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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Blue vs Gray Ground Zero

For those of you who enjoy researching - or reliving - the Civil War, you will be envious when I tell you I am at ground zero tonight - Fredericksburg, Virginia. In fact I drove through (or near) most of the famous sites of the 1861 to 1864 conflict - names the rest of you should know if you were paying attention in US history class. Appomattox, Petersburg, Spotsylvania. And Richmond. And I went past several battlefield sites the names of which only the aficionado will recognize - High Bridge, Saylor's Creek, Five Forks, Drewry's Bluff.

Unfortunately if you exalt the past, you'll hate the present. I rolled into Fredericksburg at about 6:30 and was rather surprised to find traffic on southbound I-95 crawling along. Believe it or not, it is from the evening rush of commuters trying to get home - from Washington D.C. This is how far they drive these days in order to escape the big city. I'm not sure but D.C. must be 50 miles up the highway.

What that means for this area is that there is tremendous growth. Which puts considerable pressure on battlefield preservationists to save what they can of a vanishing topography. There is, I'm told, a large tract of land just west of my hotel that was a key part of the landscape in Stonewall Jackson's legendary march around the Union army in May, 1862 that resulted in the destruction of one wing of that army and provided Robert E Lee with what proved to be his most spectacular victory of the war. Today it is a large residential development. With high-end homes.

I guess the moral of this story is this: If you intend to travel to Fredericksburg, Virginia in order to take in those legendary sites like the "muleshoe" at Spotsylvania, or the stone wall or Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg, or Todd's Tavern at the Wilderness, or the Chancellor House at Chancellorsville, you'd better hurry. Either that or anticipate seeing a Denny's where the Irish Brigade met its fate.

Be Very Afraid

Sometimes, when I read articles like this (in the Wall Street Journal this morning), I begin to fear for my country:
... the [Bush] Administration may file an amicus brief against property owners in an upcoming Supreme Court case concerning eminent domain.

Eminent domain stems from the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which allows the government seizure of private property for "public use" with "just compensation." Historically, courts and local governments have understood "public use" to mean roads, bridges, schools and the like.

But in a 1954 decision, the Supreme Court allowed Washington, D.C., to use eminent domain to appropriate land in a slum neighborhood and sell it to private developers. In time other cities, seeking higher revenues from richer taxpayers, followed course and cited urban renewal as a "public use" justification for taking a citizen's private property.
Matters worsened in 1981 with the Michigan Supreme Court's infamous Poletown ruling, which stretched the definition of "public use" further by blessing the city of Detroit's decision to seize an entire community on the grounds that expansion of a nearby General Motors assembly plant would create more economic benefits.

The GM plant was never built, but the floodgates were opened. One analysis of cases between 1998 and 2002 found more than 10,000 instances where local governments -- often citing the Michigan precedent -- had attempted to use eminent domain to obtain properties not for "public use" but for private development. And nothing is sacred. In 1999, two Atlantic City churches were bulldozed for an MGM casino. (
I thought the courts were finally coming around to the more "traditional" understanding of the term "private property." But now I'm not sure.
Last year, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned Poletown, calling it a "radical departure from fundamental constitutional principles." In a unanimous ruling, the Court said reversal was necessary "to vindicate our constitution, protect the people's property rights and preserve the legitimacy of the judicial branch as the expositor, not creator, of fundamental law."

Elsewhere, however, eminent domain abuses continue. Just last week a federal judge in New York upheld a Village of Port Chester decision to condemn well-maintained rental properties belonging to William Boyd, a small-business owner, and transfer them to a developer with plans for a Stop & Shop parking lot. And in Norwood, Ohio, a judge has ordered Carl and Joy Gamble out of their home of 35 years to make way for office and retail construction.
Understand the ramifications of what is going on here. A private citizen in Ohio has been ordered to surrender his home to another private entity. That is wrong. Absolutely wrong.

And understand how it is that one group can convince a politician or set of politicians - including judges - to go along with these (10,000) seizures. It is done through political donations. Give to the Mark Warner for President 2008 campaign and hope he gets elected. Then, if you want to build that McDonald's restaurant on your neighbor's property and sell Happy Meals where once the neighbor's dog urinated, you're halfway there. The property is simply condemned through the government's power of eminent domain (after your neighbor has received "just compensation") and it is turned over to you.

Kind of cool, huh?

The Soviets didn't do it any better when they needed property for another tractor factory. They'd give the exilee a loaf of bread and a Star of Lenin medal and send the miserable wretch on his way.

Be on the lookout for the courts to start requiring that "just compensation" include a nice little Star of Lenin with each Happy Meal.

Audio Tape Goes The Way Of The Buggy Whip

The end comes to another era - that of the reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Tale of the Tape: Audiophiles Bemoan The End of the Reel

As Quantegy Shuts Plant, Purists Snap Up Supply; NASA Feels the Crunch

By Ethan Smith and Sarah McBride Staff Reporters of The Wall Street Journal

Jeff Tweedy, leader of the rock group Wilco, prefers to record music on reel-to-reel tape rather than on the digital equipment that has overtaken the music industry. Purists like him think it confers a warmth and richness to recordings that a computer cannot.

But last Friday, Mr. Tweedy hit a snag as he prepared for a session in Wilco's Chicago studio space: Nobody could find any of the professional-grade audio tape the band is accustomed to using. "I was under the impression that there was a shortage of tape in Chicago," Mr. Tweedy says.

What he didn't yet realize was that the shortage is global. Quantegy Inc., which may be the last company in the world still manufacturing the high-quality tape, abruptly shut down its Opelika, Ala., plant on Dec. 31, leaving audiophiles in the lurch. (link)
There are people out there who will swear to you that they consider the sound from a 33 1/3 LP record album more appealing than that from a digital CD. Of course, they are the same people who are usually found hugging their toilets after having consumed great quantities of wine and dope.

The reel-to-reel was wonderful in its time (I can remember listening to Cream's White Room and Mitch Ryder's Devil With a Blue Dress On I don't know how many times on a Panasonic reel-to-reel stereo system that my brother let me borrow while he was off fighting the Viet Cong). Its time has gone by. So long. But what memories it leaves behind.

Where NASA Should Have Its Focus

It is ten times as costly to put a manned flight into space as it is to launch an unmanned rocket. In order to protect the astronauts aboard and to provide simple life-support systems, NASA has to develop and install backup systems to back up systems and assorted redundancies that become extremely expensive. And even though NASA gets its funding from the federal government, whose resources (that would be you) are limitless, even NASA has to pinch pennies in order to maintain its space program.

Americans get all atwitter when we send a school teacher or an aged former United States senator or pregnant mice into space on a shuttle but doing all that dog-and-pony stuff means we get less of this:

Discovering Deep Impact

Think of it as the astronomical equivalent of a mosquito running into a 767 airliner. That's how NASA scientists are describing the planned July 4 collision between a
1-by-1-meter copper probe and the 5-mile-long Tempel 1 comet. Today NASA plans to launch its Deep Impact spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to begin its six-month, 268-million-mile mission to intercept Tempel. On July 3, the spacecraft will jettison its 820-pound probe directly in the path of the comet's trajectory. The next day, the comet and probe will meet at a speed of about 23,000 mph, or 6.3 miles per second - an event that scientists hope will be visible on Earth and provide professional and amateur astronomers a celestial fireworks show just in time for the Fourth of July. (

There is so much about the universe that we have yet to learn. And we waste precious dollars sending engineers into space to study the germination of tomato seeds. And the effects of weightlessness on tadpoles. It is a crying shame.

This Is Odd

There is something to this story in the New York Post that is not being revealed:


WASHINGTON — Former Clinton White House Mr. Fix-It Bruce Lindsey emerged tight-lipped yesterday after testifying before a federal grand jury probing whether top-secret documents were illegally removed from the National Archives.

The grand jury probe, reported exclusively in The Post Tuesday, is digging into why another former Bill Clinton aide, Sandy Berger, sneaked the national security documents out of the Archives — possibly in his socks.

Lindsey denied any inside knowledge about Berger's sticky fingers.

"All I know is what he [Berger] said. He made a public statement," said Lindsey, Clinton's deputy White House counsel, after testifying under oath yesterday.

Berger admits walking off with 40 to 50 top-secret documents from the archives, but claims it was an "honest mistake" while vetting documents for the 9/11 commission.

Berger has admitted destroying some documents - he says by mistake.

Lindsey declined comment on what he told the grand jury, but denied reports that he met with Berger in New York for crisis control as the scandal erupted last summer. (link)
You may recall, there was a good bit of speculation flying around back when Berger was first accused of stuffing top secret documents down his pants (Is that the 2000 Millenium Terror Threat Assessment in your Fruit-of-the-Looms or are you just happy to see me?...) that he was trying to destroy evidence that would prove embarrassing to John Kerry during the latter's run for the presidency. Berger was one of Kerry's policy advisors - until he was busted for this rather bizarre development.

So why would a grand jury want to talk to Bruce Lindsey? And will we ever get the answer to that question? Hmm.

I've Got 'News' For The New York Times

Sometimes you read something in your favorite newspaper and you react by asking, "Where have you been?" This morning, I open up my New York Times to the front page news that Apple Computer is introducing a home computer that will sell for $499.

Changing Course, Apple Offers Low-Priced Mac for the Home


Apple Computer introduced its first low-priced Macintosh on Tuesday, signaling its bet that most consumers now see computers as simply another appliance in the modern house.

While computers have long been sold as machines that can turn a home into an office, most Americans now use them in their bedrooms and kitchens as e-mail terminals; as hubs for playing music, storing and editing photos; and as stations for navigating the Web.

The new Mac Mini, priced as low as $499 without a keyboard, monitor or mouse, is aimed squarely at the needs of this new digital household.

The new Apple strategy, which moves the company deeply into the consumer electronics market, positions the new Macintosh as an entertainment and communication device. It also promises to intensify Apple's battle with
Microsoft in the personal computer market dominated by machines using Windows software. (link)
Say it ain't so. My gosh. How can they do that and still make money? Lordy, lordy.

As usual, the people at the Times are way behind the curve. They may try to argue that Apple is providing legitimacy to the home computer niche by offering a low-end, and inconveniently small, machine to consumers for under $500. But to try to suggest that Apple is leading the industry in marketing inexpensive desktops is embarrassingly wrong. Apple, once again, is simply trying to play catch-up.

Dell, Compaq, and Gateway have been selling - online, direct from the manufacturer, computers with mouse and keyboard AND often free shipping for $399 or less for two years now.


Here is what is available to John and Saul and the other cloistered souls at the Times today.
  • Dell will sell you a Dimension 2400 or Dimension 3000 desktop, keyboard and mouse with free shipping and free financing for $449 after $50 rebate. And if you buy online, they will throw in a free flat-panel monitor! And they will double the memory capacity for free if you purchase today! And they will provide a free upgrade to Windows Media Center Edition 2005!
  • Compaq offers both the SR1000Z and its SR1010V desktops with mouse and keyboard and free shipping and free upgrade to a dual format 16X DVD-writer and free memory upgrade to 1GB at $359.99 after rebate today.
  • Gateway is marketing its 3200SE for $349.99 today. And it comes with a mouse and keyboard.

All these computers, because they run on a Microsoft operating system, come with gobs of IBM compatible software. And lots of "memory."

My point is this: Both Apple and the New York Times have been behind the curve for years. In the case of Apple, while every other manufacturer realized back in the 80's that their programming language needed to be standardized, Apple maintained - for too many years - their own operating system that was incompatible with all the other brands - and software offerings - on the market. The only reason they didn't go the way of Commodore and Amiga was because their machines and operating system were - and are - firstrate.

And in the case of the New York Times, well, they are challenged in so many ways ... $499 indeed. And this was front page news.