audiobook, and in U.S. hardcover and paperback.

I post on pirate-related topics from time to time at my Republic of Pirates blog.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Obituary: San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service

My editors at The San Francisco Chronicle tell me that my piece in today's paper will be the last to be produced by the Chronicle Foreign Service, the latest casualty in the battle to keep the venerable daily afloat.

The Chronicle Foreign Service -- or CFS -- was a network of freelancers which provided Bay Area readers original, on-the-ground reporting from around the world. In continuous operation since 1985, CFS gave many young journalists a start in the business, teaching them the ropes of foreign news reporting.

Many CFS-ers have gone on to do great things, including Colombia correspondent Karl Penhaul (now at CNN), London correspondent Kimberly Dozier (CBS News, injured in Iraq in 2006), Middle East writer Borzou Daragahi (a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist), Peter S. Goodman (now national economics writer at the New York Times) and Andrew E Kramer (now the Times' Moscow bureau chief.) Jill Carroll filed two CFS pieces from Iraq before her famous kidnapping, and Billy Nessen was held for 40 days by the Indonesian government while reporting from Aceh.

My own CFS career took me to Antarctica, Georgia, Belize, and the Marshall Islands, (while researching Ocean's End, a book on the global marine crisis), Iceland (on Keiko the whale, glaciers, genetics), Greenland (climate change), Canada (tidal power, fisheries, gas drilling) Micronesia (WW2 ships, kava crisis) Croatia (killer seaweed), Denmark (wind power, sustainability), the Netherlands (sea rise defenses), Bosnia (post-conflict), Romania (ethnic conflict, state secrets, interview with the president), Mexico (post-9/11 effects), and Panama (canal zone handover).

Nine years ago, things appeared to be look up for the Chronicle. It had a new owner -- the Hearst Corporation -- which promised to make it a "world class newspaper." But while the paper won several prizes, it has continued to operate in the red. This winter, Hearst threatened to close it entirely if it could not win major concessions from the unions. Since then 150 jobs have been cut, and on Friday management announced there would be more to come.

CFS stopped taking new stories late this winter, just after I filed my piece from Iceland which, fortunately, had the shelf life to survive a long wait for a spot in an ever-shrinking news hole.

I know I'll miss working with CFS editor Jack Epstein, and I suspect many readers will miss the coverage he and his predecessors oversaw.

Iceland: exporting geothermal know-how

My feature on Iceland's geothermal power industry -- and its efforts to export know-how to the U.S. and other nations -- is in today's San Francisco Chronicle.

I visited Iceland's newest geothermal plant -- it's a tourist attraction with a swank, high-tech visitors' center -- where steam from the Earth is used not only to generate power, but to heat Reykjavik's homes, water, and even the streets and sidewalks (keeping them ice-free in winter.) Other geothermal plants heat the greenhouses that keep Icelanders in tropical fruits, despite living on the Arctic Circle. The story discusses how Icelanders hope to build similar plants in California (which still has enormous geothermal potential) and Africa (where they could provide freshwater supplies for drought plagued regions.)

Personally, the publication of this piece is bittersweet, as my editors say it is likely to be the last Chronicle Foreign Service story ever, owing to the Chronicle's financial woes.

[Update, 9/1/09: Several eagle-eyed readers noticed a typo -- put in by a copy editor -- which has been corrected in the online edition. The phrase "fifty-mile-deep wells" should have read "fifty mile-deep wells." (emphasis mine). Thanks to those who pointed it out.]

Image (c) 2009, Colin Woodard. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Chase Bank: scum of the Earth?

Surprise, surprise, JP Morgan Chase isn't keeping up their side of the bargain with their credit card customers.

If you've ever taken Chase up on one of their a low interest, life of the loan balance transfer offers, you may be in for a surprise with your next statement, even if you have excellent credit and have never missed a payment: the bank is increasing the monthly minimum payment from 2% of the balance to 5%.

In effect, they're forcing you to rapidly pay back their low interest loan (which probably isn't in your best interest) or -- if you can't afford the new payment -- into default. There is no option to "opt out."

For a taste of how this is effecting ordinary customers' lives, read through some of the complaints collected by Meanwhile, Chase last year handed out $8.6 billion in executive bonuses while collecting $25 billion in TARP funds. Apparently none of this is illegal, but it should be.

I, for one, am taking my banking elsewhere, never to return.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Eastern Europe: rise of the (far) right

Extreme right wing political parties -- including Hungary's Jobbik -- made considerable gains in this summer's elections to the European Parliament, the European Union's legislative body. For subscribers to Global Post's Passport section, my piece on these developments is now available online.

The piece includes comment from veteran political observers in Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, and from Jobbik itself, a controversial political party whose paramilitary arm holds military-style marches through the country's Roma (gypsy) neighborhoods. (The party denies any involvement in a series of death squad style killings of Roma, suggesting Hungary's Socialist government has staged them to discredit the party.)

On Saturday, Hungarian police announced the arrest of four suspects in the recent killings, but their identities have yet to be released.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Maine: inflating repair costs, cruise ship benefits

For the past couple of years I've been trying to play the role of journalistic watchdog on two large waterfront projects here in Portland, Maine. Regular readers are aware of the city's troublesome handling of the construction of Ocean Gateway (a cruise ship terminal without a cruise ship berth) and a massive development project to "save" the city's primary deep water berth, the Maine State Pier.

Last month two separate studies confirmed what many have long suspected: that the economic benefits of cruise ship tourism were oversold and that the Maine State Pier never needed to be "rescued" by private developers (who happened to include the governor's brother, his cousin, George Mitchell, an ex-mayor, and a number of donors to certain city councilors' campaigns.)

The studies are the subject of my column in September's Working Waterfront, now available online, which includes an analysis of the city's assumptions about cruise ship benefits, and responses from city officials and former transportation director Jeff Monroe.

Obviously there are two meaty investigative stories here, ones one would hope larger newsrooms than mine would be interested in exploring.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Live Yankees: Maine's 19th century global shipping empire

W.H. Bunting has published an admirable, unflinching history of the Sewall family's global shipping empire, which dominated much of America's long-distance merchant trade in the late 19th century. My review of the book, Live Yankees, is in the new issue of Down East.

It's a reminder that Maine coastal towns like Bath once played a dominant role in national commerce and, as a result, politics. Portland -- not Boston or New York -- was to be the terminus of an ambitious trans-Atlantic railroad-and-steamship service. Vinalhaven and Stonington produced much of the raw material for the nation's bridges, monuments, and public buildings. The industrial canning of food was introduced to this country in Eastport (with the help of a Scotsman). Even the commercial fishing industry got its start here, with year-around stations operating on Damariscove and Monhegan years before the Pilgrims showed up at Plymouth Rock (and eventually learned to fish.)

[Update, 11/17/09: The most high-profile remnant of the Sewall's empire has declared bankruptcy; the Coastal Journal did an excellent job reconstructing why.]

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Picnic that helped topple the Berlin Wall

My piece on the Pan-European picnic -- an event on the Austro-Hungarian border in 1989 that (accidentally) helped bring down the Berlin Wall -- is the lead story this morning at Global Post.

Along with the picnic's organizers (including Otto von Habsburg's daughter), I was able to interview Aprad Bella, the border guard who had to make a split decision whether to use force to try to stop a crowd of hundreds of desperate East Germans who rushed his border post during the event. As you'll read, his decision helped turn the tide of history.

Celebrations commemorating the 20th anniversary of the event are underway today in Sopron, Hungary, with German chancellor Angela Merkel (an East German herself) and Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom in attendance.

Photo courtesy of the Pan European Picnic Foundation archives.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Interviewing Hungary's far right

I'm just back from Hungary where one of my assignments has me exploring the reasons for the success of far-right political parties like Jobbik (and its uniformed paramilitary arm, the Magyar Garda.)

When I was last in Budapest, I wrote this piece for The Christian Science Monitor, and found communicating with Jobbik relatively straightforward. They had an international spokesman based in London, one Zoltan Fuzessy, who responded quickly and efficiently to interview requests.

Strangely enough, the party is becoming less media savvy as their popularity grows, with some truly bizarre notions about how to communicate their message to foreigners.

When I contacted their spokesmen, I received this media request form, which includes requests for a €250 "donation" (€100 for freelancers), detailed personal information, and to sign a pledge to respect their opinions (which is rather difficult to do in advance.)

Spokesman Zsolt Varkonyi explained that the donation was in fact voluntary and that the request for personal information was to ensure accountability, apparently by letting them know where you live. (He eventually agreed to answer my questions -- in writing -- without filling out the form, although it took over a month to get his responses. ) Fuzessy, for his part, accepted a Skype invitation but then didn't respond to any messages or calls; I can only surmise that he made me a contact so that I could read his motto: "Those to whom evil is done do evil in return."

Seems a strange way to try to win the hearts and minds of the press.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Austria-Hungary Revisited

I've been in western Hungary and Austria's Burgenland, preparing stories connected with the 20th anniversary of the events of 1989 and on life along the (now-borderless) frontiers that once separated the Warsaw Pact nations and western Europe.

When I first visited the region almost exactly 20 years ago, crossing Austria's frontiers with Hungary and Czechoslovakia was still a big deal. Guards with automatic weapons surrounded the train. Border guards stomped about, stamping visas and asking questions. (My favorite broken English demand -- from a very stern and humorless Czechoslovak border guard -- was "Passport, baby!")

Now you just drive on through at 40 miles an hour, whizzing by the abandoned highway border stations or on your choice of newly-reconnected backroads. Travelling from, say, the Czech Republic to Hungary via Vienna is now as easy as going from Maine to Vermont via New Hampshire, only with better public transportation options.

Two years ago, Europe's borderless "Schengen zone" expanded to include much of East-Central Europe and the region around Sopron, Hungary and Eisenstadt, Austria -- a single economic and cultural entity under the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- is healing back together. But it's not a universally welcomed process -- particularly in Austria -- as I'll be reporting on in "the mainstream media" shortly.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Back in the CSSR 2: Pleasures of Kofola

Traveling in the former Czech and Slovak Socialist Republic I have again had many opportunities to enjoy Kofola, the CSSR's answer to the Captialist West's Coke and Pepsi. Dark, carbonated, and slightly bitter, Kofola was created by a state-owned pharmaceutical company in an effort to find a use for surplus caffeine produced by coffee roasting facilties. Now it's the most popular soft drink in Slovakia -- ahead of both its American rivals -- and #2 in the Czech Republic.

I wrote a piece on the revival of Communist era products -- including Kofola -- in The Christian Science Monitor on my last trip to the former CSSR. Since then I developed a fantasy that, at the height of the Cold War, Czechoslovak agents stole the secrets to Maine's indigenous-ish soft drink, Moxie, one that I shared with Jim Baumer while he was writing Moxietown. After all, they seem to taste the same, and both are best served ice cold.

Photo (c) 2008-9 Colin Woodard.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back in the CSSR

I'm currently in the former Czechoslovakia at the start of an extended reporting trip. Most of my work this time around is connected in some way or another with the 20th anniversary of the collapse of communism (or at least the Warsaw Pact). It's a personally meaningful milestone, as I was living in the region in 1989 (as an exchange student at the then-Karl Marx University of Economics in Budapest) and saw many of that fall's events firsthand.

More on that later. For now I have a train to catch.