Thursday, September 29, 2005

IN MEMORIAM: If Only Damon Were Around

I don't remember where I first heard it, but during the most recent ethics squabble in the House of Representatives, some Congressional observer said that Tom DeLay's political career would die a death of a thousand stabs. People have said the pen is mighter than the sword, and I can't help but think that if the powerful House Majority Leader -- one of the toughest political fighters on Capitol Hill -- can't regain his balance after yesterday's indictment, many of those stabs came from a modest and unassuming blind scribe.

Investigative reporter Damon Chappie died last November after a long decline of health. I didn't know Damon as well as Roll Call's more veteran reporters. (During my time at Roll Call, he sat on the other side of the newsroom, or, when he was promoted to investigations editor, he had his own office.) But I did copy edit his work and investigations is what Damon did best. And for someone who lost his sight in the middle of his professional career, I'm still wildly perplexed, amazed and awed by how Damon did what he did. After being robbed of his vision, he researched and assembled the technology he needed to read and analyze public databases, disclosure forms and treasure troves of other public documents that would normally be too daunting to analyze for the average reporter.

This investigative piece from July 2004 into the banking operation of Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) is one that I fondly remember. In one of most deadly bank robberies in recent U.S. history, a number of the Congressman's bank employees were killed. The thing was that the Greer, S.C., bank branch they worked out of was located in a trailer.
Claims may be brought asserting that the seven-term lawmaker and the other directors of his closely held bank are liable because they allegedly chose to locate the branch office in a trailer at a vulnerable location and failed to ensure that the branch office complied with government-mandated security requirements.
Taylor settled out of court, if I remember correctly.

Damon discovered amazing scoops and crafted impressive meticulously detailed investigations that either laid the foundation or helped lead to the sanctioning and eventual downfalls of a number of Congressional figures, including former Reps. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio), Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Damon did investigate aspects of Tom DeLay's dealings when he was alive, and I can't help but wonder if his health hadn't had declined, the additional details he may have brought to light. It is often said that when a person lacks one of the five senses, one of the other four steps up to the plate and takes on superhuman characteristics. While intellect isn't a sense, perhaps it should be. Like Beethoven's mind, Damon Chappie's capacity to organize, analyze and digest the smallest of details can't be adequately described with words. (He would have made an awesome blogger.) It is unfortunate that no one in journalism can fill his shoes.

Many reporters in this city owe Damon a debt of gratitude for the tireless work he did to lay the foundation for so many larger political stories that have emerged from Capitol Hill in the past decade. I hope his contributions aren't forgotten.

-- National Public Radio on Damon's passing
-- Damon's obituary in The Washington Post.
-- Damon M. Chappie Memorial Award in Investigative Journalism, Penn State University

(On a happier side note, Damon's faithful companion, his seeing-eye dog named Debbie, was awfully cute. During an editorial board meeting with Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Senator's dog, Splash, didn't even notice that Debbie was in the room at first. When Splash did finally notice there was another dog in the room, about 25 minutes into the interview, he ... Splash, not Kennedy ... started barking. Debbie didn't flinch.)

DAILY MUSELI: Happy Michael's Day

Good morning. If your name is Michael, today is the day you should treat yourself to a nice lunch or dinner. It is my namesday, which if you don't know is what it sounds like, a celebration of one's name. I am half-Latvian, and in Latvian culture, your namesday can be just as important as your birthday in terms of celebrations. How do you determine your namesday? Typically, it corresponds with a saint's feast day. But in many Baltic and Northern European cultures, all names get assigned a day.

So to my father and brother-in-law, who are also Michaels, happy namesday.

To learn more about St. Michael, check out this backgrounder from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Something tells me that kids these days who are being named ESPN, Timberland and Courvoisier are going to have an interesting time researching their name's origin. (Oh, golly gee, I think I was named for a cable sports network in Bristol, Conn. My dad really liked SportsCenter back in the Rich Eisen days ...)

1.) Yesterday's indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the big news and is the biggest Congressional story in quite some time, a story with so many subplots, complexities and side stories (Abramoff), it's going to be a wild ride for many months. With the 2006 midterm elections 13 months away, this drama is going to be fun if you get your kicks out of political soap operas.

2.) In a state that takes its pharmaceutical industry seriously, I'd like to point you to New Jersey's newest blogger, (pH)armakon. An old college newspaper friend based in Princeton, who monitors daily business news relating to the pharmaceuticals industry for a living, will be blogging on matters of where pharmaceuticals intersects with policy, culture and society.

3.) It's almost too late. Be sure to vote for the new baby panda's name. The "Butterstick" fanatics out there must be certainly dejected that their ideal name for the cub isn't on the list.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

ANN ARBOR: Remembering the Fleming Building

I suggest you read The Washington Post's article about the current situation the trustees of American University find themselves in: infighting, a president accused of corruption (Benjamin Ladner, pictured at right), a faculty no confidence vote and a generally skeptical student population calling for his head.

Reading this brings back memories of my days covering the University of Michigan's administration and board of regents for The Michigan Daily. As a public institution, the regents had a little more transparency and awareness in the general public. But not much.

All in all, covering a university administration can be a tough assignment, where the elected or appointed custodians are quite reclusive, have undetermined motives, unclear internal collegiate allies and, most of all, usually don't pay much attention to students, especially those who might be aspiring journalists. So here are a former college reporter's memories from the Fleming Administration Building, pictured below:

The University of Michigan's Board of Regents still looks pretty much the same from my days on campus, when I was reporting on the downfall of the athletic department (the Ed Martin scandal), affirmative action to building projects. (Sidenote: Regents love presentations on building projects much like how cats like cat nip, especially if they're dealing with a big building projects. Their ears will perk up, they lean forward in their chairs and they'll often ask specific questions about brick color or the number of parking spots.)

Domino's David Brandon (who had been courted to run against Debbie Stabenow for Senate, but bowed out late this past summer) and Flint's Olivia Maynard were the ones who normally always returned phone calls; Andrea Fischer Newman, Northwest Airline's top government affairs official, always seemed to be flying between Tampa and Detroit; Kathy White was too busy being a White House fellow to be on campus; Walter Mondale operative Rebecca McGowen, who lived a few blocks from campus, would be too busy taking her kids to soccer or something like that to respond to telephone inquiries (but I'd always seem to see her dining at The Earle); no one could actually figure out why DTE Executive Vice President S. Martin Taylor was a regent as he rarely uttered a word at meetings; and Democratic operative Laurence Deitch, though always outspoken at regents meetings, was quite tight-lipped around reporters ... but noticeably bored to death when the university's vice president for research launched these monthly "Michigan Greats" snoozer PowerPoint presentations on a notable figure in University of Michigan history, like Claude Shannon (communication theory pioneer) and Charles Correa (an "architect of range and sensitivity"). The "friendly" reporter from the Detroit Free Press would nod off too, or go grab a pastry or soda from the break room to escape listening to a meticulously prepared lesson about Jessye Norman's importance as a vocalist.

DAILY MUESLI: Marshall v. Marshall

Good morning.

1.) Roll Call had an article on Sept. 20 looking into the prospects of whether John Roberts, as Supreme Court chief justice, would allow cameras in the high court: “Well, you know, my new best friend, [former] Sen. [Fred] Thompson [R-Tenn.], assures me that television cameras are nothing to be afraid of,” Roberts said during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Observers had said this is not a question of if, but when. So will cameras be authorized by the time Marshall v. Marshall is heard before the court early next year? (Vickie Lynn Marshall is better known as Anna Nicole Smith.) If so, we'll have a circus on the Supreme Court steps.

2.) In an age of multi-tasking, this study is interesting. Apparently, nearly everyone spends a third of their day consuming two or more forms of media at the same time.

From Revolution Magazine:
It found an extremely high number of people using two or more media concurrently -- with over 96% of the survey doing so for 30% of the day. The number one combination was people watching television and using the internet at the same time; followed by those watching television while using email, and those watching television while on the phone. For another 40% of the day, people were devoted solely to engaging with media, rather than combining it with other activities such as childminding.
I'd be interested to see a detailed study of a typical blogger's multi-tasking activities. Send them my way if you know of any.

3.) Yahoo's experiment with backpack journalism has officially started. Kevin Sites, in The Hot Zone, has been in Somalia, exploring garbage dumps, among other places in the troubled country. Lots of video available and Sites' journey, and Yahoo's experiment, should be worth following.

4.) Kudos to DCist on two exciting technical projects. First, there's the first-ever DCist podcast. In a related technical feat, DCist is now offering Bit Torrent tracking to make downloading DCist's podcasts and such easier. DCist "can offer speedy downloads of large files without reducing the DCist server to a bubbling pile of silicon." And that's a good thing.

5.) Gridskipper picked up my post on Tyler Brule's transportation wishes for New York City, doing a much more straightforward interpretation of the style guru's true feelings about the city's transportation ills.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

UPPER NW: A Pork-Barrel Project

I ate scrapple for the first time this morning after nearly a decade of not touching the stuff. Yes indeed, I did. And thus far, my stomach hasn't been tied up in knots or rejected the ground-up pork snouts, piggy hearts and other goodies that find their way into the Mid-Atlantic's regional breakfast meat from another age. I went up to my great aunt's house for breakfast around 9 a.m. where upon my arrival, she had a choice cut of the processed pork breakfast product frying up on her George Foreman grill.

Auntie L had quite the morning feast ready for me (to prepare). We watched Tyra Banks give advice on how to get the "groove" back into her guest's tepid sex lives on the episode "My Man Won’t Commit." We started the day out right with orange juice, bacon, eggs, two different kinds of bread, plus a maple-walnet glazed cinnamon bun. Since I was stationed behind the stovetop, I controlled what I ate, but she was insistant that I have some scrapple, which sort of perplexes me because she told me that she hasn't purchased scrapple in years. But something made her get a log of scapple at her the Westbard Giant. So I cut up a slender slice and took a chance, trying not to look too closely at the package. But I couldn't resist looking at what I was eating, so I took a quick glance at what odd left-over parts of the pig were lurking inside the slender slice.

(I looked to see if there was any sodium erythorbate in it, there wasn't. I had thought that sodium erythorbate was a ground-up earthworm product used in cheap hot dogs, but as The Straight Dope tells me, it's "an antioxidant similar to Vitamin C, is made from sugar" that's added to hot dogs. So eat up, I guess.)

I'm not sure why all my awkward instances of strange pork-product consumption seems to be when my great aunt is around. It'll be one of life's greatest mysteries. Maybe I should prepare a pork loin for dinner sometime in the future and it'll unveil some sort of Rosetta Stone which under careful study will unlock the secrets of Crete's yet-to-be cracked Linear A script.

First, Auntie L was the first to introduce me to scrapple out at the Delaware shore in the early 1990s. I thought it tasted pretty good, but if I remember correctly, I disregarded reports from wiser relatives of scrapple's contents. It couldn't be worse than a the "meat" used in a Sausage McMuffin, I thought.

Second, there was last year's local Swiss society Berner dinner (I was my great aunt's date and driver.). There, I not only encountered a former lawyer for Michael Jackson but also a giant pig's foot in the buffet line, hoisted onto my plate by the night's gracious hostess.

From the archives of The Washington Oculus:
If you haven't had pig's foot, start with the muscles that form the toes. The meat there is a little tougher and edible. The further you move up the fleshy stump, the more gelatinous it is. (You may remember a scene in "The Great Outdoors" when John Candy finishes the steak eating challenge and is at the end forced to eat the carved off grizzle ... yeah, it's sort of like that.) I didn't eat much, asking the wine server to refill my glass to make it go down a little easier.
If I'd relive that dining experience in full (the rest of the pig-centric Berner platter, prepared by Chef Pascal of the French ambassador's residence, was quite good), I'd eat scrapple for breakfast everyday.

-- Image of scrapple, eggs and maple syrup at top from this random blog.
-- Poster from "Babe" from Univeral Pictures

DAILY MUESLI: Horatio Nelson's Dirty Laundry

Good morning.

1.) From Curbed and Gothamist, I was pointed to the blog of Gothamist's weather blogger, Joe Shumacher, who discovered that on Weehawken Street -- perhaps the shortest street in Manhattan -- there are numerous signs warning potential street urinators to do their business elsewhere. While having an oversaturation of public urination signs is indeed odd, I still have to say the child-oriented peanut allergy warnings at the Five Guys in Georgetown are somewhat more awkward. I was never aware that Georgetown children were allowed to eat off the sidewalk.

2.) Something tells me that Roosevelt Island (D.C.'s, not New York's) was never in any real danger of being developed into condos. But the list of potential parcels of national parkland to sell off -- developed by the House Resources Committee for the Congressional Budget Office -- is interesting nonetheless. Kudos to DCist for initially uncovering the story. But go to The Washington Post for some clarity on the political reality of the situation.

One question I still have: I believe that Roosevelt Island is technically within the boundaries of the District of Columbia, much like Columbia Island on the Virginia side of the Potomac. So while all the access is from Virginia, it falls within the boundaries of D.C.

3.) Amanda has some good tips food-wise if you're new the area. I have always loved Well Dressed Burrito since when I used to work on Jefferson Place. But during my last visit, my burrito was slightly lukewarm. But that will not deter me from going there in the future.

4.) Remind me sometime soon to save an old t-shirt of mine, beat the French in a modern-day equivalent of the Battle of Trafalgar, stitch a "G" into one of them, find eternal life and auction said t-shirt for $500,000-$900,000 around the year 2210.

--Photo of peanut allergy sign taken by yours truly for a 2004 DCist post.
-- Photo of Horatio Nelson from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

Monday, September 26, 2005

NEW YORK: Tyler Brule for Mayor!

Move over Mike Bloomberg. You too Fernando Ferrer. Globetrotting style guru Tyler Brule -- though he probably wouldn't admit it -- wants to be mayor of Gotham, or at least its transportation chief. In this past weekend's "Fast Lane" in the Financial Times, "Get moving, New York, or you'll be seriously stuck," he writes an open letter to New York's mayoral candidates offering his transportation platform for the sluggishly traffic-clogged city to use. For free! (But you may have to pay to see it on the FT's website, if you can find it. I don't think it's available.)

Some select quotes (any my analysis) from Tyler Brule's vision of New York's glorious future:

1.) Tyler isn't a fan of the Long Island Railroad, MetroNorth and New Jersey Transit commuter networks. The trains just aren't stylish enough: "Trains linking the tri-state area never fail to remind me of prison trains rolling eastward from Moscow."

Is there a "tub of fermenting cedar and cypress chippings" out at a Japanese spa in Ronkonkoma he's keeping secret? Shame on him.

2.) Tyler wants sidewalks to be less crowded, perhaps to make his street-level shopping exploits a little more enjoyable. If I'm reading his plan correctly, he wants to keep the crowds upstairs ... out of sight, out of mind. His plan would transform New York into something like downtown Charlotte's mind-blowing Overstreet Mall, just without the Chick-fil-A and not as ugly as the old Third Avenue El: "With a bit of planning and inspired landscaping, the city could use a series of elevated foot and bike paths to give walkers and riders intersection-free highways to navigate Manhattan."

Screw the High Line (Tyler says it's a "good start."). Let's finally build Metropolis (pictured above) in Gotham!

3.) "While Manhattan may not want to install a [Vienna-style commercial delivery] tram network, it could explore ways of using its subway network to operate a courier network and figure out a similar scheme for its buses."

Hmmm. To try this out, maybe the MTA could terminate all local service on the Lexington Avenue Line (while keeping express service) and replace it with Tyler's underground courier service scheme. Does anyone really need to get out at 28th Street anyway?

These are all revolutionary ideas. Maybe Tyler should run for governor. (Does Virgin Atlantic fly to Albany?)

Then Tyler has some good ideas, but these are nothing new, i.e. airport express train service from JFK to Lower Manhattan. We'll probably see that when the Second Avenue Subway gets built; and a new uniform taxi cab design.

DAILY MUESLI: Please Respect the Pylon

Good morning. This weekend, Washington was filled with lots of anti-war and some pro-war protesters. So there's been a lot going on.

1.) On Saturday, I snapped the photo above with my camera phone. While I am hopeful that this person didn't do any visible signs of damage to this historic pylon at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 15th Street, that Aquia Creek sandstone I'm sure would fare much better without protesters climbing all over it. Aquia Creek sandstone, after all, isn't all that strong.

If you look at the area of Constitution Avenue between 17th and 15th streets NW, there are some old structures which I always thought were associated with the Tiber Creek Canal that once ran along with what was known as B Street generations ago. But this pylon and matching gatehouses nearby are about 175 years old. Original to the Charles Bulfinch-designed Capitol grounds, these structures were moved to 15th Street when Frederick Law Olmsted radically redesigned the Capitol's landscaping in the 1870s. The other pylons were moved to Fort Totten.

2.) You know that oddly located bikini shop on 15th Street NW, a stone's throw from the White House? Well, it looks like that the Woodward Building's tenants are going to be booted. The building will be gutted according to The Washington Post and rebuilt to "create a property more in line with its upscale neighbors."

3.) This photo is priceless, but also frightening. Can you guess who doesn't belong? If you can't, Freudian Slip can help explain.

4.) Last night on a special "CNN Presents: Is America Ready?" a number of disaster and terrorist scenarios were discussed and analyzed. And the one for Washington was a dirty bomb exploding on a school bus near the Mall. (If I looked at their scenario map correctly, it exploded outside the National Gallery. And winds from the southeast blew the radiation plume to the northwest, up toward Metro Center.

Southeast winds? Fortunately, normal winds -- from the west -- would blow such a plume toward the east, away from my home and workplace (and toward Capitol Hill). Surprisingly, such a radiation plume isn't as threatening as you might think. Only those who were directly exposed would need to go into contamination showers. Although the explosion and plume wouldn’t be do too much damage, trying to contain the panic would lead to greater disaster. The natural instinct is to flee, but problems could worsen. So don't run away needlessly, even under the threat of snow.

5.) If there are any representatives of Austin-based Whole Foods, your Tenleytown location needs attention. Ever since I moved away from the Wisconsin Avenue corridor, my visits to Whole Foods have rapidly decreased, which is probably a good thing. The Tenleytown location, which is essentially located inside a parking garage, is cramped, crowded and lacks a wine section. This combination, coupled with easily agitated Tenleytowners who must shop there, all lead to a staff that isn't all that helpful or knowledgeable.

It would make sense that Whole Foods would carry tortillas and red beans and rice. Nope. When I asked store personnel at the store about the missing items, they didn't really have any answers, pointing me to long-grain rice and cans of beans, suggesting I mix the two. All I was looking for was a box of Zatarain's. (As always, the Parrano cheese samples were plentiful.)

6.) So what did I throw together for a party of eight?
-- Homemade hummus which I didn't think turned out all that great, but everyone said was very good
-- Dill-topped salmon on rye crisps with cream cheese
-- Lettuce and cucumber salad, with choice of two dressings (a red chili/sour cream mix; and a mustard vinaigrette)
-- A vegetarian chili with beer-boiled fire-roasted tomatoes, onions, red peppers
-- Baked cod fillets with parmesan-encrusted asparagus in a tomato sauce

For being thrown together in about three hours with no recipe to follow, I thought it turned out well.

7.) It is generally known that Larry David is nuts. Watching last night's season premiere of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," I had to ask myself what is wrong with Larry David? In the episode, Leo's deli names a sandwich after Larry David, a sandwich that he hates: Whitefish, sable, onions, capers, cream cheese. I'm sorry, but that is a very good sandwich. Perhaps Mr. David would enjoy it more if there were a slice of tomato on it. And Ted Danson hated the sandwich too. Whitefish haters should be banished. It's one thing to not like whitefish, but to be a hater is not acceptable.

Image of "dirty bomb" taken from my weapons magazine in my basement. Just kidding, it's from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.