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.