Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Life in Memphis

You read about it in the paper, sometimes, and you see it on television almost all the time, but life in center-city Memphis can sometimes be awful. I don't know what to say when I read about stuff like this.

On my own street (Monroe, just down from Sekisui), I presently live next door to a drug dealer. He has spotters and assistants at four of the six apartment buildings on the block. Traffic is low, but I always have someone I don't know hanging out just outside my apartment. Back in January the TAC squad conducted a blitz raid on an apartment across the street that netted four people, a lot of money and a very sophisticated video surveillance setup aimed at the street! We can't get folks to move into our building because they come by at night to check out the street, see what's happening and never come back. The landlord claims to be doing something, but it's been more than a year now, so you have to wonder....

A neighbor and good friend was dead in his home for three days before anyone knew. His landlord was out that evening cleaning out the apartment without trying to locate his next of kin. The guy doing the work stole everything worth anything (down to cans of food and rolls of toilet paper!); a couple of thousand dollars, at least. We found his personal papers in the street and ended up getting help from the Veteran's Hospital.By the time we located some family, everything had been trashed, stolen or picked up off the street. The landlord claimed to the family that everything was locked in storage and unavailable.

My first neighbor was a Vietnam vet with mental problems. He would regularly bring over tins of potted meat or tuna to trade for a couple of bucks to buy a beer. One Sunday morning, at a too-early four AM, I heard him screaming "Oh God! Oh Jesus!" over and over in genuine religious fervor. He spent most afternoons and evenings sitting on the breezeway outside in a chair by his door, with his tinny radio blaring, yelling incoherently whenever the neighborhood children got too near the street, like a real-life catcher in the rye. He was actually pretty nice, but like most folks with strong mental illnesses, he could be unpredictable and prickly.

A current neighbor likes to crank up his stereo on the weekends when the weather's nice or friends come over. It's a DJ quality monster that I can hear from my back bedroom two apartments over, with all the doors and windows closed. It's even louder than my television, sometimes. But, he doesn't do it all the time, and his taste in music runs to Seventies R&B and soul, and funk, which is fine by me. I figure he's a kind of karmic payback for all the years I tormented my Birmingham neighbors with my monster stereo and my punk rock. That's been one good thing about the street, is that we have very few folks who blare their stereos.

I saw a guy get shot in the ass in the middle of the block. Another neighbor was found trussed up and murdered in his apartment several years ago; he appears to have picked up someone in Overton Park for casual sex gone horribly wrong. The murder was never solved. We had an arsonist for a while, who was setting dumpster fires. He must have moved, because the fires finally stopped. Just a couple of weeks ago, a sherrif showed up at my door (gave me a fright, I tell ya) asking about an elderly neighbor in the back who had been missing for five days. He appears to have died, as his apartment was unceremoniously emptied out into the trash. Once, a drunk wandering down the street walked halfway up my apartment stairs, mumbling to himself and ignoring everyone outside, opened his pants and began to relieve himself over the side into the yard! Then he wandered off.

Remember about three - four years ago when there were pipe bombs being set off around Shelby Farms? About the same time some neighbors saw a couple of rednecks toss one into the dumpster behind what's now Turner's (Was the great but trashy River City Donuts at the time.). It blew, about 11PM on a Sunday night, loud enough to send me out of bed and the dumpster lid across the street. Flames at least forty feet high. The police and fire department came out, but oddly it didn't even make the news.

Just last fall, I heard a car screech and career into a building on the corner. They sheared off a street sign at ground level and slammed into the wood and glass front, sending the sign midway into the inside! The car zoomed off down the street, leaving some parts of its bumper at the scene, but the police only cursorily investigated. I'm guessing the driver figured paying for the damage to his car alone was cheaper than paying for the damage to the building too, and then going to jail.

It's an odd street. The west end is all cheap apartments badly managed. Lots of transients, usually, but right now we have too many empties. And one boarded up unit from a recent fire. Had I not been there, the fire department wouldn't have been called in time and the whole building, including my apartment, wouldv'e burned down. Things used to be working people and family friendly when I first moved here about a decade ago but in the past few years a succession of ex-public housing residents and several drug dealers have tanked it. I briefly had one neighbor who was such project trash she would stand outside in her purple velour nightie, cut deep up top and just below her crotch, hollering at people at the other end of the block. And she weighed close to two hundred pounds. She thought she was being sexy.

The east end is all nicely maintained, single-family homes, with SUVs parked outside, though you rarely see any of the families outside in their yards. Very rarely. Loeb Properties owned a couple of empty lots in the middle of the block that for many years were vacant and functioned just like a pocket park for the street. Wonderful in the summer, under the shade of a 100' high oak. They recently built a pair of spec houses. The people who bought the first one only stayed for a few months before they put the house back on the market. Still, that house is directly under that oak, right on top of the root system, and right in the path of lost limbs if we have another Hurricane Elvis.

The dichotomy is striking between east and west. You'd think the rising prosperity of the east would bring up our end, but the two halves keep moving farther apart.

Traffic is a real problem for us, being one block off Union. Lots of folks taking shortcuts of one kind or another (Belvedere, Madison, Poplar) and speeding through. It was a real worry when we had more kids on the block, especially in the afternoons. Typical modern urbans with radios going, phone in one ear, not watching the road, roaring down the street in a real hurry honk honk! Sekisui parking overflow is another problem. They get packed on Friday and Saturday and the suburbanites just park anywhere they can, blocking sidewalks, drives, etc, and ostentatiously worrying at the folks walking past them, the folks who live here!

I don't have a problem walking around day or night, but then I'm six foot, three hundred pounds, with a buzzcut and a permanent scowl. That buys me a lot of caution on the part of criminal opportunists, I've learned. That and my bossy, middle-class whiteman demeanor. Lots of folks just assume I'm in charge of something and so aren't eager to mess with me. They also assume I'm ex-military, which is fine by me. Like I said, I don't often get messed with.

But I do worry about breakins when I'm not home. I got a rude shock a while back when someone I'd seen down the block, who'd been living there a while but I hadn't met yet, was able to tell me my daily and weekly schedule in pretty good detail. It surprised me how many folks have eagle eyes and a jealous watchfulness. Now with all the drug and hooker traffic of the past few years, I worry about opportunity crime. Like the crackhead neighbor when I first moved in who stole a rocker right off my front porch just a couple of days after I bought it. I've had any number of plants taken as well. Anything that can be turned into a rock.

It probably sounds more dangerous to you than it really is. It certainly horrifies my middle-class family that I love living here. But I do. The endless blocks of cookie-cutter, anonymous condo buildings downtown and on Mud Island, and in the county out East, irritate me. How do you tell some one how to find your particular cube? "Take the first right. Go to the back. Count three buildings and I'm on the corner upstairs in the one just over from them." Sheesh.... Every, every, trip anywhere requires driving; often a lot of driving, just for simple errands. I can walk to everywhere I need: bank, post office, laundry, lots of restaurants, grocery stores, other shopping (Home Depot!), book stores, movie theaters, you name it. Midtown is the only place that offers that convenience. Murphy's nearby has outside festivals several times a year which make it hard to sleep, but the music's frequently good and it's free. Sometimes the bands playing inside are loud enough to hear over here!

I like the blurred rushing noise of traffic, the occasional ambulances and police sirens rising up together in the night like the howling of wolves, the snatches of conversations passing by, bands playing in nearby clubs, the even rarer horns from Mississippi River traffic like ghosts of history, the parade of homeless. (Though I've noticed in the past nine months or so that the neighborhood's homeless are vanishing. I wonder what's happening?) The trade-offs are real and sometimes costly, but the benefits are worth it. And we do it without hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidy and tax breaks from City Hall, and propping up by numerous quasi-public agencies!

Take that, Downtown! You guys are the doughnut hole to the chewy rich goodness of Memphis. We don't have the benefit of every tourism and PR effort to prop us up. Nor the ceaseless rah-rah of the daily paper. We have the intentional neglect of our City's leaders, thank you very much. Downtown has the spit and polish, the self-inflated importance, the plastic Disneyland version of Memphis; we have the funk, the genuineness, the damp sweat of an endless Memphis summer.

Midtown really is Memphis, and it definitely takes a certain amount of character to live in it. Not the enclaves of fearful white prosperity dotted around like forts on a map of 18th century western America, but the real, hurly-burly Midtown. Where you and the homeless guy down the block have a nodding acquaintance. Where you know how to get across Union Avenue traffic during rush hour. Where you have neighborhood institutions and they know you, too.

Welcome to Memphis.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Rules of Computerdom

Slightly edited from the list at Jerry Pournelle's site:

1. There are two ways to write error-free programs; only the third one works.

2. A printer consists of three main parts: the case, the jammed paper tray and the blinking red light.

3. The programmer's national anthem is 'AAAAAAAARRRRGHHHHH!!'.

5. Software undergoes beta testing shortly before it's released. Beta is Latin for 'still doesn't work.'

6. Computer analyst to programmer: 'You start coding. I'll go find out what they want.'

7. Computer Science: solving today's problems tomorrow.

8. Hidden DOS secret: add BUGS=OFF to your CONFIG.SYS

9. Hit any user to continue.

10. I wish life had an UNDO function.

11. If your computer says, 'Printer out of Paper,' this problem cannot be resolved by continuously clicking the 'OK' button.

12. It said 'Insert disk 3...' but only 2 fit in the drive.

13. Microsoft Windows: computing While U Wait

14. 665.9238429876 - Number of the Pentium Beast

15. I have yet to meet a C compiler that is more friendly and easier to use than eating soup with a knife.

16. My software never has bugs. It just develops random features.

18. 'To know recursion, you must first know recursion' (Mr. Mike sez: My favorite!)

19. Life's unfair, but root password helps!

20. Mountain Dew and doughnuts... because breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

21. Hey! It compiles! Ship it!

22. 'Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.

23. Intel: We put the 'um...' in Pentium.

24. Helpdesk tip #2: When the support analyst says 'Click...', wait for the rest of the sentence.

25. BREAKFAST.COM Halted...Cereal Port Not Responding

29. Smash forehead on keyboard to continue.....

30. Enter any 11-digit prime number to continue...

31. All wiyht. Rho sritched mg kegtops awound?

34. "There is an old saying that if a million monkeys typed on a million keyboards for a million years, eventually all the works of Shakespeare would be produced. Now, thanks to Usenet, we know this is not true."

35. "A good programmer is someone who looks both ways before crossing a one-way street."

36. C makes it easy to shoot yourself in the foot. C++ makes it harder, but when you do, it blows away your whole leg.

37. A computer scientist is someone who, when told to "Go to H---," sees the "go to," rather than the destination, as harmful.

38. 1010011010 - The Binary Number of the Beast

39. APATHY ERROR: Don't bother striking any key. Application has reported a "Not My Fault" in module KRNL.EXE in line 0200:103F

40. "The three most dangerous things in the world are a programmer with a soldering iron, a hardware type with a software patch and a user with an idea."

Monday, May 09, 2005

Dim Bulb Briefly Glows Bright

The latest Newsweek has a great article on John Edwards that relates this story:
It's traditional for out-of-work politicos to head to Harvard's Institute of Politics for genial wonk talk. It's also traditional for failed veep candidates to put major distance between themselves and their old campaign. The two customs intersected when John Edwards stopped by Cambridge last month. Over lunch, Edwards held a Q&A session with students, faculty and political bigwigs, including Kerry-Edwards campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, a visiting fellow at the institute. Edwards was asked for one lesson he'd learned from the 2004 campaign. His answer: "Don't listen to Mary Beth Cahill." The response in the room was stunned silence, observers later recalled. "No one laughed when he said it, and Mary Beth grew bright red," said one attendee. "It was very awkward."
Speaking truth to avarice! At last, it appears that someone at the top of the bill in the Democratic Party has realised, and is acting on, the truth that campaign directors Cahill and Bob Shrum are to victory what radioactivity is to life.

Cahill and Shrum have enriched themselves quite handsomely at the Democrats' expense. They have long, painful histories of continually losing national campaigns, and yet they always seem to insinuate themselves into the Democratic nominee's leadership. For conservatives and Republicans, that's great news. Let 'em keep sending the party over the cliff!

Activists on the Far Left, lots of folks in the Democratic base, and press sympathisers who would just like to see a win have complained about this pair for years and years. But Edwards is the first ticket-topper and potential candidate to break the wall of silence. Will they finally be exiled?
You See? I Told You: Susan Adler Thorp Dept.

I thought I had blogged about this, but can't find any posts on the subject via a Google sitesearch. Ah well.

Susan Adler Thorp was the political columnist for the Commercial Appeal for many, many years. She was legend for her partisanship. During the 4-week period surrounding the last County Mayoral election, she used to her column to write attacks, both personal and vicious, against AC Wharton's opposition, George Flinn. Five of the ten columns she wrote did that. She never wrote positively of Wharton, except when she attacked Flinn first. Shortly after Wharton won, Thorp suddenly quit the CA to take a job as communications director for the new administration.

Despite having written numerous times about personal abuse of public office by many, many people before her, Thorp used her office and connections to make sure that a former, disgraced County employee got a significant rise in his pension. Wharton did not fire her; she was forced to resign. (Keeps her resume clean. Doesn't muck up her pension.) She later took to the media to absolve herself of any wrong-doing. Apparently, using public money and public office to make sure that a friend gets taken care of isn't unethical.

Shortly after that, WMC/5 television announced she was joining them as an advisor. I distinctly recall seeing a story about her coming aboard that mentioned she would also serve to provide connections and open doors for WMC reporters that they might not otherwise obtain. I called it "wheel greasing" and still stand by that characterisation.

That story seems to have gone down the memory hole. Enter Thorp's name into the new WMC/5 website search function (about damn time!) and you return a single entry. That's bizarre, to say the least, given how often she was in the news herself, for a while.

Anyway, News Director Peggy Philip has always maintained to me that Thorp's addition to WMC/5 wasn't about "wheel greasing," but other unspecified things. If I recall correctly, initially there were questions about whether she would have an on-air role similar to the one she had in her CA days as political commentator for WREG/3. Those questions were waved off vaguely or evaded.

I used to jokingly call Thorp "The Crone" because of her unfortunate appearance in those days. Once she brought a sharp nail on a skeletal finger to her face, to do a "television scratch" that wouldn't damage her make-up and it came to me. She also went through hair colors and styles briefly, so it will be interesting to see if she retains her usual appearance or tries some television "sizzle." This being WMC, I'm betting sizzle.

Why, you ask? Well, according to the Commercial Appeal, Thorp will do on-air editorials and commentary for WMC after all. In the name of the station!
"This is an opportunity for me to remain active in what I love the most, which is news and commentary," Thorp said. "It's just a different medium for me."

Thorp has been consulting for Channel 5 for the past few months. She provides background and contacts to the station's reporters.
You see? I told you.
"We just felt this was another dimension of our newscast we needed to do something about," said Channel 5 general manager Howard Meagle. "The opportunity came along with Susan to have someone who actually has the capability and knowledge to frame good editorial positions for our station."

Meagle said editorials -- they likely, but not necessarily, will air weekly -- are a natural extension of the station's newscasts.

Former Channel 5 general manager Bill Applegate performed editorials, but they have been absent since his departure more than four years ago.

"I think it's something that will inspire debate and thought," said news director Peggy Phillip.
Peg, they will inspire more than that. She will be watched like a hawk, not least by this blog.
"The editorials will focus on issues that affect Memphis and the Mid-South," Thorp said. "It could be any issue -- the future of Shelby Farms, the future of The Pyramid, it could be a commentary on taxes, or I could go back to my old stomping grounds, politics."

They will come as the result of discussions by a still-being-formed editorial board.
Will Thorp's editorials, which will have the name and reputation of WMC attached, be vetted before broadcast, as this article implies? Or will she be given loose guidelines? Will they rely on her past experience in journalism and public spokesperson to guide her?

I told Peg to her face, and repeat it here, that this will end in tears. Thorp will abuse WMC for a friend or a cause one day. She has a history of doing this and there's no reason to believe this Crone has learned new recipes for her cauldron.

I hope that video as well as transcripts will be available on line. This will be interesting....

Thorp will only be the second on-air commentator, after the stentorian, predictable and pompous Norm Brewer at WREG/3. She is a liberal Democrat, like every other commentator or editorialist in the local media, save the equally predictable and pompous Mike Fleming at AM 600 WREC. Will anyone, ever, bring a right of center or even an unexpected voice to the local media mix? I'd be deeply surprised.

That's why you have me.
Irrelevant To The End

Tina Brown says good-bye to her unseen cable talk show Topic A. It was a bottom dweller even among cable shows, frequently garnering fewer than the minimum Nielsen rating of 250,000 out of a nation of 280,000,000. Further proving why folks like her have no useful justification to tell us what to think, she says:
The most common excuse for guests not being asked to come on show was “I am taping my own show at that time.” Realized I no longer know anyone who doesn’t have own talk show
Talks shows, the blogs of the rich and connected! Who knew?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Sorry, I'll Pass

I posted a while back that I'd sadly lost a longtime personal ritual: Sunday lunch with the Sunday Commercial Appeal. The CA just wasn't worth the $2.00, nor was it much of a read.

Shortly afterward, I realised rather belatedly that Andrew Smith's Cap'n Comics column had disappeared from the already anemic Sunday Arts section. I emailed Andrew, asking what happened (he didn't say) and how it felt to be an employee of a newspaper that didn't run his own syndicated column (he didn't say). He did, however, forward my email to Chris Peck, editor in chief and architect of the "new" CA. Here is Peck's reply:
Hi Michael,

Sorry you aren't a regular reader of the CA these days.

We've got a whole lot of great new stuff in the paper.

Hope you will take a look,

A week or two ago, I talked with Mark Richens, who does the Memphis Scene blog for the online CA. He mentioned he was editing the Sunday Page Two and had started a "blogroll" column, quoting notable bits from national blogs. Mark doesn't strike me as a dummy, he's actually quite clued in, so today I decided to give the Sunday paper another whirl.

Sad to say, it's still not worth $2.00.

Look at the front page: only three stories. One a "mother and child" story apparently themed to Mother's Day, but updating the tabloid "switched babies" story of Bridget Merriweather. The big headline? "She never quit," about a young woman overcoming adversity, accompanied by the requisite feel-good photo straddling the fold. Rounding out the "news?" An article on the annual Duck Stamp competition coming to Memphis. Across the bottom of the page are blurbs pointing inside the paper to deeper stories, on less important topics like the first statement from newly elected Pope Benedict XVI, upcoming nuclear non-proliferation talks, and a whole page of East Europe-after-WWII stories tied to President Bush's speech in Latvia.

Page Two is the same catch-work. The long column of contact information, subscription rates, etc. "Preview: The Week Ahead" which is easy to read quickies. A "newsmaker" story under a "Got A Minute?" headline on the oldest of the last surviving Munchkins. Sheesh.... Only Richens' "Blog Roll" snagged my attention enough to read. Mark picked multiple-paragraph selections from three blogs (Lawrence Kudlow, Defamer and Oxblog) that showed a good ability to spot the core points being made.

The rest of the front page section is the new style: maybe an eighth of a page of actual news story surrounded by advertising. Pages of this. The rest of the sections all seemed lighter than in the past, as though there are fewer pages per section.

Viewpoint is the same new tapioca. David Waters' "faith" column is yet another political screed. Wendi Thomas writes about a basketball player; yet more Fizzlies advertising and FedUp Forum boosting. Yawn. Predictable as always; nothing new to add; nothing unexpected. Same for "humor" columnist Bill Haltom in the "Downtown and Midtown Appeal" section. With all the great writers in Memphis waiting for their chance, we get this tired bore. You have to wonder what purpose these people serve. Is it their ability to fill 1000 words on a regular basis? To take what their peer groups are saying, or what they read in their daily reading, and regurgitate it for the lumpen masses? Jeez, give me their slots and half their salaries and I'd knock it out of the park for 'em twice a week.

Today's guest columnists look at the renaming of some City parks. Oddly, their thinking is in line with the paper's also-stated editorial opinion, which is largely middle of the issue. "Respect feelings but don't forget other's feelings, too." The same old issue splitting that seems to mark the new CA: find two majority opinions (regardless of complexity), take some points from each, force a compromise, walk away satisfied with yourself. I actually miss Ol' Piss'n'Vinegar. Susan Adler Thorp was dishonest, biased and willing to use her column for personal and political agendas, but she at least had strong opinions. As evil as she was, she at least brought new information to the table and made important connections. (Not least was serving the Wharton campaign before she jumped ship at the paper to take an important job with the new Wharton administration! Smooth connection, that.) The PC milquetoasts the "new" CA prefers seem carefully selected to be bland, or properly button-pushing.

Politcal reporting from around the state or neighboring states? Not today! We're not even the MidSouth anymore, but some re-oriented viewpoint called Greater Memphis, as though everything around the city are just subservient appendages and not real, distinct, historical communities. News from Tennessee that's not Memphis-centric has all but gone, as though the state ends just before Hickory Withe and Munford. News from Nashville is as likely to have an AP byline or Tom Humphrey's byline (He's a writer for the Knoxville News-Sentinel for heaven's sake!) as that of their own Nashville reporter, Richard Locker. News from Arkansas or Mississippi has also disappeared, even though the southern tier of "Greater Memphis" is three counties in Mississippi that are growing faster than the titular City. But those things aren't part of "our story" in MEmphis, are they? It's all about the Memphis at the "new" CA. The new Greater MEmphis section is the catchall for what was once Metro (Yet another conceit. The metropolitan dream is dead and reborn in the more centralised Downtown Memphis. Everything else is an error waiting for Downtown to correct. Quit whining. Once Downtown is fixed, everything else will fix itself as a consequence. Shut up and sit down.)

All the arts and cultural stuff (except Travel, which still rates its own section, as travel is a lucrative ad market) is jammed into the "M" (Hey, it's all about MEmphis.) section, which isn't any bigger but also carries a larger load now. The good news is that stuffy elitist Freddy Koeppel is greatly diminished, almost buried; the bad is that books and magazines in general are nearly gone altogether.

Today's "M" even has an article on bloggers. Or at least bloggers who want to promote "literary" books. The kind that might sell a hundred copies around town, but we are all supposed to desire to read for self-improvement. The genre reviews are gone, too, it seems. At least those addressed a greater number of Memphians than the latest difficult novel about unpleasant people in depressing situations with ambiguous and distasteful endings.

Anyway, it's good to see the CA embrace bloggers. Well, some of them. Despite three years of hoping, the paper has yet to address the local blogging scene. It's exploding more than ever today, and yet the "new" CA has yet to cover it! Stories are being broken in Memphis' blogosphere, brought to light, discussed and dissected, but I guess that's one thread of the Greater Memphis narrative the paper would rather not weave into its story. On the one hand, it's a telling omission that says how the "new" CA approaches the massive industry changes blogs are precipitating. They insist on subsuming blogs into the historical institution of the newspaper, keeping a wary distance and watchful eye on these "journalists without rules."

Their experiment (Which is what the "new" CA is for Scripps; an experiment in reversing the decline of newspapers. It's being watched closely by the parent corporation.) is to advance the USA Today breakthrough and tweak content to connect to previously unserved parts of the community. The "old" CA was built around politics and crime. Frankly, I wish politics still carried some weight with the new crew. No one has the heft, reputation and institutional reach of a community newspaper. They can be places 95% of the community can't go and contact folks we don't know exist. They have the staff to cover the government and political meetings that will affect the community far more profoundly than the story of a woman overcoming adversity.

But the "new" CA values people and stories over boring old politics, mostly. Too bad. I don't want to read that. I want access, coverage and the bright, unrelenting light of publicity on the darker parts of local politics and government. You want to read about newspapers reinventing themselves digitally and relevantly? Try learning about the Greensboro, North Carolina or the Oh My News experiments.

The rest of the paper? I couldn't care less. The "new" Sunday CA is a slimmer product, fewer pages where "innovation" is pushing out "content." White space and blocky bits are the rule, as though the New York Times and the Washington Post, the nation's number two and three papers, haven't kept their classic, text-crowded look successfully. It's missing most of what I like a newspaper for. It's trading fluff and "look at us look at you" for necessary purpose.

I'm sorry Mark and Andrew and Chris. It's still not worth my money. I feel no guilt any more about not reading the CA. I don't feel that I'm missing anything important.